Friday, March 19, 2010

Bloomberg's Enlightened Self-Interest

The NY Times focuses on the generosity of Mike Bloomberg today-and the fear of scores of groups that his gifts won't keep on giving: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City’s richest man and biggest philanthropist, is quietly pulling the plug on an unusual program that has poured nearly $200 million of his fortune into nonprofit groups across the five boroughs, in a sign of major change under way in his charitable giving plans. His decision, which is not yet public, has set off alarm in the city’s arts and social services worlds, which depend heavily on his largesse and are grappling with deep budget cuts and a brutal fund-raising climate."

But, until now, very little light has been shed on a gift giving program that cannot be seen-given the mayor's public role-as anything but an aggrandizement of his political power: "Since he was first elected mayor in 2001, Mr. Bloomberg has provided money to hundreds of mostly small neighborhood, arts and cultural groups through the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic trust, in a process that was remarkably informal and closely coordinated with City Hall. The gifts reflect the often blurred roles Mr. Bloomberg plays in the city as mayor, tycoon and philanthropist. And while the donations earned him praise from grateful recipients, who regarded him as an enlightened billionaire, they also drew rebukes from elected leaders who argued that he bought political acquiescence with his checkbook."

Now we have argued for quite some time that the obscene electoral spending by Bloomberg is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the uses-and abuses-of the Bloomberg fortune is concerned; and there has been much too little scrutiny of a pattern of influence peddling that knows no parallel in the history of NYC politics. A small glimpse of this was observed as the mayor bought his third term: "That tension was heightened during the mayor’s 2008 push to rewrite the city’s term limits law. His aides asked several groups that had received Carnegie grants to lobby for the change publicly, which allowed him to remain in office for four more years."

So when are we going to get a full and open public accounting of this unique kind of influence peddling? Isn't it in the public interest to have full disclosure so we can at least know which groups are wholly owned subsidiaries of the mayor? This is all really remarkable-and there are simply no precedents-or checks on-this kind of a process in our putatively democratic system. Left unchecked, however, the power of Bloomberg's wealth is nothing but a corrupt force and we need to devise a method-at least going forward-to prevent people of vast wealth from undermining the city's democratic procedures.

And, as far as the present is concerned, we need for all of our so-called watch dogs to demand that the mayor-and the Carnegie folks-come clean with a full list of beneficiaries since the giving process was so enticing: "The program was unusual in many ways: Mr. Bloomberg technically gave the money as an anonymous donor, but it was an open secret that it came from him; each year the Carnegie Corporation published a list of the donations and recipients, and the mayor’s press office alerted reporters to its release. The money was given to the groups in unrestricted gifts that had surprisingly few reporting or accounting requirements. Mr. Bloomberg never demanded that Carnegie provide him with a detailed report on how the money was spent. He would simply send a single check for tens of millions of dollars every December."

Now if Larry Seabrook misdirected over a million dollars to his own family through member items, he should rightly be punished-but the Bloomberg Method is, although not illegal, infinitely more dangerous to our system of open government. It's existence totally undermines any possibility of checking mayoral power under a system of government that affords the city's chief executive far too much power already.

The timing of the program's demise is also striking: "There have been hints over the past two years that the program may be drawing to a close. In summer 2008, Carnegie notified recipients that further donations were “under review by the donor” and could undergo significant changes. At the same time, Carnegie encouraged the groups to participate in a training program, financed by Mr. Bloomberg, to help strengthen their management and fund-raising skills."

Just in time for Bloomberg to say, "Hello, I must be going." Now we have no doubt that the mayor will continue to give away gazillions; but we wonder whether the same pattern of NYC giving-one that has greatly enhanced his personal political power-will be continued now that Bloomberg doesn't need to curry favor for any local political advantage. Frankly, we tend to doubt that this process of subornation will survive the end of the Bloomberg Era.