Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday that an investigation by the state attorney general into the finances of a $100 million Islamic community center and mosque planned near ground zero would set "a terrible precedent."
"You don't want them investigating donations to religious organizations, and there's no reason for the government to do so," Bloomberg said.
A Quinnipiac University poll shows 71 percent of New Yorkers want state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate sources of funding for the Islamic center project in lower Manhattan, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. Cuomo, a Democrat running for governor, has promised to investigate if concerns over the financing are found.
Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, said he would not comment on recent reports saying the imam who is the spiritual leader of the project faces complaints from tenants at his properties in New Jersey, where he maintains apartment buildings.
"I don't know anything about his personal life," the mayor said. "The issue here, to me, is very simple: The government shouldn't be in the business of telling people who they pray to, where they pray, when they pray, what they say."
A Bergen County newspaper reported Sunday that Rauf got more than $2 million in public financing to renovate low-income apartments and has been beset for years by tenant complaints and financial problems.
The Record said it examined municipal health records and found complaints ranging from failure to pick up garbage to rat and bedbug infestations in buildings Rauf owns in North Bergen, Palisades Park and Union City.
Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, told the newspaper that her husband invests in real estate but his business dealings in New Jersey have "no relevance" to the Islamic center project.
Bloomberg on Tuesday also played down the fact that the developers of the building where the center would be established owe more than $225,000 in back taxes on the property.
"They're going to be treated like everybody else," he said. "We enforce the law against everybody, or we protect everybody. And if they owe money, they should pay it. And if they don't, they don't."
The developers have said they are negotiating with the city to pay back the taxes.
Opponents of the Islamic center, which could include a swimming pool and a Sept. 11 memorial, have seized on the question of the project's funding, raising concerns the money will come from overseas extremists or anti-American sources. They also argue it's insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican who's the ranking minority leader of the Homeland Security Committee, said on Tuesday that he disagreed with the mayor. He said the question of financing is fundamental to assessing the Islamic center project's backers.
"A number of terror plots have emanated from mosques," he said, citing as one example the 1993 truck-bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.
Arrests of conspirators in the attack led the FBI to a mosque in Jersey City, N.J., where core members involved in the plot worshipped and where blind Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman sometimes led prayers. Rahman later was convicted in the bombing.
King said he would call for churches or synagogues to undergo the same kind of scrutiny of their finances if there was evidence that terrorist plots were originating from them.
Developers of the Islamic center have pledged to hire security consultants to review potential contributors. A spokesman for the developers didn't immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment Tuesday.
It is common for the finances of religious groups to come under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement or government agencies that protect consumers against fraud.
Religious nonprofits operate under a complex system of IRS rules on compensation, spending and governance. The IRS can revoke the nonprofit status of any group found to be violating the regulations.
Muslim charities have come under especially intense scrutiny under U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Federal prosecutors have brought cases against several American-based Muslim nonprofits, and in a separate case last year they seized U.S. mosques whose property is owned by a foundation federal officials say is secretly controlled by the Iranian government.