Mark-Viverito and Levenson, of The Advance Group, fined by the Conflicts of Interest Board

By LOUIS FLORES

Each of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) and Scott Levenson, the president of The Advance Group, a lobbing firm, were assessed penalties by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board to settle a probe into controversial electioneering activities related to Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s successful 2013-2014 Council speaker race.

Before the end of 2015, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was expected to pay $10,796.44 in fines and penalties, and Mr. Levenson was expected to pay a fine of $4,000.

Signed Dispositions in respect of the probes were published by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board near the eve of the two year anniversary of Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s selection as Council Speaker, on Jan. 8, 2014.

“This is a positive resolution, and the Speaker looks forward to continuing her work creating a more fair and just New York City for all,” said Eric Koch, a spokesperson for Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.

A year ago, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was still defending the electioneering work of her controversial speakership campaign committee, publicly stating that she expected to be cleared by the New York City Conflict of Interest Board probe, telling The New York Daily News, “Any decision made by the committee was done with consent and complete knowledge from knowledgeable counsel,” she said, adding that, “So that’s the advice that was received by the committee. And I really very much look forward to all of this resulting in a positive resolution.”

The fines and penalties stem from free campaign consulting services provided by officials with The Advance Group to Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign.

After Councilmember Mark-Viverito won reëlection to her City Council seat, she focused her attention on her speakership campaign.  At that time then, various news outlets, notably The New York Daily News, reported concerns that the provision of free campaign consulting services by a lobbying firm violated regulations stemming from the City Charter that specifically ban gifts by lobbyists to public officials, referred to as the Lobbyist Gift Law.  Concerns over that arrangement, or other ethical issues, led the Editorial Boards of a host of newspapers to oppose Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership, including The New York Daily News, The New York Times, and The New York Post.

The City Council speaker wields tremendous influence.  The Council speaker determines which proposed legislation gets put on the calendar for debate and vote.  The Council speaker also still controls the allocation of discretionary budget allocations that originate from the annual city budget.  These discretionary allocations are typically awarded by the Council speaker to organisations selected by Councilmembers, including the Council speaker.  Generally, the organisations receiving the discretionary buget allocations are politically-connected groups that assist the Councilmembers with community outreach in their member districts, an area that gives incumbents electoral advantage over primary challengers.  It’s been noted that many of the most politically-connected groups receiving discretionary City Council allocations usually have some kind of relationship with some of the city’s largest campaign consulting firms.

In the time since Councilmember Mark-Viverito was selected as Council speaker, many government reform activists have become disenchanted with her politics.  At the time of Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s elevation to Council speaker, The New York Times signaled her selection as indication of a “liberal shift” in New York politics, an assessment that has since turned out to be premature and inaccurate.  Besides the probe by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito has been probed by the New York City Campaign Finance Board over campaign finance irregularities stemming from her 2013 City Council race.  During her brief tenure as Council speaker, she also earned the scorn of police reform activists when she fired a City Council whistleblower, said race was not a factor in the homicide of Eric Garner even though it has been widely reported that the New York Police Department’s Broken Windows theory of policing is race-based, and lobbied for an expansion in the police force in the face of a national debate calling for prioritizing police accountability. 

Despite obvious legal entanglements of accepting gifts from lobbyists, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito spearheaded a lobbyist-paid junket by a large delegation of the City Council to Israel last year, even in the face of an international movement calling for a boycott, sanctions, and divestment from Israel following a finding by the United Nations that the State of Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, a treaty which bars a nation from transferring its own population from within its own borders into occupied territories.  The violations stem from settlements in the West Bank.

The announcement of the conclusion of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board probe gave some of Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s critics another opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the Council speaker.

