Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara shot an arrow into the air, but it didn’t land anywhere near Bill de Blasio. The same can be said for Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, who concedes that New York’s mayor may have twisted campaign-finance laws into a pretzel, but that’s okay, because his lawyer said so. So ends a year-long, two-pronged investigation of de Blasio and a clutch of his top aides into practices that clearly compromised state and federal campaign-finance statutes, but did not break them—or, at least, did not break them so egregiously as to warrant prosecution, which effectively is the same thing. Now de Blasio is free to turn his full attention to seeking a second term, which he should win in a cakewalk, and which, in turn, should help enormously when he starts soliciting public contributions to pay down what must be prodigious legal bills.
Meantime, taxpayers are on the hook for at least $12 million in lawyers’ fees incurred by de Blasio staffers caught up in the probes. Also among the losers is the publicity-conscious Bharara himself, who rode the investigation like a carnival pony for months, to a less-than-dramatic outcome. Bharara, fired by the Trump administration earlier this month as part of a national housecleaning of U.S. attorneys, now awaits appeals court rulings on his signature public-corruption conviction: that of former state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. And trials are months away for Cuomo administration figures and others indicted by Bharara for bribe-receiving, kickbacks, and other alleged offenses. To say that Bharara’s legacy hangs in the balance would be an understatement.
The de Blasio investigation involved the alleged solicitation of money from people seeking official favors from the city. Bharara’s office concentrated on at least one political nonprofit created by de Blasio—the now-defunct Campaign for One New York—while Vance probed contributions allegedly meant to subvert state campaign-finance laws. Nobody seriously disputes that money was solicited, and common sense dictates that favors were expected. Why else would contributions have been made?
Indeed, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim’s office 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.” And Vance determined that Team de Blasio’s funneling of money to upstate Democrats appears “contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits.” But, added Vance, because the mayor and his aides had been advised by lawyers that the solicitations were legal, there was no basis for prosecution. “This conclusion,” said the DA, “is not an endorsement of the conduct at issue.”
One would hope not. But in New York, nothing should be taken for granted. So the bottom line appears to be this: neither prosecutor found evidence that personal bribes were accepted—unlike, say, in the Silver case—and so they found no compelling case for indictments. And that may well be the law, which, after all, was written by politicians motivated to protect both their sources of campaign cash and themselves.
But no reasonable person can look at this case and conclude that justice was well served. The mayor’s team shook New York’s donor class vigorously and often—and millions of dollars fell out. Donors consistently benefited from this, and as Kim said, the mayor regularly intervened with “relevant city agencies on behalf of those donors.”
Clearly, in Bill de Blasio’s New York, big bucks spoke loudly. And this renders the mayor’s response to the prosecutors’ announcements—“we held ourselves to a very high standard and we will continue to”—more than a little ridiculous. But such cynicism is to be expected in New York, a state long since given over to special-interest money and those who dole it out.
After Bharara convicted Silver and Dean Skelos, his state Senate counterpart, and then indicted Governor Cuomo’s closest aide and others, it looked like times might be changing. More likely, once the dust settles, the big-bucks influencers will be back stronger than ever. Preet Bharara took his shot in New York City—and missed.
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