But this wasn’t just any motorist. Officer Michele Hernandez had pulled over City Councilwoman Vanessa L. Gibson, chair of the public safety committee.
While her car was stopped, Gibson called Kevin Catalina, the commanding officer of the 44th Precinct, who was at home at the time of the incident. Catalina instructed the desk officer at the precinct to tell Hernandez not to issue a ticket, Gibson said.
When Hernandez returned to Gibson’s car, the councilwoman handed the officer her cellphone. Catalina — who was later promoted to deputy chief — was on the line.
“The deputy chief told the police officer that I was head of the Public Safety Committee and asked the police officer to admonish me instead of issuing a summons,” Gibson acknowledged in a settlement announced Thursday by the Conflicts of Interest Board.
Gibson agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for the March 11, 2014, incident and admitted to violating a section of the City Charter that forbids elected officials from using their positions for personal advantage.
In its ruling, the board said Gibson is “an elected official who should be held to a high level of compliance” with the conflicts law and that her behavior “could create the impression that high-level city officials receive preferential treatment from law enforcement.”
In her statement to the conflicts board, Gibson denied that she was talking on her phone while driving. She said that she “did not explicitly” ask Catalina to have the summons removed.
But Gibson drove off with an admonishment from Hernandez instead of the summons.
Gibson’s traffic stop first came to light when Hernandez filed a since-dismissed lawsuit against the city and the Police Department for forcing her to participate in “illegal ‘performance goals’ mandating increasing numbers of arrests, summonses and stop-and-frisks to the detriment of citizens of color.”
When she refused, Hernandez says, she faced retaliation, including being repeatedly transferred and assigned unfavorable shifts and assignments.
After pulling Gibson over, Hernandez says she received numerous messages over the radio to call in to her commanding officers.
When Gibson handed her the phone, Catalina told her: “Please don’t write the summons because she meets with the mayor and police commissioner monthly in her role with the Public Safety Committee,” according to the lawsuit.
Even though the ticket was later voided, Hernandez says she kept a copy “because she knew it was wrong,” the lawsuit says.
In a statement, Gibson said she should not have challenged the ticket.
“I should have accepted a ticket if one was issued, and then contested it through the appropriate legal channels. I apologize to our community for my actions, accept full responsibility for my conduct, and will abide by COIB’s ruling,” Gibson said.
Eric Sanders, who was Hernandez’s attorney, said that by saying she did not “explicitly” ask for the ticket to be dismissed, Gibson was shirking responsibility for her actions.
“Every once in a while the truth come out,” Sanders said in an interview, “but this is not the real truth.”
Betsy Gotbaum, the executive director of Citizens Union, a good-government group, said the councilwoman’s call to Catalina raised concerns.
“Why did she call him?” Gotbaum asked. “That’s my question.”
The Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday about whether anyone was punished for voiding the ticket. A spokeswoman said only that Catalina was “retired from the NYPD.” He is now an undersheriff in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.
Jennifer Fermino, a spokeswoman for Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council, declined to comment on whether Gibson would face further disciplinary action.
Sanders said that the ruling and fine will only deter future whistleblowers.“This says you can abuse your authority and there will be no repercussions,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .