Millergate: How Will The Council React?
Long before the abuses began, Council Speaker Giff Miller
at a Tribune party with Publisher Michael Schenkler. Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I really don’t understand it.
I guess I should be pleased, because a dozen or so City insiders have called or emailed to give me credit for outing Giff Miller’s outrageous abuse of City funds for his personal political purposes. Sure I started yelling on June 23 in this column titled “Shame On You, Giff Miller: Abusing Public Funds” after I saw Miller’s first mailing piece claiming to be a Council budget presentation, which in fact was a political promotional piece for his campaign for Mayor. I have since written two more columns: on June 30, “Crossing The Line: Campaigning On Public Money,” and July 14, “Abusing City Funds,” screaming for Miller’s out-of-control looting of the City treasury to stop.
Yes, I started yelling first about “Millergate,” but I wasn’t sure that the people were listening. So I continued yelling – three columns in all demanding that Miller be held accountable for spending public money on his political campaign.
Someone heard. No, many heard.
Finally, after three weeks of Not4Publication angry presentations of the Miller exploits, on Friday, July 15, four City dailies finally followed this lone voice of sanity in telling the story of Millergate – the Council Speaker’s outrageous abuses of City money for campaign purposes.
The venerable New York Times in “Mailings From Miller’s Office Cost Taxpayers $1.6 Million” described the mail program: “The effort encompassed five different mailings and cost more than $1.6 million, roughly 3 percent of the Council’s total administrative budget. Residents in all but five Council districts received at least one mailing, according to the review. One of them, centered on quality of life issues, went to 1.4 million households; another, on class size, went to 1.2 million. All told, more than five million pieces of mail were sent.”
The Daily News on the same day reported in “Giff Got Mail Woes” that “Gifford Miller’s staffers vastly underestimated the cost and number of taxpayer-funded mailings sent out weeks ago in what critics say was a thinly disguised campaign blitz.”
Newsday explained, “When Miller (D-Manhattan) sent out millions of pieces of mail last month, his office estimated a cost of $37,000. Documents released yesterday showed five mailings on behalf of 46 of the Council’s 51 members cost a whopping $1.6 million.”
And finally, the small and new New York Sun, the paper that led the dailies, “The City Council’s mass mailings last month, which prominently featured campaign-style photos of Speaker Gifford Miller, cost $1.6 million, according to figures released to the New York Sun yesterday. A spokesman for the speaker’s office told the Sun last month that the mailings’ estimated cost was $37,000.”
“In June, the Miller spokesman, Stephen Sigmund, said the mailings were sent to more than 100,000 residents, but new numbers obtained by the Sun yesterday through a Freedom of Information Act request show that more than 5.8 million fliers and glossy brochures went out to households in 46 of the city’s 51 council districts.”
Three weeks and three columns after this writer began complaining, the City is starting to wake up to Millergate — the fact that the City Council has been run as Miller’s private club and personal treasury. And sadly, far too many otherwise honorable members of the City Council knowingly looked the other way.
Some “gave consent” for the mailings. Others asked to review them and were denied – but did not register complaints publicly or privately. A few went public and their districts likely suffered at the hands of Miller’s unilateral budget dealings. Some, as recently as last week, were party to City paid additional full-color Miller political printings which were used as handouts since Council regs prohibit such electioneering type mailings this close to the primary – but Miller continued to print at City expense. The total cost is yet to be tallied and is likely to grow well beyond the $1.6 million.
Will Miller be required to repay the City Treasury from campaign funds? Will Miller be denied City matching funds because of the unreported City in-kind campaign contribution? Will the system act against one of its own?
It is regrettable that the process is so corrupt that most of our fine Queens delegation quietly accepted Miller’s abuses or looked the other way. I assure you, they knew it was wrong. They knew it was outrageous. Several even told me, but explained their position in the Council, budget allocations, and relationship with Miller prevented them from saying anything privately and certainly they would not go on the record publicly.
With credit to Tony Avella, he condemned the Speaker’s mailings when we called. He yelled with outrage that mailings with his name and face alongside Miller’s went to his district without his approval. He complained to the Campaign Finance Board that it appeared that City money was being spent on campaign mailings. Avella’s relationship with the powers that be was already strained so there was not all that much more that could be done to punish him. However, his district likely paid a price for Tony’s most honorable and proper move.
The rest quietly played the game. My friends, people I like and respect, chose silence or worse — one chose to endorse and support the effort of looting the City treasury.
I wonder what they will say now.
Many of those Councilmem-bers have endorsed Miller for Mayor. Can they, will they continue to support the man who violated the system and used the people’s pockets to pay for his campaign? Will they come forward and repudiate Miller? Will good people do the right thing or will politics prevail?
I invite each of the 14 Council people to call us and go on the record about Miller’s abuse of more than $1.6 million dollars of City money for campaign purposes. Will they support his Mayoral effort? Will they demand he repay the City Treasury? Will they finally take a stand distancing themselves from the political wall of silence that too long has marred their profession.
They wonder why politicians – elected officials – are held in such low esteem.
And then they remain silent when one of their own abuses the system. They watch him loot the city treasury, punish members for their principled independence and abuse the power of his office.
Surprise! The people don’t approve.
Can elected officials remain true to the calling?
For Miller, this is the beginning of the end — not that he would have been Mayor had he not used the City budget for campaign purposes. However, one bright young man has now been relegated to the position of has-been. This blemish shall follow him should he ever try to revive his failed political career.
For the rest of us, it brings us again staring into the ugly face of the ability of power and temptation to corrupt. Politics and politicians, government and government service, bare the blemishes of decisions and deals made by elected officials for self interest or money.
Almost daily, our elected officials have to cut deals and weigh outcomes as they make decisions. They know right from wrong. Can they evaluate each decision clearly, recognizing when self interest and political dealing violates the reason they were elected to serve?
In Millergate, most of the Councilmembers chose silence over principle – protecting the City’s money. They justified, rationalized and made excuses. They really knew right from wrong. I expect you will be hearing that from them now, as we go forward.
Perhaps this is a good moment to alert all that our Councilmembers will be tested again – very soon. Each and every one of the present 14 Queens Councilmembers sat in my office almost four years ago and stated clearly that they would not vote to overturn term limits without a referendum of the people. I asked each clearly. And each responded without doubt.
That was before they were elected.
Now expect the question to be put to them between November and year’s end.
When they were seeking office they each supported the people’s right to term limit and pledged they would not seek to change the law without going back to the people.
Now that they are the ones facing term limits in four years, will they be true to their words?
Or will self interest and overturning term limits follow Millergate as the next blemish on the Council that could have been different?
We shall be there to tell the story.