3 Back-to-Back Days of Sordid Coverage in The New York Daily News
The FBI questioned ex-Council Speaker Christine Quinn in its probe of alleged carriage horse conniving during last year’s mayoral race, The New York Daily News has learned. (FBI asks Christine Quinn about vicious attack ads launches by animal rights group, probes de Blasio's flip-flop on carriage ban as inquiry widens. * The New York Daily News)
FBI agents have been questioning people about each of the pledge then mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio made in March 2013 and the ads launched the following month by animal rights activists attacking former Council Speaker Christine Quinn (far right), The New York Daily News is reporting, adding that FBI agents also appear interested in a $175,000 contribution to the animal rights group NY-CLASS from a union tied to de Blasio's cousin, labor leader John Wilhelm (center). (FBI investigation of mayoral race includes Bill de Blasio's pledge to ban carriage horses * The New York Daily News)
In the past few weeks, FBI agents have been asking questions about the campaign by the animal rights group NY-CLASS to strong arm former Council Speaker Christine Quinn (center) to support a ban on the iconic horse-drawn carriages, two sources familiar with the matter told The New York Daily News. The horse lobbyists in question include Scott Levenson, and they are linked to Mayor Bill de Blasio (inset). This isn't Mr. Levenson's first time in the crosshairs of a serious political corruption investigation. Five years ago, Mr. Levenson was an official of ACORN, a community group that was charged with voter registration fraud. (FBI investigating claim that Christine Quinn was threatened by Scott Levenson for refusing to support carriage horse ban during the mayoral race * The New York Daily News)
PUBLISHED : WED, 23 APR 2014, 11:00 AM
UPDATED : TUES, 29 APR 2014, 09:35 AM
On Richard French Live, Andrew Whitman, Dominic Carter, Jeanne Zaino, and former Rep. Chris Shays engaged in a round table discussion about the controversial role of a Super PAC in last year's mayoral election that has cast a lingering shadow in the current discussions on a delayed proposed ban of horse-drawn carriages in New York City.
What is truly delaying the horse-drawn carriage ban : is it the lack of a draft legislative bill, or is it the federal definition of bribery ?
Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his planned ban of the horse carriage industry in New York City has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances, but the circumstances he identified did not include the investigation into the lobbyist Scott Levenson and his lobbying firm, The Advance Group.
- RELATED : Were possible coordination of independent expenditures and free gifts of lobbying services between The Advance Group, NYCLASS, the de Blasio mayoral campaign, and Councilmember Mark-Viverito's speakership race violations of federal laws ? Will the Moreland Commission investigate possible campaign corruption ? (The Advance Group Federal Complaint Referred To Moreland Commission * NYC : News & Analysis)
- RELATED : The mayor and his Council speaker, who both reject checks-and-balances, oversee city campaign regulators nominally tasked to investigate campaign corruption of groups with close ties to the de Blasio-Mark-Viverito administration. (Scott Levenson, NY-CLASS, Citizens United Super PAC Investigation * NYC : News & Analysis)
- RELATED : Mayor de Blasio says the horse-drawn carriage ban will have to wait (The New York Daily News)
The Advance Group is at the center of an investigation by city campaign finance regulators over the circuitous flow of campaign cash between Super PAC's and official campaigns administered by The Advance Group. But many government reform activists do not have confidence in the city's campaign finance regulatory authority, the Campaign Finance Board. The Campaign Finance Board is governed by a Board that routinely makes politically-motivated rulings. For example, last year former Council Speaker Christine Quinn returned what were believed to be $25,000 in straw donations connected to the corruption case of William Rapfogel, and just last week the de Blasio campaign offered to return illegal straw campaign donations -- an option the Campaign Finance Board never gave Mr. de Blasio's challenger, former city Comptroller John Liu, over the same infraction. Few reform activists believe that the Campaign Finance Board's chair, Rose Gill Hearn, who let the massive CityTime fraud scandal exceed $600 million on her watch as head of the city's Department of Investigation, is capable of carrying out thorough corruption investigations of any kind. Cementing the impression that the city campaign finance regulatory authority is incapable of investigating possible campaign corruption at City Hall is the fact that the authority's board is appointed by the mayor and the City Council speaker. Consequently, a blogger filed a civilian crime report with the U.S. Attorney's Office, asking federal prosecutors to investigate the electioneering activities of The Advance Group for possible federal crimes. Mr. Levenson has close ties to both the mayor and to the City Council speaker, and Mr. Levenson administered a million dollar Super PAC to defeat former Council Speaker Christine Quinn's mayoral campaign at the same time when the Super PAC's donors were seen to be closely allied with Mr. de Blasio's mayoral campaign. It is against federal law for Super PAC's to coordinate their independent expenditures with the political campaigns of candidates, but The New York Daily News reported this week that last summer two of Mr. de Blasio's top financial supporters contributed a total of $225,000 to NY-CLASS -- on the same day.
