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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues -- Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example -- the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

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.

Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.

Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."

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