Bill de Blasio’s theatrical arrest at Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital—and the news photos of him in plastic handcuffs—helped make him mayor in 2013. Now U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara seems to be measuring him for steel bracelets, and—talk about what goes around coming around—the prosecutor has added a controversial land deal to his bill of particulars. It’s a long list already, and it’s fair to wonder just when Bharara intends to bring matters to a close. The de Blasio administration has been under investigation virtually its entire tenure, and an election is coming up next year.
Right now, the spotlight has turned to the Rivington House deed-transfer scandal, which involved city waivers of deed restrictions to greenlight luxury condo development of a former AIDS hospital on the Lower East Side. Campaign contributors and others close to de Blasio benefited. While the mayor denied foreknowledge of the deal, it’s now all but certain that he knew or should have known.
But Long Island College Hospital seems slowly to be moving center stage as well—both on the merits and as a symbol of the mayor’s unsubtle brand of faux-progressive, transactional politicking. On the merits, because City Hall abandoned its promise to block sale of the hospital site to real estate interests at about the same time that a potential developer says he was solicited for a donation to a now-defunct de Blasio slush fund. This coincidence is what appears to have attracted Bharara’s attention—and precipitated a blizzard of federal subpoenas.
Symbolically, the episode illustrates de Blasio’s principal rhetorical technique—drape an issue in progressive cant, and then convert it to personal or political advantage. What began as a full-throated promise to protect in perpetuity the failing LICH—indeed, every hospital bed in Brooklyn—blossomed into a prime fundraising opportunity. De Blasio apparently pounced; so, in turn, did Bharara’s investigators.
The 150-year-old Long Island College Hospital had been scandalously underutilized for decades when the State University of New York bought it in 2009. Why SUNY wanted it remains a mystery, but the university soon realized that it had a pig in a poke and moved to unload it. This meant freeing for development the ultra-valuable Brownstone Brooklyn real estate that the hospital sat on. It didn’t matter that SUNY promised to retain a state-of-the-art, on-site emergency center; the plan generated intense opposition from local residents, the state Nurses Association, SEIU Local 1199 of the health-care workers’ union, and a full range of demonstrating politicians, including then-Public Advocate de Blasio.
“This is about fighting for our hospitals. We have to save them,” de Blasio said as police pulled tight the flexi-cuffs during the July 2013 demonstration. “Can you tell us now that SUNY will stop its efforts to close Long Island College Hospital? Because if you can’t tell us that, we’re not going anywhere.”
After de Blasio won the mayor’s office, he promptly lost interest in LICH, though not the real estate. It finally sold for $240 million to a private developer. Now Bharara has reportedly subpoenaed SUNY for copies of “any and all [LICH-related] communications” between the university and the mayor, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, and the administration’s chief political operative, Emma Wolf, among others. The subpoenas apparently relate to allegations made earlier this year by developer Donald Peebles, a losing bidder for the LICH property, that de Blasio solicited him personally for a $20,000 contribution to one of the mayor’s not-for-profit political slush funds, the Campaign for One New York, while the process was still underway. (Peebles said he complied but then asked for his money back.) Bharara is also demanding information from SEIU Local 1199, which contributed $250,000 to the now-inactive nonprofit.
Whether the latest subpoenas represent a new investigation of the administration isn’t yet clear. If so, it would bring to six the number of known de Blasio probes. Bharara is on point for most of them, but state and city agencies are involved as well, and even the mayor’s own Department of Investigation is dogging him on the Rivington scandal. Other probes include an investigation into the full range of donations to the Campaign for One New York (The United Federation of Teachers kicked in $350,000 after receiving an ultra-lush contract settlement); a police corruption scandal involving major mayoral campaign contributors; de Blasio’s interventions in 2014 state legislative campaigns; and the alleged failure of the administration to follow state lobbying rules.
To say all of this has cast a pall over City Hall would be an understatement. It’s more like a pea-soup fog, and it’s been hanging for more than two years. New Yorkers aren’t surprised by fishy government—some even find it entertaining—but voters’ tolerance has limits. Cynicism breeds apathy: routine voter turnout in the low 20 percent range is one symptom. More governmental dysfunction is another.
It doesn’t help when Bharara himself plays peekaboo with the press regarding his future political plans. He’s entitled to his ambitions, of course, but he needs to finish what’s on his plate first. (That would include his long-drawn-out probes of Cuomo administration economic-development programs and related allegations of illicit Albany cronyism.)
New York City voters soon will enter another mayoral-election year. Polls show that most aren’t thrilled with the incumbent—and one reason for that doubtless is uncertainty over where all these investigations will wind up. Undue haste is never wise, and Bharara has done yeoman work, but it’s time for him to write an ending to this book.
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