Gotham Gazette Sun, 22 Oct 2017 02:44:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Supreme Court Ruling May Help De Blasio Avoid Charges de blasio judges city hal

Mayor de Blasio swears-in judges (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, ruling that his help to a constituent who gave him thousands of dollars in gifts did not break the law. The ruling, which examined the meaning of an “official act,” set a new precedent for corruption prosecutions and effectively increased the burden of proof for investigators.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio faces a federal investigation into his administration over whether government action was promised to or taken on behalf of donors to the mayor’s causes, the McDonnell case may provide help in vindicating de Blasio and his aides. De Blasio has insisted that he and his team have behaved legally and will be exonerated -- the mayor recently agreed to be interviewed by federal agents.

De Blasio’s office has also said that the mayor himself is not the focus of the investigation. However, he could become a target depending on the evidence prosecutors have collected or if his answers at the interview were inconsistent with statements from others in the orbit of the investigation. At the same time, the McDonnell ruling could help prevent prosecutors from bringing charges against de Blasio.

In Virginia, McDonnell and his wife were convicted in 2015 on bribery charges for accepting loans and gifts equalling $175,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams when McDonnell was in office. Federal prosecutors argued that, in exchange for the gifts, McDonnell used his office to arrange meetings and host events to promote Williams’ business.

On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously vacated McDonnell’s conviction and ruled that for an exercise of governmental power in a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” to be considered an “official act,” a public official “must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event—without more—does not fit that definition.”

This is effectively what Mayor de Blasio has argued recently, as he has admitted bringing items to the attention of his agency leaders that were of concern to donors. His deputies, the mayor said, always know to make their decisions based on the merits. No evidence has surfaced publicly showing de Blasio ordering a government act on behalf of a donor because of the donor’s monetary contribution to a de Blasio cause.

The McDonnell decision undoubtedly narrowed the interpretation of bribery law, as it pertains to the types of actions that a public official can legally perform. “That decision has changed the way prosecutors charge these cases,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director at Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. “It impacts all cases. Prosecutors will definitely consider that when making charging decisions.”

Other experts see a minor change in how prosecutors will approach relevant cases under the McDonnell ruling. "It prevents prosecutors from bringing only the weakest of public corruption cases, those where the prosecution lacks even circumstantial evidence that a corrupt payoff was for something more than a chance to meet with the public official," write Arlo Devlin-Brown, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office and Erin Monju, a former clerk there, in a recent New York Law Journal piece.

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office seems to be winding down its investigation into whether there was quid-pro-quo involved in donations to de Blasio’s 2013 electoral campaign and now-defunct nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York. While de Blasio’s electoral campaign received a good deal of bundled money from people with city business, the Campaign for One New York received millions from such from entities, like labor unions and real estate developers. Individuals with city business are limited to $400 contributions to electoral campaigns (only recently were such restrictions created to limit groups like Campaign for One New York).

While there are a number of instances where de Blasio donors received favorable city action, the investigation is focused on about half a dozen donors, according to The New York Times.

As the 2017 mayoral race heats up, the investigation has been hanging over de Blasio, his aides, his declared and potential challengers, and the entire city for almost a year. In a twist, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, head of the investigating office, was on Saturday fired from his post by President Donald Trump. The investigation, which may be in its final stages, will continue without Bharara, as his leading public corruption lawyers have been on the case throughout.

(There is also an ongoing investigation, led by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, looking into de Blasio and his associates funnelling funds to Democratic candidates for state Senate in 2014. The McDonnell case appears to have no bearing in this instance, though the mayor also insists that he and his political team did nothing illegal.)

During a Feb. 27 appearance on NY1’s Road to City Hall, de Blasio’s first interview after a four-hour meeting with federal prosecutors the prior Friday, the mayor sought to dispel the notion that he had personally intervened to direct government action in favor of a particular donor. The donor in question, Moishe Indig, a rabbi in the Satmar Hasidic community, was a fundraiser for the mayor, and the Department of Buildings had reportedly lifted a partial vacate order on two school buildings owned by him after the mayor intervened. (The news was first reported by Kings County Politics.)

De Blasio told host Errol Louis that he only knew Indig as a community leader and played no part in any DOB decision. “I don't intervene and tell agencies how to do their business,” de Blasio said. “Agencies come to their own conclusion when they look at a community concern like the concern of a house of worship, they’re going to ultimately come to their own decision, and that’s as it should be.”

In a point that directly relates to the McDonnell decision, de Blasio argued that it wasn’t improper for him to bring an issue to an agency’s attention. “[W]hen I was City Council member, Public Advocate, and, again, as Mayor, I believe it is perfectly appropriate to put an issue on an agency's plate,” he said later in the interview. “The agency has to make the decision that they see as right.”

It’s not uncommon for the mayor to pay attention to individual constituent concerns. On his weekly appearances on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio takes questions from callers and often promises to help them with issues they raise. He does the same at local town halls that he has hosted across the city, asking his team to follow up with a person to see if they can provide assistance. The question remains, though, whether donors receive special treatment because they are donors.

In the McDonnell decision, the Supreme Court recognized that elected officials respond to constituents in many instances. Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the unanimous opinion, wrote, “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns—whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.”

Although it’s unclear what evidence federal prosecutors may have collected so far, they will need to prove that public officials in the de Blasio administration did more than just highlight an issue for an agency to follow through on. They’re also likely taking that into consideration. The McDonnell decision came down the month after the convictions of both Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, former New York state legislative leaders, who were successfully prosecuted on corruption charges by the same office currently probing de Blasio. Neither has had to report to prison yet, and both are appealing their cases based on the McDonnell decision.

In New York Law Journal, Devlin-Brown and Monju argue that the McDonnell decision had “limited significance” for corruption prosecutions. “In the prototypical public corruption case—where the prosecution can make a straight-faced claim that governmental action, and not just access, was the intended aim of the bribe—McDonnell defenses will have little impact on judges and still less on juries,” they wrote, “who may fail to rally around the official who argues he was selling ‘only’ access to an elected office.”

[Related: The Risks of De Blasio’s Interview with Federal Prosecutors]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Supreme Court Ruling May Help De Blasio Avoid Charges Sun, 12 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
The Hole in the Mayor's Money-Into-Pockets Defense de blasio town hall sunlight

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent meeting with federal prosecutors signalled that the investigation into his fundraising for his 2013 campaign and his now-defunct nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, are winding down. There’s no indication yet whether the mayor or any of his associates will face charges, and the mayor’s office has stated that de Blasio himself is not the target of the probe. The administration is confident that “at all times the Mayor and his staff acted appropriately and well within the law,” according to a statement from the mayor’s press secretary, Eric Phillips, after the meeting.

For much of a year, de Blasio has been dogged by a trickle of news about the federal investigation and others being conducted, including that by the Manhattan District Attorney into his involvement in 2014 state Senate races, and relentless media questions. The mayor has fielded question after question about whether he encouraged a pay-to-play culture at City Hall by fundraising vast amounts from entities with city business.

Federal investigators and prosecutors are said to be looking at whether donors to the Campaign for One New York or de Blasio’s 2013 campaign were promised or given special treatment by de Blasio’s administration.

Along with arguing generally that he and his associates did nothing illegal, on multiple occasions the mayor has sought to defend himself by pointing out that the Campaign for One New York served a worthy cause, centrally the effort to establish universal pre-kindergarten, and was not meant as an instrument to enrich him or anyone else involved.

“What we were trying to do in those efforts was about things that would help everyday New Yorkers,” de Blasio said of the Campaign for One New York at a December 13 news conference. “You know there’s lots of other situations out there in the world, where people tried to line their pockets, you know work for their personal advantage. This was about trying to pass policies that would help everyday New Yorkers.”

What de Blasio’s rationale doesn’t account for, however, is that the consultants who worked on the Campaign for One New York -- the same consultants who worked on his 2013 mayoral campaign and are also employed in his 2017 reelection effort -- received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees as they pushed its agenda. This, while at the same time some had clients with business before the city and some were also members of de Blasio’s inner circle, crafting government policy while not on the city payroll.

At a news conference on May 3, 2016, de Blasio first used the defense, when asked by a reporter if his actions were comparable to those of Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former speaker of the New York State Assembly who was convicted on federal corruption charges that same day. “I think these are entirely different matters,” the mayor said. “First of all, to the credit of everyone involved in this discourse, no one is talking about anyone lining their pockets, which unfortunately has happened in way too many instances.”

