Bloomberg: The Movie (At Your Expense)
Shortly after his re-election in November 2005, Mike Bloomberg decided to raise his national profile several notches. He began traveling widely, making speeches and accepting awards. We later learned this was mostly about setting the stage for a potential run for president. He ultimately passed on that race, without giving up hope that he might get lucky next time. But one of the interesting features of this publicity push was that—despite his own fabulous wealth—the mayor wasn't shy about using city resources to promote his image.
Starting in February 2006, the Bloomberg administration began assigning a team of video camera operators from the city's television station—NYC-TV—to follow the mayor on his far-flung voyages. The mayor flew on his private jet; the city crews followed behind on commercial airlines.
At taxpayer expense, city workers traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, Bali, Paris, London, Mexico City, Belfast, Berlin, and Jerusalem. They also covered his cross-country jaunts to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Boca Raton, and Fort Lauderdale. The crews shot the mayor as well as he made his less glamorous, workaday trips to Washington and Albany.
This fascinating footage was then routed back home for use by local commercial television stations seeking to show viewers their mayor in action. The tapes also aired on one of the city's TV stations, where they ran in endless loops, similar to the way leaders are promoted in places like North Korea. Much of it was also posted for posterity on the mayor's website.
Expense records show that the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications—DOITT—which oversees what's now called NYC Media, tried to keep the crews' costs within city travel-expense guidelines. But some trips ran into real money. When the mayor flew to Paris and London in late September 2007, to examine local transportation systems, the city shelled out $9,770 to separately fly a pair of video cameramen there to record his remarks. The camera operators' salaries average about $40,000 a year, which means that the five days the duo spent on the trip cost taxpayers at least another $1,500 in wages.
When the mayor traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, and Bali for a series of meetings in December 2007, the city dispatched two sets of cameramen to capture Bloomberg's appearances. The travel expenses for the city workers ran to $16,400. A 2008 trip to Belfast to check out city pension investment opportunities cost $5,600. Another excursion to London in October 2008 cost $6,500, all just in travel expenses.
The funny thing is that the mayor had plenty of regular media attention whenever he traveled. New York's dailies sent reporters to cover his tours, and local cameras—both still and video—recorded every moment of his appearances.
"It was an unimaginable waste of time," said one NYC-TV employee. "They'd shoot him when he spoke, and a couple of handshakes. NBC and NY1 would want maybe a three-second clip. It was nothing that couldn't have been outsourced."
It was also intensely political. A few days after his return from Singapore, the mayor took off for Norman, Oklahoma, where he was the headliner at a January 7, 2008, confab of high-profile players calling for an end to "partisan politics." Hosted by former Oklahoma senator David Boren, the conveners included middle-of-the-roaders like Sam Nunn and Chuck Hagel. But all eyes were on Bloomberg, whose possible presidential candidacy was the talk of the talk-show circuit.
Every major cable and broadcast television station had a crew at the conference, grabbing Bloomberg for comment whenever he turned around. This media frenzy still didn't stop City Hall's apparatchiks from dispatching their own camera team. Records show that an NYC-TV crew flew into Oklahoma City, rented a car to drive to Norman, and stayed over at a La Quinta Inn. Even this bare-bones budget set the city back $3,400.
All told, city camera crews tailed behind the mayor on 92 separate trips between February 2006 and last July. Travel expenditures were $142,000, and at least half that much again in wages. Most of this closely filmed jet-setting took place while the mayor was ardently promoting himself as either presidential or vice-presidential timber, right up until the late-summer political conventions of 2008.
The Voice was hoping to bring this information to readers much earlier. The subject of the mayoral video teams was raised last spring by NYC-TV employees complaining how their agency was being used as a playpen for the mayor and his pals. Their complaints were sparked by a wide-ranging scandal, broken by the Voice, in which top executives at the station—all Bloomberg appointees—were forced out after they were caught abusing their posts; the financial director was arrested when it turned out he had taken advantage of his boss's frequent absences to steal some $60,000.
A Freedom of Information request for travel and expense records was filed last May. As requests go, this one was standard, plain vanilla. But DOITT officials instantly said it would take six months to compile. Why six months? Heavy traffic in the FOI department, they said. This also conveniently ensured that the information wouldn't be available until after voters had decided on the mayor's third term bid in November. Even then, six months stretched into nine. The documents finally emerged a couple weeks ago, after a lawyer was retained to get the agency's attention.
But Team Bloomberg remained just as secretive about the whys and wherefores of its mayoral documentary program. Every city-paid out-of-town trip is supposed to include an approval form signed by both an agency executive and a deputy mayor. The form has a large blank space at the top headed: "Purpose of Trip and Benefit to City." When the video trips were first launched in early 2006, someone wrote in this space that they were "part of the Charter mandated coverage of city activities and events." But several experts consulted by the Voice came up empty when asked where exactly in the city charter it states that mayoral junkets to Indonesia must be taped by city cameras.
At any rate, those filing the approval forms later dropped the city charter defense and simply noted that "The Mayor's office has requested NYC-TV staff to cover a media event. See attached e-mail." The e-mails somehow did not survive the records-retrieval process by city lawyers.
DOITT spokesman Nick Sbordone initially promised to have everything explained, including who authorized the trips (all signatures were blacked out on the forms), and why they were considered a necessity in an always cash-poor city. But the official spokesman then went AWOL. Instead, a statement was issued late Friday by City Hall. It ducked the travel issue but emphasized the liberating effects of recording the mayor's words for the masses: "NYC-TV is the public's television access to the Mayor's Office and City Council, providing a public record of city affairs," the statement read. "It records every one of the Mayor's public events and nearly all Council hearings."
This sounds suspiciously like the kind of rationale that might be offered for broadcasting Kim Jong Il around-the-clock on Pyongyang TV.
Satisfaction was obtained on one question, however: Calls were made to former press aides to the last three mayors—Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins, and Ed Koch—to ask if it had been their practice to assign city TV camera crews to follow their mayors wherever they went. Responses included the quizzical ("Not that I recall . . .") and the emphatic ("No way!"). Former Koch press secretary George Arzt was clear in his recollection. "No," he said. "We never had a camera crew on trips. The city has a camera crew?"
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