|From: News and Views | Beyond
the City ||
Sunday, March 19, 2000
The Rise & Rise of Rudy's Rudy
Teitelbaum's loyalty & zeal
won City Hall power for
By RUSS BAKER
Special to The Sunday News
recently, few New Yorkers had ever heard of Bruce Teitelbaum. Even
when he left his City Hall job as the mayor's chief of staff in
January 1999 to become Rudy Giuliani's Senate campaign manager,
almost nobody outside city politics knew anything about him.
That began to change in November, when a floor in a building
under construction in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn came
crashing down, and with it, Teitelbaum's anonymity. Federal and
state authorities began investigating the cause of the collapse and
whether City Hall had played politics with safety issues.
campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum at January press
It turned out that a Buildings Department official, Joseph
Trivisonno — who had insisted on stern regulatory standards for
construction projects — had been criticized by politically connected
contractors in Brooklyn and forced to resign. Teitelbaum, 38, stood
accused of passing along builders' complaints and demanding that
something be done about Trivisonno. Nine months after Trivisonno's
ouster came the Williamsburg tragedy.
Arm-twisting and influence-peddling in New York are as old as
City Hall. But because a day laborer died and 11 others were hurt in
the Williamsburg incident, scrutiny suddenly intensified of such
back-room tactics by an administration built on the mayor's crusades
against wrongdoing and old, discredited methods of governing.
Investigators interviewed Teitelbaum, who denied any wrongdoing.
After the investigation became public, Teitelbaum's attorney issued
a statement saying that his client was "presently neither a target
nor a subject" of the criminal investigation. A spokesman for
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes told the Sunday News that
the words, while technically correct, meant only that the inquiry
initially focused on the actions of the builders, not those of
Giuliani declared that he had full confidence in his aide — who
stayed on as Senate campaign manager — and dismissed the
investigation as politically motivated. Last week, the mayor told
The News in a telephone interview:
"I've looked into it completely. And as I've said from the first
day, there will be no possible wrongdoing found in regard to Bruce.
He is an honorable, decent, ethical person.
"I used to do that for a living, remember, investigate cases and
prosecute people for crimes. This one is totally frivolous with
regard to Bruce and the other people that are being discussed in my
|Teitelbaum with media in 1999
Critics say Teitelbaum's intervention in the Trivisonno matter
was not an isolated incident. They say he frequently has manipulated
city personnel matters for political reasons and is the most
aggressive of a crew of Giuliani lieutenants involved in making
patronage-oriented decisions. Many mayoral staffers have quit or
been ousted from Giuliani's inner circle, but Teitelbaum just keeps
Just who is Teitelbaum, and why does he stick like glue to
"Bruce is an enormously talented lawyer, a very bright guy," the
mayor told The News. "He's got a natural instinct for dealing with
people. He's kept growing. He's one of those people that, if you
give him more and more responsibility, he keeps growing into
For the first time today, The News offers an in-depth portrait of
Teitelbaum, his often controversial role in the Giuliani
administration and new details about official decision-making in the
CROWN HEIGHTS TO CITY HALL
Teitelbaum's rise from outer-borough obscurity to City Hall power
has been nothing short of astonishing. He graduated from State
University of New York at Binghamton in 1985 and from Brooklyn Law
School in 1989. He passed the bar exam a year later, but curiously
was not admitted to the bar for a full decade — until last year.
After law school, he worked briefly for a large law firm, Wilson
Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, handling insurance litigation.
At the time, his father, Bernard, an accountant, was on trial in an
insurance fraud case in which he ultimately was acquitted. After
about a year, Teitelbaum left the firm and made a trip abroad.
If there had been no Crown Heights riots, Bruce Teitelbaum
might still be unknown today.
Racial unrest flared there in August 1991 after a Hasidic Jew
named Yankel Rosenbaum was killed by an African-American mob seeking
vengeance for the accidental death of a young black child named
Gavin Cato, who was run over by a car in a rabbi's motorcade.
