New York

Hijacking History


Out in Long Island City, near the Queensboro Bridge and just off the East River, is a block-like, two-story, concrete structure called the Fortress. Located in an industrial area peppered with abandoned factories, the Fortress describes itself as “the leading museum quality storage and service company in the world,” chosen by “personal collectors and corporations as a guardian for their precious objects.”

Customers pay to store antiques, fine arts, and other collectibles in 100- to 4000-square-foot vaults that are both climate-controlled and protected by “state-of-the-art” electronic security systems, including motion sensors in every wall. With facilities in three cities and an 18-year history, Fortress’s packing, transport, storage, and management have earned it, according to the company’s brochures, “the coveted Highly Protected Risk (HPR) rating from the worldwide insurance industry.”

Inside the Fortress are the records of the eight years of Rudy Giuliani’s City Hall, transferred there at the end of December. Included are the ex-mayor’s appointment books, cabinet meeting audiotapes, e-mails, telephone logs, advance and briefing memos, correspondence, transition materials, and private schedules, as well as his departmental, travel, event, subject, and Gracie Mansion files. In addition to the mayor’s records, those of his chief of staff and every deputy mayor, together with their chiefs of staff, have all been secured at the warehouse, which charges $3430 per month for the use of 1000 square feet.

Even Giuliani’s “World Trade Center files” and “Millennium Project files,” together with 6000 files of photographs, 1000 audiotapes, and 15,000 videotapes, are stored there. So are “200-250 feet of gifts such as plaques, awards, personalized clothing, and other items presented to the mayor and deputy mayors, as well as World Trade Center-related materials.”

Virtually everything at the Fortress is public property, hijacked by the mayor in a secret agreement signed by George Rios, the city records commissioner he appointed. The agreement was executed amid a flourish of stadium and movie studio transactions for friends—on December 24, one of the final, busy days of an administration that departed with just as little regard for the law as when it governed. The 12-page contract was also signed by lawyer Saul Cohen, a longtime friend of Giuliani’s, who lists himself as the president of the Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs Inc., the institute incorporated on December 6 that now controls these records. The Voice obtained a copy of the agreement under the freedom-of-information laws after the Daily News reported the records transfer early this month.

Calling the “official papers” of Giuliani a matter of “great historical significance” and “unique value,” the agreement acknowledges that “the documents are the property of the City” and that “under the City Charter,” the Department of Records “is ultimately responsible for the preservation and organization” of these materials. Yet the contract conveys the records to a Giuliani nonprofit so new it has no board, no director, no site, and no identifiable archivist, permitting the center to catalog, organize, and “permanently” maintain them.

The purpose of the arrangement, according to the preamble of the contract, is to “properly archive the Documents” so they “may be conveniently available for scholarly research and general public access,” a goal the city records department managed to achieve on its own for every other mayor. Indeed, Chapter 49 of the City Charter requires that “records retained for historical or research purposes be transferred, upon the request of the commissioner of records, to the municipal archives for permanent custody.”

Citing that and other provisions, Idilio Gracia-Peña, who was the agency’s archive director for 12 years before serving as commissioner from 1990 to 1994, said he found the Giuliani actions “disturbing” and inconsistent with the charter. “Commissioners have to take orders from the mayor,” said Gracia-Peña, a professor at Hunter College. “But I wouldn’t have done that one myself. I would say it’s time for me to go. Rios didn’t, and I don’t understand that.”

Ann Phillips, the head of the New York Archival Society, said she was “very distressed” about the Giuliani deal. “Who’s to say he won’t censor the papers, that he won’t destroy some of them?” she asked. The contract provides that the city’s “prior written approval” is necessary before the center destroys any documents, but Phillips and Gracia-Peña point out that without any on-site records-department supervision of the screening of the documents, shredding “is a possibility.”

“Rios should’ve said no,” echoes Phillips, who once chaired the city’s 15-member Archives, Reference, and Research Advisory Board. “He obviously was appointed by the fellow and wanted to please him.” Vowing to “make every effort possible to get the papers back,” Phillips said her organization would petition Mayor Michael Bloomberg and possibly “test the issue through legal means.”

