Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The latest cloud over Finance Commissioner Stark: a romance with the (former) assistant in the middle of the Yankee Stadium controversy

City Finance Commissioner Martha Stark is under a cloud again, this time for having a romantic relationship with a former assistant commissioner. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, formerly a staunch defender of Stark, says the city is looking into whether the relationship began while Dara Ottley-Brown was employed by Stark.

However, as I note below, no one is yet looking into the potential connection to an even more questionable episode: Ottley-Brown served as the Department of Finance's (DOF) point person in ensuring that the land under the new Yankee Stadium would be assessed--re-assessed, it turned out--at a figure sufficient to generate the foregone taxes to be repaid by PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).

And the DOF faces similar challenges in ensuring that the assessments of the Atlantic Yards arena site are sufficient to generate PILOTs sought by the developer.

Stark reasons for questions

Certainly, as the New York Post first reported Sunday, there's a reason to ask questions. Ottley-Brown in 2003 earned $65,000, but was promoted to assistant commissioner in November 2004, earning $120,984, which rose to $138,013 in two years.

(Graphic from WCBS-TV)

Stark to the Post denied "a personal relationship with any subordinate" and thus any ethics violation, but the newspaper reported that, while under oath in a lawsuit, Stark was prevented from answering such a question by her lawyer.

Less than a month ago, Stark gave up a moonlighting position that earned her some $134,000 in two years.

The stadium issue

The Yankees angle goes unmentioned in the Times and Post. The Daily News hasn't covered the latest story at all, perhaps unwilling to acknowledge a scoop by the rival Post.

(Update April 15: The Daily News publishes a highly skeptical editorial, which does not mention the Yankees angle. The Times reports, as does the Post, that Bloomberg wants the Conflicts of Interest Board and Department of Investigation, to look into questions about Stark--again without the Yankees angle.)

But Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez laid it out, in a 12/18/08 column headlined E-mails reveal how city went to bat for Yankee to inflate value of stadium land:
The e-mails show that City Attorney Joseph Gunn notified Stark's former assistant commissioner, Dara Ottley-Brown, on July 15, 2005, that "the Yankees have an interest in seeing that the assessed valuation will be high enough to generate as much PILOT for tax-exempt debt as is lawful and appropriate."
They also show Stark's staff met at least three times with the Yankees and other city officials to discuss the department's assessment method.
On March 21, 2006, a few weeks before City Council's vote on the Yankees project, Maurice Kellman, the city's chief assessor, sent Ottley-Brown the stadium assessment report. It estimated the value of the land under the stadium at $26.8 million.
Finance Department spokesman Sam Miller said Tuesday that a "senior assessment team" decided Kellman's estimate was too low compared with the construction cost of the new stadium.
After a series of frantic phone calls and e-mails on March 21 and 22 between a half-dozen city officials and the Yankees, Ottley-Brown ordered Kellman to produce a new report.
"Here is the writeup with the changes you requested earlier today," Kellman wrote on the 22nd, pumping the assessment up to $204 million. Kellman would not comment.


Gonzalez suggested that it was time for a prosecutor to subpoena documents the city won't provide "and figure out if the Bloomberg administration manipulated land assessments for the Yankees."

(Here's more regarding Ottley-Brown's central role, from Assemblyman Richard Brodsky's report on Yankee Stadium and Rep. Dennis Kucinich's hearing on the stadium.)

Looking into manipulation

It's safe to say that Bloomberg, whatever criticism of Stark might emerge, is not going to address the stadium issue.

But part of Gonzalez's request is a no-brainer.

Did the city manipulate land assessments? The answer is yes--unless you think a small piece of land in Alphabet City is somehow comparable to a stadium site in the South Bronx.

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