John Liu Reflects On Time In Office

A business card from John Liu's first City Council campaign in 1997.

BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA

“Setting The Standard” For Comptroller

From City Councilman to City Comptroller, John Liu, the first Asian American elected to a citywide office, has established himself as a political force in New York, and has made headlines for reasons good, bad and everywhere in between.

Last week, Liu sat down with the Queens Tribune editorial staff to discuss the many ups and downs of his political career and concluded that while he may have encountered his fair share of setbacks, he does not feel his legacy has been tarnished by the negatives.

Liu, who was sworn in as City Comptroller in 2010, said he was incredibly satisfied with the way he did his job – particularly fond of being able to “raise the bar” in standards set forth for the citywide position.

“We have saved $5 billion from vigorous audits, careful contract scrutiny and also refinancing outstanding debt,” Liu said.

He highlighted his work on the 2011 CityTime corruption scandal, in which a City-employed contractor responsible for creating a payroll system had stolen tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.

“CityTime was certainly a highlight. It was an exercise of careful contract scrutiny and audit. Careful contract scrutiny saved about $200 million that would have otherwise been spent in additional contracts, which I did not allow,” Liu said. “CityTime was a highlight not just for the City, but really of historic proportions nationally.”

Liu has been a frequent guest at parades, in schools and to various civic organizations, not just in Queens, but throughout the City. He said having the opportunity to make these visits was one of the best parts of his job.  Photo by Ira Cohen

Liu has been a frequent guest at parades, in schools and to various civic organizations, not just in Queens, but throughout the City. He said having the opportunity to make these visits was one of the best parts of his job.
Photo by Ira Cohen

Council Or Comptroller

But before Liu served as the City’s chief fiscal officer and auditor officer, he served two terms in the City Council, from 2002 to 2010, representing District 20 in Queens. Having experiences working both in local office and citywide office, he compared the two distinct roles.

“Obviously, the Comptroller’s office has a great deal more power and authority – you can do a lot more things and you have a much larger budget, whereas in City Council, the office is much smaller and you have many people that demand things of you as a Councilmember,” he said. “That demand is often much more direct, upfront, close and personal.”

“I find it impossible to say whether being Comptroller is harder or City Councilman is harder. But both of them have been thoroughly enjoyable,” he added.

In both his elected roles, a number of media outlets have reported on Liu’s hectic schedule. Many acknowledge that before and during his mayoral campaign, he attended more events, press conferences and parties than any other candidate.

His drive to be so active and involved with the community, he said, was out of pure choice and passion for what he does.

“I don’t work at all. This is not work. That to me has always been a perk of being in office,” he said. “Work is, as I often say, my mom spending 15 to 16 hours in a sweat shop and having no choice but to do that to survive. I don’t have to do any of this. It’s out of choice.”

Watching Flushing Blossom

Being able to witness the incredible economic progress of Flushing over the course of a decade has been rewarding for the former Councilman, who has a soft spot for the neighborhood he still calls home.

A business card from John Liu's first City Council campaign in 1997.

A business card from John Liu’s first City Council campaign in 1997.

“I continue to marvel at what happens in my hometown of Flushing,” he said. “If you look at Flushing, it’s been as recession-proof as any place could be. Even in the worst of the recession, there was still a lot of activity – buildings going up, new businesses opening.”

Liu acknowledged that not all businesses survived, but overall, the economy in Flushing remained strong.
“You don’t see a lot of open space and empty storefronts in Flushing,” he added. “It is the vitality of a neighborhood like Flushing that should be exampled for the rest of the City to follow.”

Elephant In The Room

In discussing his bid for mayor earlier this year, it was difficult for Liu to avoid the elephant in the room.

Liu, who said he is proud of the campaign he ran, was open with his feelings about the investigation, the negative media coverage and his denial of matching funds from the City.

“In the summer of 2011 my theoretical campaign for mayor was rocking and rolling. Poll numbers were sky high, fundraising was coming in the door [and] people were banging on the door to get on the 2013 bandwagon,” he said. “And then, for whatever reason, two months later all hell broke loose – first with this New York Times front page story that talked about how I’ve got this fake donor scheme going on in my campaign.”

“Not one of those examples [cited by the Times] were ever validated, even though the Federal Investigation was looking for anything they could possibly get,” a frustrated Liu added. “Every time I see those New York Times reporters, I look them in the eye and say, ‘hey, hey, where are those fake donors?’”

Liu similarly criticized the City’s repeated failed attempts to catch him committing a crime even after wire-taping his phone for more than a year, leading investigators to plan a sting operation.

“Instead of wrapping up the investigations at a time when I was doing very well in a hypothetical mayoral election, they instead conducted a sting operation that successfully got my campaign to accept illegal contributions, because we had every reason to believe they were legitimate,” he said.

“But that kind of sting operation – we would have had the same result had they conducted it with any other campaign in the City,” he argued.

Even after the highly-publicized scandal, Liu does not believe that his reputation as a strong and proven leader will be tainted.

“I don’t see any taint at all. It’s been how many years now. I have continued to say – ‘put up or shut up,’” he said. “I have never questioned why they started an investigation in the first place. If any law enforcement agency thinks that anything is going on – go ahead, look. And look they did and for two years intensively – they’ve found nothing.”

While Liu believes the investigation and arrests of two of his campaign workers may have hurt his poll numbers, he said the thing that hurt him the most in his bid for mayor was being denied matching funds.

“It was politically motivated, because that happened at the apex of the presumed mayoral campaign,” he claimed. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t even the investigation that harmed me the most. Even after the verdicts of two people connected with my campaign, they were found guilty and even then, I still racked up more endorsements then anyone else.”

“The Campaign Finance Board made this ridiculous decision to yank three-and-a-half million from my campaign,” he continued. “I challenge you to go on their website and read the reasons why they denied me three-and-a-half million dollars – ‘because of possible’, ‘because this suggested’, ‘the potential’ – I mean if you have something, say what you got!”

Being denied $3.53 million in funds, Liu said, resulted in a playing field that was not leveled.

“I wasn’t able to get my message out because everybody else had millions of dollars for commercials – and I didn’t have a single commercial up. I couldn’t do any of it,” he said. “My whole campaign was flushed down the toilet because of the three-and-a-half million dollars.”

Looking To The Future

With Scott Stringer being sworn in as New York City’s next Comptroller on Jan. 1, Liu said he is already looking forward to his future, although he is not sure what his future will entail.

“I have not decided [what I will do when I leave office]. My wife and I haven’t been able to take time off,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector but going forward, no matter what my job it is that I draw my paycheck from, I’m going to be very much involved with what’s happening in Queens and what’s happening in the City.”

He said he hopes to have a new job by Jan. 1 and said he is not ruling out any of his options.

“I’m not exactly keen on appointed office. I’m not ruling anything out and the options are there, but I don’t think people have to be in government their whole lives,” he said. “You can certainly make an impact from outside of government.”

Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718)357-7400 Ext. 123 or nkozikowska@queenspress.com or @nkozikowska.