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Which NYC Mayoral Candidates Think Spying on American Muslims is Unconstitutional?

On Sunday afternoon, seven mayoral hopefuls gathered for a forum co-hosted by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) and the Islamic Center at New York University. Community organizers hailed it as an historic moment. Nearly three weeks after the Boston bombings–and in the heat of the debate on civil liberties that ensued–moderator Errol Louis posed the question to the candidates: By a show of hands, which of you think the current NYPD surveillance program is unconstitutional?

John C. Liu and Reverend Erick Salgado, both Democrats, raised their palms in front of a room of roughly 400 members of the Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities. “How could you think it’s okay to surveil or spy on someone just because they’re Muslim?” Liu asked.

“It is counterproductive to alienate communities, because if you do that, it means a less-safe city,” Salgado added.

Not every mayoral candidate was present–many, Louis pointed out, turned down the invitation. Noticeably absent were Republican candidates, with the near-exception of Adolfo CarriĆ³n, a former Democrat turned Independent hoping to run on the GOP ticket.

Still, all candidates present–including Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, and John Liu–stressed the need for a new and different kind of relationship between the NYPD and the Muslim community, emphasizing zero tolerance for racial profiling. After the AP discovered in 2011 that the NYPD had been sending “rakers” and “crawlers” into New York cafes and mosques to monitor activity of the American Muslim community over the past decade, community organizations and civil liberties groups raised hell–hosting rallies, boycotts, FOIL requests, and “Know Your Rights” workshops across the city. Several NYPD-monitored Muslims in New Jersey also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the surveillance program infringed on their civil liberties. That case, however, is still pending.

A report put out by CUNY’s CLEAR project in March qualitatively highlighted the Muslim community’s fear and mistrust of the administration and NYPD as a result of the program.

“Everybody I see in the mosque, if they act a little abnormal, I always wonder whether they’re an informant, or just a regular person,” a Muslim Sunday school teacher told CUNY researchers. “This is really sad: sometimes when we get converts, and they are finding all this interest in Islam, I start wondering if they’re an informant.”

Bill de Blasio laid out a three-point plan to address these concerns. “Just in this week, the mayor of this city gave a speech which I can only describe as fear-mongering, trying to resent the notion that if we respect people’s civil liberties, if we change the overuse of stop and frisk, that somehow it’s going to be a less-safe city,” he said. De Blasio went on to propose that the city implement a bill to prevent racial profiling, hire an inspector general for the NYPD, and find a replacement for current police commissioner Ray Kelly. De Blasio also criticized Christine Quinn for saying she would keep Kelly on board.

“I believe we can keep this the safest big city in the America and put policies in place that are going to bring the police and the communities back together,” Quinn replied, adding that she was for the inspector general bill. “But I do have concerns about giving the state court the potential to rule on issues of racial profiling. The federal court is involved in the Floyd case, as they should be. And I have concerns adding more courts into this will create confusing rulings where we already have court jurisdiction.”

In 2011, the White House released a paper outlining how the federal government might better community policing practices and partner with local organizations to prevent violent extremism. “Countering radicalization to violence is frequently best achieved by engaging and empowering individuals and groups at the local level to build resilience against violent extremism,” it read. “Rather than blame particular communities, it is essential that we find ways to help them protect themselves.”

“I think passing the banning of racial profiling is an important step for the community,” AAANY’s executive director Linda Sarsour told the Voice. “Right now, relations with the NYPD are not good. And if the NYPD tells you that they’re good, they’re only good with a few select members of our community.”

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Elevator Diplomacy

The Glasers—a family of Bronx elevator-equipment moguls—haven’t been too big on giving money to political campaigns. In fact, city campaign-finance records show that before this spring, they and their company—G.A.L. Manufacturing in the South Bronx—hadn’t given a single dollar to local candidates. Ever.

