By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Outraged by an explosive report in the New York Daily News alleging that the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs has a quota system of fines against small businesses in Brooklyn and the other outer boroughs, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced that he is launching an investigation into the matter.
On June 17, the Daily News reported that the agency set quotas for issuing violations against small businesses and also directed its administrative judges to uphold the unfair fines in the appeals process.
In a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz, de Blasio demanded answers in response to multiple sources and documents cited in the Daily News report. The public advocate said he is seeking to determine the extent to which the enforcement process is being stacked against the small business owners.
According to sources and documents cited in the article, DCA inspectors have been instructed to fine at least 25 percent of the businesses they inspect, and top city officials have pressured administrative law judges into ruling against small business owners when they contest the fines.
“Before an inspector even walks through the door, the fix is in,” de Blasio said.
“City Hall is out to squeeze small businesses any way it can. We see it every day with nuisance fines that can literally kill a business. To find out that even the appeals process is rigged against business owners is completely outrageous. This is government at its worst and this needs to end now,” de Blasio said.
Using data secured through a lawsuit against the city, de Blasio pointed to a doubling of fines by the Department of Consumer Affairs between 2010 and 2012. He charged the agency with engaging in a pattern of over-inspecting and over-fining businesses in the outer boroughs. As part of that litigation, de Blasio demanded any records regarding a quota system for issuing violations. The agency denied having a quota system in place.
If the allegations contained in the Daily News report are true, the Department of Consumer Affairs would be in violation of the City Charter, de Blasio said.
“If there is any truth to the allegations laid out in today’s Daily News article, immediate changes need to be made at DCA – changes that cannot wait until a new administration takes over in 2014,” de Blasio wrote in his letter.
Abigail Lootens, senior communications officer for the Dept. of Consumer Affairs, denied that the agency has a quota. “These allegations are complete nonsense,” Lootens told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“Our inspectors and judges treat all businesses equally and they work hard every day to ensure that businesses treat their customers fairly,” she said.
The Dept. of Consumer Affairs contended that de Blasio's “Borough Bias” report, which included information on the number of inspections and fines against small business in the outer boroughs, was flawed because it included in its calculations of uninspected Manhattan businesses thousands of businesses that are not regulated by DCA.
One source said that helping businesses avoid fines is a top priority for the agency. DCA recently launched nyc.gov/BusinessToolbox, featuring a live chat for businesses to have their questions answered, the source said.