Teitelbaum, then jobless, rushed to join the Hasidic community's
It was not his first brush with Jewish activism. At Binghamton,
Teitelbaum was president of the Jewish Student Association and a
vocal opponent of campus speakers aligned with anti-Semitic figures,
such as Louis Farrakhan.
"There wasn't any intention to get involved in these things,"
Teitelbaum recalled in an interview with The News. "It was just
something that happened. I enjoyed it. It was interesting."
APPALLED AT DINKINS' TEPID RESPONSE
He also was appalled at the response by Mayor David Dinkins'
administration to the Crown Heights riots.
building collapse was a PR nightmare for City
Teitelbaum — tall, balding and rumpled these days even in his
expensive suits — grew up on Ocean Parkway in the Midwood section of
Brooklyn. He attended Yeshiva Flatbush, a respected modern Orthodox
high school, although he is not rigorously Orthodox himself.
"My parents were traditionalists," Teitelbaum said.
He took to the situation in Crown Heights as if he were a member
of the community, displaying his organizing skills and fervor. He
met with people opposed to the local Hasidic leadership and later
helped them oust the local community leader, Rabbi Joseph
He also began attending local police precinct meetings as a
community representative. People who remember him from those days
cheered his dynamism. Others felt he too often inflamed tension
between blacks and whites and among Hasidim.
He would shortly meet a soul mate. Running for mayor in 1993,
Rudy Giuliani began aggressively courting Orthodox voters. Though
traditionally Democratic, many Orthodox Jews had become estranged
from Dinkins because of his handling of Crown Heights. Giuliani, who
had lost to Dinkins in 1989, needed aggressive operatives who could
work the Orthodox community — and deliver it on Election Day.
"I had a friend who was volunteering for his campaign and who
suggested to me, 'Why don't we get involved?'" Teitelbaum recalled.
"I thought it was a historic election."
If it weren't for Crown Heights, Teitelbaum told The News, he
never would have joined the campaign. "It made me realize there is a
strong connection between what happens in City Hall and what happens
in the city," he said.
WALKING RUDY AROUND FOREST HILLS
Teitelbaum said that his early campaign role was to draft reports
for Giuliani about issues facing a mix of communities, but others
said his only role before being hired as the liaison to Jewish
voters was to walk Giuliani around one neighborhood on a single day
in his largely honorific role as Forest Hills coordinator.
Nevertheless, he picked up the liaison post after the campaign's
field coordinator, Darryl Fox, turned it down and recommended
Teitelbaum, an old college friend.
Teitelbaum was a natural in his new role. Within a week of
joining the campaign, he used his Crown Heights connections to
accumulate $10,000 in contributions from the family of a
controversial landlord named David Fischer, who faced about 14
lawsuits from Hasidic leaders and Crown Heights residents, accusing
him of illegally taking possession of dozens of properties belonging
As Teitelbaum moved up, co-workers said, he seemed to change.
"Bruce had his own office — it was like a personality change,"
one said. "He wasn't that affable young guy, a volunteer trying to
help out.... He became icy."
One of several close friends Teitelbaum alienated was college
buddy Alexander Lanzman, who ran a highly effective voter
registration campaign in Brooklyn's Russian Jewish community for
Giuliani in 1993. Lanzman was said to be incensed when an
unattributed item in the Jewish Forward newspaper that June
attributed his operation to Teitelbaum.
Giuliani won in November 1993 by 40,000 votes. Jewish Democrats
who crossed over and a heavy turnout among Hasidim were crucial to
the victory. "Bruce got Rudy into a lot of places that Rudy would
have never been able to get into," said former Giuliani press
secretary Cristyne Lategano.
When he began hiring his mayoral staff, Giuliani faced a problem:
A Republican in a Democratic town who had never worked in city
government, he lacked allies to help run his administration. If he
didn't want to surround himself with staffers who had worked for his
political opponents, he would have to bring in new people.
Teitelbaum, who had no governmental or administrative track
record, had nevertheless proved himself to be fiercely loyal and a
tireless worker for the mayor. And Giuliani had few ties to the
Jewish community. So it became Teitelbaum's job to steer the new
mayor through the perilous terrain of Jewish community politics.
THE YOUNG GUNS AT CITY HALL
Many of Giuliani's new crew, under Deputy Mayor Peter Powers and
Chief of Staff Randy Mastro, were a good 20 years younger than the
new mayor. Still, people were surprised that Giuliani would name a
neophyte like Teitelbaum as deputy chief of staff.
"I had very limited experience when I came into the campaign,"
Teitelbaum said. "He gave me a terrific opportunity, and I will
forever be grateful."
"I've never seen such hero worship in my life," said one former
insider. "There were no adults in the group who could say, 'Wait a
second.'" When Teitelbaum moved up to chief of staff a year later,
his new deputy was Tony Carbonetti, just 28, whose principal
employment before City Hall was as a bartender.
It was all about loyalty.
"I am extremely loyal to [the mayor]," Teitelbaum said. "He is
someone who has always displayed complete confidence in me ... and
believed in me completely."
While young staffers worshiped Giuliani, they also feared him.
And experienced commissioners found that they didn't have to dissent
actively to provoke wrath.
"Unless you had been a supporter from the very beginning, you
were suspect," said a former Giuliani commissioner. "They were very,
very suspicious of everybody."
Teitelbaum was the prime enforcer. He accused several staffers of
leaking stories to the press. When one adamantly denied it, a source
says, Teitelbaum said he knew because he had a tap on the staffer's
Teitelbaum turned down several opportunities to give The News his
version of the episode and other personal and professional
"A lot of my dealings with Bruce had to do with people who needed
to be fired," a former commissioner said. "It happened to every
commissioner. We were all given lists of people [to fire], and if
you asked the rationale, it was, 'He got promoted in the last
administration. He must have been a friend of the Dinkins
Those marked for removal were not necessarily high-level
appointees. One secretary at the Environmental Protection Department
was targeted because she had worked for Barry Sullivan, a deputy
mayor under Dinkins.
"She was a secretary! And pregnant!" said former Environmental
Commissioner Marilyn Gelber. "It's one thing to purge high-level
people, but a secretary?"
Just as firing perceived enemies was required, so was hiring
friends. "If Bruce referred somebody to you, and you refused to hire
them, he'd remember," a former official said.
All this was done through the Vacancy Control Board, a
little-known operation set up under Mayor Abe Beame during the
city's budget crisis in the 1970s to prevent payroll bloating.
Under Teitelbaum's direction,Carbonetti and his assistant, Chicky
Piazza, controlled the lists of potential hires. There were no
notes, no minutes, no public access.
Sometimes, Teitelbaum and Carbonetti would ignore normal channels
and make direct calls to commissioners.
"Tony and Bruce didn't like Fran [Reiter, a deputy mayor], and
they didn't like me," said Marty Algaze, who was director of
intergovernmental relations for the Buildings Department in 1997-98,
when he was fired for allegedly leaking unfavorable stories about
"So they would call the commissioner [directly]. They
held up all promotions, new hires, etc., unless they were connected.
These guys would hold things up forever unless you were a friend —
then it happened overnight."
Mayors routinely hire and favor people they know. But according
to officials who had served in prior administrations, the Giuliani
regime took patronage to levels unseen in recent memory. Giuliani's
young, inexperienced cousin Jeff Casey landed a job in the Queens
Building Department conveniently close to St. John's University Law
School, where he was a student. The often-glacial Vacancy Control
Board approved him within a week. Kathy Giuliani, the wife of
another mayoral cousin (who also happens to be named Rudy Giuliani)
went from gym teacher to key City Hall positions.
The mayor's office used to send resumes to the Buildings
Department regularly, and Gelber, the environmental commissioner,
said she was pressured to hire an inexperienced staffer from a
pro-Giuliani Democratic club as one of her deputy commissioners in
charge of sensitive matters, such as steam explosions involving
asbestos. His tenure, she said, proved to be disastrous.
Patronage central was the mayor's Community Assistance Unit,
initially headed by Lou Carbonetti, Tony's father, who would resign
in 1995 as a result of large unpaid and unreported debts. He had
also obtained a second driver's license using a different middle
initial while the original was suspended.
Under Teitelbaum's supervision, Community Assistance became
"Bruce was involved up to his neck, making decisions about
contracts, about who didn't get contracts," said a former community
During the Dinkins administration, the office gave out small
community grants to a diverse range of groups. Associates say
Teitelbaum declared that he would direct as much as possible to
Jewish groups. But not to all: One former Community Assistance
staffer recalls Teitelbaum vetoing one group in Brighton Beach,
snapping, "Enemy of the mayor."
"I have never seen such heavy-handed stuff," said one official
who has spent many years in government.
Teitelbaum takes such criticism in stride.
"Maybe we were 'too this' and 'too that,' maybe we weren't," he
said. "But practically speaking, I don't know how that adversely
affected the function of government." He declined to discuss any
patronage issues on the record.
Teitelbaum's aggressiveness certainly helped with policy logjams.
He is credited with trying to resolve a housing feud between Latinos
and Hasidim in Williamsburg, and pushing through the long-stalled
downtown Holocaust museum. He also organized big events, such as
But in the administration's survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere,
Teitelbaum was known mostly as a skilled infighter.
Commissioners had it tough, but it wasn't that much easier for
the inner circle.
"This is a group of people that eat their young and each other,"
a former insider said.
Like his boss, Teitelbaum seemed to take everything
"He has an incredibly vicious streak," said one political
operative who dealt extensively with Teitelbaum.
"He has this floating level of anger just below the surface, and
he's ready to take it out on just about anybody, anywhere, anytime.
You cross him ever so slightly, and he comes at you like it is the
start of the Third World War."
Teitelbaum, associates said, broods for long periods. An
unflattering mention in the papers can depress him for days.
"He can talk himself into a heart attack in 10 minutes," a former
commissioner said. "He can hyperventilate in five minutes flat. He's
gotten sick several times at City Hall, and they had to take him to
the hospital because he gets himself into a tizzy."
HOSPITAL VISITS AFTER PANIC ATTACKS
According to one former City Hall official, Teitelbaum twice has
been rushed to the hospital for "panic attacks." Giuliani visited
him in the hospital each time.
Giuliani apparently had no problem with Teitelbaum's
"I don't think Bruce ever did anything that he didn't consult
[Giuliani] about," another insider said, "because they were all too
scared to take initiatives and then get killed along the way."
Giuliani's 1993 victory was a double dip for Teitelbaum. He not
only hitched his wagon to a star, but he also met the love of his
life: Suri Kasirer, 41, the dark, attractive daughter of a modern
Orthodox rabbi who worked as the Jewish liaison in Gov. Mario
Cuomo's 1994 reelection campaign.
They met through friends and would be married several years later
in an Orthodox ceremony, which bemused some colleagues who noted
that Teitelbaum would doff the yarmulke he routinely wore during the
campaign whenever he spotted a slice of pepperoni.
While Kasirer worked for Cuomo, Teitelbaum — a lifelong Democrat
who would not change his party registration until days before
becoming Giuliani's Senate campaign manager in early 1999 — helped
persuade Giuliani to take the risky political step of crossing party
lines in 1994 to endorse Cuomo over the Republican candidate, George
After Pataki won, Teitelbaum turned his attention to Giuliani's
likely 1997 Democratic challenger, Ruth Messinger. The campaign was
trademark hardball: Teitelbaum barred Messinger from the stage at a
ceremony celebrating the naming of a street in front of the Israeli
Consulate after slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, even though
Messinger had been the one to propose the honor.
A MARRIAGE UNDER SCRUTINY
The Teitelbaum-Kasirer union came under scrutiny in late 1998,
when the Daily News reported that a consulting firm started by
Kasirer was lobbying the administration without having registered as
a lobbying organization, a violation of city law. Kasirer
retroactively registered for 1998, an action accepted by the city
clerk's office. On her 1999 registration papers, she stated that her
lobbying work would start Jan. 11 — Teitelbaum's last day as
Giuliani's chief of staff.
