N.Y. / Region | City Hall Memo |NYT Now
De Blasio’s Transparency Is Turning Opaque Under Fire
To Mayor Bill de Blasio, the recent commotion over Rachel Noerdlinger, his wife’s top aide — who failed to disclose during a background check that she lives with a boyfriend who has a serious criminal history — is a tabloid-fueled personal attack that merits no further discussion.
“Case closed,” the mayor said this week, adopting the move-it-along-folks attitude that has quickly become a de Blasio signature during his first nine months in office.
It is not unusual for mayors to want irritating story lines to go away. But the Noerdlinger episode has fueled a broader question about Mr. de Blasio and the values of his young administration: how a onetime champion of transparency and accountability can square those ideals with the newfound power — and frustrations — of his office.
As a candidate, Mr. de Blasio pledged an ask-me-anything era at City Hall, promoting himself as a different, friendlier breed of political leader. And as public advocate, he frequently assailed former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for standing by senior aides, such as the former schools chief Cathleen P. Black, who had found themselves under fire.
Now, experiencing some of the same difficulties faced by his predecessors, Mr. de Blasio is responding with the same sort of peevishness and obfuscation he once bemoaned.
The mayor has shut down questions about why he phoned a high-ranking police official after the arrest of a campaign supporter, telling reporters, “That’s the end of the story.” Told by a television reporter that New Yorkers wanted to know why his police-issued S.U.V. was speeding on residential streets in Queens, the mayor replied, “I’m not interested in the construct of what you as an individual think many New Yorkers think.”
Even lighthearted queries can prompt a stony response. Last month, Mr. de Blasio refused to say how he felt after learning of the death of Staten Island Chuck, the groundhog who fell from his arms in a ceremonial mishap. “Talk to the Staten Island Zoo,” the mayor said, mirthlessly.
Determined not to let critics or news coverage set their agenda, Mr. de Blasio and his City Hall advisers have taken to ignoring inquiries on matters that displease them. His communications team believes strongly that most negative stories will disappear, or at least be forgotten by the time Mr. de Blasio’s re-election effort rolls around in 2017.
That approach is being tested again by the episode involving Ms. Noerdlinger, a former adviser to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is paid $170,000 a year predominantly to shape the image of the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray.
The facts of the matter are not in dispute. Ms. Noerdlinger lives with a boyfriend, Hassaun McFarlan, who went to prison for manslaughter as a teenager and has been arrested several times since, including last fall when he nearly struck a New Jersey police officer while driving Ms. Noerdlinger’s car.
When she applied for her job, Ms. Noerdlinger informed the mayor’s team about her relationship. But she did not list Mr. McFarlan as a resident of her home on a formal background questionnaire used by the city’s Department of Investigation to vet candidates for high-ranking city positions
If there is a simple explanation for the discrepancy, Mr. de Blasio and his team are not providing it. For a week, the mayor’s office has not answered questions about why Ms. Noerdlinger left out her boyfriend’s name, an omission that can be punished by dismissal.
Mr. de Blasio’s aides have also declined to release or discuss the contents of a letter sent to the mayor last week by Mark G. Peters, the commissioner of the Investigation Department, which conducted an inquiry into Ms. Noerdlinger’s actions.
The letter summarizes the findings of the inquiry, but Phil Walzak, the mayor’s press secretary, said in an email that he could not discuss those findings “because this document is subject to privacy protections.” The mayor’s office has not provided a legal basis for those protections.
Instead, the mayor’s office issued a statement saying simply that the Investigation Department had found no “intent to deceive the mayor or City Hall” on the part of Ms. Noerdlinger, whom Mr. de Blasio chose not to discipline beyond a note in her personnel file.
Ms. Noerdlinger’s actions, by themselves, do not amount to a Watergate-size scandal. But the mayor’s response has troubled some who believe she is being afforded special protection.
“I would have expected at the very least a slap on the wrist,” said Kenneth Sherrill, who taught political science at Hunter College for 41 years. “I find it hard to believe that a rank-and-file public employee who even mistakenly filled out a form like that would not be punished.”
“I enthusiastically support the right of anyone to have a personal life,” Mr. Sherrill added. “The disclosure thing, obviously, is troubling.”
For the mayor, the political dynamics at play are complex.
Ms. Noerdlinger is black, and Mr. de Blasio’s team believes privately that the criticism of her has been racially charged. Police unions, angered by the influential role given to Mr. Sharpton in the de Blasio administration, have seized on reports about Ms. Noerdlinger’s boyfriend — including claims that he referred to law enforcement officers as “pigs” in online postings — to say she should not occupy a high-ranking place in City Hall.
Mr. de Blasio is also reluctant to acquiesce to pressure, believing that to punish Ms. Noerdlinger would amount to ceding personnel decisions to outsiders, advisers who are familiar with his thinking say.
“She is a good public servant, and that’s what I respect,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference on Staten Island this week, where he was repeatedly questioned about Ms. Noerdlinger’s omission (and where he made his “case closed” remarks).
To combat questions of transparency, the mayor’s press office often notes that it distributes a near-verbatim transcript of every mayoral news conference just hours after it has occurred.
But this week brought an unusual exception. Mr. de Blasio made his comments about Ms. Noerdlinger on Monday afternoon. By Thursday evening, the transcript from that event had still not been sent.