It Has Taken Months, But City DOI Finally Nabs a City Employee for Placard Abuse

The root of all evil?
The root of all evil?

We got … ONE!

The city’s Department of Investigation today hyped the arraignment of a high-level city employee for using a fake placard — one of roughly, um, one city employees criminally busted for doing what many city employees and residents do every day: park illegally with a fake placard.

Vivian Louie, a $148,000-a-year assistant commissioner at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, was arraigned on charges of possessing the fraudulent placard — a felony that could send her up the river for seven years — plus driving with a suspended license, a misdemeanor, Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. announced jointly on Wednesday.

The arraignment stems from a March 6 investigation and arrest of Louie, which started when DOI received an anonymous tip from HPD’s disciplinary director about the alleged fake placard in the window of Louie’s 1998 Rav4. That tip came in a day earlier, DOI told Streetsblog.

The DOI press release reads like a Streetsblog-published pulp crime novel:

On March 6, 2020, at approximately 5:10 p.m., a DOI investigator spotted Louie’s car in a metered space in front of 8 Spruce St. in Manhattan — and the fraudulent parking placard was right there in the window, the DOI said. The placard appeared to a photocopy of an original DOT-issued placard, but it lacked the supercool holographic emblem that appears on genuinely issued placards, according to the criminal complaint.

When questioned, Louie told the DOI investigator that the placard was fake, the court papers say. Then, the DOI investigator ran Louie’s driving record and found that her license had been suspended for “failure to answer a summons” and had not been reinstated. She was arrested, but not arraigned until Wednesday, a DOI spokesperson said, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The class D felony for using a fake placard carries a maximum punishment of seven years in prison. The misdemeanor for driving without a valid license would only earn Louie a max of 30 days and a fine or both. Louie, who has been with HPD since 2007, pleaded not guilty and is due back in court on Jan. 7, 2021. (Louie’s lawyer, Jeff Chabrowe, said early on Wednesday that he would call us back, pending a longer discussion with his client. He did express initial surprise that Louie was charged with such a serious felony.)

“DOI is committed to investigating abuses of parking placards and holding public officials accountable for attempting to manipulate a system that is meant to assist city employees in their service to the public,” Garnett said in a statement.

But the statement did not point out that the Department of Investigation has done virtually nothing to crack down on the hundreds, if not thousands, of fake placards that are floating around the city, and even less to crack down on illegal parking by city employees, with or without city-issued placards.

In fact, Louie’s arrest is extremely uncommon. The DOI did arrest eight people last year for using placards that had been fabricated to appear to be legitimately issued by the City Law Department, the DOT, and the New York Blood Center, but none was a city employee.

People who spend their lives monitoring the misuse of city-issued placards mocked the DOI openly yesterday.

“Since [those arrests last year], we quickly came to believe that it was nothing more than another fake crackdown on placard corruption,” said the keeper of the Placard Abuse Twitter account, who requires anonymity because of prior harassment by the NYPD in 2017. “There has been no observable reduction in rampant illegal parking with misused or thoroughly bogus placards, even in the neighborhood surrounding Commissioner Garnett’s own office [on Maiden Lane]. Now that we know her agency investigated one perp in the nine months following [the June, 2019 arrests], it looks like DOI has made the tiniest token effort to pretend they addressed the corruption all around us.”

The Placard Abuse account is constantly sending DOI information and photographs demonstrating daily placard corruption. “If this is all they have done, it’s just an attempt to distract from the fact they did not do their job,” the keeper of the account added.

Currently, it appears that no other city agency cares about placard abuse, either. The de Blasio administration has cut funding from both the NYPD and the DOT’s placard fighting teams, citing both COVID-era budget constraints and a new high-tech system that will roll out next year. And in August, a Streetsblog analysis showed that NYPD officers issued just 33 summonses for placard misuse between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. DOT enforcement officers issued zero such summonses.

“We’ve had to make a lot of tough cuts,” Mayor de Blasio told NY1 on Sept. 14. “We couldn’t focus on placard abuse.”

A City Council law that passed last year required the NYPD to “evaluate at least 50 sites a week for a period of six months for illegal [placard] parking.” The same law required that, “By Sept. 30, 2020, DOI would conduct an investigation and publish a report on the issuance of parking permits and enforcement of parking laws, including an analysis of the information submitted by NYPD.”

We asked DOI if that report will indeed be issued today. We will update this story if we hear back. Meanwhile, HPD issued us the following statement: “HPD referred the case to DOI and has been cooperating with the agency. We take placard abuse seriously and hold our employees to a high standard of conduct.” The agency also added that Louie remains employed with the agency because the allegations don’t relate to any misconduct directly linked to her job. We were dissatisfied with that answer — illegal use of a city parking privilege would definitely connect to a high-level official’s actual work — and HPD on Thursday revealed that it is doing its own in-house investigation of the allegations against Louie. 

Clarification: The original version of this story got the dates wrong. Louie was arraigned, not arrested, today, Sept. 30.