"One of the givers was his cousin, John Wilhelm, then head of the union group UNITE HERE!, which wrote out a check for $175,000 to NYCLASS — the biggest contribution NYCLASS had ever received. The other was Jay Eisenhoffer, an attorney. Wilhelm and Eisenhoffer both acted as 'intermediaries' for de Blasio’s campaign, collecting $165,000 for him, records show," The New York Daily News reported.
Equally troubling for Mr. Levenson and his lobbying firm is that they provided free lobbying services for Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito's speakership campaign at the same time when Mr. Levenson, along with his Super PAC's and their donors, were pressing for the city to enact a horse-drawn carriage ban. Under federal law, if a lobbyist pays money or makes a gift to an elected official and asks for a favor of the elected official, that's enough to prove a bribe has been transacted. On or about the time when The Advance Group was advising Councilmember Mark-Viverito on her speakership campaign, Councilmember Mark-Viverito established a campaign finance account with the state campaign finance regulatory authority, the Board of Elections, in betrayal of the spirit of campaign finance laws which act to minimize the corruptive role of money in politics. Prior to opening the Board of Elections account, Councilmember Mark-Viverito had already drawn down an entire fundraising cycle of regulated campaign contributions, subjects to fundraising caps, spending limits, and public matching dollar eligibility, in order to win her reëlection to the City Council. Her opening of a second campaign account through the Board of Elections was unprecedented. No law was changed to allow Councilmember Mark-Viverito to establish her Council speakership campaign finance account with the Board of Elections, and it is believed that her predecessor, former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, as corrupt as many activists believed Ms. Quinn to be, never flagrantly violated the spirit of campaign finance laws to this same extreme degree. Moreover, the free lobbying services provided by The Advance Group to Councilmember Mark-Viverito's speakership campaign were never declared as in-kind contributions to the Campaign Finance Board or to the Board of Elections, even though the law requires that donations of services or other gifts to campaign committees must be declared and disclosed. Perhaps to further deceive campaign finance regulators, Councilmember Mark-Viverito publicly announced that she had fired The Advance Group from her speakership campaign after The Advance Group became engulfed in a series of corruption investigations by bloggers and mainstream media, but the truth is that The Advance Group kept working on her speakership campaign, contrary to Councilmember Mark-Viverito's statements to the press. NY-CLASS has a long history with Councilmember Mark-Viverito, stretching back to at least 2010, when she co-sponsored legislation pushed by NY-CLASS to phase out the horse-drawn carriages.
Now that The Advance Group faces at the prospect of more than one investigation into its questionable electioneering activities, the mayor and the Council speaker have delayed the enactment of the horse-drawn carriage ban in a political move some consider to be a possible cover-up of the quid pro quo nature of the crucial roles that The Advance Group's Super PAC monies and its free lobbying services played in the election of the mayor and the selection of the Council speaker, respectively.
To manufacture a delay in the horse carriage ban bill, Councilmember Daniel Dromm has been nominally tasked with the bill's drafting, striking back at Queens Democratic Party officials with whom he broke during the Council speaker race
Queens Democrats have historically supported the horse carriage industry, at least since the time when Thomas Manton was chair of the Queens Democratic Party. After Councilmember Daniel Dromm's recent break with Queens County Democrats during the Council speaker race, the councilmember now very publicly opposes the horse carriage industry -- and ranking Queens Democratic Party officials.
