De Blasio fought for 2 years to keep the ethics warning secret. Here’s why.
When Bill de Blasio took office as mayor of New York in 2014, he called two powerful real estate developers who had active projects in the city and asked them to donate to a nonprofit he had. created to advance its political agenda.
The request for help from his nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, appeared to violate the city’s ethics law and a ban on asking for contributions from people who had unfinished business with the city. A few months after his requests, Mr de Blasio was formally warned by the city’s Conflict of Interest Council – in a previously undisclosed letter – not to repeat the behavior.
But even after that warning, the mayor continued to ask for money from well-connected donors, according to documents the city has now released after years of an extraordinary legal campaign by Blasio’s administration to keep them. secret documents.
In February 2015, the mayor called Jeffrey Levine, president of Douglaston Development, who had just obtained city approval for $ 12 million in funding for an affordable housing complex and had taken possession of a plot of city-owned land in the Bronx. .
The following month, Mr. de Blasio called David Von Spreckelsen, president of Toll Brothers, another developer. A stop-work order had recently been lifted on the developer’s hotel and condominium project in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The two then received follow-up calls from the association’s fundraiser, Ross Offinger, and each donated $ 25,000.
In April of the same year, Mr de Blasio spoke to James Capalino, a leading city lobbyist with many clients doing business with the city, to ask for his support. The campaign fundraiser made another follow-up call and Mr. Capalino donated $ 10,000.
As the mayor nears the end of his eight-year term, questions about his fundraising remain a potential political liability as he navigates a likely run for governor next year.
Mr de Blasio, a Democrat elected in 2013, has been the subject of separate federal, state and local inquiries into his methods of raising funds for the Campaign for a New York, and for a separate effort in 2014 to uproot the State Senate control of the Republicans.
Prosecutors declined to press charges against the mayor, but some of the developers who helped with the mayor’s non-profit organization were fined by the state’s Joint Public Ethics Commission for violating the rules. lobbying laws, including Douglaston and Toll Brothers.
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New details of Mr de Blasio’s donor outreach were contained in a pair of secret letters from the city’s Conflict of Interest Council to the mayor. In the first letter, dated July 2014, the board said the mayor broke ethics laws with his two developer fundraising appeals and warned him not to start over.
The second letter, sent in September 2018, found that Mr de Blasio had continued the practice and included a strong rebuke from the mayor. The letters were released this week, after the state appeals court denied a last-ditch effort by the mayor’s office to keep the documents secret.
The city had, for more than two years, fought the New York Times’ efforts to secure the board’s correspondence with the mayor, denying an initial Freedom of Information request, then battling a filed lawsuit. by the Times.
“By soliciting these three donations from companies whose cases are on hold or about to be before the executive agencies,” says the second letter, referring to the mayor’s fundraising efforts in 2018, “you Not only did you ignore repeated written advice from the board, but you also created the same appearance of coercion and inappropriate access to you and your staff that the board’s advice sought to avoid you.
He continued: “A public servant who engages in solicitations such as these, directly or through a substitute, acts in conflict with the official functions of that official, in violation” of the code of ethics of the City Charter.
The letters contained new details of the calls and identified the recipients, including Mr. Levine, Mr. Von Spreckelsen and Mr. Capalino. Donors to the mayor’s political efforts have included major unions and real estate developers, and many of them have business before the city.
Mayor’s spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a written statement that “the calls the mayor was making at the time were to support affordable housing legislation and his efforts to achieve universal kindergarten for every child. of New York City, which is now a national model.
“He has always acted in good faith and followed the process established for him,” she added. “The board closed these cases and determined that no enforcement action was necessary.”
Ms Filson also said the mayor made ‘appropriate warnings’ during his fundraising appeals, apparently referring to a statement he was required to make, telling potential donors they would not benefit or not. would not be punished if they chose to give or not to give money. The 2018 board letter, however, specifically berated the mayor for “failing to provide a disclaimer to donors.”
The Campaign for One New York, which closed in 2016, was created by Mr. de Blasio and his supporters to lobby for a universal preschool; it was then used to support his political agenda.
He raised over $ 4 million from unions, real estate developers and others, spending the money on political consultants and providing money to militant groups aligned with the mayor. In one case, the campaign spent more than $ 600,000 to establish the Progressive Agenda Committee, a liberal coalition Mr. de Blasio founded as he sought to broaden his national profile.
The city’s investigation department conducted its own investigation into the mayor’s fundraising and referred the matter to the conflict council. The mayor has hired a private law firm to defend him against the barrage of inquiries and he is said to be in debt of over $ 300,000 in legal fees.
It was not clear how much the two years of legal maneuvering by the city’s legal department to block access to letters from the Dispute Commission cost taxpayers; the city’s legal department represented the mayor in his attempts to keep letters from the conflict council secret.
The mayor’s office argued that the mayor’s warning letter should be kept secret, due to a city law that establishes that most documents in the possession of the conflict council are to be treated as confidential.
But after the letter was sent to the mayor, The Times argued that the same protection did not apply. A state appeals court agreed, saying “once the letter is sent to another entity,” the mayor’s office could no longer keep the letter a secret.
The Court of Appeal upheld this decision; the city is now required to reimburse the Times for its legal costs related to the search for the documents.
“At a time when the public wants and needs greater transparency, it is unfortunate that the mayor has spent two years keeping his own conduct a secret,” said Al-Amyn Sumar, attorney for The Times. “We are happy that the courts have understood that people have the right to know what their elected officials are doing. “
Jeffrey Friedlander, the current chairman of the conflict council, said that following the Times lawsuit, the council stopped issuing confidential letters, known as private warning letters, like those that he had sent to the mayor, and he was now reviewing the practice.
Mr Friedlander, who was appointed to the board by Mr de Blasio in 2017 and became chairman in 2020, said on Tuesday confidential letters were usually issued when the evidence in a case was unclear. This doesn’t appear to be the case with the Mayor’s fundraiser, however, since council made it clear that this was a violation.
“I haven’t seen in my time on council, nearly five years, any predilection for protecting the mayor or any other official and I think council members call him that,” Friedlander said.
The Conflict Council regularly takes public disciplinary action against officials, including heavy fines and other measures. Many of those sanctioned are lower-level officials, including sanitation workers and teachers, who have committed relatively minor offenses.
The council, in its 2018 letter to the mayor, explained that it chose not to publicly discipline the mayor because the mayor’s non-profit association had already been closed and because the city council had recently passed a law regulating these organizations affiliated with public officials.
“Both of these factors make it unlikely that the fundraising violations described above” will recur, the letter said. “In these specific circumstances, the board of directors has concluded that enforcement action is not necessary in relation to your fundraising.”