Few recall that before Rudy Giuliani suggested in a State of the City speech that the Board of Education be “blown up,” he invoked the same incendiary language about the City University of New York. But with his old ally Herman Badillo chairing the CUNY board of trustees since May 1999, the mayor no longer rails on about it, opting instead to use it for his own personal and patronage purposes.
The biggest stir occurred this February, when the board named Jennifer Raab, a city commissioner with no higher-education background, to the presidency of Hunter, one of the city system’s top senior colleges. Mathew Goldstein, the new CUNY chancellor installed by Giuliani and Badillo, preferred another candidate, as did Benno Schmidt, the former Yale president who chaired the search committee. But Badillo pushed the appointment through by a 10-6 vote.
Badillo, who has been floating his own name as a possible Republican mayoral candidate for two years, is actually an appointee of Governor Pataki. Since CUNY is a state institution, 10 members of the board are gubernatorial appointees and five mayoral, with the student government president serving ex officio. But Pataki is so detached from CUNY that in an appearance on WABC’s Eyewitness News Conference this weekend, he referred to Badillo as the board’s vice chairman.
“I barely knew Raab,” Badillo told the Voice last week. “I appointed Schmidt to head the Hunter search because he had a great national reputation. I wanted to send a signal that only the top candidates should apply. I wasn’t even thinking about Raab. The push for her came primarily from the mayor, then the governor.” Raab was the issues director in Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign in 1989 and remains close to him, having served for the past seven years—by most accounts, ably—as the head of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Ron Marino—the only one of the six anti-Raab trustees who was appointed by Giuliani—has already been punished for his independence. A Giuliani supporter who’s been serving on the board in a holdover status since his term expired in June 1997, Marino was so highly regarded by the mayor that he was asked in 1994 to consider becoming budget director. He declined and instead assumed the CUNY position. An alumnus of Hunter College, he was said to feel strongly about serving at CUNY.
Giuliani tried to reappoint Marino in 1998, but the Republican state senate refused to confirm his reappointment, ostensibly because the longtime Democrat had angered the prior chair of the board, Anne Paolucci, a leader of the State Conservative Party. Once the senate rejected Marino, the mayor had to resubmit his name, but never did. “I began asking the mayor’s office to reappoint Ron almost two years ago,” said Badillo. “I appointed him the chair of the Fiscal Affairs Committee.” When it “became clear” that Marino would not be submitted to the senate again, he started missing meetings, Badillo added.
Then, on March 13, shortly after the Raab vote, the mayor wrote Marino a letter abruptly dropping him from the board. Badillo speculated that Marino’s removal might have been prompted by his position on Raab. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the reason,” he said.
Marino heads the public finance department of Smith Barney and underwrites hundreds of millions in city bonds, meaning that his vote against Raab may have also jeopardized a vital business relationship. He did not return Voice calls.
Marino will be replaced by Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota, whose name was just sent to the senate. Marino has already been replaced as chair of CUNY’s fiscal committee by Al Curtis, a former youth commissioner under Giuliani who now heads the city’s United Nations Development Corporation. Sources say that Curtis has requested Chancellor Goldstein’s personal expenses as part of an overall financial review—an indication that City Hall may be prepared to at least harass another friend who broke ranks on Raab. Curtis, however, told the Voice that he has not “specifically asked for anything involving the chancellor.”
Lhota will become the fourth Giuliani deputy mayor to land at CUNY recently—with Ninfa Segarra winning a $146,000-a-year job at its Research Foundation, Randy Mastro taking a position on the board, and Randy Levine hired as a labor consultant. The advantage of a CUNY appointment is that it is likely to outlast the Giuliani administration, which ends in December.
These four join a group of other Giuliani-tied CUNY placements, including Rosa Gil, who stepped down as head of the Health & Hospitals Corporation to take a $150,000-a-year CUNY job; Larry Mandelker, a Giuliani elections lawyer who has earned approximately $55,000 as a CUNY outside counsel; and Joe Wiscovitch, a consultant to the Giuliani campaign committee whose public relations firm won two annual retainers at CUNY totaling $96,000 a year.