Word on the street for many years was that the reason that former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wouldn't support a ban on horse-drawn carriages was because the former chair of the Queens County Democratic Party, former Rep. Thomas Manton, was allied with the horse carriage drivers, who are unionized, making them a natural constituency group.
After Mr. Manton passed away, Rep. Joseph Crowley, became chair of the Queens County Democratic Party. Councilmember Dromm was elected to his post in 2009 as an insurgent candidate without the institutional support of the county Democrats. Recently, Councilmember Dromm and his close colleague, Councilmember James Van Bramer, turned their backs on the Council speaker candidate, Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, who had the support of their former fellow Queens County Democrats. Therefore, Councilmember Dromm's break with his Democratic Party peers in respect of the proposed horse-drawn carriage ban is adding to the bad blood created during the schism over the recent Council speaker race, perhaps indication of a lingering resentment stemming from his unsupported 2009 race for City Council. All this unnecessary political agita.
- RELATED : HORSE BILL SCOOP -- Capital New York’s Gloria Pazmino and Sally Goldenberg : “A controversial bill to ban horse-drawn carriages, which became a flashpoint in the mayor's race last year, is being drafted in the City Council … The bill's main sponsor will be Councilman Danny Dromm, a Queens Democrat.” (City Council Drafts Horse-Carrige Bill - Subscription Required * Capital New York)
- RELATED : Queens Democrat Daniel Dromm is the primary author of the horse-carriage legislation, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to pass. (Horse-and-Carriage Bill to Hit City Council * Animal New York)
Stalling the horse carriage ban bill gives the mayor a political cover story to explain his backpedaling.
A few critics of the mayor's promise to ban the horse-drawn carriage industry point to the special interests that Edison Properties LLC and its former chief executive officer, Steve Nislick, have in emptying the land being used as horse stables by the carriage trade.
At the other end of this fight are animal rights activists, who are trying to change the hearts and minds of the public about animal rights. Animal rights activists make the noble argument that horses have no place in Midtown Manhattan traffic, given the many examples of traffic accidents, injuries, and even deaths caused by what they see as inhumane conditions.
But the real issue of the delay in the ban, the use of the drafting of a bill as a stalling tactic, and the mayor's changing of the timeline to ban the horse-drawn carriages from his first day in office to sometime later this year comes down to investigations of a campaign consulting and lobbying group at the center of the issue's swift rise to prominence.
The Advance Group, headed by the lobbyist Scott Levenson, administered a Super PAC largely funded by donors loyal to Mr. de Blasio to defeat his chief challenger in last year's mayoral race, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The Super PAC donors also included advocates pressing for the horse-drawn carriage ban. Mr. Levenson also advised the 501(c)(4) non-profit animal rights group named New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or NY-CLASS, which was conveniently founded by Mr. Nislick, the real estate developer. Mr. Levenson also authorized his firm to provide free lobbying services to Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito in her successful bid to be selected as the current City Council speaker. Any legislative ban, once Councilmember Dromm has finished drafting the bill, must have Speaker Mark-Viverito's support. Thanks to Mr. Levenson's crucial support during her speakership campaign, Speaker Mark-Viverito is now indebted to The Advance Group's legislative asks. To cement The Advance Group's role at the nexus for campaign donations, Super PAC spending, and lobbying services that benefitted the mayor and the Council speaker, The Advance Group also is a paid lobbyist to Edison Properties LLC. Edison Properties LLC stands to benefit from banning the horse-drawn carriage trade from the closure of the carriage horses' stables, which would free up that space, which Edison Properties LLC covets, for possible zone-busting real estate development. The Advance Group is getting paid or has positioned itself to benefit from each side of the mayor's promise to ban the horse-drawn carriage trade. And, as if to compensate for The Advance Group's undeclared in-kind contribution of free lobbying services to Councilmember Mark-Viverito's Council speakership race, Edison Properties LLC paid The Advance Group $15,000 at the start of this year, potentially coinciding with the end of Councilmember Mark-Viverito's successful speakership electioneering campaign.
