A city panel approved a new operator Wednesday to take over a Bronx public golf course run by ex-President Donald Trump’s company — but two members cast “no” votes, citing concerns about what one called a “rushed” process.
Also objecting: a lawyer for Trump, who told the board that the course’s designer, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, ultimately gets to decide which firm meets his exacting standards.
THE CITY broke news of the new no-bid deal last month and the Parks Department’s unusual choice of concessionaire: a homeless shelter operator with a blemished record.
Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered Trump’s concession to run the Ferry Point Park golf course canceled as a result of Trump’s role in fanning the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
An Atlanta company, Bobby Jones Links, is now entitled to take over starting Nov. 15, after shelter operator CORE Services Group pulled out of their partnership under scrutiny. Members of the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee voted 4 to 2 to grant Affiniti Ferry Point LLC a 13-year contract to operate the 18-hole golf course.
The former president told the Daily News this week in an email that the mayor wanted to “CONFISCATE the project from me for no reason whatsoever, and terminate my long-term arrangement with the city. De Blasio wants to take it away after all of the work was so successfully done, and so much money was spent.”
While fighting in court to block the Parks Department from ending his 20-year contract, Trump’s lawyers say their client is entitled to $30 million as a cancellation fee.
Franchise board representatives for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and City Comptroller Scott Stringer both voted no, after unsuccessfully requesting that the vote be delayed.
The representative for Diaz, Mirtha Camille Sabio, said that “concerns abound” and that the borough president could not “in good conscience” vote for the concession.
Diaz’s office cited concerns about the Parks Department’s original choice of CORE Services Group and the fate of jobs for current staff, many of whom live in The Bronx. Sabio also encouraged Bobby Jones Links to engage more with elected officials.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., to the right of the podium, at a 2013 event announcing the opening of Trump Golf Links in Ferry Point Park, with Mayor Mike Bloomberg (center), Donald Trump and others.
Spencer T Tucker/ Mayoral Photography Office
The comptroller’s office, meanwhile, said a too-speedy process left little chance for scrutiny.
“Today this Committee finds itself reviewing, yet again, another rushed award of a concession agreement from the Department of Parks and Recreation without full transparency about how the agency made its determination to select the proposed concessionaire,” John Katsorhis, a representative for Stringer, said at a public-hearing on the vote Tuesday.
“This shortened time frame is a situation created by the city when it terminated the prior agreement without having a proper plan in place for the concession’s continued operation.”
He said the Parks Department didn’t provide all necessary documentation about the future concessionaire until Tuesday morning, leaving insufficient time for review.
A representative from the Department of Parks and Recreation said at the meeting the new operator would retain most, if not all, of the current staff. And they said the lawsuit filed in June by Trump’s team looking to block the new concessionaire shouldn’t impact anyone’s vote.
“The fact that this matter is in litigation should not impact our process to move forward,” the representative said.
‘Lame Duck’ Decision
At a hearing Tuesday ahead of the vote, lawyers for the Trump Organization said that the Jan. 6 insurrection didn’t hurt business at the golf course — a point they’re also pressing in court.
“Year after year, leading golf-industry publications have praised Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, and ranked it as one of the premier public courses in the country,” lawyer Kenneth Caruso said in prepared remarks.
Trump Organization lawyer Kenneth Caruso spoke in a public hearing objecting to pushing Donald Trump’s family out of managing the Ferry Point golf course.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Calling de Blasio a “lame duck,” he asked the committee to consider the long-term impact and cost of switching operators of the golf course.
“We submit, the taxpayers of this City should not be required to pay $30 million, or some amount (in the City’s calculation) even approaching $30 million, just to get rid of the name ‘Trump’ at a golf course,” he said.
And he claimed that Nicklaus retains veto power over who runs his Ferry Point links. Caruso said Nicklaus “approves only a professional who will operate the course to Jack Nicklaus’ level of quality; who will not tarnish or dilute the Jack Nicklaus name and brand.”
Nicklaus was not immediately available for comment.
Caruso told THE CITY in a statement Wednesday that “the city’s position has no legal merit and we will continue to vigorously defend our right to possession and control of the property for the remainder of the 20-year term.”
