Documents released this week in the corruption trial of former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano reveal that a key witness in the case has already pled guilty to federal charges of having bribed Mayor Bill de Blasio. Harendra Singh, a restaurateur, allegedly bribed Mangano in order to receive county concessions and other favors. Singh, who raised tens of thousands of dollars for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign, confessed in a sealed courtroom in 2016 that “I gave these donations to the elected official in exchange for efforts by that official and other city officials to obtain a lease renewal from the city agency for my restaurant on terms that were favorable to me.”
The elected official in question, though technically unnamed, is clearly de Blasio, whose office has held high-level meetings—in City Hall—with Singh and the commissioner of the city department in charge of leasing concession space. These meetings, among others, were the intense focus of corruption investigations by former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara. Bharara’s office closed those investigations last year, after President Trump removed him from his position.
So in the Eastern District of New York, Singh has pled guilty to charges of bribery, conspiracy, and honest-services wire fraud, while in the neighboring judicial district, the object of Singh’s ministrations is walking free and was reelected in the intervening period. Singh confessed that his donations were part of a quid pro quo arrangement, but the evidence was apparently not solid enough to pursue against the mayor. One would think that two people need to play pay-to-play, but in some technical, legalistic sense it seems that it can be a game of solitaire; ever since the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision, the prosecutorial bar to prove public corruption has been set very high.
De Blasio’s office has continually touted the dropping of the federal and state investigations into his activities as proof that he is innocent. “We comported ourselves in a legal and appropriate and ethical manner,” the mayor said last March, following the announcement that there would be no charges filed against him. “This situation has been resolved and now we’ve got to get back to work serving the people of New York City 24/7.”
In a recent exit interview with the New York Times, however, former Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim—who replaced Bharara and dropped the federal investigation—demurred from de Blasio’s assertion that he had received a clean bill of health from the Department of Justice. “We do not ask the question, ‘Is the conduct ethical or appropriate?’” Kim said. “As a private citizen, I certainly hope that a decision by a prosecutor not to bring criminal charges is not the standard that we should expect from our leaders.” Not being convicted is good enough for de Blasio, however, who insists that he always follows “the letter of the law” in his campaign-fundraising work; but another way to interpret avowed adherence to the letter of the law is to suppose implicit violation of the spirit of the law.
Perhaps to counter the resuscitated story of corruption in his administration, on Wednesday de Blasio boycotted a meeting with President Trump that he, along with other members of the National Conference of Mayors, had planned to attend to discuss the president’s infrastructure plans. Following an unrelated announcement Wednesday morning that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will consider clawing back funding for “sanctuary cities” that refuse to provide documentation about compliance with federal requests for information, de Blasio joined other mayors in decrying this “racist assault” and announcing that they would skip the White House meeting. “This proves there was no intention to have an honest dialogue,” said de Blasio in a press conference to announce his non-attendance. “I came down here ready to have a serious meeting, and what I got was a publicity stunt from the Trump administration.”
Two days before the infrastructure meeting, however, the mayor dismissed its significance in a conference call with other mayors and indicated he was unlikely to attend, according to the Wall Street Journal. His press office announced de Blasio’s planned attendance Tuesday night, after Harendra Singh’s guilty plea was unsealed, possibly in an effort to divert the certain negative coverage of de Blasio’s involvement with a confessed and convicted political corrupter. De Blasio has not been indicted for anything, though mounting evidence implicates him and his office. It remains an open question as to why the investigation into his fundraising practices was stalled.
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