A city custodian found guilty of fabricating a fake agency placard to park for free near his Lower Manhattan office for more than a year and a half was docked seven day’s pay — just $1,106 — even though the cost of legally parking in the neighborhood is 10 times that.
This article was written by Gersh Kuntzman and originally published by Strong Towns.
In a small footnote to the city’s ongoing placard corruption crisis, the city Conflict of Interest Board announced on Jan. 31 that it had settled with Department of Citywide Administrative Services custodian Eric Charles for his “misuse” of his agency’s insignia, which he put on a “fake parking placard” and used to “illegally park his personal vehicle near his workplace in Lower Manhattan” between sometime in March 2020 and Sept. 16, 2021.
The board’s settlement says only that Charles used the placard for “several days,” but an agency spokeswoman said the language of the deal is negotiated and may not reflect the full extent of the discretion.
But assuming that Charles used the fake placard for all of the workdays between Monday, March 3 and Thursday, Sept. 16, he would have secured himself 386 business days of free parking.
Parking garages near Charles’s office at 2 Lafayette St. charge exceptionally high rates. The Imperial Parking garage at 180 Worth St. charges $50 for a full business day of parking. The garage at 150 Nassau St. has an early bird rate that Charles would likely receive: $26 if a driver arrives before 9 a.m.
Either way, street parking for 386 business days would cost in a range between $10,000 and $19,300 — yet Charles ended up being docked just $1,106 in pay for his transgression. He earned $97,835 on the job last year.
Activists were stunned by how little Charles was fined for such a large offense.
“This is typical of the fake ‘oversight’ that we get,” said the keeper of the Placard Abuse account on Twitter, who requests anonymity because of prior interactions with police. “We have seen it before, and the COIB chooses to continue doing this after it has been brought to their attention.”
“They have verified that an employee committed felony and misdemeanor crimes, and they gave him a slap on the wrist that cost less than the value of the parking he stole,” said the account keeper. “When you still come out ahead after you’ve been busted, the system is set up to encourage crime.”
An activist who tweets under the name NYC Climate Package added, “The harms of placard abuse are widespread. Public servants engaging in fraud and collusion with the NYPD to steal parking space on our streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, and/or bus lanes harms trust in our government. But, by stealing all our public space for vehicles, it also makes alternative forms of transit such as walking, biking, busing and using a wheelchair slower, more dangerous, and less attractive. We need these alternate modes to be appealing, because their use benefits us all through reduced toxic emissions and reduced climate change effects.”
John Choe, the executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and a longtime foe of placard abuse, called the small fine to Charles “outrageous.”
“Typically, when a city employee is found guilty of stealing tens of thousands of dollars in public funds, taxpayers would expect strict accountability, including immediate firing or even jail time for the perpetrator,” he said. “Yet, because placard abuse is not taken seriously, our city continues to send the wrong message — one that condones lawless behavior by public officials — and misses an opportunity to recoup funds that could be used to support critical services.”
The Conflict of Interest Board provided no additional information on the Charles case, citing “confidentiality restrictions of the City Charter.”
Fortunately, there’s Google. The Eric Charles who defrauded his own agency, as well as stole parking, appears to be the same DCAS employee who, in 2018, was sanctioned by the Conflict of Interest Board for accepting a sweater and two pairs of pants, valued at $50, from a custodial subordinate in 2016, and for accepting a flower pot “as a Valentine’s Day gift” a year later from the same underling.
For those offenses, Charles was fined the equivalent of $734.
Dave Abraham, who is a member of the board of StreetsPAC, couldn’t reconcile the large fine “for a seemingly harmless crime of accepting some pants and a flower pot for Valentine’s Day” with the only slightly higher fine for defrauding the city. He called the $1,106 a “slap on the wrist.”
“If the city is sincere in wanting to curtail rampant placard abuse, it cannot expect sporadic, inexpensive fines to make a dent at all,” Abraham said. “A city employee knowingly abusing their placards should be heavily fined and barred from having any placards whatsoever. When someone steals paid parking from the city, it hurts every other New Yorker’s wallet that properly pays into the system.”