Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Conundrum For Those Wanting To Donate To Libraries: People Who Would Use Our Donations To Shrink and Sell Off Libraries

Reading Citizens Defending Libraries flyer before entering  Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library October 21st fund raising gala- Author Evan Hughs enters captured by Jonathan Barkey's photography
A good place to start this article is with the deliberate underfunding of New York City libraries by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a time of their greatly increasing use. . . 

At City Council budget hearings at the beginning of June, Anthony W. Marx and Linda Johnson, the respective heads of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, testified that they had a problem approaching donors asking that they give monies to fund the libraries because they cannot make a `credible’ case that any money given to the libraries by such donors will not be immediately subtracted out by Mayor Bloomberg in budget cuts to the system.  Citizens Defending Libraries (a group I helped found) followed up at that hearing with testimony that it was also not possible to make a credible case to potential donors that funds given to libraries would not be squandered in real estate deals as libraries like Donnell get sold off at a fraction of their value to the public.  (See: Testimony By Citizens Defending Libraries At June 5, 2013 City Council Committee Hearing On Library Budget Issues.)  Citizens Defending Libraries has also given similar testimony on more recent occasions.  (See: Testimony By Citizens Defending Libraries At June 27, 2013 State Assembly Committee Hearing On Selling New York City Libraries and Report on Monday, September 30th City Council Hearing On Sell-off of NYC Libraries Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries.)
  
Citizens Defending Libraries might have gone a step further in its testimony: Not only is it a concern that libraries paid for with taxpayer and charitable contributions will be wasted when libraries are sold; donors ought also be concerned that their donations will be directly used to sell, shrink and dismantle New York’s library system assets.

This was the concern raised by Citizens Defending Libraries when the Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library held a fund raising gala event on October 21st that featured Evan Hughs, author of “Literary Brooklyn.”  See: ‘Literary Brooklyn’ gala celebrates 20 years of the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, by Samantha Samel & Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library to hold 20th Anniversary gala fundraiser, by Samantha Samel, October 17, 2013, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Why?   Because the Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library holding the gala and taking donations from people wanting to “support” the library has been playing a key role in easing the path and moving forward the sale Brooklyn Heights library.  It has given cover to the Brooklyn Heights Association to similarly advance the probability of a sale with the BHA saying its is “simply supporting the position of the librarians and the Friends of the Library.” See: Saturday, April 13, 2013, Condoning The Sale and Shrinkage Of The Brooklyn Heights Library, Does The Brooklyn Heights Associations Think Of Friends Group As A Fig Leaf? It Should Think Again.

So it was that Citizens Defending Libraries handed out flyers to those entering the event, saying: “Please don’t allow your money be used to sell and shrink public libraries.”  

Citizens Defending Libraries flyer for event
It urged:
    •    Please donate money only on condition of its proper use-  Put the following restrictive endorsement on the back of the check for any donation you make: "This check may only be deposited on condition that the BPL not sell off libraries, The Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Libraries properties included."
And cautioned:
    •    If you give money to the Brooklyn Public Library and you do not make your gift upon such conditions you should assume that your money will be used to advance real estate deals that benefit developers, not the public.
The Friends group and the BHA take pains to distinguish that they are not supporting the sale and shrinkage of the library, asserting that they are only condoning or not opposing the sale, but that is a fine distinction that seeks to overlook the practical effect of their actions.  Meanwhile, there are attempts to represent that something quite the opposite is happening.  In its article about the gala the Brooklyn Eagle quotes Friends group president Deborah Hallen representing herself not as someone condoning the dismantling of the Brooklyn Heights Library but as a “watchdog” for the library:
Hallen said that FBHBL’s role is to be the best watchdog as possible for the Heights branch
My response as set forth in a comment to that Brooklyn Eagle article (some of which was also addressed in the flyer handed out that night):
President Hallen of FBHBL [the so-called “Friends” group] continues to play a duplicitous game when she  represents the “FBHBL’s role . . .to be the best watchdog as possible for the Heights branch.”

Ms. Hallen has never offered the clarification Citizens Defending Libraries has long requested: Does she believe that she and the FBHBL can oppose the BPL’s plan in any respect at all, or must she and the FBHBL support the BPL’s planned sale and shrinkage in all respects?   She has circulated guidance to the effect that the FBHBL cannot oppose the BPL’s plan in any respect at all, meaning that the FBHBL can’t complain about even the smallest detail of the BPL’s plans.  She has emailed her FBHBL trustees telling them in very emphatic and specific terms that they cannot oppose this sale-for-shrinkage of the library and that she wants resignations from any of the trustees who want to tell her “we need to stop the sale.”

It seems rather evident that Hallen favors the sale and looks for opportunities to drive it forward despite sometimes suggesting to people that she privately, in her personal capacity, opposes the sale and shrinkage but just can’t oppose it as part of the FBHBL group.  Why else would she seek to diminish reaction to the sale-for-shrinkage of the library by adopting and repromulgating the BPL’s talking point that the reduction from 63,000 square feet of space to just 20,000 square feet of space (one quarter of it underground) somehow won’t reduce the “usable” floor space?  Her careful parsing of language here, mimicking the BPL’s, is specifically meant to obfuscate for the casual reader that the planned sale-for-shrinkage envisions the eviction of the Business and Career Library portion of the library.  Thus she seeks to disregard what, even by her calculations, would be a 50% reduction of the library’s size.

The FBHBL’s role is obfuscation, not that of watchdog.  
Raising money for a library that is to be sold and shrunk?  It does seem odd.  The attempt to address the oddity came in the form of statements from Judy Stanton, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, that the money was for “books.”  But this assertion takes on its own odd cast when you notice that books are disappearing from the shelves of the Brooklyn Heights library; The books that were previously there are not any longer as they make way for the pending real estate deal and shrinkage.  See: Saturday, September 14, 2013, Empty Bookshelves As Library Officials Formulate A New Vision of Libraries: A Vision Where The Real Estate Will Be Sold Off.

