Thursday, August 11, 2016

Conservative watchdog Judicial Watch calls Atlantic Yards--de Blasio, Clinton, Ratner--example of "New Tammany Hall" (But Republicans were responsible too)


OK, what to think of this press release, Judicial Watch Investigation Ties Clinton, De Blasio, Billionaire Developer Ratner to ‘New Tammany Hall’ Scandal, from a conservative watchdog group?

Well, given that the "incisive new expose" gathers much evidence critical of Atlantic Yards, and quotes me several times, I say it goes part of the way to describing what I call the Culture of Cheating.

But it breaks no new investigatory ground, and it's ridiculous to suggest that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Forest City Ratner tenant (and potential President) Hillary Clinton form a Tammany Hall triumvirate.

That's too bad, since I suspect most Judicial Watch followers--from the nearly 400 comments on Facebook, more than 4,000 shares, and some 6,000 likes--are Clinton opponents, with many of them fans of rival Donald Trump.

See, Trump has worked the system for decades too, and richly deserves the description from journalist Wayne Barrett as a "state capitalist." Ratner deserves it too.

Ratner has worked cordially with--and contributed to--elected officials across the spectrum, including Republican governor George Pataki and (nominal) Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who first gave Atlantic Yards their blessing. Ratner was close with Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani and for years has employed former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato as a lobbyist.

So such accusations could have been made years ago, featuring different protagonists. The scandal--or business as usual--in New York is dismayingly bipartisan.

No new ground broken, but maybe in the future

The report breaks no new ground, other than in (strained) interpretation, though it's valuable to see outsiders outraged at the routine operations of the three men-in-a-room Public Authorities Control Board, part of the New York landscape, or--as I've pointed out--how the Shanghai government-owned Greenland Holdings now reaps the benefit of taxpayer assistance.

And despite the reference to "the Age of Corruption," the report acknowledges that no illegality has been found. (Unmentioned is the violation of state environmental law, which let to a new review.)

But some new information might surface, if Judicial Watch can pry open some emails from de Blasio and his "agents of the city," including advisor Jonathan Rosen, whose firm BerlinRosen also works for Forest City. (Ratner, unsurprisingly, wouldn't answer Judicial Watch's questions.)

“Micah Morrison’s bold expose of apparent massive corruption at the highest levels of government in America’s largest city should outrage all who are appalled by political pay-for-play schemes,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in the press release. “That’s why Judicial Watch is demanding records from the mayor’s office for the timely production of materials relating to this controversy. We will take it to court if necessary, because the public has a right to know.”

About Judicial Watch

Here's Judicial Watch's description of itself as "a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law," and here's Media Matters' critique.

Here's the latest Clinton email scandal, leveraged by Judicial Watch's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit,  and Media Matters' critique.

Assessing Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park

The report, The New Tammany Hall: New York in the Age of Corruption, sets out some questions:
For over a decade, Atlantic Yards has been at the center of heated disputes over power, profit and privilege in New York. Does the site serve the needs of the taxpayers who financed its development? Or is it primarily a giant boondoggle generating torrents of cash for well-connected insiders?
It's even more murky. Taxpayers have provided many advantages to the development, including tax breaks, below-market land, the use of eminent domain, and an override of zoning, though in most cases that's not direct financing.

And, curiously enough, while much evidence suggests government power serves the developer above all, the sales of the Nets (at least the first sale of 80% of the team), the arena holding company, and 70% of the project (minus the arena and B2) came from weakness more than strength. In other words, had Ratner's parent company had more patience, they might have earned far more returns.

In other words, Ratner may have worked the system, and failed to deliver on promises, but failed (so far) to generate the torrents of cash once imagined.

"Honest graft"

Morrison writes:
But the central scam of the new Tammany system would not be unfamiliar to old Tammany’s Plunkitt: public money for private profit. Plunkitt called it “honest graft”—gaming the system to the benefit of the powerful and well-connected, with crumbs for the common folk.
That's hard to dispute--but not uncommon with real estate projects needing special approval. (See for example the Rivington House scandal.)

I'd contend that the "honest graft" with Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park pushes the envelope in several ways, forming a tapestry of sketchy behavior. But until there's a smoking gun, it can only be called "corruption" in the colloquial sense.

Among the issues raised in the report:
  • the role of the PACB
  • ties to corrupt Sheldon Silver and Willy Rapfogel
  • the corruption cases involving Richard Lipsky and Carl Kruger
  • the corruption cases involving Forest City's Ridge Hill project in Yonkers
  • the use of eminent domain (but no mention of bogus blight)
  • the sale to Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings
  • the unaffordability of many "affordable" apartments
  • the use of the sketchy EB-5 visa program
  • the oversold promise of jobs
There's much missing, given the understandably limited space, including, among other things, the finding of blight in a gentrifying neighborhood and the inside track with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Also unmentioned--in relation to this project, at least--is the key governmental official today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the state authority, Empire State Development, that oversees/shepherds the project.

Toward the future

I'm not sure Hillary Clinton qualifies as a Ratner friend, rather than a tenant and associate, but Morrison's speculation that "Knowing her will be helpful when all those federal office space leases come up" shouldn't be dismissed. Surely the landlord for her campaign will get someone to return his calls.

The report ends with the suggestion that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara might crush the new Tammany system. Maybe, and he's certainly pursued several important elected officials, including former Assembly Speaker Silver and former Senate President Dean Skelos.

But Bharara chose not to go after--or even mention--Forest City regarding Ridge Hill, or any other case.

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