Gotham Gazette Sat, 15 Dec 2018 20:49:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Bill Seeks Fix to Conflicts Disclosure Deadline for Candidates 26412389754 0977bb6ae3 z

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council Committee on Governmental Operations met on Monday to discuss a bill to relax the deadline for candidates seeking public office to submit disclosure reports to the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB).

COIB is a city agency tasked with enforcing conflicts of interest laws for public officials and preempting potential conflicts for those seeking elected office. Candidates for public office are required to submit financial disclosures to the agency detailing, among other information, their sources of income, assets, liabilities, and positions held in any organization. These disclosures are then made available to the public, with the goal of ensuring that elected officials do not take office with financial ties to outside interests that may impact their decisions as public servants.

The proposed bill, Intro. 1517, would allow candidates an additional 30 days after the deadline for submitting ballot petitions to disclose their financial information. The petition submission deadline, which is July 10 this year, is the date by which candidates seeking public office must obtain a set number of signatures, depending on the office he or she is seeking, to gain ballot access. Currently, all candidates must file a disclosure report to COIB “on or before the last day of filing his or her designating petitions pursuant to the election law,” as outlined in the City Charter.

This current framework, according to Julia Lee, director of annual disclosure and special counsel at COIB, produces a “Catch-22 situation.” Since the COIB is not aware of who delivered petitions until after the petition deadline, the Board is “unable to notify candidates of their obligation to file an annual disclosure report after they are already out of compliance,” she said. The penalty for such a violation ranges from a $250 to $10,000 fine.

The bill, she said, “would remedy this problem” by giving the COIB sufficient time to notify candidates and to provide reports to the public before an election.

Extending the deadline would also level the playing field between first-time candidates and seasoned politicians, argued Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee and prime sponsor of the legislation. “Experienced candidates, or candidates retaining lawyers or compliance professions, may be knowledgable about the financial disclosure deadlines,” Kallos said. “New candidates, however, may lack such experience or the funds for experienced campaign staff.”

Kallos recalled that he failed to meet the disclosure deadline himself when he ran for City Council in 2013, noting that campaign novices are often not aware of the disclosure requirements until it is too late. “There is a potential for such candidates to be disproportionately impacted and found out of compliance before they are ever notified of the requirement,” he said.

Bill Seeks Fix to Conflicts Disclosure Deadline for Candidates Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Conflicts of Interest Board Opinion Could Limit Mayor's Legal Defense Fund de Blasio justice legal defense

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

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create a legal defense fund to pay fees incurred from the recently concluded state and federal investigations into his fundraising activities may face significant hurdles after the Conflicts of Interest Board issued an advisory on Wednesday establishing clear contribution limits for such defense funds.

The mayor and his administration were the subject of two separate corruption investigations -- a federal probe into whether donors to his 2013 electoral campaign or defunct nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, were promised or granted government favors in exchange for their contributions; and a state probe into whether de Blasio and his team violated election laws in funnelling large donations to Democratic state Senate candidates in 2014. State and federal prosecutors announced earlier this month that they were concluding their investigations without bringing charges against the mayor or his aides.   

De Blasio said in February that he would not use taxpayer funds to pay the law firm of Kramer, Levin, Naftalis and Frankel for his personal legal defense in the two cases, instead announcing plans to create a defense fund and raise money from donors. “All legal efforts on my behalf are not paid for by the taxpayer, as opposed to other city employees," he said. “That’s money that will have to be raised. So that’s the reality, because I guess you didn’t know, I’m not a billionaire like my predecessor.”

But the Conflict of Interest Board, an independent ethics watchdog, wrote in an advisory opinion issued Wednesday that contributions to a legal defense fund created by a public official “are no different from gifts directly to the public servant,” and therefore subject to a number of restrictions, chiefly a $50 limit on donations.

The Conflicts of Interest law is intended to prohibit individuals and firms from currying favor with city officials and defines any gift worth $50 or more as a “valuable gift.” City officials cannot accept a valuable gift, the board wrote, from individuals or firms that have or seek to have business with the city. It also noted that successive gifts within a 12-month period are not allowed and that the $50 limit applies as an aggregate to donors who are related. The aggregate limit also applies to donations by multiple “directors, trustees, or employees” of one firm or affiliated firms.

“In the absence of specific legislation that distinguishes gifts made to public servants through legal defense funds from other gifts to public servants,” the advisory opinion reads, “there is no legal basis for the Board to treat gifts made through legal defense funds differently.”

The law also holds that a public servant may not accept gifts of any value from a subordinate and no “valuable gifts” from people just by virtue of holding their public office. The only allowable unlimited contributions can come from either a family member or a close personal friend “who is not engaged in business dealings with the City, who does not appear before the City, and who otherwise has no non-ministerial dealings with the City,” the opinion reads.

The mayor has not yet specified what his own defense is expected to cost, although it’s likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. The city had spent about $10.5 million on outside legal fees in defending the administration and de Blasio’s aides as of earlier this month, Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter testified at a City Council budget hearing.

[Related: Law Department Budget Hearing Focuses on De Blasio Administration Legal Defense]

The COIB opinion poses a major hurdle to de Blasio, who may have to shoulder those legal costs himself or make the unpopular choice of using city funds to pay off a good portion of them, which he is entitled to do. At an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, the mayor indicated that he may take up the advisory opinion with the COIB. “This now initiates a dialogue,” he told reporters. “They’re a government body like everyone else. You can go back and say, ‘Well what about this example or what about this history.’ and again, this is not just applying to me, it applies to other people who may need to use this approach.”

When asked by reporters, de Blasio said that he did not ask for the COIB advisory himself and that he could not think of any very wealthy close friend who could give him the money he owes. He called a legal defense fund a "fair and appropriate tool."

The Board noted in its opinion that distinguishing legal defense funds from gifts would require new legislation or an amendment to the city charter, which the mayor brought up at the news conference. “As they’ve indicated, a potential solution is through legislation,” he said. “That’s a perfectly fair possibility. I’m not committing to anything yet because they literally just put it out, we have to think about it, we have to talk to them.”

The mayor nominates the five members of the COIB, who are confirmed by the City Council.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, praised the COIB opinion as an important measure in preventing “influence peddling by those who do business with the city.” “The ways that people can seek to influence an elected official’s decisions through the use of money become more and more limited within the city over the course of time and this was the one big remaining loophole that was left out there that the Conflicts of Interest Board has now closed,” he said.

