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He Said and She Said, but not really

Fallout from Photogate seemed everywhere today.

Newsday's Dan Janison reports how Fields fired her top consultant Joe Mercurio and he went public Friday claiming that her top staff had seen, approved and insisted the famous flier be printed and used. If Mercurio is correct, then it raises questions on the veracity of Fields herself and the judgment of her top staff, both at the campaign and at the Borough President's office. If Astoria Graphics had actually done the printing, then why was the contract with Winning Directions canceled?

The New York Times said Fields' campaing was in "turmoil" (as opposed to Newsday's characterization as "flailing") and that Mercurio made the additional claim that it was Fields Campaign Manager, Chung Seto, who had written a statement ascribing the blame to Winning Directions (a direct mail outfit) whereas the firm never actually apologized. Why would they if they were not responsible for the printing?

Meanwhile, the New York Post says that Fields knew the flier was doctored in advance, contradicting her disavowal.

In a separate Editorial, the Post says the Democratic infighting will guarantee a Bloomberg re-election.

For these and other stories, click below.

New doctored photo revelations hit floundering Fields campaign
by Dan Janison
July 9, 2005

Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields' flailing mayoral effort suffered a new blow Friday as a key consultant she'd just fired went public with a suggestion that Fields and top aides approved the use of a doctored photo in a campaign flier.

The flier featured a photo of Fields surrounded by people presumed to be political supporters -- though not all of them were. The images of two unidentified Asian-Americans were added into the picture, apparently for diversity's sake.

After Fields, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, announced Friday that her campaign "terminated" consultant Joseph Mercurio over "strategic differences," Mercurio gave a detailed account in an interview of how the flier and the photo came to be.

In it, Mercurio said he had opposed the photo's use, not because of the addition of Asian faces from stock, but because it wasn't a good use of campaign cash.

Different versions of the flier, with some showing whites and others showing Asians, went to Fields' chief of staff, her deputy borough president, her campaign treasurer and Fields herself, Mercurio said.

At a later point, he described how campaign manager Chung Seto and treasurer Milton Wilson explicitly insisted to him that a printing outfit other than the company Winning Directions be allowed to use the image. That was arranged, he said.

Winning Directions was blamed by Fields for the fiasco and dismissed, but not the other company, which Mercurio identified as Astoria Graphics. That company has not made any comments.

Fields later issued a statement asserting on the one hand that "his characterization of events is false," but saying at the same time she "would not dignify any of his accusations with a response."

The flap is expected to haunt Fields on the campaign trail a bit more, as damage to her rival Fernando Ferrer from his controversial statement to a police group about the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo appears to abate. That preceded a shake-up in Ferrer's campaign.

Fields Fires an Adviser. He Fires Back
by Patrick D. Healy and Randal C. Archibold
NY Times
July 9, 2005

The mayoral campaign of C. Virginia Fields slid into turmoil yesterday as she fired her senior adviser, who in turn accused her of misleading the public about what she knew of campaign fliers whose pictures had been doctored to suggest an ethnically diverse group of supporters.

The adviser, Joseph C. Mercurio, who had largely run the Fields campaign until yesterday, took the unusual step of going public with withering criticism of Ms. Fields and her other top aides. He said he was doing so because the campaign was using him as a scapegoat for recent fumbles that may damage Ms. Fields, a leading Democratic candidate and current Manhattan borough president.

The doctored photograph used a stock image of two Asian-Americans and other cut-and-paste images of her supporters to suggest that Ms. Fields drew ethnically diverse voters to a single event. It was included in a recently distributed campaign flier.

No less at issue is the image of Ms. Fields's candidacy itself, as she struggles to stabilize her campaign nearly two months before Primary Day and prevent Mr. Mercurio's accusations from tainting her reputation and raising questions about her judgment.

Ms. Fields, the only black candidate in the race, blamed Mr. Mercurio for the doctored flier, saying in an interview that he had been in charge of producing campaign materials and that the stock photos had been used without her knowledge.

"I found that to be something totally unacceptable, and I wanted to know, 'How did this come about?' " Ms. Fields said after arriving in Birmingham, Ala., where she grew up, for a fund-raiser last night. "Joe was a strategic adviser on a number of issues related to matters of that and so forth."

Yet a far different story emerged yesterday from Mr. Mercurio, a veteran political consultant whose company earned $144,500 in fees from the Fields campaign through the end of April, and who had been Ms. Fields's all-purpose aide for months when she had no campaign staff, even chauffeuring her to some events.

