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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 unknown

By RUSS BAKER
Special to The Sunday News

ntil 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.

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Giuliani campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum at January press conference

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 Teitelbaum.

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 administration."

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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 moving up.

Just who is Teitelbaum, and why does he stick like glue to Giuliani?

"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 it."

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 Williamsburg accident.

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 self-defense patrols.

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.

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November building collapse was a PR nightmare for City Hall.

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 Spielman.

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 to others.

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 phone.

Teitelbaum turned down several opportunities to give The News his version of the episode and other personal and professional matters.

"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 people.'"

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 Teitelbaum.

"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."

PATRONAGE CENTRAL

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 narrowly focused.

"Bruce was involved up to his neck, making decisions about contracts, about who didn't get contracts," said a former community affairs staffer.

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 ticker-tape parades.

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 personally.

"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 aggressiveness.

"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 Pataki.

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 Clinton.

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 backfire.

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 anywhere."

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 ousting him.

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 wrong."

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 Bronx.

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 right."

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 Sedona Fitzgerald
and Elizabeth Randolph.

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