Dadey also conceded that the mayor could fall back on city funds to pay his bills. “[Mayor de Blasio] allowed taxpayer funds to pay for the defense of his staff and I think the city may be in a position to pay for his own defense, particularly since he was not charged with anything,” he said.

For de Blasio, who is seeking reelection this year, every option appears to be a minefield.

The mayor said Wednesday that he doesn’t “feel comfortable” with the idea of revisiting use of public money for his legal bills. “I think because I’m the leader of this whole operation it is better not to ask the taxpayers to cover expenses even if they’re valid expenses,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Conflicts of Interest Board Opinion Could Limit Mayor's Legal Defense Fund Wed, 29 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Citywide Electeds Make Social Media Moves Ahead of Election Year bdb facebook computers

Mayor de Blasio at Facebook (photo via Mayor's Office)

If there’s an undeniable takeaway from the 2016 presidential election, it’s that social media can play a crucial role in how candidates for public office communicate. Nationally and locally, political candidates and elected officials have for years recognized the role that platforms like Twitter and Facebook can play in public engagement and influencing traditional media.

For New York City’s three citywide elected officials -- Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James -- this holds true as well. And, ahead of the 2017 city election cycle when all three will be on the ballot, they are reconfiguring their online presences. This involves new accounts, increased tweeting, and navigating sometimes unclear or nonexistent rules. Using social media for campaign communication does require creating distinct accounts for government and campaign purposes.

De Blasio and James have taken steps in recent months to set up separate Twitter accounts for their government and campaign communications. Stringer has not yet done so. The comptroller is also the only of the three who has not yet declared with the city Campaign Finance Board which seat he will run for next year and is a potential challenger to de Blasio in a Democratic mayoral primary.

Stringer’s tweets of late have taken on a stronger personal tone, particularly in opposition to President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed policies and campaign rhetoric. The shift also coincided with the hire of a new communications director, Stringer brought Devon Puglia on board in mid-October. 

As of October 19, de Blasio separated his official Twitter account, creating @NYCMayor, from his campaign account, @BilldeBlasio. Playing on the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ slogan from his first campaign, the campaign account tweeted: “A tale of two Twitter accounts — I’m back at @billdeblasio. Follow updates from me at City Hall at @NYCMayor. Tweets from me signed -bdb.” That was the only one of the account’s first 108 tweets signed by the mayor himself, as of earlier this week.

The campaign account, which had been @deBlasioNYC in 2013, has more than 66,000 followers while the mayor’s official government account has about 720,000 followers and has tweeted nearly 7,900 times.

Eric Phillips, the mayor’s chief spokesperson, confirmed that the official account is run by their digital communications team and would eventually be transferred to the next mayor. The @BilldeBlasio account is run by de Blasio’s reelection campaign staff, campaign spokesperson Dan Levitan said in an email. The campaign account has become very active as de Blasio has launched his re-election bid.

Public Advocate James’ office set up an official account, @NYCPA, in April this year with an eye on keeping James’ official communiques separate from her personal account, @TishJames. De Blasio, James’ predecessor as public advocate, had used only his @BilldeBlasio account.

“Whether it be Talk to Tish town halls or engaging on Twitter and Facebook, Public Advocate James goes where the people are,” said spokesperson Anna Brower, in an email. “The Public Advocate has expanded her social media use to ensure that she is reaching every New Yorker in every corner of our City.” The official account, run by her staff, has tweeted 336 times and has 1,251 followers, while James has posted more than 7,550 tweets on her personal account, active since 2009, and has a following of more than 26,200.

The contrast between the two accounts is most apparent with regards to the presidential election. James used her personal account to tweet and retweet her support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but her official account did not broach the issue at large. De Blasio’s official account did not address the presidential race either but his campaign account did so liberally.

Comptroller Stringer is an outlier with his single account, @scottmstringer, which he has used since his days as Manhattan borough president, his prior position. He has been on Twitter roughly as long as James, but has been more prolific tweeting, with 10,300 tweets as of December 5. He has more than 23,500 followers, a few thousand fewer than James.

“The Comptroller has a real success story to tell about his fight to make New York a fairer place and his efforts to make government work better for everyday families,” said Puglia, Stringer’s communications director, in an email. “Our staff is working to communicate with New Yorkers in new and innovative ways on every platform. And we’re working to make government more transparent than ever before. In 2016, that means having an active, engaging Twitter account.” It’s unclear whether Stringer will set up a separate social media account once he officially declares a run for office, which may be re-election as comptroller or a mayoral bid.

[Update: during a February exchange on Twitter about the story after a new Conflicts of Interest Board advisory opinion was released that relates to social media use by elected officials and their aides, Puglia told Gotham Gazette, "our twitter account is and has always been the comptroller's official account. It was never for personal or political use."]

James is the only one of the three who appears to personally use her Twitter account on a regular basis. The public advocate is likely to run for re-election, but has not held any campaign events other than fundraisers.

Although social media cuts through the bureaucratic red tape and often helps elected officials engage directly with the public, it has its pitfalls as well. There are well-documented cases wherein elected officials have posted messages they should not have. Some are able to blame an intern and move on; others have seen their careers or candidacies torpedoed. 

Meanwhile, the law does not evolve as fast as technology, creating legal and ethical grey areas at times.

At the federal level, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics issued a set of guidelines last year for federal employees and their usage of social media. But no such guidelines exist in New York for city employees or officials. A spokesperson for the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board said its advisory opinion from 2012, right before the last municipal election, would only generally apply in this case. As per the opinion, a government official may not use city time, resources or staff for campaign-related activities.

The COIB spokesperson could not say whether the board is currently studying the issue of social media use or if they would do so in the future.  

“It is sort of a brave new world in terms of how a public official conducts the people’s business,” said Hana Callaghan, director of the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, stressing that it’s essential for officials to have separate accounts for their official work and their campaign activity. Last year, the Markkula Center held a roundtable to analyze social media from a government ethics angle and examined the accompanying dilemmas of transparency and accountability.

In a phone interview, Callaghan noted that social media usage has thrown up unique questions about governance and public communication. For instance, in California, she said, communications on Twitter and by email can now fall under the Brown Act, the state’s public meetings law, if there are a significant number of exchanges between elected officials. The law requires that any public meetings are posted publicly and accessible to the public.

Callaghan also said elected officials should be careful about over-reliance on social media since it’s not available to everyone and “they have a responsibility to all their constituents.”

