Saturday, February 17, 2007

Democracy deficit: Gargano stonewalls the Voice; ESDC embraces transparency

Charles Gargano, former chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), is generally unafraid of the press. He even called reporters in for a semi-melancholy valedictory press conference at the end of December.

But he won't answer questions now about the dubious involvement of his nephew in a development deal, even as agencies under new Governor Eliot Spitzer embrace a new transparency.

Gargano, who gained his appointment after serving as former Governor George Pataki's chief fundraiser, remains on the board of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. From that position, according to Tom Robbins' Village Voice investigation (headlined A Seamy Tale of Nepotism on the Brooklyn Waterfront), Gargano told a Red Hook container terminal owner that "maybe there's another way" to ensure that the state kept the property assigned to shipping rather than pushing for a condo-filled mixed-use development.

A few weeks later, a man introducing himself as "Charlie's nephew" called terminal owner Sal Catucci, and that nephew, Frank Gargano, soon gained an $8500 monthly retainer to "handle" his uncle. Catucci paid for ten months, but saw Port Authority policy get even less friendly toward his interests.

Frank Gargano asked for more money. Instead, Catucci cut him off. "I don't know how my uncle is going to take this," Frank Gargano told Catucci.

Conflict no longer OK?

Notably, the seeming conflict of interest was perfectly legal under the state's weak disclosure laws regarding public authorities.

Now, writes Robbins:
New governor Eliot Spitzer has vowed to change all that, bringing oversight of the authorities into line with strict laws already covering the state's legislature where lobbyists are obligated to file regular disclosure reports.

Port Authority spokesman Steve Sigmund told the Voice:
"The Port Authority demands the highest ethical standards, and we expect that anyone who represents the agency disclose any potential conflict of interest. We will continue to strengthen our policies going forward, including tightening disclosure requirements for commissioners and employees alike."

That invites the question: how much unreported lobbying of the ESDC was there regarding Atlantic Yards.

ESDC invites comment

Meanwhile, the ESDC has somehow acknowledged that it is responsive to the public rather than some kind of clubhouse. As Matthew Schuerman reports in the Real Estate Observer:
The Empire State Development Corporation used to send out meeting notices to the press that read:
"Meetings are open to the public for observation, but not for direct participation."

Earlier this week, the state economic development agency sent out one for Thursday morning's board meeting--the first under Gov. Sptizer's co-chairmen Patrick Foye and Dan Gundersen--that read:
"The meeting is open to the public for observation and comment."


Imagine if that policy had been in place during the 12/8/06 meeting of the ESDC board, which showed itself generally uninformed about Atlantic Yards, approved the project in just 15 minutes. Surely the public would have offered considerable observation and comment.

And perhaps the ESDC would have made available the comments it received after the issuance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, rather than requiring me to file a Freedom of Information Law request.

ESDC posts agendas

Also, Schuerman reports, the ESDC plans to post meeting agendas three days ahead of time. During the Gargano era, an announcement of a meeting was issued, but the agenda was made available only on the morning of the meeting.

This, remember, is the agency under challenge in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case. While a lawyer for the ESDC said in court earlier this month that the authority was legislatively empowered to pursue condemnations, that doesn't necessarily prove that this eminent domain finding was reached after an open legislative process.

At the very least, the change in ESDC procedures suggests a recognition that there has been a deficit of democracy.

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