City of “Agents”
Under investigation, Mayor de Blasio’s administration is acting like it has plenty to hide.
As investigations of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration deepen, his denials and obfuscations are becoming increasingly disconnected from reality. The first-term Democrat is now retailing straight balderdash and trying to bluster his way through a thickening bramble of ethical questions.
The besieged mayor continues to defend his use of the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit that took millions of dollars from his progressive allies, many of whom sought (and received) favors from the city. De Blasio says he needed to establish the organization because his office lacked the resources to wage an advertising and media war of ideas against well-heeled opponents: “So, we come along and say here’s our core agenda, it revolves around fighting income inequality, things like creating full-day, pre-K for all, and a very ambitious affordable housing program for half-a-million people. We’re going to put together the resources to achieve those goals—those are going to be fights. They were fights—you got to see it with your own eyes. . . . We were trying to break a status quo that was very well entrenched.”
Yet neither of these de Blasio policy efforts was actually opposed by “entrenched” interests. The mayor’s call for universal pre-K was broadly hailed. What generated opposition was de Blasio’s insistence that the program be funded by a special tax on high incomes, a proposal that state leaders rejected as politically unfeasible. In the end, Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo found funding for the program in the state budget, and business leaders and progressives alike celebrated its launch.
As for affordable housing, de Blasio’s radical plan to reshape New York City through rezoning did receive pushback—but not from the real estate industry. In fact, Real Estate Board of New York president John Banks wrote in support of mandatory inclusionary housing, calling it “crucial” and “a sensible tool in the belt of the mayor to promote the construction of new affordable housing.” The opposition came, ironically, from community groups and affordable-housing advocates, who argued that the mayor was destroying neighborhoods, promoting gentrification, and not pushing wealthy developers hard enough to build affordable units.
The mayor announced earlier this year that the Campaign for One New York was closing down, because, he said, its “work is done.” In the service of promoting pre-K for all and affordable housing, the nonprofit took in more than $4 million. Among its largest donors were the teachers’ union; 1199 SEIU, which represents health-care workers in the city’s 11 public hospitals; wealthy horse-carriage opponents Stephen Nislick and Wendy Neu; and real estate developers who sought variances and approvals on construction projects.
De Blasio has turned aside inquiries into how donations to the Campaign for One New York may have influenced policy decisions. Last week, the mayor introduced a new wrinkle to the old debate about executive privilege. Asked why the mayor’s office was refusing to release e-mails between de Blasio and powerful political consultant Jonathan Rosen, de Blasio’s counsel Maya Wiley explained that as an “agent of the city,” Rosen is exempt from requests made under New York’s freedom-of-information law. This dodge appears to set a new precedent: it gives the mayor the power to declare lobbyists and consultants beyond the reach of normal disclosure requirements. Typically, the freedom-of-information law exempts intra-governmental communications. De Blasio’s unilateral expansion of the law now allows it to cover those who benefitted directly from the Campaign for One New York’s lavish expenditures.
Perhaps Mayor de Blasio’s closest adviser, Rosen represents several major donors to the Campaign for One New York. His firm took in at least half a million dollars from the nonprofit. In addition to Rosen, the mayor’s office claims that three other political consultants should be exempt from disclosure because of their closeness to de Blasio, as should Patrick Gaspard, the current U.S. ambassador to South Africa and formerly political director of 1199. The federal Hatch Act enjoins Gaspard from partisan political activity, but he retains close connections with the union and with the New York City labor-political complex. His brother Michael Gaspard serves as a senior advisor to the Advance Group, which ran the Nislick-funded campaign widely credited with destroying city council speaker Christine Quinn’s 2013 mayoral chances.
Two of the exempt “agents,” Bill Hyers (de Blasio’s 2013 campaign manager) and Nicholas Baldick, work for Hilltop Public Solutions, a political consultancy that received more than a quarter-million dollars from the Campaign for One New York. Baldick previously founded the Alliance for a New America—former North Carolina senator John Edwards’s independent campaign-finance vehicle for his 2008 presidential campaign. The Alliance was later implicated in campaign-finance fraud scandals. John de Cecato, the third “exempt” political consultant, is a founding partner of consulting powerhouse AKPD Message and Media. De Cecato had at least 60 meetings with de Blasio in the first 18 months of the mayor’s administration. AKPD billed the Campaign for One New York more than $1.1 million for its communications work.
De Blasio has repeatedly stressed that his office has been “scrupulous” in adhering to the “letter” of the law when it comes to conflicts of interest, but how praiseworthy is it for an elected official to announce that he only appears to have broken the law? The mayor also insists that “a stunning number of donors and supporters not only did not get things they hoped they would get, they got rejection of things they hoped they would get because we ran a government that was clean and appropriate.” Like a child pointing at all the lamps he didn’t break, de Blasio apparently thinks either that people love him so much that they won’t mind his missteps or that they’re too stupid to notice.
Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office
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