Judge Wants Tapes to Bury New York Politico

     MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge agreed to unveil once-confidential footage of Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino being grilled about his obstruction of a more than $50 million fair-housing settlement.
     The settlement stemmed from a 2006 federal lawsuit by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, accusing the wealthy county of lying to secure grant money.
     Westchester agreed to a consent decree three years later after the federal government intervened in the case. The deal requires construction of 750 affordable rental and owner-occupied units in 31 mostly white communities.
     As the deal slouches toward its seventh year, Westchester’s foot-dragging leaves the county in a poor position to meet their deadline this year to ensure development of the units. The New York Times published a June 2015 editorial denouncing the Republican Astorino for taking what its board called his “impassioned resistance to desegregation.”
     Months later, Westchester belatedly moved forward on what it called a “One Community Campaign,” a public-relations initiative on the internet, public transportation and the county’s airport extolling the benefits of housing diversity.
     In a 33-page opinion Monday, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote slammed the county’s “eleventh hour” initiative as too little, too late.
     Astorino repeatedly undercut this campaign by insinuating that Housing and Urban Development had been “trying to use the settlement as a hammer to dismantle local zoning,” and generally attacking consent decree in editorials, town halls and his State of the County address, according to the opinion.
     “These statements reveal a concerted effort to influence public opinion against the settlement and its stated goal of improving communities by increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” wrote Cote, who has presided over the case since its inception. “This coordinated effort both evinces bad faith and exposes the deficiencies of the delayed campaign.”
     While the court already has released transcripts of Astorino’s deposition, Cote noted that video footage is “far more effective in conveying the substance and meaning of the testimony to the fact finder than the dry words on a printed page.”
     “The videotapes thus may be an important tool for public evaluation of the accuracy and reliability of Astorino’s prior assertions concerning the consent decree,” the opinion states. “The public will have an opportunity to evaluate the witnesses’ statements and credibility in a way that a cold transcript cannot provide to them.”
     Astorino’s complaints about the potential for the footage to fuel “partisan political attacks” is no reason to censor the public record, Cote said.
     “The fundamental point remains that Astorino is a public figure and he was deposed about his public duties only,” the judge wrote. “His interest in keeping the videotapes of testimony about his public duties out of the public record does not outweigh the importance of full, open, public discourse on issues connected with the settlement and its goals of improving access within the county to affordable and racially diverse housing.”
     Cote granted the county an opportunity to appeal her ruling before the videos are released.
     Astorino’s office has not returned requests for comment, but Westchester County vowed to appeal.
     “The decision raises troubling First Amendment questions about the ability of the county executive and other elected officials to speak out about legitimate and documented concerns raised by the behavior of an overreaching federal government, specifically in this case the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” the county said in a statement.
     Westchester insists that it “has exceeded its annual benchmarks to date” for building the units required under the settlement.
     “This would not have happened if the county had not worked cooperatively and successfully with its local municipalities to ensure that both the goals of the settlement were being met and that the due process rights of all parties were respected,” the county added.
     The Anti-Discrimination Center declined to comment on the ruling but told the court last month that exclusionary zoning remains “rampant” among 25 Westchester jurisdictions with black populations less than 3 percent.
     The group asked Cote to hold Westchester in contempt of its obligations under the consent decree and appoint a special master to act in the county’s place.
     Cote scheduled a July 8 hearing to address that request, which nine other housing-advocacy groups have supported in a friend-of-court brief.
     “The consent decree in this matter provided more opportunity to effect significant structural change in hyper-segregated residential housing patterns than any other legal proceeding in the last 25 years,” according to the amicus brief by groups like the Inclusive Communities Project, National Fair Housing Alliance and Erase Racism.
     Westchester’s public-housing struggles echo a similar feud in the late 1980s that took hold of its city of Yonkers, inspiring the book and, more recently, HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero.”
     Mirroring the case in Westchester today, a federal judge who called for Yonkers to desegregate a mostly white section of the city famously butted heads with local recalcitrant politicians.

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