Monday, December 10, 2007

Conflicts for a New Political Reality

Over the weekend there was a fascinating story in the NY Times about the blurring of lines between Mike Bloomberg the mayor, and Bloomberg the billionaire. The piece touches on some of the things that we've been saying about the alleged way in which Bloomberg-and many in the media-sees himself as above politics.

The belief does have some validity if we examine this issue from a traditional perspective, one that looks at political conflicts in the manner of the tawdry wheeling and dealing of Tammany Hall. Mayor Mike doesn't operate on the down low like some low rent George Washington Plunkitt. The Times story, however, reveals how the mayor's business interests-this time with Verizon-could have influenced the city's negotiation with the telecom giant:

The conflict's potential emerged when Deputy Mayor Dan Docotoroff left his post to take over at Bloomberg LLP. As Councilman Avella told the Times: “He’s got all this confidential information in his head from the Verizon negotiations that he is taking over to Bloomberg L.P., a company that is part of the greater telecommunications field,” said City Councilman Tony Avella, who has been pushing for more openness on the Verizon negotiations."

The story was particularly prescient about the useless role of the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. According to the paper the movement of Deputy Dan off to Bloomberg LLP, and all of the mayor's dealings with his company, was vetted by the COIB: "Mr. Bloomberg’s aides say that since taking office in 2002, the mayor has fully complied with an advisory opinion issued by the board that aimed to keep the mayor’s role as majority owner of his company from conflicting with his public role as mayor."

Of course, the COIB has no ability to accurately evaluate anything that Bloomberg wants to do since the board, as the Times points out, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor who appoints all of its members: "And the board has limited power to police the agreement anyway. It does not provide continuing oversight of its agreements or conduct regular audits. It can begin investigations, but does so only when, based on a tip or other information, it believes that an agreement has been violated."

All of this is reminiscent of the COIB's "action" around the alleged conflict between Deputy Dan and Related's Steve Ross. The capsule here? The board made a fairy tail ruling that the two friends didn't have any conflict since their dealings preceded Dan's entry into government. This in spite of the fact that Ross headed NYC 2012, the Bloomberg administration's-and Doctoroff's-first major policy initiative. Doctoroff then went on to hand Related numerous key development plums, including the absolute giveaway at the Bronx Terminal Market.

The reality is that the Bloomberg reach is so extensive, and opaque to the normal ken of the average reporter, that it's almost impossible to uncover the extent to which his wealth, political power, and personal self-interest intersect-to the detriment of what others might deem to be the public good. This can be seen to some extent, as we have commented before, in the areas of education and congestion pricing.

The educational mythos, propagated by an enlarged PR staff down at DOE, is aided and abetted by the mayor's philanthropic muscle and the system's outsourcing carrots. Groups and individuals are reluctant to speak out. and when they do-as in the case of Diane Ravitch-the mayor unleashes the hounds.

In this morning's NY Sun we catch a glimpse of this with a story on the apparent demise of the educational watch dog group known as the Educational Priorities Panel. Here's the money quote: "Because the city is contracting out a historic number of services to community groups, many groups are either loath to criticize city policy or incapable of raising any funds with which they might criticize, they said. Observers said difficulties faced by the Educational Priorities Panel, a 30-year-old coalition of advocates for the city schools whose dissolution goes into effect this month, reflect both trends."

It's impossible to really know the extent to which Bloomberg's private giving influences all of this; just as it is difficult to determine whether the mayor's charitable giving is funneling money into the advocates of congestion taxing. Even where a charity is not getting money directly from Bloomberg there's always the expectation that it might, a presentiment that may very well guide the pattern of dispensing largess.

So the mayor, about to launch a possible presidential bid, may very well be using all of his wealth and influence to control the flow of information and the formulation of certain policies that will put this potential run in the best light. It is certainly hard to divine where the public interest may lie, but we're fairly certain that it is not always coterminous with Mike Bloomberg's self-aggrandizement.