By LOUIS FLORES
Assemblymember Michael Blake (D-The Bronx) has accepted an invitation to join the partnership of Hilltop Public Solutions, and the state lawmaker plans to concurrently serve in public office, even as he represents private interests attempting to influence public policy.
Assemblymember Blake’s position with Hilltop was confirmed in a report published by POLITICO New York.
Hilltop is a public relations and campaign consulting firm that engages in work that, at times, has been described as unregistered lobbying. One of Hilltop’s clients is the nonprofit lobbying arm of New York City Hall, the Campaign for One New York, which lobbies for the support of the political agenda of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City).
Assemblymember Blake’s hiring by Hilltop is in contravention to recent reform efforts to force state legislators to resign from law firms or other enterprises that act to influence public policy. After federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district brought corruption charges against former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) and former State Senate President Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), each man separated from their respective positions at law firms that also represented clients that attempted to influence public policy. Other state legislators, including former State Senator Skelos' successor as the State Senate’s President, State Senator John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), have resigned from their private employment posts to avoid the creation or the appearance of the creation of conflicts of interest.
Assemblymember Blake did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for an interview. However, for the report that the journalist Laura Nahmias filed for POLITICO New York, Assemblymember Blake’s work at Hilltop was described as not involving “consulting for any clients with business before the state.” It's not known how compliance with those restrictions would be achieved.
News of Assemblymember Blake’s employment with Hilltop was made public a few hours before a jury in the federal corruption trial announced guilty verdicts on eight (8) counts of crimes against former State Senate President Skelos and his son, Adam Skelos.
The press office for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for comment about Assemblymember Blake’s impending work on behalf of clients, which intend to influence public work, the state restrictions notwithstanding. However, in a statement issued following the Skelos trial verdict, U.S. Attoney Bharara said, “The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve ?”
As federal prosecutors have been investigating political and campaign corruption from New York City Hall to Albany to the Buffalo Billion in the wake of the collapse of the Moreland Commission, the office of U.S. Attorney Bharara has butted up against public officials and lobbyists with close political ties that roll up to the Obama White House.
After officials in the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) reportedly tried to solicit public statements from officials connected with the shuttered Moreland Commission, federal prosecutors reportedly sent Gov. Cuomo a letter warning against witness tampering or obstruction of justice. In the months after, Gov. Cuomo increased his public appearances with Vice President Joseph Biden as part of a reported strategy to create political conflict between senior Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and the Obama White House, according to a report filed by Fredric Dicker for The New York Post.
Other recent prosecutorial probes, involving lobbying firms, particularly The Advance Group, resulted in the imposition of miniscule fines. A lobbyist employed by The Advance Group, Michael Gaspard, is the brother of Patrick Gaspard, a former political director of the Obama White House and the current U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.
Prior to being elected to the New York State Assembly, Assemblymember Blake was a former White House aide, a former official in the 2012 Obama reëlection campaign, and a former operative in the 2008 Obama election campaign.
For the most part, most of the political corruption cases being prosecuted in New York are not being mounted by state or municipal prosecutors. As reported on numerous occasions by Progress Queens, state and municipal prosecutors need to run for public office with the consent of the chairs of the dominant county political party committees. Under such a design, state and municipal prosecutors would not be sufficiently independent to investigate or prosecute “significant political or government individuals, which may pose special problems for the local prosecutor,” as stated, for example, in the racketeering section of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual, which provides federal prosecutors with guidelines for investigations and prosecutions.
At a speech delivered on 23 January 2015 at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Bharara bragged about the sovereignty of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district, which he heads. He noted that one of the predecessor U.S. Attorneys in his office, Mary Jo White, was compelled to commence an investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s controversial pardon of the billionaire Marc Rich. That investigation, which ended after U.S. Attorney White stepped down from her post, found no evidence wrong-doing, exonerating many Clinton administration officials, including then former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, who had supported the controversial pardon.
After U.S. Attorney Bharara contemplates which, if any, of his investigations can mature to prosecutions, the public will determine just how independent he is from pressures that seem to allow politically-connected officials to escape accountability for public corruption.