Twas the night before Christmas four years ago when outgoing mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut an unusual agreement with his own government. Instead of handing his official City Hall papers to the municipal archives, as most mayors do when they leave office, he wanted to transfer the files to his 18-day-old Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Leadership.
Citing the papers’ “great historical significance,” the agreement said the Giuliani Center was supposed to “arrange, describe, conserve and create a guide” for the documents, which “will ultimately be permanently maintained at a site to be determined.” But as the Voice‘s Wayne Barrett exposed in early 2002, the deal also appeared to give Giuliani broad powers to block public disclosure of any document in which he had a “personal interest.” The deal touched off a furor, with archivists and the state’s freedom of information watchdog crying foul. City Hall and Giuliani ended up agreeing to a plan where the city was supposed to get all the papers back within three years.
Now, almost a full mayoral term later, the papers are back in the city’s hands. Well, about 90 percent of them are, with the rest expected in six months to a year, according to Department of Records deputy commissioner Kenneth Cobb. They’re in hundreds of microfilm rolls occupying five sliding vertical cabinets in the municipal archives located in the Surrogate’s Court building on Chambers Street, in a room where the documents of William O’Dwyer, Abe Beame, and other chief executives have also gone to their eternal rest.
The difference between Rudy and his neighbors in the microfilm racks is that while America’s Mayor is out of office, Giuliani is not yet history. For one thing, Giuliani’s political career might merely be at halftime, with a shot at the White House still to come. For another, questions about his actions as mayor are still immediate. Some 9-11 family members want answers about the city’s emergency preparedness that day. The city is defending several federal lawsuits concerning Giuliani’s actions on children’s services, arrests of artists, a police shooting, and other topics.
And a state court hearing on a freedom of information request concerning both Bloomberg- and Giuliani-era files was due to occur this week, but got delayed pending a possible settlement.
According to the municipal archives’ guidebook to the Giuliani files, they include things like general correspondence from the mayor’s tenure: Box 34, folder 767, holds a letter “from Gene Spence, Republican candidate for governor in Nebraska, asking RWG to appear on his behalf.” There are also press digests, press releases, greeting cards, and get-well cards—in particular, a lot of material related to Giuliani’s bout with prostate cancer. Listings under “mayoral research department” cover stuff like CompStat, the threatened transit strike in 1999, “Dinkins Campaign Crime,” and TWA Flight 800; one roll is devoted just to Joerg Haider—the controversial right-wing Austrian pol—and Al Sharpton.
The mayor’s daily schedule is there, including both his public events and appointments. The level of detail, however, is uneven. We know that Jack Welch joined the mayor at a performance by Paul Anka in Florida on March 10, 2001, hosted by Donald Trump. We also know that on January 14 of that year the mayor stopped by Engine 92 in the Bronx to offer condolences for a firefighter lost on duty. But then there are lots of listings of other “meetings” with no indication of who was there or what was discussed.
Most of the files are labeled according to which deputy mayor produced them, and there are surprising differences in volume. Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington’s files from 1996 to 2001 comprise 43 rolls. Peter Powers, deputy mayor from 1994 to 1996, has 53. But Tony Carbonetti, chief of staff from 1999 through 2001, only has three rolls so far. Richard Lieberman, head of the archives at LaGuardia Community College, says those sorts of disparities are common. “What you’re dealing with,” he notes, “is the guy who uses the phone versus the guy who loves the pen.”
Plus, size isn’t everything. In Carbonetti’s files, there are gems like:
The results of a poll Giuliani apparently commissioned about a bid to change the city charter. The date and author of the poll aren’t revealed, but the advice is clear: The mayor couldn’t win if he tried to change mayoral succession rules without proposing other reforms. “In plain English,” it read, “if Mark Green and The New York Times rip you every day, you need the package to survive.”
A May 22, 2001, memo to Donna Han-over and the city’s protocol commissioner, Irene Halligan, in which Carbonetti writes, “In light of the quite public parting of the ways between Donna Hanover and the mayor, it is obviously disingenuous and inappropriate for Donna Hanover to continue to act as First Lady or in any other way as a representative of the mayor.”
The file on council Intro. 879, which the mayor hoped to defeat. One sheet counts votes: likely yeas or nays and leaners. Next to one councilperson’s name is the notation, “husband’s job opportunity.” A second page lists all the great things that the mayor had done for another councilmember whose vote
Carbonetti was hoping to swing.
Back in early 2002, suspicion was that Rudy Giuliani was trying to bury some skeletons. Not that he’d be the only one to try it: Howard Dean sealed his gubernatorial records before he ran for president. But Giuliani had a reputation for secrecy. Amid the uproar, the City Council considered trying to wrest the files back, but Bloomberg’s law department said it couldn’t. Eventually, the council approved a measure preventing future mayors from doing what Giuliani did.
Four years later, the furor is gone. Many critics of the records deal have stopped following the archives story. And now the records are back. The obvious question is: Why did Giuliani take them in the first place?
Cobb says Giuliani’s archivists did exactly what the city archives would have done, only faster; his office has yet to process all of David Dinkins’s papers. That’s partly because of resource limits, and also because historians usually wait about a generation before delving into the documents of an ex-mayor.
Of course, interest might come sooner for would-be candidate Rudy. So Cobb says the staff of the municipal archives is working on a more user-friendly way to access the material, including possibly putting the digital copies produced by the Giuliani Center on the Web.
The idea’s been floated before. In late 2003, former deputy mayor Tony Coles told the New York Post that “all the documents will be available on the Web in a way that’s never been done before.” There was also talk of gathering $20 million in donations and establishing a research center at a local university. Former mayors often donate their papers to colleges. The archive that Lie- berman runs at LaGuardia College handles documents not only from LaGuardia but also Beame, Robert Wagner, and Ed Koch. Dinkins’s material was donated to Columbia (where staff tells the Voice that the processing of those papers is stalled).
It’s unclear if the efforts to create a public center or a website for Giuliani’s materials have gone anywhere. Calls to the phone number listed on the Giuliani Center’s tax returns, the attorney representing the mayor in the FOIL action due in court this week, and Giuliani’s consulting group Giuliani Partners were not returned by press time.
In the three tax years in which it has filed, the center has raised about $1.5 million. But it has spent more than that and was $144,932 in the hole at the end of 2004. Almost a million bucks went to Winthrop, the center’s archivists. Most of the rest was paid to the Fortress—the secure storage facility in Long Island City where the files went.
“I think what Giuliani and his colleagues discovered was how expensive it is to conserve and index a collection,” says Lieberman. “The world of archives is labor-intensive. There are no shortcuts.”
Cobb says he’s “100 percent confident” that he’ll get everything that left the city’s hands. “We’re dependent very much on what their staff do. We just take what’s left when they leave,” Cobb says, but adds: “People that create [these records] are not idiots. They don’t leave smoking gun papers in files because they know they are going to be in the public domain eventually anyway.”
But NYPIRG’s Gene Russianoff says, “There’s always going to be a cloud over these records because there was a break in the chain of custody. It is very hard to know about records that aren’t there.”