Just one of the many pictures in the linked to article of empty library shelves in the Brooklyn Heights library and in other NYC libraries being readied for sale
The Brooklyn Eagle said that at the event Mr. Hughs spoke about Norman Mailer’s “conviction that something important is always at stake in a book” and noted that “Libraries . . function with a similar standpoint.”  That said, with all the books that are disappearing and the dismantling of NYC libraries, a lot that is at stake is being lost.

There were reportedly 50 to 70 attendees at the Friends gala.  Many of them were appreciative of the points raised in the Citizens Defending Libraries flyer, with a fair number seeming surprised to think about the information and points presented.  A few attending were from Citizens Defending Libraries.  Outside, Citizens Defending Libraries may have collected more new signatures for its petition than there were people attending the event, though that wasn't the original intention of the evening.  Most people in Brooklyn Heights oppose the sale of their library, probably well over 95%, but there are still many people who still do not know that libraries are being sold off.  Even so, even as the gala was going on, you could look in the window of the library to see the empty shelves cleared of books.
The absence of books in the library can be seen from the street at night when the library is closed.  If and when the library is actually sold off to a developer for development will we look in to see worse?
It is not just giving money in Brooklyn that poses a concern.  Donated money and taxpayer dollars are being used to fund the efforts to sell off libraries in Manhattan.  The sale of the very important and beloved Donnell library paved the way for more library sales and shrinkage by the New York Public Library with the proposed consolidating shrinkage of its Central Library Plan, recently redubbed the “42nd Street Library Renovation.”  The plan is now in disarray with nothing workable currently before the public because activists were able to bring attention to how rushed and poorly conceived it was.  Nevertheless, the NYPL has hired a very high-priced lobbyists, the Parkside Group, to promote what currently is impossible to identify as anything but just a library sell-off and shrinkage. (See: New York Public Library Hires Firm to Promote Renovation Plan, by Robin Pogrebin, October 24, 2013)

One of the reader comments to the article:
I really hope it's not donor $$ that's being used for this PR campaign.
My response:
It is donor money. And taxpayer money too.
Citizens Defending Libraries testified at the City Council hearing on the selling off of the libraries about the impropriety of using such money for lobbying and compared it to situations where the New York State Attorney General has investigated in the past.  (See: Report on Monday, September 30th City Council Hearing On Sell-off of NYC Libraries Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries.)

Another reader, Susan Bernofsky, commented as follows:
What a shockingly poor use of the library's resources. At a time when our libraries are in crisis, NYPL is handing over a nice fat wad to a consulting firm that will not help improve the library in any way, it'll just help the Board of Trustees sugar-coat a plan that the community has been opposing because it's bad for the community. Vote of no confidence!
How much donor and taxpayer money will be directed to this high priced lobbyist?  The word is that the initial contract is structured to fly low on the radar screen stated to be apparently lower payments, but one suspicious reader providing a link says this:
$25,000? You know, that's just their retainer. Monthly.
The article doesn't make this fact clear.

Source:
http://www.gaebler.com/How-Much-Does-It-Cost-to-Hire-a-Lobbyist.htm

Powerful, politically-connected lobbying firms like the Parkside Group don't come cheap; you know that's one fat contract. As a retired PR professional, I'd put the Library's annual outlay for their services at a minimum of $1.5 - 2 Million --Likely more; even as high as 5M.

Do you remember the New York Public Library begging the public for contributions about six months ago? Now we know what they're spending our money on. It sure isn't on books, computers, librarians or longer hours at my branch.

This is truly a sad, sad state of affairs.
How outrageous can it get in tracing donations back to those who would put their efforts behind selling off New York’s libraries?  There is another evening gala fund raising event coming up on Monday, November 4th.  This one is held being held by the NYPL, its annual Library Lions Gala.   Most of the honorees like “Stephen Sondheim, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award-winning composer and lyricist” are pretty noncontroversial, but the headliner for the evening is none other than “Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York.”

Telling you to "DONATE NOW" the NYPL's webpage for the November 4th Library Lions event noting that it will be honoring library defunder Michael Bloomberg as the headliner above other honorees Katherine Boo, Helen Bernstein,  Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson and Stephen Sondheim
Remember how I said that Mayor Bloomberg’s deliberate underfunding of the libraries at a time of increasing use was good place to beginning this article?  Well it is also a good place to end this article.

Scott Sherman, in his recent article for the Nation (The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan- Why did one of the world’s greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate? August 28, 2013) was able to inform us, based his review of the NYPL’s minutes, that in the summer of 2007 (before Donnell was sold) the Bloomberg administration, including in the person of Bloomberg’s chief adviser and political strategist, First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, blessed the consolidating shrinkage of the library sales with indication of its enthusiasm.

