Bill de Blasio's Elusive City Council Papers Raise More Questions Than They Answer
If Democratic primary winner Bill de Blasio is elected New York City's next mayor in November, one of his jobs will be to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from the citizenry.
As a New York City councilmember representing Brooklyn from 2002 to 2009, however, de Blasio made a habit of trying to fix tickets for his constituents, repeatedly writing letters to agencies such as the Parking Violations Bureau and the Environmental Control Board throughout his tenure.
The revelation emerged in a Village Voice review of de Blasio's City Council papers filed in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College—and it comes with a heaping helping of political intrigue.
Under the New York City Charter, once records enter the archive, they are to be accessible to the public and to remain in the collection forever.
"Records of historical, research, cultural or other important value shall be transferred to the municipal archives for permanent custody," reads the charter.
For at least a year beginning in December 2011, however, approximately 17 boxes containing the council papers of mayoral candidates de Blasio and John Liu were removed from the archives and made inaccessible to the public for reasons that remain murky.
The intrigue began innocuously enough in November 2011, with a routine request from a New York City resident to view the de Blasio and Liu files. At the time, neither man had declared for mayor, but it was clear both would run in 2013.
The archive complied initially with the citizen's request, but records indicate that on December 13, 2011, archives officials removed all the files and sent them to the office of general counsel Elizabeth Fine, the City Council's top lawyer.
And there they sat.
Fast-forward to September 3 of this year, when the Voice requests to view the documents. The following day, LaGuardia archivist Douglas Di Carlo responds via e-mail, saying he'll have to consult the council as to whether the papers contain "private information," writing that "[t]he City Council has required review of Council Members Papers in the past, prior to researcher access."
When the Voice reminds him that there is no provision in the City Charter for the review of records once they have been added to the permanent archive, Di Carlo reverses himself, relaying that the council has green-lighted access.
Why, then, were the records made inaccessible in December 2011, under similar circumstances? Di Carlo maintains that the papers are the property of the council. "When they want to take papers out, they can," he says during a subsequent telephone interview. "It's the council's decision, and I can't speak to why."
Asked whether other councilmembers' files have been removed, Di Carlo ends the conversation, saying, "I don't feel comfortable with answering so many questions about this. I think you should speak with the council's attorneys."
Elizabeth Fine referred the Voice's request for comment to council spokesman Jamie McShane.
McShane says it was the archivist, not the council, who initially raised the concern that some of the records in his care might include private content. "The archivist had concerns about personal information and constituents' privacy," McShane says, adding, "Neither de Blasio nor Liu had any role in it."
McShane explains that Fine's office consulted with the New York City Law Department and decided to treat the December 2011 request as a normal inquiry under the state's Freedom of Information statute.
He says no documents were taken out or altered while the records were in the council's care. He acknowledges that there was an undue lag in returning the records to the archives, calling it "an administrative delay that shouldn't have happened." (Precisely when Fine returned the boxes is unclear. A document in the archive indicating when the files were removed contains a space for the return date—but that space is blank.)
The current episode recalls a higher-profile controversy at the end of Rudy Giuliani's mayoral administration. As the Voice's Wayne Barrett reported in 2002, Giuliani made a secret agreement with the archive that allowed him to squirrel away his papers under the aegis of a separate nonprofit.
The move brought sharp criticism from archivists and from the state Committee on Open Government, whose director, Robert Freeman, accused the former mayor of violating state law.
At the time, Giuliani claimed the papers would be used to create a "Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs." (To this day, no such entity exists.) About four years later, in 2006, Giuliani's papers were restored to the possession of the municipal archives—though what happened to them in the interim remains a mystery.
Of course, as an employee at the archive tells the Voice, staffers there have no way of determining whether anyone tampered with the de Blasio and Liu papers, as the documents have not been indexed. Moreover, before the records were first sent to the archives, they would have been reviewed. Why they needed to be reviewed again in 2011 and held outside the archives for a year or more remains a mystery.
"In essence, they got two bites at the apple," the employee says. "What they did with them when they took them, we wouldn't know."
De Blasio spokesman Dan Levitan says no one from the candidate's staff in the Public Advocate's office or the campaign was involved in pulling the council records. Levitan adds that the campaign was unaware the records had been removed.
Liu's campaign office did not respond to a request for comment.
The de Blasio papers are notable as much for what isn't in them as for what is.
One glaring example: The files that contain letters from constituents, which are arranged alphabetically, only go up to H.
Curiously, the nine boxes that comprise the former councilman's files include only a handful of communications—e-mails, letters, memos—authored by the man himself.
Still, the documents contain some interesting insights into the man who might be New York's next mayor.
For one thing, de Blasio made repeated attempts on behalf of constituents to get parking tickets and garbage fines reduced or dismissed altogether.
• In June 2005, the councilman sent an e-mail to the Parking Violations Bureau on behalf of Jeff Getz, who'd been ticketed for double parking. "I recognize that double parking is illegal, however, as you know, double parking during street cleaning has long been an accepted practice in New York City," de Blasio wrote.
• A month earlier, in May, de Blasio had made a similar plea for Blima Glustein. "I hope you will consider the circumstances when reviewing Ms. Glustein's case and show her leniency," he wrote.
• Writing on behalf of Imre Friedlander and other residents of 40th Street who had been ticketed by the Department of Sanitation, de Blasio wrote that he was "incredulous" that tickets were issued in the first place. In Friedlander's case, he accused the city employee of "never leaving his car" to write up the violation.