The Campaign for One New York (CONY) effort did push progressive policies, including universal pre-kindergarten and affordable housing policy, both core components of the mayor’s first-term agenda. The accomplishments in those areas also form the core of the mayor’s reelection message. The investigation into CONY does not appear to focus on whether people in the mayor’s orbit personally profited from the work, but whether government favors were offered or given to donors.

The CONY disclosures, voluntarily provided by the mayor’s team, show that his top consultants earned significant monetary compensation for their efforts running the nonprofit. These include BerlinRosen, which spearheaded the mayor’s 2013 campaign communications and continues to helm his reelection efforts. The company made nearly $550,000 for its work on CONY, out of about $4 million that the nonprofit raised in total over about two years.

Jonathan Rosen, who heads BerlinRosen, is also one of five consultants termed “agents of the city” by the mayor’s legal team in order to shield their communications with the administration from the public when those communications don’t involve their clients. Rosen and others have been intricately involved in helping de Blasio craft strategy and policy, though under fire for such arrangements and entering his reelection year, the mayor has removed those advisors from meetings. (De Blasio’s campaign spokesperson, of BerlinRosen, was also the CONY spokesperson, and declined to comment for this article.)

AKPD Message and Media received the most compensation from CONY, about $1.35 million, for promoting pre-kindergarten and affordable housing. John Del Cecato, a partner at AKPD, is also one of the “agents of the city” and was integral in de Blasio’s 2013 campaign.  

Another two “agents of the city,” Nicholas Baldick and Bill Hyers of Hilltop Public Solutions, were also involved in CONY, earning just over $400,000 for their work. Hyers was de Blasio’s campaign manager in 2013 and his firm is also involved in the 2017 campaign. On Twitter, Hyers has repeatedly criticized the investigations into de Blasio, calling the federal probe "a pointless investigation" and the group "pointless inquiries."

Much of the money raised by the Campaign for One New York came from labor unions and real estate interests with city business. That money then went to the same consultants that helped de Blasio get elected -- his 2013 campaign, though, was limited by city election law both in how much it could raise from entities with city business and how much it could spend. CONY had no such restrictions.

The mayor’s defense hedges between what is legal and what is ethical, with the former up to prosecutors and grand jury members, and the latter a matter of some debate. “What he should’ve said was no one was lining their pockets illegally,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, calling it a “critical distinction.”

Muzzio noted that, if the investigations were to establish a quid pro quo among the administration, the nonprofit, and the donors, then the mayor’s defense “doesn’t fly.”

“It does raise questions about the role of consultants and the nebulous role of working for the campaign and turning around and lobbying the mayor,” he said. “De Blasio’s relying on a very fine distinction between what is ethically suspect and what is legal.”

Many have questioned whether the mayor, even if he was within the law, was right to do what he did. Comptroller Scott Stringer, a potential challenger to the mayor in the upcoming Democratic primary, called CONY a “slush fund” in July 2016, saying it should never have been created. “I think it does not work for this city and I think we need to enact strong rules," Stringer said the day the city’s Campaign Finance Board ruled that the mayor had not violated any laws in fundraising for the group.

The CFB nonetheless criticized de Blasio for bending the rules to the point of breaking. “New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” said then-CFB chair Rose Gill Hearn. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”

Since then, the city has adopted new laws -- originated and passed the City Council, then signed by de Blasio -- to limit groups like Campaign for One New York.

Jennifer Rodgers, executive director at Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity and a former federal prosecutor, said that the mayor's money-into-pockets defense is understandable. “I think that when he says no one is lining their pockets, he means himself and people in his administration in their personal capacities,” she said. “It’s not that money wasn't being contributed.”

The significant sums of money that CONY paid to consultants appears to be beside the point of the investigation, Rodgers noted.

“You are not allowed to give political favors in exchange for money going anywhere,” Rodgers said. “I understand his point that no one is lining their pockets personally, but that doesn’t really matter and also is not what the public cares about. The reason for bribery laws is not to stop businessmen giving money, it’s to stop politicians from giving favors.”

Shortly after the news broke in December that two grand juries were hearing testimony on the federal and state investigations, de Blasio made his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “What matters here is we did everything by the law for good causes...The work we did was by the law, appropriate, above board to win pre-K, affordable housing, a Democratic State Senate,” de Blasio said. “And those were the right things to work for. Everything disclosed. No, no influence given to anyone in exchange.”

Amid accusations of doing favors for donors, the mayor in May promised that his administration will make public a list of donors who asked favors of the administration but were denied -- proof that his administration was not influenced by CONY or other donations. He has yet to produce that list and recently said he still plans to, but that the investigations must run their course first.

“It’s a whole conundrum, Brian, facing our entire campaign finance system,” de Blasio said on December 16 on WNYC. “What we should have is full public financing of elections. We should have a whole host of reforms that take money out of the equation in general. But since Citizens United, what we’re really living in is a world where a lot of people want unilateral disarmament. They want the wealthy and folks who, for example, have done huge amounts of advertising against me such as some of the hedge fund folks, to have all the freedom in the world to not disclose and spend anything they want. When the rest of us try to fight back and do it above board and with disclosure and with no inappropriate activity, it becomes such a major issue.”

[Related: The Risks of De Blasio's Interview with Federal Prosecutors]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Hole in the Mayor's Money-Into-Pockets Defense Wed, 08 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Fails to Explain His Support for Limits on Groups Like Campaign for One New York de blasio choices

Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The City Council will pass a bill this week to put significant limits on the donations that political nonprofits aligned with elected officials can accept from entities with city business. Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to sign the bill, sponsored by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, into law.

While she has been a close ally of the mayor, in crafting the bill Mark-Viverito condemned one of the most controversial aspects of de Blasio’s tenure, The Campaign for One New York. And in supporting the bill, de Blasio is giving at least implicit acknowledgement that there are problems with The Campaign for One New York’s fundraising practices. Created and run by de Blasio allies, the nonprofit advocacy group took in millions of dollars in donations from entities with city business, chiefly labor unions and real estate developers, leading to allegations of a “pay-to-play” culture and law enforcement investigations.

During a Tuesday press conference, de Blasio did not directly answer questions from Gotham Gazette about his support for the bill and acknowledgement of problems with Campaign for One New York fundraising, instead defending the organization, which was shut down amid controversy. After the press conference, de Blasio’s chief spokesperson clarified that the mayor supports the bill because it helps get money out of politics.

The new regulations outlined in Mark-Viverito’s bill would limit donations from those with city business “to non-governmental entities controlled by a local elected official or their agents.” The new limits will match those that are part of the city’s public-matching campaign finance system, wherein entities with city business can give only $400 to a candidate’s campaign.

Thus, the bill the City Council will pass on Thursday and de Blasio will sign into law at some later date will create regulations that would have made the Campaign for One New York subject to much stricter fundraising rules, likely crippling its ability to raise the major sums of money that funded its main effort: a campaign to push for state funding of pre-K. A great deal of the money that Campaign for One New York spent went to political consultants close to de Blasio who ran the pre-K campaign.

A spokesperson for Mark-Viverito confirmed that the bill shows a belief by the speaker that the way The Campaign for One New York did business was not appropriate and that it is important to put limits on the fundraising that such groups can do from entities with city business. The bill also requires donor disclosure, something de Blasio’s group did voluntarily. Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson said the speaker will address the bill on Thursday before it is passed.

Mark-Viverito was not present at a November 21 hearing on the bill, despite being its lead sponsor. The Council’s standards and ethics committee will pass the bill on Wednesday before the full Council votes Thursday.

De Blasio has been criticized for what some call a “pay-to-play” culture, whereby he created a new place to give large sums of money for those looking to curry favor with him and his administration. City Comptroller Scott Stringer has called The Campaign for One New York a “slush fund.”

The question of whether donors were promised or received government favors in exchange for their donations is the subject of ongoing law enforcement investigation. No one has been charged with a crime and de Blasio maintains that he and his allies acted legally and ethically.

The city’s campaign finance system has it’s doing-business limit of $400 in place in order to reduce real or perceived conflicts of interest.

On Tuesday, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if by supporting much stricter donation limits to elected official-aligned nonprofits he is acknowledging that the way The Campaign for One New York’s did business was problematic.