It was afterwards that the mayor cut library funding way back to an astoundingly low level.  That low level of funding is now cited as a rationale for the selling off of New York City’s libraries.
From the pen of Mark Hurwitt
And now, at a fund raising event, an event where people will be asked to give money to support the libraries, the principal honoree will be Mr. Bloomberg himself, the defunder of libraries!  Does NYPL president Anthony Marx not remember the testimony he delivered before the City Council in June?  Does he not remember expressing how difficult it was to deliver potential donors ‘credible’ assurance that their money will be properly used?
Mayoral candidate de Blasio with Citizens Defending Libraries at 42nd Street library in July
The November 4th event is the evening before election day!  Presumably, the election of Bill de Blasio the next day will be viewed as a profound rejection of the Bloomberg legacy.  Mr. de Blasio has called for a halt to the sale of New York City's libraries.  See: PHOTOS & VIDEO & MORE- First half of July 2013: Two lawsuits against the Central Library Plan, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio Comes Out Against CLP.  The NYPL says it won't be producing any new plans to sell off and shrink libraries until after Mr. de Blasio takes office.
Author Evan Hughs enters to speak at the gala

Friday, October 25, 2013

Update On Cuomo Corruption Investigation’s Nonissuance of Subpoenas- More Subpoenas Are going Out, Just Not To REBNY

Earlier this month, October 14th, I wrote here in Noticing New York:
sometimes what is most important for you to know about government is not what’s being done, but what is not being done
I was writing about reports that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was restraining the 25-member Moreland Commission he had created to investigate corruption and misconduct of Albany public officials from issuing subpoenas to investigate exactly what the commission was created to investigate.  See: Monday, October 14, 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo Quashes Moreland Commission’s REBNY Subpoena and Other Follow-The-Money Subpoenas Hitting Too Close To Home.

Well, I am going to say it again: There is an update to the situation I reported on back then, but it is still true that sometimes what is most important for you to know about government is not what’s being done, but what is not being done.

At almost the exact same time I put up my Noticing New York analysis of the situation the New York Times ran a Michael Powell column similarly assessing the situation.  See: Gotham-Governor’s Crusade Against Corruption Comes With Too Many Asterisks, October 14, 2013.

Mr Powell observed how the representations that the commission would be the “the best, the grandest ever” and that “Anti-corruption, campaign finance, transparency and courage would be its watch words” came with too many undermining asterisk exceptions when tested against the reality being delivered.  Powell noted, as had Noticing New York, the Governor’s interference with the issuance of the following subpoenas:
    •    “the Real Estate Board of New York, which helped lobby for multimillion-dollar special tax abatements” apparently, “a rude step too far”

    •    “the state Democratic Party committee, which represents the politicians who control two and a half of the three wings of New York government.”  Mr. Powell observed that, by contrast, the investigation “will scrutinize accounts belonging to the Senate Republican campaign committee and Independence Party.”
In addition, Powell (not Noticing New York) noted the absence of a subpoena for:
    •     “the governor’s Committee to Save New York, the fund-raising vehicle by which the state’s larger corporate, real estate and gambling barons raised $17 million to express their adoration and support for Mr. Cuomo’s efforts to cut taxes and promote casino gambling. Purely by chance, this committee shut down its operations less than two months ago, which means there is no longer an organization to subpoena. `We felt our mission was accomplished,’ the committee’s director said.”
Noticing New York (but not Powell) noted the absence of a subpoenas for the:
    •    Ethics Commission and the Legislative Ethics Commission- (This subpoena employed the smart strategy of looking for prior complaints against legislators as pointers to what needs to be looked into).
A lot of good investigative reporting work pursuing the trail of the quashed subpoenas has been done by Ken Lovett, Albany bureau chief for The Daily News, a fact alluded to in Powell’s column.  The last Noticing New York article on this subject included a very good interview of Mr. Lovett by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.  Even Mother Jones jumped onto reporting bandwagon.  See: Andrew Cuomo's Much-Touted Corruption Watchdog Is Beginning to Look Like a Joke, by Andy Kroll, Oct. 8, 2013.

In addition, (previously overlooked here) the New York Times editorial board weighed in the day before the excoriating Powell column: Editorial- Will New York’s Political Watchdog Pass the Test? By The Editorial Board, October 13, 2013.

All this reporting and focus may have gotten a reaction from the Governor.  The day after the Noticing New York and Powell pieces ran the Commission reconsidered and decided to move forward in issuing the subpoena for the State Democratic Party that Cuomo was previously reported to have suppressed, together with “subpoenas to some businesses that employ legislators.”   (See: Panel to Investigate State Democratic Party, by Thomas Kaplan, October 15, 2013.)

According to the Daily News:
The actions by the commission took place just hours after Attorney General Eric Schneiderman--who deputized the 25 members of the commission--told public radio that the panel should not be interfered with when asked about the Cuomo reports.

"To succeed, the commission has to be independent and has to follow the money wherever it goes," Schneiderman said.
(See:EXCLUSIVE: Anti-Corruption Commission Sending Subpoenas To Gov. Cuomo-Tied Entities- Gov. Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission has reversed itself and will now send subpoenas to the state Democratic party and other entities tied to the governor, the Daily News has learned, by Ken Lovett, October 15, 2013.)

All of this is well enough, but as I began by saying, what is likely most important to look at is what is not happening, and that is the subpoena to REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York.    Said the New York Times in its October 13th editorial:
What’s distressing about this news is that the commissioners got off to a good start. They were investigating developers of high-end apartments to find out how lucrative tax breaks were mysteriously slipped into budget bills. Then, suddenly, the commission stalled.
The Times went on to worry that the commission’s Cuomo-induced omissions would:
destroy the confidence of an already wary public that anything meaningful can be done to curb the way money corrupts politics in Albany.  
The previous, more in depth, Noticing New York article noted speculations about where a REBNY subpoena would lead: very important places, including possibly to Assembly Speaker Sheldon and maybe Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, among others.  The multi-million dollar tax exemptions that were granted are a massive money trail.

The latest?  As of the beginning of this week Cuomo was dressing himself up as a hero with respect to the subpoenas the commission has issued, predicting they would be fought by an antagonized legislature.  See: Gov. Cuomo Expects Challenges To Anti-Corruption Commission Subpoenas, by Ken Lovett, October 21, 2013.

