NYC gets flak from 9/11 families, panel

By SHAUN WATERMAN  |  April 10, 2003 at 2:18 AM
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WASHINGTON, April 9 (UPI) -- Relatives of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings are harshly criticizing the level of co-operation of New York City authorities with the blue ribbon commission set up to investigate the attacks, and commission members say they too are disappointed by the way the administration of GOP Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has treated them so far.

Commission officials say the city is "very wary" of the commission because of the many lawsuits it faces in relation to the attacks, but caution it is too early to judge what its real attitude is.

Last week, the chiefs of the city's fire and police departments were asked to testify at public hearings organized by the Sept. 11 commission, as part of a panel looking at the way first responders dealt with unprecedented challenge they faced that day, when hijacked airliners were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Instead, both men arrived unannounced the day before, accompanying Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who was scheduled to make remarks at the hearing's opening on Monday. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta provided written statements for the first responders' panel the next day but did not appear in person to answer questions.

"That was a sharp little trick they pulled, turning up unexpectedly a day early, when no one was prepared," Stephen Push told United Press International. Push, who lost Lisa Raines, his wife of 21 years, when American Airlines flight 77 was crashed into the Pentagon, is one of the relatives who has worked most closely with the new commission.

"We did not expect them (to turn up with Bloomberg) at all," said commission chairman, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, R-N.J. "It's rare that somebody surprises a commission and shows up (unexpectedly). Usually it's the other way around -- you expect someone and they don't show up."

A commission official, who also asked for anonymity, said the incident "gave folks an unfortunate impression."

"The city is very wary of the commission and worried about the relationship of its investigation to the many lawsuits that are currently pending," he told UPI. He added that the behavior of city officials at the hearings was "a manifestation of that wariness. ... They're trying to walk a tightrope, and it shows."

Members of the 10-strong bipartisan panel say they were disappointed at the commissioners' behavior.

"I was disappointed that they didn't agree to be part of the panel on the second day and talk to us and answer some of our questions and give us the opportunity to thank them for their courage and bravery," former Indiana Democratic Congressman Timothy Roemer, told UPI.

"It was disappointing," agreed former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., adding, "I don't feel that we were able to get all the information out of them that we need. ... We would have had a better opportunity if they had come on the second day."

Bloomberg's office said no slight to the commission was intended.

"Absolutely not," Bloomberg spokesman Edward Skyler told UPI, "we were happy to have the commission begin their hearings in New York City and we hope that the city's presentation was helpful."

Panel members were clearly wrong-footed by the unscheduled appearances, which left them both short of time and unprepared for the commissioners' testimony.

"We wanted to have more time," Roemer said, "We expected the mayor and the governor (of New York state) and the time was not allocated to have more people with them (that morning)."

Push called the appearance of Kelly and Scoppetta with Bloomberg "a stunt," and said it betrayed a "contemptuous" attitude toward the panel on the part of the New York City government.

Skyler says the decision to send the commissioners along with the mayor was made because "we correctly anticipated that most of the questions would be about security and emergency preparedness." He added that the decision was made at the last minute, owing to the funeral of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., the same day "the schedule was up in the air until Monday morning."

The commission official denied that the city was being deliberately unhelpful.

"It's unfair to say right now that they've decided to be adversarial," said the committee official. "We don't know yet what the city's attitude is going to be toward the investigation. It hasn't been tested yet, it will be tested, but it hasn't yet ... It's premature to say whether there's a real problem or not."

But some relatives are clearly already skeptical. Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, probationary firefighter Christian Regenhard in the World Trade Center, and who is a strong supporter of Bloomberg, says she was not surprised: "Historically, the City of New York and the Port Authority have not been co-operative with inquiries into these events. Hope springs eternal, but I have very grave doubts about the level of co-operation the commission will get (from the city)."

Roemer says the commission had a "warm, embracing attitude" toward the two men as potential witnesses. "We wanted to learn from their experience. ... We wanted to get off to a good start, a healthy start, a friendly start," he told UPI, adding, "Now we will have to set up other appointments -- whether in open or closed sessions. ... Certainly there'll be some tough questions (they'll have to answer) at some point in the future."

Other members echoed his determination to question the commissioners at a later date.

"This is New York," Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic lawyer and former Watergate investigator told UPI. "You have to be flexible. I'm a native New Yorker myself -- I know how it goes. But," he added pointedly, "we will certainly be taking them up on their offer of future co-operation."

"It is absolutely necessary that we get full co-operation from city officials and I am sure we will," said Gorton. "I don't think this was the final word. ... There will be other opportunities."

The commission has the power to subpoena officials and documents.

Skyler could not say whether the commissioners would return to give evidence at a subsequent hearing, "but certainly we've been very happy to provide them with the information that they've asked (for)."

The commission was set up after President Bush -- who had initially opposed its establishment -- signed the law bringing it into being in November 2002. It is mandated to report on a wide array of issues relating to the Sept. 11 attacks by May 2004. The commission faced a rocky start when the president's initial choice as chairman, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, withdrew after questions about conflicts of interests. It has five Democratic and five Republican members, and will have a staff of about 50 when it has finished recruiting.

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