• In January 2006, de Blasio wrote a letter in support of Bracha Breiger, who had been ticketed by the Department of Transportation for a parking violation. Breiger tells the Voice that the fine was dismissed without a hearing. "I think his letter helped," she says.
Separately from the archival files, the Voice obtained the text of two decisions in which judges for the Parking Violations Bureau, ruling in favor of the defendant, cite de Blasio's letters.
Ticket fixing in New York City is nothing new—some might call it a time-honored tradition. On the other hand, in 2011, the Bronx District Attorney's office opened an investigation into the practice, ensnaring dozens of officers in the New York Police Department and going so far as to indict some of them.
When the scandal went public, de Blasio was a vocal critic of the practice. As the city's incumbent public advocate, he called for a fuller investigation and even accused the NYPD of fixing domestic violence cases.
(Then again, in May 2011, de Blasio, in his role as public advocate, complained to NYPD transportation chief James Tuller about Williamsburg residents whose cars were ticketed and towed for parking in a no-standing zone during Passover.)
Two years ago, in a statement issued at the height of the scandal, Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in politicians' criticism of the NYPD for fixing tickets. Throughout his 30-year career, Mullins said, "It has not been the least bit unusual to get calls from . . . elected officials, members of the judiciary, business executives, celebrities, athletes, physicians. These phone calls are as much a culture of the department as arresting criminals."
In light of de Blasio's letters, the Voice reached out to Mullins last week for comment. "There shouldn't be a double standard," the SBA president says now. "If a police officer is being arrested for it, but a councilman is doing this sort of thing, too, it's something that needs to be looked at."
Captains Endowment Association head Roy Richter tells the Voice, "My general thing on this is if on day one you punish a police officer with a warn and admonish, and then on day two indict him, that's unfair. If it's been a long-standing practice, you have to give people fair warning."
Asked to comment about the contents of the de Blasio files and the ticket issue in particular, spokesman Dan Levitan responds that such communiqués are simply part of a councilmember's job: assisting constituents who need help navigating the city's bureaucracy.
Responding to Levitan's "constituent services" description, Mullins says, "Call it what you want. What's the difference? At the end of the day, there's a process that the tickets have to go through. If it works for a public official, why not for a police officer?"
Even though he was the boss, de Blasio apparently saw himself as a constituent, too. He would often call the council office himself and ask his staff to look into things he spotted in his travels around the district.
De Blasio also has a mystical side. He wrote to then–New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein to extol the virtues of transcendental meditation, recommending that the discipline become part of the curriculum in city public schools. "The technique is strictly a mechanical, natural procedure that allows the mind and body to settle down to a deep state of rest," he wrote Klein.
Other entries in the files suggest de Blasio has a tougher edge than his populist campaign and feel-good television ads suggest. For example, back in 2007, several constituents accused him of ordering a purge of members of Community Board 6 who'd voted against the Atlantic Yards development project that resulted in a new home in Brooklyn for the NBA's New Jersey Nets franchise.
Nine board members were removed in May 2007 by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, including four who'd been appointed by de Blasio and fellow Councilman David Yassky. In an interview at the time with the New York Observer, de Blasio acknowledged that he had told Markowitz not to reappoint one of the board members, on the grounds that a vote against Atlantic Yards was a vote against affordable housing.
"I was stunned and very disappointed to learn that you had retaliated against the hard working and very professional CB 6 members," wrote resident Sarah Flanagan.
Wrote Jon Yasgur, a fellow constituent: "Your actions are totally undemocratic and demonstrate a shameful coziness with developers."
A third resident, John Ife, expressed "outrage": "Your action is so redolent with the odor of arrogance . . . that it spits in the eyes of any semblance of democracy."
De Blasio spokesman Levitan did not respond to a query about the so-called purge.
De Blasio has promised to raise taxes on the wealthy and touts his support for the middle class. But that's not how landlord Jack Wallace saw him in 2004. In a letter to the councilman, Wallace urged de Blasio to reverse his support for a tax on absentee landlords. "It appears to me that I am being punished for my hard work," Wallace wrote. "A majority of absentee landlords you and the council are hurting with your taxes and surcharges are the same hard working, knuckle scraping middle class individuals you profess to represent."
De Blasio wasn't above using his office to do favors for people close to him. In 2005, for example, he ordered his staff to help solve immigration problems for a man engaged to de Blasio's Boston–based sister-in-law's assistant.
"Mr. Jules has run into immigration problems which may complicate the upcoming marriage," de Blasio wrote in a February 2005 e-mail. "Patrick and Kathleen—do you know any Haitian social service folks in the Boston area. . . . Mr. Jules needs proof he attended PS 399 . . . Thanks good people!"
He followed up with e-mails reminding his staff to help out. Staffers e-mailed the Department of Education several times to supply the necessary documentation.
Also in 2005, de Blasio used his influence to try to get a teaching fellowship on Staten Island for then-resident Dina Greenfield, whose husband, David Greenfield, would be elected to the City Council in 2010. Members of de Blasio's staff spent time over a two-month period phoning schools on Ms. Greenfield's behalf. (The couple has since moved to Brooklyn.)
"Hi Dina, I work for Councilmember de Blasio and I'll be looking for job openings for you," wrote staffer Kerci Marcello on July 19, 2005.
"FYI, I found David Greenfield's wife another job opening (PS 107, grade 1)," Marcello wrote to her boss. "I'll let you know how the interviews go."
"We got Bill's friend an interview at PS 8," reported a de Blasio staffer.
Responded Marcello: "You rule."
If de Blasio could get that kind of help on his own job hunt, he'd be a shoo-in come November 5.
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