He added that the Trump Organization shared the comptroller’s sentiments “and are deeply concerned with this process, the future of Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point and the lengths that this mayor will go to in order to retaliate against the Trump name — even if it means writing a check from taxpayers’ pockets for $30 million.”
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Bronx Soccer Stadium Local Support Wanes as Yankees-City Hall Standoff Goes Into Extra Time
Months after the Yankees’ president declared a proposed 25,000-seat Bronx soccer stadium dead, the project is still a possibility — but a growing number of neighbors don’t share that goal, a new survey found.
The 161st Street Business Improvement District, a group of south Bronx businesses, surveyed more than 200 local residents and workers in August and found that 56% of them want the New York City Football Club stadium to come to River Avenue.
But that’s down from 67% in 2019 — reflecting concerns that the partnership among the Yankees, the soccer team owner and housing developers could sidestep local needs, according to the BID’s findings.
The majority of respondents wanted the community to have a more active role in the stadium development deal and beyond, with six out of 10 liking an idea floated by the BID: offer discounted stock in the proposed stadium to area residents.
Three out of four respondents want the incoming mayor, whether it’s Eric Adams or Curtis Sliwa, to ensure the stadium pays property taxes — something neighboring Yankee Stadium does not directly do.
“I am glad that the residents have spoken up” about their feelings on the project, said local Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, who is also the Democratic nominee for Bronx borough president and a supporter of the stadium.
Lots of Problems
New York City FC kicked off in 2015 and has been playing at Yankee Stadium ever since, navigating a season that overlaps with baseball’s. The Yankees, New York City FC and several other stakeholders approached the city, which owns the lots where the soccer stadium would stand, with the deal in 2018.
But this summer, negotiations between the team’s owners and the city’s Economic Development Corporation ran aground over a dispute about parking spaces in a city-owned garage.
Cary Goodman, head of the 161st Street BID
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Cary Goodman, executive director of the 161st Street BID, said the back and forth between the Yankees, the EDC and the football club may have contributed to bruised community support in recent months.
Goodman and the BID support the stadium deal — which would also come with affordable housing and space for retail — but believe the football club should pay property taxes.
That’s not a given: Madison Square Garden is fully exempt from property taxes, while the Yankees make cut-rate alternative payments under a special arrangement tied to the construction of the team’s current stadium, which opened in 2009.
“The Yankees say that they’ve given millions and millions of dollars to the community via their charitable organizations, and they have — but they don’t pay taxes!” Goodman said. “It should be something like $100 million a year that should be coming into this neighborhood from that stadium.”
$156 Million Owed to City
New York City Football Club has played in Yankee Stadium for the last six years, working around the Bronx Bombers’ schedule in a makeshift field allowed by the stadium’s dimensions — the smallest by international standards, much to fans’ dismay.
The Yankees are a minority owner in the New York City FC, which is controlled by City Football Group, which also owns England’s Manchester City football club and other teams. City Football Group is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, according to the company.
In 2018, New York City FC joined with Nuveen, an asset management company advising parking garage bondholders, and Maddd Equities, a housing developer, to approach city officials with a $1 billion proposal. They sought to build not only a soccer stadium but also retail space, affordable housing and a hotel on the parking lots and other real estate, steps away from Yankee Stadium.
The plan requires relocating an elevator parts factory, GAL Manufacturing, just south of Macombs Dam Park.
The parking lot at E. 153rd Street and River Avenue in The Bronx
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY
One piece of the puzzle is a proposal from EDC to rework a 99-year lease covering five parking garages and eight parking lots on city-owned land. The company running those lots defaulted on payments to bondholders a decade ago, after far fewer vehicles used the pricey parking spots than projected.
EDC reported that the venture owed $156 million in lease and other payments and interest to the city as of January 2021.
Under a new proposed deal, developer Maddd Equities would take over some parking lots — including sites on the Harlem River — while working with the community to figure out future development there.
That proposal was scheduled to go to vote in late June with local Community Board 4 and the Bronx Borough Board, which is a body consisting of the Bronx borough president, Council members and community board chairs.
