New York City's New Fire Commissioner

A couple of weeks after Mike Bloomberg announced that 40-year fire department veteran Salvatore Cassano would replace Nicholas Scoppetta, the commissioner he had served as a top aide for eight years, the mayor went to the FDNY's Brooklyn headquarters to boast about the new record low in fire deaths.

Bloomberg attributed the decline to innovations at the department, praising Cassano in particular without mentioning that deaths are down to a similar degree in every city in America where cell phones are sold. Then the mayor introduced Cassano as "Nick," a slip of the tongue suggesting just how little change Cassano's appointment represents for the city's most troubled department.

What better, after all, describes Bloomberg's stand-pat third term than a job search for fire commissioner that went only as far as the office next door?

Cassano had been promoted by Scoppetta to become the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the FDNY. He's a caretaker, the embodiment of a City Hall preoccupied with far more important matters than new approaches in city government — namely, Bloomberg's preparations, led by campaign guru Howard Wolfson, for a possible presidential run.

No department in the Bloomberg era has been hit harder by scandal than Scoppetta and Cassano's FDNY. Legendary ex–Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau all but announced that he would have indicted the city for the department's role in the negligent homicide of two firefighters at the Deutsche Bank building in 2007, except he was restrained by the sovereign immunity statutes. No other department has compelled a federal judge to find intentional discrimination against black applicants, its nearly all-white force a national embarrassment. No other city agency has so mismanaged its overtime, medical leave, and pension policies that, over the past five years, 72 percent of firefighters magically qualified for three-quarters disability pensions, averaging $85,000 a year, compared to 19 percent of city cops and 25 percent of Chicago firefighters. Yet, when Bloomberg installed Cassano, the tabloids saluted the appointment, even though the Posthad called 11 times for Scoppetta's firing over the Deutsche Bank debacle.

The fact is that Cassano was more personally involved than Scoppetta in the negligence that cost the lives of Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino and injuries to another 115 firefighters at the Deutsche demolition site, which is next to Ground Zero and was poisoned by toxins when the South Tower fell on it. There is no indication that Scoppetta was ever warned about conditions in the bank building or told of the need for a fire plan tailored to this particularly dangerous site. But the Voice has obtained just such a smoking gun memo to Cassano, sent to him through three high-ranking chiefs.

The mishandling of that warning was so disturbing that Morgenthau publicly attacked Cassano for doing nothing. But in his 32-page report, Morgenthau referred to Cassano by title rather than by name, and that has, so far, immunized the new commissioner from media criticism.

Cassano was hauled before Morgenthau's grand jury to explain his failure to respond to this memo, as were the three chiefs, and the D.A. came so close to indicting the city that the Bloomberg administration spent $5.6 million on a private law firm to fight it. Had Morgenthau not decided that he could not win the legal argument about the city's liability, Cassano's disregarded warning would have been a focus of the homicide case, brought against the criminally culpable Bloomberg administration. In a cover story last July 22, theVoice called the lethal fire Bloomberg's biggest scandal, but local media largely ignored it during the mayoral campaign. If Morgenthau, however, had brought the case he prepared, "the complete failure of the FDNY," as the D.A.'s report put it, might have become a greater obstacle to Bloomberg's third term.

There's no doubt, as sources within the administration concede, that Bloomberg was fully informed about Cassano's failings at the bank site. His decision to appoint him anyway is consistent with a mayor who will never run again for local office and couldn't care less what we think about it.

Tom Von Essen, the 9/11 fire commissioner who stood at Rudy Giuliani's side for months of daily press briefings, printed his daily diary in a book he later wrote called Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York. "Met Bloomberg today," was his note for November 20, 2001, when the newly elected mayor was planning his transition. "He agrees with me completely — need strong military person to take over FDNY — big job in front of him — strong business background OK — no insider." Instead, Bloomberg named Scoppetta, who had no fire, military, or business background, but, having held top public posts for decades, momentarily appeared to be an outsider.

And now, he has turned to the ultimate insider, the first five-star chief to serve as commissioner in 27 years, and put him in charge of a department that's had a distress alarm screeching for years.

As often as the schools and the NYPD get the headlines, the fire department's fortunes can define a mayor. The lasting image of Giuliani is at a fire funeral. David Dinkins lost to Giuliani in 1993 when the fire union — the only city union to buck the incumbent — memorably put thousands of its white, suburban members in polling places in the city's minority neighborhoods as part of a successful, election-day show of force designed to deflate turnout. Ed Koch, too, faced 6,000 firefighters who trooped across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest his firehouse cuts and broke with his 1989 re-election campaign.

The Cassano appointment is a testament to the distraction and disinterest already settling over Bloomberg's City Hall. His State of the City speech was a visionless yawn. From the deputy mayors to the top administrators in the agencies, nothing has changed. Even a Times call for greater diversity at the highest levels of his administration, on the heels of overwhelming black and Latino voter rejection, has gone unheeded, leaving two black finalists for the fire job at the firehouse door.

The mayor prefers to talk about his new national immigration initiative, and a 10-city volunteer program modeled after the one he started here. He's laying claim to a U.S. Senate seat, pushing Harold Ford onto the New York stage. He had his own candidate in the Massachusetts Democratic primary, dispatching a team of campaign aides to Boston to aid a losing cause in December, just as he did for Joe Lieberman in 2006.

Even while he threatens mass layoffs, he is packing the public payroll with people who worked on his most recent campaign, the largest campaign payroll in city history, turning the government itself into his presidential exploratory committee. His personal philanthropy, too, is taking a national turn, with his communications chief leaving to run it. His most recent campaign filings revealed that on the eve of the election, he steered $1.2 million to the Independence Party, the vehicle he used for his failed presidential campaign in 2006 and 2007, an oddly timed expenditure that appears to be more of an advance for future service than additional compensation for a campaign coming to a close.

If Bloomberg runs for president, he will need a mix of left and right political positions to bolster his independent ballot status. As mayor of New York, he's established his pro-gay, pro-choice, anti-gun, and other liberal qualifications already. If anything will establish his conservative bona fides, it's his supposedly "color-blind" fight for a white-dominated fire department, federal court interference be damned.

Tags: commissioner, fdny, fire department, mayor bloomberg, mike bloomberg, new york, new york city, nyc, salvatore cassano

    • Wayne Barrett
    • Wayne Barrett was a fixture at the Village Voice for almost four decades, doing his first investigative feature in 1973 and writing more than 2000 stories between then and 2011, when he left the paper. He has also written five books, including two on Rudy Giuliani, a biography of Donald Trump and City for S...

    • Wayne Barrett's full bio »