By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Published: June 30, 2007
A state judge has questioned the independence of a state agency that is working with Columbia University to determine whether to condemn private property so that the university can expand.
The judge, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of State Supreme Court, found that otherwise confidential documents should be available to certain critics of Columbia’s expansion plans because of the appearance of collusion between the state and Columbia.
The main issue was the state’s hiring last year of a consultant, Allee King Rosen & Fleming Inc., or A.K.R.F., that was already working on the expansion project for Columbia, the judge noted.
In a ruling dated June 27 but released yesterday, Justice Kornreich ordered the state agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, to release 117 documents, including legal bills, memos, handwritten notes and e-mail messages to the West Harlem Business Group, a group of property owners who are resisting Columbia’s expansion.
A.K.R.F. is the state’s lead consultant on what is called a neighborhood condition study. The study is being done to determine whether the state would be justified in using its power of eminent domain to condemn property sought by Columbia for its expansion.
Justice Kornreich said in her decision, “A.K.R.F., presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor.”
Norman Siegel, a lawyer for some of the property owners, said the ruling could “lift the veil of secrecy” surrounding Columbia’s plans. He said the part of the ruling that questioned the state’s neutrality could pave the way for a challenge to a use of eminent domain in this case.
“The easiest way to put it is you can’t serve two masters, and that’s what’s going on here,” Mr. Siegel said. “The government has the power to condemn my clients’ property. But the process should be neutral and objective, and when you find out the government has retained Columbia’s consultant, it can’t be neutral anymore. It’s biased.”
Robert Hornsby, a spokesman for Columbia, said, “We weren’t involved at all with E.S.D.C.’s independent decision to hire outside consultants.” He declined to comment further on the ruling, saying he had not yet read it.
Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corporation, said yesterday: “We disagree strongly with this opinion. We provided voluminous information that we believe met the law.”
Phone calls yesterday evening to A.K.R.F. officials were not returned.
In order for a consultant to fall under the exemption from public disclosure given to government agencies, the judge said, the consultant must “not represent an interest of its own, or the interest of any other client, when it advises the agency.”
She said A.K.R.F. “lacks sufficient neutrality” for its communications with Empire State Development to be confidential under the law.
Only one of the 117 documents that the judge ordered released concerns the consultants. None have been released yet, and state officials indicated that they might appeal, effectively staying their release.