The NBBL Files: Weinshall Got Randy Mastro Before the Paint on PPW Was Dry

Last week, opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign moved to appeal Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Bert Bunyan’s decision to reject their complaint against the city. If the community board’s approval of the bike lane and the data showing its effect on speeding and safety didn’t persuade them not to sue in the first place, a judicial decision wasn’t going to persuade them now. The longer the litigation drags on, the more time they’ll have to muddy the truth (to borrow a phrase from the Brooklyn Paper).

Since the case is still in the courts, though, we’ve also got more time to get a clearer look at the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.” Based on email correspondence obtained via freedom of information request, we now have a better sense of NBBL’s methods — how they’ve exploited their connections to politicians, media personalities, city bureaucrats, and various New York City power players in their attempt to erase the new bike lane in their neighborhood.

Randy Mastro offered pro bono legal representation to Iris Weinshall and Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes immediately after the bike lane was installed. Mastro photo: ##http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/editorials/continuing_contempt_of_court_KHR3CHKP13LYmXTmYMq2KI##New York Post##

Let’s begin with the connection that set the lawsuit on its path to becoming a media spectacle: NBBL’s access to Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro.

Actually, first let’s pause to appreciate a classic NBBL exercise in muddying the truth. In the run-up to suing the city, you may recall that NBBL adopted the posture of reluctant litigants. “Much has been said about a potential legal action; we hope not to be forced to bring one,” said their attorney, Gibson Dunn partner Jim Walden, shortly before filing the suit. At the time, in late February, NBBL and Walden had been grabbing headlines for a few weeks, talking about litigation as a supposed last resort.

In fact, his firm had been planning a lawsuit with former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall and the leaders of NBBL for more than seven months. Gibson Dunn provided this service “pro bono.” The person who first offered the use of the firm’s resources to assist Weinshall was Mastro, who co-chairs Gibson Dunn’s litigation arm.

Weinshall and Mastro were not strangers. Both served in Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration – Mastro as chief of staff and later first deputy mayor, Weinshall as a high-ranking official in the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and then as DOT commissioner.

On July 3, 2010, Weinshall emailed her daughter, Jessica Schumer, a recent graduate of Yale Law School who campaigned vigorously against the bike lane that summer. “Spoke with Randy mastro he said he would help you with the article 78!” she wrote [PDF]. (An “Article 78” refers to the type of lawsuit opponents eventually filed in their bid to tarnish DOT and erase the bike lane.)

DOT had just finished installing the bike lane the month before. Practically before the paint was dry, Weinshall had enlisted a lawyer who runs one of the nation’s top litigation practices — a man who represents the world’s corporate behemoths in court — to help wage her local NIMBY battle.

Schumer herself connected with Mastro two weeks later. “Just got off the phone with randy mastro and I’m pretty sure we have pro-bono representation from a top nyc law firm (gibson dunn),” she wrote in a message [PDF] to NBBL president Louise Hainline and another member of the group, Lisa Napolitano.

Then on July 22, Hainline wrote to fellow bike lane opponent Lois Carswell [PDF] to inform her that “the Randy Mastro connection has gotten us two attorney’s at Randy’s firm” as well as “many interns or first year attorneys.”

When law firms donate their time and energy to clients who are not poor (Hainline and Carswell own some of the most desirable real estate in Brooklyn), it’s considered ethical practice for a committee to decide if the case is appropriate for pro bono work. Gibson Dunn has not responded to inquiries about whether their pro bono committee voted on giving NBBL free legal services.

We don’t know exactly why Mastro agreed to help Weinshall. Neither of them would comment for this piece. We do know, however, that Weinshall was concerned about that information leaking out. On February 6, 2011, after Hainline mentioned that NPR’s Andrea Bernstein had been asking about Mastro, Weinshall wrote a short email in response. It said simply: “We should never say how we got Randy!”

  • car free nation

    And all this work and backroom shenanigans, is basically a means to endanger little kids like my daughter, who’d like to ride her bike to school, safely and efficiently…

  • J

    Nice reporting! Interestingly, the appeal hasn’t garnered anywhere near the headline of the original lawsuit. The infinitesimally small chance of even having standing to sue makes me wonder what the point of this appeal is. Perhaps it is simply a scorched-earth campaign to use up the city’s legal funds. Even then, it probably won’t have much of an impact this time around, as the defense work has already been done.

