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Powell on pause? Crusading Times columnist sits out Yonkers corruption trial (involving Forest City Ratner) that he put on the agenda

Michael Powell was on a roll. The Times's crusading "Gotham" columnist, who since his debut last May has challenged the mayor, the governor, and other pillars of the power structure, had Brooklyn developer Forest City Ratner--tinged but not charged in two political corruption cases--in his sights.

After Powell's January 10 column (A Developer Between Legal Clouds), former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum even wrote a letter to the Times, insisting that developer Bruce Ratner "has always demonstrated the highest ethical standards and behavior."

Powell, a one-time tenant organizer and political reporter, was undeterred, despite Ratner's ties to his Times bosses. In Powell's February 14 column (Tracking the Tentacles of Corruption), he raised an eyebrow at Gotbaum's letter, suggesting that Ratner's "willingness to tuck affordable apartments into his gleaming towers [at Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards] is perhaps a reasonable political tradeoff rather than a testament to his character."

Shortly after that, Powell, on Twitter reported that three Forest City executives could testify in the corruption trial regarding the developer's Ridge Hill retail/residential project in Yonkers. It passed only after a City Council Member Sandy Annabi, long opposed to the project, flipped her vote, allegedly because she had long been taking cash from political ally Zehy Jereis, who later got a no-show job from Forest City.

After that, silence.

People asked me: Why did he sit it out? Did someone get to him?

When I queried him last week, Powell said he has complete editorial freedom, but had to make some choices for his weekly column under time pressure.

Ratner gets lucky

Powell's explanation is surely defensible, but the Ratner camp dodged a bullet when its executives' dubious behavior--hiring Jereis and pushing through payments for him despite sketchy invoices--provoked so little attention. Even Crain's New York Business columnist Greg David, generally a supporter of Forest City, slammed the New York press for pretty much ignoring the trial,

And the Times's treatment of the developer has hardly been aggressive, especially regarding Atlantic Yards. (Forest City Ratner and the New York Times Company were partners in building the Times Tower in Midtown.)

The Times, upon news of the Yonkers indictment in 2010, generously--and wrongly--reported that the developer had somehow been "bilked" by Jereis, who was willingly given a no-show job.

Regarding the trial, the Times avoided daily stories covering Forest City testimony but instead produced a March 1 round-up, in which Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco claimed that unspecified critics--Powell, perhaps?--had, in the Times's paraphrase, "focused unfairly on the developer’s role.

A columnist might have suggested that Forest City got off easy, gaining the benefit of allegedly corrupt acts--clearly not Gotbaum's "highest ethical standards"--without paying any price.

Desperate to get Annabi's vote, Bruce Bender--once Ratner's chief "fixer," in Powell's parlance--chose to work with the dodgy Jereis, who offered Forest City access to Annabi, then pressed for a job. The developer put him off--at least until after Annabi's vote. "We were between a rock and a hard place," contended Bender, who wound up with his own difficulties, exiting Forest City's employ shortly before the trial.

Then another former Forest City employee testified how, after Jereis got his no-show consulting job, Bender and longtime sidekick Scott Cantone pushed through a payment. Such testimony was sensitive enough to draw three Forest City reps to the gallery.

Even now, as the case has moved off Ridge Hill, Forest City sends a daily observer, Michael Rapfogel, who just happens to be the son of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's chief of staff.

Deadline decisions

Powell told me that, as a member of the Newspaper Guild's negotiating committee, meetings have sucked away at his time. He was busy on his illuminating Sunday Metropolitan section takeout on Russian kingmaker Gregory Davidzon. He later broke a daily story on fraud in a city job-training program. (Now, he's out of the country on a reporting trip.)

He did attend the trial early on. But, crucially, Bender's testimony did not occur on a Thursday, the last day of the Monday-Thursday trial schedule, but rather the following Monday, the day before Powell's weekly column.

So Powell, three Fridays back, prepared for his next column by reporting evocatively in Newark on police treatment of Muslims. "I made a calculation that it was more likely to be an interesting day than an explosive day [in court]," Powell said. "At the same time, there was an absolutely explosive series of stories the AP had done on police spying, which has ramifications for our region, and national ramifications."

OK, Powell can't be expected to stick with Yonkers when there's so much else worth covering. He said he has the trial transcripts and may return to the case, just he periodically returns to other issues he's covered: "part of my column is to move around a bit."

But there are too few columnists of Powell's ilk in this city. Once the city's dailies had several columnists who were expected to visit controversial events and deliver considered conclusions.

And a columnist's voice was needed to convey the seamy side of Ridge Hill--especially when Forest City was about to gain from softball interviews with Bruce Ratner conducted by Charlie Rose and the Times Real Estate section.

Bender's trial testimony deserved more attention, as did the baroque testimony of Anthony Mangone, the protege of Yonkers powerbroker Nick Spano, a longtime Republican state Senator turned lobbyist and the brother of the current mayor, Mike Spano.

On the stand, Mangone not only admitted Nick Spano had known about dirty tricks done on his behalf but also said a top state Republican, Binghamton Sen. Tom Libous, engineered a job at Mangone's law firm for his son, then caused payments to be directed to fund that job. (Libous is uncharged and, not so credibly, claimed he can't comment, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo has kept his distance.)

When Greg David of Crain's, who cheerleads for development proposals left and right, chides Forest City for its "See no evil, hear no evil" approach, you'd think such sentiments might also appear in the Paper of Record.

The Schanberg example

When Powell said he hasn't felt pressure from his bosses, I believe him. Still, it's quite possible to go too far treading on real estate toes. Sydney Schanberg, the legendary foreign correspondent turned twice-weekly local columnist, got the boot in 1985.

(Schanberg was a local columnist on the Op-Ed page, not, as with Powell, the Metro section. Such an Op-Ed columnist hasn't existed for a while.)

Schanberg clashed with bosses after challenging real estate developers and criticizing projects, like Westway, favored by the Times and the city's power structure. He even took on the Times itself. From Schanberg's last column, Cajun Flies and Westway, 7/27/85
Our newspapers, oddly, can't seem to find space for Westway and its scandal....
As a public works project, the Westway plan may be this generation's largest suggested misuse of scarce public funds, but we do owe it an educational debt - as a wondrous, unfolding case study of wheeling and stealing on a grand scale...
The big unions say Westway will mean jobs. Big business says it will mean big business. The politicians don't want to offend anyone big because it's the big people who pay for their election campaigns.
...The city's newspapers, like the big politicians, have also ignored most of the scandal. 
As Eric Alterman wrote in his 1992 book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, "Nor did [publisher Punch Sulzberger and his assistant Sydney Gruson] approve of the way Schanberg returned to the question of New York real estate developers 'day after day.'"

Powell's busy, sometimes contentious Twitter feed, where he weighs in on everything from Knicks to Mitt Romney, also went silent on the issue of Ridge Hill. He told me that Twitter, for him, is "kind of free associative" and that it's difficult to tweet on a trial you don't attend.

That's plausible. Still, I'd suggest--though I didn't bring this (or Schanberg) up in our conversation--that it also would have been difficult, in terms of office politics, for Powell to use Twitter to keep Ridge Hill in the public eye, re-tweeting others' trial coverage and commentary.

That could sound like implicit criticism of not just his own paper but his own department.

That may be the difference between an Op-Ed columnist like Schanberg and a Metro columnist like Powell who still works with beat reporters and Metro editors, and files both columns and reportage. And it may be the line between prudent crusades and imprudent ones.