Gotham Gazette

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Campaign Finance Board Rules In Mayor’s Favor While Criticizing Him

 Campaign Finance Board RUles

(Credit: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Campaign Finance Board sent a somewhat mixed message to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday over the nonprofit group set up by his allies to promote his progressive policies.

At a public meeting in Downtown Manhattan, the CFB issued a determination that de Blasio’s fundraising for the Campaign for One New York, a group established to promote universal pre-kindergarten, was not connected to the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign and therefore did not violate campaign finance rules. The ruling resolved both a CFB investigation and a Feb 22 complaint by Common Cause New York, a government reform group, that alleged the mayor may have violated campaign finance law by soliciting donations for his nonprofit group and then transferring some of those funds to another nonprofit, United for Affordable NYC.

“The Campaign for One New York was formed to advocate for New York City’s progressive policy agenda,” said spokesperson Dan Levitan, in an email. “It never engaged in any election campaign activity for any candidate and shut down more than a year and a half before next year’s election. We are pleased with today’s CFB decision.”

But even as the Board absolved the mayor’s campaign, it criticized the mayor’s fundraising through the nonprofit, which they said “plainly raises serious policy and perception issues” and shows the limits of the city’s Campaign Finance Act.

CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn stated that the board would continue to closely monitor the mayor’s campaign to ensure compliance with the law. “To the extent that tangible goods, services, or work product from the Campaign for One New York may be made available to the 2017 campaign, the Board does not consider this matter closed,” she said.

Hearn stressed that more than 95 percent of the funds received by the Campaign for One New York would have been illegal contributions if they were made to a candidate since they largely exceeded contribution limits and included contributions from corporations, Limited Liability Companies and people with business before the city. She also pointed out that the city’s campaign finance system, with its public matching funds program and contribution limits, helps candidates run for election without the backing of wealthy special interests. “New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” she said. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”

The CFB also issued an accompanying advisory opinion relating to candidates’ cooperation with issue-advocacy organizations. The Board put forward seven criteria for determining if expenditures by such a group are connected to an election, most importantly the timing of expenditures. Any coordinated expenditures after Jan 1 in an election year, they said, would be presumed to have been made in connection with the election and would be subject to campaign finance rules and regulations.

Government reform advocates were disappointed with the CFB’s determination, which they saw as a narrow interpretation of the city’s campaign finance law. “The onus is now on the city council to close this gap and on the mayor to sign a bill if it’s passed,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, after the meeting, referring to the apparent loophole that allows elected officials to raise unlimited funds for an issue-advocacy organization as long as it doesn’t promote their campaign.

Criticizing the mayor, she told reporters, “If you’re gonna be the champion of the little guy and run as he did, to his credit, with the largest proportion of small dollar contributions of any of the candidates, then stick with that. Stick with the people. Don’t even give the appearance that you’re selling out to large unions, large real estate developers who are cutting you $250,000, $350,000 checks.”

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said the CFB “clearly felt constrained by the law” and he put forth a proposal for new legislation that would create stronger regulations for nonprofits affiliated with or created by elected officials. Under the legislation, such groups would have to register with the Campaign Finance Board, would have limits on contributions from people who have business with the city and would be required to disclose all donations and expenditures, similar to the CFB’s regulations for transition and inauguration committees for elected officials.

“We saw with the activities of the Campaign for One New York, the re-emergence of a pay-to-play culture that would breed corruption in the city of New York if it is not stopped,” Dadey said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors

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Mayor de Blasio, 2014 (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office) 

In the early stages of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s run for office in 2013, thousands of small donations flooded in but big donors were rare. “I will admit to you there was a time early in the mayoral campaign when a maximum donation was a very unusual thing in our campaign, so it certainly got attention then,” the mayor said, at a June 15 news conference.

As the situation changed and bigger donations became more “typical,” the mayor said his campaign was careful about vetting big donors. His instructions were “to look carefully at every donation, and there was a thorough vetting process, and whenever there was a feeling on behalf of the lawyers and others who looked at it that a donation did not make sense to accept, it was returned,” he said.