“No,” de Blasio said, before giving an extensive answer that did not really address the question.

“We worked on the bill, we had concerns that some issues in the bill had to be carefully drawn so as to not exclude a lot of other types of activity, for example the effort that was put together to try and get the Democratic convention or any other major economic development opportunity for the city,” he said. “But no, we again, I think we just have a difference...We followed the law, that’s what governs here, the law. We not only followed the law we went to the Conflict of Interest Board to ask for guidance about the proper interpretation of the law and we disclosed all our donors, which you all know, there are many many organizations that do not disclose their donors, including some related to elected officials.”

During the same answer, de Blasio went on to explain the context of the work done by The Campaign for One New York, chiefly in 2014, citing opposition to his agenda from charter-school-backing hedge-fund managers. “I know we did everything right,” he then said, “and it can be looked at all day long and you’re gonna find we did everything right, but it’s not worth the distraction, we’re perfectly comfortable, I’m perfectly comfortable signing the bill.”

Gotham Gazette then clarified the question wasn’t about admission of breaking the law or even conflicts of interest guidance, but about his support for new fundraising regulations on elected-official-aligned nonprofits, asking the mayor, “if you’re now saying these groups should have limits on the fundraising they can do with entities with city business, aren’t you acknowledging that it was a problem to do that [with The Campaign for One New York]?”

“I’m only acknowledging that it became a big distraction, even though everything was done properly and even though we achieved the goals we set out to achieve, which were the pre-K plan and the affordable housing plan, specifically the mandatory inclusionary housing legislation,” de Blasio said. “I have eyes to see if something becomes too much of a distraction you move on and you do other things,” de Blasio added, again giving his latest explanation for why he decided that The Campaign for One New York should be shut down (he originally said it was closing up only because it had accomplished its goals).

While de Blasio did not answer the question directly, his spokesperson provided more clarity by email when asked.

“The mayor believes in public financing and getting money out of politics. But we didn’t have that system, so he played by the rules to ensure that his agenda and his fights for things like pre-k and affordable housing weren't unilaterally disarmed,” wrote Eric Phillips, de Blasio’s press secretary. “He would vote for public financing too, but that doesn’t mean he’ll quit fundraising until such a perfect world exists.”

Gotham Gazette continued to push for an answer about support for the new doing-business fundraising limits signaling at least implicit acknowledgement that the extent to which The Campaign for One New York raised money from entities with city business was inappropriate.

“These bills look to get money out of politics,” Phillips wrote. “Just as public financing legislation would. Both scenarios recognize that it's a better, more inclusive, fair system when money isn't in the equation. It's not a recognition that either scenario - regular contributions or CONY contributions - are specifically, unavoidably or automatically nefarious.”

The question isn’t simply about nefarious intentions or not, it is about real or perceived conflicts of interest or undue influence that large donations to pet causes or campaigns can have on city officials. These are the reasons behind the $400 doing-business limit on candidate campaign donations.

“He’s supporting it because he supports getting money out of politics,” Phillips wrote.

The bill will be discussed further on Wednesday and Thursday at the City Council. Mark-Viverito was in attendance for much of Tuesday’s press conference as de Blasio announced a new program to boost the life sciences sector in New York City. She left before the “off-topic” section of the press conference, where members of the media ask the mayor questions about a variety of issues.

Asked by a reporter from Politico New York whether he has a sense when the investigations into his behavior will be completed, de Blasio said, “I don’t know when it’ll end. I think the people are waiting for answers, certainly, but I don’t know when they’ll end.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Fails to Explain His Support for Limits on Groups Like Campaign for One New York Tue, 13 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim de blasio panel mayors

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

In a surprise move on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared during a NY1 television appearance that going forward his communications with five outside advisors would be subject to public disclosure. In doing so, the mayor betrayed his own rhetoric from a week prior when he vigorously defended his actions in keeping those communications confidential and maintained that “the highest standards were adhered to” in his dealings with unpaid consultants, some of whom have clients with city business.

For the last several months, the mayor has pushed back against allegations of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall stemming from his close relationships with multiple consultants that have clients with city business and the mayor’s political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, for which some of those consultants also worked. Much of de Blasio’s explanation around the Campaign for One New York and his relationship with outside consultants has indicated a bare adherence to legal and ethical guidelines, not to the “highest standards.”

The Campaign for One New York, which de Blasio has repeatedly said was OK’d by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, raised unlimited funds from wealthy donors who have business with the city, including labor unions and real estate developers. The now-defunct group, which voluntarily disclosed its donors, is under federal and state investigation to determine whether donors were offered or received political favors from City Hall. No one has been charged with wrongdoing and the mayor has insisted that he and his allies sought proper guidance and conducted themselves ethically and legally.  

The administration has sought to keep the communications with his unpaid consultants, termed “agents of the city,” exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law, inviting a lawsuit from the New York Post and NY1 for their release. Two weeks ago, the day before Thanksgiving, the administration released some of those communications, just over 1,500 emails dating back three years, exchanged with one of the consultants, Jonathan Rosen of the BerlinRosen firm.

At an unrelated news conference on November 29, de Blasio argued that his exchanges with Rosen were appropriate and did not present conflicts of interest. “I’m absolutely convinced that the highest standards were adhered to,” he told reporters. “Everything we did – I said it last night, I’ll say it again. Everything we did, we did with legal clearance for the way to approach things – in the case of Campaign for One New York, with pre-clearance from the Conflict of Interest Board. I am convinced everything was done appropriately.”

But the mayor’s argument has not swayed good government groups who would like to see a higher standard of conduct and more transparency from a mayor who campaigned on that very promise.

“It's common sense that you can't serve two masters,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in an email. “The Mayor's closest advisors, so called “Agents of the City,” represent private interests with business before the city, and they're not accountable to anyone other than their clients. They should not also have a prominent role in public policy.”

On Monday, the mayor sought to make a move towards more openness, telling anchor Errol Louis on NY1’s Inside City Hall that he would no longer shield communications on government matters with outside consultants. He described the move as necessary since the email issue had “obviously become a distraction” to his administration, but in doing so, he effectively acknowledged a higher standard to follow.

Meanwhile, earlier communications with those “agents” are still being held confidential and the lawsuit continues.

“It’s hardly the highest standard when the response of the administration, in my opinion, is inconsistent with law,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which provides guidance on the state’s Freedom of Information law. “A consultant according to the state’s highest court refers to persons or entities retained by the city,” he added, pointing out that the mayor’s advisors are private citizens who are not on the city’s payroll, which is the basic requirement for shielding communications.

De Blasio similarly undermined his own argument about high standards when he shifted the policy of including Rosen in high-level government cabinet meetings, with a spokesperson telling Gotham Gazette Rosen is no longer attending such meetings (BerlinRosen is again running communications for de Blasio’s campaign) after de Blasio himself told Gotham Gazette at the Nov. 29 news conference that he is rarely talking with those termed “agents of the city.”

Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, faults de Blasio for not matching his lofty rhetoric, but believes he hasn’t done anything untoward. “He should probably refrain from using superlatives in explaining what he’s done,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s been illegal or detrimental.” If there was any illegal conduct, Greer is confident that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is investigating the Campaign for One New York, would have found it by now.

Though de Blasio never admitted that the Campaign for One New York was a mistake, he had it shuttered when it too had become a significant distraction. He said it had accomplished its goals, chiefly helping to secure state funding for pre-Kindergarten.

“I think [de Blasio] has an Obama problem,” Greer said. “He cares about the city, he has time constraints, and in his expedience to try and implement policy, he doesn’t necessarily explain how or why.” She said that approach creates two negative consequences: constituents are unaware of the positive changes the mayor is making and, because of the lack of transparency, they are skeptical of whether the mayor’s actions are “above board.”

But the mayor’s bigger problem, Greer said, is that he faces different pressures than his predecessor, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I really do wonder if this is just the cost of doing business for someone who is not a billionaire and can’t finance his own projects,” she said, insisting that the mayor has to be able to make deals. “If he doesn’t get in bed with wealthy capitalists, how is he going to help poor people. That’s the question for American politics,” Greer said.

Back when de Blasio was public advocate, he made a show of calling out city agencies for their lack of transparency. He issued a “Transparency Report Card” in which he gave failing grades to agencies that consistently failed to comply with the law. “The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public,” de Blasio said, in April 2013. “That’s the last thing New York City can afford right now. We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers.”