New York City Football Club flags line the top of Yankee Stadium.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY
Around the same time, New York Yankees president Randy Levine told Forbes SportsMoney that the franchise and the city would reach a deal on the stadium “in the next 30 to 60 days.”
But days before the vote, EDC announced it was postponing action and nothing’s been rescheduled since.
A spokesperson for New York City FC told THE CITY in a statement that it’s “disappointing that the vote on the parking lease did not take place, which was always central to our proposal.”
“This is all the more regrettable given the hard work of everyone — particularly the community board — to bring the vote forward,” the statement read. “NYCFC remains committed to working with the community groups, elected officials, and the new administration to deliver a privately funded, soccer-specific stadium for fans of the club across the city and beyond.”
Fight Over 5,000 Parking Spots
In the meantime, the project is stuck in limbo, with the Yankees and EDC at odds over the ballclub’s demand that some 5,000 parking spaces remain reserved for its own use.
Levine, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, railed against the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio — and this summer declared the stadium as good as dead. “The deal broke down over the bondholders and the city refusing to do what they agreed to do,” he told Fox Business.
A spokesperson for the EDC referred THE CITY to a statement the agency issued in June: “After years of negotiations with the Yankees and other parties, we are disappointed they will not commit to promises already made to the city and the community and attempted to change key terms of a deal only days before a community board vote. We delayed the… vote to give both parties more time to resolve their issues.”
A parcel near Citi Field is also being eyed for a soccer stadium.
Two sources familiar with the negotiations say that the Yankees will come back to the table only if those parking spots are included — or else, one said, they’ll consider starting over with a site in Queens. NYCFC had previously eyed a parcel in Willets Point, near Citi Field, where the team has also played home games, as a spot for the soccer stadium.
Levine and the Yankees declined to comment. City and state lobbying records show New York City FC real estate attorney and team board member Martin Edelman continuing to receive $10,000 a month for his services.
Gibson said she sees the waning support shown in the BID’s survey as a sign that the Yankees’ brinksmanship may have eroded local enthusiasm. And she says the Yankees need to do better by The Bronx.
“I would have hoped that the Yankees would have made more of a good faith effort and really tried to resolve this because they understood that this was a deal that was not in anyone’s best interest — and over parking spaces, when we are starving for housing,” she said.
Councilmember Vanessa Gibson speaks at her borough president primary night party at Con Sofrito on Commerce Avenue, June 22, 2021.
Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY
Goodman of the 161st Street BID called the stalemate over the stadium’s future in The Bronx “disappointing.”
“The Yankees, and perhaps now even the soccer team, are not taking the community seriously,” he said.
Highbridge resident Elisha Bouret, who lives five blocks away from Yankee Stadium, isn’t too happy about the prospect of another ballpark nearby, telling THE CITY that traffic during games is “horrendous” enough already.
“Honestly, if they’re going to build the schools and they’re going to build all this affordable housing — they better do that before they build the stadium,” she said. “I don’t even watch soccer.”
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NYPD Officers on a Secret Watchlist Jeopardize Prosecutions
One judge said she believed the testimony of a Bronx defendant’s 64-year-old mother more than that of the two New York City police officers who arrested him.
Another said she didn’t buy the testimony of an officer and his colleagues, concluding that they had stopped a car not because they’d seen its occupants break any laws but because it was driven by “three young men of color.”
A third jurist toyed with using the word “perjury” to describe the testimony of an officer who repeatedly contradicted himself, claiming, for example, the defendant had both told police and not told police where he lived.
In each of the cases, the officers’ testimony was supposed to help prosecutors secure convictions against people charged with illegal gun possession. Instead, the cases fell apart, done in by the officers’ own dubious statements. Yet prosecutors had pursued trials knowing there was reason not to put these cops on the stand.
That’s because they were among hundreds of officers placed on the Bronx district attorney’s “No Fly List,” a secret roster of officers whose cases are supposed to get an extra level of scrutiny by prosecutors.
