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The Mayoral Debate Was Mostly About Yelling a Lot

The mayoral general election debate that took place Tuesday night was never going to be very much about substance, and most everyone knew it.

This was true of the crowds milling around the venue, Symphony Space, before the 7 p.m. start time, where the chanting and yelling mostly steered clear of any substantive policy points. Joseph Pidoriano of Staten Island stood at the front of a crowd of sign-waving supporters of GOP candidate Nicole Malliotakis and held up his phone to film the Local 802 brass band playing in support of incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio. He explained to his remote viewers that “these are all the socialists. All the Marxists.”

In a rapid-fire rant, Pidoriano accused de Blasio of being anti-cop and anti-small business. “After a police officer was killed, he flew off to Germany, but he delayed his vacation for two days after Eric Garner died,” he said, referencing the mayor’s trip to Hamburg shortly after the slaying of Officer Miosotis Familia in early July.

Independent candidate Bo Dietl, a bombastic ex-NYPD detective who had promised not to be “wild man Bo” in the debate, strolled around the corner of 95th and Broadway, seeming to delight in the bubble of tumult that surrounded him as he approached the venue. He is, after all, a proven headline generator.

Also present was fellow independent candidate Mike Tolkin, who was not invited to the debate by sponsor NY1 despite being certified eligible by the city’s Campaign Finance Board. He recently finished a hunger strike to protest his non-inclusion, and looked gaunt as he chatted with “professional protester” and independent City Council candidate Marni Halasa. Sal Albanese, who lost the Democratic primary election to de Blasio but is now running on the Reform Party line, was nowhere to be found. Both he and Tolkin are suing the CFB and debate sponsors over their decisions.

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Inside the venue, the heckling, booing, and name-calling started before the cameras were rolling and ended only after they were turned off. One person who shouted at de Blasio as he was trying to answer a question was escorted out by security after a frustrated Errol Louis, an NY1 anchor and the debate’s moderator, swiveled around and singled out the heckler directly: “Get that person out of here. Good night, sir.” He wasn’t the only one to leave early, though for the others it likely had more to do with frustration than an armed escort.

Onstage, civility and content likewise took a backseat to petty bickering, with fringe issues and low blows dominating any meaningful discussion of the city’s most pressing problems. This was perhaps best exemplified by the portion of the debate where candidates were allowed to ask each other questions. Given a direct opportunity to challenge the mayor’s record on affordable housing, policing, public health, or any other aspect of governance, Dietl opted to ask de Blasio why he’d built a fence around Gracie Mansion. “Is it the Berlin Wall?” he asked. “What are you hiding?”

Malliotakis, who has sold her candidacy on a reexamination of homelessness, transit, and the city budget, decided to ask why the mayor had traveled to Germany following Officer Familia’s death and an earlier subway derailment. The issue of the mayor’s out-of-city travel and its attendant expenses is certainly a fair one, but Malliotakis made sure to clarify that this was purely an ad hominem attack. “What kind of person are you?” she demanded. “What kind of mayor are you that you would leave the city at a time like that?”

Then de Blasio, who had already used the phrase “safest big city” at least three times, squandered his chance to confront his opponents over their stances on public safety and their plans for a police department in flux and instead again asked Malliotakis why she had voted for Donald Trump for president. This, too, is a valid concern, but not a significant enough one to merit being converted into one of the de Blasio campaign’s key talking points against Malliotakis.

All of this took place over whooping and yelling from the crowd that continuously drowned out the candidates. The interruptions ranged from simple booing to someone calling Malliotakis a traitor for having sued to preserve the records created by the city’s IDNYC program, something that immigrant advocates worried might be used by the federal government to track down undocumented immigrants. Competing with this were the interruptions by Dietl, who talked over his opponents and the panel alike. “Hold on, I haven’t asked my question yet,” Politico reporter Gloria Pazmino said at one point as Dietl launched into a diatribe before she’d gotten out a full sentence.

Any discussions of policy that did take place held few surprises. Malliotakis attacked the mayor’s record on affordable housing — “He brags about 75,000 or so apartments created. Those are mostly preserved units with maybe a small amount being created” — the city budget — “He tripled the number of his assistants in City Hall!” — and crime — “He wants to say we are the safest city. That is not true if you are a woman in this city.” Each of these arguments contained a multitude of nuances: creating new affordable apartments without preserving the existing stock can result in a net loss of affordability; there are disagreements over the merits of special assistants; crime overall is down, though it is true that sex crimes on the subway system are way up, which might partly be due to increased reporting.