Mayor de Blasio is a far cry from that public advocate when it comes to transparency. “We’d like to believe that he is holding himself and others to the highest standard, but we don’t have any independent verification of that,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “When one is devising his own rules to shield people from public information, it raises questions about the validity of such claims. He cannot be the arbiter of whether he is doing so or not particularly when it involves protecting his closest associates.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim Tue, 06 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says mmv nypl

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: @NYCCouncil)

Within the next two months, the City Council is expected to vote on a large legislative package that would alter the city’s campaign finance system in a variety of ways and regulate donations to political nonprofits, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said this week. Some of the proposals and the timing of their likely passage have raised concerns, though, that the Council is weakening the city’s model campaign finance system, pushing some reforms through after too long a wait and rushing other, newer bills through just in time for the next municipal election.

The Council has before it 22 bills relating to campaign finance law and elections, 14 of which were heard just last week by the Committee on Standards and Ethics. It was the first hearing on legislation for the committee under this Council, which took office in January 2014, owing to the fact that the main bill in that bundle deals with conflicts of interest. The 13 others relate to the campaign finance system.

The other eight bills of the 22 were heard in May by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight of the Campaign Finance Board, and were introduced about one year ago. They have awaited a committee vote since, but have not moved.

Mark-Viverito, who largely controls which bills are heard and voted on, has promised that the two bundles of bills will be lumped and voted on together. “We will be moving ahead with an extensive package,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions about the concerns raised at last week’s hearing. “We’ve been going through a lot of deliberations, a lot of conversations with stakeholders and others, so I’m very confident about what it is that we will be presenting.”

When asked when the vote could happen, she said, “It’s gonna be soon. Probably within the next month or so, without a doubt.”

Although a common theme unites 21 of the 22 bills, they have taken vastly different trajectories in the Council’s legislative process. The first package was only heard six months after it was introduced and has since languished in committee. Those proposals came straight out of the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report, which recommended improvements to the campaign finance law. These proposals mainly seek to tighten gaps in the campaign finance law, including the elimination of public matching funds for contributions bundled by people with city business, enhanced disclosure rules for entities that do business with the city, and a prohibition on contributions from non-registered political committees to candidates who don’t participate in the public matching program.

The second package has not been as thoroughly vetted, it seems, including the 22nd and most high-profile bill, Intro. 1345, which would limit donations to political nonprofits affiliated with elected officials.

That bill is a direct response to the Campaign for One New York, a now-defunct nonprofit affiliated with Mayor Bill de Blasio that accepted large donations from people who have business with the city. Those activities have led to multiple investigations and allegations of a pay-to-play culture at City Hall, with federal authorities investigating whether government action was offered or done in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York. De Blasio has denied any wrongdoing and no one has been charged. 

Intro. 1345 and the accompanying 13 bills were introduced on November 16 and were heard just one week later. Although Intro. 1345 was embraced by the Campaign Finance Board, which is an independent city entity, the de Blasio administration, and government reform groups, the rest of the bills are seen as a bit more problematic. Even representatives of the city Conflicts of Interest Board, which would be tasked with implementing Intro. 1345, expressed doubts about COIB’s ability to do so and questioned whether it is the appropriate agency to be assigned the job. Meanwhile, representatives for the Campaign Finance Board critiqued several of the bills relevant to its operations and the city’s well-regarded public campaign finance system.

In contrast with the first legislative package, some of the new bills are more friendly to Council members and candidates in general, and would ease certain elements of campaign finance regulation including documentation requirements for contributions and the current restriction on the use of non-public campaign funds for official purposes.

Government reform groups have questioned the overall approach the Council has taken with the most recent bills, which they say are being rushed along and are based on Council members’ personal experiences with the system rather than objective analysis that would usually be identified by the Campaign Finance Board.

In written testimony submitted to the committee, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said it was “perplexing” that the 14 bills were heard by the Standards and Ethics committee when only one of them dealt with conflicts of interest.

“These bills are, in major part, detailed technical changes that, unlike previous revisions, have not grown out of the Campaign Finance Board’s statutorily required reports and recommendations, which result in revisions of the system which are openly discussed, negotiated and considered far in advance of the City’s next election cycle,” Lerner wrote, stressing that they could inadvertently weaken the CFB’s independence.

She also said the bills “appear to be on a fast track,” while the older bills based on recommendations in the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report have languished. Taking issue with the timing, right on the eve of a city election year, she said the Council should wait till after the 2017 elections to reconsider most of the campaign finance bills and do so through the appropriate committees.

The CFB itself criticized the bills as hampering its ability to enforce the campaign finance law, calling them “poison pill” measures in testimony at the November 21 hearing.

At a public meeting on December 1, CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn reiterated those concerns. “This legislation has been considered on an accelerated schedule,” she said, stressing that the “hastily drafted” proposals would undermine the board’s oversight of the campaign finance system. She specifically called on the Council to reject one of the bills, Intro. 1355, sponsored by Council Member David Greenfield, which allows candidates or their committees to complete or correct contribution cards. “The board believes this bill will enable fraud,” she said, “and remove a weapon for the CFB to detect and prevent it.” Council Member Greenfield was not made available for comment for this article.

In urging the Council to delay the bills till after the 2017 elections, Hearn did promise to work with the Council on improving the campaign finance program and commended Council members for Intro. 1345, the political nonprofit donation limits bill. This bill is sponsored by Mark-Viverito, who was not present for the hearing on the bill, which was chaired by standards and ethics committee Chair Alan Maisel. 

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, stressed that the bills need more time to breathe. “We hope we have at least a month or two to make some needed changes to these bills that represent new ideas and are a marked shift in the management of the campaign finance board,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Dadey said the new package “does feel rushed to us” and that “there’s some question as to whether these will actually strengthen or weaken the program and a much fuller discussion needs to be had before these move forward.” While he acknowledged that Council members should have a significant voice in improving the campaign finance system, he said they should avoid imposing solely their own concerns. “[The campaign finance law] needs to reflect the public’s interest in protecting taxpayer dollars while making it a workable program for the candidates themselves,” Dadey said.

Council Member Maisel said the timeline of these newer bills, from drafting to hearing to a possible vote, may be short but is necessary. “There’s an effort to try to get these bills voted on sooner than later because the election is next year,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he was not given a specific timeline to push through the bills. “Whether it’s done before December 31 or the first week of January, I can’t tell you,” he said. Maisel is meeting this week with Council staff to review feedback from the hearing to amend and tweak the bills, he said.

Maisel also pushed back against the criticism that the bills might weaken the CFB’s authority, insisting that they’re aimed at making the system more reasonable to encourage participation. “They’re protecting their turf,” he said of the CFB. “If these bills are passed, their powers are intact. I don’t see how [the bills] undermine their authority.”

When asked if his committee was the appropriate venue for the campaign finance bills, he said it was the speaker’s office that made the decision. “I have no experience with campaign finance bills, I deal with ethics issues,” he said, in a sense echoing the critique made by others who’ve questioned why campaign finance bills were heard in his committee as opposed to their typical place, government operations, the committee chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos.

The proposals have created some degree of internal tension within the Council for multiple reasons, including the committee venue. Additionally, before the bills were introduced, Council Member Kallos was openly skeptical of the effect they might have, telling the New York Times, “I am concerned about undermining the best parts of a system that has worked for the people.”

Council Member Brad Lander, sponsor of one of the new bills, disagrees. First, Lander told Politico New York that the Times report had mischaracterized the bills under consideration. On Tuesday, shortly after the speaker’s news conference, Lander told Gotham Gazette the concerns over the bills would be addressed through amendments and that criticism of their timing was unfounded. That the bills were heard through the standards and ethics committee rather than the governmental operations committee made little difference, he said, since the same people and advocacy groups would testify even if there were separate hearings. He also noted that Kallos, the governmental operations chair, was present at the hearing as well.

Lander also sought to dispel the notion that the bills were being expedited through the Council. “That’s a silly thing to say,” he said, noting that discussions on Intro. 1345 in particular have been in the works since the shutdown of The Campaign for One New York was announced months ago. And while there was not the same urgency with the eight campaign finance bills from last year, he said, “I think if we get a good package that combines a lot of good reform and sensible legislation, that’s a good legislative process.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says Thu, 01 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Limits Government Contact with Top Outside Advisor de blasio presser pointing

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated on Tuesday that he has cut down his contact with Jonathan Rosen, a campaign consultant who has remained a top advisor to the mayor since de Blasio took office in 2014. Earlier this year de Blasio told reporters that amid controversy and investigations into his behavior he had reduced his communication with lobbyists. It appears that the mayor has also adjusted his approach to controversial political advisors like Rosen who are not on the government payroll but who have nonetheless been influential.

The relationship between de Blasio and Rosen, as well as other advisors, has raised flags since Rosen represents clients with city business while acting as a de facto member of the mayor’s cabinet, advising de Blasio on all manner of political and governmental decisions.

City Hall has restricted access to email correspondence between the mayor and his staff and Rosen, putting new limits on Freedom of Information Law requests and calling Rosen an “agent of the city” even though he is not paid by the city. The city has also extended that designation to several other outside consultants that helped get the mayor elected and remain important to de Blasio, but are not on the city payroll.

The day before Thanksgiving, as part of a lawsuit wherein NY1 and The New York Post are suing for access to the aforementioned communications between City Hall and these outside ‘agents,’ the city released hundreds of emails involving Rosen. The correspondence, from 2014 and at times significantly redacted, shows Rosen’s inclusion in de Blasio’s inner circle and influence at City Hall.

Rosen, who is co-founder of the firm BerlinRosen, helped guide de Blasio to victory in the 2013 mayoral race. His firm is now leading the mayor’s reelection efforts, which recently kicked into higher gear on both fundraising and early endorsements. Between the two campaigns, Rosen has had the mayor’s ear and de Blasio has sought his guidance. His firm has also represented a variety of clients with city business, including not-for-profits and real estate developers. The emails show some blurring of the lines between Rosen’s formal and informal roles.

The Wednesday document release led to new questions for de Blasio about transparency, conflicts of interest, and Rosen’s special designation -- first on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Monday evening, then at a Tuesday press conference where de Blasio took whatever questions the assembled press wanted to ask.

De Blasio continued to defend the relationship, arguing its validity, importance, and integrity. “I’m absolutely certain that there’s no representation of clients involved in those discussions,” de Blasio said. “And these are folks who I have known for years and years who have been providing me advice that I long ago came to the conclusion was objective, thoughtful advice. But it’s just advice. I listen to advice from many quarters, and I make the decisions.”

But, asked by Gotham Gazette if he was still in such regular communication with Rosen and other top outside advisors, the mayor implied that he had cut back on such contact. “Each situation is individual,” de Blasio said. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rare I’m talking to people, but each situation is individual.”

Reminded that the emails show very regular contact with Rosen, de Blasio said, “The emails go back a ways.”

Asked then about the current state of things, he told Gotham Gazette, “I’m saying – I think it’s pretty rare that I’m talking to those individuals, but again, I think each case is individual.”

When Gotham Gazette followed up with the mayor’s press office, a spokesperson confirmed that Rosen is no longer attending meetings with the mayor and his top governmental staff -- the 2014 emails that were released showed Rosen regularly included in high-level calls and meetings. The de Blasio spokesperson did not answer additional questions or offer further comment. De Blasio’s campaign spokesperson at BerlinRosen declined to comment on the shifting dynamics of the relationship.

While de Blasio continues to insist that Rosen never discusses his clients with the mayor, top de Blasio aides and others in the administration know Rosen’s importance to de Blasio, giving him and his clients a major advantage. Every mayor comes into office with friends, advisors, and colleagues, not all of whom take jobs in the new administration. But, Rosen’s level of influence on de Blasio and city policy while representing clients with city business appears to be highly unusual.

De Blasio has continued to defend the situation, though, even as he acknowledged Tuesday having scaled back Rosen’s involvement in government decision-making. The change is similar to both the mayor’s affiliation with political nonprofits, like the Campaign for One New York, that Rosen and others established in partnership with de Blasio, and the mayor’s relationship with lobbyists, especially top city lobbyist James Capalino.

Amid controversy, criticism, and law enforcement investigations, de Blasio saw to the shutdown of the Campaign for One New York, though he has steadfastly defended its existence and did so as recently as Monday on NY1. When his relationship with Capalino and the access of lobbyists at City Hall came under heightened scrutiny, especially around the problematic sale of Rivington House, de Blasio said he had cut down his contact with Capalino and others.

“I have not been in touch with Mr. Capalino,” de Blasio told reporters in August. “You know, he – going into the mayoralty – was someone that I respected and was a friend, someone I talked to a lot over the years. But I do not have contact with him anymore.”

De Blasio explained it was “because of the atmosphere we’re in, and the ongoing investigations.” He wasn’t able to say when that new approach had begun, but said it was “a while back.”

It should be noted that neither de Blasio nor any of his close allies have been charged with a crime, and the mayor has insisted everyone has acted both legally and ethically. There are ongoing investigations, though, including into whether government favors were given or promised in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York.

After the mayor indicated Tuesday that he had limited Rosen’s involvement in government decision-making, a de Blasio spokesperson did not answer Gotham Gazette’s inquiry about when that distance had been created. It’s also not clear how often de Blasio is currently emailing with Rosen, or to what extent they’ve moved communication to phone calls, which are not subject to Freedom of Information requests. As de Blasio is now more engaged in his reelection campaign, he is more involved with BerlinRosen on a regular basis.

“I think what you guys have to recognize is we’re very, very comfortable saying ‘no’ to anyone,” de Blasio told reporters Tuesday, explaining that Rosen and others can suggest ideas or recommend actions related to their clients, but should not expect undue influence. “And we have no problem with putting an idea on the table, no problem with recommending someone or offering an event. We’ll make a decision based on what we think is right.”

“These are individuals who advise me for years and years,” de Blasio said. “They’re offering ideas. There’s nothing about that that is out of the ordinary. Everyone who holds high office has advisors, and they offer advice. And again, I make the decisions.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Limits Government Contact with Top Outside Advisor Tue, 29 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance berger council

Henry Berger testifying (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council heard testimony Monday on a broad package of bills that would prevent conflicts of interest between elected officials and political nonprofits, limit the electoral influence of those who do business with the city, and make it easier for first-time candidates to navigate the city’s campaign finance system.

The Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics heard 14 bills on Monday in what was the current Council’s first hearing of the committee focused on legislation. Of the 14, the headlining bill, Intro. 1345, was the Council’s direct response to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit formed by the mayor’s allies to promote his agenda that has been at the center of controversy, criticism, and law enforcement investigations.

The Campaign for One New York, since disbanded, skirted the city’s campaign finance law, in part by raising major sums from entities with city business. Federal investigators have been looking at whether government action was exchanged for donations. The mayor has maintained that he, his administration, and the organization followed the law and sought guidances from the Conflicts of Interest Board throughout. His activities were probed by the city Campaign Finance Board, which let him off with a slap on the wrist but stressed the need to close the loophole in the law that he took advantage of in fundraising for his group.

The bill at hand is sponsored by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally. It takes aim at that exact loophole and limits donations from those who are lobbyists or have business before the city to nonprofits created or controlled by elected officials or their agents. The limit of $400 currently applies to donations made by such categories of donors directly to candidate committees. Under the bill, if an organization spends more than 10 percent of its annual budget on “public-facing communications that feature the name or picture of the elected official who controls them” contributions to the nonprofit would be limited and it would have to disclose its donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Mark-Viverito did not attend the hearing, which was led by Standards and Ethics Committee Chair Alan Maisel. Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson, Robin Levine, said in an email that Council staff was monitoring the hearing and will brief the speaker as she reviews the testimony.

While there was broad support for Mark-Viverito’s bill, there were questions about its language and the implementation that it requires. As it currently stands, the bill seeks to prevent actual and perceived conflicts of interest by preventing business interests from donating large sums of money to a nonprofit to ingratiate themselves with an elected official. But concerns were raised that the bill paints with a broad brush and would include nonprofits that are affiliated to an extent with public officials but aren’t involved in public fundraising to benefit those officials. The bill also doesn’t include high-ranking public officials in city agencies, only elected officials. Council Members sought feedback on how they could amend and improve the proposal, and agency heads suggested more clear definitions of the organizations that would be covered.

The rest of the bills being heard Monday aim at streamlining campaign finance disclosure requirements and tweak certain aspects of the city’s campaign finance law. These bills would usually be heard by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has heard another package of campaign finance reform bills that awaits a vote, but were lumped together with the first proposal concerning conflicts of interest, which is under the standards and ethics committee’s jurisdiction.