The list was created a decade ago amid a sprawling investigation into the city’s biggest police union and its role in helping officers “fix” tickets issued to family and friends for speeding, illegal parking and other traffic offenses. It grew to 664 names and was intended to help prosecutors vet cases that might rest too heavily on officers whose ties to the scandal could raise questions about their conduct and credibility.
Ten years after it was first created, the No Fly List itself remains secret by judicial seal.
But ProPublica has obtained a version of the list. And a review of court records involving 164 No Fly officers still currently on the force shows how one of the most sweeping efforts by prosecutors to flag cops with credibility concerns hasn’t prevented them from jeopardizing cases.
Prosecutors aren’t barred from relying on No Fly officers, and a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t say how many have testified, only that “hundreds” had done so in successful prosecutions. But the prosecutions that failed because of dubious statements by No Fly officers illustrate the conflict inherent in expecting prosecutors to serve as a check on the very officers they need to build cases.
And even as new laws have forced prosecutors and police in New York to begin making public more information about officers’ conduct and credibility, the full picture of a New York Police Department officer’s history is rarely known outside the department.
Until recently, prosecutors could wait until the eve of trial to disclose damaging information about arresting officers to defendants and their lawyers. A 2019 law was intended to speed up those disclosures so that defendants would not be in the dark as they weighed whether to go to trial or agree to a plea deal. But the scope of the disclosure requirement has been challenged in court by prosecutors. And defense lawyers say that they still find themselves frequently making plea deals knowing little or nothing about the history of the arresting officer, and long before a judge might start asking questions.
For the public, even less information is readily available, even with the repeal last year of a state civil service law that had long been used to keep secret officer disciplinary records. The state’s vast court record system can’t be searched by the name of officers involved in a case, making it impossible for the public, and even judges, to readily identify and examine all of the cases involving a particular officer. To identify failed prosecutions that hinged on the credibility of No Fly officers, ProPublica reviewed judicial decisions, press accounts and newly public disclosures from prosecutors.
Those records show the aborted gun prosecutions weren’t the only cases in which judges have assailed the credibility of other No Fly officers.
A Bronx detective, for example, who was disciplined in the ticket-fixing probe has twice been found not credible by federal judges in gun cases that ultimately fell apart. His name doesn’t appear on the version of the No Fly List examined by ProPublica, but a person familiar with the master list, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-secret document, confirmed the detective is on it.
And beyond blown prosecutions in which a judge publicly questioned the credibility of the officer, court records show that people arrested by No Fly cops have turned to the civil courts to seek accountability for claims of wrongful arrest and other misconduct. At least 77 currently active officers have been the subject of such lawsuits, which the city has paid nearly $7 million to settle.
Richard J. Davis, a former federal prosecutor who chaired the city’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption in the late 1990s, said prosecutors and police officials who continue to put such officers back on the street — and on the stand — do so to their own detriment.
“It’s important because it undermines confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said.
The killing of George Floyd and the national reckoning on policing that it prompted accelerated a push for increased transparency by prosecutors in New York and elsewhere. But the story of the No Fly List highlights how, more than a year after Floyd’s death, the public still has a constricted view into misconduct and discipline among NYPD officers.
‘It’s a Courtesy, Not a Crime’
When the indicted ticket-fixing officers were arraigned at a Bronx courthouse in October 2011, hundreds of off-duty officers summoned by the city’s largest police union showed up, heckling prosecutors and investigators while holding signs that read “It’s A Courtesy, Not A Crime.”
Patrick Lynch, the longtime head of the 24,000-member New York City Police Benevolent Association, argued that ticket-fixing wasn’t a criminal act but a “long standing practice at all levels of the department” that was ingrained in NYPD culture. (A spokesperson for the union hasn’t responded to phone and email messages seeking comment for this story.)
NYPD officers wear body cameras while standing guard in Midtown, Nov. 3, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
But the investigation revealed that union officials were at the center of the scandal, recorded on secret wiretaps coordinating efforts to make tickets disappear by tearing them up, altering them and sometimes even removing tickets from precinct summons boxes. In other cases, officers were encouraged not to show up to testify at traffic court, or to feign amnesia on the stand.