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, is an avid social media user who often solicits questions through Twitter during committee hearings. He’s well aware of the intersection of technology and governance and the issues that can arise with an elected representative’s use of social media. “Its pretty confusing to the public because they don’t know who to tweet sometimes,” he said of his own experience with separate accounts for official and campaign purposes. “So I have to spend double duty making sure I’m managing both, paying attention to both and ensuring that whether a constituent tweets my campaign or government [account], they get the services they need.”

He said officials should generally ensure that the distinctions between accounts are clear and they “respond from the right places and retweet from the right places.”

“It can be a little bit of a minefield,” Kallos said, “but you just have to be extra cautious.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with further comment from the comptroller's office during a February exchange.

Citywide Electeds Make Social Media Moves Ahead of Election Year Wed, 07 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
A New Challenge for De Blasio: Balancing Re-election Campaign and Governing de blasio NAN hands up

De Blasio at NAN (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

New York City’s municipal party primary elections are ten months away, and though he does not yet have a formidable challenger in the race, Mayor Bill de Blasio is not sitting back unprepared. De Blasio, a first-term Democrat, has kickstarted his reelection campaign, raising funds and formulating a campaign message around his achievements. In part, he is trying to preempt a significant challenger from entering the fray. But, as de Blasio himself has said, being Mayor is a 24/7 job and throwing an electoral campaign into the middle of it presents challenges.

One major challenge de Blasio faces, and in unique fashion to his three-term predecessor, is balancing his time spent governing versus campaigning, while also adhering to conflicts of interest rules for all city employees.

Answering questions recently, the mayor has given a glimpse at the balancing act involved in persuading people that he deserves to remain the city’s chief executive and performing the very duties that come with the position. At an unrelated October 26 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor about his approach to the issue. “We’re trying to figure out a balance,” de Blasio said, stressing that the job of the mayor “begins in the morning, it ends in the night, and it never goes away.”

De Blasio explained the challenge of finding time in his nonstop workday, one that begins around 5:30 a.m., he said, and includes consistent emails and calls until he goes to bed around midnight.

“Because we're in a democracy and there's campaigns and you have to do all the things around a campaign,” he said at the news conference. “As a campaign year is've gotta put more time into building up the apparatus. We try to find a way to carve out time, it's not always easy, but we do the best we can.”

Asked if he was dedicating any specific blocks of time, de Blasio said it wasn’t really possible to do so.

De Blasio is the first incumbent New York City mayor seeking re-election without self-financing his campaign since 1997, when Rudy Giuliani won a second term. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg bankrolled all three of his campaigns, thus needing to dedicate far less time away from his government duties during his two reelection bids, given that fundraising is both time-consuming and essential.

On that front, de Blasio has emphasized a return to his roots, shifting to a small-dollar fundraising operation akin to what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders employed in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. De Blasio has hired the same digital fundraising firm, Revolution Messaging, that ran Sanders’ operation, famous for the $27 average contribution that the senator liked to boast.

It is also an apparent attempt by de Blasio to diminish the negative attention he received for his fundraising for the Campaign for One New York, a political nonprofit that promoted his agenda while taking unlimited contributions, that has since become the subject of multiple local, state and federal investigations, and is in the process of shutting down. Neither the mayor or any of his allies involved have been accused of wrongdoing and de Blasio has insisted they acted legally. The mayor has repeatedly said he sought and followed appropriate guidance from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board.

It is that same board that provides guidance around separating government and campaign activities.

On radio and television appearances soon after the press conference at which de Blasio discussed balancing his time, he elaborated further on the subject when asked. During his weekly segment on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, two days after the news conference, a caller asked about the time he spends fundraising. “I can’t give you an exact percentage,” de Blasio said. “I mean, obviously, governing is the vast majority of the time...I think most people who are decent human beings, in public life, would like to tell you we would like to spend zero percent of our time on fundraising.”

As he so often does when asked about fundraising, de Blasio stressed the need for campaign finance reform, advocating for full public financing of elections that would not only pull big moneyed interests out of politics but would also focus, “all that time that goes into fundraising now back into public service.” He promised, though, that “governing has to come first and I will just have to do the best I can with limited time in terms of fundraising.”

Without more clarity on the mayor’s schedule, it is unclear how well he is limiting his fundraising time.

But, it is apparent that the mayor is making many fundraising calls and attending a variety of fundraising events already -- he appeared at a small-dollar young professionals fundraiser for his campaign in Harlem Wednesday night; on November 15, he’ll appear at a fundraiser in Southeast Queens hosted by City Council Member Donovan Richards. Previously, de Blasio has attended a variety of other small fundraising events and had a large fundraiser at Brooklyn Bowl, at which comedian Louis CK, an outspoken supporter of the mayor, performed.

Closer to reelection, de Blasio has stepped up his public outreach from a government perspective, too, hosting a number of town halls across the city. He also recently added a new weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall to his schedule. On the inaugural show, on October 31, anchor Errol Louis also asked the mayor about his fundraising schedule. 

De Blasio’s answer was similar to what he said at the news conference and on WNYC, although once Louis pressed him he added that he spends on average a few hours a week raising campaign funds. “I want to emphasize that it varies so intensely by week,” he said. “The next big campaign filing is in the middle of January, so there’ll be more energy getting close to that,” he added. “But my goal is to keep it limited each week and if it can be just a few hours each week that’s certainly what I prefer.”

De Blasio’s campaign spokesperson said questions about the mayor’s time management should be directed to City Hall. A spokesperson at City Hall then referred Gotham Gazette to the NY1 interview.

Amid any concern that the mayor may lose focus on the job is wariness about the line between official business and campaign activity. “I think he should seek very specific guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board and the Campaign Finance Board to ensure that he doesn’t cross the line because he has been suspected of crossing earlier lines,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “He should be very careful about the use of government resources for his reelection campaign, which is not permitted.”

The city’s campaign finance laws and the City Charter place restrictions on when, where, and how an elected official might indulge in campaign activities, to ensure a separation from their official duties.

The Conflicts of Interest Board also issued a general advisory in 2012 after receiving numerous questions from elected officials on how they and their subordinates may engage in political activity. By law, no elected official is allowed to use city resources for campaign purposes or work on a campaign while on the clock. For instance, in the mayor’s case, he would be prohibited from making campaign-related calls out of City Hall.