“All these bills are designed to ensure we streamline the process of running for office without sacrificing the safeguards that ensure integrity of our democratic process,” said Council Member David Greenfield, sponsor of five of the bills, in his opening statement.

The campaign finance bills cover a lot of ground. One bill shortens the deadline for candidates to choose a hearing before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings for alleged campaign violations and penalties. Currently, most candidates go through a more informal hearing before the Campaign Finance Board. Another bill requires campaign contributions to be deposited within 20 business days, and cash contributions to be deposited within 10 business days.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander would allow non-public campaign funds to be used by public officials for their official duties. One of the proposals that the CFB particularly opposed would prohibit CFB staff from being present at an executive session of the board where campaign finance violations are being adjudicated. This bill would prevent the CFB’s own executive director from attending such a session.

The main bill, Intro. 1345, received support, with certain caveats, from the de Blasio administration, the Conflicts of Interest Board, the Campaign Finance Board, and private government reform organizations that favor more transparency in campaign finance.

Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, testified in support of all the bills but expressed certain doubts about the scope of Intro. 1345 and about one provision in Intro. 1355, one of Greenfield’s bills.

On Intro. 1345, Berger said the administration was “generally supportive of the intent of this bill,” but said the definition of an organization affiliated with an elected official was “overbroad and may be problematic.” He warned that it could also raise legal concerns over free speech of private entities. “These concerns would need to be addressed in future discussions at a staff level,” he said.

Berger cited the precautions that the mayor’s team took for the Campaign for One New York, including the willing disclosure of donors, which the new bill would require, and he agreed that limits should be placed on nonprofits that create a perception of helping a particular candidate. “[Intro. 1345] provides very strong assurances that would avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest,” he said. “And that’s important. Confidence in our government requires that.”

But he worried that the bill would also apply to nonprofits that don’t raise funds and are already subject to extensive reporting requirements, such as the Economic Development Corporation, or programmatic organizations that don’t benefit an individual but may raise funds such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “We’re looking for some tightening but....we think this bill comes very close to drawing the line,” he said.

Once a bill is heard in Council committee, behind-the-scenes negotiation usually occurs to tweak bill language, before a bill is voted on in committee and then, if it passes, the the full Council. At times, like the other package of campaign finance reform bills that was heard months ago by the government operations committee, bills do not receive a committee vote soon after a hearing, if at all. Council sources do indicate, though, that they plan to move the bills heard today quickly, while also moving the other campaign finance bills.

Changes to the campaign finance system would already be late in the four-year election cycle as the election year of 2017 is fast-approaching and candidates have already been raising money.

The political nonprofits bill also expands the definition for those who do business before the city to include family members, which, Berger said, would create logistical and technical issues for the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, which maintains the city’s doing business database. MOCS would need time to adjust to the bill, he later told Council members.

Addressing Intro. 1355, which relaxes certain documentation requirements for campaign contributions, Berger said there was a potential for fraud since the bill removes the obligation for a candidate committee to collect contributor cards if they receive a check or money order with the name and address of a donor on them.

Berger’s biggest complaints, however, were that certain necessary proposals were not included in the package of bills. He said the Council should consider legislation that would overhaul the process for post-election campaign audits, to ensure they are concluded faster; proposed that legal fees for responding to campaign finance issues should not be counted against a campaign’s expenditure limits; and suggested that candidates who must raise money for a general election during primary season be allowed to attribute fundraising expenditures to their general election spending cap instead of the primary one.

Representatives of the Conflicts of Interest Board commended the Council on Intro. 1345, but said they are unsure about being charged with implementing it. Executive Director Carolyn Lisa Miller said the board “remains uncertain whether we are the right agency to administer the legislation,” but expressed willingness to work with the Council and the administration.

Miller listed 20 possible issues arising from the legislation, ranging from the definition of the nonprofits covered to the substantial penalties levied and the timeframe of disclosures required by organizations. She also cited issues with enforcement and investigation. COIB is a small city agency, with 26 full-time employees, and has no investigators of its own, relying instead on the Department of Investigation which is an independent agency. Miller said COIB would likely require additional staff and funding to comply with the legislation.

What might complicate things further is that COIB cannot enforce fines on City Council members, if one should choose not to accept a violation found and penalty assessed by the board. In such a situation, which Miller said has never arisen to date, the board could only make recommendations to the Speaker and the Council which would have to decide to refer the case to the standards and ethics committee.

Council Member Lander, co-sponsor of Intro. 1345 and a prime sponsor on another one of the bills, pushed back against Miller’s uncertainty. “To me the reason to put this legislation and its enforcement with you is it is an issue of conflicts of interest,” he said. “Even though we are concerned about the public-facing communication, what we’re guarding against here is public corruption. That’s the goal, making sure that people who have business interests with the city don’t have an avenue into giving that influences public officials. That’s not primarily campaign finance. That’s primarily conflicts of interest.”

With 13 bills out of the package dealing directly with the Campaign Finance Board, much of the hearing focused on testimony from Amy Loprest, CFB executive director. Loprest, like COIB’s Miller, praised Intro. 1345 but had strong apprehensions nonetheless. “We note the several concerns regarding the bill’s drafting and implementation raised by our colleagues at the Conflicts of Interest Board,” Loprest said in her opening statement. “We urge the Council to take those into account, and we will be available to assist in any way they or the Council deems appropriate.”

She also criticized the legislation’s accompanying “poison pill” measures which would “significantly weaken the CFB’s oversight of the matching funds program.”

“These measures should not be the cost of implementing a commendable and necessary reform,” she said, taking issue with the timing of many of the proposals, saying they would be disruptive to the board’s preparations for the 2017 city elections.

In a cordial back-and-forth with Council Member Greenfield, who argued that the Council’s proposed changes to CFB procedures were warranted, necessary, and justified under its jurisdiction, Loprest attempted to explain her broader concerns.

“It is important for us to review how we do operate, how we do our audits, how we do our procedures,” she conceded. “I do however think that this kind of piecemeal, finger in one part of a complicated process will have unintended and unwelcome consequences and will make things more complicated when our goal is to try and make things less complicated.”

Greenfield pushed back. “I think that’s where we’re going to come to agree to disagree,” he said. “Just like your job is to audit candidates, our job is to audit the CFB, for lack of a better term.”

Good government groups testified in support of the bills, but had reservations about both the timing and the manner in which they were drafted and introduced. Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, approved of the bills but said it was late in the game to consider changes to the city’s campaign finance system, with the next election so close.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, applauded the Council, but insisted that the bills should have included more public discussion when they were being drafted. Intro. 1345, in particular, addresses concerns that Citizens Union raised earlier this year in a proposal to regulate nonprofit organizations affiliated with elected officials. “We believe the proposed bill can effectively bring needed oversight to these organizations,” Dadey said at Monday’s hearing.

The only testimony that rejected most of the proposals outright came from Dominic Mauro, staff attorney for Reinvent Albany, an advocacy organization. Mauro said his organization supported the intent of Intro. 1345 but questioned how it could be implemented. The entire package of bills, Mauro said, “add up to a huge step backwards.” Admitting that the CFB is “imperfect, he said, however, that his organization thinks “Many of these bills seem like petty retaliation and an expression of irritation by Council members who are annoyed with CFB nitpicking.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance Mon, 21 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of Election Year, De Blasio Must Name New Campaign Finance Board Chair de blasio podium

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)

With the impending departure of the head of the city’s campaign finance regulatory body, good government advocates say Mayor Bill de Blasio must be careful about who he chooses to fill the position as the city heads into an election year.

“The chair of the campaign finance board is probably the single most important player in government ethics,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rose Gill Hearn, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, will be stepping down at the end of the year. Hearn is resigning, she indicated, due to an increasing burden from her position as a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a consulting firm. “My increasingly heavy work schedule no longer permits me to devote the time warranted for the important activities of the board,” Gill Hearn said in a public statement.

Gill Hearn informed the mayor of her resignation in a letter on September 23, to give him “ample time to find a replacement and ensure a smooth transition.” According to the City Charter, the mayor is to appoint the CFB chair with the advice of the City Council Speaker. There are four other members of the board, and about 100 CFB employees who make the agency run. The board makes determinations on public funds payments and campaign violations, considers changes to the campaign finance rules, and otherwise oversees the work of the agency, which includes monitoring and auditing electoral campaigns.