So, with the latest news the commission is investigating and subpoenaing the State Democratic Party, the Senate Republican campaign committee and the Independence Party, but still not REBNY.  By taking our cues from what is not being done, does that mean that REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York, as the last untouchable, is more powerful than the Democratic, Republican and Independence parties?  Surprise, surprise!  There are, after all, those who would have always maintained that the way things are run in New York REBNY must be the real power in charge.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Governor Andrew Cuomo Quashes Moreland Commission’s REBNY Subpoena and Other Follow-The-Money Subpoenas Hitting Too Close To Home

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo looked pretty good when, at the very beginning of July this past summer, he created a special 25 member panel Moreland Commission to investigate corruption and misconduct of public officials in our state capital of Albany and, in relation thereto, to recommend changes to the state’s election and campaign fund-raising laws.

He looked good, though sometimes what is most important for you to know about government is not what’s being done, but what is not being done: It has recently been reported that the governor is restraining the commission he created from issuing subpoenas to investigate exactly what the commission was created to investigate.  Cuomo’s administration has reportedly intervened to quash follow-the-money subpoenas that were hitting too close to home for Cuomo, including a subpoena that was to have been sent out to REBNY, the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, concerning highly lucrative tax cuts bestowed upon five  developers with the secretive passage of a highly suspect legislative provision.

The New York Times story about Cuomo’s creation of the Moreland Commission is here: Cuomo Creates Special Commission to Investigate Corrupt Elected Officials, by Thomas Kaplan, July 2, 2013.  The more recent story appearing there months later about Cuomo’s restraint of that commission is here: Cuomo’s Office Is Said to Rein In Ethics Board He Created, by Jesse McKinley and Thomas Kaplan, October 8, 2013

Cuomo needed to look good and to distinguish himself from the rest of Albany when he appointed the corruption investigation commission in July.  Everywhere you looked there was more Albany scandal and nobody knew what was coming next.  In April, announcing two different prosecutions of capital legislators the same week U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the investigation pointed to rampant corruption in New York’s capital and as reported by WNYC’s  Anna Sale he “specifically called out other lawmakers, without naming names, for standing silent while it went on” warning “that the Feds are watching.”  (See: WNYC News: Another Political Scandal Ensnares New York Politicians, Thursday, April 04, 2013, by Anna Sale.)

The two scandals of that week were the announcement of the federal case against State Senator Malcolm Smith and Councilman Dan Halloran and then the bringing of federal charges against Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson alleged to have accepted cash bribes to help businessmen set up an adult day care center in the Bronx.  The second investigation of Stevenson involved a fellow Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro wearing a wire to serve as an informant in the case and, thereby, in a deal with the prosecutors, avoid other possible charges against himself.  Castro's cooperation with law enforcement officials began in 2009 after he was indicted by a Bronx grand jury for multiple felonies.  The case against Malcolm Smith and Dan Halloran in connection with which four others were arrested , including two Republican party officials and the mayor of Spring Valley, N.Y., involved Smith trying to bribe himself onto the Republican ballot for New York City Mayor and charges against the mayor of Spring Valley, N.Y., a village in Rockland County, and her deputy, accused of taking bribes to sell village land for a proposed community center.

As shocking as it was that Assemblyman Nelson Castro has served in the legislature for years while wearing a wire, one month after that revelation news was announced that another serving Albany legislator, Shirley Huntley, serving as state senator until November 2012 when she lost her bid for reelection, had been wearing a wire to record legislative comrades (seven others) at the same time.  She wore a wire in the summer of 2012 after being confronted with evidence of her own wrongdoing, “evidence of crimes that included embezzling $87,700 from her Queens nonprofit.”  (See- WNYC News: Another Legislator Served While Wearing a Wire, New Court Docs Show,  Friday, May 03, 2013, by Anna Sale)

The New York Times story reporting Cuomo’s establishment of the Moreland Commission (“two weeks after the Legislature concluded its annual session without approving any new measures to address the recent corruption scandals”) included all sorts of assurances about its reach, including this quote from the governor at the news conference held in Albany:  
The people of this state should sleep better tonight knowing that there is a mechanism in place to make sure their government is not only competent, but is also meeting the highest ethical and legal standards.
The article noted that, while the Moreland Act under which the commission was created itself only allowed scrutiny of Mr. Cuomo’s executive branch, Cuomo was working with State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman deputizing and empowering members of the panel as deputy attorneys general, so that according to Mr. Schneiderman:
There’s no substantial legal argument against them looking into every aspect of the state government. . . Their jurisdiction is as broad as we can grant using the full authority of my office and of the governor’s office.
According to the Times, William J. Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, one of three appointed leaders of the panel, “suggested the panel would not shy away from scrutinizing the governor’s fund-raising,” saying:
He’s not looking for rubber stamps . . .He’s looking for an independent commission, and we’ll do what Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to do: follow the money.
That was significant in that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been communicating to the media that “a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government,” and, as the Times made clear, “Mr. Cuomo is a prolific fund-raiser, with more than $22 million in his campaign account as of January.”  The flow of money to public officials in Albany is important in two respects: Campaign contributions flowing to those running for office, and because Albany legislators who officially work part-time take in significant other income.  The New York Times editorializing in September about the work in store for the Moreland Commission noted that 115 of the state’s 212 legislators earn income on the side that can be secret.  (See: Editorial- New York Legislators’ Secret Income, by The Editorial Board, September 23, 2013.)