There has already been one possible indication of that separation being tested. A few weeks ago, after the mayor hurriedly took a helicopter from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to an event in Queens to avoid being late, his city spokesperson would not confirm the purpose of the meetings that delayed him in Brooklyn. As has been widely reported, the mayor frequents Bar Toto nearby for political meetings and to make fundraising phone calls. The Wall Street Journal reported that the mayor often spends his Fridays at the restaurant.

“Any incumbent who is running for reelection needs to find time within the day to do the politics of this and the mayor is no exception to that,” said Dadey of Citizens Union. Although, the mayor is the first citywide elected to have begun to campaign outright for the 2017 cycle. The other two citywide electeds, Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer, have not been especially active on the campaign trail, though both are raising some money. A spokesperson for James declined to comment for this article. Inquiries to Stringer’s office went unanswered. James has a fundraising event coming up November 16 at a Manhattan restaurant.

For incumbent mayors, Dadey added, “The political activities are almost hidden from view…because they want to be seen as doing their job as Mayor, not necessarily their job as a political figure. So it’s very important that they not be seen as a regular activity because that’s not what we’re paying the Mayor to do.”

What also puts de Blasio in somewhat challenging territory is that his situation is again so different from his predecessor, and many New Yorkers weren’t around for Rudy Giuliani’s tenure and re-election campaign.

“Mayor Bloomberg spent no time dialing for campaign dollars or hosting fundraisers,” said Patrick Muncie of Tusk Strategies. Muncie worked on Bloomberg’s 2005 and 2009 campaigns and served as deputy press secretary in the mayor’s office. He is also involved with NYC Deserves Better, a group aimed at unseating de Blasio next year that is run by Bradley Tusk, who ran Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign. Bloomberg spent over $100 million that year to narrowly win his third term.

“Of course Mayor Bloomberg campaigned in 2005 and 2009, but his passion was for governing and running the city, not politics,” Muncie said. He cited many of the criticisms of the mayor, including his mornings spent at the gym in Park Slope and his Fridays, as the Journal has reported, spent away from City Hall. “New Yorkers expect their mayor to go to work,” he said, “and to spend the majority of their time focused on their concerns.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
A New Challenge for De Blasio: Balancing Re-election Campaign and Governing Thu, 03 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Should De Blasio’s ‘Agents of the City’ Be Required to File Disclosure Forms? de blasio speaking lecturn

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

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his government legal counsel, Maya Wiley, declared that a new classification had been granted to five outside advisers of the mayor, shielding communication between de Blasio and those advisers - three of whom represent clients with city business - from certain public disclosure requirements. In doing so, de Blasio provoked heightened scrutiny, even some ridicule, of his relationships with these “agents of the city,” as Wiley called them, including the question of whether they should be subject to the same conflict of interest and financial disclosures required of top city officials.

Facing media inquiries about blocking access to communications with one of those close political advisers, the mayor’s legal team presented a tenuous, novel defense. The city had designated five individuals who work outside city government but regularly advise the mayor as “agents of the city” and declared certain communications between the mayor and those individuals exempt from transparency through the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

The revelation and ensuing public controversy over the new classification were prompted by the denial of an initial FOIL request, made by NY1 for emails exchanged between the mayor and Jonathan Rosen of BerlinRosen, a consulting firm, and follow up questions about the justification behind it. Wiley, the mayor’s top government lawyer, explained that the request for those communications had been rejected on the premise that Rosen was acting as an “agent of the city” and explained that the protection extended to four others: Nicholas Baldick and Bill Hyers of Hilltop Public Solutions, another consulting firm; John Del Cecato from AKPD Message and Media; and U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard. Rosen and Gaspard are longtime friends of the mayor. Hyers, Baldick, Del Cecato, and Rosen were instrumental in de Blasio’s 2013 election - other than Del Cecato, they also represent clients with city business.

Likely intended as something of a throw-away phrase of legalese, the “agents of the city” moniker used by Wiley stuck and put the mayor further on the defensive. “It’s a fictitious phrase,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government and FOIL expert. “It’s an attempt to stretch an exception beyond what the Freedom of Information law, in my opinion, permits.” Freeman believes the mayor is outright wrong in his contention and that the exemption from FOIL only applies for consultants who have been “retained” by the city.

The five advisers are unpaid, volunteer consultants, not city employees. While they are not officially affiliated with the administration, they have a very public history with the mayor and his political career. “I think it’s appropriate I call them advisers,” de Blasio said, avoiding the “agents of the city” moniker when pressed by Brian Lehrer on WNYC last week, “I think that’s the right phrase.”

De Blasio has repeatedly said that these advisers do not discuss their clients with him and that if they did, the conversations would be disclosed as lobbying. What he is shielding from FOIL is the informal advice they give him, he says, asserting that “these are folks who are advisers, and in some cases advisers for decades.” There are questions not only about the legal validity of this claim, but also about whether these advisers should provide a full public accounting of their conflicts and finances, as deputy mayors, agency heads, and others must.

“The state’s highest court has held that exceptions to the right to access must be construed narrowly in order to foster public access,” Freeman added. “The mayor’s interpretation is exactly the reverse.”

The administration hasn’t explained the legal underpinnings for the exemptions in this case.

Multiple requests for clarification and further comment sent to the administration went unanswered. But, if the mayor can claim these exemptions using in-house legal determination that treats these individuals as de facto employees of the city, it stands to reason that their status extends to other obligations required of officials in the administration.

“By creating this special designation for unofficial advisers whose opinion carry weight, they’ve opened up a can of worms that prompts some very necessary questions,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group.

“They cannot be protected by being called “agents of the city” without bearing the responsibility to comply fully with the ethics laws governing senior employees and not also be required to file financial disclosure forms,” Dadey said.

As Dadey pointed out, there are a number of legal provisions at play. There is FOIL, which states which agency records are subject to disclosure and which are exempt. There is the Public Officers Law, within which FOIL is contained, which regulates the business and professional activities of state employees and officers of city agencies. There is the City Charter’s Conflicts of Interest section, which lays out the different rules and regulations that public servants are required to abide by and the responsibilities of the Conflicts of Interest Board. And, there is the city’s Administrative Code, which establishes financial disclosure rules for various categories of employees and public officials.

“The concept of an agency with a private person is not something I recognize or remember,” said Michael Hess, former corporation counsel under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “Therefore, the concept of an outside adviser whose communications are privileged is not something I’m familiar with.”

There is no specific statute in FOIL that applies to unpaid consultants. To claim an exemption from disclosing communications, as the mayor can with employees of the administration, they must necessarily fall under a city agency, presumably the Mayor’s Office in this case. FOIL defines agency as “any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature.”