“I believe that the Campaign Finance Board and staff will continue in the long tradition of nonpartisanship and independence that has always been a part of the institution,” Gill Hearn said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Her resignation comes at a crucial time for both the mayor and for the city at large as every city elected official is on the ballot in municipal elections set for Fall 2017.

For de Blasio, appointing a new chair is delicate and potentially fraught territory as he is embroiled in multiple investigations at the state and federal level into fundraising activities -- though mostly ones that don’t concern the CFB system. Neither de Blasio nor his allies have been charged with any crime, and the mayor insists that they will be vindicated.

While it’s not yet clear if the mayor or his associates broke any laws, de Blasio’s own re-election campaign will continue to be the subject of CFB scrutiny -- in fact, the mayor’s campaign recently had a matter before the CFB related to the funds raised by a political nonprofit, The Campaign for One New York, that is affiliated with de Blasio, formed to promote his agenda, and a key piece of multiple law enforcement investigations.

In July, the board chastised de Blasio for exploiting loopholes in the city’s campaign finance law and undermining a system that is held up as a national model. The mayor and his nonprofit were let off with a slap on the wrist, but the board insisted that they did not consider the matter closed. The next CFB chair will be responsible for overseeing any further investigations should they arise. The Campaign for One New York is in the process of shutting down, something announced in advance of the CFB hearing.

Such a case is one example, albeit an especially high-profile one, of the type of issues brought before the campaign finance board. Meanwhile, employees at the CFB help educate candidates and campaigns about the city’s public matching system, vet campaign donations, and disburse public matching funds.

The CFB is a nonpartisan five-member body, with two members appointed by the speaker of the City Council, two appointed by the mayor, and a chair chosen by the mayor in consultation with the speaker. The two members appointed by each the mayor and speaker cannot be from the same political party. The chair serves a five-year term and Gill Hearn’s replacement will serve through the remainder of hers, which expires November 30, 2018.

“[Mayor de Blasio] has to pick somebody of impeccable ethical credentials,” said Russianoff of NYPIRG about replacing Gill Hearn. “There’s no reason to believe he won’t do it.” Russianoff added that the scandals the mayor is currently facing “are putting extra pressure on the administration to do the right thing.”

Only three people other than Gill Hearn have served as chair since the board was created in 1988. The first chair was Father Joseph O’Hare, a Jesuit priest and former editor in chief of America magazine. O’Hare became president of Fordham University in 1984 and later served on Mayor Ed Koch’s Committee on Appointments and the Charter Revision Commission. O’Hare was reappointed twice and led the CFB until 2003.

O’Hare was followed by Frederick A.O Schwarz, Jr., who was corporation counsel for Mayor Koch between 1982 and 1986. In 1989, he chaired the Charter Revision Commission. He was CFB chair for one term. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Joseph Parkes, who was already a member of the CFB, to succeed Schwarz, Jr. as chair. Parkes has been president of Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem since 2004 and also previously served as president of Fordham Preparatory School.

The search for the next chair has not yet begun. Mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in a statement, “As is standard practice mandated by the Campaign Finance Board, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito will work together to review potential candidates and appoint the person best suited for the job.”

Eric Koch, spokesperson for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, said in an email on Monday that the speaker was awaiting a consultation with the mayor.

After Gill Hearn’s resignation is effective, the mayor will have 90 days to appoint a new chair. (The deadline, usually 180 days, is shorter because of the proximity to the next election.) If he should fail to do so, the remaining members of the board can choose someone to replace Gill Hearn.

“In spite of Chairperson Hearn’s solid leadership over the last three years, this could not come at a worse time,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, “because it is the fourth quarter of the four-year city election cycle, with the major officeholders up for reelection.”

Dadey said the mayor should pick someone who will be “applauded uniformly” for their integrity. “We cannot afford to have someone in this position who is seen as a political or partisan figure because the integrity of the campaign finance program going forward really depends on the kind of people who run this program,” he said.  

Although Dadey said he did not doubt the mayor would choose the right person for the job, he said the appointment would regardless be closely scrutinized because of the investigations the mayor faces. “[The mayor] has a higher bar now to select the kind of person that will be beyond dispute,” he said.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which oversees the CFB, said in a statement last week that he hoped to see a “a thorough and open search for a new chair who will be independent, non-partisan, and non-political” in their role.

“It is of supreme importance that the next chair be someone who has the stature and integrity to not only stand up to candidates and any elected officials but guide the board through election years independently,” Kallos said.

Notably, de Blasio was faced with a somewhat similar choice when selecting a chair for a mandated commission to study and reccomend compensation levels for the city's elected officials. De Blasio chose Schwarz, Jr. in what was a universally applauded decision.

Beyond just choosing a new chair, NYPIRG’s Russianoff said this was an apt time for the mayor to commit wholeheartedly to campaign finance reform by pushing for crucial legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance laws. There are six campaign finance reform bills before the City Council, languishing in committee and awaiting a vote.

The bills have been heard once since they were introduced in November 2015 and incorporate many of the recommendations made by the CFB in it’s 2013 post-election report. (Some of those recommendations have already been codified into law.) “De Blasio’s people should do what they can to get those immediate reforms through,” said Russianoff, warning that time is running out before the 2017 elections. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing happens.”

The most significant of the bills would limit the impact that can be made by people who have business before the city and bundle donations for a candidate. Mark-Viverito recently told Gotham Gazette that the bills are going through the normal legislative process but did not explain why they have not moved.

Additionally, the CFB itself is currently mulling over a raft of rules proposals that would tighten and clarify provisions of the campaign finance law to make it easier for candidates to run their campaigns and harder for outside groups to coordinate expenditures with candidates, among other changes.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Ahead of Election Year, De Blasio Must Name New Campaign Finance Board Chair Tue, 25 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Drafting Bills to Regulate Political Nonprofits Like Campaign for One New York Kallos

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: John McCarten for the City Council)

At least three City Council members have made requests to the Council’s bill drafting unit to formulate legislation that would regulate political participation by and with “social welfare” nonprofit organizations. These are political advocacy, or lobbying, groups, which have been the subject of intense scrutiny in New York City of late due to the Campaign for One New York, a political nonprofit established by allies of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The bills currently being drafted in the Council would increase disclosure requirements for political nonprofits and reclassify the groups under the jurisdiction of the city’s Campaign Finance Board and its rules around donation limits, including by entities with city business.

“Social welfare” or political nonprofits, designated 501(c)(4)s by the Internal Revenue Service, are issue advocacy groups that have been around for decades, but their heavy involvement and influence in electoral politics has been a more recent phenomenon, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the Citizens United case. In that judgement, the Court recognized unions and corporations as individuals whose political expenditures are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. That opened the floodgates to massive independent expenditures in political campaigns and also allowed political nonprofits that advocate, or lobby, on issues to use the unlimited fundraising at their disposal for political means, as long as politics is not their main focus. These groups are tax-exempt and are not required to disclose their donors - thus, their expenditures are often referred to as “dark money.”

Separate from promoting or attacking a candidate for office, these groups also lobby government on any number of issues or agendas.

When allies of de Blasio established the Campaign for One New York to push his progressive agenda it did not take long before questions were swirling around the major donations being given to the group by labor unions, real estate developers, and others with city business. The group’s fundraising activities, the mayor’s involvement, and whether government action was offered or given in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York are currently under federal and state investigation. Earlier this year, de Blasio announced that the organization was shutting down - he declared that it had done its job given his administration’s successes around pre-kindergarten and affordable housing policy.

A separate probe by the city’s Campaign Finance Board concluded in July, where the board found that the nonprofit and the mayor had not acted illegally, but criticized the mayor for exploiting loopholes in the campaign finance law. De Blasio has maintained throughout that he and the group followed the letter of the law, while also willingly disclosing donors and expenditures, which is not currently required.

The mayor’s deep connection with the group and its donors, including big moneyed interests with business before the city, have created impressions of a pay-to-play culture at City Hall and led to calls for closer monitoring of such organizations. Certain City Council members are taking up this charge.

