June 15, 2004
By DAVID SALTONSTALL DAILY NEWS CITY HALL BUREAU CHIEF
It was one of the most racially divisive chapters in city history - an eight-month boycott of Korean grocers by black patrons in Brooklyn - and Laura Blackburne was right in the middle of the controversy.
To those who know the politically connected Blackburne, it's no surprise she was at the center of the storm.
At several points in her career, Blackburne - a Columbus, Ohio, native who came to New York to pursue a career in dancing - has shocked the sensibilities of a city.
The most recent flashpoint was over her decision last week to let a wanted criminal run free from her Queens courtroom - after learning that police were waiting nearby to arrest the violent felon on a separate warrant.
In 2002, Blackburne dismissed charges against William Hodges, 32, accused of shooting rookie cop David Gonzalez. Blackburne said Hodges had been denied his right to a speedy trial and set him free. A few months later, Hodges was arrested again - this time for biting a cop.
But biting apparently is not a crime to Blackburne. In November 1998, she found that defendant Alvina Toombs was "more than justified" when she bit Officer Wayne Brooks on the thumb because of Brooks' "brutality."
That's just her career as a jurist.
Before that, Blackburne was head of the city Housing Authority, an appointment that can be traced to the boycott of Korean grocers in Flatbush in 1991.
The boycott - featuring frequent racial epithets hurled at Korean shop owners - seemed to provide a stark counterpoint to former Mayor David Dinkins' promise of New York as a "gorgeous mosaic."
Dinkins tapped Blackburne, then a little-known mediator, to co-chair a committee reviewing his handling of the boycott and - to the astonishment of many - she found the fracas had nothing to do with racism.
"It was ludicrous," City Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens), a former prosecutor, said yesterday. "She was the only person in New York to find no racial animus behind the boycott."
Blackburne said Dinkins had acted flawlessly, and instead blamed Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes for failing to "vigorously" prosecute a Korean grocer.
A few weeks later, Blackburne got her reward: Dinkins named her to head the Housing Authority, despite her lack of any housing background.
It would not last. Seventeen months later, Blackburne was booted from her post for spending $340,000 in taxpayer dollars to redecorate her office - complete with a pink leather sofa worth $3,000.
She also took Housing Authority money to set up a nonprofit for the sole purpose of covering her $3,100 in travel expenses to South Africa, investigators found.
Despite her woes, Blackburne does have strong political ties: Husband Elmer Blackburne, a former Democratic district leader in vote-rich southeast Queens, is close to Queens Dem boss Tom Manton.
With her political fortunes bottoming out, it appears that Blackburne's career ambition may never be realized: "My secret desire," she once confessed, "is to someday be the mayor of New York."