Perhaps Wiley and the administration see the mayor’s “kitchen cabinet,” as he called them, as fitting that “other governmental entity” label. But, the administration has declined to explain its rationale.

FOIL lays out a number of instances where the city can deny access to records, including avoiding an invasion of privacy; protecting trade secrets; protecting the integrity of contract negotiations and awards; preventing interference in law enforcement procedures and investigations; ensuring information security; and in the case of “inter-agency or intra-agency materials” that aren’t statistical data, instructions to staff that affect the public, final policy determinations, and external audits.

The last category seems the most likely one applicable to the mayor’s consultations with the five outside advisers.

By virtue of claiming such an exemption to FOIL, de Blasio is implicitly treating these advisers as employees of the city. And if they are considered employees for the sake of FOIL exemptions, then they may be considered employees under the Administrative Code Section 12-110 that deals with annual financial disclosure for local party officials, candidates for public office, and various city employees.

Information that is required to be disclosed includes name of employer; marital status; spouse’s information; offices held by individual and spouse (trusteeship, directorship, partnership and even honorary positions); information on any additional business, trade or occupation; membership of political organizations; details of agreements and contracts; nature and amount of income above $1,000; reimbursements for expenditure; value of gifts received; assets and property owned; details of creditors, among other requirements.

The disclosure requirements generally apply to employees in a significant “policymaking position” and being a direct adviser to the mayor seems to fit that description. If de Blasio’s advisers were to fill out these disclosure forms, their clients and income would be public information, making completely evident their business before the city.

If the mayor were to contend that these individuals are not eligible for disclosure under the conflicts of interest law, it would logically follow that he cannot claim the exemption under FOIL either.

Conflicts of Interest law falls under Chapter 68 of the City Charter. “The Conflicts of Interest laws have limited jurisdiction,” said Carolyn Miller, executive director of the Conflicts of Interest Board, stressing that they only apply to current and former public servants. “It’s a narrow law,” she said. When asked if COIB could make a legal determination on the “agents of the city” and whether they would be required to file disclosure forms, Miller said she couldn’t discuss either subject.

Last week, Common Cause New York, a good government group, called on COIB to review the emails in question between the mayor and these “agents” of the city, citing their concerns that these consultants may be lobbying the mayor or using insider information to benefit their clients.

“The proliferation of the city's shadow government remains a matter of public interest, especially given this protected class of individuals who operate without oversight or accountability,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in a statement. “Common Cause New York believes that this vague category demands explanation, and that the COIB has an obligation to review the emails withheld.”

The mayor has always maintained that the consultants do not discuss their clients with him. “[I]f any of them were ever to attempt to talk about a business matter related to a client – first of all, I wouldn’t allow it,” de Blasio said on WNYC. “Second of all, that would be something – of course that is discloseable – but what I’ve said from the beginning is they don’t talk to me about their clients and business matters with clients, they just don’t.”

At a recent unrelated press conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if the public should not be allowed some insights into the conversations he is having with what he described as “a kitchen cabinet” like other mayors have had, even if portions of the discussions were redacted, as emails obtained through FOIL often are. “I understand the question,” de Blasio said, “but I believe that their role as advisers was appropriate, and the way it’s being handled based on legal guidance is appropriate.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that John Del Cecato does not represent clients with city business.

Should De Blasio’s ‘Agents of the City’ Be Required to File Disclosure Forms? Wed, 01 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor Pledges to Re-Examine Conflicts of Interest Board Funding de blasio prek visit green

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said he would take another look at funding of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) for the fiscal year 2017 budget. At its March City Council preliminary budget hearing, COIB representatives explained underfunding of the agency resulting in its inability to carry out its mandated training of city employees around conflict of interest rules and its inability to retain employees. They also said that the city’s budget office had denied repeated requests for increased funding.

At a press conference on Wednesday where the mayor again referenced the work of the Conflicts of Interest Board in ensuring ethical government, Gotham Gazette outlined the underfunding of COIB and the agency’s budget testimony. The mayor replied, “That’s news to me, but your timing’s impeccable. There’s still more time ahead in the budget process and we will now put this on the agenda and see if something more needs to be done.”

De Blasio recently presented his $82.2 billion executive budget and the City Council is holding another round of hearings. However, there is no executive budget hearing scheduled for the Committee on Standards and Ethics, which has oversight of COIB. This and the mayor's lack of awareness about COIB funding issues may be because COIB wrote a letter to the city budget office requesting about $26,000 in additional funds for its most "critical budgetary needs," mostly staff raises, which was met. A copy of the letter, sent by COIB Executive Director Carolyn Lisa Miller, was provided to Gotham Gazette by the mayor's office on Thursday.

At the start of the March 10 letter, COIB writes, "At the Preliminary Budget and Annual Oversight Hearing held at the City Council on March 8, 2016, the Committee on Standards and Ethics and the Committee on Finance recognized that the Conflicts of Interest Board was impeded in fulfilling its mission due to budgetary limitations and requested that the Board memorialize in writing those specific issues. While the Board continues to believe that its overall salary structure needs to be evaluated, below reflects the most significant budgetary issues currently facing the Board."

After prior requests for additional funding were denied, COIB appears to have requested what it saw as the minimum in additional funding. COIB representatives did not return a request for comment. At its preliminary budget hearing, COIB representatives explained that the agency had had three 2015 requests for additional funding denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The mayor’s executive budget, released April 26, includes $2.32 million for COIB, about $30,000 more than what was included in this year's preliminary budget and $90,000 more than last year’s adopted budget. The agency is small, with 22 employees (and a five-member board) and is tasked with training city employees and providing guidance about potential conflicts of interest. City employees can call COIB for advice about possible ethical concerns.

In recent weeks, the mayor has consistently touted the COIB as one of the robust pillars of ethics and legality in city government and his administration. With several investigations into the actions of him and his allies, including around fundraising for an aligned political nonprofit, de Blasio has repeatedly said that he sought and followed COIB guidance. It was a point he reiterated several times on Wednesday as reporters asked him many questions about his fundraising for the Campaign for One New York, now shuttered, which accepted large donations from entities with city business.

The mayor also uses outside consultants who advise him while they also represent clients who have business with the city. The mayor insists that these advisers do not bring up their clients when giving the mayor advice and that if they do talk with him about their clients’ business, the conversations are disclosed.

