News that federal law enforcement is investigating the campaign finances of Mayor Eric Adams came as a shock to New Yorkers but not much of a surprise. The “mayor with swagger,” as he has dubbed himself, practically insisted on prosecutorial attention with his late-night visits to the backrooms of midtown hotspots and Bronx boîtes, where he was never seen to pick up a check. The mayor’s association with colorful characters such as the Petrosyants brothers—identical-twin restaurateurs with identical-twin federal felony convictions for medical billing and check-cashing fraud—as well as his penchant for hiring longtime cronies as highly paid advisors have certainly rolled the eyes of seasoned city hall watchers.
In early November, FBI agents raided the home of Brianna Suggs, Mayor Adams’s fundraiser. Suggs, a former Adams aide from his term as Brooklyn borough president, was elevated to the role of chief campaign fundraiser at the tender age of 23; she is now 25. Federal officials are reportedly investigating the mayor’s campaign to determine whether it solicited, accepted, and “bundled” contributions from foreign donors, who are legally prohibited from giving money to American political campaigns.
The screw turned again when it emerged that FBI agents braced the mayor and his security detail when he was leaving an event last week. Brandishing a search warrant, the officers conducted the mayor into an SUV and seized his phone and iPad. They were looking, it emerged in leaks from the U.S. Attorney’s office to the New York Times, for evidence that Adams had done favors for Turkish nationals, after he had won the Democratic nomination for mayor but before the 2021 general election.
Specifically, it is alleged—the leaks are quite specific—that acquaintances of Adams asked him to help obtain a Certificate of Occupancy for the new Turkish consulate in Manhattan. The Fire Department had been reluctant to sign off on the Turkevi Center, and Ankara was evidently eager for the building to be ribbon-cutting ready when Turkish president Recep Erdogan arrived in time for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2021. Adams evidently did forward the request to former FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro, and a temporary Certificate Of Occupancy appears to have been issued for the consulate.
Asked about the series of events that led to the unusual seizure of his personal communications devices, Adams was blunt. “I did reach out to the commissioner,” Adams said. “This is what elected officials, what we do. . . .You reach out to an agency and ask them to look into a matter. You don’t reach out to an agency to compel them to do anything because I had no authority to do so. I was the borough president.”
Indeed, at this point, at least, there seems to be much more smoke than fire surrounding this scandal, with little out of which to build a federal case. Over the last decade, the Supreme Court has tightened the definition of public corruption to the point that convicting an elected official for bribery requires virtually a written contract specifying a quid pro quo. The most relevant case here is McDonnell v. United States, a unanimous 2016 decision involving the former Virginia governor who received gifts from the CEO of a tobacco company, and for whom then-governor McDonnell held promotional events at the governor’s mansion. The Court overturned McDonnell’s conviction for honest services fraud on the grounds that setting up meetings, calling other officials, and hosting events don’t count as “official acts” in the language of the bribery statute. The McDonnell case was cited as possible grounds for dismissing New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez’s 2017 bribery case, and it also bolstered arguments for overturning the conviction of Andrew Cuomo associate Joseph Percoco. “No one knows what ‘honest-services fraud’ encompasses,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his response to Percoco’s case. “And the Constitution’s promise of due process does not tolerate that kind of uncertainty in our laws—especially when criminal sanctions loom.”
So unless there is more—much more—to come regarding Eric Adams and his Turkish friends or donors, it seems unlikely that he will be indicted on bribery charges pertaining to interagency phone calls regarding a consulate. Some have suggested that the rough treatment from the Department of Justice is a shot across the bow from the Biden administration, annoyed over Mayor Adams’s criticism of its handling of the migrant crisis. Given the use and abuse of federal police power in the last few years—including raids on former president Donald Trump’s home to look for missing paperwork, warnings that parents attending school board meetings could be terrorists, and the ongoing search and prosecution of January 6 Capitol protest attendees—it’s not impossible that the president, or his administration, might push back at a Democrat mayor who criticized him publicly on an issue roiling national politics.
But another, more mundane truth lurks behind this minor scandal: that New York City imposes onerous, time-consuming, and expensive permitting processes on people trying to do business, and that those processes are rife with corruption. For years, the city has been rocked by arrests of inspectors demanding cash to remove stop-work orders, expedite inspections, or clear complaints. In 2015, 50 building inspectors and industry workers were charged in 26 independent bribery schemes, across two agencies, with tens of millions of dollars changing hands.
It’s hard to know from the outside what exactly happened in this Turkish consulate case, and no clear information is available as to the state of the building or whether it’s fit to occupy. But would it come as a great shock if the Turks, faced with an importuning building inspector with his hand out, chose to call a friend in elected office to sort out the problem?
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