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Furor as London mayor calls U.S. envoy 'crook'

The U.S. ambassador to Britain has balked at paying London’s $14 daily toll on cars in the city center, prompting London’s outspoken mayor to say on Monday he was behaving “like some chiseling little crook.”
/ Source: Reuters

London’s rambunctious mayor, already fighting suspension for comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard, landed in fresh hot water on Tuesday for likening the U.S. ambassador to a “chiseling little crook.”

Mayor Ken Livingstone has been quarrelling with the U.S. embassy since last year, when it announced it would not pay the “congestion charge” fee imposed on cars entering the city center.

The embassy says the charge is a tax and that diplomats are immune under treaty. Livingstone says the charge, one of his flagship policies, is a road toll which diplomats have to pay.

“It would actually be quite nice if the American ambassador in Britain could pay the charge like everybody else and not skive out of it like some chiseling little crook,” the mayor told a television reporter.

Big mouth lands mayor in trouble
Livingstone’s pugnacious streak has helped make him one of Britain’s most popular politicians, but his big mouth has lately landed him into big trouble.

The Standards Board for England, a little known body that hears complaints against local government, ordered him suspended for four weeks last month after he compared a Jewish reporter to a “concentration camp guard” and a “German war criminal.”

The suspension, due this month, was postponed pending an appeal.

Since then, he has already angered Jewish groups again by saying two Indian-born Jewish billionaire property developers should “go back to Iran and try their luck with the Ayatollahs.”

Bob Neill, leader of the opposition Conservative Party’s group in the Greater London Assembly said the remarks about the U.S. ambassador proved the mayor is “an embarrassment.”

“This is the latest in a long line of offensive, offhand and irrational remarks,” he said in a statement. “Livingstone needs to show respect for the office he holds.”

'Habit of exaggerating'
As for the dispute over the charge, embassy spokesman Rick Roberts said the U.S. State Department considers it settled: it won’t pay.

“It’s been thoroughly reviewed by our lawyers in the United States,” he said. “It’s not just the United States. We weren’t even first to object to this tax -- other missions refused to pay it before us.

“We pay tolls. We pay parking fines. When I take the bridge to Wales I pay the bridge toll. But this is a tax.”

Livingstone has blamed the U.S. decision not to pay the charge on the arrival of a new ambassador, Richard Tuttle, a millionaire car dealership owner, Republican fund raiser and Bush family friend.

But embassy spokesman Roberts said the decision to stop paying was taken before Tuttle arrived last July.

“That’s completely wrong. And the mayor knows better. He knows that this was put into effect on July 1 last year and the new ambassador wasn’t even sworn in until July 14,” he said.

“The mayor has a habit of exaggerating a little in his remarks.”