To those running the investigation, it was less about lost ticket revenue and more about the trustworthiness of officers who would exploit their badges to get around the law and, more concerning, what other lines might they be willing to cross.
So while the investigation culminated in convictions of 15 officers, by the time prosecutors completed the No Fly List, roughly one out of every 50 officers on what was then a 34,500-member force were on it. Many of the hundreds of officers caught up in the probe would eventually face internal discipline, ranging from letters of reprimand to five-day suspensions and the forfeiture of up to 25 vacation days.
Charles Campisi, who ran the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau until 2014 and oversaw the ticket-fixing investigation, said that the department decided which officers’ behavior rose to the level of discipline. But the No Fly List had a different objective. It was an alert system for prosecutors, he said, “for their benefit to be able to say, ‘This case brought by this officer needs more scrutiny.’”
Ten years after the list’s creation, it’s unclear how the Bronx District Attorney’s Office currently uses it and who has access to it. When it was compiled, the Bronx DA was Robert Johnson, who stepped down in 2015 after nearly three decades in office and is now a judge.
Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the current district attorney, Darcel Clark, who took office in 2016, declined to answer questions about whether the office tracks the cases involving No Fly officers or uses the list when vetting potential prosecutions. Prosecutors, she said, make all required disclosures to defense lawyers.
Whatever the system, it failed spectacularly when Officer Omar Habib took the stand in the Bronx in December 2018. His testimony at Angel Valentin’s gun trial unraveled a seemingly airtight case, raising questions about the efficacy of the No Fly List.
In Valentin’s case, Habib, who’d spent his 11-year career in the Bronx, had gone to a judge for the search warrant, photographed the seized guns and cash, submitted the evidence under seal and swore to the criminal complaint charging Valentin with multiple gun offenses. At the time, Habib had already been disciplined for punching a prisoner in the face in a police station in addition to fixing tickets in the Bronx.
Under cross-examination, Habib gave a series of contradictory answers and disclosures about the case, the chain of evidence and his past disciplinary history — admitting, for example, that he was testifying while stripped of his gun and badge because he was being investigated for using a prohibited chokehold. (The chokehold was among dozens that ProPublica and THE CITY identified in an investigation into the banned practice earlier this year. In an April court filing, lawyers for Habib denied he used the banned chokehold, writing that he “was performing his duties lawfully” when the incident occured.)
The judge, Alvin Yearwood, at one point contemplated using the word “perjury” to describe Habib’s performance on the stand.
“I’m not going to use the word I should be using, but do you see the problem?” he asked prosecutors from the bench.
Judge Alvin Yearwood questions prosecutors about the veracity of Officer Omar Habib’s testimony in the Bronx trial of Angel Valentin.
Bronx Supreme Court
Valentin, whose case was covered by the Daily News in 2019, was acquitted. His brother and a third defendant, who had previously pleaded guilty, were allowed to renegotiate their deals.
Habib hasn’t responded to phone or email messages seeking comment. (In a March deposition taken in a separate civil lawsuit, Habib said he had testified “several” times as a police witness in criminal cases and described being well trained in police procedures and criminal law.)
Most cases don’t make it to a stage where a judge like Yearwood is hearing testimony about the arrest, so it is rare that the legality of a search or the veracity of an officer’s report is subjected to scrutiny beyond that of a supervising officer or the assistant district attorney processing the criminal complaint.
That’s why the Legal Aid Society wants its defense attorneys to know as much about the officers who arrest their clients as possible before accepting plea deals. For years, the group has worked to track officer credibility by compiling profiles that draw from its own records, as well as court filings, civilian complaints and other sources.
Jennvine Wong, who heads the organization’s police accountability practice, said that while some might dismiss ticket-fixing as small-bore misbehavior, knowing who is on the full No Fly List is essential to the group’s effort.
“The NYPD made such a big deal about broken windows, how small little infractions can turn into an avalanche of bigger issues with larger, more violent crimes,” she said. “Well, apply that same logic to officer misconduct then.”
