Home / World News / De Blasio Fought for 2 Years to Keep Ethics Warning Secret. Here’s Why.

De Blasio Fought for 2 Years to Keep Ethics Warning Secret. Here’s Why.

When Bill de Blasio first 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 money to a nonprofit organization that he had created to advance his political agenda.

The request to help his nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, seemed to violate the city’s ethics law, and a ban against asking for contributions from people who had business pending with the city. Within months of his solicitations, Mr. de Blasio was formally warned by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board — in a previously undisclosed letter — not to repeat the behavior.

But even after that warning, the mayor continued to hit up well-connected donors for money, according to documents that the city has now released after years of an extraordinary legal campaign by the de Blasio administration to keep the documents secret.

In February 2015, the mayor made a call to Jeffrey Levine, chairman of Douglaston Development, which had just won city approval for $12 million in financing for an affordable housing complex, and had taken ownership of a parcel of city-owned land in the Bronx.

The next 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.

Both men later received follow-up calls from the nonprofit’s fund-raiser, Ross Offinger, and each donated $25,000.

In April of that year, Mr. de Blasio spoke with James Capalino, a major city lobbyist with many clients doing city business, to ask for his support. The campaign’s fund-raiser made another follow-up call, and Mr. Capalino donated $10,000.

As the mayor nears the end of his eight-year tenure, questions about his fund-raising remain a potential political liability as he navigates a likely bid for governor next year.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat elected in 2013, has been the subject of separate federal, state and local investigations into his methods to raise money for the Campaign for One New York, and for a separate effort in 2014 to wrest control of the State Senate from the Republicans.

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the mayor, but some of the developers who contributed to the mayor’s nonprofit were fined by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics for violating lobbying laws, including Douglaston and Toll Brothers.

The new details of Mr. de Blasio’s outreach to donors were contained in a pair of secret letters from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to the mayor. In the first letter, dated July 2014, the board said the mayor had violated ethics laws with his two fund-raising calls to developers and warned him not to do it again.

The second letter, sent in September 2018, found that Mr. de Blasio had continued the practice and included a forceful reprimand of the mayor. The letters were released this week, after the State Court of Appeals denied a final effort by the mayor’s office to keep the documents secret.

The city had, for more than two years, fought The New York Times’s efforts to obtain the board’s correspondence with the mayor, denying an initial Freedom of Information request and then fighting a lawsuit filed by The Times.

“By soliciting these three donations from firms with business pending or about to be pending before executive agencies,” the second letter said, referring to the mayor’s 2018 fund-raising efforts, “you not only disregarded the board’s repeated written advice, but created the very appearance of coercion and improper access to you and your staff that the board’s advice sought to help you avoid.”

It continued: “A public servant who engages in solicitations such as these, either directly or through a surrogate, acts in conflict with that public servant’s official duties, in violation” of the City Charter’s ethics code.

The letters included fresh details of the calls and identified the recipients, including Mr. Levine, Mr. Von Spreckelsen and Mr. Capalino. Donors to the mayor’s political endeavors have included major unions and real estate developers, and many of them have business before the city.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Danielle Filson, said in a written statement that “the calls the mayor was making at this time were to support affordable housing legislation and his effort to achieve universal pre-K for every child in New York City, which is now a national model.”

“He has consistently acted in good faith and followed the process set out for him,” she added. “The board closed these cases and determined no enforcement action was necessary.”

Ms. Filson also said that the mayor had made “appropriate disclaimers” during his fund-raising calls, apparently referring to a statement that he was required to make, telling potential donors that they would not benefit or be punished if they chose to give or not give money. The board’s 2018 letter, however, specifically admonished the mayor for “failing to provide any disclaimer to the donors.”

The Campaign for One New York, which shut down in 2016, was created by Mr. de Blasio and his supporters to push for universal prekindergarten; it was later used to support his political agenda.

It raised more than $4 million, from unions, real estate developers and others, spending the money on political consultants and providing money to activist groups aligned with the mayor. In one instance, the campaign spent more than $600,000 toward establishing the Progressive Agenda Committee, a liberal coalition that Mr. de Blasio founded as he sought to expand his national profile.

The city’s Investigations Department conducted its own inquiry into the mayor’s fund-raising, and referred the matter to the conflicts board. The mayor hired a private law firm to defend him against the barrage of investigations and he reportedly has a debt of more than $300,000 in legal fees.

It was not clear how much the two years of legal maneuvering by the city’s law department to block access to the conflict board’s letters cost taxpayers; the city’s law department represented the mayor in his attempts to keep the conflicts board letters secret.

The mayor’s office argued that the mayor’s warning letter should be kept secret, because of a city law that establishes that most documents in the conflicts board’s possession should be viewed as confidential.

But once the letter was sent to the mayor, The Times argued that the same protection did not apply. A state appellate court agreed, saying that “once the letter was issued to another entity,” the mayor’s office could no longer keep the letter secret.

The Court of Appeals declined a final request by the mayor to review that ruling; the city is now obligated to reimburse The Times for its legal costs in seeking the documents.

“In a time when the public wants and needs greater transparency, it is unfortunate that the mayor spent two years keeping his own conduct secret,” said Al-Amyn Sumar, a lawyer for The Times. “We are pleased that the courts understood that the people have a right to know what their elected officials are doing.”

Jeffrey Friedlander, the current chairman of the conflicts board, said that as a result of the legal action brought by The Times, the board had stopped issuing confidential letters, known as private warning letters, like the ones it sent to the mayor, and it was now reviewing the practice.

Mr. Friedlander, who was appointed to the board by Mr. de Blasio in 2017 and became the chairman in 2020, said on Tuesday that the confidential letters were generally issued when evidence in a case was not clear. That would not appear to be the case with the mayor’s fund-raising, however, since the board clearly stated that it represented a violation.

“I have not seen in my time on the board, almost five years, any predilection to protect the mayor or any other official and I think the members of the board call it the way it is,” Mr. Friedlander said.

The conflicts board routinely takes public disciplinary actions against public servants, including hefty fines and other measures. Many of those disciplined are lower-level officials, including sanitation workers and teachers, who have committed relatively minor infractions.

The board, in its 2018 letter to the mayor, explained that it had chosen to not publicly discipline the mayor because the mayor’s nonprofit had already been shut down, and because the City Council had recently passed a law regulating such organizations affiliated with public officials.

“These two factors make it unlikely that the above-described fund-raising violations” would occur again, the letter said. “Under these specific circumstances, the board has concluded that enforcement action is not required with respect to your fund-raising.”

About brandsauthority

Check Also

Consumer stress levels rise as cost of living bites and retail sales slide

Four in 10 Australians have started cutting back on small treats and indulgences like buying …

%d bloggers like this: