Gotham Gazette

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Adams Begins Mayoralty with Series of Ethics Questions

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Adams, middle, with Chief of Staff Carone, right, & First Deputy Mayor Grillo (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

When Eric Adams was running for mayor, his opponents in both the primary and general elections repeatedly questioned his honesty and integrity. They pointed to his involvement in a state corruption investigation, his history of blurring the lines of campaign finance law, some of his political relationships, and whether he is consistently truthful. Questions swirled around whether Adams simply plays by his own set of rules, even while running on a strict law-and-order platform as a former police captain pledging to make the city safer.

Adams scoffed at the criticism and voters elected him the 110th mayor of New York City. But in just his first few weeks as the city’s chief executive, Adams has given new credence to those concerns after appointing officials that bring into question whether he is willing to flout the city’s conflicts of interest laws, ethics norms, and even his own professed high standards for the integrity of his mayoral administration.

The central concerns swirling around the new mayor relate to three prominent appointments he has made to his young administration, including a scandal-scarred former top NYPD official as a deputy mayor; a political fixer and lawyer with a variety of messy entanglements as his City Hall chief of staff; and his own brother as the well-paid head of his police security detail. Adams was facing consistent questions about these and other decisions before they were overshadowed by the twin tragedies that have dominated his early tenure: a deadly Bronx fire and the killing of two police officers.

Adams first raised concerns when word of those pending appointments broke in November and December. On January 5, the new mayor officially appointed Frank Carone as his chief of staff. Carone was the longtime counsel to the Brooklyn Democratic Party and a lawyer with the influential firm Abrams Fensterman, which also has a lobbying practice with significant business before the city government.

The Daily News has recently reported on Carone’s various legal woes stemming from his private businesses, including allegations that a company he controlled has failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.

Adams then appointed Phillip Banks III, a former top police official, as his new deputy mayor of public safety on January 7. Banks had previously served as Chief of Department at the NYPD but left amid a federal corruption investigation in which he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

In an effort to address the serious questions about his past and Adams’ decision to bring him to the top levels of his new administration, Banks unorthodoxly announced his own appointment in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. “The central theme of the reports about my involvement in the corruption scheme was that I was party to it; that I traded favors as a senior NYPD official for some form of compensation,” Banks wrote. “That is 100% false.”

Notably, while investigators did not charge Banks with a crime, there was evidence that he repeatedly accepted large gifts from people seeking favors from him (in apparent violation of the city’s Conflicts of Interest laws), flouted departmental protocols, and at the very least blurred ethical and legal lines. Banks’ column did not address several of the allegations or facts about his apparent misconduct, such as accepting expensive travel and other gifts. He did apologize for misjudgements in the time he spent with the indicted co-conspirators, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, who had showered Banks with gifts while they got perks from the NYPD.

The Daily News reported that even before he was officially named a deputy mayor by Adams, Banks requested the resignation of the head of the Internal Affairs Bureau, who had helped investigate Banks years ago.

Unlike when Adams named his five other deputy mayors at an extensive and celebratory press conference, the mayor did not hold an event to introduce Banks to the public or for the two to take press questions. Adams has repeatedly defended hiring Banks by saying that he was never brought up on criminal charges and that Banks has long been a close advisor on policing issues and is the best person for the job of deputy mayor for public safety.

In a January 9 interview on CNN, Adams defended Banks’ appointment, insisting that the new deputy mayor “was not accused of a crime.” He cited a rise in violent crime as the reason he needed someone with Banks’ experience on the job. “I can’t leave bad people doing bad things to good people on the bench when I have a talented person that just made some bad calculations, bad decisions. He didn’t do anything that was criminal. Phil is a great person,” he said.

Adams other eyebrow-raising appointment was his own flesh and blood, in apparent violation of city nepotism laws. The New York Post reported on January 7, soon after Banks’ announcement, that Mayor Adams’ brother, Bernard Adams, was being tapped to become a deputy commissioner at the NYPD. Like Eric Adams, Bernard Adams spent two decades in the NYPD before retiring roughly 15 years ago (Eric retired after rising to captain; Bernard after reaching sergeant.)

According to The New York Times, Bernard Adams had been back on the city payroll since December 30, even prior to Eric Adams being sworn in as mayor. But the Adams administration did not begin seeking a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) for the appointment until after it was made public by The Post. Neither the mayor’s office nor the NYPD has responded to Gotham Gazette requests for information as to how Bernard Adams wound up back on the NYPD payroll in the final days of the de Blasio administration.

Though Adams may not be the first mayor to appoint a family member to a city position, recent mayors have not awarded paid positions like he sought to do. For example, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray spearheaded the ThriveNYC mental health program and was named Chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, but was not paid by the city for either role (a fact de Blasio lamented). Adams has made vague reference to that and other past appointments, but has not acknowledged the pay distinction.

“On its face, this looks like a violation,” said Richard Briffault, former chair of the COIB, in a phone interview, discussing the appointment of Bernard Adams. “And he's going to need a waiver for it. The better practice would have been to apply for a waiver first.”

As questions began to swirl about Mayor Adams’ decision to name his brother to a well-paid position in city government, his brother’s role was announced as executive director of mayoral security. Mayor Adams defended the appointment by raising the spectre of rising white supremacist violence and said he trusted his brother with his safety. “Personal security — my life, my life — I want in the hands of my brother with his 20-year law enforcement experience,” said Adams, who had previously downplayed his need for an NYPD security detail unless there were credible threats against him. “He has the police experience, but he also has the personal experience. He knows his brother, and he’s going to keep his brother safe.”

Mayor Adams has said he would wait for the COIB’s guidance before moving ahead with the appointment. “We're going to follow the process and the COIB will make a determination and we will follow their rules,” he said at a January 13 news conference. Gothamist reported on Thursday, January 27, that the COIB granted the mayor a waiver to hire his brother at a nominal salary of $1 a year. According to the report, the administration withdrew its plan to pay Bernard Adams an annual salary of $210,000 and instead asked for a waiver to give him an uncompensated position.

Mark Davies, who was executive director and counsel of COIB for 22 years, said in an email, “I can't comment on a specific case, but a waiver is prospective only. It does not cleanse past conduct that violates the Conflicts of Interest Law. That past violation could be prosecuted by the Board as a violation or could simply be ignored, which would often happen in a trivial case (e.g., if a secretary at DCAS works for a vendor to the DOE having nothing to do with DCAS).”

Mayor Adams has a history of running afoul of the rules and escaping the consequences. When he served in the State Senate, and chaired the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, he was caught up in a scandal over the bidding process that would have allowed casino gambling at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. A state inspector general’s report in 2010 found that Adams was among several lawmakers who were guilty of “failing to fulfill their public duty” in the process. The report also noted that some of Adams’ testimony in the investigation “strains credulity” and that he had taken major campaign donations from the firm that eventually won the contract.

In his time as borough president, Adams also seemed to come close to breaking the law. Adams raised funds for his outside nonprofit, the One Brooklyn Fund, from people with business before the city, prompting federal and city investigations. Again he faced no charges.

Adams has been unapologetic about the appointments he has made. “I’m going to hire the best people for the job that I’ve known throughout my years in government and their talents,” Adams said at a January 14 news conference. “And the reason I can do that is because I’m the mayor. I’m the mayor of the city of New York. And it’s going to take a while before people realize that.”

Besides Phillip Banks and Bernard Adams, some of the new mayor’s other appointees have also come under fire.

Other questions have been raised beyond the three aforementioned appointments. According to reports from The City, Carlo Scissura, who was expected to become the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a city-run nonprofit, engaged in practices that would qualify as lobbying but without registering as a lobbyist. The Daily News reported that Adams’ new Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina fired Sarena Townsend, the deputy commissioner of investigations and trials, after she refused to “‘get rid of’” 2,000 disciplinary cases against DOC staff.

Asked to comment about this early series of questionable personnel decisions and considerations, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams pointed Gotham Gazette to public comments the mayor has already made defending some of the choices.

“In the post-City for Sale era, this is probably the most challenging time New York City has ever seen from a corruption and ethics perspective,’ said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group, referring to Jack Newfield’s and Wayne Barrett’s classic book that detailed the corruption scandals during Ed Koch’s mayoralty. 

Kaehny said Adams’ actions and his obstinacy in the face of criticism are posing real tests to the city’s anti-corruption institutions, particularly the COIB. “This is kind of the moment that the ethics watchdogs have always dreaded, which is that you have a mayor that is in a head on collision with COIB and also potentially with the Lobbying [Bureau] given some of his appointments’ activities,” he said.

“The most important thing is does the Conflict of Interest Board pass this test? Does it have the independence and the gumption to be able to uphold ethics rules that are really pretty clear?,” he said, of the prospect that the COIB could rule against Bernard Adams’ appointment.

Most recently, the COIB upbraided Adams’ predecessor, Mayor de Blasio, who had his own major issues with ethics, campaign finance, and conflicts of interest regulations. De Blasio created two outside nonprofits to promote his agenda and sought funding for them from people with business before the city, who he then did favors for. Those activities prompted local, state and federal investigations but the mayor was never charged with a crime. He was, however, chastised by a number of investigators and regulators.  

The larger issues under Adams, Kaehny said, are that most voices outside of the press have been silent. Adams hasn’t been broadly criticized by, say, other top officials who are supposed to hold him to account, major business leaders, labor unions, or even other good government groups. And Adams is not one to wither under condemnation.

“In a democracy, ethics laws are really based on name and shame…Eric Adams, like a lot of successful politicians, shame is not really something in his inventory. And he doesn't seem to feel much shame or remorse for much of anything,” Kaehny added.

While early polling shows that New Yorkers largely approve of Adams’ performance so far, it is unclear whether ethical questions will begin to penetrate the consciousness, which only becomes more likely if there is new information that comes to light around Banks, Carone, or others, or whether there is a protracted battle around Bernard Adams’ appointment pending the COIB ruling.

“I think it's important for people to believe that their government is operating ethically and honestly in the public interest, and not in the private interests of the people in power and actions that are inconsistent with that could cause the public to lose their trust,” said Briffault.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that COIB issued a waiver for the hiring of Bernard Adams. 

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