By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
"I hated the project from the beginning. I really disliked it," says East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, who represents the area, conceding that when it became a fait accompli, she allocated $250,000 in capital funds to it, a fraction of the millions Quinn and the Council leadership delivered. State Senator Bill Perkins, who lives across the street from the site and has long opposed it, wasn't informed when the PACB voted for it in the fall. Even the city conceded in legal documents that it wasn't the "highest best use" of the city-owned land, and Community Board 11 at one point voted against it.
Controlled by the Housing Preservation and Development agency until it was transferred to EDC for sale to the project, the site was seen by Viverito, Perkins, and Stringer's predecessor, Virginia Fields, as a natural for affordable housing. The museum, which owned the parcel fronting Fifth Avenue, insisted instead on partnering with Brickman Associates, the developer that is now building multimillion-dollar condos. The company, whose owner, Bruce Brickman, has reportedly boasted about his longstanding ties to Thompson, won McCabe-Thompson's favor by offering to build the core museum at cost, cover the land price, and donate $5 million to it, a total value of $20 million, according to estimates in city filings. Ironically, there may be no better example of the Bloomberg administration championing projects for the rich, the theme of the Thompson campaign.
When the deal was initially approved at the end of the Giuliani administration and the beginning of Bloomberg's, the rationale was 450 permanent new jobs. The museum was then partnered with Edison Schools, the controversial for-profit public company that planned to build its national headquarters and a charter school there. Edison collapsed and sold its site to the museum in 2003, reducing the museum's estimate of new full-time employees to 16, a threshold it says it will not reach for eight years. Then the justification for re-approving the project shifted to its marvels as a tourist attraction and economic development engine. A recent Times front-page story ("In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better") reported that across the country and in New York, major arts projects were being "delayed, scaled back, put into question or abandoned altogether," concluding that planners of these "ambitious" projects had "succumbed to an irrational exuberance that rivaled the stock market's in the boom years." Thompson tried to make Bloomberg's Yankee Stadium boondoggle an issue in the campaign, contrasting the jobs created with the public investment, but he'd voted for most of it, and, as it turned out, he'd pushed for his own miniature facsimile, with its own elaborate theater.
Research assistance by Steve P. Ercolani, T.J. Raphael, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith
The city charter was rewritten in 1989 to enhance mayoral power. It is the soul of the city and depends upon an independent comptroller and Council as the constitutional counterpoints to mayoral excess. Yet that is hardly what we've had in Bloomberg's first two terms. He has driven this project so far that the public funding, including the state grants he sparked, exceed by far the $38 million cost of the museum's core construction. There is no way for us to know if the city's museum largesse was a motive for Thompson's obsequious oversight of the Bloomberg era, or simply a consequence of the intertwine between them. He was no doubt more mayoral understudy than overseer. There is also no way to know if the Council's museum generosity had anything to do with why Thompson never noticed its bogus slush-fund budget documents, or even audited its discretionary expenditures after the scandal blew. Bloomberg can smell an edge on the ground from the private plane he used to fly Thompson to ball games in, and he's milked this one for years, perhaps all the way to re-election. Quinn might have exploited it, too, though she says she's usually "the last to know" gossip like who Thompson was dating.
Bill Thompson, the city's newly discovered media hero, seems so understated and reassuring that he deflects attention from the mess his private life has always been. He took a favorable mortgage and credit line in 2008 from a bank his office had done billions in business with, getting a letter from the bank saying the transaction was proper rather than doing what thousands of low-level city employees do every year, seek an opinion from the Conflict of Interest Board. When he worked as an investment banker in the '90s, he failed to take key securities tests six times in three years, operated without a license, and broke a half-dozen securities regulations. No one has noticed, amid Andrew Cuomo's pension fund prosecutions, that Thompson was functioning in the '90s as an unlicensed placement agent, before anyone knew what that was and before comptrollers like him started banning them from their offices.
In addition to his clear-cut efforts to benefit the museum with public funders, there are several disturbing indications that he may have used his muscle with private backers as well. The largest single corporate donation to the museum comes all the way from Los Angeles, a million-dollar check from Disney. Thompson's pension funds held at least 7.6 million shares of Disney stock throughout this period. In 2004 and 2005, Thompson switched from opposing Michael Eisner as the company's chair and CEO to supporting him, abandoning a coalition with seven other large funds. Disney even hired mega-lobbyist Patricia Lynch to push him, and she did, also contributing to him at the same time.