The strange secrets of N.Y.’s arcane grand jury system

This summer, I entered a secret, little-understood corner of New York's criminal justice system: the grand jury. It's so secret that I risk being prosecuted by even writing about it. But the risk would be worth it, because New Yorkers need to understand what happens in that world, where the lives of thousands of accused felons hang in the balance. Having done my civic duty, now I know why, almost 25 years ago, then-Chief Judge Sol Wachtler wanted to abolish most grand juries, telling the Daily News that district attorneys could get a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich." He wasn't wrong. That's just the half of it. I encountered an assistant DA who read my fellow grand jurors and me instructions - but wouldn't let us read them for ourselves. I encountered a judge who finally gave me the instructions I was entitled to - and then said that I couldn't share them with the other grand jurors. It's a Kafkaesque system where if you dare try to understand what you're doing, so that you might better exercise your civic duty, well, then you're just being a troublemaker. It has to be better. Written into the state Constitution, grand juries must approve all felony charges sought by a prosecutor. They're composed of citizens serving for weeks at a time, hearing many cases daily. DAs present evidence and witnesses. Of 23 grand jurors, 12 must vote to indict or dismiss. But to call all this a formality is an insult to formalities. Of about 125,000 adult felony arrests in Manhattan in the last five years, grand juries have only dismissed charges three times. Ham sandwiches, indeed. My service began in downtown Manhattan on a Monday in July, when we were sworn in. On Tuesday, we met our liaison assistant DA, Nicole Blumberg. She was our legal adviser, there to charge us with our duty. She said the instructions were nine pages long. As she read, I heard something that didn't seem right. I asked if I could get a copy. She: "No one's ever asked before." Me: Continue Reading

China says no limits on use of Google’s Android operating system

China tried Wednesday to assure mobile phone companies using Google's Android operating system that they won't be hurt by a dispute over Web censorship, saying the technology will be allowed if it complies with regulations. Google Inc. postponed the launch of its own smart phone in China following its Jan. 12 announcement that it will no longer censor search results. Others also are developing Android-based phones and could be hurt if Beijing tries to penalize Google by barring its use. "As long as it fulfills Chinese laws and regulations and has good communication with telecom operators, I think its application should not have restrictions," said Zhu Hongren, a spokeman for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, at a regular news briefing when asked whether Beijing would permit use of Android. The comments reflect the conflicting pressures on the communist government, which insists on controlling information but needs foreign companies like Google to help achieve its goal of making China a technology leader. The operating system is one of a mobile phone's most basic elements and changing it after products already have been launched would be costly, said Ted Dean, managing director of BDA China Ltd., a Beijing research firm. "There's a pretty significant upfront investment in developing a phone on one operating system," Dean said. "So you don't want to change course on so basic a system as what operating system it works on." In a fresh blast of invective, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily accused Google on Wednesday of being a tool of Washington's "Internet hegemony." After seeing its strength eroded by the global crisis, Washington "is shifting its strategic focus from the military to the Internet," the newspaper said. "It is against this backdrop that Google becomes a tool of the country's Internet hegemony." Google is in sensitive talks with the government, trying to keep an important Beijing development center, a Continue Reading

