12:21 pm Mar. 18, 20134
City Comptroller John Liu said a series of narrative-defining stories about his fund-raising activities in the New York Times was being driven by a hostile U.S. attorney's office.
During the last leg of a 13-hour day of events marking the official launch of his mayoral campaign, Liu spoke to reporters on a dedicated press bus provided by his campaign, fielding questions about his electability, feelings of being unfairly scrutinized, relationships with other candidates, and possible path to victory.
Many of the questions dealt directly or indirectly with the pending federal case against his former campaign treasurer, Jenny Hou, and one of his contributors, Oliver Pan. Both are accused of falsifying documents, on behalf of the Liu campaign, in order to circumvent the city's donation limits.
Liu has not been accused of any wrongdoing personally but his mayoral prospects have been damaged by the probe and the attention its gotten, as campaign reporters and other political figures ruled him out of contention.
Sunday's events officially kicking off Liu's campaign felt, at times, like a direct response to his investigators and critics. He brought so many supporters to City Hall for one of the events that the police couldn't let them all in. Liu, in response, delivered two speeches: one on the steps of CIty Hall, and one to a crowd of hundreds gathered at City Hall Park. It was a circus, with supporters nearly trampling one another to get close to the candidate.
It was nearly impossible, there among the supporters, for reporters to ask him anything.
On the bus, it was a different story. As the bus drove from Riverdale to Washington Heights, then to Harlem and out to Forest Hills (with no EZ Pass), Liu sat in the back row of the minivan, answering questions at length. (Several times he told reporters not to feel pressured to ask him questions just because he was there.)
At one point, after hearing him complain about the press coverage and the "so-called investigation" into his campaign, I asked him whether he primarily blamed the media or investigators for his situation.
The media, he said.
He dismissed the first Times story which detailed numerous instances of people listed as donors by the Liu campaign who, when contacted by a Times reporter, expressed unfamiliarity with Liu and appeared to lack any knowledge of having donated to him.
"I have no idea that these individuals the Times reportedly called or spoke with actually understood what the New York Times was," Liu said, "or even if they knew what the New York Times was, if they knew that this was a reporter from the New York Times. I mean, I don't know. But the fact remains every single one of the people the Times asked me about, we furnished copies of the check.
"A year and a half ago, October 12, 2011, that's a day I'll never forget for the rest of my life. That's the day the Times story broke. Then, there was news 'Oh, now the F.B.I. is investigating.' And then late in November, they arrested one guy. So, it almost seemed like the Times story drove the whole thing, right? And the Times story, I had serious objections to, from the get-go. They said phony donors, I said, 'What phony donors?' We got a copy of a check, a personal check, and donor card from everybody. They asked me about 40 or 50 people. I gave them copies of everything. The one thing we were remiss on is we were late with the damn intermediary reports."
I pointed out that the Times story was precisely about the fact that these listed donors seemed unaware of they had donated, and expressed bafflement when they were asked about the donations by a (Mandarin-speaking) reporter. The point of the story was that they looked like classic straw donors.
"That may have very well happened," Liu said, referring to the donors' reportedly confused reactions to the reporter's questions. "That doesn't mean they didn't actually donate."
After criticizing the Times story, Liu then said that the stories about the investigation in that paper were driven by the U.S. attorney's office.
Referring to the initial story, which appeared on October 12, 2011, Liu said, "It looked like the Times story was driving this investigation."
Since that time, "mostly based on news reports in the Times, it seems like actually no, it's been the other way around. The feds have been driving the stories in the New York Times. Especially that ridiculous story on my commendations that wound up on the front page. We were like 'What!?' Then, six months later we found, 'Oh, this is why.' Because after the feds had to release some documents to [the] courts, there was some insinuation in the feds'—I don't know if you call it testimony or something that they submit—they said, 'Oh, there was some correlation [between] commendations and contributors. So six months later we realized, 'Oh, that's why [Times City Hall bureau chief] David [Chen] wrote that story.'"
I told Liu it sounded like he believed that the source of his problems stemmed from someone actively working against him inside the U.S. attorney's office.
"It's plainly obvious to me at this point," Liu said. "And to my folks."
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office of the Southern District of New York declined to respond to Liu's comments.
David Chen, who played a leading role in reporting and writing the series on Liu's fund-raising, emailed this response: "It's standard journalistic practice to protect one's sources, and this case is no different. So I respectfully decline to comment on who our sources might or might not be."