This wouldn't be the first time that allegations involving The Advance Group using a third-party vehicle to structure a payment stream that has, at times, over-lapped with services The Advance Group was providing to a political campaign. The Advance Group became implicated in questionable electioneering work on behalf of City Council Candidate Igor Oberman. "Last April, records show, Mr. Oberman signed off on a six-month, $45,000 lobbying contract with the Advance Group for the portion of the massive Coney Island co-op he runs a part of, Trump Village, at the same time the Advance Group was running Mr. Oberman's political campaign, separately earning $73,000," reported Crain's Insider muckraking journalist Chris Bragg. Mr. Bragg also uncovered The Advance Group's use of a fictitious political consulting firm to help obscure its backroom Super PAC political machinations during last year's municipal elections.
Last year, The New York Daily News examined how politicians and lobbyists are "often connected at the hip" as a consequence of campaign consultants doubling as lobbyists, a troubling situation that is "raising alarms for ethics watchdogs." Among the two-timing campaign consultants/lobbyists singled-out in the article was The Advance Group.
Against the backdrop of The Advance Group proverbially "jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," to borrow Matt Tiabbi's famous phrase, is the crackdown on political corruption being waged by federal prosecutors in New York. Although city and state laws have not kept up with the corruptive role of campaign consultants doubling as lobbyists, federal laws make it easy to prosecute criminal cases against corrupt lobbyists.
Based on the federal definition of a bribe, a corrupt lobbyist doesn’t have to get payback to be guilty. A corrupt lobbyist just has to pay money (like, perhaps, steer donations or make a valuable gift, like the undeclared free provision of lobbying services) to a political candidate or an elected official, and then make an ask for a legislative favour for the lobbyist's client. That’s it : that's sufficient to make the corrupt lobbyist guilty.
No matter how long the mayor or the City Council delay the legislative ban on horse-drawn carriages, or whether the ban ever comes to fruition, it may not have any impact on a possible federal bribery charge, if that is what federal prosecutors find what happened between The Advance Group in respect of the mayor's promise to ban the horse-drawn carriage trade. Perhaps that is why one saw the Editorial Board of The New York Times trying to persuade the mayor earlier this month into abandoning the horse-drawn carriage ban, because the editors suspect that legal troubles may lay ahead.
Since city and state prosecutors are known to rarely, if ever, prosecute public corruption cases involving lobbyists and other corrupt political insiders, and with the notable disbanding of the Moreland Commission, the loose city and state laws that permit shady lobbying activities will not govern any federal review of possibly illegal campaign finance and bribery activities that may apply to The Advance Group's role in the drive to ban carriage horses, no matter how noble the cause may be to animal rights activists.
HORSE POLITICS -- “Mayor de Blasio's position on horse carriages switched as the cash rolled in” by News’ Greg Smith: De Blasio switched positions on the issue, first expressing doubt about a potential ban and later embracing it. Along the way, he pocketed $45,000 in a stream of campaign checks from the anti-carriage crowd, a Daily News review found.
“He was also the beneficiary of a highly choreographed media blitz against his chief rival for City Hall — former Council Speaker Christine Quinn — an effort funded to a great extent by the anti-carriage crowd. … De Blasio’s spokesman, Phil Walzak, did not respond Tuesday to questions about the donations. …
“Checks from anti-carriage supporters like [Wendy] Neu, NYCLASS co-founder Stephen Nislick and others continued through 2009 and into 2010. Meanwhile, de Blasio — then public advocate — stayed neutral when dueling laws to either reform or simply ban the carriages popped up in the City Council. …
“By January 2011, NYCLASS supporters had written $20,400 in checks to de Blasio. One month later, he came around for the first time, declaring support for an outright carriage ban in a Huffington Post story.” (Mayor de Blasio's position on horse carriages switched as the cash rolled in * The New York Daily News with Summary by Capital New York)
The horse-drawn carriage ban is about more than just a corrupt real estate deal for the horse stables ; it's emblematic of a broken political system that keeps giving permanent government insider lobbyists access to elected officials.
