NYC officials deny cooking books for Yankee Stadium at congressional hearing
WASHINGTON -- New York City officials told a congressional panel Friday that they didn't do anything improper in shepherding through $1.3 billion in financing for a new Yankee Stadium, but the assurances did little to mollify the congressman who is investigating the deal.
At issue was a six-fold increase in the city's assessed value of the land, to around $200 million. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, suggested the reason was to make it easier to get tax-exempt bonds to pay for the construction of the ballpark in the South Bronx.
Meanwhile, Yankees president Randy Levine told the lawmakers bluntly that the new stadium would have never been built, and the Yankees would have left the Bronx, without the financing.
The stadium is scheduled to open next April with a game against Kucinich's home-state Cleveland Indians.
Citing an e-mail obtained by the House Domestic Policy subcommittee he chairs, Kucinich suggested there was pressure on officials in the City's Department of Finance to revise the assessment upward.
In the e-mail, dated March 20, 2006, Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., tells Josh Sirefman, an official in the mayor's office, that the finance agency was close to finishing a preliminary assessment, "and I'd like to understand what it is before it is released publicly to make sure it conforms to our assumptions [and, if it doesn't, to understand what the implications are]." He asked who in the agency should be contacted about it.
Pinsky testified that he was not trying to influence the assessment. He said he was just trying to find out when it would be produced, "so that we weren't blindsided by whatever the number turned out to be."
"Are you saying you needed a number or the number?" Kucinich asked, emphasizing the word "the."
"We needed a number," Pinsky said.
Pinsky called the stadium an important economic development tool for the South Bronx, a poor neighborhood.
The city's finance commissioner, Martha Stark, said the value of the land was changed because the original value was incorrect. She said it should have taken into account the value of the land with the stadium on it, not as vacant land.
Stark said the e-mail had no bearing on the assessment.
"There was no pressure on us," she said.
Another witness, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, an outspoken critic of the deal, told Kucinich he had a reason to be suspicious.
"The evidence that the assessment at Yankee Stadium was cooked is overwhelming," said Brodsky, a Democrat.
Although the hearing focused on a narrow question, its broader subtext was the battle over government subsidies to stadiums. Levine, the Yankees president, suggested the city was getting a good deal because there wasn't direct taxpayer funding.
But Kucinich argued that "federal taxpayers are deprived of hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues" in deals like this one which are funded by tax-free bonds.
"In our hearings, we have shown that the practice of providing taxpayer subsidies to the building of sports stadiums is a transfer of wealth from the many taxpayers to the few wealthy owners," he said. "The new Yankee Stadium is no exception to the rule."
He also complained that New York City has cited executive privilege on 70 percent of the remaining responsive documents sought by the subcommittee. Kucinich said he would continue to press for those documents. Last week, in a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he said that city officials could be guilty of perjury if they deliberately inflated the value of the land to the Internal Revenue Service.
Other panel members had different takes on the controversy. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, expressed concerns that the accusations of wrongdoing were "demonizing the city of New York," while Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., declared that "the federal government was simply taken to the bank."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press