Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

For Atlantic Yards Quality of Life meeting Sept. 19, another bare-bones agenda (green wall?)

A message from Empire State Development (ESD) reminds us that the next Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life Meeting--which aims to update community members on construction and other issues--will be held:
Tuesday, September 19, 2017 @ 6 pm
Shirley Chisholm State Office Building
55 Hanson Place
1st Floor Conference Room
Brooklyn, NY 11217 The typically bare-bones, agenda, below, tells us nothing about the content of the presentation. One thing to look for is any hint of plans to start a new building on the southeast block of the project by the end of the year.

If not, ESD is supposed to re-evaluate a longstanding request from project neighbors to move back a giant wall encroaching on part of Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. It's said to enclose construction activity, but, in recent months, has significantly served to protect worker parking.

Also, by the way, if you search for Atlantic Yards on Google or the ESD website, it leads to this page for the Atlantic Ya…