President Bush says he’s working hard on economic crisis

WASHINGTON — Eager to show that he feels people's pain, President Bush scuttled a political fundraising trip Thursday to tell the country his administration is working feverishly to calm turmoil in the financial markets. RELATED: STOCKS SOAR OVER 400 POINTSRELATED: FED INJECTS $55B INTO U.S. BANKING SYSTEMBush was supposed to spend the day in Alabama and Florida raising money for Republicans and talking energy policy. He canceled his appearance at the fundraisers — Vice President Dick Cheney will be there instead — and stayed focused on the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression. "The American people are concerned about the situation in our financial markets and our economy," Bush said. "And I share their concerns." The tumult in financial markets and the meltdown of corporate giants have shaken people's faith in the economy and their own retirement savings. The fear on Wall Street is that there are more significant financial companies to fall, which would have a spillover effect within the United States and on world markets. In brief formal remarks outside the Oval Office, Bush sought to show that the administration is moving swiftly and aggressively by taking "extraordinary measures." The White House says those measures, a series of loans and takeovers, will help protect the broader economy and therefore everyday life. But the president used language that resonates more with market analysts than the public. As he put it, "The American people can be sure we will continue to act to strengthen and stabilize our financial markets and improve investor confidence." Bush did not specify what those steps might be. White House press secretary Dana Perino said she could not comment on them, either. "I can't tell you where this ends. I wish that I could," Perino said. "But we will take any necessary steps to deal with this in the days that follow." The president planned to meet with Treasury Secretary Henry Continue Reading

So easy for scofflaws to slip through cracks in New York Cit collection system

The city has allowed deadbeats to rack up a $2 billion tab in part because 20 agencies are responsible for collections - and they often don't talk to each other, the Daily News has learned. One city collector could pursue a building owner for property taxes while another goes after the same person for code violations - possibly even on the same building. "We have to be smarter about this," said Carole Post, head of the administration's effort to improve collections. "There will always be debt. We're not going to collect every penny that is owed to us ... but there's more out there that we could collect by doing it smarter and more efficiently." Together with two outside consulting firms working with the city, Post said she and her staff will review the people and companies that owe the city money for taxes, fees, fines, permits or penalties. She said they will learn why some debt has gone uncollected for years and make changes to improve collections. "We're going about this in a very systematic way," Post said. The Daily News reported last Sunday that hundreds of thousands of scofflaws owe the city $694 million in business taxes, $614 million in property taxes, $454 million in parking tickets and $292 million for code violations. The debt tops $2 billion. Bloomberg, noting that the city is trying to whittle down the debt, said the $2 billion is not unusual and that some of it would cost more to collect than it would be worth. Post said her team will look at everything from how tickets or fines are issued to whether anyone updates a scofflaw's address when a bill comes back as undeliverable. They'll explore ways to use the city's sprawling bureaucracy as a hammer so people who want a permit from one city department will first have to settle all debt. And they'll try to connect agency computers so a current phone number on a permit application could update information on an aging tax bill. It's an ambitious effort that the city hopes will net Continue Reading

Mayor Bloomberg and allies work to win converts to congestion pricing plan

With just two weeks to go before the deadline to approve congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg and his allies worked Monday to win converts to the plan - while City Council critics spent the day poking holes in it. Council members grilled Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan about whether the proposed $8 fee for drivers entering Manhattan below 60th St. would hurt poor commuters, cost too much to administer or lead to a cutback in federal funds. "There's no free lunch," said City Councilman Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn). "This isn't Monopoly, and there's no free parking space on the board." Speaker Christine Quinn, though, said congestion pricing is the best way to cut traffic while raising almost $500 million a year for bus, subway and train projects. "The benefits so far outweigh any of the negatives," Quinn said. "We have to seize this moment to move forward and expand our mass transit system." The City Council, Assembly and state Senate must approve the plan by April 7 to qualify for $354 million in federal funds for extra bus and subway service. A new Quinnipiac University poll found two-thirds of New Yorkers support the idea, as long as the revenue is used for mass transit. New Jersey drivers using E-ZPass would not have to pay the fee, so Bloomberg's team is negotiating for part of a $2 billion Port Authority fund to make up some of the difference. They are also mulling a tax credit to help poor drivers pay the fee. Bloomberg and top aides met for more than an hour with Bronx Assembly members in his City Hall office. "I guess they're hoping they can twist enough arms," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx). Sadik-Khan told the Council that free residential parking permits would be available to those living just outside the zone to prevent nonresidents from hogging spaces, but flatly ruled out proposed exemptions to the $8 fee for cops and firefighters, cancer patients and others. "The exception route is sort of a slippery slope," Continue Reading

