Saturday, May 3, 2008

Papers Filed for Judicial Hearing on City Council Spending

Published: May 3, 2008

Relying on an antiquated provision of the New York City Charter, a civil rights lawyer filed papers in State Supreme Court on Friday requesting a judicial hearing on City Council spending practices that have recently come under intense scrutiny. The hearing, known as a summary inquiry, would not determine guilt or innocence, but would merely lay out the facts surrounding the case for public review.

Federal prosecutors have been examining a longtime Council practice in which members appropriate discretionary funds to nonexistent organizations and channel the funds to other programs without mayoral approval.

The lawyer, Norman Siegel, said a hearing would be an important step, even though what came out of it would not be admissible in criminal court.

“What this is about is creating an alternative remedy for the taxpayers of New York to hold their public officials accountable by publicly disclosing the facts surrounding an allegation of impropriety,” Mr. Siegel said.

The provision, Section 1109 of the charter, was created in 1873, a product of the Boss Tweed era, when the New York politician William M. Tweed bilked the city of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The hearing would involve witnesses testifying under oath before a judge, Mr. Siegel said. A record of the testimony would be kept by the city clerk and would be available to the public.

A summary inquiry can be requested in several ways, according to the statute, including by affidavit from at least five taxpaying citizens. In this case, Mr. Siegel gathered affidavits from eight people who say they are concerned about the allegations of misuse of funds by members of the City Council. The request calls for an inquiry into the City Council and its speaker, Christine C. Quinn.

Ms. Quinn responded to the filing with a statement that read: “Today a lawsuit was filed which we believe serves no purpose. We therefore question the motives of this lawsuit and suspect it could be motivated by the desire for cheap publicity.

“That being said, recently my office identified a longstanding budget practice that is unacceptable and inappropriate. Upon uncovering this practice, we immediately turned over relevant information to the U.S. attorney and the Department of Investigation. We are fully cooperating with their investigation, and are working hard to implement reforms that will make the City’s budget fully transparent and completely accountable to taxpayers.”

A judge on Friday set a hearing for May 29 to determine whether to hold a summary inquiry.

Mr. Siegel said that because the statute originated as a response to financial corruption, it was especially fitting for the current situation.

“It’s brilliantly on target regarding the recent revelations concerning the City Council’s practices,” he said.

But history suggests it can be difficult to persuade a judge to hear a summary inquiry. Requests are often thrown out because nothing illegal seems to have occurred, according to previous case summaries. Mr. Siegel said that only about eight summary inquiries have taken place.

The summary inquiry statute was last used in 2000, Mr. Siegel said, when a judge ordered a hearing into Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s decision to release the juvenile criminal record of Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old man who was shot and killed by the police. Mr. Dorismond’s criminal record had been sealed.

Diane Cardwell contributed reporting.

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