Friday, October 31, 2014

Meeting at Department of State

Albany, New York:  Members of Willets Point United Inc. (“WPU”) held a meeting with the New York State Committee on Open Government’s Executive Director, attorney Robert Freeman, and its Assistant Director, attorney Camille Jobin-Davis, at the Committee’s office.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU), Robert Freeman, Esq. (Committee Executive Director),
Camille Jobin-Davis, Esq. (Committee Assistant Director) and Irene Prestigiacomo
(WPU) at the office of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

The Committee on Open Government is a unit of the Department of State that oversees and advises the government, public, and news media on the Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”), Open Meetings Law and Personal Privacy Protection Law.

WPU routinely files FOIL requests with agencies involved in the proposed Willets Point development, seeking project records that would not otherwise be publicly disclosed – and has filed scores of such requests within the past several years. In pursuing our requests and associated appeals when access to records is denied, WPU has benefitted from the Committee’s advice and its written legal opinions regarding agencies’ obligations pursuant to FOIL, which records are available under FOIL, and many other crucial factors.

The recent meeting between WPU and Committee members allowed a face-to-face exchange of ideas concerning certain pending FOIL requests. Moreover, the meeting provided an opportunity to discuss ways in which FOIL could be strengthened to benefit the public – all while acknowledging that this year marks the 40th Anniversary of FOIL’s enactment into law. We were also very pleased to summarize for the Committee how WPU has leveraged FOIL over the years, obtaining records that have become the bases of many news reports and that have exposed corruption, among other results.

FOIL resulted in the disclosure of contracts, financial documents and communications showing (among many other things) that NYCEDC funneled $450,000.00 to Claire Shulman’s local development corporation, and instructed it to lobby for legislation authorizing the proposed Willets Point development – in direct violation of state law, as ultimately found by NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That resulted in the dissolution and restructuring of NYCEDC to ensure that it stops violating the law – but no person has been held to account for any of the prior illegal activity. To the contrary, at least one NYCEDC official who – according to a city Law Department attorney – the Attorney General’s office was “trying to set up for a criminal prosecution” has not actually been prosecuted.

Article accessible online here.

In response to a FOIL request, NYCEDC refused to even disclose just the names of the developer firms that had responded to the Request For Proposals pertaining to Phase One of Willets Point. At the time, the Committee’s Robert Freeman told the press: “I don’t see any conceivable basis for withholding these names.” (See our prior blog article.)

FOIL unearthed records showing that Sterling Equities and Related Companies originally wanted to construct a gambling casino on the parkland where they now say they will construct a mega-mall – even going as far as enlisting the Shinnecock Indian Nation to operate the casino. For all the public knows, Sterling and Related may still be pursuing their original, preferred intent to construct a gambling casino on the parkland. That would hardly be the first bait-and-switch in this development.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL obtained the contracts between NYCEDC and developers Sterling/Related, showing (among other things) that the Bloomberg administration reneged on its assurance to recoup the cost of acquiring Willets Point Phase One property – $400+ million taxpayer dollars – and instead arranged to gift the property to Sterling/Related for the price of $1 (one dollar). The same contracts show that housing at Willets Point – originally the most highly-touted component – is delayed until at least the year 2025, and that Sterling/Related may opt out of constructing housing by paying $35 million (a mere cost of doing business); and that if the city does not first construct expensive new access ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway, Sterling/Related will neither construct any housing nor pay any penalty.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL disclosed the approved schematic plans for the entire Willets Point Phase One / Willets West mega-mall – plans which developers Sterling/Related still have not presented during any meeting with Queens Community Board 7, although they are required to do so, according to the board’s District Manager.

FOIL yielded records showing that NYSDOT officials were being pressured to approve inadequate plans to construct new Van Wyck access ramps – based upon traffic data that differed suspiciously from data previously proffered to the New York City Council. Michael Bergmann, a NYSDOT structural engineer on the team that reviewed the City’s ramp application, wrote to the NYSDOT regional director and colleagues: “Unless the preparers of this report start accepting the idea that it is seriously flawed, we are going nowhere.” Peter King, a NYSDOT project manager, wrote: “If I were a betting man, I’d start dropping the odds regarding success for E.D.C. on this project,” and that a mistaken completion date of the year 2107 instead of 2017 “may have been closer to the truth than anyone realizes.” After WPU obtained these email records and traffic data, and after WPU’s traffic expert Brian Ketcham and its environmental attorney Michael Gerrard of Arnold & Porter intervened with NYSDOT and FHWA, NYCEDC withdrew its ramp application, resulting in a long delay while NYCEDC’s consultant reconsidered its traffic data. Neither Mr. Ketcham nor Mr. Gerrard is satisfied that the ramps have been properly evaluated, and to this day, the ramps remain an open and contentious issue.

Without FOIL, it is unlikely that the public would have ever known any of the above-described facts.

WPU is a staunch supporter of FOIL, and we wholeheartedly salute the work of the Committee on Open Government and its two mainstays, Robert Freeman and Camille Jobin-Davis, in helping to ensure that FOIL is properly implemented by agencies. In all our dealings with so many city and state agencies, we have seen none other that is as genuinely helpful and responsive as the Committee on Open Government. This is one place where we are pleased to see our tax dollars at work and used well.

Emphasizing the importance of public records and open meetings, Mr. Freeman, the Committee’s Executive Director, is fond of quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” As our meeting concluded, Mr. Freeman reminded us of that quotation.

In the same spirit, WPU vows to continue to leverage FOIL and other laws, to discredit, incriminate and fight our opponents.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU) and Irene Prestigiacomo (WPU),
outside of the NYS Committee on Open Government.