5:01 pm Jul. 15, 2011
On Wednesday night, 18 people sat in a multi-purpose room at Prospect Park Residence, a senior living center at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Down the hall, bright fliers advertised an electric boat tour in Prospect Park and a rooftop ice cream party earlier that day. But in the Centenarian Room, with stacks of jigsaw puzzles and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books lining the shelves, talk revolved around the heady issue of citywide corruption involving millions of dollars of wasted money, undisclosed contracts and shady financial transactions.
The purpose of the meeting, held with Community Board 6, was to provide a chance for Comptroller John Liu to explain his job and hear feedback. Liu played up his successes to a supportive audience and asked for suggestions for future audits. Most of the attendees were community board members. There were also a couple of members of Liu’s staff, as well as a handful of senior residents and family members who had come to visit them.
“Obviously this is the die-hard cadre of community board members,” said Liu. “As if you didn’t get it enough during the regular part of the year—pretty much every community board in the city shuts down during the months of July and August. I know because I was a community board member for many years before running for City Council, and now service as city comptroller.”
Liu, who rose up first as a member of a community board in Flushing, Queens, complimented the board for its service.
“And you all serve as community members at hefty salaries, shall we say,” Liu said with a laugh. “So I am just amazed that you are all out here on what is a beautiful day in July, here in Brooklyn, across the street from one of the best parks in the entire country.”
“It’s not an easy time to be CFO of anything, let alone the great city of New York,” Liu said.
Liu has criticized many city projects, the most well-known one being the CityTime payroll scandal that cost the city hundreds of million in overruns. He’s also agitated many agencies with frequent analysis of inefficiencies, waste or unfair billing.
There is a political context to this, of course. He is a prospective 2013 mayoral candidate, and is said to have raised $1 million over the last six months, second only to Council Speaker Christine Owners among the other prospective candidates.
“Overall I think that I’m happy that the city budget is done,” Liu told the room. “I congratulated the Council and the mayor for getting a budget passed on time. Balanced. We will be certifying it in a couple of weeks at the Financial Control Board, where I sit. And my office is examining all the budget documents right now, which are stacked taller than this.” He extended his arm out several feet from the ground.
Opening up for a half-hour of questions, he first spoke to a resident of the Prospect Park residence who asked him about tax evaders.
“You do audits,” she said. “Are you willing to take these people into court? Be they individuals or businesses? Whether it’s this community, or what community it is, to get what it is owed to the city?”
“I think everybody should be paying their fair share,” Liu responded. “Especially now what there are so many cuts that have been enacted and possible additional cuts--“
“Are you willing to back it up and take them into court?”
“What we have found, the comptroller’s office is not an entity that collects revenue, that collects taxes in any way. That is the Department of Finance. What we do is we audit the Department of Finance, like we do every city agency, to make sure that they’re doing their job. And in cases where they are not doing their job properly, we issue audit reports that strongly suggest that they get to it.”
“So, all you do is issue reports, then?”
Liu explained that the reports influence how the city allocates money to agencies during budget hearings. While the comptroller’s office doesn’t collect taxes, they instead monitor the flow of money.
“You do point it out to them?”
“Absolutely—yes,” Liu said. “And we have. The Department of Finance would perhaps prefer that we don’t point so many things out.”
Other people mentioned construction in Prospect Park and ways to streamline the tax code. Pauline Blake, a former chair of the community board, asked about funds to senior centers. But the bulk of the discussion was about the Department of Education, a frequent target of comptroller audits.
Liu said the DoE was his number one target because of the large amount of city money spent on the agency, and because of a lack of transparency in their contracting.
“I’ll say that the Department of Education doesn’t have an easy job. There’s 1.2 million kids, mine being one of them,” Liu said. “As I said before, I’m proud to be a product of New York City public schools. But even as they do have a tough job, they have tremendous resources, and it is incumbent upon them to manage those resources carefully.”
Liu said the comptroller is currently auditing the ARIS and iZone systems, which are data collection and analysis programs launched under former chancellor Joel Klein He said he didn’t want to disclose too much about the ongoing audits, but seemed confident about the results.
“Suffice it to say, we would not be auditing these projects if my auditors did not find sufficient cause to initiate an audit,” Liu said.
He said both audits would likely be done by the end of the year.
Liu also said he caught q scheme in a recent $294,000 payment to consultants, which his office had previously rejected. He said the DoE used a loophole to sneak in the large payout.
“They snuck it through by splitting it up into three identical payments of $98,000,” Liu said, chuckling.
“And you weren’t supposed to notice,” someone in the crowd said, in supportive amazement.
“All on the same day,” Liu said “It doesn’t get more blatant than that. But fortunately we caught it and put a stop to it. We’re looking very carefully.”
Liu spokesman Scott Sieber would not comment on whether Liu plans to run for mayor, but said Liu’s years of experience in the Council and in community politics is helping him connect with people. “It’s about getting on the ground, talking to people in the community, creating a dialogue, and getting suggestions, really,” said Sieber said.
As Liu finished hearing from the crowd and detailing examples of fraud and abuse across the city, he thanked the audience and left the room. As he walked through the door, he joined a small group of dark-suited men and quickly walked down the hallway, into the elevator, and out into the sunset over Prospect Park West.
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