The Daily News also had its own follow-the-money ideas about what should be investigated.  Not many days before Cuomo created the new commission the Daily News had reported with outrage that five luxury developments in Manhattan were singled out for “tax breaks — which could cost the city tens of millions of dollars in property taxes” flowing from “language quietly inserted into a bill that sailed through the state Legislature.”   The exemption from local real estate taxes was not part of any broadly administered or thought out local program or the subject of an economic benefit analysis.  On the contrary, the secretly slipped in exemption overrode what local officials analyzed would e best for the city in terms of collecting taxes, but in the Daily News article Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the tax breaks were deserved, and:
Whenever anybody doesn’t like something, they make an argument that some quid pro quo was made. I totally reject the suggestion.
(See: NY lawmakers mandate massive tax breaks for millionaires’ Manhattan apartments
Language quietly inserted into a bill that sailed through the state Legislature singled out five NYC developments to make them eligible for tax breaks that could cost the city tens of millions of dollars in property taxes, the Daily News has learned. Developers of four of the projects, their relatives and affiliated companies gave $1.5 million to various state campaign committees from 2008 to 2012. by Daniel Beekman, Monday, June 17, 2013.   See also: NYC politicians blast ‘galling’ Albany tax deal for luxury apartment towers- Officials seethed a day after the Daily News reported that five upscale developments were given property tax breaks by state lawmakers. 'Extending tax breaks to super-luxury apartment buildings in Manhattan is wrongheaded and shows grossly misplaced priorities,' City Controller John Liu said. By Erin Durkin AND Daniel Beekman Tuesday, June 18, 2013.)

Days later the Daily News editorialized that the “tens of millions of dollars” tax breaks “Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer” were subsidizing were a “monument to fleecing,” pointing out that the “Bloomberg administration concluded years ago that the abatements [the developers seized with secret legislation] were far too generous and demanded too little affordable housing.”   (See: Opinion- A towering insult-  Why should taxpayers subsidize luxury condos for billionaires? New York Daily News, June 24, 2013.)
In August, the Daily News followed up with another editorial calling for the Moreland Commission empowered by Cuomo and the Attorney General to get to the bottom of what had happened when the millions of dollars of tax breaks were granted.   (See: Opinion- From out of the murk- Cuomo’s Moreland Act panel has to unravel the mystery of the luxury tax breaks, New York Daily News, Wednesday, August 21, 2013.)

The editorial observed:
Responding to the Daily News revelation that the law cut taxes on a W. 57th Street residential tower marketed to billionaires, Gov. Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission issued subpoenas to the builder, as well as to the real-estate interests behind the other four projects. News Albany Bureau Chief Ken Lovett got a jump on that inquiry with word that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office was a pivotal player in the deal.
The Real Estate Board of New York, the industry lobbying group, has now provided additional information about a months-long series of events far from public view, in keeping with the Legislature’s practice of doing virtually everything in closed-door discussions.
The News notes that who slipped the provision into the bill isn’t known:
Then someone — no one has owned up — drafted language that inserted the properties into a massive bill that encompassed all the housing programs.
And noted that elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, are not being “forthcoming.”  The caption to the picture for the editorial, a picture of Silver and Skelos is: “Silver or Skelos? Who put the high-rise tax break into the bill?”  Who could say?  REBNY could almost certainly say, which is something the editorial hints at.

The Daily News editorial concludes: “every participant must be brought to light by Cuomo’s Moreland Act commission.”

In its own editorial about the secret legislator income that it thinks the Moreland Commission should be investigating The New York Times informed us:
The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made up to $920,000 for his work with a law firm and his investments; the Senate Republican leader, Dean Skelos, earned as much as $263,000 in legal work, investments and deferred compensation.
(Editorial: New York Legislators’ Secret Income, by The Editorial Board, September 23, 2013.)

At just about the same time as the Daily News was calling for a deeper investigation of the granting of these multimillion dollar tax breaks to connected real estate developers, another story was breaking with respect to what activities were being investigated by the Moreland Commission that touched upon Speaker Silver’s relationships:  Political fund-raiser William E. Rapfogel, who ran the influential Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, was abruptly fired from his position after an internal investigation concurrent with investigations of the commission pertaining to “financial irregularities and apparent misconduct” in the attempted steering of political donations “kickbacks” from insurance companies.  Mr. Rapfogel’s wife Judy “is the longtime chief of staff to the State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver.”  (See: Power Broker, Fired, Faces Inquiry on Political Donations, by David W. Chen and Kate Taylor, August 12, 2013.)

Norman Order has pointed our repeatedly in Atlantic Yards Report articles that the Rapfogel investigation could, in multiple possible ways, lead into connections with Forest City Ratner and its Atlantic Yards mega-project.  Among other things, Mr. Oder has noted that one of the sons of Mr. Rapfogel and his wife, Michael Rapfogel, is the “Forest City VP of External Affairs who's the developer's chief legislative liaison.”  (See: Tuesday, August 13, 2013, The surprise firing of power broker William Rapfogel: four Forest City Ratner angles, including Barclays Center charity event and campaign support for Tish James challenger, Monday, September 16, 2013, Times digs into investigation of the Met Council's Rapfogel; will it touch Silver and/or Forest City?, Wednesday, September 25, 2013, Met Council's Rapfogel said to have kept $1 million out of $5 million stolen; gave $100,000 to help a son buy home, and Wednesday, August 14, 2013, Why can't candidates return funds from developers receiving subpoenas, as Albanese suggests? Also, why campaign contributions suggest de Blasio will go light on Atlantic Yards .)

It would be nice if, as the Daily News urged “every participant” in the granting of the tax cuts could be brought to light.  To this end the commission had drafted a subpoena to go to REBNY, along with other subpoenas, all of which could have shed light on these matters and, unfortunately, the Cuomo administration reportedly intervened to quash them before they were ever issued.

