Law enforcement interest in the activities of the Campaign for One New York
By LOUIS FLORES
The same law firm representing a campaign finance committee in a state elections probe is also representing New York City Hall’s nonprofit lobbying arm, records show.
In 2015, the Campaign for One New York paid over $80,000 to the law firm Kantor Davidoff for legal services.
Kantor Davidoff also represents The IDC Initiative, according to a report filed by Chriss Bragg for the Times Union. The IDC Initiative is the campaign finance committee of the Independent Democratic Conference of the New York State Senate.
According to its Web site, Kantor Davidoff provides litigation and corporate legal services in the areas of corporate governance ; mergers and acquisitions ; and matters involving tax, government regulation, and employment. A request made by Progress Queens to a partner at Kantor Davidoff was not answered.
In an e-mail to Progress Queens, Risa Sugarman, the chief enforcement counsel for the New York State Board of Elections, Division of Election Law Enforcement, refused a request for an interview in respect of the Campaign for One New York.
“I do not comment on whether a complaint has been received by the Division, or whether an investigation is or is not being conducted,” Ms. Sugarman wrote.
As reported by numerous news outlets, including Progress Queens, and in reports filed by Grace Rauh for NY1 and Jennifer Fermino for The New York Daily News, questions have been raised about the way the Campaign for One New York raises contributions from donors, who also have business before New York City.
After a steady drum beat of news reports examining the duplicitous role of donors, fundraising by the Campaign for One New York dropped from $1,5 million at the start of 2015 to less than $500,000 at the end of 2015, according to a report published by The New York Daily News.
Activities of Campaign for One New York draw scrutiny
According to information received by Progress Queens, there is law enforcement interest in the activities of the Campaign for One New York.
A request made by Progress Queens for an interview with Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for the Campaign for One New York, was not answered. Mr. Levitan fulfills his capacity as a spokesperson from BerlinRosen, where he is employed as a vice president. BerlinRosen served as a consulting firm to the individual political campaign committee that elected then Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D-New York) as mayor in 2013.
Since the Campaign for One New York is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit public charity, it is treated as a tax-exempt social welfare organization by the Internal Revenue Service. Regulations forbid such organizations from engaging in transactions that excessively benefit anyone “having substantial influence over the organization,” according to agency guidelines available online.
As widely reported, BerlinRosen, an unregistered lobbying firm with close ties to the de Blasio administration, administers media relations on behalf of the Campaign for One New York, perhaps its most important work. In a review conducted by The New York Times’ reporters Larry Buchanan and Ford Fessenden of the Campaign for One New York’s finances for the period from January 2014 through June 2015, of the $3,9 million raised by the group, BerlinRosen was paid over $488,000.
Further regulations permit 501(c)(4) nonprofit public charities to engage in “some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” As noted by numerous press reports, the sole purpose of the Campaign for One New York is to support the political agenda of Mayor de Blasio.
As reported by Progress Queens, because BerlinRosen advises Mayor de Blasio at the same time when BerlinRosen administers media relations for the Campaign for One New York, BerlinRosen is in a position to coördinate its activities with City Hall when, during the normal course of an election cycle, such coördination would be deemed a violation of campaign finance law as amended by the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizen United case.
Despite being operated as nonprofit public charity, there have been times when Mayor de Blasio has not been transparent about the Campaign for One New York, as noted in a report filed by Ross Barkan for The New York Observer, wherein it was noted that Mayor de Blasio would not disclose information about a fundraising event he was attending to benefit his nonprofit lobbying arm.
Examination of other similarly-situated nonprofit lobbying groups
In the past, nonprofit lobbying committees have come under legal scrutiny.
The now defunct Moreland Commission was reportedly set to investigate the fundraising activities of a similarly-situated nonprofit lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York, but that group was disbanded after the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, promulgated new disclosure rules and later created delays in enforcing disclosure requirements applicable to nonprofit lobbying groups, like the Committee to Save New York, ostensibly to allow the Committee to Save New York to wind down its operations before Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) would empanel the Moreland Commission. According to a bombshell report published by The New York Times, Gov. Cuomo’s former secretary, Lawrence Schwartz, had warned Moreland Commission investigators to avoid probing the Committee to Save New York. The Moreland Commission was formed in July 2013 and disbanded in March 2014. During its existence, the Committee to Save New York promoted the political agenda of Gov. Cuomo just as the Campaign for One New York has promoted the political agenda of Mayor de Blasio. In 2015, in a report filed by Michael Grynbaum for The New York Times, Mr. Grynbaum described the Campaign for One New York as a “similar nonprofit” as the Committee to Save New York.
Late in its existence, the Committee to Save New York released some redacted financial information. However, that little information was made public after its political spending had considerably dropped from the large amounts it had spent in its first year. In 2011, the Committee to Save New York was by far and away the state’s largest lobbying group, having spent nearly $12 million in lobbying. In 2012, it was still the state’s largest lobbying group, having spent just over $4 million. By 2013, the Committee to Save New York had dropped out of the top 10 of the state’s largest lobbying groups. The announcement that the Committee to Save New York would be disbanded was made in August 2013, one month after the Moreland Commission had been formed.
Whereas BerlinRosen has been administering media relations on behalf of the Campaign for One New York, the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs had been administering media relations on behalf of the Committee to Save New York, according to a report filed by Nick Reisman for the State of Politics news Web site. Each of the Campaign for One York York and the Committee to Save New York were advised by consulting firms in which David Axelrod was a principal. Mr. Axelrod was the former chief political strategist for Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns. Whereas the Campaign for One New York is advised by the Axelrod-affiliate, AKPD Message & Media, the Committee to Save New York had been formerly advised by ASGK Public Strategies, a public relations and crisis management consulting firm that merged into a successive entity known as Kivvit.
According to Federal prosecutorial guidelines, criminal investigations of significant government officials may require the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice. Last year, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara proceeded to prosecute both leaders of the New York State legislature.
On Friday, Mayor de Blasio attacked the Obama White House over comments made by White House press secretary Josh Earnest about protestations made by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) against terror funding budget cuts. Although Mr. Axelrod’s involvement with the Campaign for One New York may complicate any investigation over the entirety of the Campaign for One New York, that Mayor de Blasio may have aggravated his relationship with the Obama White House may make it easier for the U.S. Department of Justice to approve a focused investigation of the mayor’s nonprofit lobbying arm.
A request made by Progress Queens to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district was not answered.