At a press conference in early February, Mayor Bill de Blasio reminisced fondly about how, as just a youth, he watched the 1973 Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities hearings on television. “I don’t know,” said de Blasio modestly, “what kind of 12 year old watches the entire Watergate hearings day after day, month after month, but I did.” The mayor went on to compare President Trump with the subject of those infamous hearings, calling him “Nixonian,” and citing “an eerie parallel” between the two presidents.
More recent news has turned the mirror of history around to confront the mayor himself, who sat down last Friday with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and his team of prosecutors for a voluntary interview about corruption in the de Blasio administration—specifically, allegations of pay-to-play in the solicitation of political contributions. Looking grim in a Monday television interview about the meeting, the mayor said that he was “happy” to have been grilled for four hours by Bharara in a discussion for which de Blasio was granted no immunity from prosecution. That is to say, any evasions or misleading answers that the mayor provided could leave him open to charges of perjury, misrepresentation to law-enforcement officers, or obstruction of justice.
Recalling the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson—“any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances”—one wonders why Mayor de Blasio’s attorneys advised him to take such a risky gamble, facing a prosecutor who relishes convicting high-profile elected officials. After all, the allegations against the mayor continue to unfold on virtually a daily basis, involving a wider and ever more colorful cast of characters, and adumbrating a vivid, if yet incomplete, picture of municipal politicking at its worst.
For example, we have learned that Moishe Indig, a businessman and rabbi who was once listed on Public Advocate de Blasio’s “Worst Landlords List,” held a fundraiser in 2013 for the future mayor, who appears to have later intervened to assist Indig with the lifting of certain troublesome “Notice to Vacate” orders posted on several school buildings in Indig’s community. We’ve also been told that Gina Argento, a prolific donor to political campaigns who owns soundstages and film production companies, felt “pressured” to contribute to de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York fundraising entity. Argento’s company depends on the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment for permits, and she has been negotiating to purchase property on Governor’s Island to build a soundstage. A number of low-level office and production assistants who work for Argento have given thousands of dollars to de Blasio’s election campaigns.
A major bundler of contributions for de Blasio’s 2017 campaign was Ahlam Jaoui, a 31-year-old woman who lives with her parents in Bay Ridge. Jaoui had appeared wearing a hijab in a campaign for a Muslim-oriented, women-only rideshare company, though her online social media profile depicted a decidedly racier side. Jaoui, whose professional experience includes giving swimming lessons to disabled children in Brooklyn, allegedly raised thousands of dollars in contributions for de Blasio from rich Westchester limo-company owners. It emerged that Jaoui is associated with Fernando Mateo, a prominent Republican businessman with wide-ranging interests involving municipal oversight. It was Mateo who solicited Jaoui to serve as a “straw bundler” in his place. The de Blasio campaign treasurer was apparently happy to take Jaoui at her word.
The most perverse, ironic, and truly Nixonian revelation in the emergent saga, however, concerns none other than de Blasio’s attorney, in whose office the meeting with Bharara took place. Barry Berke, of New York City litigation powerhouse and major lobbyist Kramer Levin, has so far received no payment from de Blasio, despite the fact that his bills must surely have passed the six-figure mark. And no payment is forthcoming for the near future for, as de Blasio is fond of saying, “I’m not a billionaire, like my predecessor.”
So how will the mayor pay his substantial and accruing legal bill? “That money will have to be raised; that’s the reality,” he says. So New York City’s mayor is facing multiple public-corruption investigations into his fundraising practices, and is currently deeply in debt to the important lobbying firm that is handling his legal matters; the firm, which represents many major developers with business before the city, routinely files reports clarifying that it intends to lobby Mayor de Blasio’s office on behalf of its other clients. And the solution to this mess? More fundraising.
It’s fine for de Blasio smugly to muse about “eerie parallels” between Tricky Dick and President Trump, but the mayor is enmeshed in politico-financial dealings that would make Bebe Rebozo blush.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images