In some respects, November should have been the best of times for Mayor de Blasio.
A midterm landslide for Democrats in Congress provided an effective check on President Trump’s power, which conceivably could force him beginning in January to seek compromises that would work to the city’s advantage. And four years after the Mayor’s active efforts to swing control of the State Senate to Democrats went down in flames, the party gained eight seats in the upper house of the Legislature, giving it definitive control that figured to last for a while.
This meant a clear path for a number of key initiatives favored by the Mayor, perhaps none more than a meaningful extension of mayoral control of the city school system. Senate Republicans, using the majority provided to them by Simcha The Nominal Democrat Felder, had been able over the past couple of years to apply a kind of water torture under which extensions were granted in one-year drips.
Joke Had Turned Sour
This was intended as revenge against Mr. de Blasio for conspicuously campaigning in 2014 to make Republicans the minority party in the Senate. It was good for a laugh the first year they did it in 2016, but the joke got stale after that. For one thing, the contrast was glaring with the GOP Senators’ stance when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor and they initially agreed to seven years of school control, then granted a six-year extension that actually carried into the first two years of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.
It was hard to make the case that the discrepancy was based on the merits. This focused attention on the fact that even after he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, Mr. Bloomberg continued giving generously from his own pocket to help the GOP maintain its Senate majority. While Mr. de Blasio was not as friendly, financially or in spirit, there was no reason that he should have been. And if Republican Senate leaders had been honest about it, they would have admitted that his openly campaigning for Democrats outside the city had worked to their advantage, allowing them to stir voters’ resentment against Mr. Progressive himself rather than the Democrats actually opposing vulnerable GOP Senators in the suburbs and upstate.
It might also have seemed that Governor Cuomo, given his position somewhat above the fray—since Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan could not credibly accuse him of being too kind to the Mayor—should have intervened at some point to remind Republican Senators that it was important to give the public some confidence that lawmakers did not carry petty grievances in perpetuity. But Mr. Cuomo can nurse a grudge with the worst of them, and had he tried appealing to Mr. Flanagan’s better angels, the response might have been, “Look who’s talking.”
By Jan. 1, however, a large roadblock to Mr. de Blasio’s success in Albany will have been pushed to the side with both houses of the Legislature featuring solid Democratic majorities and the Governor shaken out of his ambivalence about that prospect by his own political needs.
Yet the Mayor still has the air of someone beset by tormentors, and the explanation is that he can’t get away from his past on multiple fronts.
The Housing Authority remains at the top of the list. He was elected in 2013 after a campaign in which he pledged to be more attentive to the needs of people he contended, with some justification, had been largely ignored by Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, among them the largely minority 400,000 tenants in the sprawling agency. During his nearly five years in office, the problems they confront in the way of services have gotten far more notice than they did over the previous two decades, but that hasn’t been much help to many of them, or to Mr. de Blasio.
He has pointed out that his administration stopped charging the HA for the police services that are provided by the NYPD. That savings, however, hasn’t come close to generating the kind of money needed to cope with the problems afflicting tenants, from long-delayed repairs and sporadic heat and hot water in the coldest months to the health hazards posed to young children exposed to lead-paint contamination in their apartments.
The Mayor has cited, with validity, the gradual withdrawal of the Federal Government from its past commitment to adequately funding public housing throughout the country, and the failure of his predecessors and state leaders to try to make up some of the difference. But that hasn’t obscured rampant failures on his watch to address problems until they reached moments of crisis, and even then the response has been found wanting.
On Wrong Side of Judge
One of his most-searing critics has been U.S. District Judge William Pauley, who three weeks ago rejected a consent agreement between the de Blasio administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan that would have placed the HA under the supervision of a Federal monitor and required the city to spend at least $1.2 billion more than additionally planned to address the lead-paint problems. He cited two primary concerns: that the language in the document was too vague to ensure concrete action, and Interim HA Chair Stanley Brezenoff’s reluctance to give the monitor a major role in operations, describing such a move as “a prescription for difficulty, if not disaster.”
The Judge noted that one successful way of reviving struggling public-housing agencies across the nation had been to place them under receivership, which would actually give an outsider far-greater control than was contemplated for a monitor. He also questioned how effective the money the city was committing to add to its HA spending could be when the agency has an estimated $32 billion in capital needs.
Five days after Judge Pauley shot down the agreement, Mr. de Blasio announced a plan to have 62,000 HA apartments renovated under a program using $13 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds that would allow the city to have buildings maintained by private property managers. He said conversations his administration had with HUD officials had been encouraging.
Asked at the press conference about Judge Pauley’s proposing that the HA be placed under a receivership—an idea he first floated in September—the Mayor said, “I for one believe that there is a better chance of the problems being solved with the leadership we have now and the structure we have now rather than a receivership.”
He didn’t mention that the person at the top of that leadership pyramid—himself—had chosen poorly in making Shola Olatoye his HA Chair, and then compounded his mistake by doggedly continuing to insist that she was “part of the solution” even after it was revealed that she had lied to HUD two years ago about lead-paint inspections that were never conducted, and then to the City Council around this time last year about the amount of training given to HA employees before they did a slipshod job of lead-paint abatement.
