The Sheriff in Town is Looking for Deputies, but No Deputies Agree to Step Forward. It's Almost Straight Out of "High Noon."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is Gary Cooper in "High Noon," the 1952 Western film that happens to be one of the best American movies ever made. In the film, Mr. Cooper portrayed a small-town sheriff, who just got married and was about to go on his honeymoon when a band of thieves ride into town with corrupt plans to unite with another bandit and then set out to attempt to murder the town's law enforcement.
As with Mr. Cooper in the movie, Mr. Bharara finds that he's the sole law man in this dust bowl with an intention to fight corruption. How long before Mr. Bharara becomes dispirited and just plain ditches his tin badge into the dirt road and climbs into a carriage and rides off into the sunset ?
Last fall, Mr. Bharara had noted that investigative journalism had been on the decline by the old, established media. Counteracting this trend was the spread of online news Web sites, which were acting to revive the investigative journalism needed to combat corruption.
Here in New York City, enterprise journalism is easily slain with rigorous daily news conferences on snow removal. @Mediaite— de Blasio Sold Out (@deBlasioSoldOut) January 22, 2014
The power of the press to hold elected officials accountable is one of the most powerful gears in the political machine that runs our government ; it's the reason the media has come to be known as the fourth estate. The power of the press can compliment his own work to fight corruption. Wise as he is beyond his age, Mr. Bharara knows the limitations of his office. Three months after Mr. Bharara expressed optimistic views of online journalism, he complained about the budget cuts imposed on the U.S. Attorney's Office that deny federal prosecutors the full resources to fight public corruption.
In a strange twist of fate, one of the Editorial Board members of The New York Times groused that a state corruption investigation panel didn't do the kind of thorough investigative journalism typically expect from The New York Times itself. What a zany Catch-22 ?
If the sheriff of New York City is counting on the media to investigate corruption, and some of the establishment media is counting on a state panel to investigate corruption, and the government is cutting the budget of the dust bowl's sole sheriff, where does that leave us ?
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Ostensibly, Mr. Bharara isn't the sole sheriff in town. There are also city and state agencies that have some authority to investigate public corruption. When it comes to the undue influence of money and lobbyists in politics, the city is supposed to turn to the Campaign Finance Board, the Conflicts of Interest Board, and possibly the Department of Investigations. But the board members of the Campaign Finance Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board are appointed either by the mayor, the Council speaker, or the City Council, or a combination thereof. The nominee to head the Department of Investigations, Mark Peters, is a long-time close personal friend of the mayor, so close, in fact, that he has been the mayor's long time campaign treasurer. If campaign corruption involves any of the elected officials, who appoint these panels' board members, then there's no way to independently investigate allegations of misconduct, because these three city agencies answer in some form to either the mayor, the Council speaker, or the City Council.
When one of the lobbyists connected to Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito became implicated in managing a controversial $1 million Super PAC at the same time when the lobbyist was managing independent campaigns, which appeared to be benefiting from the Super PAC's spending, the Campaign Finance Board was sign to be investigating the circuitous flow of campaign money. But when the same lobbyist firm provided free lobbying services to Councilmember Mark-Viverito's speakership campaign, The New York Daily News urged the Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate the relationship. When it became apparent that The Advance Group had close ties to the mayor and the new Council speaker, both of whom have oversight over both the Campaign Finance Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board, the matter was referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for review. The article, by the enterprising reporter Jill Colvin, followed other articles in which Ms. Colvin examined the role of big business interests and lobbyists in the new mayor's gargantuan $2 million transition team funding.
More and more, the media, in whom the last sheriff standing relies, is waking up to the blatant power grabs, conflicts of interest, and lack of oversight in the de Blasio-Mark-Viverito administration. Earlier this week, Morgan Pehme wrote an editorial column for the publication City & State casting doubts about the independence of the mayor's nominee to head the Department of Investigations. At the DOI nominee's hearing, Councilmember Inez Dickens pulled out the City & State editorial, saying that "serious issues" raised in the column make her believe that Mark Peters, the nominee, would not be independent enough from the mayor. Mr. Peters has had a close working relationship with the mayor for two decades.
