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NYC officials deny cooking books for Yankee Stadium at congressional hearing

WASHINGTON -- New York City officials told a congressional
panel Friday that they didn't do anything improper in shepherding
through $1.3 billion in financing for a new Yankee Stadium, but the
assurances did little to mollify the congressman who is
investigating the deal.

At issue was a six-fold increase in the city's assessed value of
the land, to around $200 million. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio
Democrat, suggested the reason was to make it easier to get
tax-exempt bonds to pay for the construction of the ballpark in the
South Bronx.

Meanwhile, Yankees president Randy Levine told the lawmakers
bluntly that the new stadium would have never been built, and the
Yankees would have left the Bronx, without the financing.

The stadium is scheduled to open next April with a game against
Kucinich's home-state Cleveland Indians.

Citing an e-mail obtained by the House Domestic Policy
subcommittee he chairs, Kucinich suggested there was pressure on
officials in the City's Department of Finance to revise the
assessment upward.

In the e-mail, dated March 20, 2006, Seth Pinsky, president of
the New York City Economic Development Corp., tells Josh Sirefman,
an official in the mayor's office, that the finance agency was
close to finishing a preliminary assessment, "and I'd like to
understand what it is before it is released publicly to make sure
it conforms to our assumptions [and, if it doesn't, to understand
what the implications are]." He asked who in the agency should be
contacted about it.

Pinsky testified that he was not trying to influence the
assessment. He said he was just trying to find out when it would be
produced, "so that we weren't blindsided by whatever the number
turned out to be."

"Are you saying you needed a number or the number?" Kucinich
asked, emphasizing the word "the."

"We needed a number," Pinsky said.

Pinsky called the stadium an important economic development tool
for the South Bronx, a poor neighborhood.

The city's finance commissioner, Martha Stark, said the value of
the land was changed because the original value was incorrect. She
said it should have taken into account the value of the land with
the stadium on it, not as vacant land.

Stark said the e-mail had no bearing on the assessment.

"There was no pressure on us," she said.

Another witness, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, an
outspoken critic of the deal, told Kucinich he had a reason to be
suspicious.

"The evidence that the assessment at Yankee Stadium was cooked
is overwhelming," said Brodsky, a Democrat.

Although the hearing focused on a narrow question, its broader
subtext was the battle over government subsidies to stadiums.
Levine, the Yankees president, suggested the city was getting a
good deal because there wasn't direct taxpayer funding.

But Kucinich argued that "federal taxpayers are deprived of
hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues" in deals like
this one which are funded by tax-free bonds.

"In our hearings, we have shown that the practice of providing
taxpayer subsidies to the building of sports stadiums is a transfer
of wealth from the many taxpayers to the few wealthy owners," he
said. "The new Yankee Stadium is no exception to the rule."

He also complained that New York City has cited executive
privilege on 70 percent of the remaining responsive documents
sought by the subcommittee. Kucinich said he would continue to
press for those documents. Last week, in a letter to Mayor Michael
Bloomberg, he said that city officials could be guilty of perjury
if they deliberately inflated the value of the land to the Internal
Revenue Service.

Other panel members had different takes on the controversy. Rep.
Chris Cannon, R-Utah, expressed concerns that the accusations of
wrongdoing were "demonizing the city of New York," while Rep.
Elijah Cummings, D-Md., declared that "the federal government was
simply taken to the bank."