Inside the Mayor's Studio: NYC-TV's Secrets of New York
This spring, a potential minor disaster loomed in the otherwise charmed life of Mike Bloomberg's administration. A top official at NYC-TV was arrested and charged with siphoning tens of thousands of dollars out of his agency's coffers and into his pocket.
The new city television network was created with much ado by Bloomberg, a media mogul and the station's leading champion. The mayor has hailed its hip new shows, like Secrets of New York, which stars a glamorous model in a form-fitting black vinyl trench coat darting about the city.
The agency has prospered under the mayor's watch, with an annual budget that has soared from less than $2 million to more than $10 million. It's unclear exactly why city taxpayers are funding these glossy entertainments, but this much is plain: A scam by a high-level insider at the station had the potential for a bit of embarrassment.
Bloomberg's City Hall team quickly went into damage control: Yes, there had been a bad apple, one Trevor Scotland, the network's former director of business development and operations. Yes, together with an outside confederate, he'd managed to loot some $60,000 in station revenues. And yes, he'd been nabbed by the city's own keen-eyed investigators. All else was well. Next story.
The incident passed with less harm than a mayoral eye roll at a Blue Room press conference. So it was that six days later, when Arick Wierson—a former Bloomberg campaign aide who had served as Scotland's boss and the network's top executive—announced that he was stepping down from his $150,000-a-year post, no one questioned City Hall's insistence that his departure was totally unrelated to the criminal case.
Technically, this was true. Scotland, whose own resemblance to a GQ model allowed him to serve as host of shows such as Man About Town, told city investigators that those inside the station had no idea what he was up to. With no one the wiser, he had quietly and routinely re-routed advertising payments due NYC-TV to a pal with his own outside production company. But Scotland also told the city's Department of Investigation that he was able to get away with his scheme because—as DOI delicately put it—"there was a lack of oversight."
Scotland said that Wierson was such a laid-back supervisor that he allowed the business director to put Wierson's signature on key documents. One of the agreements he signed his boss's name to was the faked contract with his partner that allowed him to swipe the city's cash. Remarkably, Wierson confirmed it. There was "an informal understanding," Wierson told investigators, that Scotland could sign documents as "approved by Arick" if he wasn't around.
And just how much Arick Wierson was around remains an open question. As agency employees told DOI, "Wierson seemed to spend a lot of time out of his office at the Municipal Building."
In fact, city investigators only tumbled to Scotland's thefts after they launched an inquiry last year into complaints by employees at NYC-TV. The wide-ranging gripes included charges that Wierson and other top officials were often absent and appeared to be using city staff and resources for their own private projects.
The results of that inquiry were assembled in a memo that was presented to City Hall shortly before Scotland's arrest. Since then, in addition to Wierson, at least four other high-ranking aides at the network have also quietly resigned. Asked last week if they'd been fired, a City Hall spokesperson declined comment.
The city's other response to the scandal was to yank its network of TV and radio stations out of DoITT—the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Without any public announcement, the administration shifted them into another unit much more closely tethered to City Hall, the Mayor's Office of Film and Broadcasting.
The transfer was so sudden and total that City Hall refused to allow Wierson's old boss, DoITT Commissioner Paul Cosgrave, to be interviewed by the Voice about the station's recent history.
They had good reason for concern. The DOI memo—obtained through a Freedom of Information request—shows that Wierson and his top aides used their perks of office as a launching pad for their future careers. Sizable chunks of time were spent hatching plans for private projects, efforts that, as one top producer at the agency told investigators, would serve as "exit strategies" from their city government jobs.
Wierson acknowledged to DOI that he was so focused on his future career plans that it had "cast a shadow" over his actions at the station.
But he did come up with a most successful exit strategy: Back in 2006, he and a top aide signed up to produce a private documentary film about the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. The movie project was the brainchild of one of the station's oldest and best customers, an aging city real estate baron named Leon Charney, who hosts a weekly talk show on NYC-TV and who has long sought publicity for his role in the 30-year-old peace talks. Wierson, who had the power to pull the plug on Charney's often-rambling talk show if he chose, liked what he heard.
Over the next two years, Wierson and other NYC-TV employees traveled around the world, to the Middle East and Europe, making their movie. For Wierson, the trips were profitable in other ways as well: In a May 31 farewell e-mail to station employees, he said that "over the past year or so," he'd "had the good fortune to develop some very important relationships in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf Region." As a result, he said, individuals there had asked him to take on "a number of projects."
All of this, Wierson and his aides insisted to investigators, they did in their own spare time. If people thought they were missing from their day jobs, they said, it was only because they were often holed up in the network's downtown Brooklyn office, a maze of tiny studios on Tillary Street that used to house the old Board of Education's TV and radio station, before it was subsumed in Bloomberg's new NYC Media.
