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A white elephant for the men in blue

April 16, 2001

It looked last week as though "the greatest police commissioner in the history of the city," as the mayor refers to Howard Safir, was about to be taken down a peg by his successor, Bernard Kerik.

But as it turns out, the person taken down a peg may be Kerik himself.

Once again, the problem is Safir's pet project-and increasingly, Kerik's pet peeve: the police museum.

Like Safir's nine-man detective detail, which serves as his "coat men" under the guise of protecting him from so-called threats on his life, Safir's museum has become an embarrassment to the Police Department and to Kerik, his aides say.

Conceived in controversy, with Safir's wife, Carol, as its chairwoman, the museum began inauspiciously, with the disclosure that a Wall Street business group was paying its rent and utilities in return for Safir's opening a nearby police substation-although the area has the city's lowest crime rate.

When the museum was unable to raise operational funds, the Safirs lobbied executives from Merrill Lynch and PaineWebber for contributions. Unsuccessful, they turned to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who disregarded the Cultural Affairs Department's guidelines, awarding the museum $1 million, making the city its largest benefactor.

When it finally opened last year, Safir assigned two dozen officers to it, meaning the city also pays $1.5 million in staffing. Included were Sgt. Tom Gambino as executive director and Lt. James Augello as Gambino's assistant.

Before retiring in August, Safir awarded Gambino "special assignment money," meaning he receives lieutenant's pay.

But it is not clear what work Gambino or the other officers perform at the museum. If the guest register is an indication, fewer than 20 people a day visit the museum.

Instead, the museum has turned to catering and hosting luncheon and dinner parties. It also holds golfing fund-raisers. In October, Gambino scheduled one at the Deepdale Country Club, just over the Queens border in Nassau County, where Safir, some fat cats and selected police officers were to tee off at a cost of $1,875 per head.

When this column questioned whether Gambino and the other police golfers actually paid the $1,875 or were "comped" while more plebeian officers are not allowed to accept a free cup of coffee, Kerik expressed little concern.

His aides said he supported the museum's concept, although he subsequently reduced the police contingent by five.

Now, let's consider last week's events. They began with an anonymous letter sent to Newsday and the Daily News, saying Gambino and Augello were driving luxury cars leased by the museum and using a secret office at 55 Water St., some blocks from the museum.

When Your Humble Servant appeared at the office Tuesday, Gambino began screaming, "Please leave!" while berating the hapless building employee who had served as an escort.

Kerik, it turned out, had received a similar letter, and the Internal Affairs Bureau was already investigating. While aides said there appeared to be no criminality, they described Kerik as being furious he had not known about the cars or the office.

"The whole situation is under review," Chief Tom Fahey, the department's spokesman, said. "We hope to have a resolution shortly."

As he spoke, the mayor's press secretary, Sonny [The Silent] Mindel called, apparently checking in on the matter for City Hall.

The next day, Safir weighed in, telling the Times and the News-he does not talk to Newsday, nor in this case, to Kerik-that Gambino had properly notified the first deputy's and commissioner's offices of everything.

Thursday, IAB interviewed Gambino. A person who saw him shortly afterward described him as "shaken." Kerik's aides told reporters that his and Augello's transfers were imminent.

Friday morning, the same aides said the transfers would be formally announced that afternoon. Indeed, a Friday editorial critical of the museum in the Daily News-whose editorial page editor, Richard Schwartz, was a deputy mayor under Giuliani-appeared to give the transfers the official imprimatur by saying, "A museum meant to honor law enforcement ought not operate under an ethical cloud."

Then, late Friday, the department did an about-face.

"Nothing has changed," Tom Antenen, deputy commissioner for public information, announced solemnly to reporters. "They [Gambino and Augello] still have their cars. They still have their office [at 55 Water St.]."

What had happened? Had Safir reached out to Giuliani to spare him embarrassment, yet again? Had Giuliani then intervened with Kerik? Meeting with reporters, Kerik said he had not spoken to the mayor Friday about the matter but did not deny he may have spoken to others at City Hall.

An aide to Kerik then suggested Kerik was merely being prudent in crossing all his Ts before dumping Gambino and Augello and hinted the two may be charged with serious misconduct.

We'll see.

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© 2001 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.