    Also, it’s nice to be on the side of the issue without anything to hide, since our actions were done publicly in open forums. The intent behind the project was clear from the beginning (reduce speeding, improve safety) and is well documented. The other side has all sorts of shady motives and actions, and the more we dig, the more it seems they have to hide. If they keep pushing this, at some point someone is going to find out their dirty little secrets.

  • So Iris Weinshall is not a NBBL member, but her daughter is. Thanks for posting these clarifying emails.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder why a former city commissioner and US Senator’s spouse would want to keep secret how she got free legal services from a huge NY law firm?  Where’s Inspector Clouseau when you need him?

  • Eric McClure

    Great work, Streetsblog! No one else is doing this kind of investigative reporting into what could literally be life-and-death issues. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    And just to echo someone else’s comment below, great reporting!  I love how they not only got a huge legal team for free, but that they tried to make sure that the legal team did not have an “avid bikers.”  Does Gibson Dunn’s office building also flout the NYC bike storage law? 

  • Dave Holland

    So, the story is both sides have their secrets? The NBBL doesn’t want to disclose how they obtained one partner and the city officials don’t want to disclose anything while taking the stand under oath.

  • Dave Holland

    So, the story is both sides have their secrets? The NBBL doesn’t want to disclose how they obtained one partner and the city officials don’t want to disclose anything while taking the stand under oath.

  • Dave Holland

    So, the story is both sides have their secrets? The NBBL doesn’t want to disclose how they obtained one partner and the city officials don’t want to disclose anything while taking the stand under oath.

  • Bristol Traffic

    nice how they don’t wany any lawyers/interns who are “avid bikers”. You can’t say you are for cycling if you  don’t want anyone involved who rides a bicycle

  • Bob

    The DOT is as truthful as our billionaire dictator. They still have to bring the missing FOIL requests to the appeal. 

  • “Interestingly, the appeal hasn’t garnered anywhere near the headline of
    the original lawsuit. The infinitesimally small chance of even having
    standing to sue makes me wonder what the point of this appeal is.”

    J, one theory is that without an active legal process, NBBL simply would not get any attention from the press.  They were successful at portraying themselves as a simple group of concerned neighborhood residents, but that strategy is now working against them.  What reporter wants to keep reporting on a bunch of NIMBYs who long ago had their baseless lawsuit tossed?  There gets to be a point where even the Brooklyn Paper said, “Enough is enough.”

    It’s telling that one day after the appeal was filed, and about a month after calling out NBBL for spreading “misinformation,” the Brooklyn Paper was back with more sensationalist reporting about safety and aesthetic changes to the lane.

    No lawsuit, no story.  No story, no chance of kicking the ball down the field until a more sympathetic mayor decides to return Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel’s phone calls.

  • J

    I think it actually quite interesting that they found the need to specify that interns not be “avid bikers”. Wouldn’t an avid biker be in favor of “better bike lanes”? Also, we bikers are everywhere and there are more and more of us each year. Watch out, cause in a few years there won’t be many interns who would support this kind of crap.

    As a more truthful alternative, I suggest Neighbors Against Safe Transportation for Youths (NASTY), see logo below.

  • Dr. Freud

    I love the email exchange between Hainline and Weinshall.  You can almost see how much Hainline loves the attention: “this is social elevation of a sort. Not exactly “bold face”…but I can aspire.”

    It’s like a game to her…a chance to join the upper upper ranks that are otherwise out of the reach of even a person like her.  How else is she having regular email exchanges with Mrs. Chuck Schumer if not for the bike lane fight?  How sad for her. 

    Perhaps a psychologist could figure out why she values social standing over safety.

  • Deep Spoke

    It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.

  • Community Member

    I like the email exchange where Hainline says Andrea Bernstein is “acting like a high school newspaper reporter” for trying to dig in to the Mastro story. I guess this makes Michael Grynbaum a big boy professional reporter because he was willing to accept Jim Walden’s “exclusive” in return for reporting pretty much whatever Gibson Dunn wanted.

  • Permanent Government

    Let’s connect the dots here. Randy Mastro would never commit his firm’s ample resources to just any former city commissioner. He got a call from Mrs. Senator Chuck Schumer. Now Schumer must owe Mastro something for his favor. Jim Walden is small potatoes here. He is an agent of Mastro’s, nothing more. The bosses are Mastro and Chuck. Either one can end this PPW foolishness with one phone call.

