Gotham Gazette Sun, 15 Dec 2019 08:18:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim de blasio panel mayors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim Tue, 06 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Limits Government Contact with Top Outside Advisor de blasio presser pointing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Limits Government Contact with Top Outside Advisor Tue, 29 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000