After The News reported that one of Kasirer's clients, Goldman
Sachs, had obtained special city parking privileges, the mayor,
denying that Kasirer had been involved, nevertheless banned her from
administration lobbying. But the mayor ruled that two other members
of her firm could continue. Kasirer did not return numerous phone
calls from The News.
The Teitelbaum-Kasirer connection was the topic of hot political
gossip and speculation. But as Teitelbaum took over his campaign
duties, the former chief of staff faded from view except as the
spokesman for the mayor's Senatorial campaign, sparring with Hillary
Then, at 8:35 a.m. on Nov. 23, as a construction crew began
pouring concrete for the third floor of what was to be a
six-building rowhouse at 50 Middleton St. in a Hasidic section of
Williamsburg, the floor gave way. A 22-year-old Mexican day laborer
named Eduardo Daniel was killed, and 11 other workers were hurt. As
tragic as it was, the episode might have been quickly forgotten if
not for the discovery that the contractor had been getting away with
shoddy work for a long time.
What's more, The News reported that a tough building inspector,
Trivisonno, had been forced out as chief of the Brooklyn Buildings
Department office nine months before the collapse because Orthodox
builders complained to City Hall that he was too rough on them.
HOW TRIVISONNO GOT THE SACK
Trivisonno's former boss, Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva,
spoke with federal investigators and the Brooklyn district
attorney's office, and confirmed that pressure had been brought on
him to sack Trivisonno. The News has confirmed additional details
surrounding Trivisonno's removal.
In February 1998, Silva met with Mastro, then a deputy mayor, who
presented him with a list of five people City Hall wanted fired or
reassigned. Silva was surprised at several of the names, including
Trivisonno. Silva regarded him as a top-notch public servant.
Mastro, unsure exactly why Trivisonno was on the list, told Silva to
talk to Teitelbaum.
Silva then met with Teitelbaum, who said that the city had gotten
hundreds of complaints about Trivisonno — news that struck Silva and
other Buildings Department staffers as unlikely.
Silva later told investigators he had been aware that certain
figures in the Hasidic community were upset with Trivisonno over the
department's handling of another Williamsburg construction project,
on Heyward St., not far from the Middleton St. site where the fatal
collapse would later take place.
At Heyward St., Trivisonno's inspectors found dangerous
conditions and irregularities in the paperwork filed by the
contractor. Among other things, the work was undermining the
structural integrity of an adjoining building. The contractor also
had overstated the size of the lot so that his building would
conform to regulations.
Building inspectors also were skeptical about a claim that the
building was for religious faculty housing, a technical loophole
that allows builders to put up a larger structure. Documents filed
with the state attorney general's office showed a plan to sell the
nine condominiums in the building for about $300,000 each, a hefty
sum for Talmudic scholars.
Silva knew that Trivisonno had been approached by Jacob Fekete, a
Hasidic building expediter working for the contractors who had
warned Trivisonno that he would be hearing from superiors if he did
not clear the Heyward St. project.
"He specifically said to me, 'If you don't make everything go
away, we will use everything available to us,'" Trivisonno told The
News. Fekete declined to comment.
Trivisonno ignored the threat. He suggested to Fekete that his
client buy available adjoining land or take the matter to the Board
of Standards and Appeals. Soon, he began hearing through the rumor
mill that pressure was on at high levels to get rid of him.
"I got a call from Trivisonno one day, and he said, 'I gotta go
to the buildings commissioner's office — I think I'm being fired,'"
recalled Brooklyn architect Gerald Goldstein, an officer of the
American Institute of Architects' Brooklyn chapter and chairman of
its government affairs committee.
Goldstein began calling his Orthodox clients. He spoke with David
Pollock of the Jewish Community Relations Council and warned him
that the sacking of Trivisonno was "a disgrace" that would surely
He also told Pollock that he had personally seen the Heyward St.
plans, and that they were "literally a criminal fraud" involving
misrepresentation of the size of property, making it hazardous.
