Jona Rechnitz, a Brooklyn-based real-estate developer, self-described political fixer, and confessed felon, testified in federal court last week that he “[gave] money to the mayor of New York in exchange for favors.” It’s a startling allegation, even in the context of the cloud of corruption that has hung over the de Blasio administration. But is it credible? Could it be true that Rechnitz enjoyed official consideration in exchange for some $200,000 in campaign contributions? Specifically, could it be, as Rechnitz testified, that Bill de Blasio personally solicited from him $102,000 to help fund a key mayoral project: the election of Democrats to the state senate in 2014?
De Blasio, according to Rechnitz’s testimony, called and “told me it would mean a great deal to him if I could help out” with that campaign. The businessman agreed to go along, he said, as “a personal favor to [the mayor].” In return, it seems, Rechnitz got political access, and the ability to dispense favors, such as NYPD “courtesy cards” that can help the bearer avoid traffic tickets. But the mayor is having none of it. “You’re going to hear these stories from a felon facing jail,” de Blasio said Saturday, calling Rechnitz “a horrible human being.” His Honor has a point: Rechnitz is a dubious character. Having pled guilty to official corruption charges of his own, he was testifying against an accused accomplice—Norman Seabrook, former boss of the powerful correction officers’ unions—in exchange for sentencing leniency.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lying. There’s some reason to believe him—Exhibit A being the statement that federal prosecutors issued when they closed former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s years-long corruption investigation of de Blasio and his administration last March. Consider this, from acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, when he shut down the lengthy mayoral probe: “[We found] several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the city, after which the mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant city agencies on behalf of those donors.” That tracks well with this, from Rechnitz: “Whenever we would call [de Blasio fundraiser Ross] Offinger for access or for a favor, we were getting the response that we expected and the results we were expecting.” There’s an intriguing symmetry here that enhances the plausibility of Rechnitz’s testimony and raises a question: If federal prosecutors believe Rechnitz’s testimony is trustworthy enough to justify awarding him star-witness status in their case against Seabrook, why isn’t it credible enough to anchor a case against Team de Blasio?
Further, Rechnitz claims that Mayor de Blasio asked him to speak to Seabrook to get him to stop criticizing Joe Ponte, the former corrections commissioner. A corroborating email from Rechnitz to de Blasio’s account says that he, Rechnitz, had the labor boss “under control.” The mayor ducked questions about the exchange, saying that he had no recollection of the email. That might be true, but it doesn’t explain why Rechnitz would email the mayor about Seabrook out of the blue. The exchange lends credence to the thesis that there was an operational, transactional relationship between the mayor and the macher.
Bharara spent years creating a public perception that he was digging into de Blasio’s shenanigans—concentrating largely, though not exclusively, on the Campaign for One New York, a now-shuttered political-action nonprofit that solicited special-interest cash to fund its work. In the end, nothing came of that probe. President Trump fired Bharara as part of a general housecleaning of U.S. attorneys, and Kim simultaneously shut down the investigation. At the same time, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. dropped his own investigation of de Blasio’s gamey effort to flip the state Senate—advancing a bizarre explanation. Vance said that he had uncovered fundraising that ran “contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits,” but that since the mayor’s lawyers had told him that everything was okay, that made everything okay. Ignorance of the law served as an excuse, at least in Vance’s eyes. (It turns out that some of those mayoral lawyers had made hefty donations to Vance’s campaign—something the D.A. now said he regrets.)
Mayor de Blasio is a shoo-in for reelection next week, thanks in large measure to a pair of remarkably un-rigorous prosecutors who had the tools to do better.
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