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Kelly and the Post: The Big Split?

February 18, 2008

What in the world is going on between Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the New York Post?

For years the Post has been surrogate and strident voice of the police department [and authority in general]. Recently, though, it has been trumpeting critical, even embarrassing, stories about the once-slavishly revered Kelly and his police department.

In the old days, the Post would not have dared to anger the department by running an apparently doctored picture ridiculing a one-star chief. However, last fall, the Post did just that, devoting nearly a full page to the sight of Brooklyn Deputy Chief Michael Marino, wearing a “super sperm” costume, with bubbles of white and a red “S” across his chest. His name had surfaced in the ongoing steroid investigation. He was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.

Last October, the Post showcased on Page 1 a secret 2006 Internal Affairs document, reporting that 114 cops had been arrested for various acts of corruption. These included soliciting sex in exchange for overlooking crimes, stealing credit cards from the homes of the dead, and hiring a hit man to commit a murder. In a revealing line about the rift between the Post and Kelly, the story stated that the NYPD had refused to answer the Post’s questions, submitted in writing six weeks before the story ran.

The death last month of actor Heath Ledger revealed even more discord between the paper and the police. In a front page exclusive, the Post claimed that detectives had planned to grill actress Mary Kate Olsen because the masseuse who discovered Ledger’s body called her in California, and she directed private security guards to his Soho apartment.

Although the NYPD denied this, the Post stuck by its story, saying in its next day’s front page headline: “The cops are afraid to ask Mary-Kate Olsen some simple questions. WE ARE NOT! WHY?”

Inside, an editorial began, “What is it about the elfin Mary-Kate Olsen that has caused the NYPD to misplace the common sense and good judgment that characteristically inform its investigations? Is Police Commissioner Ray Kelly scared that she's going to beat him up?”

More damning was a Feb. 4th story by its veteran police bureau chief Murray Weiss under the headline, “Hidden Agendas. NYPD Mum on Kelly’s Schedule.”

The story reported that the department had issued “a blanket denial” to the Post’s recent Freedom of Information request for Kelly’s schedule, noting that the same type of information has been released for Mayor Bloomberg, President Bush, and even the FBI Director..

“The NYPD gave two reasons for withholding the information,” the story reported. “Releasing it could endanger lives or interfere with ongoing investigations.”

However, Weiss seemed to hit on the true reason for Kelly’s secrecy, stating that he “has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, and releasing his schedules might reveal potential political supporters with whom he has been meeting.”

O.K., so what is going on here?

Weiss declined to comment, other than to say, “We cover the department even-handedly, whether the commissioner is Ray Kelly or Robert McGuire, who is as far back as I go.”

Problems between the Post and Kelly surfaced a few years ago when the Post — and others — discovered that Kelly is not quite the God-like figure portrayed in much of the media.

Under Kelly, information is even harder to come by than during the darkest days of Rudy Giuliani, despite Mayor Mike’s campaign promises of “more transparency.”

A major difference between Kelly and Giuliani is that, while the former mayor disdained and ignored the media, this police commissioner cultivates top editors and editorial writers. He even shows up at award presentations at the city’s Press Club.

He also retaliates against reporters who criticize him, denying them access to top police officials and to information. In Your Humble Servant’s case, Kelly even braved the Long Island Expressway’s traffic to Melville to personally complain to Newsday’s editors.

What crystallized the problem for many was Kelly’s crackdown in 2006 on his Detective Bureau over the murder investigation of Imette St. Guillen, the graduate student found raped and bound off the Belt Parkway after leaving a SoHo bar.

Leaks about the investigation to the Post and other papers infuriated Kelly. He ordered that detectives’ private cells phones be dumped and their calls scrutinized.

The Internal Affairs Bureau questioned scores of detectives and Brooklyn detective brass, including an Assistant Chief and a Deputy Chief, asking whether they had spoken to specific reporters about the St. Guillen case.

The Post was especially miffed because its reporting had provided a break in the case — a witness linking St. Guillen to the suspect Darryl Littlejohn, a bouncer at the bar where she was last seen. The Post put the witness in touch with the police.

Asked about Kelly’s internal investigation, Weiss said Kelly’s reaction “would have to be viewed as a witch hunt. And it is fair to suggest the effect was more severe than anything during the Giuliani years,” he added.

“There hasn’t been anything as chilling in the police department since Giuliani wiped out the entire Public Information office under Bill Bratton.”

But those DCPI transfers happened in public. Kelly’s moves against his detectives occurred behind the scenes. Only this column reported it. [See Mar. 20, 2006]

Now more reporters are asking harder questions. The News is running some tough police stories, including the discoveries that a top counter-terrorism chief apparently fudged his out-of-city residence, and that the police translator in the murder case of Daniel Malakov is under investigation for the disappearance of an audio-taped wiretapped conversation with Malakov’s wife, who has been arrested for his murder.

Despite incurring Kelly’s ire, the Post doesn’t seem to be hurting any. When police over the weekend cracked the meat cleaver murder of an East Side psychologist, the Post had the details about the alleged killer right up on its website.

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt