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by Margaret Reuter
In the News: Ethics Rebuke of Safir's Oscar Trip
(Sept-Oct '00) Police Commissioner Howard Safir and his wife flew to Los Angeles in March of 1999 to attend the Oscars as the guests of Revlon and its president, George Fellows. The trip was complete with transportation by private jet, accommodations at the deluxe Peninsula Beverly Hills, tickets to the Academy Awards ceremony-- the works! That extravagant treatment, reportedly worth $7,000, flabbergasted many New Yorkers. It did not help that he was out-of-town at the height of the Diallo protests and the federal authorities had just expanded its civil rights investigation of his department. The trip caused the Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate whether Safir committed an ethics violation.
The Conflicts of Interest Board was created in 1988 with a mission to promote "both the reality and the perception of integrity in city government." It is a successor to the Board of Ethics, which had been in operation since 1959, making New York one of the first cities to have a formal city agency charged with monitoring the ethics of municipal officials. The agency has racheted up its enforcement activities of late and has never shied away from censuring high-level officials. A few years ago this Board found then-Comptroller Liz Holtzman had violated city ethics rules and just last month they found Cultural Affairs Commmissioner Schuyler Chapin had committed an ethics infraction.
Seventeen months after the Conflicts of Interest Board began its inquiry, just weeks after Safir announced he was stepping down as police commissioner, the board issued its ruling, on August 28, 2000. What did they have to say after all that time? They rebuked the commissioner for not "studiously avoid[ing] any conduct that undermines the public trust and confidence in the government." But did they find an ethics violation?
The city has a valuable gifts rule. Public employees may not receive gifts valued at more than $50 from a person or firm that has business dealings with the city. The Oscar trip was certainly worth more than $50. But did Revlon have any business dealings with the city? The Conflicts Board says, technically speaking, it did.
The business relationship? A company called MacAndrews & Forbes Group Inc. owns Revlon. MacAndrews also owns a management firm called One East Management Co. One East participated in a program of the New York Police Department, the Paid Detail Program, to hire police officers as part-time security guards in their off-hours. One East paid $6,000 in administrative fees over two years to participate in this program. This then was the business dealing. The valuable gifts rule specifically includes business dealings by affiliated firms like a sister corporation.
NYPD's Paid Detail Program connects officers who want to moonlight with companies who would like to hire additional security. The companies pay an administrative fee to the department and pay the officers directly at $27 an hour. The department does not choose which companies will participate or not, so the threat of unfair favoritism toward a participating company is minimal.
In examining Safir's trip, the board ruled that when receiving a gift, every public employee is duty-bound to make a "reasonable inquiry" whether the gift giver, or any affiliate of the gift giver, had business dealings with the city. That is surely a legitimate and necessary embellishment on the valuable gifts rule. But since that was a new embellishment, the board decided not to charge Safir with an ethics violation. They opined, however, that a reasonable inquiry by Safir might have uncovered Revlon's relationship to One East, and One East's participation in the NYPD. The board noted, however, that the city had no information in its own files or in its computers that would have shown that Revlon was affiliated with One East.
Safir apparently thought that because George Fellows was a friend he could accept his generosity, and so he did not even look into whether Revlon had any city business connections. The board rejected that argument, pointing out that Safir had only dined with Fellows twice, which it considered less than a "close personal friendship."
Meg Sounds Off:
The city unearthed One East's dealings with the city and Revlon's relationship to One East after months of investigation. In its 15- page letter of rebuke, the board took pages to describe what records were kept within what agencies and what info was available elsewhere, including Dun and Bradstreet reports, liability insurance certificates, Securities and Exchange Commission filings and NYPD intelligence reports.
The board thought Safir should have put the onus on Revlon and asked George Fellows to have a search undertaken in his shop to assess whether Revlon, its parent, the parent's holding company, or any of its subsidiaries had any dealings with the city, even if it was so small that no one bothered to keep computer records.
This onus is excessive. It's entirely legitimate to expect a high-ranking official to look into whether a major corporation based in New York City had business dealings with the city before accepting a lavish mini-vacation. But to suggest that a reasonable inquiry could possibly have turned up this connection is too much. Revlon presumably would know its sister corporation's names better than a city researcher, but can you expect a company who barely does business with the city to know the arcana of how broadly the city defines "business dealings" and identify those city contacts? Placing the onus on the gift giver should not be expected. If the city doesn't keep searchable records, it is highly unlikely the connection could have nefarious implications to the integrity of city government.
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