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Dietl hit at the mayor’s relationship with the NYPD — “Cops say they’ll leave the city, and it’s because of him” — and the mayor’s decade-long deadlines for plans to close the Rikers Island prison complex and to build and preserve affordable housing. He managed to call de Blasio “Big Bird” — a favorite epithet — only once. Both Malliotakis and Dietl reiterated support for reforming Rikers rather than closing it.

De Blasio spent most of his time repeating his talking points about crime reduction, the construction of new homeless shelters, universal pre-kindergarten, and the closure of Rikers while conducting impromptu “fact checks” on his opponents’ statements. Often when Louis or the panelists — Pazmino, NY1’s Grace Rauh, NY1 Noticia’s Juan Manuel Benítez, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer — tried to press the candidates on a particular issue, they would be forced to revert to trying to enforce time allotments and keep the candidates from pontificating without responding to the questions.

It didn’t work. The debate didn’t so much end as it tapered off, with no closing statements. The panel had run out of time after the candidates frittered it away yelling over each other, to the point where Pazmino threatened to have Malliotakis’ mic cut off after the last question.

As the lights brightened and the audience began filing out, Public Advocate Tish James meandered over to the assembled reporters. Someone asked her what she’d thought about the preceding hour and a half. She thought for a few seconds, then said simply, “We not only have to reform our government, but we need to reform how we do our debates.”

In a city of 8.5 million people facing an affordability crisis, crumbling transit infrastructure, and looming public health and public safety troubles, it’s astounding that what will be remembered from the night is probably the shouting. Perhaps changing the debate format may be the only way to have those wishing to lead New York City publicly reckon with what that responsibility really entails.

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P.I.’s Bad-Boy Pals

For those who need an introduction to him, Richard “Bo” Dietl is New York’s private eye to the stars. The tough-talking ex-NYPD detective is a regular on Don Imus and the cable talk show circuit, where he has proudly turned his Queens street-guy act and purposely mangled English into an art form. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then consider that clients of his Beau Dietl & Associates (the formal spelling is better for business, he says) range from Mariah Carey to the Saudi royal family, and from Michael Jackson to Pat Buchanan.

More importantly on the business end of things, many of the nation’s top executives call Dietl a close pal, a group that includes former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, Gateway chairman Ted Waitt, and investment whiz Warren Buffett. Members of this group can often be found dining at Dietl’s regular table at Rao’s, the exclusive East Harlem eatery where the rich and glamorous go to inhale a savory pasta sauce and a strong aroma of Cosa Nostra.

Dietl can get any of these big shots on the phone with ease, a boast he amply illustrates in his new book Business Lunchatations (Chamberlain Bros., $19.95; “Hey, long as you’re writing about me, why don’t you plug my book?” he said last week. Mission accomplished).

Last year, Dietl put those well-heeled connections to work on behalf of another friend, former Supreme Court justice Leslie Crocker Snyder, in her bid to become the next Manhattan district attorney. Dietl, listing his friend and business partner, real estate tycoon Steven Witkoff, as a co-host, mailed invitations to a March 30, 2004, soiree at the Rainbow Room to benefit Snyder’s campaign. Suggested donations started at $25,000.

What happened next is a matter of dispute. Snyder said she was forced to cancel the event when her mother suffered a heart attack. Dietl said he didn’t remember exactly. “I think we pulled the plug,” he said. “We gave her whatever we raised.” A few weeks later, however, Snyder was confronted at a meeting of the gay political organization Stonewall Democratic Club about her association with the ex-cop and his often outrageous banter on the Imus show. There, Democratic political aide Allen Roskoff read Snyder a few choice quotes, including Dietl’s on-air reference to former national Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe as a “panty-wearin’ faggot.”

Last month Snyder called Dietl’s comments “horrible” and said she severed all ties with him after she learned of them. “I knew him as a person in the criminal-justice system,” she said. “But I didn’t know that side of him.” Hadn’t she ever heard Bo’s rants on the Imus show? “I don’t listen to or watch Imus,” she said. “Don’t tell him.”

But Dietl was an odd fundraising choice for a would-be D.A. for reasons other than his sometimes uncontrollable mouth. The former police detective has always boasted of having close ties on both sides of the law. He grew up near John Gotti and called him a friend, as he does many of the wiseguy regulars at Rao’s. On the other side, he was also friendly with George Bush Sr., a relationship that he says won him the contract to handle security for the 1992 Republican National Convention. Another ally is Governor Pataki, who made Dietl the chairman of a state security guard advisory committee. He kept that post even after state officials fined him $67,000 when a post-9-11 audit found he had more than 50 unregistered guards on his payroll.

