News & Politics

Wayne Barrett: Plaxico, You Should Have Worked for Bloomberg

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Too bad for Plaxico Burress that he didn’t work for the Bloomberg administration. The city would have treated him better than the Giants did, even if he had been busted on the same gun charges that so outraged the mayor.

The city quietly spends more than a billion dollars a year financing welfare funds run by 116 municipal unions. Many of those unions use that money for legal defense funds that cover the costs of virtually any criminal case brought against city employees, their spouses or dependents, or even retirees. The city’s money subsidizes 24-hour answering services run by unions, and the city also pays as unions post bail and have lawyers on call to rush to the scene of an arrest or to an arraignment, even sometimes continuing representation after conviction and all the way up the appeals chain.

Michael Skelly, a spokesman for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, tells the Voice that COBA’s 100-percent city-financed fund “would have represented” Burress if he was a member or a dependent and was charged with precisely the same crimes.

“Allegations are allegations,” says Skelly, though his is one of the
funds that also subsidizes appeals. “But it’s insulting for municipal
workers to be compared to multi-millionaire football players.” Of
course, the comparison is not between Burress and city employees, but
between Bloomberg’s over-the-top rancor against one and subsidy of the
other.

Indeed, shortly after COBA president Norman Seabrook led a labor
coalition backing Bloomberg’s term limits extension in October, the
mayor gave the union a new contract with eight percent raises and an
additional $100-per-member contribution to the welfare fund that pays
these legal fees. Seabrook told the Voice a couple years back that the union made 663 criminal court appearances in one year for people covered by its contract.

The Social Service Employees Union, otherwise known as Local 371, which
represents thousands of welfare workers, posts on its website news
about just how generous its legal fund is. It will only handle “two
criminal matters each calendar year” for any member or dependent, and
it won’t cover the costs of a Class A felony, drawing the line at
murder (Burress was charged with a Class C and Class D felony, well
within the union’s guidelines).

In all cases as high as Class B felonies, the union will send a lawyer
“when the member requests representation for an interrogation before
any law enforcement agency” and will post bail of up to $2,500 for any
member and $1,500 for any spouse or eligible dependent. Its 24-hour
answering service, which Skelly said COBA also maintains, “is provided
so that a panel attorney may be reached as quickly as possible,” the
website says, “to protect the rights of a member or eligible dependent
arrested in a non-work situation.” The Giants did none of this for
their gun-toting star, who had to fend for himself in the early hours
of the morning a couple of weeks ago.

A high-ranking assistant at the office of Manhattan District
Attorney Robert Morgenthau confirmed that city-financed union welfare
funds regularly cover the legal costs of a wide variety of workers
charged with crimes — “from firefighters to police officers to many
others.”

Asked if he could cite any specific instances of the city subsidizing
an employee charged with the gun possession charges facing Super Bowler
Burress, he said that the office doesn’t routinely examine who’s paying
the defense bill in individual cases, but that the way these funds work
would likely have resulted in such examples.

Bloomberg was incensed by the scope of these city-supported funds in
his first couple of years as mayor and tried to get a handle on them,
suggesting that the city take over the funds, rather than pay the
administrative costs of more than a hundred different union funds.

But when Bloomberg made his peace with labor prior to his 2005
re-election campaign, he stopped challenging these practices, which are
almost unique to New York, and began awarding routine per-member
increases in the subsidies in one contract after another. The city now
pays hundreds of millions more than it did when Bloomberg took office.

The hypocrisy of Bloomberg’s fusillade at Burress doesn’t end there, though. Jim Dwyer has already pointed out in the Times
that, though the mayor declared that Burress should do the full
three-and-a-half-year sentence required under a gun possession law the
mayor championed, ninety percent of the ordinary folks charged under
that statute bargain it down and serve far less time. And what could be
more hypocritical than the contrast of Bloomberg’s Burress blasts and
his announced intention to attend a party celebrating Staten Island’s
most famous DUI, Congressman Vito Fossella.

Bloomberg went so far as to taunt the press that criticized his Burress
comments, declaring on his radio show: “Let the sports reporters who
don’t like this interview the parents of the 14-year-old kid,” Mario
Smith, who was shot by an illegal gun last week. Well, guess what,
Mayor Mike, more than 2,000 kids each year, 14 and younger, die at the
hands of a drunk driver. Maybe Bloomberg should talk to the parents of
one of them.

On the eve of Fossella’s sentencing in the DUI case, Bloomberg’s
spokesman explained that the mayor was attending his party because
Fossella, who is still a power in Staten Island, “has been a supporter
and ally.” City Councilman Vincent Ignizio, the former GOP chair on the
island, observed: “The mayor’s doing the right thing by a friend, as
well as obviously setting his sights on his re-election.”

Fossella lost his House seat when it was revealed that he was arrested
on his way to visiting a second family, including mistress and child,
that he harbored in Virginia. When the bust was announced in May,
Bloomberg said: “Thank God nobody was hurt and, you know, I’ll let that
go through the courts.” The mayor said “hopefully he’ll work this out.”
His comments on Burress — who hurt no one but himself — were a world
apart. “You carry a loaded gun, you go the slammer for three and a half years,” he declared, slamming the Giants and the hospital
and everyone but the pigskin itself.


Additional research by Jana Kasperkevic.

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