de Blasio makes FOIL Response with redacted emails regarding one of his Agents of the City : Jonathan Rosen

de Blasio and his staff asked Jonathan Rosen for a "rapid response" to press reports linking former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and REBNY honcho Leonard Litwin to de Blasio's failed committee to attract the 2016 Democratic National Convention to New York

By LOUIS FLORES

After Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) was arrested on Federal corruption charges in January 2015, the journalist Celeste Katz filed a report for The New York Daily News, indicating that the corruption charges against one of the State's highest-elected Democratic Party officials would serve as a blemish to attempts by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to attract the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn.

Ms. Katz quoted a Democratic Party source as having told her, "What is happening with Shelly just highlights corruption in New York -- and is not the right message."

When word of Ms. Katz's report hit Mayor de Blasio's inner circle, the mayor's Municipally-employed advisors went outside of City Hall for help. Amanda Howe, then acting chief of staff to the mayor, sent a request for assistance with media relations to Jonathan Rosen, one of Mayor de Blasio's chief, private political advisors. Mr. Rosen is a named principal in the consulting firm, BerlinRosen. Mr. Rosen, in response, counseled a specific media strategy to discredit any criticism of corruption by finding Democratic Party sources, who would speak to the media on condition of anonymity, to dispel the criticism.

"Why can’t we get a Bob Zimmerman or Leah Daughtry to throw some shade on background ?" asked Mr. Rosen, referring to a Democratic Party strategist and to the chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention Committee, respectively.

Revelations that senior Democratic Party officials are available on-call to political operatives to provide particular messages to the media were made in what was described as a partial release of records by City Hall in response to a request filed under the State's Freedom of Information Law for copies of communication between City Hall and some of Mayor de Balsio's chief, private political advisors. The public records had been being sought by many news outlets, including the cable news network, NY1, and The New York Post. Both media outlets filed a joint lawsuit against the City seeking disclosure of the requested records. Litigation to compel compliance with FOIL was necessitated after Mayor de Blasio's former counsel, Maya Wiley, classified Mayor de Blasio's chief, private political advisors as "agents of the City" in an effort to block release of the records.

The FOIL Response was made on Thanksgiving Eve, a day when New York businesses, including the media, are traditionally lightly-staffed in advance of the long holiday week-end, forcing journalists to scramble to report about the partial release of e-mails. NY1 broadcast a report on Wednesday evening, noting the release of the e-mails and providing cursory analysis made possible with only a short amount of time. One media outlet, DNAinfo New York, just published the e-mails on Thanksgiving Day without any analysis but with the urgency of serving the interest of public transparency. Some of the e-mails were noted to be heavily-redacted. In the NY1 broadcast report, the political reporter Grace Rauh speculated that the New York City Law Department was responsible for redacting the e-mails. The City's Law Department is headed by Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, a former U.S. Attorney for New York's eastern district. In the past, Mr. Carter has engaged in other controversial acts to redact or withhold documents that were the subject of reported corruption investigations.

A screenshot of one example of the heavy use of redactions applied to some of the e-mails released by City Hall on Thanksgiving Eve. Source : NY1/FOIL Records/City of New York

A screenshot of one example of the heavy use of redactions applied to some of the e-mails released by City Hall on Thanksgiving Eve. Source : NY1/FOIL Records/City of New York

The e-mails revealed a hyper-sensitivity by Mayor de Blasio to negative press reports, some of which he was able to contain. In another instance when news about corruption threatened to over-shadow Mayor de Blasio's failed attempt to attract the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn, Mayor de Blasio again turned to Mr. Rosen to do "rapid response" after the journalist Will Bredderman filed a report for The New York Observer, noting that Mayor de Blasio had named real estate magnate Leonard Litwin to his DNC Host Committee. Mayor de Blasio released the names of the members of the DNC Host Committee after the arrest of then Assembly Speaker Silver and after press reports had identified Mr. Litwin as having made prolific campaign contributions to elected officials against a growing backdrop of criticism of the "pay-to-play" culture in New York politics.

Mayor de Blasio's strategy about defending the role of establishment politicians, like former Assembly Speaker Silver, and the role of big money campaign donors, like Mr. Litwin, appear to be premised on his reliance on political operatives to manage the way those roles would be portrayed by the media. However, Mr. Rosen's involvement didn't always guarantee that the media knelt in deference to political and lobbying pressure. Whereas Mr. Bredderman's press report was eventually updated to reflect a technicality in Mayor de Blasio's favour, Ms. Katz's report remained unaltered from its initial form. Nevertheless, as noted in various other e-mails about political operatives employed by senior Democratic Party officials and released this year by WikiLeaks, the public's attention has focused on how political and Government reporting hasn't always remained autonomous from the corruptive influence of political operatives and business lobbyists.

"Red flags"

In Ms. Rauh's broadcast report for NY1, she noted that Mr. Rosen was invited to attend a meeting at City Hall about Mayor de Blasio's proposed blanket real estate rezoning proposal, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, or MIH, but sometimes referred to as Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, or MIZ, which was coupled with another blanket rezoning proposal, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, or ZQA. The joint text amendments to the City's rezoning laws were passed by the New York City Council despite overwhelming opposition by the City's Community Boards.

Because Mr. Rosen had access to the de Blasio administration's inner thinking about the blanket real estate rezoning proposals, Ms. Rauh said in her broadcast report that Mr. Rosen's access was a cause for concern to Government watchdog groups, noting that, "Jonathan Rosen represents a lot of major developers in the City. So, here he is, in 2014, being invited -- the only outside City official invited -- to this meeting at City Hall to discuss Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning. He has the potential to know well before anybody else in the public does what direction the City is trying to steer its affordable housing agenda. He can perhaps, because he has a seat at that table, steer the agenda himself in a way that benefits his clients. This is sort of just a key, critical example of where these conflicts of interest come into play and why they raise so many red flags for Government watchdog groups, in particular, who say 'This is so problematic. Someody with those type of outside clients should not have a seat at the City's table like this.' "

Progress Queens reported in April 2015 that there was a concern that Mr. Rosen was being given access to inside information that may have benefitted some of his non-profit and for-profit clients. "BerlinRosen's lucrative business opportunities are given to it by its access to inside information about the de Blasio administration, and the public has no insight about how BerlinRosen may be exploiting that insider access, except that, on a few occasions, it becomes known that the firm is representing many sides on the same transaction, a revelation that became clear when it was reported that BerlinRosen was being paid by Two Trees Management, a real estate developer on whose behalf BerlinRosen consulted, in connection with a zone-busting real estate development project at the site of the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn.  BerlinRosen was representing Two Trees Management at the same time when BerlinRosen was advising City Hall on other matters," Progress Queens reported at the time.

In a recent, unrelated Federal corruption investigation that matured into the filing of criminal charges and a subsequent Federal grand jury Indictment, prosecutors from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara pressed Federal wire fraud charges against a public official and three businessmen, who allegedly conspired to profit from access to inside information. Counts Two and Four in the Indictment released this week against several co-Defendants in the Buffalo Billion corruption case alleged that a public official conspired with businessmen to defraud the public by exploiting inside information to violate fair, open, and competitive bids for public work. A lobbyist was alleged to have played a part in the acts that constituted fraud, according to the Indictment.

Mayor de Blasio is the reported subject of a wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation that is trying to determine whether City Hall has bestowed official acts to campaign or political supporters.

In the past, U.S. Attorney Bharara has credited the press with uncovering allegations of wrong-doing that have earned the attention of Federal investigators.

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