So many ways to beat the system

A rare victory for residents over shameless deceptionSitting helpless as damage continuesBuilding Boom-Doggle Part 1Few areas of the city have been more hard-hit by building boondoggles than a small swath of Brooklyn known as south Park Slope. Here, in just four blocks on 15th St. and 16th St. between Fourth and Eighth Aves., irresponsible builders have damaged adjacent properties, forced families to evacuate and assaulted the neighborhood with demolition dust and construction noise for at least three years, a Daily News investigation shows. Let's begin at Armory Plaza, a condo under construction by developers Jack and Lorenzo LoCicero at 406-408 15th St., between Seventh and Eighth Aves., across the street from the Park Slope Armory. The city Buildings Department approved plans in November 2004 for the condo there to rise to nine stories - four more than zoning normally allowed - because the building was to be used as a "community facility," in this case, to provide housing for the faculty of a Brooklyn yeshiva. However, the provision of the zoning regulation that made this possible had been wiped off the books two months before the plans were approved. It took the Buildings Department until May 2005 to realize its error and revoke the permits. Revised plans to reduce the project to five stories were submitted and accepted. Construction began in September 2005, and problems surfaced almost immediately. Neighborhood residents ultimately filed at least 90 formal complaints, and the Buildings Department has issued nine citations at the site for such serious violations as damaging adjacent property, failure to safeguard the public and property and failure to comply with stop-work orders. The developers have failed to pay $20,500 in fines, according to the city Environmental Control Board. But construction continues. Last July, as drilling machines augered holes for the foundation, cracks zigzagged up the face of the adjacent building at 1504 Eighth Continue Reading

60G fixup plan was in the works

The Bronx building where two families were devastated by fire was about to get a major upgrade - including a sprinkler system that could have saved lives, according to city building records obtained by the Daily News. A work permit application filed by architect John Ellis with the Buildings Department in January shows the project also would have replaced the house's dangerously flammable wooden stairs with metal ones. But the estimated $60,000 renovation to convert the structure to a three-unit dwelling stalled last month because of incomplete paperwork, a department spokeswoman said. It was a crucial delay. The 106-year-old building had two smoke alarms, but they had no batteries, fire officials said. And the wooden stairs helped fuel the flames as they traveled up from the garden level Wednesday night, trapping 20 people and killing nine, including eight children. Five of the victims were children of Moussa Magassa, a prominent member of the immigrant Malian community who owns the house at 1022 Woodycrest Ave. in Highbridge. With 22 Malian immigrants crowded into the four-story structure, Magassa had applied to turn the one-family building into a legal three-family. City code requires that dwellings with three or more units have a second exit, or sprinklers, Housing Department spokesman Neill Coleman said. Ellis said there was a correction required on the paperwork, but he would not reveal the nature of the correction and declined to comment further. A sprinkler system "would have prevented the tragedy," said Richard Piccolo, a former firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department and now president of the Building & Fire Code Academy in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Robert Solomon, vice president of the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, said sprinklers could have at least slowed the tragedy and given firefighters more time. "If the fire grows rapidly or the detectors are out of service, the automatic sprinkler system would Continue Reading

Construction worker who fell 24 stories to his death in Midtown was riding unsafe elevator powered by jerry-rigged electrical system