‘Many Inconsistencies, Both Major and Minor’
Over the last several years, the role of prosecutors in enabling police misconduct has drawn increasing scrutiny from criminal justice reform advocates and their allies in local and state legislatures.
In New York City, where each borough has its own district attorney, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has gone further than his counterparts in ensuring the integrity of criminal cases and the police officers behind them. His office has publicly blacklisted seven police officers, barring them from testifying, and, earlier this year, it released more than 10,000 documents containing officer misconduct histories.
Most of the city’s other district attorneys have recently released their own internal lists of officers who have been deemed not credible, though only after reporters and lawyers sought them through open records requests and lawsuits.
The No Fly List, though, remains under seal. In 2012, at the request of lawyers for the indicted ticket-fixing officers, a Bronx judge issued a gag order blocking the list from being publicly distributed.
And the fates of the officers involved underscore the reality that the NYPD is almost always the ultimate arbiter of its officers’ conduct. Whether questions about credibility arise from a judge, a prosecutor, a lawsuit or the city’s own Civilian Complaint Review Board, what, if anything, happens to an officer is almost always decided by the NYPD.
A Police Department spokesperson, Al Baker, said that while names of officers come up in any investigation of suspected misconduct, that is not on its own “a determination of guilt or wrongdoing.”
He said that “some officers are removed from their current assignments upon recommendation” of a committee composed of four police officials who review instances in which a judge or prosecutor had decided an officer isn’t credible.
The NYPD said in 2015 that it had begun to also add civil lawsuits filed against officers to an internal tracking system, though the federal monitor overseeing court-mandated reforms wrote in a report last year that the department has only reached “partial compliance” incorporating lawsuits, credibility findings, declined prosecutions and other data into it.
NYPD guidelines released earlier this year state that being the subject of disciplinary action “may also have an impact” on future assignments and promotions. But in the NYPD, commanding officers have wide latitude to assign officers to particular units or neighborhoods. And for some promotions, most notably to become a detective, commanders have considerable discretion as well.
Half of the 164 No Fly officers currently on the job were promoted in the decade since they were first flagged, most of them to detective.
Among them: Dennis Westbrook, Fabio Checo and Jason Fernandez.
All three officers were on the No Fly List. All three are now detectives. And, in two separate rulings, in gun possessions cases from 2014 and 2015, judges wrote that they couldn’t believe them after lawyers for the men they arrested challenged their police work in court and moved to have the evidence against the defendants thrown out.
In Westbrook’s case, a written decision by a judge in Brooklyn obtained by ProPublica sheds light on a failed prosecution that had been sealed.
In the case, the officers, all part of a gang squad, claimed they had pulled over a BMW one night because they observed a backseat passenger smoking a joint. During a search, they found a gun in the wheel well of the trunk. But the judge, Ruth Shillingford, makes clear in her decision that she had trouble believing Westbrook and his two fellow officers’ account of the stop and subsequent search, writing that “there were many inconsistencies, both major and minor” in their testimony about the December 2015 incident.
Shillingford found there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop and thus the gun recovered during the search was out as evidence. The decision makes no mention of Westbrook’s past involvement in the ticket-fixing case. Records obtained by ProPublica show he was placed on the No Fly List after investigators learned that other NYPD officers failed to file a ticket that had been issued to Westbrook in the Bronx. Westbrook, who has been on the force for 13 years, hasn’t returned phone and email messages seeking comment.
A year earlier, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain ruled that Checo and Fernandez, who were both disciplined for their roles in the ticket-fixing case, improperly obtained a search warrant, withholding key information from the judge who issued it, and thus tainted the weapons they recovered as a result.
She also found the defendant’s mother’s “testimony more credible than that of the officers,” and agreed that the woman hadn’t given the officers permission to search her apartment.
“The reckless or negligent conduct of the officers here is the type of conduct that can, and should, be deterred by application of the exclusionary rule,” Swain wrote.
A decision by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain states that she believes the testimony of a Bronx defendant’s 64-year-old mother more than that of the two New York City police officers who arrested him.
United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Fernandez didn’t respond to an email sent to his NYPD account, and several numbers listed for him weren’t in service. Checo hasn’t responded to a text and email message seeking comment.