Even then, however, questionable donors, some of whom may have flouted the rules, slipped through the cracks.There were the two businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, who donated and raised large sums of money for the mayor and are now at the center of a federal investigation into the bribery of top NYPD officers. Just last month, Reichberg and three high-ranking police officers were arrested in connection with the case.

In a June 10 radio interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, when asked about Rechnitz, the mayor said, “We try to vet things very, very carefully but even with careful vetting you can’t always pick up what someone’s intentions are.” Earlier, in April, a spokesperson for the mayor’s 2013 campaign said that they would return the $9,900 donated by Rechnitz and his wife. Following that, in May, DNAinfo found cases of possible straw donations -- in which a person illegally contributes another individual’s money under their own name -- made to the mayor in 2013, which prompted the mayor’s campaign to refund $32,200 to seven donors. Individuals can donate a maximum of $4,950 to a citywide candidate in an election and can only donate from personal funds.

Experts agree that the size and volume of donations in most modern day elections makes donor vetting a daunting but necessary task. It’ll be particularly important for de Blasio as his 2017 re-election operation ramps up amid scrutiny at multiple levels around his fundraising practices, which originally stemmed from the probe into the NYPD and expanded to include allegations of pay-to-play relationships with top donors.

At the June 15 conference, de Blasio also told reporters that his lawyers have clear instructions for campaign staff ahead of 2017 and “the bottom-line, which I’m certainly aware of, is vet before you deposit,” he said. “So a check can come in, and you have no idea it’s coming in. It can come in the mail, it can come in at an event, but you have to vet it before depositing and be very careful and make sure that everything is proper.”

That’s a rule that former political consultant Cynthia Darrison lived by. Darrison, who now teaches campaign fundraising at New York University, has worked for campaigns at the city, state and federal level. “If we got a check from someone we don’t know, we wanted to know - why is this person giving to us? Who is this person?,” said Darrison, in a phone interview, referring to her time working for late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s campaign. “My basic motto is: paranoia is usually good and warranted,” she added.

She pointed out some clear red flags that campaigns should look for to avoid what she calls “dicey spicy” contributions. For instance, when a campaign receives sequential money orders at a fundraiser, in multiples of the admission price.

She laid out the dos and don’ts of fundraising. The first step is a simple online search of the donor to check for any possible news stories or negative headlines. Another resource, she said, is LexisNexis, a massive online database for public records often used by journalists and legal researchers. For citywide candidates, she collected employee and employer information and ran names against the city’s vendor tracking system, VENDEX, and against the Doing Business Database which lists companies and individuals with business before the city. She also checked for any possible investigations of a donor by the Department of Investigation. Online contributions are trickier, however, since they’re automatically accepted and deposited. “You still need to vet them and refund if necessary,” she said.

Daniel Bright, a lawyer who worked for President Obama’s New York campaign in 2008, doesn’t think there’s any one standard practice for vetting donors. “It’s almost impossible to have a foolproof system,” he said, especially considering some campaigns, like de Blasio’s, can get thousands of donations. “When you run for citywide office, lots of people come to fundraisers and you don’t know who they are,” he said. “I don’t really know how you could vet everybody who writes you a check…. Everyone wants to be friends with the mayor and other public elected officials.”

He said campaigns should be wary of suspicious behavior and patterns that suggest impropriety, such as the same handwriting on multiple checks. “One obvious flag is large checks from people with jobs who don’t usually write large checks,” he said. Darrison raised the same concern. “If you see that they’re a factory worker or a beautician and they’re giving a $10,000 donation, you have to wonder, what’s going on here?” she said, “Is this credible?” This was apparent in the donations exposed by DNAinfo, where they found that two commercial drivers who were employed by a wholesaler donated about $10,000 each to Mayor de Blasio’s campaign and transition team.

It’s unclear whether the mayor has dedicated more resources to vetting donations for his 2017 campaign. Multiple requests for comment to a campaign spokesperson went unanswered. Last week, the mayor’s senior advisor Phil Walzak, appearing on NY1, gave host Errol Louis a sense of the process. Walzak said, “We look at people. We look at their backgrounds. We look at the public documents and records that’s available about someone’s past and we try as hard as we can to intercept any potential problem at its core. If there are circumstances where someone may have gotten through the screen, we move swiftly to repair that.”

Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University, said, “My sense is that campaigns take the money first and then ask questions later. There’s no specific vetting process that happens systematically in most campaigns and if campaigns discover that a donor is problematic or a contribution is problematic for any reason they’ll usually send it back.” He also stressed that campaigns have to work quickly to raise significant sums of money in a short period of time, making it difficult to vet every contribution. Sometimes, he said, the monitoring happens “after the fact, after they’ve already accepted the contributions.”

Often, that monitoring is done by the media or by political opponents, said Bright. He said contributions are usually returned either in response to a news article or revealed through opposition research done by the person running against a candidate. “That’s a standard practice,” he added.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Expands Neighborhood Policing Program


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An NYPD patrol car in Downtown Manhattan (Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette)

The New York Police Department’s program to reimagine policing with a focus on creating community relationships expanded to six additional precincts and one more housing Police Service Area (PSA) last week, bringing the total to 26 precincts and six PSAs now served by the new model. Gotham Gazette visited the 79th Precinct in Western Bedford-Stuyvesant on Monday, July 27, to see the rollout of the program and to speak with residents about their reaction to the new policing model.

Neighborhood policing, sometimes referred to as community policing, launched as a pilot in four precincts in May 2015. The program, part of the NYPD’s evolving approach to preventative measures, is an integral component of Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s new plan for the department, One City, Safe and Fair Everywhere, which was released in June of last year. The addition of 1,300 new officers to the force is part of implementing neighborhood policing, which calls for officers to spend more time walking beats free from responding to 911 calls.

Essentially, the NYPD’s plan is aimed at fostering trust between police officers and residents, business owners, and others in neighborhoods they patrol. Through daily personal interactions and direct involvement in community affairs, officers are expected to build relationships. The basic tenet of the program is that familiarity breeds trust so the same officers patrol the same areas virtually every day to acquaint themselves with the people who live and work there, and vice versa. The program is expected to expand to 40 precincts, of the 77 in the city, by next year.

"It really stems from the central idea that we owe it to our communities to keep them safe and we owe it to our officers to keep them safe," said the mayor, when he announced the plan just over a year ago. "And the two ideas unite when police and community are working together. That is the best guarantor of the safety of our neighborhoods and our officers."

Some reformers are critical of the community policing model, which they say has a potential to lead to more policing of quality-of-life offenses and turning community problems into police problems. When the increase in NYPD officers was proposed last year to facilitate the program, Alex Vitale, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, and Alyssa Aguilera, political director at VOCAL-NY, opposed it. They wrote in a March 2015 editorial for Gotham Gazette, "Too often, community policing means more intensive and invasive policing of minor disorderly behavior that serves to criminalize mostly people of color without dealing with the underlying causes of this behavior like poverty, homelessness, problematic drug use, mental health issues, and more."

Under the new model, in part made possible by the 1,300 new officers fought for by the City Council, but also somewhat the result of how safe the city already is, each precinct is divided into four or five sectors and a two-officer patrol car is dedicated to each sector. Officers are also given a third of the time in their shifts to engage with the community rather than respond to 911 calls. Other precinct-wide response teams compensate for those officers to ensure emergency response isn’t affected. Each sector will also have two specially trained Neighborhood Coordinating Officers (NCOs) who identify community issues and crime trends to find solutions. "Citizens will get to know their cops," the plan reads. "The officers will take ownership of their sectors. The public will identify sector officers as their go-to-cops and not just another blue uniform."

At the NYPD Police Academy’s graduation ceremony on Friday, July 1, Commissioner Bratton echoed the sentiment that underlies the community policing model, telling the 1,257 new graduates that they shouldn’t wrap themselves in "a blue cocoon that isolates you from the community."

Last Monday, June 27, was the first scheduled day for neighborhood policing in the 79th precinct, which has relatively high crime rates, but has also been getting safer and is on the frontier of creeping gentrification in Brooklyn.

Requests to NYPD for information about the launch went unanswered in the week leading up to it and on the day, calls to the precinct’s Community Affairs unit went unanswered till late in the afternoon. The precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector John Chell, was also unavailable.

The launch of the program was without much fanfare it seems. Officers at the precinct did not seem to know the details of its implementation and suggested Gotham Gazette contact NYPD headquarters, to find those in charge of the program. The office of the Deputy Commissioner Public Information subsequently confirmed that the program had launched and provided details for the 79th precinct. The precinct has four sectors, with eight NCOs and a sergeant in charge of the program, supervised by the commanding officer.

For people in the neighborhood, the launch of the program came as a surprise. Some had heard rumors, while others were entirely unaware. But most agreed that it was a necessary and valuable initiative that would mitigate the distrust between the police and a community overwhelmingly home to people of color.

A few people were wary of more cops on the street, an extension of their feelings towards the controversial stop-and-frisk policies that the police department heavily relied on in the past. But they supported the principle behind the program if it means that police officers interact with them as law-abiding citizens rather than view them with suspicion.

Army veteran F. Herbert, 90, has lived in Western Bed-Stuy for more than 60 years and says he has seen it go from a "rough neighborhood" to one that started changing for the better ten years ago. He recalled the 1964 riots, which began in Harlem following the shooting of an African American teenager by an NYPD officer and later spread to Bed-Stuy. People were "trying to burn [the neighborhood] down," said Herbert, providing evidence of what happens when there is strife between the police and the people. "It’s gravy around here compared to what it was," he said.

Crime in the precinct has fallen precipitously, from 7,277 major crimes in 1990 to 1,541 in 2015, a drop of 78.8 percent.

Having lived there so long, Herbert has seen cops come and go. He befriended many of the older ones, who have long since left, but doesn’t recognize the new faces on the block. The new cops "don’t stop and talk," he said. "They just keep moving. I think they should try to get to know the people in the neighborhood."

That’s exactly what the neighborhood policing model aims to accomplish, and Herbert supports it. "I think it’s a good thing, personally," he said, stressing that the city needs to start implementing it in full. "Action needs to be taken instead of talk," he added. "Talk is cheap."

The effort to get to know people in the neighborhood is to build bonds, in part to learn about community concerns so they can be addressed proactively, before things boil over, to learn about individuals, gangs, and others who may cause neighborhood upheaval. The notion that better relationships will lead to more tips, both before and after crime occurs, is of concern to some police reformers.

Keishon Warren, 35, is co-owner of Brooklyn Blend, a coffee shop on Tompkins Avenue, a few blocks down from the 79th precinct building. Officers frequent his business, even from the neighboring 81st Precinct. "I'm for any initiative that can assist the community in growing and being safe without interrupting people’s livelihood," he said.

He praised the precinct’s current community affairs unit, saying they do a “phenomenal” job. “They’re doing a great job with just their presence in community programs,” he said. “They reach out to business owners and key figures in the community.” But he admits that despite falling crime levels, there's room for improvement and the neighborhood policing program is a necessity.

Warren’s words ring true. Crime is still relatively higher in the 79th compared to other precincts even though it is falling. In 2015, there were 1,541 major crimes in the precinct -- 7 murders, 27 rapes, 281 robberies, 363 felony assaults, 312 burglaries, 456 cases of grand larceny and 95 car thefts. This year, as of June 26, there have been 665 major crimes -- 2 murders, 10 rapes, 121 robberies, 150 felony assaults, 139 burglaries, 200 cases of grand larceny and 43 car thefts.

Warren also said that the 79th precinct is one of the few where he has seen officers on foot patrols, although there were none visible that day. Across the precinct, pairs of officers patrolled in squad cars, criss crossing the neighborhood.

George Carty, 56, works as a consulting network administrator. He has confidence in neighborhood policing. "It’s a good idea," he said, particularly for younger residents to develop congenial rather than adversarial relationships with police officers.

Carty doesn’t think there's much division between residents and police in the neighborhood, compared to other communities, but thinks the program is valuable regardless and will promote cooperation. “People will know that the police are somebody they can go to if there's a problem,” he said. "It'll be a good system. It'll help a lot...And if [the police] have a problem, people will look to help them out."

On July 11, the precinct’s Community Affairs unit will host a forum at 585 Dekalb Avenue, where the precinct community council meets once a month, at which top officers will discuss the program with residents and provide details of how it is being implemented.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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