So why did the Glasers suddenly drop almost $30,000 into Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion’s campaign war chest in May and July?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the city had just agreed to pay the Glasers a whopping $5 million for “air rights” over their East 153rd Street property to make way for the renovation of an old pedestrian bridge to the new Yankee Stadium?

The thing that makes the timing of their contribution even more intriguing is that the same politically connected lawyer involved in the air-rights deal also acted as the middleman in raising those contributions for Carrion.

The Glasers didn’t return the Voice‘s phone calls. A spokesman for Carrion referred questions to his campaign office, which said, “The borough president has many first-time contributors, as people throughout the city have taken notice of his proven track record in governing.”

The pedestrian bridge is a small but key piece of the massive stadium project because it connects the new Metro North station to the stadium property. An existing pedestrian bridge is considered too narrow and out of compliance with federal disability laws.

Under the deal signed last spring, the city agreed to pay $5 million to the Glasers for the air rights over their property to allow for widening and improving the concrete pedestrian bridge leading to the foot of Yankee Stadium. The air-rights deal will cost taxpayers almost as much as the $6.5 million that the city plans to spend actually renovating the bridge.

City officials say that the $5 million bought three things: access to the property for two years, the right to put the bridge over the property, and a piece of land on which to set a column that will support the bridge.

The new bridge, according to a source with the city Economic Development Corporation, will limit G.A.L.’s ability to build over the parking lot and, to some extent, to build up on its existing factory. The deal takes into consideration the impact on G.A.L. and the tight construction deadline, as well as the wish to avoid an eminent-domain fight, the EDC source says.

But the actual contract filed with the city offers a slightly different view. The deal specifically states that the new bridge cannot affect the company’s right to expand its building.

Carrion, who has mayoral aspirations but has yet to declare his candidacy, has been a major backer of the Yankee Stadium plan, touting the project’s economic-development and employment benefits. He’s also been the target of criticism from some community advocates.

“It’s a poorly planned project that has screwed over a neighborhood of poor people,” says Lucas Herbert, a local resident (and, professionally, an urban planner) who opposes the project. “He’s selling out the whole neighborhood so he gets the chance to run for mayor.”

The G.A.L. cash isn’t the only recent Carrion campaign contribution that has raised questions. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez reported last week that the Baldor’s supermarket chain gave $6,000 to Carrion the same week that the borough president backed the company’s request for tax-exempt government bonds to expand its Hunts Point food-processing center. The company also hired Carrion’s former press spokesman, Gonzalez reported.

The $30,000 in contributions from the Glasers to Carrion were raised through an intermediary, Ricardo E. Oquendo, of the major lobbying firm Davidoff and Malito, records show. Oquendo was formerly counsel to the Bronx Democratic Party and former state assemblyman Roberto Ramirez. (Under the law, an intermediary is someone who solicits or delivers contributions from a third party to a campaign, a city campaign-finance spokesman said.)

The timing of the contributions is also interesting. On May 15, the Glasers made their first $5,000 contribution to Carrion via Oquendo.

Two days later, on May 17, Herbert Glaser, a G.A.L. principal, had Oquendo notarize the easement contract, records show.

On July 3, Glaser officially signed the contract that sold the air rights to the city, via the MTA, for the $5 million, records show.

Three days later, on July 6, the Glasers made five more donations to Carrion via Oquendo, totaling $25,000. In each of the six contributions, the Glasers gave the maximum amount allowed under the law.

On Friday, Oquendo declined to comment on how the contributions came about and refused to discuss his clients. He also refused to say whether he had done any lobbying work for G.A.L.

The Glaser contributions placed the company among Carrion’s most generous donors this year.

Other top donors to Carrion include the Related Companies, which gave $34,156. Related is building the massive Gateway Mall just down the street from the stadium—a project supported by Carrion. Related is also the developer most closely associated with the Bloomberg administration.

At the same time that G.A.L. negotiated the $5 million air-rights deal, Related got $1.2 million from Metro North for an easement over a small sliver of its property to allow for the widening of rail tracks.