  • Temptation

    @c96149198550db186a759c56bddc67d4:disqus , you mean “one bite of the apple.”

  • If you want to know why Streetsblog rocks, it’s because of stuff like this. Makes the NY Times seem like Pravda in the 1980s. The urban revolutions will be blogged my friends.

  • Legal Authority

    Wow. OK, so, here’s my big question:

    If Gibson Dunn was engaged on this case as early as July 2010, how in the world did Jim Walden blow the four-month deadline to file the Article 78 suit? What an enormous screw up and amateurish mistake on Jim Walden’s part.

  • Anonymous

    Legal Authority, I guess you get what you pay for.

  • J

    @77ec693e303b094956b56bbe2fcac62f:disqus Indeed. Seems like NBBL got what they paid for on this one. The case didn’t have a chance from the start, but Walden really made sure it sank by filing so late. Perhaps all the hot air was just to distract attention from his legal ineptitude. Since it’s pro bono case, and a weird one at that, maybe he just didn’t pay it much attention until too late. The legal brief did seem rather poorly written.
    OR, this case was deliberately bungled because a certain someone actually likes PPW.

    Who knows. Either way, this lawsuit isn’t good for the safety, community, or livability of the neighborhood or the city. 

  • Freud

    J, regarding the no “avid bikers” request, Hainline was worried that someone might tip off TA or Streetsblog to her group’s legal machinations, hence her quote about preserving “the element of surprise.”

    It’s quite informative, really.  You can see the origins of the mindset that brought us allegations that DOT “tipped off” TA members to flood the lane with riders on bike count days.

    The delusions about a powerful “bike lobby” that NBBL would demonstrate in spades as they marched towards their pre-determined lawsuit was there from the beginning.  Hainline turned out to be the perfect FOIL for people who just wanted to score points against Bloomberg and JSK: self-important yet insecure, paranoid, and willing to believe anything that reflected her own confirmation bias.

  • J

    @95e9ff290ed78cd3fd440cc8b9642137:disqus Good point about the tip off. Best to keep strict secrecy when trying to undo an open, community-driven process.

  • dporpentine

    Gibson Dunn attorney Jim Walden (and also Gibson Dunn attorney Georgia Winston–can’t forget her role here) clearly lack even the most rudimentary legal skills. But the real shining star here is disgraced former Brooklyn College dean Louise Hainline, whose whole job description at CUNY seems to have been summed up in the word “toadying.” I love that she exclaims about the two Gibson Dunn attorneys who “know their stuff.” Yes, indeed, can’t file on time, but know their stuff . . .

    Really–and this is probably an old point–I think this all boils down to DOT doing something on what Weinshall considered to be *her* street without, I suspect, first asking Weinshall’s “permission.” Or maybe Weinshall made it clear behind the scenes that she was opposed and, when they went against it, she was doubly angry about being rebuffed. To me this seems closer to the truth than a fight over her legacy or some such. She’s too small and anti-human to be concerned with something as comparatively large-minded as that.

  • dporpentine

    Two reminders of Louise Hainline’s other great contributions to Brooklyn civic life:
    1) Effectively destroying a community garden by moving it to a ridiculous system that undermines any sense of stewardship:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BrooklynCommunityGardenersGroup/message/881

    2) Announcing to Marty Markowitz that (a) she thinks he has “great political instincts” (Toady hearty, LH!), (b) the Community Board should come to her, not her to it, and (c) all she does to follow it is read free newspapers she picks up at Key Food:
    http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/markowitz_hainline_email_5_6.pdf

  • krstrois

    Amazing work you guys. Thank you so much. 

  • Alcibiades

    Wow! If Mastro and GD are considered the top litigators in New York, I’d look outside the City for litigation counsel! I had some first-hand experience of Mastro when he and his firm brought bogus charges in an Article 78 claim against our small California telecommunications company and the City. It was a joke but cost a lot to defend. The case was thrown out in short order. Good lawyers don’t bring bogus claims. Have you thought of asking the court to bar Mastro as a vexatious litigant?

  • Jakewegmann

    Magnificent work Streetsblog. Thank you, and please keep it up.

  • Cberthet

    Am I the only one to think this story has more than run it’s course ? ok they are the villains , we get it.. But we need to move on to the bigger question of how to ensure some bikers amongst us are not our worst enemies.

