Friday, August 30, 2013

Political Corruption and Willets Point: The Christine Quinn Story

Wayne Barrett-as per usual-has a riveting expose of the unlikely rise of Christine Quinn to the Speakership of the City Council in 2005. The rise of this former community activist and neighborhood scourge was predicated on some good old fashioned insider trading-relying on the quid pro quo support of three of the city’s Democratic County bosses: Joe Crowley, Jose Rivera and the now disgraced Vito Lopez.

As Barrett points out:
“It was December 2005 and 39-year-old Christine Quinn, an obscure one-term Chelsea councilwoman, was on her way to the Westchester Square headquarters of the Bronx Democratic County Committee to close the deal that would make her speaker, second only to the mayor in the power she would wield in City Hall. Her path to the Council leadership—positioning her to shape the city’s fiscal and development policies for the next four, and ultimately eight years—was, by city charter design, an inside game.”

And it was a game she played well-and continued to play well as certain special interests feasted on their special relationship with the former enfant terrible of community organizing. This was seen right off the bat in 2006 when Quinn took over and rolled over for the Bronx Terminal Market and Yankee Stadium deals midwived by the Bronx political bosses:

“Just a couple of months into her speakership, in February 2006, Quinn was embroiled in the Council’s consideration of the two projects that meant more to Jose Rivera than any others in his reign as Bronx Democratic leader: the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium and the construction of the nearby Gateway Center Mall. They were giant projects – and, hence, opportunities to gather campaign contributions and political sway. (One measure of the value: between 2004 and the end of 2008, when Rivera was ousted as leader, his varied campaign committees collected $58,625 from the Yankees and the Related Companies, which built the mall).”

When both deals were concluded, the developers of the BTM and the Yankees got the goldmine and the tax payers got the shaft-a trend that was to characterize Quinn’s entire tenure as council speaker:

“The Yankees wanted a new Metro North train stop at the stadium and didn’t want to contribute a cent to the project, even though there was no money in the MTA budget to pay for it. In the final 24 hours of pre-vote negotiations at the Council, they got it, outraging The New York Times editorial board.

The size of the project meant that new parks would need to be built near the stadium, replacing old community parks. At the Yankees’ urging, the Council agreed to pay the entire cost of these parks, which would escalate from $116 million to $190 million over the life of the project. The Yankees also made it a condition of the deal that the city would pick up the cost of a 9,300-space parking garage, which totaled $100 million in direct subsidies and $278 million in tax-exempt bonds.”

The Terminal market became terminal for the 23 mostly minority wholesalers who were evicted in the ultimate sweetheart deal-these entrepreneurs were scattered to the four winds and most have gone out of business after losing the synergy of the market and its location. The developer Related, however, did a tad better owing to the close friendship between Deputy Mayor Doctoroff and Related boss Steve Ross:

“The Related Companies’ no-bid contract for the mall, approved by the Council a few weeks before the Yankees’ deal in early 2006, did not require any percentage payments to the city geared to mall revenues, unlike many projects on city-owned land. Instead, while Related earns $27 million a year from its current mall tenants, it is only paying the city $800,000 as compensation for the project. The justification is that it generates jobs – a point that Yankees President Randy Levine has made repeatedly, at one point saying critics “should be encouraging us to create jobs instead of engaging in political grandstanding.” But the pay averages $8 an hour, a thin reed on which to justify such a huge subsidy. The Council rubber-stamped these terms, and Related became one of Quinn’s biggest financial supporters, having bundled or donated $58,254 to her campaigns since 2006.”
This, as we shall see, was a harbinger of the Willets Point deal that came later.

”Roll the calendar forward to 2009. That’s when Queens leader Joe Crowley surfaced at the Council with a project of his own to champion. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Crowley rarely gets involved in Queens controversies. But he interjected himself into the debate over another Related Companies project: the $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point.”
Here’s where insider trading gave way to outright corruption-with Quinn paddling along with the tide:
“It didn’t help appearances that the project was a bit of an ethical mess. Claire Shulman, the 83-year-old former Queens borough president, had set up a nonprofit local development corporation, Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, to build grassroots support for the project. The LDC was underwritten by a $250,000 city grant and real estate interests, including Related’s co-developer on the project, Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz. But Shulman had failed to register the group as a lobbyist with the city clerk and was fined $52,000 for the omission. Then she registered it, and a storm ensued, since LDCs are barred by law from lobbying the Council. The Times quoted her saying that “we lobbied the city for the city,” a statement that eventually resulted in a state attorney general’s finding that the LDC had “flouted the law” and a settlement that barred it from lobbying the Council. Quinn did not criticize the grandmotherly Shulman at the time - indeed, she shared stages with her, beaming about Willets Point – and remains silent on the lobbying gaffe.”
A true partner in crime-and Quinn made sure that the council did not do any real over sight of the Willets Point development even though it became obvious that the illegal and unethical actions of the city and its consultants were polluting the development process:

“As quickly as the cheering died down, the angry Willets Point businesses sued the city to block the project. The case dragged on until May 2012, when on the eve of an appellate review of elements of it, the Bloomberg administration suddenly withdrew its plan. The winning lawyer said: “The city knew it was going to lose.” Among other things, the city had presented two conflicting environmental impact statements, one saying that traffic on a new expressway ramp to be built for the project would boom by 50 percent, the other estimating a 15 percent increase. It held a public hearing on the project without a Spanish interpreter, though the room was filled with clamoring Hispanic businessmen.”
At every corrupt step of the way, Quinn shot down any oversight or council review-she was all in for Joe Crowley from the beginning and was not going to abandon him in his hour of need; and the EDC’s fraudulent environmental/traffic review could not garner a council oversight hearing with Quinn’s thumb on the scale.

This is depressingly similar to the deal making in the Bronx-even more so now that Related has been injected into the Willets Point deal with predictable conclusions: gone is the affoirdabkle housing, replaced by-what else?-another mall:
“Now, a revised project is back before Quinn, slated to come to a Council vote in October. Critics note that it cuts the affordable housing units in half, and that the developers may not have to build any if they delay the housing project for a decade, which they are permitted to do under the deal. The emphasis now is on a huge mall, an echo of Related’s Gateway development in the Bronx.”

This brings us to the present and the City Council’s first hearing on Willets Point scheduled for Tuesday. The signs are indeed ominous with Quinn still at the helm-but with a great deal of hope that current mayoral frontrunner will put the kibosh on this corporate welfare deal when and if he gets into office in January (Or that Bill Thompson will also set it aside when he finds out all that went into this toxic farrago).

Making things even more foreboding is that the land use subcommittee is balking at letting WPU do a 20 minute power point presentation at Tuesday’s hearing. The power point is a devastating takedown of the city’s proposal and we can understand why proponents of the project would balk at its use. But why would the council committee not want it shown? After all, the city gets unlimited time for all of its phony dog and pony shows.

Our main concern goes back to Barrett’s original thesis: the unseemly role of the county leaders in the selection of the speaker. That hasn’t really changed, and Joe Crowley still wields enormous power and he definitely doesn’t want a public exposure of all the unethical and illegal maneuvers that he has spawned and continues to sanction.

Exit question: are the aspirants for speaker blocking the Willets Point presentation for tawdry political reasons and not simply housekeeping logistics? If so, they are putting their own political ambitions before the needs of the residents of Queens, the businesses of Willets Point, and the tax payers of NYC-just like Christine Quinn has done for 8 years.