 “The citizens of New York City should be able to expect the highest standards of ethical conduct from their elected officials ; unfortunately, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito fell far below even the most modest expectations for ethical conduct when she accepted free political consulting services during the race for speaker in 2013 ; the settlement with the city’s Conflict of Interest Board is a somewhat worrisome precedent in this regard, as the COIB should be insisting on full accountability from elected officials who have violated the rules," said Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), in a statement provided to Progress Queens.

Insider Access, Favor-Trading, and Ongoing Conflicts of Interest

Mr. Levenson was assisted in the speakership campaign consulting services provided to Councilmember Mark-Viverito by two of his employees, Jonathan Yedin and Katie Franger.  Collectively, the three worked on Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign from October 2013 until December 2, 2013, according to the signed Dispositions that concluded the New York City Conflicts of Intrest Board probes.  However, according to a retrospective look at Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign published at that time then by The New York Observer, Mr. Yedin worked on the speakership campaign until the very end, when Councilmember Mark-Viverito secured the political support of Frank Seddio, the chair of the Brooklyn Committee of the Democratic Party.  Eventually, Councilmember Mark-Viverito was selected by the City Council after lobbying by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), according to various news reports.

Although The Advance Group was not nominally being paid for its work on Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign, the lobbying firm certainly stood to benefit from its association with a winning speakership campaign.  According to the Disposition signed by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Mr. Levenson, Mr. Yedin, and Ms. Franger attended “Kitchen Cabinet” meetings with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and with her paid and volunteer staff.  These meetings averaged to include between 10 to 15 individuals.  At these insider meetings, the participating individuals would help to prepare Councilmember Mark-Viverito “for networking events and for forums among the Speaker candidates.”  Giving Mr. Levenson and his employees insider access to decision-makers, like Councilmember Mark-Viverito and others, undoubtedly helped The Advance Group cement stronger relationships with the permanent class in New York’s political circles. 

Prior to The Advance Group’s work on Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign, the lobbying firm earned the scorn of a few liberal activists for having accepted paid work for an anti-gay political action committee.  To The New York Daily News, The Advance Group explained its work for the City Action Coalition PAC on the basis of providing assistance to another political insider.  “We did a favor for a political operative that we have a longstanding relationship with by sending his mailer to a printer,” said a spokesperson for The Advance Group, adding that, “It was a mistake that we regret and is completely inconsistent with our history.”  To The New York Times, Mr. Levinson explained away the controversial Super PAC work differently, saying, “It was in the heat of the moment,” he said, adding that, “I didn’t do my due diligence.”  

Besides working for the right-wing funded City Action Coalition PAC, The Advance Group also worked to undermine the City Council campaign of noted LGBT civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland.  During the same election cycle when The Advance Group was being paid by Ms. Kurland’s campaign to provide campaign consulting services, The Advance Group also duplicitously did paid work benefitting Ms. Kurland’s political opponent, Corey Johnson.  To many government reform activists, the 2013 New York City municipal elections were marred by misconduct.  As a possible result of campaign finance law violations, allegations have been made that The Advance Group may have tipped the 2013 New York City mayoral election in favor of Mayor de Blasio.

The Political Left Fails to Make the Connection Between Leftist Politicians For Sale and a Broken Political System

In the face of spectacular political and campaign corruption playing out across the state -- from City Hall to Albany to Buffalo -- some government reform activists question how, in a post-Occupy New York City could a city full of reform advocates universally described as being on the vanguard of activism countenance repeated ethical lapses from entrenched incumbents, like Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and institutional lobbyists, like Mr. Levenson.

For example, a petition was started on Change.org asking Mayor Blasio to boycott a fundraiser that was connected to The Advance Group, but, in New York’s liberal Left, many activists chose to turn the other way rather than challenge The Advance Group over its anti-LGBT work.  Only 12 individuals signed the Change.org petition.

