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‘Tallman’ De Blasio Used Private Email for First 16 Months in Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio rides a 4 train from Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn to City Hall, March 7, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio rides a 4 train from Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn to City Hall, March 7, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mayor Bill de Blasio often relied on his personal email account to conduct official business for at least his first 16 months in City Hall, records obtained by THE CITY show.

That includes a period that sparked scrutiny for his missing messages with a top donor who later pleaded guilty to bribery.

It wasn’t until May 8, 2015, that de Blasio began to email dozens of elected officials, advisors, lobbyists and donors — who had been communicating with him via his private BlackBerry account — asking them to use his government-issued email address for city business.

The newly released batch of emails, sent by de Blasio from his private account between May 8 and October 2, 2015, includes one where he refers to himself in third person as “The Tallman.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio used his personal email to conduct political business during his first 16 months in office.
Mayor Bill de Blasio used his personal email to conduct political business during his first 16 months in office. Photo: Obtained through Freedom of Information Law request

The messages were obtained by THE CITY through a public records request that sought emails between the mayor’s private account and his government one.

The mayor’s office released those messages even as it has yet to deliver on de Blasio’s promise last December to devise a more “systemic strategy” for preserving City Hall emails.

His pledge came after emails that weren’t among those released by City Hall surfaced as evidence in a federal corruption case.

At that time, administration officials revealed that they were relying on a policy developed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that allowed for many government emails to be deleted instantly. City Hall officials said they would create a better preservation system.

“We need to do a better job of coming up with a clear policy,” de Blasio said on Dec. 9, 2018. “I think everyone in these last years has come to understand that the policies that existed previously were not sufficient — that the age of email has changed behavior profoundly and we need to address it.”

The mayor also said he regularly shifts discussions of city business from his private email account to his government one.

Eight months later, a new policy still hasn’t been put in place, officials confirmed this week.

‘The Tallman Just Called’

In all, the mayor sent 67 emails from his personal BlackBerry account over the nearly five-month period in 2015, advising associates to start using his official “@cityhall.nyc.gov” email address, which he cc’ed.

“PS - I will start communicating with you via my government email (cc’ed above) from now on,” he wrote to venture capitalist and fundraising host Ron Conway on May 28, 2015.

The newly released emails captured no such forwarding from the mayor’s private account to his official inbox during the first 16 months at City Hall, other than two emails the mayor sent to himself.

Among the people de Blasio urged to start using his government email address in 2015 was a writer seeking an interview for Playboy magazine (June 8); longtime pal and prominent lobbyist Sid Davidoff (June 9); and lawyer Ravi Batra (July 18).

Asked whether he recalls having used the mayor’s government email address prior to the July 18, 2015, notice, Batra answered, via email: “None or occasionally (if I knew it before then).”

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn)
U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) Photo: Yvette D. Clarke/Twitter

On June 9, 2015, de Blasio wrote to U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn), a longtime friend and ally, “See the email I just sent you from my City Hall email address. Please use that from now on for all official matters.” The subject line read: “New email.”

Five days later, he again emailed Clarke — this time with the subject line: “The Tallman just called you.”

“Please call me at [redacted] asap,” the mayor wrote on June 14, 2015. “And I’m going to start using my official email with you on all non-personal/non-political items from now on. It’s cc’ed above and I’ll email you from it as well.”

Sarah Sinovic, a spokesperson for Clarke, said the nickname stemmed from the height differential between the two — the mayor is nearly 6-foot-6 and Clarke is about 5-foot-4 — when they were both Brooklyn members of City Council.

“It’s kind of a goofy, endearing name the two of them formed as a result of their being friendly at the City Council,” said Sinovic.

Thousands of Private Notes

Any correspondence related to government business is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, whether it is through a private email account or a government account, according to the state Committee on Open Government.

But in practice, say good-government advocates, it can prove challenging to confirm whether a government agency is following through on its obligations to release requested public records where privately held emails are involved.

“New York City government officials know they’re supposed to use government emails for government business to ensure archiving laws and FOIL are complied with,” said John Kaehny, with the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “But as far as we know, there is no law that requires this.”

City Hall Press Secretary Freddi Goldstein didn’t respond to a question about the timing of the flurry of emails in 2015. But, she noted, “At the advice of counsel, the mayor re-directed people who wanted to discuss city business to his official city email address.”

She also said the mayor told people to use his official government email starting in 2014, but she didn’t provide any specifics.

A Department of Investigation report from 2017 found that on one issue alone — negotiations over the price of a lease for city-owned property by a restaurant owner who had donated to de Blasio’s political campaigns — the mayor had used his private email address roughly 1,850 times in 2014 and 2015.

The restaurateur, Harendra Singh, subsequently pleaded guilty in federal court to trying to bribe de Blasio via political donations, seeking favorable treatment.

DOI also determined that “City Hall employees did not consistently forward emails from their personal email accounts to their City email accounts, as they should have in accordance with their internal Record Retention and FOIL instructions.”

Forced to Turn Over Emails

The mayor’s email practices first came under scrutiny in 2016 when City Hall declared his communications with outside political consultants exempt from public disclosure — deeming those advisors to be serving as “Agents of the City.”

Last year, the administration was forced to turn over thousands of those emails after losing a lawsuit filed by NY1 and the New York Post challenging the declared exemption.

In late 2018, City Hall’s policy for preserving emails garnered attention after dozens of emails from de Blasio’s personal account, exchanged with big-money donor Jona Rechnitz, were introduced as evidence in a federal NYPD corruption trial, after being obtained via subpoena.

The administration had not provided those emails in response to prior public disclosure requests from news outlets seeking emails between de Blasio and Rechnitz.

City Hall officials would only say at the time that the emails were not in their possession, and de Blasio wouldn’t clearly state if he preserved all emails relevant to government business.

‘It’s All Preserved’

“What I do is, as much as humanly possible, move email discussions that are anything about the city over to the government email,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Nov 30, 2018. “It’s not a perfect process but I think it works the vast, vast majority of the time.”

At a news conference 10 days later, de Blasio added: “The vast majority of what I do is on government email. It’s all preserved.”

Bloomberg also reportedly used a private email account to discuss city business, according to the former news site DNAinfo.

Among the emails from 2015 obtained by THE CITY are eight in which the mayor asks the recipient not to text him anymore, and instead to call or email him.

“I just wanted to update you: I’m not using text anymore and will keep all communications to phone and email,” he wrote on July 29, 2015 to state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is now Senate Majority leader.

Other associates de Blasio asked to nix text messaging around that time were Husam Ahmad of HAKS engineering — who pleaded guilty in May 2019 to bribery in connection with government contracts corruption.

Goldstein noted that the mayor, who is running for president, had a flip phone until recently.

“If he texts at all, it’s incredibly infrequent,” she said.

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