A top aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg has accused arts executives who depend on city funding of political disloyalty because they gave money to one of the Mayor’s would-be opponents, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, The Observer_ has learned.
According to three sources, Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris rebuked the arts and cultural executives in recent months, and in one instance used a City Hall telephone to do so. Some arts officials said her calls had the effect of scaring Mr. Miller’s donors out of future contributions, and critics said she blurred the line between government and campaign politics.
William Cunningham, Mr. Bloomberg’s spokesman, confirmed that Ms. Harris had discussed the contributions to Mr. Miller in “a couple of passing conversations with people that she’s known for a while.” He said there was nothing inappropriate in the deputy mayor’s questions. “You have a right to ask a question, ‘Did you really give money to someone who’s working against us? We’ve been with you for years,’” he said. As for the tone of the deputy mayor’s remarks, “Nobody can say there was any implied threat. That is ludicrous. Patti Harris has devoted her life to working with the arts,” he said.
A spokesman for the Speaker, David Chai, called the reports “serious allegations.” “The responsible thing would be for the Mayor to get to the bottom of this matter and clear up any questions.”
Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said Ms. Harris’ conversations with the Miller contributors could “chill contributions” to Mr. Bloomberg’s opponents. “If true, it’s inherently coercive for a government employee to be doing that,” he said.
The City Charter bars deputy mayors from soliciting political contributions, but contains no explicit prohibition on their discouraging contributions to others. However, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board has been known to censure officials who violate the spirit of the charter’s rules.
Mr. Bloomberg has prided himself on keeping out of smoke-filled backrooms, in large part by using his personal fortune to float above the grubby business of political fund-raising and the system of favors it implies. Ms. Harris, a trim, fashionable and largely silent presence in City Hall, makes a particularly unlikely political heavy. She served for 12 years in the Koch administration, first as the assistant to the Mayor for federal affairs and later as the director of the Art Commission. In 1994 she went to work for Bloomberg L.P., where she was entrusted with dispensing his private philanthropy. Now, as deputy mayor, she is the most senior aide to have followed him into public life, and is responsible for guiding a program that has tried to maintain funding for arts institutions through a difficult budget cycle.
Ms. Harris was well known by the arts world through her work for Mr. Bloomberg, but her position at the helm of New York’s largest donor to cultural institutions-city government itself-has given her exceptional power.
Three people who said they had conversations with the deputy mayor told similar stories to The Observer . They all requested anonymity.
“We discussed the fact that I had made a political contribution to Gifford Miller,” said an arts executive. “She indicated that they would view future or ongoing support for Gifford Miller as unfriendly or disloyal.”
The executive said the conversation came not long after a Jan. 27 article in The New York Sun listed executives at nonprofit organizations who had given money to Mr. Miller.
Another Miller donor told a similar story: “She made it clear to me that the Mayor wasn’t happy,” the donor said.
And a board member of a city cultural institution, who asked that her organization not be named for fear of losing city funding, gave The Observer a secondhand account of Ms. Harris’ conversation with the institution’s head soon after the arts official donated money to Mr. Miller.
“Patti Harris went ballistic on [the executive director],” said the board member, who said she heard the story from the director two days after the phone conversation took place. “She said that anybody who donates to Gifford is going to be viewed as disloyal.”
A person involved in raising money for Mr. Miller said she’d heard accounts of Ms. Harris’ tongue-lashings from “half a dozen” of Mr. Miller’s contributors.
Mr. Bloomberg does not solicit political contributions, but this isn’t the first time his camp has lashed out at sometime allies who cover their political bets. Several months ago, the New York Post reported that Mr. Bloomberg was “livid” at celebrity friends, including designer Oscar de la Renta, when their names appeared on Mr. Miller’s campaign-finance reports. Unlike the arts executives, however, Mr. de la Renta does not depend on city funding.
No Explicit Threats
No one has accused Ms. Harris of making an explicit threat to cut off city funding to organizations whose employees give money to Mr. Miller’s campaign. But the arts executives who spoke to Ms. Harris, and others who heard about the conversations, say they think future support for the Mayor’s rivals could endanger their public funding.
“As the courts say, it has a chilling effect,” said the arts executive who spoke to The Observer about a rebuke from Ms. Harris.
One election lawyer said the most salient legal issue would be Ms. Harris’ discussing fund-raising from a City Hall telephone, although Mr. Cunningham dismissed that practice as trivial and common.
“It appears problematic that a conversation was had by a deputy mayor in her City Hall office,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a Democratic election lawyer who does not work for Mr. Miller. “There should be a strict separation between persons who work in government and their fund-raising and political roles. I find it very hard to believe that this Mayor, who has always been a strong supporter of the arts, would hold it against any arts group for contributing to a political rival.”
Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg should have little reason to fear the Speaker’s war chest. As a self-funded billionaire candidate who has opted out of the city’s voluntary system of public campaign financing, the Mayor has virtually limitless resources to spend on the election. In 2001, he spent $74 million on his mayoral bid. In 2005, he is expected to open his checkbook again.
Mr. Miller, who had $2.5 million in his campaign account as of earlier this year, has been raising money aggressively for his prospective Mayoral run. But at least two donors who were admonished by Ms. Harris said they were not giving to Mr. Miller as a Mayoral candidate-he has not officially declared his candidacy-but were instead giving as a sign of appreciation for his work as Speaker of the City Council. Mr. Miller, they said, has been particularly helpful in restoring funding to cultural institutions after their budgets were cut by Mr. Bloomberg during previous budget cycles. These institutions are currently lobbying Mr. Miller and the City Council to restore the $8 million the Cultural Institutions Group stands to lose under the Mayor’s current budget proposal.
“It’s a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation,” said one arts-world insider, who knew one of the people admonished by Ms. Harris but did not personally have a conversation with her. “We’d like to be supportive of the Speaker, because he’s supportive of the cultural institutions, and the restoration of the cultural budget is now in his hands. But on the other hand, the Mayor’s office is not happy when people support the Council Speaker because he’s a potential Mayoral candidate. So it’s a big problem.”
Mr. Cunningham said the arts world has nothing to fear.
“I don’t think anybody should be overly nervous or anxious about this administration’s commitment to the cultural [organizations],” he said. “No administration has done more for the arts and the cultural institutions than this administration has done.”