De Blasio vs. Honest Government: Why is the Mayor at war With a City Council Effort to Ensure Truthful Testimony?
Article by Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters
February 21, 2020
Over the past three years, the country has witnessed an erosion of democratic norms in Washington, the president’s recent refusal to allow witnesses to testify at his impeachment trial being just one prominent example. Unfortunately, we may be seeing this disturbing trend play out in local government here in New York as well.
Earlier this month, the de Blasio administration came out in opposition to a proposed law that would require New York City officials who testified before the City Council to correct the record if they subsequently discover that their testimony was inaccurate. The bill was designed to close a loophole that exists because, while the law clearly prohibits making knowingly false statements during testimony, it does not create an obligation to correct false statements that might have been made unknowingly.
More troubling, it is now being reported that the administration went so far as to threaten that if the legislation were enacted, it would no longer permit administrative officials to testify before City Council. In other words, if the City Council passes a bill requiring that governmental officials in New York City provide accurate testimony about key New York City programs, the mayor will reportedly no longer allow such officials to testify about such programs.
This would deny the Council the ability to perform its statutory oversight function, function that has proven important — indeed essential — time and again.
The bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Ritchie Torres, described the administration’s reaction as “Trumpian.” He’s right.
This bill did not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it arose because the de Blasio administration in the past has provided inaccurate information to the public and to the council and failed to correct the record until outside sources demonstrated the inaccuracies.
For example, for years the administration provided incorrect information about the amount of lead in public housing and the damage it was causing. This culminated at a City Council hearing in December 2017 concerning NYCHA’s failure to properly inspect apartments for lead and its continued misstatements to the federal government concealing that fact. At the hearing, the then-NYCHA chair testified that all NYCHA apartments with children under the age of 6 had been checked for lead by certified inspectors.
Following that testimony, the City’s Department of Investigation (which we ran at that time) determined that many NYCHA apartments with children under the age of 6 had not in fact been examined by certified inspectors. NYCHA’s chair never corrected the record. The facts came out not because an administration official acknowledged reality, but only when DOI’s letter to the Council on the matter was made public.
At the time, Torres, who chaired the hearings into this issue, stated with regard to the NYCHA chair’s testimony: “There are only two explanations: either she lied to the City Council or she left uncorrected a false statement to the City Council made under oath. In either case, there should be consequences.”
There is no valid public policy reason not to pass this bill. And there is every public policy reason to pass it. There needs to be oversight of the administration and for that oversight to be meaningful, the testimony before the Council must be accurate, and formally fixed when it is not.
Opposing the legislation does little more than throw up obstacles to legislative oversight, a phenomenon in Washington that we are loath to see spread to New York City.
Threatening to not let administration officials testify if the legislation is passed is an even greater attack on the fundamental precept of representative democracy: the ability of the legislature to oversee actions of the executive. This too is a trend in Washington that should be avoided in New York City.
Peters and Brovner are founding partners at Peters Brovner LLP. Previously, they served as commissioner and first deputy commissioner of the Department of Investigation.