The common denominator to the public corruption cases being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office are the corrupt political operatives that grease the wheels of government.
- RELATED : When he was running for mayor, Bill de Blasio made a lot of campaign promises. One of them was making government more transparent, but after nearly four months in office, he has not gotten around to at least one of those promises: disclosing meetings with lobbyists. (Mayor Has Not Gotten Around to His Promise to Disclose Meetings With Lobbyists * NY1)
- RELATED : Mayor Bill de Blasio will attend a closed-door meeting of the City Council's Democratic conference on Thursday, several sources said. (Mayor de Blasio to Attend a Closed-Door City Council Meeting * Capital New York)
- RELATED : By Approving Double Electioneering Accounts For Melissa Mark-Viverito, Did Election Officials Create a Dual Mandate Loophole to Campaign Finance Caps ? (NYC : News & Analysis)
Equally important, it seems, is another of the mayor's broken campaign promises : to reform the municipal campaign finance system, which The New York Times recently described as open to manipulation.
The corruptive influence of Super PAC money in the last municipal election cycle is no more different than the role that big money donations have on government policy.
Ironically, one of the many TV attack ads that the NYC Is Not For Sale Super PAC administered by Mr. Levenson broadcast about former Speaker Quinn focused on the $30,000 in campaign contributions she received from the family that controls the Rudin Management Company, a large New York City real estate developer.
When NYC Is Not For Sale asked voters how could they support Speaker Quinn's mayoral campaign for allowing the role of big money donors to influence the luxury condo development that is replacing St. Vincent's Hospital, it could very well ask a version of the same question of the role of the Super PAC money influencing Mayor de Blasio's policy on the proposed horse-drawn carriage ban.
- RELATED : The TV attack ad from NYC is Not for Sale 2013 slams Speaker Quinn for supporting zoning changes that cleared path for hospital closure. (SEE IT: New ad blasts Christine Quinn for role in closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital * The New York Daily News)
In the wake of the three days of back-to-back reporting by The New York Daily News, the mayor keeps denying he had any role in coordinating the corrupt Super PAC spending. Confronted last year about the NYC Is Not For Sale campaign, then candidate de Blasio initially defended NYC Is Not For Sale's attack ads, saying, "People decided to speak out, and that's their legal right. But the fact is in our system, everything can and will be disclosed, and that's what the people require," although, contrary to then candidate de Blasio, the Super PAC got into trouble for failing to fully disclose its activities, as "the people require." At the time, Mr. de Blasio added that he'd be open to later reforming campaign finance laws (presumably after NYC Is Not For Sale sank former Speaker Quinn's mayoral campaign). "The important thing is to respect the fact that we may not like the way the law is, but it's the law. I certainly will put energy going forward into trying to further reform the campaign finance system, but so long as the law is the law, people will make choices within it. That is their right, but I will certainly never ask anyone to engage in such behavior." But so far, the mayor has betrayed his campaign promise to reform the loose campaign finance laws that allow Super PAC's to game elections. Furthermore, former Speaker Quinn has appeared to be milking the NY-CLASS scandal to portray herself as a victim of shady campaign finances ; meanwhile, she has a long record of political corruption.
How can we clean up our election process from the scourge of big-money special interest donors, corrupt Super PAC's, and double-dealing lobbyists ?
The only answer to clean elections is to ban all private campaign contributions, to fully fund elections with public money, and to institute stricter regulations on campaign consultants and lobbyists. If Mayor de Blasio were a true progressive, he would ban all private campaign contributions in New York City elections as a model for what a new era of real government reform looks like, setting a pattern that could be spread to the rest of the nation. Learn more about why advocates for "clean money" elections want to ban private donations.