Pollock got Abraham Biderman, an influential Jewish community figure
and former city finance commissioner who served on Giuliani's 1993
transition team, to call Mastro. The two met on a Friday morning,
and Biderman told Mastro to pick up the phone, call Teitelbaum and
"put an end to this nonsense — Trivisonno is not going
For Trivisonno, the matter seemed resolved. Construction resumed
at Heyward St. Six months later, Trivisonno learned that the Heyward
St. owners, who had promised to amend their plans to conform with
Buildings Department standards, had not done so. Even though he had
not yet moved to halt the project, he learned that his bosses were
The News reported that Silva later told investigators he had been
given an ultimatum: either get Trivisonno out of the way or the
department would get no new hires, promotions or virtually anything
else it needed approved by the Vacancy Control Board.
Trivisonno, who had been on paid leave since pressure came to
bear on Silva, took early retirement in April.
After the building collapse on Middleton St., City Hall put out
the word that Trivisonno and his bosses were a disaster.
"The Buildings Department in particular has become very
bureaucratic over the years and often corrupt," former Deputy Mayor
John Dyson told The News. "The assumption these guys who have been
there a long time are doing their job like Solomon is really
Dyson, now chairman of the mayor's Council of Economic Advisers,
defended Teitelbaum's actions and dismissed Silva as a weak
administrator. "Bruce might be accused of being a little energetic
in moving our agenda," Dyson said. "But then we had a limited time
to get things done.
"Trivisonno was a giant pain in the ass in Staten Island [where
he once was an official], according to Borough President Guy
Molinari. It's a legitimate function to keep government from
becoming a bunch of little martinets."
But architects and city officials have another view of
Trivisonno, who they say served a distinguished 32-year career in
city government that included 27 years in the Buildings Department.
The Public Advocate's 1997 audit of customer service quality in city
agencies gave the best rating to Trivisonno's office. Yet he
suddenly became a pariah in Brooklyn — although Silva tried to keep
him with offers of Buildings Department jobs in Queens and the
Trivisonno's hard-headed approach in Brooklyn seemed vindicated
when it turned out that the contractors on the Middleton St. site,
Eugene Ostreicher and his son Chaim, had been cutting corners, just
like their counterparts at Heyward St.
The Ostreicher family has donated to Giuliani's Senate
exploratory committee. Whether they complained to City Hall about
inspectors in not clear. Their attorney, Frank Mandel, told The
News, "They don't know Bruce Teitelbaum. They never spoke to Bruce
Teitelbaum. They never had any contact with him."
Still, it seemed unusual that Teitelbaum's successor as chief of
staff, Tony Carbonetti, personally visited another problematical
Ostreicher construction site last year although he told prosecutors
he did not contest Buildings Department inspector's decisions.
Teitelbaum's unwillingness to explain events surrounding
Trivisonno's forced retirement, the Heyward St. problems or the
Williamsburg building collapse — combined with the mayor's
unwavering support — has perplexed Giuliani's fans.
"If it had been anyone but Bruce, he'd have been long gone," one
Jewish activist said.
ORTHODOX VOTERS CRUCIAL TO SENATE RACE
With Teitelbaum directing what is expected to be another close
race for Giuliani, Hasidic and Orthodox support will be crucial to
beating Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Indeed, at a recent Giuliani Senate
fund-raising dinner, a sizeable part of the crowd requested kosher
meals.) Yet some people think the mayor is distancing himself from
the Hasidic community, at least for now. For the first time in
years, for example, neither Giuliani nor anyone from his staff
attended the politically important Jan. 16 dinner for the Hasidic
Borough Park OHEL Children's Home and Family Services.
Trivisonno, who now quietly runs a consulting firm from his
Staten Island home, has made one formal attempt at setting the
record straight. Six months after he left the city's employ, he got
a form letter from the Department of Investigation, congratulating
him on his retirement. It urged former employees to notify the
department if they "come across something you felt was not
Trivisonno, a bit tongue in cheek, wrote back to thank the agency
and offered a copy of his resignation letter as a basis for further
investigation. In his letter to Investigations Commissioner Edward
Kuriansky, Trivisonno wrote, "Frankly, I am of the belief that no
one wants to touch this for fear that what happened to me will
happen to them."
He never received a reply.
With additional reporting by
and Elizabeth Randolph.
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