Mayor Eric Adams, Fined For Rats on His Property, Takes on City Hall

They say you can’t fight City Hall. But what if you are City Hall?

For Mayor Eric Adams, the question is not theoretical. On Tuesday, he found himself in a virtual court hearing, engaged in a detested ritual of New York City life: contesting a summons.

That the summons was about the infestation of rats at a property he owns in Brooklyn only made the situation easier to relate to.

So shortly after hosting a news conference to introduce his new first deputy mayor and chief of staff, Mr. Adams dialed into a city administrative court to contest the decision by a city health inspector to fine him $300 for allowing rodents to overrun a property he owns in Brooklyn.

He began by telling the hearing officer — technically an employee of the city and thus, of Mayor Adams — that he was something of an expert about fighting rats, giving a brief description of his efforts as mayor to fight the rat horde.

And as a landlord, he asserted that he spent nearly $7,000 in March battling rats at the property, on Lafayette Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, promising to email an invoice to prove it. He said that he had even deployed the infamous “Rat Trap” he once showcased as Brooklyn borough president, a grisly demonstration that involved ladling drowned rats out of a vat.

Finally, as a citizen, he noted how city laws were “designed to penalize homeowners for failing to take steps to prevent and control rodents.”

“I took those steps,” he added, “and will continue to do so.”

The hearing officer said he would consider the evidence and render a verdict within 30 days.

But Mr. Adams’s tangles with the Rattus norvegicus precede his mayoralty. During his run for mayor, he told The New York Post that his childhood home was so overrun by rats that he and his siblings decided to keep one as a pet.

Mr. Adams even worked as a transit police officer, a breed of officers once known colloquially as “tunnel rats.” And then, of course, there was the public demonstration of the new rat-killing technology he said he has since deployed at his own home.

Now, during his first year as mayor, Mr. Adams has made rats, and their eradication, a central element of his policy agenda. Last week, he announced the creation of a new job, “director of rodent mitigation,” a City Hall-based position that the job posting said will be filled by someone with the “stamina and stagecraft” to kill a lot of rats.

But on Tuesday, his rat concerns were more parochial. On May 10, at 3:03 p.m., a health inspector issued a summons to Mr. Adams for violating the health code at the Lafayette Avenue property. In describing the violation, she wrote, “Active rat signs exist in that fresh rat droppings were observed near the meters and near the neighboring staircase at front right.” The minimum penalty: $300. The maximum: $600.

Mr. Adams chose to fight City Hall in a manner not suggested for non-mayors. First he failed to respond to the summons, and then he failed to appear at the hearing scheduled for that summons.

The Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, the tribunal that adjudicates such matters and is known as OATH, found Mr. Adams in violation of the summons by default.

New Yorkers can contest such findings by filing an online form that OATH rules say is a motion to vacate default judgments. Instead of using a private lawyer, Mr. Adams did one better: He had Rahul Agarwal, a deputy chief counsel in the mayor’s office, handle the matter. Mr. Agarwal filed a motion to vacate on the mayor’s behalf on Sept. 8, according to an OATH official and a copy of the motion acquired by The Times.

In the motion, Mr. Agarwal says Mr. Adams first learned about the summons on Sept. 1, because he now lives in Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence on the Upper East Side.

After the motion was granted, a new hearing was scheduled for Nov. 10. Mr. Adams was again a no-show.

Mr. Agarwal stepped in again.

“I am actually not appearing officially on his behalf,” Mr. Agarwal said during that technically public hearing, which was conducted by phone and to which the hearings office gave The Times dial-in information. “But I am appearing simply to request an adjournment because he is unable, due to scheduling issues, to make today’s hearing.”

Mr. Adams said that he used a particular rat trap device, which he spotlighted in 2019 as Brooklyn borough president, at his own property.Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

Fabien Levy, the mayor’s spokesman, said once Mr. Adams learned of the summons, his busy schedule prevented him from handling it himself. He declined to comment on the use of a City Hall ‌lawyer in the proceedings, except to say that the mayor had always intended to represent himself.”

“Mayor Adams has made no secret of the fact that he hates rats — whether scurrying around on the streets or terrorizing building tenants,” Mr. Levy said. “He spent thousands of dollars to remediate an infestation at his residence in Brooklyn earlier this year, and was happy to appear before OATH today to state as much.”

OATH adjudicates a broad range of cases, including those involving employee discipline and agency summonses. The office could specify no particular protocol when it comes to handling summonses issued to City Hall officials, but described itself as a wholly independent entity, even though Mr. Adams in March appointed Asim Rehman as OATH commissioner and its chief administrative law judge. The hearing officer who presided over the mayor’s case has only limited civil service protection.

“OATH hearing officers are professional, independent decision makers who do not take into consideration who the person named on the summons is, when issuing a decision in a case that comes before them,” said Marisa L. Senigo, the office’s deputy commissioner for public affairs.

The Lafayette Avenue property owned by Mr. Adams drew attention during the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary. As questions about Mr. Adams’s primary residence grew intense, he offered reporters a guided tour of the building’s basement apartment, asserting that it was his primary residence.

On a rainy late Tuesday afternoon, the building appeared free of rats, but an adjoining property had bags of trash piled up against a stairwell. The neighborhood, however, seemed well acquainted with rodents: The local councilman, Chi Ossé, took office in part on a campaign promise to “talk about rats.”

Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.

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