Today, I am suing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Last year, Bloomberg baffled New Yorkers when he appointed publishing executive Cathie Black to be the city’s next schools chancellor. Black was an unpopular choice, and for months, responses to her appointment ran the gamut of ridicule, confusion, and outrage.
Black’s tenure came to an abrupt end in April, when the mayor asked her to step down from the post after just three months on the job. New Yorkers who opposed her appointment were vindicated, but the question remained: What led the mayor to make such a choice?
When he first appointed Black, Bloomberg insisted he’d cast a wide net to find the right fit. “I did have a public search, and I picked the best person,” he said.
But critics responded with skepticism, and the New York Times‘ City Room blog added a healthy dose of snark when it begged anyone who was considered for the job, or even merely heard about it, to come forward.
No one did.
At the time, I was reporting for Runnin’ Scared, and in November, I filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the mayor’s office to ferret out more details about the “public search” that resulted in Black’s appointment. I figured the modern conveniences of e-mail meant there was a decent chance I would find a digital trail leading to Black’s nomination.
So on November 19, I asked City Hall for any e-mails between the mayor’s office and Black (who, at the time, was still employed at Hearst Magazines). E-mails by city officials are, after all, presumptively public records under New York’s FOIL.
The mayor’s office dragged its feet (which is not particularly unusual in the case of public records requests, although a spokesman told me for a separate story that Bloomberg’s office received only 38 FOIL requests last year. I guess New York City doesn’t have enough lawyers or something). On January 13, a city lawyer wrote that he was denying my request.
The e-mails, he argued, were privileged, internal documents and releasing them would violate someone’s (although nobody said whose) privacy. Bullshit.
I appealed the decision, and was blocked again.
By then, I’d left the Village Voice for a reporting stint with the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica and dropped the story until late February, when a friend of mine referred my case to the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School. In March, one of the clinic’s students wrote me back, and we began working together to draft today’s petition.
The case is being handled by Elizabeth Wolstein, a partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who used to supervise appellate litigation for the United States in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The petition will be filed in Manhattan Supreme Court later this afternoon, after which the city will have 20 days to respond.
We’ll keep you posted.
Sergio Hernandez is a freelance journalist in New York City. He is currently a reporter for ProPublica, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit, investigative newsroom. Previously, he was a reporting intern for the Village Voice‘s Runnin’ Scared blog and a contributing reporter for Gawker.com.