Bloomberg's Machine Politics
Last week, I asked the mayor's press office for what seemed like simple information. Two sources with firsthand knowledge had told me that deputy mayors and other higher-ups at City Hall have used "Bloomberg.com" e-mail accounts for their political work, going back at least through the 2009 mayoral race, and that they suspected that those accounts were tied to Bloomberg Terminals belonging to the mayor's office.
Now, it's true that officials have always used private e-mail accounts and phone lines to keep their political and public duties on separate channels. But if officials have used the city's Bloomberg.com accounts for politicking, public and private lines have been crossed—and quite possibly legal ones as well.
Asked directly if e-mail accounts given out by the city were used for campaigning, the mayor's press office didn't say "no," just "no comment"—leaving unanswered the question of whether the accounts used by top-ranking members of the administration are tied to the valuable Bloomberg Terminals that were donated to the mayor's office by his private business when he arrived at City Hall in 2002.
The terminals, instantly recognizable by their color-coded keyboards and Matrix-like text and chart displays, pipe in the financial company's incredible data feed, which no Wall Street trader can afford to be without, and every reporter would like to have. While the news business squeezes pennies, Bloomberg, who knew back in the horse-and-buggy days of the '80s and '90s that he was in the information game, has built the bulk of his $20 billion or so private fortune on the devices, which rent for around $1,500 a month.
Six e-mails, a phone call, and an in-person exchange later, the mayor's press office settled on "no comment" in response to my questions about what seems to be a clear matter of public record that the administration has successfully kept out of view for a decade.
The main questions: How many terminals, and how many associated e-mail accounts, has the mayor's office been given? Who has an account, and how is that decided? Are these considered public accounts, since they were donated to the city?
The gift to Mayor Bloomberg from Bloomberg LP is no secret: The arrangement is spelled out and approved in the Conflicts of Interest Board's toothless advisory about his private fortune issued in 2002 and updated since. But that document raises as many questions as it answers: It doesn't say how many terminals have been donated, let alone outline any rules for their use. It makes no mention of e-mail accounts.
What are the terms of the gift Mayor Bloomberg's private company made to the city, and why aren't New Yorkers privy to them?
The press office declined to answer, perhaps to try and avoid the bigger question that follows: Are these presumably public e-mail accounts, given not to Michael Bloomberg but to the office of the mayor, instead being used for Bloomberg's own political operations?
Again, "no comment."
"The city should clarify," said Dick Dadey, the executive director of the good-government group Citizens Union, who stressed that he was making no assumption of wrongdoing. "In the interest of full disclosure, it would be in the city's interest at least to explain publicly how these terminals are used."
If top officials have in fact been using Bloomberg.com e-mails given to the city to keep their political activities away from the press and the public, as my sources suggested, it wouldn't just look terrible; it may well be illegal.
I don't know that the mayor's office is doing that, but I'm at a loss for how else to explain the city's stonewalling on such a simple set of questions. Why is even the number of terminals used by the city a state secret?
Requests for a more benign explanation of the accounts, on the record or otherwise, went nowhere. Before declining to comment further, the mayor's press office did suggest that all the answers were covered in the Conflicts Board's advisory, and that there was no difference between the Bloomberg.com accounts and the private e-mail options we all use outside of work. But unlike, say, Gmail, the Bloomberg.com e-mail accounts are part of an upward-of-$15,000-a-year Bloomberg Terminal package—and have been donated to the city, and by a company owned by the mayor.
Bloomberg LP's press office, which initially seemed helpful when I asked about the e-mail accounts, also settled on "no comment" a few hours after City Hall told me the same.
So I went to the source, the Conflicts of Interest Board, made up of six mayoral appointees charged with advising the person who selected them on how to square his roles as the richest man in town and its elected leader. "The board is only permitted by law to speak through its published opinions," said General Counsel Wayne G. Hawley.
In other words, "no comment"—ever.
It comes off as a shell game: The mayor's press office says "it's in the Conflict opinion," which is full of gaping holes and open-ended language rarely seen in legal documents. The board isn't allowed to explain that language, and the conversation is supposed to end there.
It's bad for a democracy when elected officials arbitrarily decide what the public does or does not have a right to know. If City Hall won't answer questions about the e-mail accounts, at the least they owe New Yorkers an explanation as to why those accounts should be a government secret.
"We don't know if these terminals are being used inappropriately or not," Dadey said. "But it would be good to put the issue to rest simply by explaining the procedures in place for the use of these terminals."
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