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Sworn to uphold – not to testify

March 2, 1998

Police Commissioner Howard Safir's reputation for shading the facts is such that when a top deputy testified last week before the City Council, he was asked to swear an oath to tell the truth.

But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani prevented the testimony. City Hall argued that demanding a police officer swear to tell the truth would be "demeaning."

The story began in December, when Safir testified before the council's Public Safety Committee and neglected to inform its members that, back in August, the department had discovered that subway crime had been underreported by 20 percent for three decades.

For reasons not explained, Safir didn't announce the underreporting until two months after the November balloting that saw his boss re-elected. When he did announce it, he called the problem a systemic "flaw," although a former deputy inspector for transit has been charged departmentally and his superior, Chief Kenneth Donohue, has been forced to retire.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Sheldon Leffler has since been trying to discuss the issue with NYPD brass, who Leffler says are ducking him.

Then, two weeks ago, this column reported that Safir had agreed to open a $5-million police substation near Wall Street, paid for by a business group. In return, the group, the Alliance for Downtown New York, also agreed to establish a police museum headed by Safir's wife.

Amid criticism that the deal favored the rich, Giuliani suddenly announced that a substation also would be opened in the 105th Precinct in Queens, Leffler's home base. Safir said the decision had been made seven months earlier, although he failed to reveal this political plum during his December testimony. Safir's statement, says Leffler, is "totally contradictory to what he told the committee."

Earlier this year, Leffler announced that anyone testifying before the committee would be asked to swear to tell the truth. At a hearing Jan. 4, Insp. Thomas Belfiore, a former Internal Affairs supervisor and the current commanding officer of the Police Academy, expressed no reservation about testifying under oath about the sale of trigger locks.

But last week, when Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs George Grasso appeared before the council about an amendment to the city's "box-cutter" law, someone named Jake Menges, an assistant to Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, forbade Grasso to testify.

Perhaps City Hall feared that Grasso - whose legal team Safir has blamed for the Wall Street substation fiasco - might be asked embarassing questons about the deal. At any rate, according to Leffler, "Menges said it was demeaning to ask a police officer, who is sworn to tell the truth, to take the oath."

After an hour-and-a-half standoff, City Council Speaker (and gubernatorial candidate) Peter Vallone capitulated and allowed Grasso to testify sans oath. According to Vallone's press secretary, Mike Clendenin, Vallone decided the box-cutter issue "wasn't worth it."

The Snub.
Two weeks ago, a Philadelphia reporter appeared on the 13th floor of One Police Plaza. He sought help from Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Marilyn Mode in interviewing colleagues of former First Deputy Commissioner John Timoney, recently appointed Philadelphia's police commissioner.

Timoney, as everyone in this town knows, called Safir a "lightweight" after Giuliani passed him over for the commissioner's job. He later apologized. Although he has friends throughout the building, even in Safir's office, Mode informed the reporter no one was available.

It's Greek to Me.
The same night he boycotted the Grammy Awards, the mayor also boycotted last week's Police Foundation dinner. Rudy's unstated reason: The Foundation had designated as its "dinner chairman" Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman.

Giuliani hasn't publicly explained Zuckerman's sin. Safir, who knows, and may even have precipitated the estrangement, denies knowing anything. Although Mort spent the evening in no-doubt scintillating conversation with Howard, he apparently was too polite to ask. Of his Giuliani problem, the Zuckster told Newsday, "I don't know what you are talking about."

Director of NYPD Press Operations. Duties: Protect inexperienced boss; stonewall reporters (willing to lie, if necessary); notify police commissioner of news conferences at City Hall.

Qualifications: Total loyalty (to mayor).

College degree or prior knowledge of police department not required. Send resume to mayoral Director of Communications Cristyne Lategano.

Reason for opening: Current occupant, 25-year-old Lenny Alcivar, is seeking "to achieve new professional heights I can't achieve here."

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© 1998 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.