While an outright overturning of the corruptive role of Citizens United may be technically impossible to create at a municipal level, there are other actions that City Hall can still nonetheless undertake. Municipal lawmakers and the mayor can repeal the law passed by former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, which weakened campaign finance regulations. There are other municipal steps that can be taken to roll back the corruptive influence that lobbyists and big business and special interest money have on local elections : (i) reforming the do-nothing Campaign Finance Board ; (ii) pressuring progressives to enforce transparency ; (iii) improving Speakership electioneering reporting to make it more difficult for candidates to jurisdiction shop to obfuscate disclosure ; (iv) ending loopholes that allow subcontractor operatives to skirt disclosure requirements ; and (v) ending the provision of free campaign services, including for the Speakership. There are still yet other local reforms that the city can enact. Another important reform that the mayor and the City Council can swiftly enact is to close the corrupt "messaging" cloaking loophole for lobbyists.
- RELATED : A federal judge struck down New York State’s limit on contributions to independent expenditure groups that spend money supporting political candidates, a move that promises to escalate the corrupt, big-money donor spending by so-called "Super PAC's" in state races. (Corrupt Federal Judge, Appointed by President George W. Bush, Rejects New York Limit on Donations to ‘Super PACs’ * The New York Times)
- RELATED : Common Cause/NY calls for Super PAC's to be required to disclose their top five donors on all public materials. (Common Cause on NY Jobs Now contributors * The Times Union).
One of the principal gains made during the Progressive Era was the spread of voter referenda in state governments across the United States to counteract the outsized influence of corporations on determining government policy. Referenda gave voters a direct say in specific and important government issues, and because corporations now exert so much power over government, people should be given a direct say in corporate governance. The mayor and his municipal legislators should consider enacting a law requiring all corporations domiciled or doing business in New York City, especially those doing business with the governments, to enact reforms to their operative agreements or corporate charters that incorporate "public service" and "socially responsible investing" as business purposes and to create a public, binding stakeholder resolution process to allow city stakeholders to enforce the corporation’s "public service" and "socially responsible investing" business purposes in the way the corporation does business. A stakeholder resolution process would give voters an access point to exert public pressure on corporations to enforce compliance with public ethics. This kind of scrutiny would end the flimsy self-regulation of corporate social responsibility and create public involvement to compel true social responsibility as an influencing purpose on the governance of corporations. Other reforms that the mayor and municipal legislators could consider would be to pressure prosecutors to enforce anti-trust laws against corporations that exert monopolistic-like powers, most especially the typical special interest corporations like public and private money center banks, insurance companies, and real estate developers based right here in New York City. If Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have become too corrupted by their teams of campaign consultants and lobbyists-operatives to enact these kinds of legislative reforms, perhaps the U.S. Attorney's Office can "defeat" the culture of corruption by changing corporate culture by stipulating to these and other novel kinds of reform measures into consented court orders, settlement agreements, deferred prosecution agreements, or other plea agreements with criminally corrupt corporations. Since City Hall and the City Council have become corrupted by the influence of big money donors and corrupt lobbyists, the U.S. Attorney's Office can and should take the lead, through its court cases, to help right our democracy. The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the teams of federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office is far from being free from political influence. Witness how the DOJ is stalling on a very important Freedom of Information Act Request pertaining to the wrongful targeting of activists for federal prosecution, and other examples of how President Barack Obama has politicized the DOJ. Even within this imperfect system, hopefully a few brave leaders like Preet Bharara and Loretta Lynch, the top federal prosecutors for Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, can help reform the DOJ -- and our broader government.
Voters can also learn more about campaign finance reform activist Howie Hawkins' gubernatorial campaign for ideas of what it would look like to reform our corrupt campaign finance system.
QUESTIONING THE NEW YORK CITY CAMPAIGN FINANCE BOARD
With John Liu's lawsuit against New York City over conflicted city campaign finance regulators, this makes three federal referrals of elections violations, forcing Mayor de Blasio to lawyer-up, recruit special inside election counsel.
After a wave of federal complaints that have been lodged over electioneering violations in last year's municipal elections, Mayor Bill de Blasio has hired a special legal advisor specializing in election law.
Since Mayor de Blasio and City Council Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and/or their political operatives, are entangled in some of these federal complaints, it should come as no surprise that Mayor de Blasio is now maneuvering to use his public office to defend himself against allegations of wrong-doing that took place during the electioneering of last year's municipal elections.
The three federal complaints lodged following last year's municipal elections :