At least five investigations are underway concerning corruption in or around New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. So far, the investigations have revealed that two members of the mayor’s inaugural committee gave lavish gifts to top NYPD brass in exchange for favors, including the opportunity to hang around in police circles and get speedy access to gun permits. A lobbyist with close ties to de Blasio was involved in a shady real estate deal that leveraged city approval to make millions for inside investors. Next, it emerged that the mayor’s closest advisors had asked major donors to funnel money through county political committees to Democratic candidates for state senate in 2014. This kind of fundraising is against the law if the donations are coordinated. Investigators are also looking into coordination between the mayor’s 2013 campaign, his political nonprofit organization the Campaign for One New York, and the operations of anti-horse-carriage group NYCLASS, which was organized as an independent campaign group. Finally, authorities are examining allegations that “straw donors” contributed large sums to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.
A range of entities are investigating these overlapping charges, including the office of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance; the New York State Board of Elections; New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE); and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, among others. In sum, every law enforcement agency with oversight over New York City government is asserting shared jurisdiction and examining some piece of what is shaping up to be one of the largest municipal political scandals in history.
In response, Mayor de Blasio has taken a page from his former boss Hillary Clinton’s playbook and claimed that the whole thing is a frame-up orchestrated by his political enemies. In a letter to JCOPE last week, Leonard Laufer, the attorney for the Campaign for One New York, stated that the nonprofit will no longer cooperate with the commission’s investigations, claiming that its inquiry is a “blatantly political exercise by an agency whose very independence is deeply in question.” The implication is that Governor Andrew Cuomo—a fellow Democrat but otherwise no friend of de Blasio’s—is directing JCOPE’s probe. JCOPE is a legally constituted state commission empowered to investigate matters pertaining to ethics and lobbying; no provision exists by which officials can opt out of its investigations. And the idea that Bharara is taking his marching orders from Albany is ludicrous: there is every reason to assume that Cuomo himself may be in Bharara’s sights.
De Blasio suggests that he has been targeted on ideological grounds, because he has spoken so much truth to power. Standing with Al Sharpton at a National Action Network rally this weekend, the mayor reminisced about his radical past, exhorting the crowd never to be “surprised by opposition. Opposition is part of our lives when you make change. I saw that long ago when I was a student activist. I saw it when I was fighting to get the United States out of Central America in military intervention there.” Going further to burnish his revolutionary credentials and solidify his support among African-American voters, de Blasio praised the election of Sadiq Khan (“this ray of light”) as mayor of London. “A lot of people in this room have studied history and know something about colonialism and imperialism,” he said. “How wonderful—yes, a bit ironic—but more important a statement of progress that the place that used to be the capital of colonialism has elected a Muslim man as its mayor.”
In radio interviews, de Blasio has complained about unfair double standards. “There are massive conflicts of interest going on every day in this country that go fully unexamined,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer last Friday. “What we are doing is doing the people’s business, and there’s a lot of examination of the work we’re doing. . . . I’m really concerned about a double standard here where we do everything to the letter of the law, disclose everything, are open about it, do not let it affect our decisions—meanwhile, a lot of people are doing a lot worse and not getting much examination.” On Hot 97, a popular hip-hop radio station, he lamented: “Look, this is not even close to a level playing field. You’re talking about corporations and wealthy individuals who spend millions and millions and millions of dollars anytime they want. We don’t have anything like that to respond with. . . . Yeah, there are a lot of powerful interests who don’t necessarily want to see all of this succeed, but we’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to keep bringing it to the people.”
Perhaps trying to rally progressives and divert attention from his proliferating scandals, de Blasio renewed calls for a boycott of fast-food restaurant Chick-Fil-A, whose owner reportedly opposes same-sex marriage. De Blasio is years late to this party. Several Chick-Fil-A franchises operate in Manhattan, and more are scheduled to open; protests were originally organized against the restaurant in New York City in 2012, prior to its expansion here. The mayor’s sudden championing of this already-lost cause looks like obvious pandering.
As investigations and allegations of the mayor’s corruption continue to mount, expect him to continue blaming others, making vainglorious noises about his commitment to righteousness, and practicing clumsy legerdemain to divert attention from his problems. It has always been clear that de Blasio is not an effective manager of the city; what’s also becoming apparent is that he is not even good at managing his own image.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images