District 1 Council Race: The Skinny on Challenger Pete Gleason


This article was reported and written by Wayne Barrett and Georgia Bobley.

In the glut of City Council races this season, one candidate stands above the crowd of unknowns, ex-firefighter Peter Gleason, who’s challenging downtown incumbent Alan Gerson. Gleason has magically emerged from the shadows as a serious contender though his career so far has been, to put it kindly, shadowy.

Gleason ran in 2003 for the same District 1 seat and got walloped, but this time, he’s garnered the Downtown Independent Democrats’ endorsement and is pressing a legal challenge against Gerson for picayune cover-sheet failings that threaten two-termer Gerson’s ability to even appear on the September 15 ballot. In a five-candidate field, Gerson, Gleason and housing activist Margaret Chin are the frontrunners.

The 46-year-old Gleason’s big claim to fame is that he was a firefighter at Ladder Company 11 in the district for 10 years, during which he says he visited 90 percent of the buildings in the district, “checking out conditions or responding to calls.” He’s boasted that this service enabled him to “know the district well,” establishing his connections to a neighborhood he only moved into two years before he first ran to represent it.

But a Voice review of his FDNY records reveals that he was an active firefighter in the district for only a bit more than three years and that his department record is riddled with long stretches of time when he was either on leave or light duty, far away from the Lower East Side firehouse that he cites as the nexus of his relationship to the community.

His other career as a lawyer, celebrated on his campaign website, is similarly mysterious. He started law school in September 1995, but took four and a half years to graduate, three years to pass the bar and another year to get admitted to practice, which finally happened in 2004. Other than a series of sometimes bizarre cases brought either by him or a small law firm he is associated with to this day — once attempting to overturn his own failing grade in a law school class, and another time when he tripped over a hose in a Home Depot store — he has a scant legal history.

Gleason’s campaign site contains two pictures of him in full firefighter regalia on 9/11, though he’d actually left the department five years earlier. By the time Gleason retired on a full disability pension in November 1996 (while in his second year at Queens Law School), he had already taken nearly 49 months of paid medical leave or light-duty assignments, cutting short his FDNY career by over four years. He did another six months as a Coast Guard reservist working on the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez. He also served a year and half at a Bronx firehouse before he came to the Lower East Side, as well as another nine months when he worked as a fire marshal (this is in addition to the 17 months that he was on light duty as a marshal, which involves citywide, administrative, duties).

In fact, Gleason’s only year of uninterrupted active duty in the neighborhood was his first, 1988, when he and his squad won a departmental citation for fighting an Avenue C fire. He told the Voice in an extended interview that he didn’t “doubt the numbers” obtained by the Voice, complaining that “someone has released private medical records from the FDNY.” He likened himself to Derek Jeter and said that it would be ridiculous if, when the Yankee captain is up for the Hall of Fame, someone were to say “you missed 300 ball games” due to injuries and they were then “going to deduct that from Jeter’s plaque in the Hall of Fame.” (Actually, Hall of Famers are credited only for games played, not years on the disabled list).

The point of this chronology is to challenge Gleason’s claimed FDNY connection to the district, not to question his actual service. There is no way to establish that his repeated medical claims weren’t fully justified, but his personnel history does raise a number of questions. He says he dislocated his right shoulder three times, leading to two long medical leaves and one light-duty stint. He was apparently healthy enough to trek to Alaska and “oversee” — as he put it — the Valdez cleanup until March 1990. But a month after returning to the FDNY, he went on the second of his shoulder medical leaves, this time for six months (he had returned from the first a few months before he went to Alaska in 1989).

In February 1993, Gleason was on light duty, again due to a shoulder injury, assigned to the department’s health bureau and driving nurses to firehouses to administer hepatitis shots to firefighters when his department vehicle broke down on the Bruckner Expressway and a tractor-trailer rear-ended it as he and a nurse sat in the vehicle waiting for help. He spent a week in two hospitals, according to court records, and was discharged after “bed rest” and an inconclusive CAT scan. Eight months later, a personal physician decided he needed disc surgery on his back. After the accident, he never went back to the firehouse in the district — he’d already been on nurse-driving duty since late 1992).

He did return to duty in September 1994, and became a fire marshal. But, complaining of recurring back pain, he was placed on light duty for extended periods twice, including from virtually the moment he began law school in 1995 until his retirement. When he left the department three and half years after the accident, he claimed he was still suffering from back pain and was granted a three-quarters pension for life. He also sued the trucking company whose tractor-trailer hit him and won a substantial insurance settlement. He won’t reveal the terms, but he does concede that “some of the proceeds” from the settlement permitted him to begin buying and flipping co-op and condo apartments in Queens and Manhattan.

