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Markowitz fined $20,000 for accepting free airfare and other travel perks for his wife--despite having stated he knew he had to pay her way

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has been slammed with a $20,000 fine by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) for gaining free travel for his wife on three foreign trips, two to Turkey and one to the Netherlands.

And while Markowitz, in press statements, has produced some part-justifying and entertaining explanations--yes, there was a lot of official business, yes, it's hard to split hotel costs--he (and many in the press) ignore the fact that, before the first of the three trips, Markowitz told the COIB that he'd pay for his wife.

It's been a rough stretch for Markowitz at the COIB. In February, he was fined $2,000 by the COIB for using Chief of Staff Carlo Scissura as his lawyer for a home-buying transaction in 2009. Scissura was fined $1100.

And his wife Jamie has previously taken advantage of her position, taking home eight valuable placemats given to attendees at a Brooklyn Museum gala in April 2008.

The summary

From the COIB press release:
For each of these trips, it was undisputed that the Brooklyn Borough President was conducting official business and thus could accept free airfare and related accommodations for himself. However, at no time was the Brooklyn Borough President’s wife an employee of the Borough President’s Office or of any other City agency. Therefore, her travel was not an expense that could have been properly paid for with City funds; and, thus, if the Borough President wished to have his wife accompany him, he was required to pay for her travel expenses himself. As stated in the Board’s Order, the
Brooklyn Borough President was so advised by the Board in writing of this requirement prior to the first of the three trips at issue.
Notwithstanding that prior notice from the Board, the Brooklyn Borough President accepted travel-related expenses for his wife from the Republic of Turkey for a trip in May 2007, from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in March 2009, and from the Federation of Turkish American Associations in November 2009. While none of these entities have business dealings with the City, and thus the acceptance of gifts from these entities is
not prescribed by the Board’s Valuable Gift Rule... the Board in its Order restated is long-standing advice that “a public servant may violate Charter Section 2604(b)(3) by accepting a gift even if the donor does not have such business dealings, if the public servant is receiving the gift only because of his or her City position.”
In the press

The Times's City Room coverage was headlined Markowitz Fined $20,000 for Wife’s Free Overseas Trips :
The board maintained that Ms. Markowitz, 53, is not an official staff member of the borough president’s office. But Mr. Markowitz, 66, said that it was part of his duty as borough president, representing a city with a diverse international population, to bring his wife because that it is protocol for other countries that invite foreign dignitaries.

“I am mayor of Brooklyn, no I am not mayor, I am the borough president,” he said, correcting himself. “But when you are in a foreign country, they look upon the job a little differently. They see me as the chief executive officer of the city of Brooklyn.”

The board said that at one point in his testimony, he referred to his wife as “the first lady of Brooklyn.”
The Daily News headlined its coverage as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowtiz fined $20,000 for taking free foreign trips for his wife:
Markowitz called the fine an "outrage," saying he had been warned only that he couldn't take his wife on a free trip from the Cunard cruise ship line.
The Post headlined its coverage Markowitz fined $20K for taking wife on trips funded by foreign governments:
Markowitz insisted the was no conflict -- while there might have been with the Queens Mary-- since neither Holland or Turkey do business with the city, nor does a non-profit that also provided funding.

"I was representing Brooklyn and New York," he said.

"I'm not a dummy. I understand what a conflict is...I didn't abuse my position. What they're saying is they don't recognize my role (in promoting the city and Brooklyn) beyond the borders of Brooklyn. They don't believe my wife has any role and they're wrong. You go to Europe, other countries, being borough president Brooklyn is a big thing there."
Markowitz's defense

Markowitz entertainingly diverted the subject. The Post quoted his statement (below):
"Some people get in trouble when they don't take their wives," he said. "I'm getting in trouble because I took my wife."
He told the Times:
“When you go to a hotel, the price is for double occupancy,” he said. “And how do you break it up when you go to buffets that are sponsored by governments?”
Watch Markowitz defend himself on camera, on NY1:
"I was thrilled that we were able to represent Brooklyn and New York without using one penny of government funds, not one penny of New York City funds. I was thrilled! And I still think we did the right thing," said Markowitz.
Why bring his wife?

The Brooklyn Paper, in its report, observed:
It is unclear why Jamie Markowitz joined her husband on the trips, judging by the itineraries.
That may be answered in what I'd call the best passage from the findings:
Respondent also presented evidence that he had turned down other trips abroad, he "is not a good flyer," and he never flew anywhere without his wife. Thus, respondent argued, he needed his wife to join him on the trips to enable him to perform his official duties. The wish to stay home or only travel with a spouse is a personal preference. Once he accepted free travel for his wife, respondent used his position to satisfy his personal preference. This is a private or personal advantage
Editorial criticism

The Post, which has long crusaded against the position of borough president, published an editorial, headlned Brooklyn beep's serial trips, scoffing at Markowitz's claim of being the victim and observing
So let's just say that cutting ethical corners seems to be Markowitz's MO.
Unmentioned: Markowitz's cutting ethical corners for the effort to recruit immigrant investors for Atlantic Yards.
My comments

I commented in the Times:
It's lame of of the Times to give Markowitz the last word on whether his wife is “the first lady of Brooklyn.”

