Inside the Mayor's Studio: NYC-TV's Secrets of New York

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Charney was the major spark for this fascinating project. Back in 2006, Wierson and Tollin became enchanted with the story of how Charney and others had acted as crucial secret go-betweens during the peace talks. Charney said last week that the NYC-TV executives were the ones who approached him about the idea, after they "somehow" got hold of his 1984 book about the episode, called Special Counsel.

"They thought it would make a great documentary," said Charney. "And so they put a company together and put a movie together."

Actually, Charney's role was a little more active than that, at least according to what Wierson and Tollin told city investigators. Tollin said that it was Charney who had urged Wierson and him to make the movie, and that they had later recruited other talented members of their staff at the city's TV network to help.

MADtv: Ex–NYC-TV execs Scotland, left, and Wierson with station's biggest booster
"NBC and NYC-TV Announce Historic Content Partnership," August 2006
MADtv: Ex–NYC-TV execs Scotland, left, and Wierson with station's biggest booster

Michael Siller, inspector general for DoITT, put it this way in the April memo: "Tollin testified that Charney told him that he loved NYC-TV's original programming, believed that NYC-TV would do a great job making a film about Camp David and that he knew someone who was interested in producing such a documentary."

But the filmmakers did the project not for NYC-TV but for a private, for-profit corporation called Channel Productions, which was formed in Indianapolis in 2006 by a retired banker from Indiana who has long served as Charney's financial adviser. The banker, Donald Tanselle, in turn hired Wierson, Tollin, and the other NYC-TV employees on Charney's recommendation.

Charney insists that he didn't put a dime into the project. "Why, you think I'm wealthy?" he asked.

Yes, he was told. And if he didn't actually help pay for the movie, it is a dramatic break from his past practice. Back when Charney's book was published, he spent so heavily promoting it that his efforts earned a story in the Times. The paper reported that the real estate tycoon hired his own PR agency to flog the book, and purchased numerous full-page newspaper ads for it.

As for Tanselle, he has been closely involved with Charney's money deals for decades, records show. In 1992, when Charney tried to buy United Press International, he told reporters that Tanselle was reviewing the finances for him. Whatever his role in supporting the film, Tanselle wouldn't discuss it, failing to return repeated messages at his Indianapolis office.

Under DoITT rules, Wierson and Tollin were supposed to notify the agency in writing and receive permission before taking on paid outside employment. They never did, according to DOI. But early in the project, the two men did consult with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. An official there issued an informal advisory letter saying that it would be all right to make the film as long as Charney—since he was an NYC-TV customer—didn't pick up the tab and Tanselle had no "business or financial relationship" with NYC-TV.

The moviemakers assured the official that the billionaire would have nothing to do with financing a project that extolled his own sensational exploits as a secret go-between on the world stage. Why would he? They also pledged not to have any other financial dealings with Charney and not to use their city positions to their advantage, or any city equipment in making the film.

Given Wierson's own admission that it was impossible to draw a line between his personal and professional lives, it must have been a tough pledge to live up to.

As to how much it cost to fly producers and directors around the globe, hire camera crews, and rent studios, no one is talking. The NYC-TV executives insisted that the movie was largely a labor of love. Both Wierson and Tollin reported to DOI that they were paid no more than $15,000 to $20,000 apiece for their work. The real payoff, they said, was the experience and exposure as moviemakers.

When they were interviewed by DOI, both Wierson and Tollin stressed that, other than as consultants, they had no role in Channel Productions as owners, officers, or directors. But since then, they've presented themselves as the company's sole "executive producers." And even though the corporation is registered only in Indiana, where Tanselle had it incorporated, the film's website and promo material proclaim Channel as based in the "picturesque neighborhoods of DUMBO, Brooklyn, and Washington Square Park." The reason for the masquerade isn't hard to figure: DUMBO and Greenwich Village have a bit more cachet in movie distribution circles than Indianapolis.

The film has yet to screen in New York, but supporters like Charney are hoping it will soon be movie history. Hopes are high that it will be accepted at the upcoming Sundance and Berlin film festivals.

"They got pretty good reviews on it in the French papers," said Charney. "There are all kinds of offers here already."

Charney is a lawyer who once represented the tart-tongued comic Jackie Mason. That may be where he picked up his shtick in which he answers every question with his own sarcastic query and a shrug. But the jokester is a man of serious wealth: He owns several Times Square commercial properties, whose value is enough to give him a net worth of $1.5 billion, a figure that qualifies him for the annual Forbes 400 billionaires list.

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