A more serious issue, however, surfaced in 2003 when Dietl was named in a federal securities fraud probe that resulted in the conviction of one of his former friends.

According to charges brought by both the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Dietl’s pal Joshua Cantor, a business executive, got the private detective to sign a bogus, backdated letter affirming that Dietl’s guards had witnessed the manufacture of holograms to be used for MasterCard credit cards at a New Jersey printing plant.

The phony letter was part of a plot, authorities said, to convince the giant accounting firm Deloitte & Touche that Cantor’s company had earned nearly $7 million more in revenue than it actually had during calendar year 1997. The added earnings, officials said, were intended to make Cantor’s American Bank Note Holographics that much more attractive to investors when it made its initial public offering on the stock market.

Cantor confessed his role in the scheme and agreed to testify against another top official of the company who went on trial in the summer of 2003. On the stand, Cantor described himself and Dietl as close friends, dining together at least twice a month and planning joint business ventures. Cantor spent so much time hanging out at Dietl’s firm, he acknowledged, that he had an affair with the detective agency’s controller. Cantor also admitted signing a letter to Dietl offering him an insider purchase price on his company’s stock once it went public. “I miss you too,” Cantor wrote in the note to his friend.

The business of producing holograms for credit cards is an intricate procedure that involves manufacturing rolls of the material and then splicing them into individual reels. Cantor hired Dietl’s firm to stand guard at the plant to make sure nothing was stolen. But the job did not include watchdogging the production process, a task Dietl admits he would not have been qualified to handle. Nevertheless, when Cantor cooked up his scheme to inflate his earnings, he said he turned to his detective pal to make it look as if finished reels of holograms had been produced months before they actually had.

He had thought of Dietl, he testified, because “I knew that Bo was not a detail person.”

Cantor said that after he dreamed up the plan he drove straightaway from his Westchester office to Dietl’s headquarters in the old Daily News building on East 42nd Street. There, he had Dietl’s secretary type up a backdated letter in which Dietl affirmed that his company had overseen the production of rolls and reels of holograms months earlier.

Cantor said he then walked into Dietl’s office with the letter. “I said, ‘Bo, do me a favor? Can you sign this?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ He signed it and I walked out.”

Dietl barely glanced at the letter, Cantor testified. “Dietl lied, but I don’t know that he was aware of the date,” said the witness.

On cross-examination, Cantor was grilled by former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Otto Obermaier, now a top defense attorney. Obermaier pressed Cantor as to how his friend could be so naive. “Was he awake when he signed it?” asked the lawyer.

Cantor said he later went back to see Dietl to ask him to fax the false letter, plus a fake report, to Deloitte & Touche, and to tell auditors there that his firm had overseen the hologram production. Dietl complied, according to Cantor.

Dietl was never charged in the affair, although his role was detailed in the criminal complaint, as well as in an SEC action filed against Cantor. Last week, Dietl insisted he was guilty of nothing but trusting the wrong guy.

“I honestly didn’t know what the hell a roll or a reel was,” the detective acknowledged. “I was never part of a fraud.” Dietl said he had signed the bogus letter unknowingly, thinking it would help him collect a $50,000 bill for guard services that Cantor owed him.

The performance hardly jibes with Dietl’s self-description in his new book. In a chapter headed “Success Is a Full-Time Job,” Dietl wrote: “I’m always on. I’m a hands-on executive.”

“Listen,” he responded. “If you owe me $50,000, and you say, ‘Hey Bo, just sign here and we’ll get you your money.’ That’s exactly what he said. I didn’t look at the thing.”

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One Tough Cop

In Bruno Barreto’s unintentionally cartoonish One Tough Cop, Amy Irving plays a prim federal agent out to blackmail Bo Dietl (Stephen Baldwin), made out to be the one honest policeman left in New York. Dietl was a real cop, but how much of the onscreen story is true isn’t clear, since we’re told that all the other characters are fictitious. The plot and dialogue are pure cliché, meaning either that life imitates B movies or that Dietl’s career has been as shabbily served artistically as it was by his department. When Dietl refuses to cooperate with a sting operation, the feds threaten to expose him as corrupt. At the same time, while he and his partner crack a high-profile case involving the sexual abuse and mutilation of a nun,his superiors claim the credit. Baldwin plays Dietl with a straight face, even when this bruiser spouts such sentiments as “I always hated it when people would hurt other people.” As Dietl’s compulsive-gambler partner, Chris Penn is equally phlegmatic. The actors try to inject heart into the film, but the surrounding cardboard defeats them.