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City OKed Hotel Plan After Developer Hosted de Blasio Fundraiser

Flushing-based developer Michael Cheng touts his relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio on his social media sites.
Flushing-based developer Michael Cheng touts his relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio on his social media sites. Photo: Screengrab from mikecheng110/Facebook

Shortly after hosting a fundraiser for one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political action committees in March, a developer got the city’s go-ahead to begin work on a new 20-story hotel, records show.

In October 2017, Flushing-based Epos Development filed plans with the Department of Buildings to construct a hotel at 347 Lexington Ave., sandwiched between a hair salon and wine shop.

The department approved the plan to start the project nearly 18 months later — a little over a week after a mid-March event held by Epos president Michael Cheng, according to THE CITY’s analysis of campaign finance and building records.

Flusing-based developer Michael Cheng was given permission by the city to build a hotel on Lexington Avenue, just south of 40th Street, Aug. 21, 2019.
Flusing-based developer Michael Cheng was given permission by the city to build a hotel on Lexington Avenue, just south of 40th Street, Aug. 21, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Murray Hill hotel would be Epos’ first project in Manhattan, according to the company’s website. Epos’ other developments are primarily residential buildings in Flushing.

Cheng did not respond to requests for comment.

He told THE CITY in July he and his family hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio’s Fairness PAC — a federal political action committee the mayor created last year to help elect progressive Democrats around the country — with the understanding he was supporting de Blasio’s White House ambitions.

“He’s doing great things for the city,” Cheng said of de Blasio.

Records show Michael Cheng and Epos CEO Terence Cheng each donated $5,000 to Fairness PAC in March.

The PAC has since helped fund de Blasio’s long-shot pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, records show, and served as a vehicle to raise money in sums greater than the $2,800 per donor permitted by the Federal Election Commission for presidential primaries.

The Cheng fundraiser took place the same month that Fairness PAC raised $90,000 at a party hosted by the new owners of the Chelsea Hotel, who were seeking a key approval from the city’s housing agency.

‘Decisions Based on Merit’

A spokesperson for de Blasio’s presidential campaign, which launched May 16, said the approval of the Epos hotel plan was unrelated to fundraising.

“The mayor has been very clear that all official decisions are based on merit, and that we will not accept donations from anyone on the Doing Business List,” spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie said, referencing a database of individuals and entities seeking city contracts, zoning changes or certain other approvals that don’t include building permits.

The de Blasio campaign declined to say how much Fairness PAC collected from Cheng’s fundraiser. But federal campaign finance records show that the PAC brought in about $34,750 from 19 individuals around the same time as the party.

Between mid-March and late June, Michael and Terrence Cheng, along with another individual associated with Epos, donated a combined $18,400 to de Blasio’s presidential campaign and the mayor’s state and federal political action committees, state and federal campaign finance records show.

Michael and Terence Cheng each donated the maximum $2,800 to de Blasio’s presidential campaign in late June after making their Fairness PAC contributions.

Government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio's presidential campaign.
Government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Half of the $5,000 they each contributed via the March fundraiser Fairness PAC was redirected to another fund, NY Fairness PAC — a state political action created in 2018 to help Democrats in New York.

The state committee doubled as an exploratory committee for de Blasio’s presidential run — an unusual setup that has allowed the mayor to spend more on his underdog campaign and bring in more contributions from donors without disclosing them to federal regulators, experts say.

Michael and Terence Cheng’s donations were highlighted in a complaint filed with the FEC against de Blasio 2020 and his pair of PACs by the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. The group alleged the mayor’s campaign “concocted a shell game to arrange for a small number of wealthy donors to support de Blasio’s presidential run above and beyond contribution limits.”

More Donors with Hotels

An engineering firm with ties to Epos Development followed a similar path, supporting de Blasio’s PACs while seeking — and later obtaining — plan approvals.

New Jersey-based LMW Engineering Group, which building records show intends to work on Epos’ Murray Hill hotel, also have contributed to de Blasio’s PACs, according to campaign finance records.

The homepage for the Fairness PAC, created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to support progressive candidates.
The homepage for the Fairness PAC, created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to support progressive candidates. Photo: Screenshot of billdeblasio.com

LMW’s president, Jieming Wang, and another individual who listed their address as Wang’s residence, each donated $10,000 to de Blasio’s two PACs between September and April, FEC and state Board of Election records show.

LMW is also listed as the engineering firm for a planned 25-story hotel at 319 W. 35th St., near Hudson Yards.

Weihong Hu, who is listed as the owner behind that project, filed plans in late May to construct the 166-room hotel. In the months since, plans for the hotel received partial approval, building records show.

Hu and Xiaozhung Ge — who is listed in court records as her husband — donated a combined $15,000 to de Blasio’s PACs between September 2018 and April 2019, according to campaign finance records. Employees and individuals tied to the construction company slated to work on the West 35th Street hotel also have donated nearly $30,000 to de Blasio’s PACs.

Meanwhile, individuals associated with Peter F. Poon Architect, the firm responsible for the building’s design, have contributed $20,000 to the political committees.

Hu, LMW and Peter F. Poon Architects are also involved developing a 29-story hotel at 58 W. 39th St.

Wieng, Hu, Ge, Poon and LMW did not respond to requests for comment.

De Blasio’s fundraising tactics have come under repeated scrutiny from state, federal and city investigators since he became mayor in 2014.

The city Department of Investigation previously cited de Blasio for violating city ethics rules for seeking donations from individuals who had pending business before his administration.

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