Shares Her Lying Habit
The Mayor’s defense had been that Ms. Olatoye was duped by lazy and dishonest subordinates in ranking positions at the HA, as if she weren’t ultimately responsible for rooting out the problems that were uncovered. He also resorted to lies, evasions and bits of demagoguery as the neglect came to the surface.
In January, Daily News investigative reporter Greg Smith cited a letter from the Department of Investigation stating that Ms. Olatoye had lied to the Council during the Dec. 5, 2017 hearing regarding her false certification to HUD about the phantom lead-paint inspections. DOI Commissioner Mark Peters had asked his staff to check into her claim at the hearing that the employees who did the lead-paint abatement work had the proper HUD certification, and they found that 85 of the 86 workers “denied ever receiving the HUD visual-assessment course and certificate.”
Asked about the letter by Mr. Smith, Ritchie Torres, the Councilman who during the December hearing had prodded Ms. Olatoye to get back to the Council if she subsequently realized any of her testimony had been inaccurate, said, “There are only two explanations: either she lied to the City Council or she left uncorrected a false statement to the City Council made under oath.”
The following day, Mr. de Blasio tried to bulldoze his way through an interview on Fox 5’s “Good Day New York” about the article. Regarding Ms. Olatoye’s continued deceit even after her misrepresentation to HUD had been exposed, he said, “You don’t know she lied. There’s an allegation.” In his mind, the fact that the charge came from his own Investigation Commissioner was irrelevant, because he had come to regard Mr. Peters, his campaign treasurer during his 2013 run for Mayor, as hostile to his interests.
He then dismissed Mr. Smith’s longtime exposure of both the problems with lead-paint contamination and Ms. Olatoye’s refusal to own up to the HA’s lackluster response, characterizing him as “one reporter who has an axe to grind putting out a story.” The fact that Mr. de Blasio was, to use a favorite word of his, “comfortable” maligning the integrity of a reporter who had done far more to expose government failures over several mayoral administrations than he himself had done while collecting a far-better salary as Public Advocate said far more about his character than it did about Mr. Smith.
A Lame Justification
When the Daily News reporter over the nine-plus months since then produced stories showing that Mr. de Blasio consistently understated the number of children age 6 and younger who had elevated levels of lead in their blood, Mr. de Blasio didn’t even try to offer a mealy-mouthed apology. Instead, he told reporters in mid-October that because there was no “single standard” for lead contamination, he had opted to pick the number of children whose development may have been affected by their exposure that was least likely to spark public outrage against his administration.
That explanation was enough to prompt questions about whether the Mayor was a secret admirer of President Trump’s ability to shrug off inconvenient facts that reflected poorly on him.
During the “Good Day New York” interview nearly 11 months ago, Mr. de Blasio attempted to share the blame with ex-Mayor Bloomberg, noting that the HA discontinued its lead-paint inspections during his predecessor’s final two years in office.
“It took us too long to figure that out,” he told interviewer Rosanna Scotto. But, he added, “You can’t walk in and wave a magic wand” and solve all the problems at the HA that languished, because cuts in Federal aid meant it “for years got no investment.”
But that neglect wasn’t a secret. Nor was Mr. Bloomberg’s inattentiveness to key aspects of city government during his final four years in office—something symbolized by his continued touting of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program as all that stood between the city and a return to its crime-ridden past, even after a sharp cutback in stops ordered by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly that was accompanied by a continued decrease in crime made clear that the program’s overuse had needlessly alienated the minority community whose interests Mr. de Blasio had promised to champion.
It was as if he hadn’t believed his own campaign rhetoric. A more-likely explanation was that the new Mayor focused on more-high-profile concerns, from keeping crime moving downward to launching an expanded pre-kindergarten program that from its outset emerged as one of the signature achievements of his administration.
Delusions of Grandeur
And, of course, the visions of political sugarplums that danced in Mr. de Blasio’s head, convincing him that he had a future in national politics. It was as if the negative impact four years ago of his campaigning for Democratic State Senate candidates outside the five boroughs—a territory that more closely resembled the nation in its ideological differences than New York City—made no impression on his view of his future prospects.
And so, after his fundraising efforts in the failed bid to bring about a Legislature in which both houses were under Democratic control, he continued using the fund he had set up to advance his political initiatives to build his national profile. Unfortunately, there is lasting residue from both those efforts that clings to him even after state and Federal prosecutors ended their probes of his activities in March 2017 without bringing charges despite conclusions that he had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. It was embodied last week by Jona Rechnitz on the witness stand in a 26th-floor Federal courtroom a short walk from City Hall.
During his second day of testimony Nov. 26 in the bribery trial of his former business partner, Jeremy Reichberg, and ex-NYPD Deputy Inspector James Grant, Mr. Rechnitz described how in 2013 and 2014 he and Mr. Reichberg raised more than $250,000 for Mr. de Blasio’s successful run for Mayor, his Campaign for One New York that funded his pet projects, and for the unsuccessful effort in the State Senate races.
In return, he told jurors, he and Mr. Reichberg were promised favorable treatment by Ross Offinger, a key campaign aide and chief fundraiser for Mr. de Blasio. “When we called, we wanted results—favorable results,” was how he characterized their expression of what they expected for their money in a conversation with Mr. Offinger.
Mr. de Blasio on several occasions has denied the two men got the special treatment they claimed to be seeking, and said once that he wished he had never made their acquaintance.
But Mr. Rechnitz, during the first bribery trial of ex-Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook slightly more than a year ago, offered specific examples of how their largess was rewarded.
Returns on Investment
He said he contacted Mr. Offinger to ask the NYPD to reach a quick decision on whether it would buy a building a friend owned because another potential buyer had emerged. He said he also called the fundraiser to gain a brief delay on a closing notice being posted on a school owned by a relative. And he said he asked Mr. Offinger to broker a meeting to deal with the frequent violations he was cited for by city officials because a friend living in a townhouse he owned had been renting out his unit through Airbnb.
Mr. de Blasio’s Press Secretary, Eric Philips, responded at the time with a statement calling Mr. Rechnitz’s testimony “nothing but reheated, repackaged accusations that have been extensively reviewed and passed on by authorities at multiple levels.” That was a reference to the letters from both the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in March 2017 stating they would not prosecute the Mayor but making clear their belief they he had engaged in dubious behavior on several fronts.
The statement by Mr. Philips did not deny the specific claims made by Mr. Rechnitz about special treatment he and Mr. Reichberg had received in return for their generous contributions to Mr. de Blasio’s campaign and other political interests. But the witness’s credibility took a battering under cross-examination by defense lawyers in that case, leading to a mistrial when jurors deadlocked on a verdict.
That forced prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to knock some of the arrogance out of Mr. Rechnitz before he appeared as a witness six months ago in a second trial of Mr. Seabrook that ended in a conviction, and in this case against Mr. Grant and Mr. Reichberg that dealt with separate allegations of criminal behavior.
Got Off Easy
But one piece of the tainted witness’s testimony in the first Seabrook trial was reinforced while the case was still going on by some added investigative reporting by the estimable Mr. Smith. He found that in fact several tenants in the 14-unit townhouse that Mr. Rechnitz owned on Madison Ave. had been renting out their apartments on a nightly basis, in essence turning the place into an illegal hotel.
Fines had piled up against Mr. Rechnitz as the owner of the building, but after he agreed to give the maximum contribution of $102,300 to the Mayor’s effort to turn the State Senate Democratic, Mr. Smith wrote, he got a call that led to a meeting with officials in the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. He was required to pay off the $76,500 in fines that had been assessed to that point, but the News reported that after that payment was made in early 2015, although complaints about the illegal rentals in the townhouse continued, no further penalties were imposed.
When Mr. de Blasio was asked about the story the day after his re-election 13 months ago, he replied that the matter had already been covered extensively and “there’s nothing more to say.”
Which wasn’t exactly a denial that the $102,300 contribution—less than $10,000 of which was covered by Mr. Rechnitz and his wife, with the rest being “bundled” from other friends and acquaintances—had gotten him off lightly for the routine violations of the law committed on his property.
Giving a prominent businessman in the Orthodox Jewish community an easy slide looked particularly bad when set against a trial in which not only was a top police commander accused of numerous quid pro quos in return for lavish spending on meals and gifts for him and his family by Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, but a colleague had pleaded guilty early in the year to similar arrangements. And the big mystery of the trial was why their former boss, ex-NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks III, hadn’t also faced charges.
No one needed a diagram to explain why they had indulged Mr. Rechnitz and, by his account, Mr. Reichberg. They were regarded as major players in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community that, because of its ability to deliver votes in a bloc for political candidates, was catered to not only by some Mayors but by the Police Department they oversaw.
Bad Perception Made Worse
Mr. Reichberg’s connections in the NYPD were well-established years before Mr. de Blasio became Mayor. But if he and Mr. Rechnitz had the power to influence promotions in the upper levels of the NYPD before 2014, what were even the people at the very top of the department supposed to do if they came calling once they had a reciprocal arrangement with the guy who oversaw the Police Department?
Testimony and emails featured in the trial last week further undercut the Mayor’s insistence that he hadn’t been that close to Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg.
Mr. Rechnitz testified that at the request of then-Chief Banks, the two businessmen sent off a letter to the Mr. de Blasio after his 2013 election calling on him to name Mr. Banks Police Commissioner, and to also give him a say in the new Mayor’s security detail.
The Mayor ultimately chose Bill Bratton to run the NYPD, but during his second month in office sent an email to Mr. Rechnitz saying of Mr. Banks, “His future is bright.”
It’s unlikely Mr. de Blasio thought through the consequences of accepting large donations from Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, any more than police commanders did when they began renting out their services in return for paid vacations, expensive meals and a helping hand in advancing their careers. The ongoing trial makes clear just how seamy the arrangements were, and how cheaply they sold out.
It casts the Mayor in that harsh light as well. His freedom may not be at stake, but the fish, after all, stinks from the head, and the trial has become a symbol of his tarnished administration.
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