Shadow Of A Doubt

Shadow Of A Doubt

Shadow Of A Doubt
March 3, 2014

I have long found it perplexing and borderline nonsensical that New York City mayors appoint the head of the Department of Investigations, the agency charged with ferreting out corruption within their administrations. How is this relationship not inherently subject to skepticism? Does it not disregard the nature of all but the noblest of individuals to believe that DOI commissioners will put their all into possibly taking down the person to whom they owe their jobs? 

Yes, I know that the president nominates the attorney general. The appropriateness of that relationship is a topic for another column. I’m talking about New York City, where major municipal scandals historically surface with the same regularity as elections. It seems that virtually no administration, no matter how honest it aims to be, is immune to scandal, from the Parking Violations Bureau to Bernie Kerik to CityTime. 

Which brings me to Mayor de Blasio’s appointment of Mark Peters, his campaign treasurer, as the newest DOI chief. Peters is not the first close friend of a mayor to be made the city’s independent and nonpartisan watchdog. After he was elected in 1993 Rudy Giuliani named Howard Wilson, one of Giuliani’s top deputies when he was U.S. Attorney and an intimate of his for two decades, to the position. Like Wilson, who as a prosecutor had won convictions of Rep. Mario Biaggi and Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon, Peters is eminently qualified for the post. He formerly served as chief of the public corruption unit in the New York State Attorney General’s office. 

Still, the appearance of this appointment is troubling, especially from a mayor who as a candidate emphasized transparency and good government among his guiding principles. The way the announcement of Peters’ selection was made—via a press release issued on a Saturday morning—reveals the administration’s tacit recognition that the optics of the choice are poor. The problem is not that Peters’ tight relationship with de Blasio means that his independence will be compromised; it is that a reasonable person could suspect that because of the mayor’s friendship with its commissioner, the DOI will not be as vigilant as it should in probing the administration. This shadow of doubt will be cast across the office as long as Peters is its head and detract from the unwavering confidence with which it must be viewed to be as effective as possible. Wilson’s tenure as commissioner is a telling example of the hazards of this perceived conflict. Despite his impeccable record as an assistant U.S. Attorney, two and a half years after he started at DOI, lo and behold came a lengthy article in The New York Times with the headline “Corruption Watchdog Has Become Mayor’s Tool, Critics Say.” Regardless of whether that piece was merited, is Peters not inevitably vulnerable to a similar story down the line? Mayor de Blasio has every right to bring Peters, an accomplished lawyer who has earned his trust, into the administration. Peters would clearly make an ideal counsel to the mayor. But for him to be the DOI commissioner raises more questions than it should, particularly in a political environment where the mayor has no apparent antagonist in city government to check his power—with the Council Speaker, comptroller and public advocate all his publicly stated allies. 

Morgan Pehme