Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dirty little secrets: City Council members have skirted laws, bent rules and abused their power

Sunday, March 20th 2011, 4:00 AM

Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) owed $100,000 in back-property taxes.
Lombard for News
Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) owed $100,000 in back-property taxes.
Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan).
Showalter for News
Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan).

More than a dozen City Council members have skirted laws, bent rules or used their positions to benefit themselves, a Daily News probe has found.

A three-month investigation found Council members who dodged taxes, violated the city's housing and building code, circumvented regulations to get cheap housing and, in one case, even ignored criminal bench warrants.

As part of the probe, The News reviewed thousands of pages of records regarding judgments, liens, tax history, property ownership, building and housing code violations, campaign finance and financial disclosure.

And while the Council's 51 members - one of whom is under indictment - routinely make laws on everything from smoking in public to recycling trash, The News found many have a history of ignoring the letter of the law.

Confronted by the News, several Council members admitted they'd made mistakes in judgment and promised to rectify them.

"There is no excuse," said one.

"To me, my integrity means a lot," said another.

Among the findings, to be detailed in The News over three days:

  • Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Queens) has two outstanding arrest warrants on pending criminal charges. He's also a deadbeat dad who owes more than $27,000.
  • Four Council members - Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), Mathieu Eugene (D-Brooklyn), Peter Koo (R-Queens) and Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) - get tax breaks by claiming a primary residence outside their districts. Council members are required to live in their districts.
  • Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) is about to move into a luxury condo building where she used taxpayer dollars to resolve a conflict with a neighboring building over garbage. She's also been sued repeatedly for nonpayment of rent.
  • Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) owed $100,000 in back-property taxes - some dating to 2009 - and has been cited repeatedly for unsafe conditions in Harlem apartment buildings she owns. She's also been accused of hiding assets to dodge estate taxes.
  • Councilman Eric Dilan (D-Brooklyn) got into affordable housing that's supposed to go to families making no more than $114,000. At the time, he and his wife made $160,000. The building owner is a campaign donor.
  • Councilman Williams twice ignored city inspectors investigating allegations he has an illegally converted apartment in a building he owns.
  • Councilman Larry Seabrook (D-Bronx) is under indictment for running a shakedown scheme and illegally pocketing cash, including collecting $177 in expenses - for a $7 bagel and diet soda - from a political club he runs. He has denied wrongdoing.
  • Several Council members are swimming in debt, including James Sanders (D-Queens), who faces eviction because the $588,000 home he bought with no money down is in foreclosure. Sanders rails against "predatory lenders" without revealing his own precarious situation.
  • Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) has a one-third interest in at least one Puerto Rico rental condo, but reports no income. Members are supposed to report any income over $1,000 per year.

    At first she told The News she was co-owner of two rental condos: a three-bedroom worth as much as $500,000 near the beach in the upscale tourist area of Condado, and a one-bedroom in secluded Punta Las Marias worth up to $250,000.

    Ian Malinow, a real estate broker in San Juan, said the larger unit could get $1,500 to $2,000 a month, the smaller one $1,000 a month.

    Mark-Viverito first said both condos were rentals. Asked why she reported no income, she replied: "You don't have to report income."

    After being told she must report any income over $1,000 a year, she changed her story, saying only one condo generated income, and all of that went to her mother due to an "oral agreement" they had.
  • Seven Council members pay rent to themselves or to entities controlled by relatives for campaign offices.
  • Mixing politics and city business is fairly common. Eight City Council members use Council employees as campaign treasurers; 10 others use city employees to oversee their campaigns. This is legal, although city workers must do all political work on their own time.
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