Asked by Gotham Gazette if he should have known about COIB’s budget issues, de Blasio said not necessarily. “It’s a very large government and it’s a very detailed budget process,” he said. “Every single agency says they don’t have enough resources. Every agency at preliminary and executive always says they need more money. So that doesn’t get reported to me. That’s not breaking news but what should be reported is when OMB comes to the conclusion that there is a valid need...or, if it’s a jump ball, OMB says, ‘look this is a debatable point, we have questions but we still think it’s important that you hear this perspective.’ I would never be told generically that an agency wants more money.”

At its preliminary budget hearing in March, COIB officials testified that they were struggling to retain staff because of low salaries and limited resources to give raises, and that they were unable to fully carry out mandated ethics trainings for city employees. Three separate requests made to the Office of Management and Budget, totaling $200,000 in additional funding, had been rejected in 2015, they said. City Council members said they wanted to see funding increase, but it has not been a significant priority.

A budget deal between the Mayor and the Council is due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with further detail from the mayor's office, including details about COIB's March budget letter.

Mayor Pledges to Re-Examine Conflicts of Interest Board Funding Wed, 18 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies bdb town hall mic crowd

Mayor de Blasio at a town hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Over the last few weeks, facing the spectre of multiple investigations, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly stressed that he, his administration, and his allies operate ethically. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity,” the mayor has said repeatedly as reporters have questioned him about allegations of impropriety in his fundraising operations.

In support, the mayor has regularly referred to the city’s internal mechanisms for ensuring such behavior.

“Our Conflict of Interest Board, our Department of Investigation, all the different tools that we have here in the city that create accountability have gotten stronger and stronger, and we have the most rigorous campaign finance system in the country,” he told reporters at a press conference on April 13. It was not the only time the mayor has referenced the threesome in place to help keep government officials on the straight and narrow and reduce the influence of money in politics.

As the mayor has cited the training the Conflict of Interest Board delivers to city employees and the guidance he and his team sought from it while engaging in their fundraising, as well as the work of the Department of Investigations, the city’s annual budget process has been unfolding.

The season has shifted from the preliminary to the executive budget iterations, with a final deal between de Blasio and the City Council due by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. As the mayor has touted both COIB and DOI, he has had an opportunity to put money where his mouth is, so to speak, while his administration has also had the chance to weigh in on pending tweaks to the city’s campaign finance system that include reducing the impact of donation bundlers who have business before the city. There are currently limits on how much entities with business before the city can donate to candidates. (A federal investigation is reportedly focused on whether donors to a nonprofit aligned with the mayor received favorable city action. Nonprofits face no donation limits.)

During a preliminary budget hearing in March, COIB representatives told City Council members that the agency was significantly underfunded and thus unable to retain good staff or complete its mandated trainings.

DOI on the other hand, had no complaints as its budget was already ballooning, with Commissioner Mark Peters simply left to explain how he is using the additional millions.

When the mayor released his executive budget on April 27, both COIB and DOI saw bumps in funding, though for COIB funding is still not where board officials or City Council members want to see it.

The Department of Investigation’s $47.4 million allocation in the executive budget is about $3.2 million more than the preliminary budget of $44.2 million. Over last year’s adopted budget of $30.9 million, that’s a 53.3 percent increase. During his preliminary budget hearing, DOI Commissioner Peters justified the agency’s budget increase, telling the City Council’s Committee on Investigations, chaired by Council Member Vincent Gentile, that the agency has become more proactive and has started to focus on overarching systemic issues that can lead to corruption and ineffectiveness.

“As the City's workforce continues to expand,” said mayoral spokesperson Karen Hinton, “the funding provided in both financial plans will directly support the additional staff required for [DOI] to fulfill its Charter-mandated mission to eliminate fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public fund and policies.”

Mike Bistreich, legislation and budget director for Gentile, said the additional funding would also help alleviate some of the lag in background checks that DOI is supposed to perform.

However, DOI’s budget did not include significant savings, which was a cause for concern for Gentile at the preliminary budget hearing. In response, Peters proposed that 261 investigators at other agencies be moved to DOI’s payroll so their overtime could be paid through federal asset forfeiture funds.

“As investigative staff from other agencies come onboard with DOI through the positions approved in the last financial plans, DOI will be able to cover their overtime with this funding stream,” said Hinton. “In effect, saving City Tax Levy that was previously dedicated to the overtime burden. This has not been fully implemented.” Hinton said that DOI will save at least $1.6 million over the next two years, though, by implementing this for current lease payments and employee overtime.

Peters, it should be noted, has recused himself from one investigation DOI is undertaking into the de Blasio administration, over a suspect lifting of deed restrictions on a former health care facility that will become luxury housing. Peters was de Blasio’s 2013 campaign finance chair. His potential conflict of interest in leading the agency charged with investigating the mayor’s office and other city agencies was the subject of his 2014 City Council confirmation hearing when de Blasio nominated him for the job. He was voted through by a wide margin.

At the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is largely focused on preventing corruption through education and guidance, the funding picture is a bit more grim. Although it receives a $2.32 million allocation in the new executive budget, about $90,000 more than last year’s adopted budget, it is not enough for an agency where the workload in recent years has skyrocketed and staffing has remained relatively flat.

COIB representatives complained at their preliminary budget hearing that the agency struggles to retain staff because of low salaries. Three proposals they made in 2015 for increased funding were rejected by the Office of Management and Budget, they said.

Raising salaries across the board would’ve required less than $200,000, according to COIB officials who testified at the preliminary budget hearing. Instead, the executive budget outlines fiscal 2017 salary increases totaling $22,000, along with an additional $4,000 for training equipment, according to Hinton. Part of the total increase since last year’s adopted budget was due to collective bargaining agreements that have been settled. Hinton pointed out that during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, COIB has received about $292,000 in additional funding over various budgets.

“I wish it was more,” said Alan Maisel, chair of the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which has oversight of COIB. “With more money, they could always do more -- more trainings in ethics rules, they could send teams out to site locations.”

Since 2010, COIB has been mandated with training city employees in ethics rules every two years. The city has nearly 320,000 employees and COIB has only four full-time staffers, out of a total of 22, who conduct these trainings.

Maisel agreed with the mayor’s assertion that the COIB is a strong accountability agency but insisted that it could do a better job with more staffing and resources. When Gotham Gazette asked if he’d push for more funding in the executive budget negotiations, Maisel said, “I’ve already done my pushing. I don’t know where it’s going to go...Hopefully we can get them to add more money. We’re not asking for a fortune here.”