In addition, Manfred Ohrenstein, the former Democratic leader of the state senate, was placed on the Baruch College payroll as a $4000-a-month consultant in October 1999. Ohrenstein, who was appointed by Giuliani to a task force investigating CUNY, is a lobbyist representing clients before city and state government. His biggest clients for years have been several state wine businesses, including the Millbrook Winery, owned by former Giuliani deputy mayor John Dyson. Many of these political hires were never put before the full board.
Within the last couple of weeks, Wiscovitch and Ohrenstein were cut from the payroll. Neither consultant had ever been required to submit detailed billings, and it is unclear what either did. Both Badillo and Wiscovitch told the Voice Wiscovitch was hired to get stories about CUNY in Hispanic media, but Gerson Borrero, the editor of El Diario and a leading commentator on Latino radio, said Wiscovitch never pitched any CUNY story to him. “I talk to Joe all the time; he sends me releases from his clients frequently. I just had a two-hour breakfast with him a few months ago, and I never even knew he represented CUNY,” Borrero said.
Not only was Wiscovitch paid as a consultant to Giuliani’s 1997 reelection committee, he was slated to be hired by the senate campaign last year. “I was planning to be part of his team. I was with Rudy the night before he decided to pull out of the race,” he said. Wiscovitch, who specializes in appeals to Latino voters, recalls going to Giuliani’s final senate appearance with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and sitting between Joe Lhota and Tony Coles, another deputy mayor. After Giuliani pulled out, Wiscovitch was retained by Rick Lazio.
Stan Altman, the head of the Baruch School of Public Affairs, praised Ohrenstein for helping him put together a critical funding proposal, but said the ex-senator only worked with him for two weeks. He has been paid approximately $70,000. A longtime West Side liberal, Ohrenstein now frequents Republican fundraisers, including the recent South Street Seaport extravaganza for Pataki.
Badillo, who began fundraising for a mayoral race a couple of months after he assumed his CUNY position, appears to have already violated a state ethics ruling. The ethics commission issued an advisory opinion in 1998 that it said “should be viewed as a guide to those State officers and employees who choose to participate in political activities.” The decision said state officers “may not solicit funds from subordinates” or “any individual or business entity” that does business with the university, according to this ruling. The statute this opinion rests on does not technically apply to CUNY, which had to adopt its own code of conduct for trustees. But the CUNY code is largely indistinguishable from the requirements of the statute.
While Badillo has only been able to raise $100,000—all of which he’s already spent—his committee did report contributions from several CUNY employees, including the president of Hostos College. Badillo now says that he will return employee contributions, which the ethics opinion says are “strictly forbidden” under civil service law. An earlier ethics decision—issued in July 1992—prohibited a state employee from running for city council, saying his campaign “would create at least an appearance of a conflict of interest.” Unlike Badillo, the employee, who negotiated leases for a state agency, was not even in a policy-making position.
Ironically, Badillo wound up embroiled in a legal issue with the city’s Campaign Finance Board over his mayoral committee’s deficient filings and was denied any matching money. Mandelker, who represented Badillo when he ran for comptroller on Giuliani’s ticket in 1993, wrote a letter on Badillo’s behalf to the CFB opposing the penalty. Mandelker, who is also counsel to the State Republican Committee, has represented CUNY in three major lawsuits and continues to serve as a special counsel.
Badillo, who may challenge billionaire Michael Bloomberg for the GOP nomination, may also have been on the CUNY board longer than the legal limit. The CUNY statute sets a two-term limit, and Badillo is in his fourth term, just reappointed last summer. He has twice been named to serve out the partial terms of members who stepped down, but under the public officers’ law, those abbreviated terms would still count. Other members have also sidestepped this barrier over the years, but Badillo is the first to attempt to run for a major public office while chairing the board.
Research: Robbie Chaplick, Jesse Goldstein, Anna Lemond, Laurence Pantin, Theodore Ross
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2001