Even if activists feel conflicted over political loyalties to specific individuals, such as Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Mr. Levenson, government reform advocates are still not undertaking any action to address the political and campaign systems that are at the nexus of corruption.  The intersection of lobbyists and campaign fundraising is responsible for the corrupting role of money in government, and this collision is responsible, for example, for establishing dangerous precedents, such as Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s treatment of her City Council seat and the Council speakership as a dual mandate.  This nexus also explains why Mayor de Blasio has championed the sale of strategic public assets, such as public housing developments belonging to the New York City Housing Authority, community gardens, the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and Long Island College Hospital.  Against a backdrop of escalating public losses, there’s no sense of urgency to address the systemic failures.  Some say that the political connections of public officials and lobbyists explain the hesitation of reform advocates to confront Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Mr. Levenson. 

A highlight in the Dispositions of the electioneering work that triggered the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board fines showed that officials from The Advance Group provided unpaid and unreimbursed work for Councilmember Mark-Viverito at the fall conference of the 2013 Somos El Futuro in Puerto Rico. 

In the past, a nonprofit group, The Hispanic Federation has helped to organize the Somos El Futuro conference.  The Hispanic Federation is an umbrella group that receives large amounts of discretionary City Council funding, and a founder and former president of The Hispanic Federation is Luis Miranda, a lobbyist from the lobbying firm The MirRam Group LLC and a close political advisor to Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.  From the funding that The Hispanic Federation receives, it turns around and passes through payments for lobbying work performed by The MirRam Group.

One of the lobbyists employed by The Advance Group is Michael Gaspard, the brother of former White House political director Patrick Gaspard, the latter who is now the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.  Anytime that the targets of potential criminal investigations involve “significant or government individuals, which may pose special problems for the local prosecutor,” particularly in racketeering cases, Federal prosecutors are instructed to obtain prior permission before commencing an investigation likely to result in an indictment.  Generally, such permission is obtained from senior U.S. Department of Justice officials in Washington, DC, where the political influence of the White House can color the decision-making of senior DOJ officials.  As such, the fact that The Advance Group has political connections to a former senior Obama White House official plays to its advantage, possibly even in the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation’s top Federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district, who likes to boast about his independence from political considerations.

The 2013 Municipal Election Cycle Was Corrupt, It Established Dangerous Precedents, And The Resulting Fines and Legal Fees for Wrong-Doing Were Costly

As scrutiny increased around the electioneering activities of The Advance Group, some of the lobbying firm’s clients defected, including Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign and NY-CLASS, the latter which allegedly stood to benefit from the political coördination of its work with other clients of The Advance Group.

Whereas the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board investigation was reportedly prompted by a complaint filed by the good government group, Citizens Union, and whereas the New York State Attorney General Office issued subpoenas shortly after a report of wrong-doing was published by The New York Times, the origins of a separate New York City Campaign Finance Board investigation, which resulted in fines for each of Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, NY-CLASS, and The Advance Group, are not exactly known.  Independently, a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was reported by The New York Daily News, but there was no Federal law enforcement action in respect of any of the electioneering activities by each of The Advance Group and NY-CLASS, nor in respect of the speakership campaign of Councilmember Mark-Viverito. 

According to separate information obtained by Progress Queens, there are times when Federal law enforcement officials do conduct investigations.  Yet, rather than involve Federal prosecutors in criminal prosecutions, there are times when Federal authorities will remand prosecutorial action to local authorities, a situation which could have taken place in the multitude of probes targeting The Advance Group from its 2013 municipal cycle electioneering work. 

A request made by Progress Queens to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district for comment about The Advance Group’s case was not answered.

Separate from the fines, many of the targets of these probes have had to retain and pay for expensive legal counsel.  In the instance of Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, POLITICO New York reported that the Council speaker’s campaign committee had paid one law firm approximately $100,000 in legal fees for representation in respect of just the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board probe.  In a controversial move, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito chose to fund her legal expenses from the proceeds of campaign committee fundraising, similar to an arrangement used by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), during a reported Federal corruption and obstruction of justice probe in connection with the premature closure of the Moreland Commission.

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