Even John Manbeck, who was appointed by Giuliani to chair the same board, said his group planned a February 13 meeting to discuss what he said was a “totally unprecedented” deal that “disturbed” them. A former Brooklyn borough historian and college professor, Manbeck said the arrangement “came as a complete surprise to me, the advisory staff, the municipal archives, and the new commissioner,” adding that the records were “probably moved in the middle of the night.” Manbeck said that Brian Andersson, the assistant commissioner under Rios who was named by Bloomberg to take over the agency, was contacted around January 2 about the move—after it occurred. Andersson, who refused to talk to the Voice, then notified the Advisory Board.

“It is a signed agreement, but that does not make it a legal document,” said Manbeck. “I would think as a lawyer that Giuliani would have done it legally.” Gracia-Peña pointed out, for example, that Ed Koch managed to get many of his records into an archive at La Guardia College legally. “The administration sent a note, asking that the files be transferred directly to La Guardia. I said no, but I supervised the microfilming and copying” of the Koch records, ultimately sending “personal” originals and “copies of the official papers” to the college. “My credo was that any records of government belong to the government. Make sure they’re not destroyed.”

Gracia-Peña said that in the past when administrations changed, he and his staff “physically went to the mayor’s office and collected the papers, packing and sorting them ourselves.”

In addition to charter violations, the deal allows private citizen Giuliani to screen the documents and gives him veto power over what to make public, an apparent violation of state freedom-of-information laws (FOIL). “Whenever Rudolph W. Giuliani has a personal interest or right in a Document separate and apart from the interests and rights of the City,” the contract says, “his approval shall be required before any such document may be released or disclosed to the public.”

Indeed, in the first clause of its first article, the agreement even grants the center a role in determining the availability of documents without a claimed Giuliani “personal interest.” It permits the center to “determine” if any record “is not a public document,” requiring Giuliani to contact the city about any records it decides are not public. “The Parties shall reach a determination as to the proper treatment of such a document,” the clause concludes, implying that unless both agree it’s a public document, it will not be released.

Robert Freeman, the director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, cited three court decisions countering the terms of the Giuliani deal, including a unanimous Court of Appeals ruling that reversed a decision protecting the so-called “personal” papers of former Albany mayor Erastus Corning. Finding that any archival records maintained by a government agency are public, the court blasted “an unreviewable prescreening of documents” by a public agency—much less a private individual—as creating the opportunity for “an uncooperative and obdurate” official “to block an entirely legitimate FOIL request.” The decision also found that documents need not “evince some governmental purpose” to be covered by information laws.

“Rudy Giuliani’s feelings about what’s public don’t matter,” said Freeman when confronted with a copy of the mayor’s records contract. “The law—not a private party—determines what’s public. An individual has no legal standing in terms of requiring or prohibiting disclosure.” Freeman, who has run the office for almost three decades, said he “does not know of any precedent” for the Giuliani contract in state history.

Pointing out that the city charter obligates the records department to “prepare retention schedules for papers, mandating that they can’t be disposed of until certain time periods are reached,” Freeman said, “We can’t shred documents because we don’t want them around anymore.” The Giuliani deal, Freeman added, “tends to represent” the department’s “relinquishing of its authority.”

Rudy Giuliani has spent a lifetime dictating his own legend. When he was U.S. attorney in Manhattan, he abruptly ended the longtime practice of publishing annual reports, making reporters and others utterly dependent on his version of how productive the office was. And now, while peddling the story of his mayoralty for millions to publishers and moviemakers, he’s gained exclusive control over a public record ordinarily available to all.

Gabe Pressman, the city’s greatest television newsman, did an op-ed piece in the Times last week celebrating Bloomberg’s destruction of Giuliani’s eight-year stonewall. As accurate as this piece may prove to be about Bloomberg, it failed to note that the wall around Giuliani’s public life has only relocated to a fortress in Queens. Giuliani does not trust the Bloomberg administration to resist FOIL requests for him, nor does he trust the charter to safeguard his myth. He will shape it himself for profit, laundering the people’s papers through his own cadre of mercenaries and true believers, leaving for the public eye only what he sees fit.

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