Billy Thompson's Maximus Moment
There's something about a looming mayoral candidacy that makes even the mildest city comptrollers put some tough in their talk and some strut in their walk.
Former comptroller Alan Hevesi got along and mostly went along with Rudy Giuliani until the mayoral election of 2001 appeared on the horizon. Then Hevesi, planning his own run for City Hall, detected the stench of a $104 million-dollar contract to run the city's welfare-to-jobs programs that Giuliani wanted to go to a consulting firm called Maximus. The Virginia-based firm was chock full of neo-con hacks living the high life on the city's dime while they expensively lectured the poor about their responsibilities, while sharing the loot with Giuliani's own former top welfare policy advisor.
Hevesi dug his teeth firmly in Giuliani's thigh on that one and wouldn't let go, exposing one outrageous contract shenanigan after another that had been pulled on behalf of the Maximus deal. Even though Giuliani prevailed in court, Hevesi made his point and the press stopped calling him The Watchdog That Didn't Bark.
Now comes Billy Thompson's Maximus Moment. For seven years, the soft-spoken Brooklyn-bred comptroller has carefully avoided nasty fights with the billionaire mayor across the street. But his own mayoral campaign is now in the offing, and yesterday Thompson found his voice, rightly raging against Mike Bloomberg's own welfare policies, this time on behalf of baseball's richest team.
Thompson stopped just short of accusing Bloomberg's administration of fraud in its maneuverings to deliver city capital funds and $1.3 billion in tax-free bonds to the Yankees' new stadium. The city had estimated it would cost $12 million to tear down the House that Ruth Built, Thompson told a press conference yesterday. The Bloomberg biz whizzes somehow got it wrong, by a factor of more than double that price. Overall, capital costs have soared to two and a half times the city's original projections. Thompson suggested that expenses may have been deliberately low-balled to get the initial deal -- one that he voted for in 2006 -- approved.
"Either someone did this intentionally, or it is the worst job of management I've ever seen," said the comptroller.
Thompson also ridiculed Bloomberg's embarrassingly hard-ball negotiations to win a luxury suite for the mayor's exclusive use. The comptroller pointed out that the city had managed to parlay away $1.25 million worth of revenues from parking spots and highway billboards in its drive to get the box. Even after the mayor agreed last week to sell the suite back to the Yankees, his deal will still leave the city somewhere between $400,000 and $1.1 million poorer as a result of the botched deal.
Asked if he was changing his tone because of his threatened candidacy for mayor this year, Thompson denied it. "I am doing my job," he said. And he is. The Maximus show-down ended a nonaggression pact between Giuliani and Hevesi, one that had deprived citizens of the tough public debate required in overseeing billions in spending. The fight over the Yankees and their tax-payer subsidized luxury stadium -- which continues today at the hearing called by Assembly members Richard Brodsky and Jim Brennan -- promises the same public dividend.
Even though Hevesi lost in court on the Maximus contract, his nose for wrongdoing proved correct, as per a little-noticed Department of Investigation report that didn't surface until both Hevesi and Giuliani were gone from office. It may take us as long to figure out what happened with the stadium deal, but the excavation that Thompson now promises will be worth the effort. As the late great investigative digger John Hess of the Times wrote back in 1976 when he exposed the schemes involved in the $100 million renovation of the old stadium, "They won't call it The House That Truth Built."