By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
If voters had a vague sense that this was a mirage of a mayoral election, what follows is a damning set of facts that shows that these two supposed opponents were actually far more connected than we ever knew. They shared a very personal and subterranean agenda, the funding of a project dear to Thompson's heart. Remarkably, Bloomberg continued pouring new money into a project that benefited Thompson even in the heat of the campaign. It is a connection begging for explanation, but Thompson would not answer virtually any of the post-election questions posed by the Voice.
Stranger still, Bloomberg's press managers refused to provide any public information about that project—a museum—in the lead-up to the election, prompting me to tell the mayor's press secretary, Stu Loeser, that he was more helpful when I was writing an exposé about the mayor than when I was reporting on the mayor's opponent. Since November, however, the city agencies that once stonewalled me have piled public papers on my desk.
Here, then, is the story about Bill Thompson that Mike Bloomberg didn't want you to know when he was running against him.
Research assistance by Steve P. Ercolani, T.J. Raphael, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith
It starts with a single, unsettling fact: The mayor has directed or triggered between $43 million and $51 million in public and personal subsidies into a museum project led by Thompson's current wife and longtime companion, Elsie McCabe-Thompson, dumping $2 million of additional city funding into it as late as September 30, in the middle of the mayoral campaign.
Thompson was so involved with his wife's Museum for African Art that he may have violated the city charter by using his office to solicit state and city funding for its grand new home now under construction, with marble floors and walls, at the end of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue and 109th Street. While the project sounds admirable, the museum has attracted this funding at a time when it is little more than an office in a warehouse in Long Island City, with no permanent art collection of its own, no gallery, no accreditation from the American Association of Museums or the Association of African American Museums, and no connection or history with Harlem. It is so out of compliance with state legal requirements for museums that the best it could do, after weeks of Voice questioning, was shake "a letter of existence" out of education department officials, which it misrepresented as a "letter of good standing." Other outstanding African-American museums in the city, like the fully accredited Studio Museum of Harlem, which has a 1,600-object permanent collection and, unlike McCabe-Thompson's, has trained 90 artists-in-residence, receive a fraction of the public assistance showered on this monument to political connections.
The Voice has identified four city and state sources who say Thompson spoke to them on behalf of the project, a potential violation of Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) decisions that have resulted in fines when low-level city officials use their position to benefit their girlfriends or wives. While Thompson declined to answer questions about these contacts, a museum spokeswoman, Jeanne Collins, e-mailed that McCabe-Thompson was "unaware of any conversations" her husband may have had on the museum's behalf with individuals with "whom Ms. McCabe-Thompson did not have prior contact." Thompson "did not introduce the museum or Ms. McCabe-Thompson to any new funders," Collins said, never denying that Thompson pushed for funding the museum had already sought, as the Voice confirmed. In addition to Thompson's contacts, McCabe-Thompson noted in an application for funding from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer that she was "the fiancée" of the city comptroller, volunteering it as a form of disclosure. In fact, a Page Six item in the Post on June 6, 2006, announced that the "elegant" Elsie and the "smitten" Billy were dating, a story that Thompson advisers say they planted, making sure, not incidentally, that any possible funder out of the loop got the news.
Beyond Thompson's interventions on behalf of the museum, his office had to register its capital funding agreements and city contracts. Thompson's spokesman insisted that its contract unit only certified the project once, in March 2008, without any involvement at the top of the office. The spokesman insisted it was "approved as a matter of course," though the Bloomberg administration's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is shepherding the museum project and is convinced of its merits, says the comptroller "has sent back some funding agreement packages with questions or requests for more information." This project—which defaulted on or skirted several critical EDC deadlines, in addition to its questionable licensing status with the state—invited questions, but Thompson's office rubberstamped it. The city charter explicitly requires that capital projects receive the comptroller's approval, and he issues the directives that govern projects like this. His office even reviews the contracts for the museum's operating grants.
Thompson's explanation for how he handled this conflict raises as many thorny issues as it resolves. He supplied a previously undisclosed memo to the Voice dated March 14, 2005, indicating that he'd recused himself on "all matters" related to the museum. He asked his top deputy, Gayle Horwitz, who had worked with him since he became Board of Education president in 1996, to handle it. Since Thompson had only left his wife, Sylvia Kinard, in late 2004, his recusal just a few months after the break-up suggests what his friends say, but Thompson has never conceded—namely, that he left Kinard to move in with McCabe, who did not become McCabe-Thompson until September 2008. Thompson told the Post during the campaign that "there was nothing between us until I filed for divorce," which he did on April 26, 2005, a claim belied by his earlier recusal. Kinard called McCabe-Thompson "The Hoverer," telling the Post she was invited by Thompson to their 1999 wedding and was "always around" during their marriage. Others have said that even before McCabe-Thompson took over the museum in September 1997, she was actively lobbying then–Board of Education president Thompson on behalf of the technology-training company where she worked. She was one of the first to contribute to his comptroller campaign in 1999.