conflicts of interest

City Ethics Watchdog Urged to Consider Penalties in Mayor’s Fundraising Flap

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his executive budget at City Hall, April 25, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his executive budget at City Hall, April 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Two government watchdog groups urged the city’s ethics board Thursday to weigh in publicly on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s apparent flouting of fundraising guidelines – and consider penalties.

As THE CITY revealed last month, a Department of Investigation probe determined de Blasio violated conflict of interest rules after being warned repeatedly not to solicit donations from individuals with pending city business. The investigation examined the mayor’s now-defunct political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York (CONY).

In a 2014 guidance letter requested by de Blasio’s campaign, the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) cautioned him against soliciting funds from individuals with business before City Hall. Officials at Reinvent Albany and New York Public Interest Research Group wrote a letter of their own to the board Thursday, calling for transparency – and potential action.

“Our groups believe COIB rightly restricted fundraising activity by the mayor and his aides related to CONY and should assess penalties as appropriate if the guidelines were violated, as appears to be the case,” wrote NYPIRG director Blair Horner and Reinvent Albany director John Kaehny.

“COIB should make its position known as to whether the mayor and his aides violated the guidelines in any event, as the matter is already public because of reporting by THE CITY.”

Conflicts of Interest Board officials declined to comment, citing legal restrictions.

De Blasio’s reaction echoed his stock response to recent questions about his CONY fundraising: “We’re talking about something that happened years ago for an entity that is now defunct. It has been looked at and reviewed by multiple entities. They all passed their judgment. The case is closed, there’s nothing else to say.”

The mayor addressed the issue as he told reporters he would make a decision on a possible presidential campaign “in the month of May.”

The DOI report obtained by THE CITY included three detailed, but redacted instances of de Blasio hitting up developers for donations for the Campaign for One New York while they were seeking favorable decisions from his administration. The mayor couldn’t recall being warned against making those phone calls — and couldn’t remember details of any of the conversations, according to the probe.

The investigation also found the mayor failed to tell potential donors that their decision on whether or not to contribute wouldn’t influence City Hall actions — a disclaimer the Conflicts of Interest Board had insisted on.

State Probe Ongoing

The Conflicts of Interest Board often makes its disciplinary decisions public, in issuing fines or public warning letters. In other cases the board issues a private warning letter or determines no punishment is warranted.

The mayor has repeatedly insisted he’s always acted legally and appropriately, and that City Hall decisions are consistently made on the merits.

He also has declined to say whether conflicts officials privately admonished him since the October 2018 DOI findings.

The Campaign for One New York launched in early 2014 to support the mayor’s political agenda, but was shuttered in early 2016. A probe by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office ended in March 2017 with no action taken. An investigation into the nonprofit by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics is ongoing.

Meanwhile, THE CITY reported last week that de Blasio is personally soliciting donations for his new political action committee — including from individuals seeking favorable treatment from his administration. He’s used the Fairness PAC to pay for travel as he mulls a presidential bid.

The mayor says he doesn’t accept money for his Fairness PAC from entities in the city’s “Doing Business” database, which includes certain executives of companies involved in transactions with city government.

But a basic search of other databases – including the list of lobbyists – revealed multiple examples of donors who were pressing de Blasio’s team on active projects while writing checks to his PAC.

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