Operation Refusal

Giuliani’s sorry crackdown on New York City’s taxi drivers.

Rudy Giuliani

When he is not billing himself as the 9/11 candidate, Rudolph Giuliani bills himself as a law and order candidate. But when he was mayor of New York, Giuliani often acted as if law was for other people. Before he’s handed the reins to the war on terror, the mayor’s willingness to impose harsh and even illegal rules should be well understood. Giuliani’s crackdown on taxi drivers—nearly all immigrants without a political stronghold—is a case in point.

The mayor’s hostility to New York’s cabbies started after his re-election. Beginning in 1998, the city enacted new rules that increased penalties on taxi drivers for reckless driving. Some cabbies threatened a work action (cab drivers have no union, so they cannot technically strike). Giuliani and the NYPD “crushed” it, as the tabloids put it, and the mayor bragged that he had “destroyed” the strike. With Giuliani nodding at his side, NYPD Commissioner Howard Safir compared the cabbies to a “terrorist threat.”

The new rules were popular—most New Yorkers felt that taxi drivers did drive too fast. They were upheld by the courts, too, though the city was later found liable for violating the cabbies’ right to freely assemble when it blocked their planned protest. With one crackdown under his belt, Giuliani was emboldened.

In November 1999, just as Giuliani geared up his Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton, movie star Danny Glover protested publicly that city cab drivers had bypassed him and other African-Americans. Such discrimination was certainly a problem, and in fact had been against the law for years. Within a week of Glover’s charge, the mayor held a hastily planned press conference heralding “Operation Refusal”: a new crackdown on cabbies who allegedly refused service. “We will take your cab away from you,” he warned.

Announcing the plan, Giuliani praised his own political courage, predicting “screams and howls,” and boasting of how solving problems others found intractable gave him “a great deal of satisfaction.” Then he set about casting aside city procedures, taxi regulations, and the Constitution. While Giuliani assured the public, “We are perfectly entitled to do this,” his taxi commissioner began to seize cabs, suspend licenses on the spot without any hearing, and revoke the licenses of cabbies found guilty by taxi commission judges. Headlines hailed the mayor for taking on “racist cabbies.” For Giuliani, fresh from scandals involving Abner Louima and Amadou Diallou, both black victims of police brutality, it was all good politics.

But even as Giuliani was announcing the plan, his aides were drafting memos questioning the legality of the penalty scheme. This time, there were no public hearings, and the board of the taxi commission was not even consulted. Five hundred drivers had their licenses suspended. Almost 100 had their licenses revoked. Their livelihoods disappeared in a flash.

It took three years from the crackdown for a federal judge to declare the mayor’s suspensions of the cabbies’ licenses without hearings unconstitutional, in response to a lawsuit in which I represented the drivers. Finally, in 2006, the city agreed to a settlement by which it paid the cabbies it had suspended $7 million in damages. Along the way, the evidence showed that just 15 percent of the alleged refusals to pick up passengers involved race. The vast majority were based on destination.

The mayor, of course, knew better from the start, or should have known better. The taxi commission’s own studies indicated that most refusals of service were based on destination, not race. Meanwhile, for all his bluster about taking cabs, the mayor knew that the vast majority of the cabs seized were owned not by the cabbies who were doing the driving but by owners of taxi medallions. The city was careful to quickly return the cabs to those owners, a more formidable group compared to the hapless cabbies, as quickly as possible.

As the Operation Refusal lawsuit progressed, city lawyers hid critical documents, such as the taxi commission’s internal penalty guideline and the City Hall staff memos, and persistently fought demands that Giuliani answer questions. Operation Refusal was the work of underlings, they said. He was too busy, they said—never mind that he was now out of office and was making millions as a private citizen consulting and giving speeches. As a former “high public official,” the former mayor should be immune, they argued.

Finally, in 2005, after the stonewalling became too egregious to ignore, a federal magistrate judge ordered Giuliani to testify. By this time, Giuliani was gearing up for his presidential campaign. His memory of Operation Refusal was hazy, he testified in a deposition, his tone now subdued. He said he could not even recall whether the plan was his idea.

All told, Giuliani testified that he could not recall 88 separate times. It was the kind of performance the once-crusading prosecutor would have mocked and derided. Except now, he was the one giving it.