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HARD CHOICES AND HARDBALL: Mayor de Blasio apparently chose to transfer testing and contact-tracing responsibilities away from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene because he felt a greater comfort level dealing with the CEO of NYC Health+Hospitals than he did with Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot (center). But veteran government official Lilliam Barrios-Paoli (right) was among the experts who disagreed with the decision, and said the leak from inside the administration of  an incendiary remark by Dr. Barbot might eventually force her to leave her job.    

Who would have had means, motive and opportunity to breathe new life into an incendiary remark made by the city's Health Commissioner to the NYPD's top uniformed officer seven weeks earlier that the combatants seemed to have settled between them? 

The most-likely suspect, notwithstanding the fact that Commissioner Oxiris Barbot's notorious "I don't give two rats' asses about your cops" remark was revealed in the New York Post, was Mayor de Blasio. 

The Daily News May 14 quoted an anonymous city official noting that the New York Times was about to publish a story raising questions about whether the Mayor's decision to shift contact-tracing work from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to NYC Health+Hospitals was motivated by professional differences with Dr. Barbot—whose early concerns about the spread of the coronavirus had been vindicated—rather than on the merits.

"The timing is more than suspicious," that anonymous official said.

Too Busy to Notice?

So was the Mayor's claim that he was unaware of her intemperate statement—despite NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan having reported it to "City Hall" soon after their confrontation—until the story appeared in The Post and aroused the wrath of police-union leaders. Mr. de Blasio said that at the time of the March 18 incident, he was too consumed by the city's battle against the coronavirus and the toll it was taking to have gotten word of the angry clash between top officials at two of the agencies most involved in efforts to control the disease. 

You only had to look at the slew of appearances he'd made on both cable-news and broadcast TV over the previous couple of months, in addition to his daily hourly briefings on the coronavirus and the weekly appearances with Errol Louis on NY1 and Brian Lehrer on WNYC-radio, to know that the Mayor hadn't been preoccupied to the exclusion of activity that might buff up his image. And so would a man with a reputation as a micro-manager really have been oblivious to the fact that a commissioner with whom his relationship had grown increasingly tense had said something to a top police commander that could severely damage her credibility and thus take some heat off him?

Detectives' Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo brushed off a question May 19 about whether Mr. de Blasio would qualify as a person of interest in the leaking of Dr. Barbot's remark to The Post, saying, "I don't know, and it doesn't really matter" if he had a role in airing it.

"That's all politics," said the union leader who had lost five members to the coronavirus in the month after her eruption. "I'm just concerned about the health and well-being of my Detectives. What's very concerning to me was that yesterday I was made aware that there were six cases in one particular command"—the 103rd Precinct Detective Squad in southeastern Queens.

All those involved, Mr. DiGiacomo said, apparently had "moderate strains" of the virus, although another union member from another precinct at that moment was dealing with a more-serious case of it. "It's disturbing to me that just when we thought this thing was letting up, something like that happens," the DEA leader said.

It was understandable that his anger about the incident remained focused on Dr. Barbot, as he said that offering an apology in written form under duress did not atone for the initial outburst that he said "shows her disrespect and disregard for the police."

Didn't Hear His End

The anonymous city official was not the only person who believed Mr. de Blasio was behind her being thrown under a patrol car for political reasons. The News had also quoted a law-enforcement source familiar with the phone exchange who said Chief Monahan had not exemplified courtesy, professionalism and respect either when matters heated up with Dr. Barbot.

One of my colleagues, who forsook city politics to cover sports a while back because he preferred  being able to examine on instant replay the elbows to the head and the knees to the groin that are part of both games, tweeted in response to the Barbot apology, "The poor chief had never ever heard such language in the cloistered confines of the NYPD."

And so once we get by the legitimate outrage police union leaders expressed on behalf of their members, what remained to be dissected was, if Mr. de Blasio orchestrated the public shaming of his Health Commissioner, was he really gaining more from the temporary respite it provided than he lost in managing the city?

Lilliam Barrios-Paoli wasn't sure he pulled the strings, saying in a May 19 phone interview it could as easily have been "well-meaning people around the Mayor" who decided "the best course of action was to discredit Dr. Barbot in some way." She acknowledged, though, that it was hard to imagine any of them making a move of that magnitude without knowing he wouldn't object.

But she questioned Mr. de Blasio's shifting testing and contact-tracing responsibilities away from Dr. Barbot's agency based on his feeling more in sync with H+H CEO Mitchell Katz.

