By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
This spring, a potential minor disaster loomed in the otherwise charmed life of Mike Bloomberg's administration. A top official at NYC-TV was arrested and charged with siphoning tens of thousands of dollars out of his agency's coffers and into his pocket.
The new city television network was created with much ado by Bloomberg, a media mogul and the station's leading champion. The mayor has hailed its hip new shows, like Secrets of New York, which stars a glamorous model in a form-fitting black vinyl trench coat darting about the city.
The agency has prospered under the mayor's watch, with an annual budget that has soared from less than $2 million to more than $10 million. It's unclear exactly why city taxpayers are funding these glossy entertainments, but this much is plain: A scam by a high-level insider at the station had the potential for a bit of embarrassment.
Bloomberg's City Hall team quickly went into damage control: Yes, there had been a bad apple, one Trevor Scotland, the network's former director of business development and operations. Yes, together with an outside confederate, he'd managed to loot some $60,000 in station revenues. And yes, he'd been nabbed by the city's own keen-eyed investigators. All else was well. Next story.
The incident passed with less harm than a mayoral eye roll at a Blue Room press conference. So it was that six days later, when Arick Wierson—a former Bloomberg campaign aide who had served as Scotland's boss and the network's top executive—announced that he was stepping down from his $150,000-a-year post, no one questioned City Hall's insistence that his departure was totally unrelated to the criminal case.
Technically, this was true. Scotland, whose own resemblance to a GQ model allowed him to serve as host of shows such as Man About Town, told city investigators that those inside the station had no idea what he was up to. With no one the wiser, he had quietly and routinely re-routed advertising payments due NYC-TV to a pal with his own outside production company. But Scotland also told the city's Department of Investigation that he was able to get away with his scheme because—as DOI delicately put it—"there was a lack of oversight."
Scotland said that Wierson was such a laid-back supervisor that he allowed the business director to put Wierson's signature on key documents. One of the agreements he signed his boss's name to was the faked contract with his partner that allowed him to swipe the city's cash. Remarkably, Wierson confirmed it. There was "an informal understanding," Wierson told investigators, that Scotland could sign documents as "approved by Arick" if he wasn't around.
And just how much Arick Wierson was around remains an open question. As agency employees told DOI, "Wierson seemed to spend a lot of time out of his office at the Municipal Building."
In fact, city investigators only tumbled to Scotland's thefts after they launched an inquiry last year into complaints by employees at NYC-TV. The wide-ranging gripes included charges that Wierson and other top officials were often absent and appeared to be using city staff and resources for their own private projects.
The results of that inquiry were assembled in a memo that was presented to City Hall shortly before Scotland's arrest. Since then, in addition to Wierson, at least four other high-ranking aides at the network have also quietly resigned. Asked last week if they'd been fired, a City Hall spokesperson declined comment.
The city's other response to the scandal was to yank its network of TV and radio stations out of DoITT—the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Without any public announcement, the administration shifted them into another unit much more closely tethered to City Hall, the Mayor's Office of Film and Broadcasting.
The transfer was so sudden and total that City Hall refused to allow Wierson's old boss, DoITT Commissioner Paul Cosgrave, to be interviewed by the Voice about the station's recent history.
They had good reason for concern. The DOI memo—obtained through a Freedom of Information request—shows that Wierson and his top aides used their perks of office as a launching pad for their future careers. Sizable chunks of time were spent hatching plans for private projects, efforts that, as one top producer at the agency told investigators, would serve as "exit strategies" from their city government jobs.
Wierson acknowledged to DOI that he was so focused on his future career plans that it had "cast a shadow" over his actions at the station.
But he did come up with a most successful exit strategy: Back in 2006, he and a top aide signed up to produce a private documentary film about the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. The movie project was the brainchild of one of the station's oldest and best customers, an aging city real estate baron named Leon Charney, who hosts a weekly talk show on NYC-TV and who has long sought publicity for his role in the 30-year-old peace talks. Wierson, who had the power to pull the plug on Charney's often-rambling talk show if he chose, liked what he heard.