As the judge in this case wrote, "the comparison is inapt," pointing to the fact that First Ladies are typically subject to intense public scrutiny and have their own staffs.

Beyond that, as the decision points out, Markowitz was the only member of the delegation to the Netherlands to bring a spouse.

Markowitz's comments about shared buffets and bedrooms obscure the fact that major benefit to his wife was free airfare.

They also obscure the fact that this case is really quite simple.

To quote the Final Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order:
Here, the record demonstrates that, prior to the travel at issue here, the Board advised Respondent in writing that if his wife were to accompany him on an official trip, he would be required to pay for her travel expenses. Subsequently, on the eve of his May 2007 trip to Turkey, Respondent in a letter to the Board acknowledged his receipt of that advice, writing that "[a]s indicated by the COIB...., I will pay for my wife's airfare, our meals and incidental expenses while in Turkey."

He didn't.
(I should add that did pay for her airfare that time, but not an internal flight within Turkey and, of course, they both shared a paid-for hotel room. Crucially, on future trips, he let his hosts pay for more, but he should have known better.)

The AY angle

I also commented:
It should be noted that last year, when Markowitz was invited by developer Forest City Ratner's partner, the New York City Regional Center, to accept a free trip to China to pitch potential immigrant investors on Atlantic Yards, the Borough President *was* willing to pay for his wife to join him.

Markowitz eventually backed out of that trip. (He claimed he'd gotten the OK from the Conflict of Interests Board, which is questionable.)

But he did make a video claiming, ridiculously, that "Brooklyn is 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards."

The Times never covered Markowitz's proposed trip, nor the video.
Statement from BP Markowitz on COIB Fine

“Some husbands get into trouble when they go on business trips without their wives. I get into trouble because I brought mine with me; I guess I continue to defy the odds. But, I am not ashamed of what I did and I do not think this fine is fair or even sane. The COIB has made it clear that no elected official—not the Mayor, City Council Speaker, Comptroller, Public Advocate, or any other Borough President—can bring their spouse on a trip abroad when a foreign government is paying. I don’t think that is good for New York—or our image as an international city. When Jamie and I were on these trips foreign officials looked at us as a team, and my wife and I were proud to represent Brooklyn and New York.”

Background Information on Trips

The size of this fine may imply a serious violation of COIB rules but THE FACTS of the case tell a very different story:
  • The Borough President was invited, in his official capacity, along with his wife, to go on these trips, which a judge and the COIB concede were city business.
“Petitioner did not dispute that respondent conducted official business on all three trips and he could accept free airfare and lodging for himself.” [ALJ Kevin F Casey, Report & Recommendation, 5/5/11 p. 1]
  • Zero taxpayer dollars were used to pay for these trips. [ALJ Kevin F Casey, Report & Recommendation, 5/5/11 p. 1]
  • The trips were paid for by foreign governments and no company that does business with NYC was involved. [ALJ Kevin F Casey, Report & Recommendation, 5/5/11 p. 1]
  • There are detailed itineraries that show the BP was not off vacationing – each trip required near constant attendance at official events with foreign dignitaries. At many of these events Jamie was required to attend with the BP. Jamie also had her own itinerary of official events including schools visits and time with women’s groups. The BP and Mrs. Markowitz were virtually never alone. ALJ Kevin Casey admits as much in writing:
“The trips had detailed itineraries with little downtime. Respondent and his wife dined with mayors and their spouses; listened to speeches; received proclamations; and visited hospitals, urban renewal zones, and religious centers. When they went to tourist destinations … local officials accompanied them.” [ALJ Kevin F Casey, Report & Recommendation, 5/5/11 p. 5-6]
  • At no point did the BP attempt to hide anything. In fact, the only way that the COIB found out about these trips was voluntary disclosure of them by the BP. [BP Markowitz COIB Electronic Financial Disclosure 2009, P. 6 & 2007 P. 7]
  • According to the COIB, if the BP attended events, regardless of cost, hosted by the same entities inside New York City, there would be no violation – there is no reason given why these trips should be any different other than they are “abroad.” [COIB Advisory Opinion 2000-4, 12/29/2000]
  • If any federally elected official did the same thing, there would be no violation.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz Conflict of Interest Ruling--$20,000 fine