"Absolutely ready to cooperate in every way”
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday insisted that the city acted appropriately in the controversial sale of Long Island College Hospital (LICH), and said his administration is “absolutely ready to cooperate in every way” with any federal probe into his role in the sale.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is reportedly investigating de Blasio’s involvement in the sale of LICH to Fortis Property Group. The hospital was owned at that time by the State University of New York (SUNY).
The sale ignited protests and a years-long legal battle. De Blasio, as public advocate, led rallies, participated in a lawsuit and arranged to have himself arrested for the “Save LICH” cause. But he abruptly dropped his opposition to the sale after he was elected mayor.
Fortis plans a massive development on the 20-building Cobble Hill site.
“The essence of that reality was I wanted to save healthcare on that location, and we did it, and it’s there right now,” he said, referring to the NYU Langone’s “stand-alone” ER facility operating out of LICH’s former ER space.
“As you may remember [the] very dramatic struggle that went on for quite a while to make sure we would have healthcare for that community … and we have it,” the mayor said.
Residents, however, say the facility is no substitute for the major hospital it replaced. While the clinic treats less serious health emergencies on site, patients requiring hospital admission must be transported elsewhere, and many face long waits in crowded ERs across the city.
Before SUNY withdrew services, LICH had 90 percent in-patient occupancy rate and over 50,000 annual emergency room visits, serving roughly a quarter of a million people each year.
During a convoluted Request for Proposals (RFP) process, SUNY bypassed two higher-ranked minority bidders to go with the third-ranked proposal by Fortis Property Group. Rejected proposals included a full-service hospital or at minimum, a study of northwest Brooklyn's health needs. Neighborhoods served by LICH stretch from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights and beyond.
Area representatives including state Senator Daniel Squadron, then-Assemblymember Joan Millman, and Councilmembers Brad Lander, Steve Levin, and Carlos Menchaca said in June 2014, "We are distressed that SUNY has yet again ignored the needs of the community … While this agreement includes some healthcare services, it falls far short of a full-service hospital.”
The feds want copies of “any and all communications” between SUNY employees, de Blasio and his top aides including First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, Director of Governmental Affairs Emma Wolf and special counsel Henry Berger, the Post reported.
The probe could go in a number of directions. One may be related to developer Don Peebles’ allegation that de Blasio asked him for $20,000 to support the mayor’s universal pre-K program, UPKNYC, in March 2014, according to the Post. Peebles had a bid pending on the LICH site at this time. UPKNYC later became the Campaign for One New York, which is now shut down.
A Peebles spokesperson told the Brooklyn Eagle last week, “It is our policy not to comment on pending legal matters.”
When asked on Monday about the Peebles contribution, de Blasio responded, “Everything was done appropriately, everything was disclosed, and, as I’ve made clear, when we looked at Long Island College Hospital, our goal was to preserve healthcare there and only a plan that would actually work at preserving healthcare and be financially viable was acceptable to us. It had nothing to do with whatever anyone was doing with their first amendment right to give donations.”
The investigation may also be looking into whether the mayor was involved in pushing through a deal with health care workers’ union 1199 SEIU in return for the union dropping a lawsuit against SUNY, a source told the Eagle.
Many LICH advocates point the finger at Gov. Andrew Cuomo for stage-managing the hospital sale through state controlled agencies including SUNY, the NYS Department of Health, the NYS Dormitory Authority and the NYS Attorney General's Charities Bureau.
In 2014 Zepher Teachout, during her gubernatorial campaign, called the closing and sale of LICH a case of “classic corruption.”
“That bidding process looks a lot like the bidding process that I studied when I was studying corruption in Bosnia,” she said.
The Cobble Hill Association has rejected Fortis’ preferred development proposal because it is “too large, does not incorporate basic urban design principles, threatens our existing playgrounds and public green spaces, and does little to mitigate the tremendous negative effect this project would have on us, on our historic neighborhood, and on our community as a whole.”
When asked by a reporter on Monday if he had consulted the governor about LICH, de Blasio said, “Yes, we did work with the state because it involved SUNY, as you know.”
He added, however, that he didn’t “know enough yet about any potential investigation” to provide more details.
“Do you remember talking to the governor directly about it?” the mayor was asked.
“That’s an excellent question, because this would have been early in my term,” de Blasio responded. “On first blush, no, but let me check to see if I have any further memory.”