By EDITORIAL BOARD
In the era of Donald Trump, the spectrum of inappropriate behavior by elected officials has been thrown out of whack. Things that astute politicians would never think of doing even a few years ago now seem possible, because what’s happening in D.C. is so much worse.
This is the only plausible explanation for the egregious abuse of power by Mayor Bill de Blasio last Friday afternoon, on a day when half the city stayed home because the unexpectedly bad snowstorm made their commutes miserable the night before. We are of course talking about the firing of Department of Investigations (DOI) Commissioner Mark Peters.
Peters was de Blasio’s campaign treasurer back in 2013. His appointment to a top government watchdog position was immediately met with skepticism from both the media and elected officials. With his independence in question from the beginning, Peters set out to run the office as it was intended when established in the 1870s to weed out the corruption of Boss Tweed. The office is basically the city’s inspector general, tasked with keeping an eye on all levels of government to make sure corrupt officials are removed from office or referred to law enforcement. Or sometimes, it simply provides city agencies with advice on how to do their jobs better.
In the past few years, Peters and the DOI have put forth reports that have been embarrassing to de Blasio — including one detailing the de Blasio administration’s backhanded dealings to change deed restrictions so a nursing home could be sold to a luxury condo developer who happened to be represented by a lobbying and consulting firm with close ties to the mayor.
Recently, Peters had the tables turned on him. An independent report concluded that Peters was at times not truthful in testimony to the City Council, retaliated against underlings who disagreed with his approach, and even usurped the power of another agency that monitors misconduct in schools. The report, prepared by former federal prosecutor James McGovern, was indeed damning — even though much of it was redacted. But a close reading of the report yields no incident or action by Peters that is clearly grounds for removal. It reads more like Peters nibbled around the edges in a lot of places to gain more leverage in his investigations as he sought out the truth. The report also called for the people Peters had fired in retaliation to be reinstated — which they were, thus remedying the only offense by Peters that is fireable.
De Blasio seized on this report to axe the former friend who has been a thorn in his side. The move feels Nixonian in approach: finding any pretext to fire people who check your power. It should concern all residents of the city — aside, perhaps, from the special interests who call de Blasio a close friend.
Removing Peters from the DOI is not a bad thing in itself considering the McGovern Report. But it sets a dangerous precedent. Future DOI heads need to know that they can run the office as it is supposed to be run without fear that a mayor will push them aside. It’s also troubling since Peters is fighting his dismissal, citing rules in the city charter that give him a chance to defend himself.
To replace Peters, De Blasio has nominated Margaret Garnett, a widely respected prosecutor who spent more than a decade in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, learning from Preet Bharara — another hard-charging prosecutor who at times might have overexerted the power of his office in order to keep government employees and elected officials honest.
Let’s hope Garnett brings the same intensity and thirst for truth to the office and keeps de Blasio honest — since he has proven that he can get power-hungry if he is not kept in check.