Council Members Ben Kallos, Rory Lancman, and Elizabeth Crowley - all Democrats like de Blasio - have each submitted a request that legislation be crafted around regulating 501(c)(4) nonprofits. Kallos’ bill drafting request is “on point” with a recent proposal made by Citizens Union, a government reform group. That proposal would require that 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) organizations created at the behest of elected officials to promote their own image or agenda be treated like political committees under the city’s campaign finance laws. This would entail detailed disclosure of contributions and expenditures, limits on contributions similar to those for political candidates, and oversight by the Campaign Finance Board.

“Anytime you’ve got elected officials whose political campaigns are limited in the money they can raise affiliated with 501(c)(4)s that engage in quasi-electoral activities that don’t have the same limits, that is a place we should be paying attention,” Kallos said in a phone interview. Kallos chairs the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, where the bills would likely be introduced and heard.

Council Member Lancman’s request was along similar lines. He has suggested that 501(c)(4)s face contribution restrictions similar to those imposed on political campaigns, which would also limit the amount of money donated by entities that have business before the city. For instance, in a citywide campaign, an individual can currently make a maximum contribution of $4,950 while an individual with business before the city can only give $400. A citywide candidate can also not accept contributions from corporations, partnerships, or Limited Liability Companies. Under Lancman’s proposal, these limits would apply to 501(c)(4)s as well. He called his proposal a “direct response to the mayor distorting the political process and undermining the campaign finance law.”

“The mayor’s transformation of this loophole into a gaping hole in the campaign finance system is probably unique,” Lancman said in an interview. “To the extent that any other elected would think of [skirting] the campaign finance law by setting up an issue advocacy organization that is for all intents and purposes an extension of the CFB-limited campaign committee, this would be a deterrence.”

The third proposal, Council Member Crowley's, would prohibit candidates who participate in the CFB's public matching funds program from fundraising for 501(c)(4)s established for lobbying purposes. "It’s important the city look at multiple approaches to ensure that candidates who participate in the Campaign Finance Board’s matching funds program run a fair race," Crowley said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "This legislation would work to prevent the influence of unregulated money used by an elected official or candidate for office to push their own political agenda and prevent an unfair advantage."

The progress of the Council members’ bill requests is currently unclear. Both Kallos and Lancman separately indicated that their proposals may conflict with others and that they were unsure of who would finally introduce legislation. While the Campaign for One New York is closing down and appears to no longer be soliciting or accepting donations, the 2017 city election cycle is about to truly take off.

Asked about the status of the bill requests and if City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had comment on the proposals, spokesperson Eric Koch emailed, “We're going through our normal legislative process.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this story has been updated with comment from Council Member Elizabeth Crowley.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

City Council Drafting Bills to Regulate Political Nonprofits Like Campaign for One New York Fri, 23 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board Considers Rules Changes, Including Controversial 'Coordination' Proposal city hall via nyctransition

City Hall (photo via @NYCtransition)

Ahead of next year’s elections, the New York City Campaign Finance Board is considering a number of rules changes that would make the city campaign finance system more efficient and clear, and less onerous. One proposal on the list, however, has raised the hackles of unions, nonprofits, and campaign finance experts.

After every four-year city election cycle, the Campaign Finance Board is busy at work analyzing potential deficiencies in the campaign finance system and taking steps to plug any holes. Part of this is a routine update of campaign finance rules concerning a number of areas including, but not limited to, candidate registration and certification requirements, campaign recordkeeping, disclosure rules, contributions, and expenditures. The CFB tightens the nuts and bolts of the system, issuing clarifications for existing rules and scrapping those that have been rendered obsolete.

Ahead of the 2017 elections, the CFB is undertaking another round of rules updates. The board held a public hearing on Thursday to solicit feedback on a fairly long list of changes, some extremely technical, which were proposed last month.

Some proposals aim at reducing coordination between campaigns and independent expenditure groups (Super PACs), others make it easier for candidates to run campaigns and simplify documentations requirements while also tightening restrictions on how public matching funds may be used. These proposals also have the additional benefit of making the CFB’s post-election audit and enforcement procedures more effective.

Some of the more significant changes on the table deal with independent expenditures, which are anathema to the CFB’s mission of minimizing the effect of money on elections. In that vein, the CFB put forward three proposals, the first of which is perhaps the most important one in the entire package.

It would add two new factors to determine whether a campaign is coordinating with independent expenditure entities. The board would monitor whether a candidate raised funds for an independent spender or if the candidate and the entity had the same employees. If any of these factors, along with six others that the board already considers, are met in an election cycle, “the Board will assume an expenditure was coordinated unless there is evidence to the contrary,” reads a post on the CFB website.

Two other rule proposals would require increased disclosure from independent spenders, including providing information about who owns or contributes to a group’s contributors and making that information available on public communications.

Renowned campaign finance attorney Laurence Laufer, who served as general counsel to the CFB and helped formulate many of its policies, testified on Thursday and disagreed with a number of the CFB’s proposals. Chiefly, though, he expressed opposition to the one that would lead to a “rebuttable presumption against independence” of an expenditure and a campaign.

Laufer has also worked for the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit set up by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies to promote his agenda. The Campaign for One New York and the de Blasio administration are being investigated by federal authorities over whether donors to the former got favorable treatment from the latter. The CFB also recently ruled that spending by the Campaign for One New York would not count toward de Blasio’s re-election campaign spending, though the board is aiming the new rule and seeking other changes to alter how elected officials and political nonprofits operate.

Speaking at the hearing, Laufer said the presumption that an expenditure is coordinated based on multiple factors is contrary to the existing law. He stressed that the burden of proof was on the CFB to show coordination rather than on a campaign to refute it. “In addition,” he argued, “this proposed presumption against independence is in derogation of First Amendment rights and it will chill the making of independent expenditures. That’s subject to strict scrutiny under First Amendment review because it’s treated essentially as a spending limit.”

Laufer also questioned the basis for the proposal, stating that it contradicts one of the CFB’s own past advisory opinions. Laufer submitted about a dozen pages of written testimony to the board as well, pointing out issues with other proposals in the package.

Brent Garin, deputy general counsel for SEIU Local 32BJ, a labor union, said at the hearing, “We fear that these proposed changes, particularly the imposition of the presumption of coordinated expenses, will inhibit our members’ participation in the political process.” He said the CFB should withdraw its proposal and submit an amended one to allow for an extended period of public comment. “Approving the current proposal would deprive the public of input for changes that drastically and negatively affect how community groups, advocacy organizations and unions can seek to effect social change,” he said.

Of the nine pieces of written testimony submitted to the CFB by those present at the hearing and other representatives of unions and nonprofit groups, seven questioned the rule change on presumption of coordination. Alexander Rabb, an attorney, on behalf of five nonprofit organizations, wrote that “issue advocacy activities will be burdened or effectively restrained,” by the rule. The New York City District Council of Carpenters and Joiners of America stated, “The new regulations create significant uncertainty regarding the use of independent expenditures and may even lack constitutionality.”

Among the other CFB proposals were ones that simplify and clarify rules that candidates in the past have found either onerous or vague. The CFB aims to clarify the rules for hiring volunteers, allowing campaigns to employ former volunteers as paid workers but prohibiting former paid workers to become volunteers. This would prevent campaigns from skirting spending limits.

One rule would eliminate a requirement that campaigns maintain a unique merchant account for credit card contributions, which was outdated and burdensome for campaigns in the 2013 election. Another reduces filing requirements for small campaigns and aligns the definition of a small campaign with state election law.

The board also put forward changes to how public funds provided to candidates can be used. One rule would require campaign communications to explicitly state that they are “paid for by” or “authorized by” a candidate or campaign committee. The board also clarified that claims for matching funds must be reported contemporaneously with contributions or they would be ineligible, and proposed new restrictions on candidates refunding contributions if they participate in the public matching funds program.

One rule, albeit a seemingly insignificant one, would allow candidates to wear pins or buttons in photos and videos that they provide to the CFB for its voter guide. (The prohibition on the accessories was a point of conflict between the CFB and Joseph Concannon, a candidate for a Queens City Council seat last year. Even U.S. Senator Charles Schumer weighed in, saying of the rule, “This is pointy headed bureaucracy at its worst.")

The CFB will now review the feedback it received and will consider adopting the final rules, with any amendments, at its next public hearing, possibly in October. Adopted rules would then be published in the City Record and go into effect 30 days later.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Campaign Finance Board Considers Rules Changes, Including Controversial 'Coordination' Proposal Thu, 15 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000