Council Member Brad Lander, a member of the ethics committee, agrees. “I think it’ll be great to give them a modest amount of additional resources,” he said, noting that COIB budget demands were relatively low, so the $90,000 increase already made this year was significant. But, he added, “I think it’ll be good to give them a little more.”

Executive budget hearings began on Friday with the Committee on Finance, an opportunity for Council members to air any budget concerns with de Blasio’s budget director. The hearing included no mention of the Conflict of Interest Board. There is no specific executive budget hearing for the Committee on Standards and Ethics scheduled. This often happens when Council members decide there is little to discuss around agency allocations.

There is also no executive budget hearing scheduled for the Committee on Oversight and Investigations.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies Mon, 09 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates Maisel COIB hearing

City Council Member Alan Maisel at Tuesday's hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

The New York City Conflicts of Interest Board is struggling to retain staff due to the the agency’s inability to adequately compensate employees, according to Alex Kipp, director of the training and education unit. Kipp and other representatives of the COIB testified Tuesday at a City Council budget hearing, explaining their budget constraints as they work to ensure that a growing city workforce acts ethically.

Mayor de Blasio’s $82 billion preliminary budget allocates $2.29 million to COIB, a 3.1 percent increase from last year’s adopted budget. The modest increase is primarily due to collective bargaining increases that were included from the city’s November financial plan, said City Council Member Alan Maisel, chair of the Committee on Standards and Ethics, which has oversight of COIB.

The COIB budget remains essentially unchanged, despite the fact that the agency workload has significantly increased in recent years.

“One difficulty that we’ve continued to encounter, and we’ve felt this especially this year, is retention,” Kipp said. “The salaries are quite low for training staff, and we’ve tried various ways to ameliorate that situation unsuccessfully.”  

In 2015, COIB made three separate requests for more funding to raise the salaries of agency employees, all of which were rejected by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“When I was hired as a trainer in 2001,” Kipp said, “I was happy to get the job at the rate of $38,500. Ten years later, when we wanted to hire two trainer positions, the senior management staff took a 2 percent pay cut in order to fund those positions, so that the salary for those two trainer positions could be $39,000.”

COIB initially made a proposal to raise salaries across the board. After it was rejected, agency leaders came back with another proposal to raise the salaries of specific individuals, including trainers, which was also rejected. Then, COIB asked for additional funds just for the three trainers and one other position in the agency which are “acutely underfunded,” only to have that proposal rejected as well.

As a result, COIB, one of the smaller city agencies with just 22 full-time employees, lost at least two employees in 2015, one of whom left for a similar position with another city agency offering more money.

“In December,” Kipp said, “my senior trainer was offered a position with the Housing and Preservation Department” to improve their inspector training program. “They offered him a $10,000 raise to do so. We asked for $10,000 to match that offer, and it was rejected. And so, we lost him.”

Maisel asked why all of COIB’s requests had been rejected, since “the city is obviously paying people more in other agencies and departments.”

Kipp said they did not have information as to why their proposals were rejected. The entire proposal to raise the salaries of COIB employees across the board was “less than $200,000,” Kipp said. “By the time we were looking at just these targeted proposals, we were looking at less than $75,000 in personnel costs. I don’t know why they rejected it.”

In defense of OMB, Wayne Hawley, deputy executive director of COIB, added that the two agencies’ relationship on budget matters typically “range from reasonably good to quite good…but this is one particular area where we feel like we could really use some help.”

In 2010, ethics training became a requirement for all New York City employees after voters approved a change to the City Charter, which made it so that all city employees must receive ethics training every two years. There are currently 319,057 New York City employees, according to the latest headcount by the Citizens Budget Commission.

Yet, COIB has only four employees on staff who carry out such training, meaning, as Kipp said at the hearing, “while we had a record-breaking year last year with about 35,000 people trained, we’re never going to be able to hit 150,000-175,000 people a year with live training classes.”

COIB was “hoping to start development of [an online training] system in late 2015, but, because of staffing setbacks,” had to postpone the project. Beginning a pilot program to conduct conflicts of interest training electronically is something COIB hopes to achieve this year.

In 2015, COIB taught 855 ethics classes, a 42 percent increase from the previous year, according to COIB’s annual report. COIB’s Enforcement Unit, which also consists of just four attorneys, opened 544 new cases in 2015, another record high for the board, 484 of which were closed by the year’s end.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Council members asked COIB to come back to them with something in writing that details exactly what COIB needs in order to function as effectively as possible, so that Council members can include it in their preliminary budget response.

Council members seemed receptive to spending more to meet COIB needs.

“It would be wise of us to spend more on prevention. We are increasing the budget of the Department of Investigation,” Council Member Brad Lander said, referring to the other city agency tasked with preventing and rooting out unethical behavior, “but if we could spend a bit more on things that keep people out of trouble, obviously, that would be wise to do.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates Wed, 09 Mar 2016 03:18:36 +0000
Conflicts of Interest Board Reiterates Request for Independent Budgeting ferreras budget hearing

CM Ferreras and Speaker Mark-Viverito at a 2014 budget hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

At a hearing of the City Council Standards and Ethics Committee held at City Hall Thursday, representatives of the city's Conflicts of Interest Board reiterated a long-standing request for an independent budget.

In his testimony, Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) Deputy Executive Director Wayne Hawley said, "For almost two decades the board has sought an independent budget." The fact that the Board is charged with overseeing the same officials who decide their annual budget, he said, is "in and of itself a seeming conflict of interest."

"This conflict should be corrected through a charter amendment that removes the board's budget from the discretion of the public servants who are subject to the board's jurisdiction," he added, referring to the Mayor and members of the City Council.

Thursday's preliminary budget hearing involved oversight of the Board's performance over the last year and discussion of its budget going forward. But, for all intents and purposes, things remain the same. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio's initial fiscal year 2016 budget plan, the Board's funding is largely unchanged, with a few minor increases, and the main focus of testimony was the years-old request for a budget independent of the Mayor and the City Council.

The Board's pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. Council member Alan Maisel, chair of the Standards and Ethics Committee, agreed that the Board should be completely independent. "From a practical sense, political sense, democratic sense, they shouldn't have to go hat in hand to get their funds," Maisel told Gotham Gazette. "They should get a fixed budget. It should be basically automatic."

