MANHATTAN — City officials tried to hide evidence from investigators that showed City Hall knew about a plan to turn Rivington House into condos long before the sale went through — and only agreed to hand over thousands of pages of evidence after the Department of Investigation threatened to sue, officials said Tuesday.
The city's Law Department refused to cooperate with DOI investigators probing the controversial deed restriction on Rivington House — even redacting or marking damning documents as "not relevant" in order to withhold them from investigators, according to a DOI report of the city’s mishandling of the issue.
DOI Inspector General Jodi Franzese on July 21 sent a letter to Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter demanding the release of all relevant documents, as well as access to computers used by city officials — requests Law had continually rebuffed, said Franzese.
"DOI has the exclusive prerogative to determine how it conducts its investigations and what information is relevant to its investigations. Neither City Hall, Law, nor any other City agency or official is entitled to interfere or refuse to cooperate with a DOI investigation or determine what material is relevant to that investigation," Franzese wrote.
The city and the mayor have repeatedly insisted they had no prior knowledge of the deal before developers bought the property from the city, then turned around and sold the nonprofit nursing home for HIV/AIDS patients to be converted into private condos.
But the DOI found the Law Department actively attempted to thwart the investigation by deliberately holding back relevant documents — including a memo weighing the pros and cons of lifting the deed restriction on Rivington House, which revealed city officials knew about a possible condo conversion early on, as first reported by the Daily News.
The city gave the DOI blank pages in place of the memo, according to the letter, and only provided the non-redacted version when specifically asked for it by DOI, the letter read.
"This Memo provided vital information showing that City Hall was involved in the decision-making process on Rivington House and is therefore directly relevant to City Hall's involvement in the Rivington matter," the letter states. "If DOI had not determined through other means that the document existed, and had not requested that particular document, Law would not have provided it."
"This was not Law's decision to make, and it wrongly withheld the document."
STORY CONTINUES BENEATH MEMO
The Law Department also withheld a memo about lifting a deed restriction on the Dance Theatre of Harlem, again claiming the document was irrelevant to the investigation, the letter states — a claim that was "innappopriate and incorrect," according to DOI officials.
Days after DOI's letter threatening legal action, the Law Department finally agreed to hand over all requested documents, DOI said.
On Tuesday, the department also gave DOI access to the hard drives of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other City Hall staffers that they'd refused to turn over earlier in the investigation.
“I am pleased that the Law Department decided to comply with the law,” DOI Commissioner Peters said in a statement. “And, I am proud of the DOI staff who doggedly pursued access to these records so DOI can fully investigate the matter at hand.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday brushed off the furor surrounding the city's mishandling of Rivington House, calling media coverage of the investigation "overheated and off the mark" and sarcastically comparing the scandal to Watergate, the Daily News has reported.
"This is probably bigger than Watergate," he said at a panel in Philadelphia, the Daily News reported, before going on to assert that the investigation would ultimately find his administration blameless.
"It's all going to show the exact same thing at the end, that things were handled appropriately," he said.
The Department of Investigation is still reviewing the thousands of pages of documents provided by the Law Department, according to a representative.
The city's Law Department on Wednesday afternoon responded that DOI's claims it had withheld documents are "false" and that the department had been fully cooperative — the Law Department had promptly notified DOI of the existence of the Rivington memo, it claimed, and then produced the un-redacted version of the memo immediately upon request.
As for the memo on the Harlem property, the Law Department only stated that it had provided the memo to DOI on May 3, 2016, which does not contradict DOI's claim, and did not comment on whether the document had been initially redacted or was clearly marked for DOI's review.
The Law Department further stated that DOI had requested "unprecedented access" to its computers, "far beyond what would be necessary ot locate any documents relevant to their investigation of the Rivington transaction," and that DOI had ultimately agreed to use certain search terms while searching the computer databases.
The Department of Investigation did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.