Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | DEC. 29, 2010 - JAN. 5, 2011

Mayor’s office had behind the scenes role in Park51

BY Aline Reynolds

A slew of e-mails between Mayor Bloomberg’s office and Park51 organizers reveal that the Mayor has done more than just verbally champion the proposed Islamic community center.

A recent Freedom of Information Act request of the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit has publicly exposed nearly 100 pages of e-mails dating back to August 2009. The exchanges, many of them between Courtney Erwin, the Cordoba Initiative’s former chief of staff, and Fatima Shama, commissioner of the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, address strategies of garnering support for Park51 and quelling the opposition to the project.

“We need some guidance on how to tackle the opposition,” Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, wrote Shama last May.

Commissioner of the C.A.U. Nazli Parvizi also ghostwrote a letter to Community Board 1 in mid-May, thanking Chairwoman Julie Menin for her support and asking that they withdraw its former request for a resolution on Park51 in order to quiet the media maelstrom surrounding the project.

But Menin said she never received the letter, and that it wouldn’t have impacted the board’s May 25 passing of the resolution about the project. “My view is that we are a very independent board and always will be,” she said in an e-mail.

The correspondences were uncovered as a result of an amended lawsuit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice in October which accuses Bloomberg of refusing to respond to a request to release documents it says would “shed light on any political influence or pressure placed during the landmark process.”

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said it is unseemly that governmental officials would coordinate with a controversial group, writing their key letters for them and coordinating a press strategy. The mayor belied his involvement in the project, according to Fitton, by claiming to be a “disinterested party” when in fact he was acting as an “arm of the [the project’s] public relations strategy.”

J.W. filed a separate lawsuit in November demanding the requested documents. Both suits are currently pending in State Supreme Court.

Stu Loeser, Bloomberg’s spokesperson, contended that this type of assistance is typical of the C.A.U.’s regular work.

“The [C.A.U.] exists to help groups navigate city government… from helping prepare for a papal visit to expediting approval of a Jewish Sukkah in [Bryant] park,” said Loeser.

Nevertheless, the suit alleges that the e-mails raise questions about the integrity of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission decision made last July not to grant landmark status for the proposed site. According to the suit, the L.P.C. violated the law by allegedly allowing Bloomberg to influence the decision.

The suit references an e-mail that Park51 attorney Shelly Friedman wrote last May stating that C.B. 1’s backing of the project would help discourage the landmark designation of 45-51 Park Place.

“I do know that [L.P.C.] chairman [Robert] Tierney was looking forward to having the ‘political cover’ their support would bring him,” Friedman wrote.

Loeser, however, denied any correlation between the correspondences and the landmarks decision, saying the L.P.C. based its assessment of 45-51 Park Place solely on the architectural and historical significance of the building.

Fitton contends the mayor’s office held out until last week to release the documents in order to bury the issue around the Christmas holiday. Loeser wouldn’t comment on Fitton’s allegation, since litigation is still active.

The exchanges also reveal involvement by the mayor’s office in renewing a City Department of Buildings permit in order for prayer services to be held at 49-51 Park Place. Park51 additionally donated $300 in cash to a Ramadan function held in August 2009 at Gracie Mansion.

In defense of the C.A.U., Loiser said that it’s standard procedure to help navigate government departments for permits, and that the mayor regularly solicits financial support for all mayoral events at Gracie Mansion to help defray the costs.

The mayor’s office has in no way broken the law, according to Peter Herb, a lawyer based in Lower Manhattan that has no ties to Park51 or the mayor’s office.

“While there appears to be a considerable amount of government energy going into the project, it doesn’t strike me as any different than any other initiative Bloomberg has rammed through,” said Herb.

The question the investigation begs, Herb said, is why people are vetting the involvement of the mayor’s office in this case. Indeed, both the A.C.L.J. and J.W. began questioning the project and all involved parties from the very beginning.

In a blog entry on www.biggovernment.com, conservative blogger and activist Pamela Geller, who spearheaded the Park51 opposition last spring, said Mayor Bloomberg gave “inappropriate political support” and favoritism to the project, which she believes influenced the landmarks decision.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released a statement, saying he is proud that his office engaged in what he calls a “transparent consultative process” with the community board and the mayor’s office on the project, regardless of pernicious attacks coming from the A.C.L.J. and J.W.

“A group of political opportunists,” he said, “are trying to create divisions and whip up ugly tensions over this issue, with no regard for the sensitivities of the people who live here.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf issued a written statement last week, saying that Park51 and its leaders are appreciative of the support from the Bloomberg administration. “We are thankful,” he continued, “that the Bloomberg administration continues to play a critical role in facilitating valuable economic and community development projects like Park51… in areas like Lower Manhattan where there is such a great need.”

The A.C.L.J., meanwhile, is now accusing the mayor’s office of withholding additional documents, and is seeking a court order for full disclosure shortly after the New Year.

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