According to Mr. Mercurio, Ms. Fields and her top aides were well aware that the fabricated image was used in the flier, which, he added, was printed in spite of his objections. He said he viewed the flier as a waste of campaign money, but he described Ms. Fields and other top aides as determined to produce an image of the diverse base of voters that is crucial to winning the Democratic mayoral nomination this fall.

The flier shows blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans surrounding Ms. Fields; their faces were cut and pasted around the candidate's. Some of those people say they have not endorsed Ms. Fields, and the candidate said she does not know the two Asian-Americans in the picture.

Mr. Mercurio said, "There was a request from the candidate and the campaign to have more diversity in the piece, to be conscious of the various communities she wants as part of an inclusive campaign. It was clearly not a photo that was intended to be used in the final analysis."

Mr. Mercurio said several photos, including the stock images, were vetted by Ms. Fields; her new campaign manager, Chung C. Seto; the deputy borough president, Barbara Baer; and her campaign treasurer, Milton Wilson. Ultimately, Mr. Mercurio said, the image was used because the campaign staff rushed the flier into production before the Gay Pride Parade on June 26 and sought to save money by using a local printer, Astoria Graphics.

"They were desperate; the candidate was screaming for the piece," Mr. Mercurio said. "Everyone had seen all versions of it. But I said no, I didn't want it printed, because I was trying to put money into the mail piece that was being done. They printed it anyway."

As Ms. Fields arrived at a fund-raiser last night at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, she projected an air of calm, greeting family members and touring exhibits with Mayor Bernard Kincaid.

She said she refused to "engage in a back and forth" with Mr. Mercurio.

Pressed on whose account was true, Ms. Fields said of Mr. Mercurio's comments, "The characterization of it is certainly not true but I will not go into specifics with respect to any internal conversations or matters of the campaign."

The decision to fire him, she said, had been hers. "It was mine to make and I did it," she said.

Ms. Fields sought to cast Mr. Mercurio's departure as not unusual for campaigns: "One would like to have consistency throughout from the time that you start to the time that you end, but changes often take place." And she rejected the notion the campaign was on the ropes.

"The campaign is not in disarray," Ms. Fields said. "The campaign is continuing to move forward. I'm continuing to focus on the issues that I campaign about, going out talking to voters about my vision for this city.

"I talk about ways we can improve education, housing, create jobs, etc. That's the campaign and I am the candidate. So my vision for the city of New York has not changed.

"We are continuing to gain momentum and I believe that is the important part," she said.

Several analysts said they were surprised by the Fields-Mercurio split, and that it was too soon to assess the damage of the acrimony to her candidacy.

"Joe is a respected professional, but it is rare that a consultant to a team would turn on their principal," said George Arzt, a political strategist who has worked for Ms. Fields in the past but is not affiliated with a mayoral campaign this year.

"I think changing people in midstream is generally an insider game, but to some extent it shows money people that there is an instability in the campaign," Mr. Arzt added. "It would temporarily hurt there, but if she can rebound in a way that Freddy Ferrer has rebounded, there would be no permanent damage by September."

Perhaps the sharpest inconsistency in the stories of Ms. Fields and Mr. Mercurio is over the way the flier ended up in voters' hands.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Ms. Fields read a statement from a California-based company, Winning Directions, which appeared to take responsibility for the photo and called it a "graphic representation." Ms. Fields told reporters that she had accepted the company's admission of "their grave mistake."

Executives at Winning Directions did not return phone calls and an e-mail message yesterday. But an executive with Astoria Graphics confirmed at least part of Mr. Mercurio's account in an interview yesterday, and raised questions about the Fields campaign's statement.

Astoria's senior vice president, Alan Handell, who has worked with Mr. Mercurio in the past, said the campaign staff had provided the fabricated image to him and had asked for 50,000 fliers in time for the Gay Pride Parade. The order was dated June 21, and the fliers were shipped on June 24 at a cost of $5,000, he said.

"We still have some of the fliers - I guess they're no good anymore," Mr. Handell said.

Mr. Handell said he did not know who had created the image. Mr. Mercurio, who initially defended the image this week as a collage, and campaign aides said versions of the image had been developed with Winning Directions this spring.