Wherever he spent his time, Wierson isn't talking about it. He didn't respond to repeated calls, e-mails, and messages relayed to him through friends and associates. In late June, he and his family moved out of their apartment in Brooklyn's DUMBO. According to a former co-worker, he's now out of the country, engaged in one of the high-powered jobs he scouted out during his travels.
Loyalists, however, offered a defense in his absence: If Wierson was working part-time on his own private projects, they said, he was also scoring dozens of awards for the edgy new shows that he helped create: Eat Out New York, Cool in Your Code, and Man Up!—a "lifestyle" and fashion show produced by the suave Scotland. Then there were the industry partnerships that Wierson negotiated, whereby both NBC and PBS agreed to carry some of the NYC-TV programs.
At a 2006 press conference for the NBC deal, Bloomberg showed up at the televised event, calling it "a landmark agreement." With Scotland and Wierson grinning behind him, the mayor also took the opportunity to knock the
old city TV programming that consisted of mainly City Council hearings and press conferences. His own TV team, said the mayor, had created "dynamic new content worthy of the greatest city in the world."
Wierson made sure that each of these successes was noticed. He kept a party planner and promoter on staff who earned $75,000 last year. The station celebrated every new award and show with a glitzy affair held at a downtown club, complete with red carpet and a photographer shooting portraits of Wierson and his crew against a wall of NYC-TV logos.
Wierson blitzed professional media organizations with nominations of his shows for prizes. The investment paid off. The station hauled in 33 awards from New York's local version of the Emmys. Wierson was so proud of this triumph that he decided to broadcast the annual award dinners on NYC-TV. In a brilliant example of log-rolling, that production won its own Emmy.
Not bad for a guy who had no background in television when he landed his job in 2002. A former banker, Wierson, 37, could also stand in for one of the many models he hired to decorate his shows. He is a tall man with a broad jaw, who wears his hair fashionably slicked back. He is married to Fabiana Mesquita Wierson, an attractive blonde from Brazil who hosted at least one NYC-TV show and who was a longtime employee of Bloomberg LP at the time her husband was named the station's general manager. That appointment came after Wierson had finished working on the mayor's 2001 campaign.
City officials insist that the mayor neither hired Wierson nor recommended him for his NYC-TV post. But the men were clearly friendly. At another of those glitzy parties, this one at Tribeca Cinemas in 2005, Bloomberg was captured on Wierson's cameras singing his aide's praises and joking with his wife, Fabiana. "Were you married when I first met you?" the mayor asks her. He was also comfortable enough to tell the crowd about her pregnancy. "His wife is, uh, with child, is the way to phrase it," said Bloomberg.
At the same party, the mayor also exchanged jests with another top NYC-TV executive at the time, a woolly-haired young man named Seth Unger, who is married to Allison Jaffin, the mayor's special assistant, who handles both private and public events for Bloomberg. "Seth finally got a haircut," the mayor joked. "Every time I saw him, I would say, 'My mother would say you need a haircut.' " Unger also worked on the mayor's 2001 campaign and was named to a top NYC-TV post in 2002 at a salary of $65,000. When he quit the agency in 2006, he was making $104,000.
Wierson also thrived. His starting salary was $75,000 a year. When he left in late May, he was pulling in exactly double that figure.
He clearly enjoyed having a staff at his disposal. One of the violations that DOI cited was Wierson's use of an office temporary employee for personal errands. Wierson dispatched the computer-savvy worker to the Soho Apple store to buy two MacBooks for his own use, along with software for his outside film production business. Wierson also had the worker come to his apartment, where he had him work on his home computer system and set up a wireless network for his family. There were five to eight of these home tech visits, each one lasting two to three hours, the temp told DOI. He said Wierson told him to simply list the hours on his time sheet.
The TV executive told investigators that he didn't really see the violation, since his personal and professional lives were so "interrelated." It was impossible, he said, to "draw a neat line" between them.
The same applied to the high-tech equipment he brought home. He billed taxpayers for special gadgets allowing him to "monitor certain of NYC-TV's programming remotely" from home. City officials said last week that the purchase was fine with them, but when DOI probers questioned Wierson about it in March, he quickly cut a check for $539 to clear things up.
Then there were the multiple private business ventures that Wierson found time for while he was running the city's network. When DOI confronted him, Wierson acknowledged that he was looking for a big-ticket opportunity to launch his own post-administration career in the private sector.
One deal that Wierson had cooking was an idea that he wanted to pitch to Hachette Filipacchi, the giant media firm. DOI, which seized several computers at the station, found a 15-page proposal by "Arick Wierson & Associates" on Wierson's office computer. The proposal envisioned a six-month consulting gig paying $80,000 per month. Wierson acknowledged that there really weren't any "associates," but that he had worked with two employees at the agency. One of them was a former intern and part-time college student named Andrew Atiya, who racked up $44,000 in overtime working for Wierson in 2006, almost doubling his $50,000 salary.
Wierson insisted that the "majority" of his work on the Hachette proposal—which never came through—was done outside of working hours, although he may have used his city e-mail a few times.
Then there were the ambitious plans to make their own movies. One was a would-be documentary about Jamaican drug gang victims, to be called Strykah: The Rise and Fall of the Shower Posse. Wierson was teamed up on that one with his legal counsel at the agency, Matthew Tollin, a former City Council attorney who doubled as general manager of radio operations. Also on board was Nomi Roher, the agency's head of production. Asked by DOI if he had "any concerns about entering into a business venture with two subordinates," Wierson said no. He'd "deal with the repercussions," he said, if the project got off the ground. In this one, too, the "majority" of the work was done on his own time, he maintained, with perhaps an occasional city e-mail.
Tollin, who refused to comment for this story, told DOI that he had stressed to everyone at NYC-TV involved in the film projects not to use city time or resources. But the efforts to get their own film business going rubbed at least one NYC-TV manager the wrong way. This manager complained to DOI that Wierson and Tollin had asked her to help with sales efforts for a pending private film venture and sent her repeated e-mail updates. She turned them down, and told investigators that she felt the invitation from her bosses was "inappropriate" and made her "uncomfortable."
Asked about the matter by DOI, Wierson said he wanted to put together a film production company to create what he called "fun, interesting, and meaningful documentaries." As for his efforts to recruit the manager, he said he was "just taking her temperature." His management style, Wierson told the investigators, was "to encourage people to think about the future."
His own future was tied up in the one outside project that did come through—and in spectacular fashion. That was the movie about the secret backstage talks that led to the Camp David peace agreement. And for Wierson, the timing couldn't have been better.
On June 7, just one week after leaving the city's payroll, Wierson and several of his other NYC-TV pals celebrated the opening of the feature-length documentary that they had somehow managed to make while working full-time for the city.
The celebration was held in a decidedly fashionable locale: the Mediterranean city-state of Monaco. The occasion was the premiere that evening of Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace, which was chosen to open the 49th Monte Carlo Television Festival. Producers declined to share a copy of the film with the Voice, but according to the film's promo material, it is 95 minutes long and took 18 months to make. It was shot in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Sinai, Cairo, Paris, Vienna, Washington, New York, and Atlanta, where Jimmy Carter, who led the talks, was put on camera.
At their glittering opening, Wierson and four other NYC-TV workers who helped make it appeared on a red carpet grinning proudly as cameras snapped their photos. Standing next to Wierson was His Serene Highness Prince Albert II, son of America's own royalty, Grace Kelly. Next to His Highness were Tollin, who served as Wierson's co-executive producer on the film and who resigned his $116,000-a-year city job in May; Roland Le Breton, a $101,000-a-year city aide, who was the film's art director; William Fitzgerald, a former NYC-TV contributor; and Harry Hunkele, the film's director, who resigned his $66,000-a-year city job just last month.
Watching from nearby and as delighted as can be was Charney, the esteemed host of the weekly interview show on city TV and radio stations, called The Leon Charney Report.
Charney was the major spark for this fascinating project. Back in 2006, Wierson and Tollin became enchanted with the story of how Charney and others had acted as crucial secret go-betweens during the peace talks. Charney said last week that the NYC-TV executives were the ones who approached him about the idea, after they "somehow" got hold of his 1984 book about the episode, called Special Counsel.
"They thought it would make a great documentary," said Charney. "And so they put a company together and put a movie together."
Actually, Charney's role was a little more active than that, at least according to what Wierson and Tollin told city investigators. Tollin said that it was Charney who had urged Wierson and him to make the movie, and that they had later recruited other talented members of their staff at the city's TV network to help.
Michael Siller, inspector general for DoITT, put it this way in the April memo: "Tollin testified that Charney told him that he loved NYC-TV's original programming, believed that NYC-TV would do a great job making a film about Camp David and that he knew someone who was interested in producing such a documentary."
But the filmmakers did the project not for NYC-TV but for a private, for-profit corporation called Channel Productions, which was formed in Indianapolis in 2006 by a retired banker from Indiana who has long served as Charney's financial adviser. The banker, Donald Tanselle, in turn hired Wierson, Tollin, and the other NYC-TV employees on Charney's recommendation.