By his own count, he made almost a million-dollar profit on the sale of two East 80th Street apartments in 2007, minus taxes, which he complained about bitterly in a Voice interview. Between the settlement and the disability pension, the accident, as painful as it might have been, was the biggest payday of his life.

Gleason did wind up suing the co-op board in Queens where he bought his first apartment — in 1997 — alleging that the board was preventing him from selling one of the two apartments he bought there by telling a potential buyer that subletting was no longer permitted. The case was tossed, and he sold the apartment anyway.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Louis York dismissed another 1997 case that Gleason brought against his law school, alleging that a professor flunked him because she heard he’d made an anti-feminist remark in another class the semester earlier. The judge’s decision mocked some of Gleason’s contentions, particularly the notion that the professor “was able to memorize” his anonymous exam number. When the Voice pressed him about any regrets he might have about bringing this action, Gleason said, “I love that case.” He pointed out that the judge and the law school dean “came out of the same political club,” insisting that even though he was pointing out this relationship, he wasn’t suggesting a fix. He brought the Home Depot case in 2000 and, though the court records say there was zero payment in the case, Gleason says the store gave him $7,500 for a broken nose.

He also represented himself in a custody case with an ex-girlfriend who gave birth to a child he fathered. He has since made peace with the mother of his son, but she charged him in December 2000 with harassing behavior, including showing up at her parents’ house (where she was staying) “for five hours a day” and refusing to leave, calling the child “pet names” instead of acknowledging his real name, and claiming that she had “assaulted him with [her] foot” (saying he was going to have her arrested for it). Alternating between accepting and denying paternity, Gleason never rebutted these charges, telling the Voice, though, that he does not concede that they are true.

Levine and Gilbert, a Christopher Street firm that now only lists three lawyers, represented Gleason in the truck company lawsuit and some of these other actions. A Gleason campaign aide suggested that the Voice get the details about Gleason’s association with the firm from David Gilbert, one of the name partners. At first, Gilbert told us that Gleason had worked there since the 1990s, but when told that he didn’t pass the bar until 2003, Gilbert said he might’ve confused him with someone else. He called back with a starting date of November 2003, saying Gleason was an associate with the firm, but that date, too, precedes Gleason’s license to practice in 2004.

Asked to specify any cases where Gleason has been the attorney of record since 2004, Gleason and a campaign aide offered to do so, but never sent the list to the Voice. Gilbert said Gleason “would never be attorney of record” because he didn’t “carry his own caseload.” Gilbert said Gleason worked at the firm from 2003 to 2005, when he took a leave for reasons Gilbert could not recall. He returned for five months in 2006 and has been “of counsel” since then, which means he’s not employed directly by the firm but works there. “He’s become a lot more focused on pro bono work, for people that he meets in the community,” Gilbert explained.

The only case the Voice could find that listed him as the attorney of record was his current representation of a New York Post reporter who’s suing Con Ed over an electrical accident that killed her dog. Gleason told the Voice that he has worked on several personal injury and false arrest matters, though he said that in the court files “they might be put under the mantra of Levine & Gilbert” rather than his name. He stresses this sketchy legal career as a qualification for council on the website, telling the Voice he would not have run in 2003 if he hadn’t passed the bar earlier that year (he’d flunked it, by his own admission, before).

Gleason is positioning himself in the race against Gerson as a reformer taking on an entrenched machine, linking Gerson to Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who also represents the district. But instead of drawing a sharp contrast on reforms Gerson supposedly resists, Gleason has focused on a series of technical violations in a few pages of petitions submitted by Silver’s club on Gerson, and a mistake made by the printer about Gerson’s address on those same few petitions and the number of volumes listed on the cover sheet. While Gleason’s lawsuit against the petitions has uncovered the possible improper use of workers in publicly subsidized and Silver-connected programs to collect petitions, Gleason has presented no evidence that suggests that Gerson had any knowledge of these activities.

Press reports indicate that Silver and Gerson combined to give millions to the group the United Jewish Council of the East Side, which is as technically true as saying that Mike Bloomberg and his girlfriend Diana Taylor are worth billions. The fine print of the same stories reveals that Silver has given millions to the group and Gerson gave $8,000 in each of the last two years. Bill Thompson and other Democrats were on these petitions as well and no one is suggesting that they knew anything about how UJC was using staff to obtain them. Asked if the Gleason campaign has any evidence that Gerson was aware of how UJC was apparently gathering signatures, his communications director, Paul Newell, said: “No.”

Research credit: Jane C. Timm, Grace Smith