The scene was set for the traditional, permanent-government arrangement. Donny Trump, the 34-year-old millionaire developer weaned on Brooklyn Democratic politics, was once again going after a spectacular tax break. This time he was applying to the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Tony Gliedman, another product of the Brooklyn machine, for a $50 million writeoff on his $155 million luxury condominium, Trump Tower, now being built on the old Bonwit Teller site at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street.
The lawyer listed on Trump’s application was Sandy Lindenbaum, son of the late Bunny Lindenbaum, a combo that symbolizes Brooklyn political influence. The other Trump lawyer pressing Gliedman for a favorable decision, calling 10 times in one day, was Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman, law partner of Roy Cohn and protege of Brooklyn kingpin Meade Esposito. The roly-poly, affable Gliedman, who is not only a Brooklyn regular but a member of Esposito’s Thomas Jefferson Club in Canarsie, looked like the government connection for this array of Trump clout. Behind Gliedman, after all, was our pliable mayor, Ed Koch, the former reformer who now thinks “boss” is a term of endearment.
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Despite this recipe for legal graft, Gliedman ruled last week that Donny did not qualify for this tax bonanza. Before Gliedman rejected the Trump application, he checked with Koch and the mayor reportedly told him he’d support whatever the commissioner decided. Gliedman ruled that Trump failed to show, as the law requires, that the old Bonwit site was “underutilized” and “functionally obsolete,” thus disqualifying it for the 100 per cent tax break available under section 421A of the state Real Property Tax Law. Almost immediately, Trump was in Manhattan Supreme Court challenging the decision. Just as quickly, the city’s pristine position began to tarnish.
In a case involving this much political influence, the selection of a judge is especially critical. The judge chosen, at least in part thanks to the city, was Frank Blangiardo, a Manhattan civil court judge temporarily assigned to Supreme Court, who was listed in Jack Newfield’s 10 worst judges (Voice, September 26, 1974). Listen to Newfield’s gentle description:
“Antipoverty lawyers say Judge Blangiardo is biased in favor of landlords … Judges say he is their most political colleague.
“Blangiardo’s whole career is based on political connections. His father was a power in Tammany, and reportedly was a partner with Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio in a liquor store. Blangiardo himself was a protege of Carmine DeSapio.”
Newfield cites a number of Blangiardo’s mishandled cases, including a mistrial that the judge declared on behalf of alleged mafia leader Jimmy Napoli, after Blangiardo “maneuvered the court calendar so he would have jurisdiction over the trial.” This time it appears that someone else did the maneuvering.
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The city helped deliver the case to Blangiardo in three ways:
(1) Edith Spivak, a supervising attorney of legendary skill and honesty at the city’s corporation counsel, was first told of Trump’s appeal late Friday. She and her boss, Allen Schwartz, decided to retain an outside counsel, Rochelle Corson, a former assistant in the office who handled prior litigation involving this program.
Spivak says that they decided to try to prevent the signing of any order that would put them in court immediately, since Gliedman had just made his decision and they needed more time to analyze it. “But the order was signed before we could get over to the court,” Spivak says. Had they made it to court and successfully opposed the order, the case might have wound up before a different judge.
(2) Judge Norman Ryp made the order returnable the next day in Special Term Part I, the section of the court that receives all such motions. Judges are rotated on a weekly basis in this part and Blangiardo had begun his week of service that Monday.
Had Gliedman made a decision during the two preceding weeks, and had Trump proceeded immediately into court, the judge in Part I would have been Arthur Blyn or Thomas Sinclair, and no questions would have been raised.
Gliedman was ready to decide the case at least 10 days earlier and did not. Betsy Foote, Gliedman’s executive assistant who was put in charge of the 421A program a few weeks ago, says that Gliedman had informed Trump that he was leaning against the exemption. Trump asked Gliedman not to make a decision then offering to supply new information supporting the application. Gliedman agreed.
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For three weeks preceding his decision, Gliedman or his press office kept telling me that the decision would be announced in a day or two. He made up his mind at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, March 20, after the courts had closed for the week. Trump had been well briefed on the contents of Gliedman’s two-page rejection letter and he’d already retained a third law firm — Marshal, Bratter — which had prepared a court challenge. The firm sent Gliedman a draft of the legal papers by 7 p.m. that Friday night.