But Mr. Mercurio said the image was provided to Astoria Graphics by Ms. Seto, the campaign manager, and emphasized that she, Ms. Fields, and other aides were aware that the photo was a composite. Mr. Mercurio also asserted that Winning Directions never actually apologized; instead, he charged, Ms. Seto wrote a statement that ascribed an apology to them, apparently to protect the Fields campaign from damage.

"I think this was handled badly by Chung Seto, and if I were the candidate, I would fire her," Mr. Mercurio said.

Ms. Seto declined to comment on Mr. Mercurio's attacks last night, but said she wanted to correct his version of one event: She said the fabricated image was produced early this year and used in a March campaign flier that was overseen by Mr. Mercurio, well before Ms. Seto joined the campaign six weeks ago.

"This is an image he should clearly take responsibility for," Ms. Seto said.

Doctored Flier, Flying Daggers
NY Post
By Frankie Edozien and Carl Campanile
July 9, 2005

Just hours after being abruptly sacked by C. Virginia Fields over a doctored campaign photo, consultant Joe Mercurio fired back yesterday - charging that the mayoral candidate had known in advance the picture was a sham.

Mercurio told The Post Fields rejected his repeated attempts to stop the mailer from being distributed and that she and others knew that two unknown Asian-Americans' faces had been added to the original photo and white faces removed.

"Virginia saw this before it went out," Mercurio said after being axed along with the direct-mail company, Winning Directions.

"Virginia saw it from April to July in more than a dozen versions," he said. "The original versions had Anglos in the picture [instead of the Asian-Americans]. It was changed along the way."

Yesterday, Fields, on a fund-raising trip to her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., told The Post that she had "probably not" seen the flier before it was distributed to voters. In any event, she said, she had no idea the photo was a composite.

"There was a process used that was not known, and it's a process that should have been discussed and made clear, and that was not done," she said.

In a statement last night in response to Mercurio's charges, Fields said: "I am very disappointed in Joe Mercurio's unprofessional behavior. His characterization of events is false. I will not dignify any of his accusations with a response."

She announced his firing yesterday morning, saying: "I learned the photo was taken from stock footage of two people unknown to the campaign. This is totally unacceptable and does not adhere to the standards I have set for myself and my campaign."

But Mercurio said the flier had been sent to a local printer, Astoria Graphics, by Fields' campaign manager Chung Seto and treasurer Milton Wilson over his objections and that it had been ripped off from Winning Directions.

He added that Fields' entire senior campaign staff had been e-mailed copies of the flier - with the doctored photo that was intended to make Fields appear more "inclusive."

But some insiders say hostility toward Mercurio had been growing even before the flap.

"He had no friends in this office or her government office," a source said. "He was gruff and not very nice."

Last month, Fields apologized after Mercurio made a disparaging remark about Geraldine Ferraro, a Fernando Ferrer supporter and the first woman to run for U.S. vice president.

Last night, there was no word as to who would replace Mercurio.

Meanwhile, with the African-American Fields stumbling, Ferrer, the Democratic front-runner, held a strategy session Thursday with his top black supporters.

"We're revving up to go to the next level," said Brooklyn state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who attended the meeting at the office of Ferrer pollster Global Strategies.

"We talked about how to mobilize to make sure that people are excited enough to come out and vote," she said. "The concern is what percentage of the African-American and Caribbean vote we can get for Freddy."

Ferrer and supporters believe there's an opportunity for him to win the primary outright by capturing 40 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a potentially divisive runoff.

Primar(il)y for Laughs
NY Post
July 9, 2005

How sad has the circus of Democratic mayoral wannabes become? Well, one top contender's campaign is rapidly coming unglued, over a doctored photograph.

The scandal started when a flyer from Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields' campaign turned out to include a photo of ostensible supporters that had been Photoshopped to include an Asian-American couple.

Fields probably thought she'd contained the problem when she abruptly fired top strategist Joseph Mercurio.

She should be so lucky. Last night, Mercurio hit back.

Contrary to Fields' assertion that no one on her campaign had seen the flyer before it was handed out, the veteran consultant said that her chief of staff, her deputy borough president and her treasurer had seen both before and after versions of the pamphlet.

"Virginia saw this before it went out." Mercurio said. "[She] saw it from April to July in more than a dozen versions." In fact, Mercurio said, "The original versions had Anglos in the picture" instead of the Asians. "It was changed along the way."