Last week Ken Lovett, Albany bureau chief for The Daily News, appeared on the Brian Lehrer show to talk about what Cuomo apparently doesn’t want the Moreland Commsion looking into: The Brian Lehrer Show- Anti-Corruption Commission Update, Thursday, October 10, 2013



Cuomo reportedly exercised influence to ensure that three commission subpoenas that were “set to go out” did not.  The subpoenas were to go to:
    1.    Ethics Commission and the Legislative Ethics Commission- (This subpoena employed the smart strategy of looking for prior complaints against legislators as pointers to what needs to be looked into). 
    2.    REBNY- Tax breaks for five developers- Same five developers gave a lot of money to Cuomo when he was signing the bill.
    3.    State Democratic party controlled by Cuomo.
Mr. Lovett explained that (as noted previously above) some of the very first subpoenas the commission has sent out were to the five developers who had received the lucrative tax breaks secretly snuck into the housing bill.  The REBNY subpoena would have followed up, but Mr Lovett explained that:   
We found out that those same five developers gave a lot of money to Governor Cuomo, particularly around the time the was signing the bill.  That raised questions.  REBNY was all part of that. REBNY was also very close to the Independence Party which was also getting subpoenaed for its relationship with the state senate Republicans.  So REBNY. . . There was a lot of interest from both those angles, and that subpena ended up not going out.
Mr. Lovett said that despite official denials and acknowledgment of frequent contact with the Governor’s Office and Attorney General’s Office, “sources close to the situation say . . .they were specifically told [by the Governor’s Office] not to send the subpoena to RBNY, not to send subpoenas to the Legislative Ethics Commission and the State Ethics Commission.”

It’s worth listening to Mr. Lovett’s interview with Lehrer which gets into many more details. It’s more informative and nuanced than his fairly short Daily News articles.  See below:  Cuomo's anti-corruption panel stops at investigating his own Democratic party- A subpoena that sought to seek information on the New York Democratic party’s spending from its ‘housekeeping’ account was never sent, sources tell the Daily News.  Thursday, October 3, 2013,  Gov. Cuomo leans on ‘independent’ corruption panel, Team Cuomo now has final say over some subpoenas and other actions, according to multiple sources.  Monday, September 30, 2013,  Cuomo doing damage-control over anti-corruption commission — gets no favors from GOP-  Cuomo may want to reignite talks with the Legislature on ethics reform, but Senate Republicans are letting him know, says an insider, ‘We may very well do it, but we’re not doing it on your time frame.' Monday, October 14, 2013.

In the Lehrer interview Mr. Lovett makes the point that the value of the commission’s work goes beyond investigating what is illegal, because as Mr. Lovett puts it: “Some of the worst stuff is considered legal right now.”

In an August 5, 2013 press release concerning the work of the commission Common Cause addressed itself to the money flow from the real estate industry that is, but shouldn’t be legal: "Moreland Monday" Analysis of REBNY Contributions Raises Serious Issues for Commission to Consider.

Before it concludes, the press release addresses itself to the technical LLC (Limited Liabiluity Corporation) loophole that allows real estate companies to give virtually unlimited money to political campaigns while concealing the money's source.  And it quotes Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, pointing out how vast a vast flow of real estate money to upstate legislators then governs what becomes law in New York City:
Our analysis shows a skillful and calculated manipulation of all of the weaknesses in New York State's campaign finance laws by New York City's real estate industry, which uses every trick in the book to insure that the investment they make in plentiful campaign contributions garners an extraordinarily large return at the expense of New York City's tenants and taxpayers. . .  Legislators from outside New York City are thus encouraged to pass laws which burden New York City residents and have no impact on their own constituents but serve to maximize the campaign contributions they receive. We urge the Moreland Commission to use the full scope of their investigatory powers to fully examine this situation and recommend policies to end this exploitation.
The press release starts out as follows:
A new "Moreland Monday" analysis released today by Common Cause/NY is raising serious questions about the potential influence of tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions on public policy relating to real estate and development in New York City. Since 2005, REBNY (Real Estate Board of NY) and the 37 companies comprising its leadership have contributed $43.9 million to state and local candidates, committees, and PACs. REBNY's contributions have increased in recent election cycles, with $17.1 million given since 2011 alone.

The Fair Elections for New York campaign is calling on the newly created Moreland Commission to subpoena all relevant information related to contributions as part of their sweeping investigation of corruption in New York State.

Common Cause/NY's analysis reveals that the State Senate is the top target of REBNY money and that the overwhelming majority flows to lawmakers who represent districts outside of New York City: Since 2011, REBNY and its leadership have given $3.2 million to candidates and committees in the State Senate. Over 73% of contributions to candidates went to districts outside of New York City. Similarly, over $2.4 million (75%) went to Senate Republicans. By comparison, Senate Democrats received $500,000 while the four-member Independent Democratic Conference received $308,000.
Noticing New York has always focused on development in New York City and its none-too-pleasant associated politics.  For so long as the world of New York development continues to be a baffling construct of complicated and arcane subsidies conjoined with discretionary public official approvals having significant financial ramifications, that world is going to be awash in the vast expenditures of political money it will attract.  It exacerbates problems tremendously that the flow of such money even when accompanied by fairly explicit quid-pro-quos is almost completely unregulated, uninvestigated and virtually legal.  Likely, it is a vicious cycle with the impossibility of regulating political money generating more complex obscurity in the world of real estate and vice versa.

In the end, it means is that, because organizations like REBNY are not looking out for the greater good, the city is diminished with each tax break, each subsidy, each zoning change, each variance that is improperly sold off to behind-the-scenes manipulators.  Why?  Because those are the things our public officials control and therefore have available to sell.  Unfortunately, the impoverishment of the public realm goes beyond even this: Our public officials are also officially entrusted with the assets that the public owns, and so in this world where money spent behind the scenes holds too much sway we see that our public officials are willing to sell off such public assets to the real estate industry as well: Our parks, our hospitals, our libraries, our NYCHA public housing playgrounds, our schools, our streets, avenues and sidewalks, our highways.  Nor does it even stop there: With eminent domain our public officials believe they are entitled to sell off the private property of citizens, and do.