With no evidence against the defendant, prosecutors abandoned the case.
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Court Blocks Controversial Medicare Switch for Retired NYC Workers
This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news site covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
A state Supreme Court judge Thursday indefinitely halted a proposed cost-cutting change in city government retirees’ health care after former municipal workers filed suit seeking to stop the move.
In a four-page order, Judge Lyle Frank called the rollout of the switch “irrational, and thus arbitrary and capricious” — and ordered the city to maintain the retirees’ current health care plans.
The suit was filed by the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees, a group formed in opposition to the move to a privately administered Medicare Advantage plan. Steve Cohen, the lawyer representing the retiree organization, celebrated the injunction.
“This is terrific for retirees,” he told New York Focus and THE CITY. “Thank goodness they’re not being rushed and being forced into an irrational decision.”
Frank tentatively prohibited the city and the new insurer — a partnership between EmblemHealth and Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield known as the Retiree Health Alliance — from enforcing a planned Oct. 31 deadline for retirees to opt out of the plan.
The judge’s order does not, however, scrap the plan: Frank wrote that he “does not intend to disturb” the city’s choice to team with the Alliance.
The planned switch is the result of a 2014 agreement between de Blasio and the Municipal Labor Committee, a group of unions that represent city employees and retirees. The unions committed to $1.3 billion in annual health care savings in exchange for pay raises for members.
The switch to the Alliance will move retirees from their current arrangement of traditional government-administered Medicare plus a supplemental insurance program into a privately run system known as Medicare Advantage.
City officials contend moving retirees’ health care to Medicare Advantage plans managed by private insurers will save over $600 million annually, while preserving equally good care.
But many retirees are skeptical of that promise of equally good care, noting that for the first time, for example, retired city workers will have to obtain prior authorization from their insurer for a host of procedures and equipment, instead of getting coverage automatically.
‘I Could Be Bankrupt’
Some retirees worry that could leave them on the hook for huge sums, if the Alliance decides that their treatments aren’t covered.
“I could be bankrupt from the other plan if they don’t take everything,” retired NYCHA employee Lainie Kitt told New York Focus and THE CITY earlier this week.
Retirees who elect to keep the existing supplemental care program must pay $191 per adult covered.
A separate suit filed by insurance giant Aetna, claiming that the process of awarding the contract to the Alliance violated city procurement law and that the Alliance misrepresented its qualifications during the bidding process was rejected.
In response to the Organization of Public Service Retirees’ suit, the city had argued that it had done sufficient work to publicize the plan, and that the Halloween deadline should remain in place.
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department expressed disappointment with Frank’s injunction.
“While we are gratified that the court upheld the contract award which is an essential step towards implementing the program, we are disappointed that the court stayed its implementation. We are reviewing the decision and the city’s options for moving forward. We are confident that the program will ultimately be implemented in the best interest of City retirees,” the spokesperson said.
The injunction doesn’t scrap the plan entirely, Frank emphasized, but rather delays it until more public information is available surrounding the plan. The judge noted that which doctors will accept the plan is still unknown.
In an online survey conducted by the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees, 317 out of 880 respondents said that at least some of their health care providers were not aware of the Alliance’s plan and couldn’t say whether they would accept it.
Writing that “There is little clarity as to which health care providers will be accepting this new Medicare Advantage Plan,” Frank found that retirees are at risk of suffering irreparable harm if forced to decide whether to remain in the plan on the basis of incomplete information.
Some retirees hope that the injunction will give them time to continue mobilizing against the switch. “It’s an opportunity to inform people and build the opposition,” said Len Rodberg, a retired CUNY professor who opposes the change.
Frank ordered the city to submit a plan for “curing the deficiencies” his ruling highlighted.
The Department of Law spokesperson said that discussions on when and how the city will submit such a plan are ongoing. A spokesperson for the Alliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Cohen said that his group will “continue looking and monitoring what’s going on, and be ready to respond if anybody appeals.”
Several major municipal unions, including DC37, UFT, Local 237, and the PBA, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Frank’s ruling.
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