New York Civic: Sticky Fingers By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_HenryJ Daily News Articles Aggregate Councilmembers' Misconduct 

The Daily News reported in a series of articles published from Sunday through Thursday on what was described as a crime wave among members of the City Council. Most of the charges of misconduct concern old but continuing offenses, cheating the city or ignoring personal debts, failing to file documents, making false and misleading statements, and misrepresenting addresses in order to secure tax reductions, affordable housing or district residency.

The accumulation of allegations shows a seedy, sleazy side of elected Councilmembers. Some of the misconduct is less important than other acts and omissions the News has uncovered. It all shows, however, a lackadaisical and indifferent attitude toward the law, which is completely inappropriate for a public official elected to make laws, not break them.

We link to the articles as they appeared in the News:

SUNDAY, MARCH 20

Dirty little secrets: City Council members have skirted laws, bent rules and abused their power by Erin Einhorn, Robert Gearty, Benjamin Lesser, Tina Moore, Barbara Ross and Greg B. Smith

Queens city councilman Ruben Wills acknowledges outstanding arrest warrants by Greg B. Smith

MONDAY, MARCH 21

Queens Councilman Ruben Wills surfaces in Manhattan court to face criminal charges in 1996 case by Jose Martinez and Greg B. Smith

Some City Council members cutting corners to obtain affordable housing by Erin Einhorn, Robert Gearty, Benjamin Lesser, Tina Moore Barbara Ross and Greg B. Smith

City Councilwoman Inez Dickens' properties have been subject of numerous complaints by Barbara Ross and Tina Moore

City Council Speaker Quinn moving to Chelsea pad after pressuring city to clean nearby garbage by Erin Einhorn

TUESDAY, MARCH 22

Miscreants abound on New York’s City Council, a hard-hitting Daily News series shows by NY Daily News Editorial Board

City Council members are either lying about their taxes or residencies, and neither is acceptable by Michael Daly

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23

City to probe how B'klyn Dem Erik Dilan got cheap apartment when income was over the limit by Benjamin Lesser

Several City Council members struggle with own finances, high debt, home foreclosure by Barbara Ross, Robert Gearty and Benjamin Lesser

THURSDAY, MARCH 24

Councilman must pay back tax break after News exposes residency claim fraud by Erin Einhorn and Greg B. Smith

OUR OBSERVATIONS

Although this series of articles in the News does not reveal major new crimes by Councilmembers, it indicates an atmosphere of self-indulgence and violation of normal standards of professional behavior that could reasonably be expected from elected public officials.

It is easy to dismiss these stories with a 'what do you expect?' attitude when one considers the assembly of community organizers, poverty pimps, advocates for various causes, former staff members to public officials who are climbing the ladder, and other products of the political machine who have either paid their dues to the clubhouse, or been nurtured on fighting incumbent officeholders until they became one, at which time they began to look at things from a different point of view.

Further inquiries may well disclose additional irregularities of one sort or another. The News more or less limited itself to irregularities that appear on public documents, such as false affidavits of residency in order to get tax breaks. Whether these people engaged in more serious behavior (e.g. bribery) is not in today’s revelations, but if I were looking for people who cheat in big things, I would start with people who cheat in little things.

The first line of defense against these machinations should be the Council's own Committee on Standards and Ethics, a body which is known to be both somnolent and supine. Its current chair is Inez Dickens, who receives a double lulu of $15,000 per annum, for her services as assistant majority leader as well as her Standards and Ethics duties. This is in addition to her $112,500 salary, as well as her undisclosed income from Harlem apartment buildings.

According to the News, Ms. Dickens owes $100,000 in property taxes on her real estate. She has been repeatedly cited for building and housing court complaints. She has also been accused of hiding estate taxes on property she inherited from her late father, former Assemblyman Lloyd E. Dickens, who ran for Manhattan Borough President on the Carmine DeSapio slate in 1961 against Mayor Wagner, and was defeated by Edward R Dudley, who later was elected to the New York State Supreme Court. Mr. Dickens was well regarded in the community and is not accused of any wrongdoing. He served three terms in the Assembly, from 1959 through 1964. He was the only Tammany leader to defy Carmine DeSapio when DeSapio wanted to purge Adam Clayton Powell from Congress.

The Daily News disclosures come three years after the Slush Fund Scandal of 2008, in which Council leaders were shown to have set aside millions of dollars to fictitious organizations, groups which did not in fact exist at all, much less qualify for public funding. At the time, Speaker Quinn explained that these entries were placeholders, reserved to hold the money in the budget until she and the members decided which organizations would receive them.

The Council allocates tens of millions of dollars each year in what are called "member items". These are sums which are intended to be granted to nonprofit, community based, social benefit organizations which might or might not qualify for funding on a city wide basis. It is not unreasonable that officials elected by a community should have some discretion, at least to recommend projects which they believe would benefit their district.

What happened over the years, however, is that "member items" became a running sore. First, some of the favored organizations hired spouses, children and other relatives of the Councilmember who got them the money, which is the lowest form of self-dealing and salary supplementation. Other nonprofits made contributions to the Councilmember's campaigns, under circumstances ranging from encouragement to duress. Councilmembers, for example Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, rented space in their office suites to nonprofits they were funding. This practice, in addition to allegations of fraud, money laundering, and extortion, led to Seabrook's indictment by the U.S. Attorney (SDNY) in February 2010. The case has not yet gone to trial.

