Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca angrily declared yesterday that Interior Secretary Donald Hodel's abrupt decision to remove him from a commission directing the renovation of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island "borders on the un-American."
Iacocca said he will remain as head of a separate private foundation that has raised more than $233 million for the restoration, and he vowed to battle what he called an administration-backed proposal to "commercialize" Ellis Island with a hotel and convention center. The development would be subsidized by historic-preservation tax credits, which Iacocca criticized as "the sale of tax shelters to the rich."
"That's not part of the deal we made with the American people," Iacocca said. "I said early on, 'over my dead body.' So now I'm dead."
Hodel announced Iacocca's firing at a hastily called news conference Wednesday, saying that he had acted to prevent "potential conflicts of interest" between Iacocca's dual role as chairman of the private foundation and of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission. The foundation's role is to raise money, and the commission is to advise the Interior Department on how to spend the money.
Yesterday, in a Detroit news conference originally scheduled to discuss Chrysler's fiscal fortunes, Iacocca dismissed both Hodel's argument and reports that the firing was politically motivated or stemmed from his well-known differences with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan.
"I'll be charitable," he said. "If it is just politics -- well, boys will be boys."
In California, White House spokesman Larry Speakes also denied that Regan had anything to do with the dismissal. "Regan was in Florida and didn't know anything about it," he said.
Iacocca also denied that he intended to use the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration next year as a staging ground for his political ambitions, a possibility that administration officials said was of concern to Vice President Bush.
"I'm not running for anything but my life," Iacocca said.
A Bush spokesman said the vice president's office phoned Iacocca yesterday to tell him "we had nothing to do with it." The spokesman declined to comment on whether Bush approved of the firing.
The "cruncher" that led to the dismissal, according to Iacocca, was his opposition to the administration's plan to "privatize" more than two-thirds of Ellis Island under a proposal that calls for a luxury hotel and convention facilities cheek-by-jowl with the historic New York landing spot where millions of immigrants, including Iacocca's Italian parents, flocked to American shores.
Iacocca said he would "do everything in my power" as foundation chairman to fight the proposal. "I am not about to meekly surrender some $250 million to $300 million to the National Park Service to do with as it will," he said. "We will only get to redo Ellis Island and the statue one time in our history, and we must do it right."
A senior park official confirmed yesterday that the park service favored an "adaptive use" proposal that would involve a convention center and hotel on the 23-acre island.
Later, the same official revised his comments to deny that a hotel was under consideration for Ellis Island. The hotel proposal "was an old one," he said, and had been revised to focus on a "conference center" that would be built in an old hospital building.
He said the park service wanted to restrict restoration of the immigrant facilities to the largest of more than two dozen buildings, the "Grand Hall" where immigrants awaited word on whether they would be allowed entry into the United States.
"Our position has been that restoration of the principal building to illustrate the story of Ellis Island is sufficient," the official said. "If we had our way, we'd just let the rest of the buildings fizzle."
According to the park service, however, Iacocca has a similarly grand commercial scheme in mind for Ellis Island -- an "ethnic village" patterned after Colonial Williamsburg. "An ethnic Disneyland, we call it," the official said.
The conflict wasn't the first between Iacocca and park service officials. They also opposed the foundation's use of the statue's torch in promotional campaigns and the sale of commercial merchandise -- from T-shirts to glassware -- featuring the famous harbor monument.
"The park service is very happy today," the official said. "Maybe now the Statue of Liberty can be returned to the American people."
Iacocca referred to the Ellis Island controversy as a "four-year running battle" with the park service. Nonetheless, the hotel proposal apparently came as a surprise to other Interior officials.
"We were surprised to learn that they [park service officials] were so euphoric over the dismissal," said one senior department official. "I guess I can understand his outrage."
Outrage poured from other quarters as well. Chrysler officials said telephone lines at the company's Highland Park, Mich., headquarters were jammed with calls protesting Iacocca's firing.
"We can't answer the business calls because the lines are jammed up," spokesman John Guiniven said. "They've been ringing off the hook since 7:30 this morning."
Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) called the firing "unwarranted and crude" and said he would seek to block the park service's plans through legislation. Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) said it was "unbelievable that the White House would fire Lee Iacocca after he's raised almost $250 million to save the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island."
But Armen G. Avedisian, the Wisconsin banker Hodel named Wednesday to succeed Iacocca as head of the advisory commission, said he did not expect the change to disrupt the panel's work.
Avedisian and former Interior undersecretary J.J. Simmons III also served on both the advisory commission and the foundation, but relinquished their foundation posts last week after the foundation's lawyer, purportedly at Iacocca's direction, told them in a telegram that they could be members of only one panel.
Iacocca has denied having anything to do with the telegram. He also said he would have resigned from the foundation had Hodel offered him the same choice.
"He said I must resign from the commission, period," Iacocca said.