"We all like to work with people we get along with," said Ms. Barrios-Paoli, who ran four city agencies under three different Mayors—Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg—before working for Mr. de Blasio as Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services and chairing the H+H board. "But every agency has its own mission, and you shouldn't change it based on who you get along with."

Imposing Task for H+H

Speaking of top staffers at the Health Department and their experience with contact-tracing, she continued, "Those people know how to do this thing, and they do it well." AT H+H, in contrast, she said, "They have to create it out of nothing."

Ms. Barrios-Paoli said the harsh remark by Dr. Barbot, regrettable as it may have been, was the kind of thing agency heads might say in a dispute over resources when they were convinced the other party was being unreasonable. The NYPD had sent someone over without checking first with her to requisition 500,000 masks; the Health Commissioner said she could spare only 50,000.

While the Police Department is regarded as "sacrosanct" in the city, Ms. Barrios-Paoli said, at the time of the request, "there were people dying in hospitals, there were nurses and doctors working without protective gear. Not every police officer was going to be coming in contact with coronavirus patients, and I think she felt she needed the masks for the front-line workers in the emergency rooms. Each one [referring also to Chief Monahan] believed they were fighting for what was right."

Dr. Barbot apologized to him soon after the dust-up, and eventually the masks were provided at the level requested by the NYPD. The only reason someone would have dug up her angry comment nearly two months later, Ms. Barrios-Paoli said, was to "bring Oxiris down a notch."

She took issue with police-union rhetoric she described as "totally over the top," citing a tweet by the Sergeants Benevolent Association that referred to Dr. Barbot as "this bitch," and wondered why there hadn't been a greater outcry about that remark.

Will She Want to Stay?

Whatever speculation there had been that Mr. de Blasio would use the controversy to force out Dr. Barbot, he seemed to be satisfied with her latest apology. Asked whether enough damage had been done to the Health Commissioner's standing by the incident that she might be reluctant to stay on, Ms. Barrios-Paoli said, "Could she be equally effective? Can she put this behind her and focus on other things? I'm not sure. Do you love your job enough to put up with all the craziness and indignity?"

She answered her own questions by saying that for someone who was committed to public health, running the agency was "the only game in town. It's a very hard position to walk away from."

Ms. Barrios-Paoli felt the same ambivalence when she was Human Resources Administration Commissioner under Mr. Giuliani, loving the challenge and importance of the work but ultimately leaving in 1998 because "I did not see eye-to-eye with the welfare-to-work policies the administration wanted to enforce."

That was a parting that took place based on a policy clash that did not include being hosed by a leak that served the incumbent Mayor's political interests.  

But the story posted by The Times May 14 that is believed to have set in motion the leak that undermined Dr. Barbot hinted at some parallels between the Mayor's thinking and that of another public official that would make him uncomfortable.

One issue raised by Dr. Katz in a March 10 memo that was cause for legitimate concern on Mr. de Blasio's part was that closing schools would create child-care issues that might lead to many health-care workers not showing up to work.

Couldn't Hold Out Long

But less than a week later, the Mayor reluctantly ordered that the schools be closed, at a moment when he was facing a potential mutiny from his political allies at the United Federation of Teachers who were hearing from an increasingly fearful rank and file about the hazardous work environment. 

The Health Department, The Times reported, had pushed hard for stronger action by the city, with some staffers "ready to walk out in protest; others were threatening to quit."

While the Mayor and Dr. Katz justified the transfer of contact-tracing and testing by citing H+H's greater freedom in hiring and purchasing, before the change was made, the Health Department had been able to get around its prior constraints, the article stated.

And the points made by Ms. Barrios-Paoli about the Health Department's expertise in those areas and the lack of it at H+H were also made by officials including epidemiologists and Stanley Brezenoff, who served as a special adviser to Mr. de Blasio from the start of his administration and briefly ran H+H before Dr. Katz was brought in.

He told The Times that the shifting of responsibilities was "a head-scratcher. I can't figure out the rationale, and I don't think it's worth the risks."

The impression left by the article was that the Mayor made the decision based on his comfort level with Dr. Katz, abetted by the H+H CEO advocating the course he preferred to follow rather than move swiftly to limit the damage that could be done if the coronavirus spread.

It invited comparisons to another government official who has been slow to act and reluctant to follow scientific advice if offered a more-popular alternative.

And like that official, Mr. de Blasio seems willing to be devious even when it seems sure to backfire on him—in the present as well as the future.    


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