The proposed charter amendment is similar to the budgetary provision for the Independent Budget Office, which receives 10 percent of the budget of the Office of Management and Budget. However, the Board's proposal would set its budget according to the City's total expenses for the year - specifically, it would be not less than four thousandths of one percent (0.00004) of the city budget. It would also require detailed public accounting of the Board's expenditures. Going by the City's Fiscal Year 2015 adopted expense budget of $75 billion, this formula would yield a COIB budget of $3 million. In actuality, it was allocated $2.1 million.

The Board submitted an identical proposal to the Mayor and Council Speaker in 2009, with the exception that the budget request was set at 0.00007 of the total. It was reduced in conjunction with dropping a proposal for investigative authority for the Board.

Hawley believes the Board's pleas are being heard. "The last careful discussion of this was during the last charter reform." he told Gotham Gazette. "I think they listened, there are competing interests and the Board understands the competing interests as a matter of, probably, good government."

The counter-argument to budget independence, he conceded, is that it takes away freedom from democratically-elected officials charged with making budgets to allocate money as they see fit.

The Board's budget requests have only marginally increased and their staff size has been stable, but their responsibilities and workload have jumped over the years. Despite Hawley acknowledging to the Committee that losing even one person from the 22-member staff could make a significant difference, the Board did not request any additional funds for staffing.

"We think our staff is about the right size," Hawley said. "There's always the temptation to ask for more, but we're mindful of the fact that one more staffer for us arguably means one fewer teacher or one fewer firefighter or one fewer sanitation worker, and we're mindful of that."

[Related: read our preview of this hearing for more background on the function of the COIB]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Conflicts of Interest Board Reiterates Request for Independent Budgeting Thu, 12 Mar 2015 20:43:12 +0000
Standards and Ethics Committee to Again Examine Conflicts of Interest Board chambers

City Council Chambers (photo: William Alatriste)

"If you have a question about whether your conduct is allowed under the City's ethics law, press two," says one part of the automated response a caller hears after dialing the Conflicts of Interest Board.

As preliminary budget hearings continue this week at the City Council, the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) will be examined to ensure that it is fulfilling its role in preventing corruption and properly funded to do so. The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee, chaired by Council Member Alan Maisel and with oversight of the COIB and ethical protocols among city officials, is holding its preliminary budget hearing on Thursday.

The hearing comes at a time when corruption and ethics have been all over the news as state-level lawmakers continue to wind up in handcuffs, accused of both legal and illegal wrongdoing, and engage in negotiations over reforms. Officials at the city level have not been without scandal, of course, and there has been increased scrutiny of late on the City's Department of Investigations (DOI).

The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee does not oversee the DOI, but with oversight over the COIB, similar issues come up - namely that of independence.

The Standards and Ethics Committee has punitive powers, but has rarely needed to exercise them in the past few years save for two recent cases, those pertaining to Council Member Ruben Wills, a Democrat, and former Council Member Dan Halloran, a Republican, both of Queens.

Wills was recently arrested for the second time in as many years. He has been indicted this time around for filing false documents with the COIB. Dan Halloran was sentenced last week for corruption and bribery in trying to aid former State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, in bribing his way onto the 2013 ballot for Mayor as a Republican. Halloran was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Last month, the Standards and Ethics Committee held an oversight hearing to discuss the two cases. Requests for comment made to Maisel's office were referred to the committee's general counsel, who did not respond to calls or messages.

Thursday's budget hearing of the committee will be, for the most part, an opportunity for the COIB to present its annual report. The COIB implements and enforces New York City conflict of interest laws. It also educates city employees on ethical requirements, acts in an advisory capacity to current and former employees, and oversees financial disclosure for elected officials.

A spokesperson for the COIB declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

In recent years, the COIB's workload has increased but staff numbers and budget have barely changed. According to the COIB's annual report, the board conducted 599 training sessions last year, up 11 percent from 506 in 2013. In 2001, only 190 sessions were conducted. COIB received 488 new complaints in 2014, marginally lower than the 506 in 2013, but almost four times the number from 2001 (124 complaints). There were 4,950 total requests for legal advice from current or former city officials, compared to 4,088 the previous year and 2,189 in 2001.

Despite this increased burden, the budget for the COIB has increased from $1.69 million in 2002 to a proposed $2.11 million for this year as outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget. (It was $2.03 million in fiscal 2014). The staff strength stands at 22, actually one less than in 2001.

At last year's executive budget hearing, COIB Executive Director Mark Davies said in his testimony that the Board was "just about at where we should be" in terms of manpower and resources. But, he ceded that maintaining the quality of the staff depended on ensuring a steady budget and possible future budget cuts would be draconian and dangerous.

Herein lies the most COIB's most important concern. Although it is a non-mayoral agency in function, it has an almost contradictory structure. The board has five members, approved by the City Council and appointed by the Mayor, who serve staggered six-year terms and can be reappointed for a second term. With the Mayor's involvement and the Council's consent key to these appointments, the contradiction in the board's mandate is apparent. COIB members are not only charged with enforcing rules on the very people, mayoral staff and council members, who make their appointments, but who decide the board's budget. Therefore, each year, the COIB advocates for a charter amendment to provide it with independent budgeting.

"Our mission is to guide honest officials thereby promoting both the reality and the perception of integrity in government by preventing conflicts of interest violations from ever occurring," said Davies in his 2014 testimony. "In other words we are in the prevention business, not in the punishment business, thus perhaps most importantly the board reiterates a concern that it has expressed for many, many years: the lack of an independent budget."

Such a charter amendment would need widespread support since it can only be passed by referendum or through state legislation.

Good government groups are on board with COIB's proposal. "Independent budgeting is an important fail safe for agencies that conduct oversight, like the COIB," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for Citizens Union. "Codifying this in law will ensure that it continues to receive sufficient resources, regardless of the administration that is in office."

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said COIB has a strong reputation for objectivity. "Could it be strengthened by being more independent? Possibly," she said. But a significant measure, she said, would be "a full outside evaluation of how things are being handled by the board. From an anecdotal point of view, not from any systematic review, there seems to be a bias towards the executive."

Considering the focus on ethics reforms over the last year, at both city and state levels, and the Council's recent critique of the Department of Investigation's apparent performance decline, the COIB may do well to take this opportunity to ask for a larger budget and push for complete independence. Not only would that help protect against future uncertainty but also ensure it is not beholden to the whims of political forces. As its annual report states, "Ethics lights the way to good government."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

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

Standards and Ethics Committee to Again Examine Conflicts of Interest Board Wed, 11 Mar 2015 17:31:42 +0000