Further complicating Mr. Peters' role at DOI will be the fact that under the Community Safe Act bills passed last year to reform, in part, the scandal-laden New York Police Department, the DOI chief will need to appoint an Inspector General, who is expected to independently oversee the NYPD.
But at his confirmation hearing, Mr. Peters said he would let the mayor have “significant input” in the selection of the new NYPD Inspector General. The DOI's role is to be independent of the mayor, and yet here again (as with the Speaker's race), another source for checks-and-balances on the mayor is going to be corrupted.
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Some activists to the Left of the mayor have been critical of the mayor's reappointment of William Bratton to be NYPD commissioner. (Many activists believe the controversial appointment was made in contravention to Mr. de Blasio's campaign promises to "end stop-and-frisk era" and possibly as a give-back to the big business establishment and real estate developers, who worry that any imaginary uptick in crime would lead to a collapse of the stratospheric, high-end real estate market for luxury condos in New York.) Now that the NYPD Inspector General is going to be picked with the mayor's blessing, activists wonder where's the independent oversight of the police department is going to come from ?
Many of the mayor's early enablers counter that the mayor campaigned to be the "anti-Bloomberg" "progressive" Democrat, but already in the mayor's first month in office, the relatives of innocent New Yorkers, who had been killed by NYPD officers, have joined activists to protest the Bratton appointment. These sets of early protests have brought to the fore the police department's refusal to examine the many other areas in need of reform : from the NYPD's overuse of brutality and unnecessary gun violence against civilians, the impotent Civilian Complaint Review Board, the conflicted Internal Affairs Bureau, the over-militarization of the police force, the continued religious profiling and stalking of innocent Muslims, among many other issues. What is more, on the same day when the mayor announced that he was dropping the city's appeal of the landmark stop-and-frisk ruling, approximately 100 LGBT activists protested the lack of justice in the hate crime beating death of Islan Nettles. Two weeks ago, the police department made global news when it was reported that the police used physical violence against an 84-year-old man for jaywalking.
One of the mayor's most visible enablers, besides the new Council speaker, is Tish James, the city's new publicly-elected Public Advocate. However, she owes her entire political career to the Working Families Party, the same political party co-founded by the mayor, and whose political operatives now double as lobbyists in their effort to silence or demobilise opposition to the mayor. Besides the Campaign Finance Board, the Conflicts of Interest Board, and the Department of Investigations, the office of the Public Advocate is supposed to be our last line of defense against the unchecked powers of the mayor. But she's already in his pocket.
When it's said that we need a check-and-balance on the mayor, it's necessary to understand what one's motivation is in wanting to place a restraint on the mayor. Right now, the big business community and their lobbyists want to hold back the mayor's plan to place a tiny tax increase on the most wealthy. To do that, you can see the chess pieces move, for example, as big business interests put pressure on our neoliberal governor to deliver a small amount of state tax resources to the wily mayor in order to make it politically convenient for the mayor to forego the tax hike for the very rich. But why would grassroots activists, at the opposite end of the political spectrum from big business interests, want to place a check on the mayor ? What possible motive could grassroots activists have ?
Will the Mayor betray healthcare activists the same way he betrayed police reform activists ?