Prior to the investigation into the abuse of member items, which is said to be ongoing and has already resulted in the incarceration of former Councilmember Miguel Martinez of Manhattan, there was no oversight by the Council or anyone else as to whether the organizations receiving member items were providing any service, other than paying salaries to their officers. After the scandal broke, the City Council hired its own lawyers to defend its members, and another private law firm to represent Speaker Quinn, in case her interests were not the same as those of the other fifty Councilmembers.

Perhaps the most political unjust effect of the member items scandal was that not all members received the same sums. Those close to the Council leadership were handsomely rewarded. Those whose votes showed independence were punished. The award of appropriations to organizations within a member's district, and the authority of the member to distribute those funds as he or she saw fit, became an instrument of the Speaker's power over the members, and was used to quash whatever dissidence might have existed among the backbenchers.

Now it may well be that, on issues that could have been disputed, the Speaker was right more often than the dissidents. She has the entire city to consider, while the members may serve the parochial interests of their districts. It is easy to vote in favor of all expenditures and against all taxes, but that is irresponsible in terms of formulating a budget which must by law be balanced.

The Council has been granted wiggle room in that it passes some bills which Mayor Bloomberg vetoes, and then they vote to over-ride his vetoes. This creates the impression of distance between the mayor and the council. In fact, they are closer than one would believe from reading the press releases. That is probably a good thing, because in our long-range view, when the mayor and council disagree, this mayor is often but not always in the right.

Besides, when the mayor really wants something, like congestion pricing or the third-term which overruled two public referenda, he can get it by applying sufficient squeeze to the little fish, most of whom are already in the tank. 

MAYOR AND SPEAKER RESPOND

That is why the mayor and speaker issued the following statements in response to the Daily News expose. Reading them will give you a view of the dynamics of the symbolic Mayor-Council relationship. And that is better than if they were constantly at odds.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: "I don't know — look, number one, the speaker as you know, I'm a big supporter. I think she's done a great job. And she can certainly look at individual charges. I will just come back and tell you once again that I think this City Council, compared to any other legislative body that I'm familiar with, really does what's right. They read every bill. They hold hearings. They have discussions. They talk to people. They think about it. They try to work with the administration or against the administration, but there's dialogue. It's the way government should work. And our City Council has really served this city well. Sometimes they pass laws that I don't agree with, in which case I veto them and they invariably override my veto. That's okay.

"But I'm a big believer that this City Council does a good job for the city, and I don't know whether there's any individual charges, whether any of these are, have any substance or not. But that's up to the speaker to investigate."

SPEAKER QUINN: "First of all I want to say I'm extraordinarily proud of my City Council and proud of the members that I get to serve with every day on behalf of the people of the city of New York. A lot of information was raised in those articles, and we will speak to the council members. I know already that some of the information was flat-out inaccurate, and other parts of it was misrepresented. But we will obviously follow up with any members, and if there is any legitimate wrongdoing we will take action or work with the members on that. I want to be very clear, though, I am not yielding that, because I have great concern about these articles."

The next two paragraphs of Ms. Quinn's statement contain her refutation of specific allegations. You can link to her statement here. In general, the charges against Ms. Quinn are less serious and the case less persuasive than those against the Councilmembers.

There is an issue as to what extent, if at all, she can be held responsible for the misconduct of the members. On one hand, they are independently elected public officials whom she does not choose. On the other hand, she has great influence and could do more to clean house, particularly with regard to member items.

We will continue to report on the Daily News' investigation as it unfolds. Yesterday the News ran the fifth installment. There is a cumulative effect when so many members are accused of different improprieties. Perhaps there should be an Inspector General for the City Council.

Today (Friday) the News gave its editorial Knucklehead Award to Councilman James Sanders of Queens for claiming that he could not pay back the enormous mortgage he took out because he was the victim of predatory lending. Councilman Sanders was formerly chair of the Council's economic development committee which is concerned with protecting home buyers from predatory lenders.

What does this series of boneheaded financial indiscretions tell us about the City Council? It tells us that many of its members are sloppy in their personal affairs, and some try to take advantage of their positions. In fairness, the councilmembers are not alone. Public officials much higher on the food chain have had similar difficulties. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner failed for years to pay Federal income tax that was due on his earnings when he worked for the World Bank, although the law specifically made such income taxable. This caused embarrassment to then-new President Obama, and questions about the vetting process. The President's next cabinet nominee, former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, had to withdraw as the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, in part because the administration did not want to fight for two ethically-challenged nominees, even if the charges were based on what is considered normal Washington business.

The Daily News deserves credit for its civic service in bringing these matters to public attention. Whose task is it now to clean house? Speaker Quinn, the Department of Investigation, the district attorneys or the United States attorneys, who so far have been the principal prosecutors of corrupt politicians?

It would be a great step forward if the situations exposed by the News were cleaned up in the next few months. Based on experience, however, we cannot advise anyone to hold their breaths.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at  StarQuest@NYCivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.  

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eHeziNew York Civic: Sticky Fingers By Henry J. Stern

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