Saturday, April 5, 2008

Editorial: NYT

Ms. Quinn and the Potemkin Accounts

Since she became speaker of the City Council in 2006, Christine Quinn has been a refreshing advocate for transparency in government. So it was especially disappointing to learn that her office had continued a seven-year-old practice of squirreling away money so it could be handed out away from the public eye.

The money, $4.5 million for the current fiscal year alone and $17.4 million since 2001, was parked in dozens of accounts with names like Coalition for Informed Individuals and Firewood Senior Services — all of them as fake as acrylic fingernails. The device was apparently designed to allow the City Council speaker to hand out funds for pet projects throughout the year, getting around a requirement to allocate money at the start of the fiscal year. While it does not seem as if the public’s money was spent illegally, it does seem likely that political favors were bestowed without accountability.

A full investigation is needed, as is much closer monitoring of money that goes through the City Council.

Since the practice was disclosed this week in The New York Post, Ms. Quinn has seemed properly chastened, but she may be over-reaching in claiming the high ground. She says she tried to stop the phony allocations, something her predecessors, Peter Vallone and Gifford Miller, did not do. But she was oddly ineffectual. Ms. Quinn says she was disobeyed when she ordered her staff to stop stashing ghost funds last spring (two top finance aides later departed for undisclosed reasons). Finally, last fall, she alerted the United States attorney’s office and the city’s Department of Investigation, who were already examining other council-related finances. That action was late in coming.

Ms. Quinn’s troubles come at an especially bad time. New Yorkers have had their share of recent letdowns from public officials, beginning with the misadventures that led Gov. Eliot Spitzer to resign and the personal disclosures from his successor, David Paterson. The state and city budgets are being hammered out amid fiscal hardship, and Ms. Quinn’s attention is now diverted from something she has rightly championed: congestion pricing, which should come to a vote in Albany on Monday.

Ms. Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor next year, must now work to rebuild public confidence. She should ensure a full airing of Council finances, including submitting to outside audits. Ms. Quinn’s reformist zeal is still needed, starting at her official home.

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