Then it was Fields' turn: "I am very disappointed in Joe Mercurio's unprofessional behavior," she said. "His characterization of events is false. I will not dignify any of his accusations with a response."

Someone's not being straight here.

Mercurio's been around long enough so that his word carries weight - and if he's right, then the woman most polls have as the No. 2 Democrat in the primary field has a major credibility problem.

In any event, New York hasn't heard the last of this.

Still, the fact that such a relatively trivial aside can suddenly explode into a major campaign issue tells you all you need to know about the lightweight nature of the Democratic field.

One top Democrat after another is confidently predicting Mayor Bloomberg's re-election- even though they're nominally supporting one or another of his opponents.

Poll after poll shows strong Democratic support for the mayor and widespread disenchantment by Democrats with their own party's choice of candidates.

In short, this isn't exactly a Democratic field of dreams - which may be why the voters aren't coming.

Bereft of issues, unable to make a convincing case that New York is broken and needs to be fixed, the Democratic Gang of Four is reduced to sniping at each other over largely parochial diversions of little concern to the voters. Well, at least they're keeping New York entertained.

Fields' Fired Campaign Adviser Says He Never Approved Release Of Flyer
NY1 News
July 9, 2005

The former campaign adviser to mayoral hopeful C. Virginia Fields told NY1 Friday that he never encouraged the publication of the controversial campaign flyer that has since resulted in his being kicked off the campaign.

Fields announced Friday morning that she had fired her top campaign adviser Joe Mercurio, but he says Fields and her campaign manager knew about the flier before it went out.

That flap followed Wednesday's revelation that the Fields campaign sent out a campaign flyer with a doctored photo showing the candidate with people from different races. The photo was actually a collage of four separate images.

Mercurio spoke out on Friday's edition of the "Road to City Hall."

"I didn't want the piece originally printed and I didn't want it printed in the final analysis," said Mercurio. "The campaign manager Chung Seto took the low-resolution pdf of the campaign literature in its last form which was in the drawer, not intending to be use, and she sent it to a local printer to be printed."

Meanwhile, Fields is standing by her decision to fire Mercurio.

"The characterization of it is not true, but I won't go into specifics with respect to any internal conversations or matters of the campaign. It was a design that I made. It was mine to make and I did it."

The New York Times reported Thursday that a picture of Fields with a group of firefighters was in violation of Fire Department rules banning the use of firefighter images for political purposes. The photo appeared on Fields' website and in a political mailing sent out last month.

Mercurio has stirred up controversy in the campaign before. He made disparaging comments about former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, who endorsed Fields opponent Fernando Ferrer. Fields later apologized.

The borough president's campaign is the second in this year's mayor's race to undergo a shakeup. In April, Ferrer lost his media strategist and communications director.

Fields axes campaign big over pix
NY Daily News
by Maggie Haberman
July 9, 2005

Virginia Fields fired her campaign guru yesterday after an embarrassing photo flap - but the jilted strategist wasn't taking his dismissal quietly.

Fields axed Joe Mercurio and her campaign-mail company, Winning Directions, because they produced a flyer with a photo that had been doctored to include people the campaign didn't know.

"This is totally unacceptable and does not adhere to the standards I have set for myself and my campaign," Fields said in a statement.

But Mercurio, who earlier this week strongly defended using the composite photo, saying it wasn't meant to deceive people, shot back that he had always objected to printing it because it showed people who aren't backing Fields.

Mercurio said others in Fields' camp - including Fields - had seen the photo and no objections were raised. "Everybody saw it ... in every version," Mercurio said.

Fields' campaign manager Chung Seto and treasurer Milton Wilson pushed to get it out a few weeks ago, he said, and they rushed the photo into print.

"I'm willing to fall on my sword, but I'm not willing to get trashed in the newspapers while I'm doing it," he said, still insisting Fields would be a great mayor.

He laid most of the blame on Seto, even though she joined the campaign in May, months after the original flyer was drafted. He also blamed Seto for how the fallout from the original story was handled.

The messy public fray seems destined to most benefit Democratic front-runner Fernando Ferrer, insiders said.

Asked about Mercurio's claims while she was fund-raising in Birmingham, Ala., last night, Fields said his "characterization ... is certainly not true."

"I think it's very regrettable, the lack of professionalism that's been reported surrounding this, but I have no further comment about it," Fields said. "I will not engage in back and forth in terms of what he said and she said."