Perhaps organizations like REBNY ought to perceive that a diminished city impoverishes us all, including, collectively, every property owner and developer within that city they represent.  Perhaps these organizations ought also to perceive that the cultural corruption of what is going on, whether or not it is exactly legal, similarly impoverishes us all.  They don’t apparently understand this..

Governor Cuomo didn’t invent the corruption in Albany.  There are those who might argue that he feels trapped by it, even as he knowledgeably uses and navigates through it it to get results.  His eye is discernibly on higher office.  In contrast to what is happening nationwide, he wants to hold up New York as an example of a state where Democrats and Republicans can work together.  Well, one example of such across-the-aisle cooperation is that it is expected that members of both parties, Democrat and Republican, would both be mightily riled if Cuomo more aggressively pursued reforms that would turn off the corrupting money spigot. . . .

. .   Nevertheless, it is disheartening to find our New York governor quashing the REBNY and other subpoenas, largely abandoning the purpose of the recently appointed Moreland Commission.  On the Brian Lehrer program there was talk of rumors that the commission might be shut down prematurely, its work largely undone, and that the governor would seek to kick the political can way down the road by proposing a constitutional amendment to be passed by the electorate.

At the same time we are reading about Governor Cuomo’s effective abandonment of the Moreland Commssion’s mission we are reading that on the other side of the river, in New Jersey, another governor with national political aspirations, Governor Christie, intervened to quash an unwanted investigation of supporters close to him:  The Quashing of a Case Against a Christie Ally, by Michael Powell, October 10, 2013.

New Jersey may be lucky- That story reported by the Times involved local corruption in one small town: “The 43-count grand jury indictment read like a primer in small-town abuse of power.”

According to the Times:
When the charges became public, the indicted undersheriff, Michael Russo, shrugged it off. Governor Christie, he assured an aide, would “have this whole thing thrown out,” according to The Hunterdon County Democrat. That sounded like bluster. Then the state killed the case.
New Jersey, courtesy of its intervening governor, gets uninvestigated small town abuses of power.  In New York we get a real estate industry that’s out of control.

What the Times asks with the quote (from a sidelined prospector) it selects to end of the Christie/New Jersey article is just as applicable to Governor Cuomo quashing the investigation of the real estate industry’s corrupting influence on politics in New York:
I think about what happened all the time; it wasn’t subtle, . . . . In the end, it’s easy to get rid of a prosecutor. But it raises that question: In New Jersey [substitute New York], who watches the watchman?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Michael Kimmelman’s Scary Tightrope Act On Library Design: A Dance With The PR Machine Of Library Officials Intent On Selling Off Libraries

Michael Kimmelman, architectural critic for the New York Times, has a new piece on libraries in today’s paper.  I think it somewhat pulls off his apparent purpose in the end, but it is a nerve-wracking read, embarking on a dangerous undertaking.  He is writing about the “out-of-the-box” (gag me with a spoon) idea of using New York City libraries as “cooling centers,”  “cooling stations” and hurricane/emergency relief centers.  As everyone knows, this old PR meme is something library administration officials have been pushing to confuse the library real estate sell-off debate going on back at least to the announcement of many of those library sales at very beginning of this year, with library sell-off advocates like City Councilman Brad Lander carrying their water on this PR topic with smug, prearranged `cleverness.’

What’s wrong with this kernel of a good idea?  Everyone knows that going back to the sudden secretive sale of the Donnell Library there hasn’t been a library that library administration officials have wanted to sell or destroy (including the stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library) where they don’t blame theoretically problematic air conditioning.  They argue that the air conditioning can’t be fixed, but must be fixed, so they say that the ownership of the real estate must be turned over to developers.  Witness the current shenanigans respecting the intentional overestimation of air conditioning repair costs and refusal to repair the air conditioning with respect to the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The air conditioning `broke down' just months before Brooklyn Public Library officials were about to make public their longstanding (going back to 2008) secret plans to sell that library.

In the end, Kimmelman pulls out of what might have been a nosedive all the way to the very bottom of the NYPL’s PR maw with the following:
Disasters aside, branch libraries are a safe and equitable bet on our social and economic health. Trustees at the always tin-cup-wielding New York Public Library are now pondering a $300 million renovation scheme for its 42nd Street landmark. (Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, told me recently that if elected, he would take a second look at the Bloomberg administration’s promise of $150 million in taxpayer money toward that renovation.)
In other words, library administration officials promoting these real estate deals are spending public taxpayer money, at least $150 million of it, very foolishly.

Yes, in the end, it’s a reasonably good idea to think in terms of using libraries, or at least some of them, for some disaster-relief functions, even if it is a distracting idea, but . . .  disaster relief obviously isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the primary purpose of libraries.  

Here’s a link to the Kimmelman’s story: Critic’s Notebook, Next Time, Libraries Could Be Our Shelters From the Storm.  More important, here is Kimmelman’s original famous critique of that "Central Library Plan" (CLP), now for PR purposes being rechristened "The 42nd Street Library Renovation Plan" (Said NYPL COO David Offensend on September 25th, the day the new name was launched at the NYPL's Trustees meeting- "It's the same plan"): Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.

While deciding that libraries can double as disaster centers could allow for some sensible efficiencies in facing certain scale disasters, the idea could also be criticized as being a piece with the across-the board, general and extreme reductions of social services and government functions and their sometimes transfer to private ownership or to other, less well-equipped branches of the government.  Like Republican calls for elimination of FEMA, these are notions the 1% are too quick to promote.  Everyone remembers Grover Norquist's expression of his fondest wishto get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

In that regard, just as the primary purpose of a library should, first and foremost, be to be a library, we should also be thinking in terms of our disaster relief centers truly being what they ought to be.

Library and city officials wanting to sell off library real estate have ventured into the realm of laughability as they busily make arguments that libraries can be much, much smaller if the use of library space can be conceived of as being infinitely flexible.  See:  Thursday, April 25, 2013, Building a “Murphy Library.”
Murphy Bed to Murphy Library?
We want to shrink libraries down by having them be ever more flexible, but then, on top of that, these shrunken libraries should now take on still another additional function, that of disaster relief?

How does the idea that libraries will be our havens in a storm work if we are at the same time selling off our significant library spaces, selling Donnell, selling Mid-Manhattan, selling the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), selling the Brooklyn Heights Library (which was designed with a bomb shelter intending that it have a disaster relief function to capitalize on)?  How will the many Manhattanites be accommodated for relief in a disaster when the NYPL's Central Library Plan takes more than 380,000 square feet of library space and reduces it to a mere 80,000 square feet in the back of the Central Research Library 42nd Street building accessible through just one small door?

To conclude on the topic of how library air conditioning is being used as a routine excuse to sell libraries: This past Monday there was a City Council hearing on the subject of selling New York City's libraries.  It was chaired by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer from Queens who favors the proposed sale of New York City's libraries, thus putting him in disagreement with Citizens Defending Libraries and its petition calling for a halt to these sales. Citizens Defending Libraries delivered much testimony at that hearing which will all soon be up on line.  Here is a piece of Citizens Defending Libraries testimony that dealt with air conditioning as an excuse to sell libraries to developers.   

September 30, 2013

James G. Van Bramer, Chair
Committee on Cultural Affairs,
   Libraries and International Intergroup Relations
250 Broadway, Committee Rm 16th Fl
New York, NY 10017

Re:    Agency Oversight Hearings on capital construction needs and the potential disposal of libraries in New York City

Dear Committee:

We are here to say yet again we need a “cooling off” period. . .
                                           
. . .  We need a moratorium on the selling off of the library system’s best and most valuable assets until more is known about the questionable reasons being given for why the best real estate needs to be sold off to developers.

We need a “cooling off” period because every time they want to sell libraries, often recently renovated ones, they seem to find an insurmountable problem with the library’s air conditioning system.  It’s highly suspicious!

Whenever library officials want to push a library out the door as a real estate deal they find air conditioning problems a handy complaint.
    •    The reason Donnell Library needed to be closed, sold and shrunk?  An air conditioning problem!  To sell a whole library?  At a considerable loss to the public because the NYPL netted less than $39 million for the 97,000 square foot library?  By way of reference, much of that library had been recently renovated, the auditorium, the Teen Center, and in November of 2001 a new 14,500 sq ft state-of-the-art media center paid for by the City and State of New York.  That complete and extensive renovation included new air conditioning for about 15% of Donnell’s space. It cost $1 million.  While that much of the building had been so recently renovated for so little (and other recent renovations of more space were in place) the NYPL provided cover for the announcement its announcement of Donnell’s sale in 2007 estimating that renovation of the rest of the building would cost $48 million!  

    •    Why demolish the historic research book stack system at the Tilden Astor Central Reference Library at 42nd Street?   According to the NYPL. . . An air conditioning problem!

    •    Need to sell off and shrink the Brooklyn Heights branch and Business and Career library?   According to the BPL . . . .An air conditioning problem!

    •    Sell the historic Pacific Branch? An air conditioning problem!  Want to sell off a lot of libraries in Brooklyn?  Announce that a lot of them have air conditioning problems and start closing them in the summer!     See: More libraries fall as heat nears 100 degrees, By Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 2012.
Highly suspicious.  We need an audit!

The Brooklyn Public Library announced that it wanted to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library because of the condition of the air conditioning this January but the plan and decision to sell the library go back to at least 2008.  The air conditioning breakdown that `couldn’t be fixed’ didn’t occur until summer, 2012, right in time to announce the library’s sale to the public.

Although the public was told that the air conditioning was the reason to sell the library in January of 2013, library administration and city officials withheld information about exactly what was supposedly wrong with the air conditioning until mid-June, days before an RFP (Request For Proposals) to sell the library (because of the “air conditioning”!) was sent out.  The withheld information finally released was simply a July 12, 2012 DDC Construction Report but even then the requested cost estimates that had been cited in the press all along were still withheld.  When these documents were requested from the Brooklyn Public Library they referred our representatives over to DDC (New York City Department of Design and Construction) and when the DDC was requested to give up these documents they referred our representatives back over to the BPL.  To date they haven’t been produced.

In substitution therefor the BPL has produced another in a series of escalating estimates of the cost of repairing the air conditioning.  A repair that was once estimated to cost $700,000 or substantially less went to $750,000 and from there to $3 million, then to $3.5 million.  The official estimate has now recently escalated to between $4.5 and $5 million (and is apparently at odds with previous engineering assessments).  You know that they are reaching to find costs because both the architect delivering the estimate and Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson are saying that one of the hard-to-meet challenges in fixing the system is all the heat that modern-day computers are throwing off.  These modern-day computers are also being blamed by the BPL for making the library too expensive to repair in another way: It would be far too expensive to supply them with the electricity they need!

Further, the most recent estimate, disingenuous on its face, calls for fixing air conditioning that isn’t broken and for air conditioning more space than actually required. 
              
We need an audit and we need a “cooling off” period until that audit is completed and the mind-set of library and city officials is no longer one that prioritizes creating real estate deals for developers!  Remember: These breakdowns accompanied by inflated repair estimates only came after the decision to the sell the library.


                            Sincerely,


                            Citizens Defending Libraries