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Where Was Mayor Mike?

June 4, 2007

O.K., so where was Mayor Mike?

You’d think it would be political suicide for a major public figure to blow off a major public event — especially one about public safety. In the past, such an absence raised eyebrows, prompted panicked excuses from underlings, or at the very least a reporter’s question asking where in the world was the big guy.

Not today. Welcome to New York City and the privileged world of our billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is able to jet away on his private plane to the Caribbean or wherever and stay away, as events this weekend indicate, as long as he wishes.

We are not certain how or where Bloomberg spent this past weekend, though he must have been having plenty of fun. But we are certain of one thing: he wasn’t there with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the nation’s law enforcement brain trust as they faced the cameras Saturday afternoon to reassure New Yorkers they had thwarted the latest terrorist plot against the city.

Oh, how the world has changed. Twenty-three years ago, Police Commissioner Ben Ward did not show up for the largest mass murder in New York’s history, the Palm Sunday massacre. Ward was a no-show even though all the top dogs in his own police department and in the mayor’s office — Mayor Ed Koch included — trooped out to Brooklyn, where ten people (many of them women and small children) had been fatally shot.

Was Ward’s appearance at the crime scene necessary and essential? From a tactical standpoint, no. But it was symbolic. His absence sent the message that he didn’t care about one of the worst crimes in city history.

Worse, both the NYPD and City Hall downplayed his absence, first saying he was on vacation with no contact number, then explaining that his absence was no big deal.

It was only when a reporter — none other than Your Humble Servant — badgered department spokeswoman Alice T. McGillion that the truth emerged. Ward had been on a three-day bender with a girlfriend, traveling to motels between Baltimore and Washington. The department couldn’t locate him for three days — until he called from New Jersey, where his car had broken down, and asked the NYPD to transport him and the girlfriend back to the city.

Flash forward to this past weekend. On Saturday afternoon, the city’s — and some of the nation’s — top echelon of law enforcement officials all turned out for a news conference. They announced they had foiled a plot by four suspected Muslim extremists — one an American citizen living in Brooklyn, all with ties to Caribbean Muslims — to blow up John F. Kennedy Airport. Three of the suspects were in custody. A fourth was being hunted.

But one top official was neither seen nor heard from — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And, it appears, not one newspaper questioned the propriety of his absence.

Was Bloomberg’s appearance in New York, like Ward’s 23 years before, necessary and essential? From a tactical standpoint, no. But again, it was symbolic. His absence showed he didn’t consider the terrorism arrests important enough to cut short his weekend in Bermuda — or wherever he was and where God only knows what he was doing.

Bloomberg had to have known as early as Friday evening that the news conference might interrupt his frolicking because that’s when the FBI arrested the three suspects and informed the NYPD. (Normally, the ranking NYPD man at the Joint Terrorism Task Force — [the group of police detectives and FBI agents that made the arrests] — notifies the police commissioner’s office while the FBI press office notifies the police department’s office of public information.)

Admittedly, there were glitches and uncertainty about the timing of this news conference. Sources say that officials early Saturday were debating whether to postpone it because of efforts to turn one or more of the suspects into cooperating witnesses.

However by 9 a.m. Saturday, final word came that the news conference was on. It was scheduled for 1 p.m., but didn’t begin until an hour later, which gave Mayor Mike plenty of time to fly his jet back home and show up — if he had cared to.

So was Bloomberg’s absence a signal that the arrests and foiled plot were not as serious as the law enforcement officials suggested?

Maybe Bloomberg didn’t feel he needed to show up because he was told the plotters had merely been in the planning stages — far from getting their hands on money or explosives — and were arrested because of fears one of them might flee to either Iran or Venezuela, places from which there is no likely return.

Or maybe Bloomberg felt they were less dangerous than detailed in the 33-page criminal complaint against them. Consider the words of the normally sane U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, who was at her best in the colorful quote line, calling the plot “unthinkable” and “chilling.”

On the other hand, consider the sight of the 63-year-old alleged ringleader Russell DeFreitas, a retired airport cargo worker whose drawn face and nearly foot-long grey beard suggested less a bomb-thrower than a homeless man.

Police Commissioner Kelly said Bloomberg had been briefed on the events, a statement that cuts both ways. On the one hand, it shows Bloomberg knew the details. On the other, it indicates he didn’t think the details as chilling as Mauskopf did, and didn’t want to miss out on the fun he was having.

Indeed, the mayor has become expert in cherry-picking which terrorist plot announcements he attends. Remember the 2005 mayoral race when he skipped a debate in Harlem with opponent Freddy Ferrer to assure the city that a plot to blow up the subways had been foiled? What a convenient way for him to avoid debating Ferrer, as Freddy charged at the time. Apparently for Bloomberg, attending this new conference wasn’t as convenient.

Bloomberg’s absence further underscores his confidence in Kelly, who once again during a terrorism alert became the face of the city. Remember the first time, the bombing of the World Trade Trade Center in 1993 when Kelly was police commissioner under David Dinkins? Dinkins was in Japan and it was Kelly who stood shoulder-to-shoulder on national television with the FBI’s Jim Fox.

Yesterday, Kelly appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” looking remarkably as he had 14 years before. The only difference was his wardrobe. His clothes were threadbare then. Now he was dolled up in his best dark suit and red power tie with small polka dots, looking every bit the leader Bloomberg failed to be this weekend.

Good-bye, Charlie?
Sources say that Deputy Commissioner Charlie De Rienzo is retiring. We won’t bore readers with his accomplishments, other than to say that if anyone can figure out what he has done since 2004 when he rejoined the department under Kelly, we will gladly print it.

His departure opens the door for another Kelly lackey — former Chief of Patrol, Wilbur Chapman. If Chapman returns, we all know what that means: Kelly is increasingly serious about running for mayor. Chapman’s presence gives Kelly a prominent black face at his side, demonstrating he is sensitive to concerns among African Americans — crucial in light of the disastrous Sean Bell shooting.

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Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt