Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration deliberately blocked access to documents during the Department of Investigation probe into the sale of Rivington House, a Lower East Side AIDS treatment facility sold earlier this year to luxury condo developers, according to new evidence that surfaced yesterday.
By mayoral executive order, the DOI, which serves as the city’s watchdog, is supposed to be given free access to all city documents, emails and computers. But the Law Department demanded that all requests for the Rivington House investigation be routed through them—and then heavily redacted pages marking them “not relevant” or confidential under “deliberative process.” The mayor’s office claimed they had “provided every single document and every single interview” that was relevant, an assertion that fell apart after the DOI threatened to sue.
A memo handed over by the city Law Department yesterday contains a pros-and-cons list regarding the building’s sale. The document includes columns outlining the benefits and drawbacks to allowing the private sale versus converting the space to affordable housing or maintaining its use as an AIDS hospice.
The memo lists no legal benefits to allowing the sale—that box is marked “not applicable”—and acknowledges that the revenue generated from a sale wouldn’t come close to the cost of purchasing a new building to replace the nursing home (Mayor de Blasio has pledged $16 million for a replacement facility in the Lower East Side. The old building was worth about $40 million, according to the memo.)
It also refers to a plan to brief First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris on the matter, and includes a clear recommendation against the sale in favor of an affordable housing plan.
The release of the memo, dated July 29, 2015, was first reported by The Daily News. Corporation counsel Zachary Carter, who marked it “deliberative process,” citing confidentiality concerns, kept the information from investigators, effectively covering up evidence of how much City Hall knew about the plan.
The DOI was also granted access to city computers and thousands of other documents, a move that came only after DOI commissioner Mark Peters authorized the department to sue the Law Department for access last week. The DOI wrote in its recent report that because of the Law Department’s obstruction it was “unclear what Rivington-related information remains on the City Hall servers and computers.”
“The Law Department’s compliance reaffirms the statutory powers of DOI as set out in [the executive order] and its access to City records,” said Peters. “I am pleased that the Law Department decided to comply with the law. And, I am proud of the DOI staff who doggedly pursued access to these records so DOI can fully investigate the matter at hand.”
Village Care sold Rivington House to for-profit healthcare company Allure for $28 million in February of 2015. Allure then paid the city $16 million to lift the restrictive deeds, and later flipped the property to luxury condo developers for $116 million, sparking community outrage and local, state and federal fraud investigations.
Speaking at a Politico Breakfast Panel at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this morning, Mayor de Blasio called media coverage of the scandal “over-heated and way off the mark” and refused to answer questions about Rivington House afterwards. “This is probably bigger than Watergate,” he joked sarcastically.
Last week, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer asked the City Planning Commission to add deed restrictions to the city’s routine Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), in an attempt to better govern the removal of building deeds. The mayor’s office has proposed its own set of reforms but so far, nobody has been disciplined on the matter.
Paul Leonard, a spokesman for Councilmember Chin, who has advocated for the return of the building, said she’s still pushing for a City Council hearing, which was postponed to the fall. “This latest revelation is illuminating and she still thinks those people who were responsible for lifting this deed limitation and for obstructing information to the public should be held accountable,” said Leonard.