A worker who fell to his death at a Midtown construction site was riding an elevator powered by an “unsafe” jerry-rigged electrical system, the Daily News has learned. Christian Ginesi and a co-worker were on a temporary hoist — common at construction sites — headed to the top of a hotel being built on Eighth Ave. on May 5 when the lift stalled between the 24th and 25th floors. Ginesi’s colleague successfully jumped from the lift to the lower floor, but Ginesi slipped and plummeted 24 stories to his death. Since then, city building inspectors looking into the cause of the accident discovered the lift suddenly lost power that day, and the electrical system that powered it was installed without a permit. The elevator relied on “unapproved, unsafe, unsuitable electrical equipment” that shouldn’t have been in use, documents show. The city issued two violations for the improper electrical system against the 31-story building’s owners, 741 Eighth Ave. Owners LLC, an affiliate of Riu Hotels, a Spanish international hotel chain. The hoist was ordered shut down after the accident. Last week, the city allowed the lift to resume operation but required the owners to use a different power source, officials told The News. Howard Hershenhorn, a Manhattan attorney representing Ginesi’s family, said the findings indicate the 25-year-old man’s death should never have occurred. “It’s obvious that this is an enormous tragedy, which could have absolutely been prevented had basic safety measures been put in place,” Hershenhorn said. Ginesi’s distraught mother, Laurie Anne Smith, is still reeling from the loss of her son, a decorated Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan. “If it could have been prevented, then I’m very, very angry about that. lf I could still have my son back in my life ...” she said, breaking down into sobs. The city Continue Reading

System Update: Prepping for E3 with ESA’s Mike Gallagher

Mike Gallagher calls himself the "luckiest person on Earth." And this is his time. Next week, the entire video game universe will descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center for the 20th Electronics Entertainment Expo. It's a 20-year-old event that sets the agenda for the gaming year, full of monster announcements and big reveals. And it is like this at least partly because of Gallagher. It was eight years ago that Gallagher left the U.S. Department of Commerce to join the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which oversees E3, and since then, he's helped transform a mere trade show held in hotels throughout Santa Monica into a massive, marquee, one-stop shop for everything coming up in gaming. Gallagher remembers his first show as "very subdued, very low production values." "You could tell everyone was angry about it," he said. "The consumers were angry. The customers were frustrated." Over the last few years, the event has blossomed, overflowing past the two main halls of the LA Convention Center. The big three console manufacturers - Nintendo, Sony and Xbox - both have massive booths, "20,000-square-foot, double-decker small cities," as Gallagher describes them. Indie games continue to grow, and this year, E3 will permit some members of the general public, so-called "prosumers," into a once-exclusive event. "Now video games are built and distributed year-round on every device with a screen and an Internet connection," Gallagher said. "The market has shifted. Now you have the consumers as a part of the enterprise." Gallagher admitted that the move is a gamble, crowding an already-packed Convention Center for the three-day affair. It's only about 5,000 more people, he said, but he will watch the experiment closely during the next three days. "I will worry about that every minute between now and Thursday at five o'clock (in the afternoon), when it's over," he said. "It's important to get the mix just right. It's the Goldilocks Continue Reading

118 city schools apply for PROSE program as teacher work rules allow for adjusted schedules, class sizes

City schools boss Carmen Fariña said 118 public schools have applied for the PROSE program that will allow them to experiment with new teacher work rules. The chancellor made the announcement while visiting The School of Integrated Learning in Brooklyn, which is using flexible teacher-student ratios. Under the teachers union contract ratified in June, the 62 schools in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence program are permitted to make changes to teacher schedules, class sizes and other aspects of the school day governed by the teacher labor agreement. Fariña said the success of PROSE at the Brooklyn schools went “way beyond my expectations.” “You see something here that in some other schools would raise people's eyebrows,” she said. “You have one teacher with almost 40 kids in the class and you have another teacher with eight kids in the class. And no one is saying this is how many I have, this is how many you have. They're saying in order for me to do my job here, you're gonna do your job there.” The city and the union created the program amid criticism that teacher contracts stifled innovation. Last year, 107 schools applied to be part of the program and 62 were accepted. A majority of the new applications — 39 — come from schools in Brooklyn, followed by 35 in the Bronx, 25 from Manhattan, 17 from Queens and two from Staten Island. The Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, for example, wants to implement an 8 a.m. to 4:34 p.m. school day schedule. In exchange for the longer day, teachers would work a four-day week. “What we have found over and over is all of our schools are highly collaborative like this one,” said Jackie Bennett of the United Federation of Teachers, who toured The School of Integrated Learning. “You can try to implement things in all sorts of places, it doesn't really take unless everyone Continue Reading