Friday, November 28, 2008

The cozy relationship between Sheldon Silver, the Met Council, and Bruce Ratner

I know I'm late on this, but let's take another look at the cozy relationship between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and developer Forest City Ratner. There's nothing illegal, just another episode of the questionable one-hand-washes-the-other power configuration that seems so prevalent in the city and state.

Silver says that those who care about process are "naive." Perhaps that's also his message for those who had hoped he'd ask hard questions about Atlantic Yards.

(Update November 29: Somehow I missed the October 27 press release about Silver welcoming the Nets' Yi Jianlian to Chinatown.)

Helping the Met Council

A 12/3/06 Associated Press article. headlined in the New York Post as
SHEL GAME: SILVER LINING PAL'S CHARITY, reported:
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver directed $1 million in public money to a charity and its affiliates whose chief executive is an old friend and the husband of Silver's chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, according to records and interviews.

The grants are part of the legal and routine pork-barrel spending that annually totals $170 million between the Assembly and Senate, and is based on closed-door decisions by lawmakers.

Much of the money - more than 60 percent of the Assembly's share - goes to established social-service nonprofit firms to carry out programs not covered in the state budget.

The records released last week show that six grants, most under Silver's name alone and all directed by the Assembly majority, went to the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.


The Met Council's CEO, William Rapfogel, has known Silver for 40 years and his wife, Judy Rapfogel, is Silver's chief of staff. Then again, William Rapfogel said, the Met Council received member items from Silver before he was chosen speaker, and his wife disqualifies herself from discussions regarding the Met Council. "While there is potential, it doesn't mean there is impropriety," he said.

(Unclear is whether the amount of grants increased, but that seems likely. Indeed, the New York Sun reported 12/4/06 that Silver gave out more than $7 million of the roughly $50 million in member item projects earmarked by the Assembly.)

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group was a bit more wary, telling the AP: "I think the public should always be concerned when taxpayer dollars are awarded in secret and . . . the public should demand that the system be changed from awarding it on political power to one based on need or population."

In response

In a letter to the Post, Meyer Muschel acknowledged the system is broken but noted that the Met Council serves not just the Jewish community but all of New York City:
But criticizing Silver's support for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and its executive director, William Rapfogel, is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.


In an editorial headlined SHELLY THE PORK PRINCE, the Post didn't buy it:
One thing New York does not lack for is cash-strapped do-good organizations. What elevates Met Council over the rest when it comes to taxpayer-funded baksheesh?

Obviously, it's Silver's personal ties to the group.


Silver's defense: caring about process "naive"

A 6/20/07 New York Times article headlined Assembly Leader Wields Power By Keeping Albany Guessing reported:
Among the most favored beneficiaries in the last fiscal year was the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and its affiliated organizations, which received nearly $1 million. The group's chief executive, William E. Rapfogel, is the husband of Mr. Silver's chief of staff, Judith Rapfogel. The council is widely acknowledged to provide useful services to all ethnic and racial groups throughout the city, and has long received generous public financing.

Though government watchdog groups criticize member items as unregulated pork, Mr. Silver says they are a legitimate way to finance worthy causes that do not get into the state budget. ''Those who look at process are naive,'' he said of the system's critics.


Honoring Ratner

Each year the Met Council holds a "Builder's Luncheon" to honor someone in the real estate field and raise funds for its supportive housing initiatives. This year's event, as the Council's widely-reported press release stated, raised $1 million and honored Bruce Ratner:
Numerous other elected and appointed officials were present as the keynote speaker, Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, presented Mr. Ratner with a beautifully decorated charity box.

That gets the developer, Silver, and the Met Council some nice publicity for a relatively small amount of money, even while the developer and Assembly Speaker deal in much larger sums for a project in which affordable housing does not come first.

As Eric McClure of No Land Grab pointed out, that "pales beside other gifts bestowed upon the developer by the Assembly Speaker, which include PACB approval in 2006 of the Atlantic Yards project and a special clause in 421-a legislation. But just in case you were thinking this was a one-way street, Ratner greased the Silver-controlled Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee with $58,000 just this past January."

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