Without a public advocate-like government officials keeping a check on the mayor's powers, there will be no way to stop the mayor from carrying out the wishes of the permanent government players that always have a say in what government does, regardless of who holds elected office. Big business groups, sometimes organised like chambers of commerce-like groups like the Partnership For New York City, or organised like civic-minded groups like the Association for a Better New York, are pools of sharks infested with hacks and lobbyists for big business interests. You are already seeing their influence in some of the mayor's early actions because of the early start they got in helping to elect the mayor. As susceptible as former Speaker Quinn was to the influence of lobbyists herself, she was absolutely right in pointing out that when the mayor was only a candidate, he refused to release information about all the meetings he had with lobbyists. "Bill de Blasio has shown that he is quite consistent -- at talking out of both sides of his mouth," said Ms. Quinn's spokesman, Mike Morey, adding, "He rails against real estate and professes transparency -- except for when he is raising money from the industry and secretly meeting with its lobbyists." Another early indicator that the mayor's campaign had been compromised by lobbyists was their very role in his campaign. The corrupt real estate lobbyist James Capalino was an early supporter, raising warning flags about duplicity in the mayor's campaign about the controversial closing of St. Vincent's Hospital. As a candidate, the mayor denounced the closing of that hospital and others ; meanwhile, Mr. Capalino was handsomely paid by the real estate developers, who basically foreclosed on the hospital in order to raze it as part of a controversial $1 billion complex of luxury condominiums and townhouses. There was an even greater role for lobbyists to play in fundraising when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped to raise $1 million in campaign money for the mayor for his November general election at a tony fundraiser that took place at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Very powerful lobbyists served on the organizing committee of that fundraiser, which was unprecedented for the amount of money it raised. Later reporting showed that lobbyists, including the disgraced lobbyist Stanley Schlein, were also serving on or raising money for the mayor's transition team. The unrestricted flow of lobbyist money of this scale doesn't get given without strings attached. The influence that money from big business lobbyists is having on the mayor can be seen in how the mayor is altering his tune when it comes to saving two hospitals on the verge of closure : Long Island College Hospital (LICH) and Interfaith Medical Center, both in Brooklyn, that have been targeted for closure by Gov. Cuomo's healthcare cuts hatchet man, the Wall Street banker Stephen Berger.
At a joint meeting, the mayor and the governor "carefully avoided saying that Brooklyn hospitals would be maintained at their current sizes," the biased reporter for The New York Times, Anemona Hartocollis, wrote, adding that Gov. Cuomo had said at the meeting that there were “excess hospital beds in Brooklyn” that needed to be eliminated. Even though her role in the community is as a reporter, Ms. Hartocollis appeared on a radio show in 2010 to oppose any deal to save St. Vincent's Hospital. The mayor campaigned for office on a promise to save hospitals from closing, and after he appointed the corrupt political opportunist Stanley Brezenoff to his inner circle of advisers, all of a sudden now the mayor is backing off his promise to save full-service hospital care in Brooklyn. Mr. Brezenoff has a checkered past and a controversial record. In the early 1980's, he served as chief of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation under then Mayor Ed Koch when the city's hospitals failed to respond to the early outbreak of the AIDS pandemic. He milked LICH dry of its endowment fund, and he later opposed a deal to save St. Vincent's Hospital, too. "Under Brezenoff’s management, Continuum had a prior history of selling property of other hospitals under their jurisdiction," reported The Red Hook Star. It's painful to see how just a couple weeks following the announcement of Mr. Brezenoff's appointment, all of a sudden the mayor is turning his back on his past promises to save Brooklyn hospitals. But all this is a function of the undue influence of big business interests and their teams of political operatives that now guide the mayor's policies. With no check on the mayor, big businesses are already winning this early into the new mayor's term.
Adding to the Lack of Checks on the Mayor's Powers, the First Lady Will Oversee A Large Private Fund of Discretionary Civic Projects
The same Conflicts Of Interest Board, which one critic said was too close to the mayor to be an impartial arbiter of ethics compliance, has given the mayor's wife its approval, allowing her to serve as the unpaid chair of the board of directors of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City.
Chirlane McCray, the First Lady, will have oversight over a large private fund that will be "in substantial sense a surrogate for the mayor," The Conflicts of Interest Board ruled, excepting that there will be no oversight, real or pretend, of the First Lady's functions as board chair.
The Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City raises millions of private monies each year for civic projects that circumvent, for example, the transparency and other compliance regulations, such as they exist, for the Council speaker's slush fund. In past years, the Council speaker's slush fund has been a source of corruption charges where discretionary funds have been used, at times, for political retribution and even bribes, among other criminal intentions. That the First Lady will now oversee a similar fund, but with no oversight, should raise a red flag for possible politicalization of community project funding, as has been charged for some projects that have received allocations from the Council speaker's fund. But this far, none of the large good government groups have questioned the First Lady's role with the Mayor's Fund.
Wavering faith in the media, when political operatives and war rooms shepherd the news cycle, leaving voters uninformed at best, or deceived, at worst.
Good government groups won't challenge the potential for corruption in all of the unchecked power grabs by the mayor and his wife, but the media goes overboard in what appears to be a coördinated campaign to take down New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who is believed to be a prospective if undeclared candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential primary. Prior to the George Washington Bridge scandal, Gov. Christie had been a formidable rival to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is believed to be the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential primary nominee. Another Republican political scandal, that in which Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm was caught on tape assaulting and threatening battery to a political reporter, reveals that politicians make use of intimidation to shut down politically embarrassing or damaging reporting. Intimidation was seen as a motivation when the troubled lobbyist Scott Levenson telephoned an LGBT blogger and activist in what was seen as an attempt to thwart new media reporting of Mr. Levenson's questionable financial and political backroom dealings.
Which brings us back to Mr. Bharara's hopes that the spread of online news Web sites will carry the day. But that presupposes that voters are actually tuning in. As it is, the mayor has manufactured a low voter turn-out rate of 24% of an already low voter registration rate to represent a blank check political mandate that is now being translated into open power grabs at every turn.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, one of the co-chairs of the do-nothing Moreland Commission, is leaving law enforcement for the seeming glamour of DC politics in Congress. With the compromised situation that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance finds himself, where for unexplained (and unreported) reasons he refuses to prosecute public corruption cases, the burden must be carried by our sole, courageous sheriff, Mr. Bharara.
The municipal elections of last November were the first time that the corruptive influence of Citizens United tainted local races. But the media has yet to fully examine the funneling of money into Super PACs. And, as we have seen, the media essentially left unchallenged the mayor's campaign theme of "a tale of two cities," even though the mayor's campaign contributors were virtually interchangeable for some of the city's most influential lobbyists and big business interests. We are only one month into the new administration of the mayor. There is still time for deputies to come forward, else continued voter complacency will only allow big business interests and lobbyists to complete their takeover of our government.
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Let's hope the voters of New York City care enough to get involved, come out from hiding in their "veal pens," and do not end up like the do-nothing townspeople in "High Noon."
You believe that there's nothing wrong, because that's what the media tells you in the newspapers. But watch them in this frank panel discussion, to hear some backchannel realness.
CUNY journalism director Greg David moderated a panel discussion on Nov. 19, 2013, amongst several reporters about the quality of the journalism coverage during the 2013 New York City mayoral campaign. The reporters, who took part on the panel, were Brian Lehrer of WNYC, Errol Louis of NY1, Joel Siegel of The New York Daily News, Kate Taylor of The New York Times, and Maggie Haberman of Politico. They were joined by two political insiders : Stu Loesser, the former spokesman for outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Scott Levenson, a lobbyist who administered a controversial $1 million Super PAC.
The self-congratulatory media panel, embedded with two political operatives to keep reporters in check, tell you that the media did a good job of reporting the truth during the mayoral campaign, even though the consensus that night was that the media failed at vetting the mayor when he was only a candidate.
Watch as Mr. Siegel says, "I think, collectively, the media saw 20 years of Republican and Republican/Independent rule and thought that was the norm -- where the norm really is this is a city that voted 80% for Barack Obama. It's a very liberal city, and we all sort of -- I believe -- misread how serious a contender Bill de Blasio really was from the very beginning. I don't think he got the scrutiny from the beginning that Chris Quinn got or Bill Thompson got."
And so now we've come full circle : part of the reason that Sheriff Preet is relying on new media Web sites is that he partly needs new ways for voters to become informed about government corruption. Because if the old media won't tell you, who will ?