Conflicts board fines second Manhattan Community Board 2 member over free Soho House membership

By LOUIS FLORES

A long-term member of Manhattan's Community Board 2, John Sweeney, was fined this month for violating city rules against receiving free gifts from an entity with business before the city, according to a signed Disposition published today by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board.

According to the Disposition, Mr. Sweeney accepted one free dinner and a free gift of membership for the year of 2005 from the Soho House.  The membership was valued at $1,192.  

After Mr. Sweeney became a paying member of the exclusive membership club, the Soho House sought to modify its liquor license before Community Board 2, at which time Mr. Sweeney rightly recused himself from the matter.  

However, as a member of Community Board 2 since 2003, Mr. Sweeney is considered a public official, and the Conflicts of Interest Board fined him $3,192 for having violated City Charter  § 2604(b)(13), which states, in part, that, "No public servant shall … accept or receive any gratuity from any person whose interests may be affected by the public servant's official action."

A request to interview Mr. Sweeney was made by Progress Queens to his attorney of record, Luke McGrath of the law firm of Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller LLP.  However, Mr. McGrath did not answer the request.

A representative of Soho House did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for comment.

With Mr. Sweeney's fine, this marks the second action by the Conflicts of Interest Board against members of Community Board 2.

In November 2014, the Conflicts of Interest Board fined former Community Board 2 member Jo Hamilton $10,660 for having similarly accepted free membership from the Soho House, excepting that, in Ms. Hamilton's case, the free membership was for a decade.

The Conflicts of Interest Board took no action against the Soho House, given that the board's jurisdiction only extends to public officials.  It is unclear whether the pattern of Community Board members receiving free gifts from businesses with interests before it will be investigated by other authorities.

Government reform activists have long complained that District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan), avoids investigating or prosecuting cases of public corruption.

A request for comment was made by Progress Queens to Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-West Village), who represents the Soho, West Village, Chelsea, and Hells Kitchen neighborhoods of Manhattan, but Councilmember Johnson did not answer the request.

The rapid and on-going gentrification in the neighborhoods served by Community Board 2 mean that many businesses and real estate developers routinely come before it with applications seeking liquor licenses or approvals for zone-busting real estate developments.

After the 2010 closure of St. Vincent's Hospital, for example, lobbyists for Rudin Management Company descended on Community Board 2, seeking approval of the developer's plan to convert St. Vincent's into a $1 billion luxury condominium and townhouse complex.  

During the course of the Rudin Management Company's lobbying of Community Board 2 to approve the developer's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application, the developer's lobbyists attended many Community Board 2 meetings, including meetings of Community Board 2's various committees.

On the evening of October 18, 2011, for example, the Social Services Committee of Community Board 2 met in a common room of Judson Memorial Church in the West Village.  On that evening, the committee members arrived late, after having met prior to the meeting as a group.  Arriving in unison with the late committee members were some of the lobbyists hired by Rudin Management Company.

Separately, the Conflicts of Interest Board has been in the news lately, after it had approved each of a lobbyist-paid trip by the New York City Council to Israel and a lobbyist-paid trip by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to Iowa and Nebraska in the lead-up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

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