  • Morris Zapp

    @2b7db7d833c6fe2cd02ad042694e30ac:disqus : The NBBL suit, now under appeal (lest we forget), has had a chilling effect on other safety-minded projects across the city. It’s important that the machinations behind it be exposed to the greatest extent possible. That a small group of powerful people could literally put government employees and fellow citizens on trial over a community-generated effort to save lives and make a neighborhood more livable is a major news story. We sure as hell can’t count on the sycophants at the Times or the loons at the News and Post to report it out.

  • David Farbstein

    @2b7db7d833c6fe2cd02ad042694e30ac:disqus Sadly, no, the story has not run its course.

    1. NBBL is appealing the decision. Granted, they have no real chance of winning in court. It’s still all just a a PR campaign to them. But as long as their legal shenanigans continue this story is alive and it makes sense for Streetsblog to get all these facts out there.

    2. Many of the details that Streetsblog is now reporting may be relevant to the ongoing legal case. If no one else can use this information, I bet the City’s lawyers can.

    3. Unfortunately, we have a political press in NYC that runs around as a pack, that’s happy to re-print Gibson Dunn press releases and that no longer does real investigative reporting. We are stuck with 25-year-old creative writing majors on the NYT transportation beat. This is all new information that Streetsblog is reporting out. Sure, it would have been nice for this stuff to come out 6 months ago. But it’s no less important or valid now.

  • Anonymous

    Great job guys. But I have a question, how did TA and Streetsblog get this information under a FOIL request? I thought FOIL only applied to governmental actors? Are non-profits required to turn over records as well?

  • Anonymous

    Great job guys. But I have a question, how did TA and Streetsblog get this information under a FOIL request? I thought FOIL only applied to governmental actors? Are non-profits required to turn over records as well?

  • Friend of the Berms

    @rlb8031:disqus Iris Weinshall and Louise Hainline are employees of the City University of New York, a government institution.

    As such, the email that Iris and Louise sent using CUNY email accounts and CUNY computers on CUNY time is accessible via FOIL. Iris and Louise’s salaries are paid by New York taxpayers. Iris and Louise did this political organizing and lobbying work on the taxpayer dime. Iris and Louise’s activities here are a clear violation of CUNY’s rules and regulations. But that’s a whole other story.

    The irony of all this is that Iris, Louise and their mindlessly aggressive attorney Jim Walden started this whole FOIL thing. FOIL was Walden’s big weapon. It was the tool he was going to use to prove that the bike lane was a nefarious conspiracy of Experimental Bike Lane lobbyists and their pals at DOT, imposing their will on a helpless community. Boy, did that backfire.

    Walden, Hainline or Weinshall could have simply read through the publicly accessible meeting minutes of Community Board 6 to learn that, in fact, the redesign of Prospect Park West has been under discussion for years in open and public Community Board process. They could have easily discovered that the project was approved in repeated votes and that DOT had been remarkably responsive to the community in this case. They could have popped in to a meeting of the Park Slope Civic Council or Grand Army Plaza Coalition to discuss the issue and learn more about their fellow community members’ work on this project. But, hey, Louise, Iris and Jim had a conspiracy to prove. Simply picking up the phone and calling Craig Hammerman would not suffice. Why show up at community meetings, put in the time and work with your neighbors when you have powerful, politically-connected friends who can connect you with powerful, politically-connected litigators and you can simply sue your community instead.

    I truly wonder now if Iris and Louise now have any second thoughts about their eagerness to rifle through the emails of their fellow neighbors. I suspect Iris might. But I’m betting Louise and Jim are absolutely loving all this attention.

  • Well said, Friend.  As a blogger I know once remarked, “Live by the FOIL, die by the FOIL…”

  • nobody

    @rlb8031. These FOILs were from Streetsblog, not TA.

  • FOTB, now your WOTS quote is getting me all angry again.  Add to that, of course, using free legal representation to waste taxpayer money on a case that you know has no chance of prevailing. GRRRRR!

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  • Mark Walker

    All mayoral candidates should be asked to take a no-Weinshall pledge. That poison toad must not make a comeback at DOT. She served under Giuliani, so the Republicans deserve an especially sharp eye, but it would be just as bad if she returned under a Democrat.

  • Frank Dell

    Wow.  Just found this site and am amazed.  Another reason I’ll never vote for Schumer again. And without a doubt there is a quid pro quo between Mastro and Sunday Sound Bite Chuck.  So called public servants my a**.

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