See No Scandal, Speak No Apology

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, May 20, 1986

So far, no member of the Board of Estimate has been indicted in the ongoing city corruption stink. That’s probably because there’s no criminal statute against feigning blindness.

There are two essentials to keep in mind when considering the Board of Estimate’s behavior. One, it’s the most powerful government body in New York City. And, two, its members, poor souls, say it was too dark in their corner for their eyes to make out the malfeasance when it appeared before them.

Since much of the chicanery unearthed in the recent corruption dig involves contracts whose final approval came from the board, the members’ plea of babe-like innocence is a bit like saying, “We’re responsible, but don’t blame us.”

The board is composed of the mayor, the City Council president, the comptroller and the five borough presidents. The borough presidents have one vote each; the three citywide officials have two votes each.

Together, these elected officials have the final vote on big city contracts, zoning changes, franchises and land use proposals, including most major private developments.

Most of the members rarely attend board meetings themselves, said in a recent interview in The New York Times about the board and the issue of accountability: “You’ve got to understand the role of the borough presidents. The role is to make sure his borough gets a fair share of the pie in New York City. We’re not an investigative body. We rely solely on agencies that represent information to us as being reliable and being honest, because we don’t check out these things.”

Speaking specifically about the huge Times Square redevelopment plan, which received unanimous approval from the board two years ago but parts of which are beginning to smell badly now, Golden said: “I realized the day would come [when] I would want projects for Brooklyn. I didn’t want everybody to say, ‘You didn’t vote for this so we won’t vote for Brooklyn.’ I didn’t look at who the developers were. That was for the mayor and the governor, and they were telling us this is something New York needs.”

Golden is not atypical. All the members of this mighty body say that they lacked the ability to examine closely the lucrative contracts they award and, more telling, that they didn’t think it was their job to do so.

Whose job it it? The seven other members generally point to the mayor and to the city agencies directly involved at the start with the contract proposals. But Mayor Koch says there was no way he could have detected the wrongdoing either.

So that’s that — no one on the Board of Estimate is accountable. It’s a new theory of government. The other guy was supposed to check it out.

Well, if they don’t go to meetings and they’re not responsible for the rottenness at the core of some of the contracts they award, then maybe they all should resign and let somebody responsible take over.

Or maybe the Board of Estimate should be dissolved — as a body that has become too powerful and too unchecked. Proposals to do this are now floating around, part of the reaction to the corruption scandal. Some of these suggestions would give the board’s powers to the City Council, which has grown lame as the board but restructure it and reduce its power.

One doesn’t have to choose between these alternatives to know that right now, with the Board of Estimate in existence, it is unacceptable for its members — the eight top elected officials in the city — to argue that they should not be held to account for the wrongdoing that emerges, wittingly or unwittingly, from their acts.

To persist in this argument is to encourage public cynicism. We are being asked to believe that these savvy politicians, while in performance of their duties on the Board of Estimate, were somehow rendered into such a state of doltishness that they could not perceive even the potential for conflict of interest in some of the petitions for contracts from those who had contributed mightily to their election campaigns.

As an antidote to this nonsense, it would be nice to hear from a member or two of the board that they were responsible, that they should have blown whistles and asked harder questions, that they had been too busy being lazy of ethical spirit, that they had taken the easy way of playing tradeoffs and mutual backscratching. But this is the stuff of daydreams.

The waking reality is closer to what a critic of the Board of Estimate, State Sen. Franz Leichter (D-Manhattan), said recently. “Right now,” he said, “I think there’s just a collegial spirit there. Nobody’s interested in going into questions of conflict or corruption because everybody’s had skeletons in their closet.”

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