News flash: Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has been fined $20,000 for taking his wife with him on a series of overseas junkets.
Disclosure: I would probably not be examining this particular ethics issue were it not the depths of the summer news doldrums. Very little newsworthy happens in New York in August this time of year except for weather and crime. This year we've also had the arrival of gay marriage, which is a huge story, but one that has not exactly been under-reported.
So let's take a look at the ethics charges against Markowitz, who's been citing marital solidarity in his defense against the city's Conflict of Interest Board, which fined him for allowing the governments of Turkey and the Netherlands to pay travel expenses for his wife, Jamie, who accompanied him on the Brooklyn-boosting journeys overseas.
We're not even counting a cruise from England to New York aboard the QE2 paid for by the Cunard Line. Markowitz said he would deliver lectures to the passengers about Brooklyn tourism while sailing the high seas. The board blessed this little excursion.
"Some people get in trouble when they don't take their wives. I'm getting in trouble because I took my wife," Markowitz told the New York Post. He also called the fine "crazy."
Certainly, there is crazy somewhere in this story. While it's true, I guess, that Markowitz's behavior is better than extramarital texting, the real question is why the Netherlands and Turkey were putting up cash to lure the Brooklyn Borough President to their fair shores in the first place.
The position of borough president has been a little fuzzy ever since the city went through a charter revision years ago, and eliminated all the job's important functions. Different beeps have found different ways of filling in the gaps. Some function as major or minor party bosses. Some, usually the ones in Manhattan, work at policy and set their sights on higher office.
Markowitz' interpretation of the job has always been: showing up. If it happens in Brooklyn, he's there. A neighborhood festival, a store opening, a wedding, a sidewalk paving. If your child starts up a front yard lemonade stand and Marty Markowitz knows about it, he'll be there to purchase the first glass, and pose for photos.
So perhaps it's not surprising that when Holland and Turkey expressed an interest in having him drop by, Markowitz made the trip. Twice to Turkey. The second trip to Turkey is the strangest part of the whole story. How is it possible that Turkey felt the need of the Brooklyn Borough President's presence in both 2007 and 2009? (The need for the Turkey trips included improving relations between Brooklyn and Turkey and boosting tourism, according to Markowitz.)
Markowitz said the Conflict of Interest Board failed to understand the importance of his role as a borough promoter. "You go to Europe, other countries, being borough president Brooklyn is a big thing there," he told the Post. Everybody in Istanbul, apparently, was dying to make a connection. And forget about the folks in Rotterdam.
The Board bought into his explanation that he was on official business, but balked at accepting freebies for his wife, despite Markowitz's assertion that she is the "First Lady of Brooklyn" with duties similar to those of Michelle Obama.
If the people of Brooklyn wanted to forgive Markowitz for accepting three all-costs-covered trips to Europe, and pass over the return trip to Turkey, and then overlook the extra tickets for Mrs. Markowitz in the name of marital solidarity and a failure to appreciate the niceties of the city ethics code, there's still this:
Word from the borough president's office is that Markowitz will pay "the goddamn fine" and then ask the City Council to pass some sort of legislation clarifying the right of already-somewhat-redundant New York officials to include their spouses in their overseas junkets.
Or they might consider telling the guy to stay home. Brooklyn needs him. So many street fairs to attend, so little time.