Brooklyn Betrayal

Una Clarke Tramples on the Truth, Friends, and the Law

Una Clarke—the Brooklyn City Councilwoman who's challenging Major Owens in the city's hottest congressional race—has a problem with the truth.

She's running against a mentor who broke with his own prime political allies and got up from a sickbed after quintuple bypass surgery to help put her in the council in 1991, yet she claimed she owes him nothing during a recent televised debate. She called him "liar, liar, liar" at the debate and equated her support of his initial congressional run in 1982—when she was the director of a small day care center and he was a state senator—with everything he did for her a decade later, which included convincing the council redistricting commission to draw a district favorable to her.

Term limits will end Clarke's council career next year, but she insists that's not the motive for her ill-timed challenge to Owens, who is finally positioned for a committee chairmanship if the Democrats retake the House. She also contends that it's he who's dividing Caribbean and African Americans when virtually every black elected official in Brooklyn—including three Caribbeans elected with Owens's support and without Clarke's—appealed to her not to run because they all understood that her challenge is based on exploiting her Caribbean ancestry in a district where most blacks share her background. At the same time that she says he's the divisive one, she talks again and again about how abusive Owens's office has supposedly been in dealing with "noncitizens" on "immigration matters."

Earlier this year, she earned the largest fine—$48,066—ever levied against a council member in the history of the city's landmark campaign finance system. She managed to spend $296,000, including $73,000 in public funds, on her 1997 reelection effort, even though her only opponent was an unknown on the Independence Party line who got 4 percent of the vote.

She spent most of the money before the election year even began, claiming over $19,000 in personal reimbursement of unspecified expenses and advances, an extraordinary tally for any campaign committee. She also paid $7700 to Coral Barnett, who she said was a cousin, and then put her on the council payroll when a budget line opened up. She told the Campaign Finance Board that she overspent the legal limits because she "anticipated" a Democratic primary opponent, but the board ruled that she "provided no convincing contemporaneous documents to support the argument that a primary was reasonably anticipated."

Now she tells reporters that she's appealing the CFB ruling, but she's not. In fact, on August 31 she got a letter from the campaign board threatening to sue her if she does not pay by October 2. She's raised $188,000 for the congressional race and has $90,000 in the bank. Yet she's refused to apply a cent of what she's raising to pay a fine imposed in May for gross violations of the law. Nor has she repaid any of the additional $9877 that the CFB demands she return in excess public matching funds that she received for the fantasy 1997 contest.

In the same spirit of legal defiance and deception, her congressional campaign committee filed its latest disclosure report a month and a half ago with the Federal Election Commission. It itemized exactly three donations, noting that another $119,127 in contributions was received but not listed. Ray Trotman, the same treasurer who handled her city filings, told the Voice that the omission was "a computer error" that he's still working on correcting. He promised to fax a complete filing but never did. An FEC spokeswoman was confounded by the filing. Clarke has claimed in campaign appearances that the unitemized donations were all raised at a concert in small amounts that don't have to be reported. In any event, with just days to go before the September 12 election, she has managed to conceal most of her campaign financing.

She poses as "a prickly maverick who is fiercely independent," but she aligned herself with Rudy Giuliani in 1997, and was even said to have campaigned with him in a pre-election motorcade across her district while maintaining a nominal neutrality in the race. Giuliani's Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, says now that Clarke's "refusal to deal with me honestly was one of the saddest things that happened to me in the campaign." Messinger says she "went out of my way" to help Clarke win her council seat, but that Clarke reciprocated by repeatedly promising to endorse her for mayor and then "never giving me the courtesy of saying no."

Instead, Clarke was playing such footsy with Giuliani that Priscilla Wooten, the leading pro-Giuliani black on the council, says, "I certainly thought she was supposed to endorse the mayor." Annette Robinson, another colleague in the council, observes: "Giuliani's people courted her and she courted them. I've seen the interaction. I've seen the mayor's people at her fundraisers—including Scott Cantone, the government affairs representative. I call it constructive engagement."

Though Owens has run 12 times for state senate and congress with the endorsement of the Liberal Party—ever since he was a commissioner under John Lindsay, the last Liberal to run City Hall—Ray Harding unceremoniously backed Clarke this year. Other Giuliani extensions like lobbyist Suri Kasirer, the wife of the mayor's campaign manager, Bruce Teitelbaum; Heath and Hospitals Corporation executive director Luis Marcos; Republican council candidate Reba White Williams; and HHC president Rosa Gil have given to Clarke's campaign kitty.

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