Scandal and the Planning Commission

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, May 23, 1986

The corruption scandal is now reaching closer to the core of New York City government. Two of the six members of the City Planning Commission are under investigation for influence-peddling, conflicts of interest and worse — which puts the bad-news cloud of the scandal hovering damagingly over the agency with the primary responsibility for directing the city’s development and shaping its long-term future.

The cloud does not carry the suggestion that the planning commission as a body has engaged in the stead pattern of corrupt acts attributed to such fiefdoms as the Parking Violations Bureau or the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But it does suggest that the political process by which seats on the planning commission are filled has tainted the important agency’s purpose.

The two members under investigation are John Gulino, who represents Staten Island, and Theodore Teah, who represents the Bronx. Actually, they represent only the power apparatus in their respective boroughs.

Teah is a close associate of the Bronx Democratic leader, Stanley Friedman, who has been indicted on state and federal charges that include bribery and racketeering. Gulino is similarly close to the Democratic organization in Staten Island, where the borough president, Ralph Lamberti, was found by the city’s Department of Investigation to have violated the city’s ethics code and is now under criminal investigation for allegedly using his public office for private profit.

Neither Teah nor Gulino have any apparent qualifications for the planning commission. It is their defects that are apparent.

Gulino, for example, has indicated a need for remedial reading to improve his comprehension of the city’s code as a fairy tale.

Gulino, as a lawyer, has represented real-estate developers who have business dealings with the city, such as leasing and purchasing city property. The ethics code prohibits a city employee from doing this. It’s as simple as that.

Gulino says he would be guilty of violating the code only if he appeared on behalf of his clients before the Planning Commission or some other city agency.

But the code says that no city employee “shall act as attorney, agent, broker, director, officer, employee or consultant for any person, firm corporation or other entity interested directly or indirectly in any manner whatsoever in any…business dealings with the city or any city agency.” Quite clear.

Teah, also a lawyer, is under investigation for alleged hanky-panky with cable television contracts in the Bronx and for his relationship with a reputed mob figure he represented in real estate transaction.

It might be argued that Gulino and Teah have every reason to be surprised that attention is being paid to the means they use to make a living, for these are activities they had come to regard as immune from examination. But, un-American as it is to change the rules in midge, the scandal has healthily stripped away some of these old clubhouse immunities and the public is getting a rare look at how the store was being run.

That the scandal has now touched members of the planning commission is a matter more serious than pocket-stuffing at the Parking Violations Bureau.

But it was probably destined to happen.

On paper, the commission is supposed to be top quality in its membership, citywide in its view, independent in its actions and free of political horse-trading. However, since the mid-1970s — when the City Charter was changed to require that there be at least one resident from each borough on the commission — the agency’s purpose has been steadily eroded. (Every member of the commission at the time opposed this change.)

The mayor does all the appointing, but the nominations now come from the Democratic party leaders in each borough. Patronage in some cases has replaced quality. The jobs, which are part-time and carry 8-year terms, pay $21,000 a year.

Teah functions on the planning commission as an adjunct of the Bronx Democratic organization — he was campaign manager last year for Borough President Stanley Simon — and therefore his deficiency on a body putatively devoted to a civic overview is rather obvious.

Also obvious is his very poor attendance record at commission meetings.

Gulino, when he was appointed in 1978, was opposed by the American Institute of Architects and by then City Council members Henry Stern and Robert Wagner Jr. Those familiar with the workings of the commission say he shows interest in the proceedings only on matters involving Staten Island.

Though incidental, it is worth mentioning that the budding Staten Island component in the city scandal threatens to deliver to the “forgotten” borough, however perversely, the reward it has long pined for — equal billing with the other boroughs.

Mayor Edward Koch’s position on the disclosures about Teach and Gulino has been, uncharacteristically, a reluctance to speak.

Having appointed them, Koch could remove them, after a hearing, for such cause as “proof of official misconduct or of negligence in official duties which tends to discredit his office.” But the mayor, instead, has refused even to offer the mildest of criticism.

The full-time chairman of the planning commission, Herbert Sturz, who is responsible for the direction of the six part-time members, has also chose to remain silent. Through an aide, he issued the following statement: “As I understand it, I do not think it appropriate to comment.”

Sturz has a strong reputation for public service both outside and inside government, and no one is suggesting that he countenanced over corruption. But criminality is not the only species of corruption, and he can’t help but know intuitively what is wrong here.

The planning commission is simply too important to be left vulnerable to the infections of patronage, hackdom and special interests.


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