Rounding out the top four donors to Carrion this year were executives with Rudin Management, a major real estate firm, who gave $29,710, and top officials with TriLine Contracting, a construction firm, who gave $31,000. Carrion also got $4,950 from Yankee Global Enterprises on May 18.

Carrion’s campaign has been ahead of the pack in accepting contributions from limited-liability corporations, known as LLCs, and partnerships—largely from real estate and construction interests. Campaign-finance records show that he has raised more than $250,000 from LLCs and partnerships since January 2006.

A law signed by Mayor Bloomberg in July will make it against the law for campaigns to accept contributions from LLCs and partnerships as of January 1, 2008.

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Bench Pressed

Two landlords in the Bronx have succeeded in kicking community organizers out of their buildings, even as tenants complain that drug dealers can come and go as they please.

The buildings have a history of housing violations—rats, unlocked front doors, mold, falling ceilings, exposed lead paint—and some have been in and out of housing court for years. Last April, community organizers began encouraging the residents to form tenants’ groups. In August, they held a demonstration in front of 1030 Woodycrest Avenue, where conditions were bad enough to prompt Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to call for the city to put the building under an independent administrator’s control.

But in November and December, the two landlords persuaded judges to place temporary restraining orders against the three community organizations active in their buildings. In the short term, the orders will make it harder for the tenants’ groups to form. Should the suits prove successful—a long shot, say housing experts—they could dramatically damage tenants’ rights throughout the city and state.

As part of their case, the landlords sent representatives through their buildings to get tenants to sign papers certifying that their apartments had been repaired. Many tenants also signed a petition stating that they were happy with the landlord and did not want third-party interference. But the few tenants willing to talk to the Voice say the owners ought to pay more attention to improving the building and less to getting rid of the organizers.

“The front door is no good,” says Hilda Burgos, a tenant in 2315 Walton Avenue, which is owned by Stephen Tobia. “Every time they fix it, someone kicks it in and then drug dealers come in. Whatever they do lasts just for two weeks.” A tenant in 1030 Woodycrest Avenue, owned by Leonard Froio, said her building’s door was regularly broken, allowing outsiders to wander in.

The lawyer representing both landlords, Lawrence Gottlieb, acknowledged that his clients hadn’t fixed all the problems but said they were addressing them. “We are pouring money into the buildings in the normal course of operating budgets,” Gottlieb said.

The lawsuits contend the housing groups illegally interfered in the landlords’ dealings with Washington Mutual, which was about to extend more than $2 million in loans for the six buildings but then withdrew. The community groups’ weapons, according to the suits, were flyers, a demonstration in front of the bank, and conversations with bank officials.

None of the defendants—Highbridge Community Life Center, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and one of the coalition’s members, United Committees for University Heights—were willing to comment on the complaints, but they intend to fight and they have court dates scheduled over the next few weeks.

The temporary injunctions come as a shock to housing advocates, who see the arguments as violating state real estate law, to say nothing of the First Amendment. “It couldn’t be clearer: No landlord has the right to interfere with the tenants’ right to organize,” says Judith Goldiner, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society. “Ultimately I find it difficult to believe that the viewpoint of these judges is going to prevail.”

The buildings are among numerous properties linked to Frank Palazzolo, whom outgoing housing commissioner Jerilyn Perine has called one of the city’s worst landlords. Palazzolo doesn’t own any of the affected properties, according to the lawsuits, but he lent money to the landlords of record.

Gottlieb says he is considering requests for restraining orders to cover several other buildings in the Bronx. Apparently preparations have already started. Chancy Marsh, a tenant organizer for Palazzolo-backed buildings on Leland Avenue, said that neighbors told him the superintendent began to collect signatures on the same type of petitions last month. These restraining orders may prove to be an embarrassment to the judges who granted them (Joan B. Lefkowitz and Barbara G. Zambelli), but meanwhile they are doing their job: keeping community organizers out of buildings where the owners don’t want them.