Charney insists that he didn't put a dime into the project. "Why, you think I'm wealthy?" he asked.
Yes, he was told. And if he didn't actually help pay for the movie, it is a dramatic break from his past practice. Back when Charney's book was published, he spent so heavily promoting it that his efforts earned a story in the Times. The paper reported that the real estate tycoon hired his own PR agency to flog the book, and purchased numerous full-page newspaper ads for it.
As for Tanselle, he has been closely involved with Charney's money deals for decades, records show. In 1992, when Charney tried to buy United Press International, he told reporters that Tanselle was reviewing the finances for him. Whatever his role in supporting the film, Tanselle wouldn't discuss it, failing to return repeated messages at his Indianapolis office.
Under DoITT rules, Wierson and Tollin were supposed to notify the agency in writing and receive permission before taking on paid outside employment. They never did, according to DOI. But early in the project, the two men did consult with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. An official there issued an informal advisory letter saying that it would be all right to make the film as long as Charney—since he was an NYC-TV customer—didn't pick up the tab and Tanselle had no "business or financial relationship" with NYC-TV.
The moviemakers assured the official that the billionaire would have nothing to do with financing a project that extolled his own sensational exploits as a secret go-between on the world stage. Why would he? They also pledged not to have any other financial dealings with Charney and not to use their city positions to their advantage, or any city equipment in making the film.
Given Wierson's own admission that it was impossible to draw a line between his personal and professional lives, it must have been a tough pledge to live up to.
As to how much it cost to fly producers and directors around the globe, hire camera crews, and rent studios, no one is talking. The NYC-TV executives insisted that the movie was largely a labor of love. Both Wierson and Tollin reported to DOI that they were paid no more than $15,000 to $20,000 apiece for their work. The real payoff, they said, was the experience and exposure as moviemakers.
When they were interviewed by DOI, both Wierson and Tollin stressed that, other than as consultants, they had no role in Channel Productions as owners, officers, or directors. But since then, they've presented themselves as the company's sole "executive producers." And even though the corporation is registered only in Indiana, where Tanselle had it incorporated, the film's website and promo material proclaim Channel as based in the "picturesque neighborhoods of DUMBO, Brooklyn, and Washington Square Park." The reason for the masquerade isn't hard to figure: DUMBO and Greenwich Village have a bit more cachet in movie distribution circles than Indianapolis.
The film has yet to screen in New York, but supporters like Charney are hoping it will soon be movie history. Hopes are high that it will be accepted at the upcoming Sundance and Berlin film festivals.
"They got pretty good reviews on it in the French papers," said Charney. "There are all kinds of offers here already."
Charney is a lawyer who once represented the tart-tongued comic Jackie Mason. That may be where he picked up his shtick in which he answers every question with his own sarcastic query and a shrug. But the jokester is a man of serious wealth: He owns several Times Square commercial properties, whose value is enough to give him a net worth of $1.5 billion, a figure that qualifies him for the annual Forbes 400 billionaires list.
He also wants to be taken seriously as an important expert on Middle East matters and other topics. He says he became a player in the Camp David talks due to his close ties to prominent Israeli political figures. "I was the back-door channel," he told the Voice. Charney is so proud of the role he played there that the new movie is actually the second film made about his involvement. "The first one didn't really do the job," he said.
His talk show has run for almost 20 years on city airwaves, a privilege for which he shells out some $4,300 each month. His most recent contract with the station was negotiated in 2005. When it expired in 2008, Wierson made no move to renegotiate or hike the rates charged to his friend. He also kept the show as part of NYC-TV's programming, one of the few standbys from the drab old days that escaped Wierson's ax as he made over the station in its new hip image.
"It's akin to the Charlie Rose show," Charney said. Or maybe more like Charlie Rose meets Shecky Greene. On air, Charney speaks in an often indecipherable drone and is fond of inserting homemade puns and jokes. In a recent broadcast, Charney asked his guest, former governor Mario Cuomo, to comment on the State Senate's gridlock. "It's an aberration," Cuomo began. The host interrupted. "Aberration? You mean like those people in Australia?" Cuomo, an old friend of the host, folded his hands and smiled tightly. "Wait," added Charney, "I have to tell you a joke." He then went on to imitate what he said was a monkey singing.
Every December, Charney tapes an end-of-year wrap-up show with a special guest. One year, it was President Carter. Last year's guest was Wierson. "He controls this station so whatever you hear tonight can be censored by him because he is the boss," Charney said by way of introduction.
Wierson, dapper in a lavender shirt and gelled hairdo, told his host that it was great to be there. "We've shared so many dinners together in private," he said. "Now we get to share one of our conversations in front of your audience. It is really exciting."
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