Trump wanted to go into court immediately because any protracted threat to his tax break might have a material effect on continuing financing, tenanting, and construction of his project. In addition, the city’s finance department is supposed to receive a list of approved exemptions no later than March 15, in order for Trump to receive the benefits this tax year. The department is somewhat flexible about that deadline, but it cannot wait much longer. The scheduling of Gliedman’s decision permitted Friedman and Trump to bring the case directly to Blangiardo without losing any time.
(3) Last Tuesday the city’s outside counsel, Rochelle Corson, appeared before Blangiardo. She asked that the case be adjourned for three weeks.
Trump’s attorneys leapt to their feet. They said they had an agreement with Gliedman that no adjournment would be sought. They handed Blangiardo a three-page affidavit from Stanley Friedman. Blangiardo has sat on the municipal court and civil court benches, awaiting a Supreme Court appointment, since 1959, when Carmine DeSapio first made him a judge. Friedman’s affidavit was a message from a county leader with the power to one day elevate him. Blangiardo flipped through the pages, his eyebrows arching ever upward. He called his clerk to his side.
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The pertinent part of the affidavit was Friedman’s claim that he asked Gliedman to “avoid delays and adjournments in view of the urgency of this matter” and that Gliedman “graciously told me that the matter will be handled by the Law Department, but he would communicate this to whoever would be handling it, and he pledged cooperation in bringing this issue to a conclusion at once, with no further delays or adjournments.”
Spivak says that neither she nor Corson has ever been told whether or not such a pledge was made. In court — when the Friedman affidavit was presented — Corson did not attempt to verify this alleged no-adjournment agreement. She quietly accepted Blangiardo’s decision not to adjourn the case, if it had been adjourned, the case would’ve come up again on the Part I calendar before Ed Greenfield, a supreme court judge known for his scholarly independence.
Instead of adjourning it and turning it over to another judge, Blangiardo gave the city until April 9 to answer, and said final papers were to be submitted to him.
Gliedman told me that he never made a no-adjournment pledge to Friedman, but neither he nor the city has contradicted the Friedman affidavit. Gliedman explains that he did tell Friedman that the city could win the case by “repeatedly” adjourning it: “I agreed we wouldn’t do that. I agreed we wanted a decision on the merits.”
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All these facts really demonstrate is that the city’s indifference to the court calendar may jeopardize $50 million in future taxes. Spivak said she “hadn’t considered” trying to “get the case before a different judge.” The city’s view that judge selection doesn’t matter places it at the mercy of its opponents in highly politicized cases like this one. If only the clubhouse litigants against the city play the judges-hopping game, the odds are weighted against the public interest.
Gliedman may have given in to Friedman and Trump on some of the details of timing to compensate for his unwillingness to give in on the exemption itself. An angry Trump had to take the scheduling crumbs that were offered and is now counting on Blangiardo, who may or may not prove to be the ally Trump and Friedman apparently hope for. “I’m determined to win,” vows Gliedman, who now seems to have a full if belated appreciation of the significance of which judge handles the case. “We’ll win on appeal, if we have to.”
Gliedman, and indirectly Koch, merit praise for their courageous and correct decision to deny Trump his tax haven for oil sheiks. The top condo in Trump Towers sells for $3,150,000 and has five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, two dressing rooms, two powder rooms, a maid’s room, skylit garden/playroom, sitting room, living room, dining room, study, kitchen, pantry, two interior stairs, foyer, and private elevator. There is no possible rationale for the taxpayers in a city that closes hospitals to underwrite casbahs. It is disgraceful that the Democratic Party leader for the poorest borough in the city is using his political influence to secure this exemption, in contempt of his own constituents
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But the Trump application merely highlight the disastrous consequences of the 421A program. More than a year ago, the first draft of a yet-to-be-completed City Planning Commission study of midtown development labeled the 421A program of “dubious” benefit to the city, though it is one of the costliest of all the tax-giveaway programs. The study urged the city to back a bill in the state legislature excluding the program from midtown. Gliedman and Koch have certainly seen copies of this initial draft and a subsequent one, released in July, maintaining precisey the same position. The city is still not even considering the introduction of such a bill. Had they and the legislature acted on these preliminary but axiomatic recommendations already, the Trump application would have been a dead letter.
In July, City Planning Commissioner Herb Sturz promised to release the completed study by December but it is still in mothballs. Its authors, however, assure me that its conclusions on 421A have no changed at all. With a growing galaxy of Trump-like towers planned for midtown, real taxpayers cannot afford the city’s continued-legislative laxity.