Corruption-fighting prosecutor mum as Bronx Democrats make second attempt to mix lobbying with public office

By LOUIS FLORES

The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is choosing to remain quiet as Bronx Democrats make a renewed attempt at mixing a public office with lobbying.

Rosanna Vargas, an attorney and registered lobbyist with the law firm of Akerman LLP, has been appointed to serve as a commissioner to the New York City Board of Elections. The appointment is invoking the spectre of conflicts of interest, because Ms. Vargas refuses to pledge to end her lobbying work, giving rise to the possibility that Ms. Vargas may hire herself out to lobby other public officials during her own tenure as a public official, according to a report filed by the journalist Erin Durkin for The New York Daily News.

The subject of Ms. Vargas' appointment was discussed by members of the New York City Council during a hearing on Wednesday, triggering uncomfortable reactions from Councilmembers, including from Councilmember Benjamin Kallos (D-Upper East side) that Ms. Vargas' potential for lobbying work may create an "appearance of impropriety," according to the report published by The New York Daily News. The New York City Council is currently reviewing the appointment for confirmation.

Ms. Vargas did not return a message left at her office seeking an interview for this report.

Ms. Vargas' appointment was reportedly made with the approval of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, which, in turn, is reportedly the subject of a Federal investigation over the management of the committee's campaign finance accounts, as noted in a report published by Progress Queens.

The career prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Bharara have been investigating a large number of public officials, charging many of them with Federal corruption crimes stemming from the theft of honest services that, in many cases, have involved public servants selling official acts in exchange for campaign contributions or other forms of compensation, including bribes, made by lobbyists or other intermediaries representing special interests.

In the past, U.S. Attorney Bharara has refrained from advocating for specific ethics reforms to end the spree of political and campaign corrruption in New York government. However, during an interview with WNYC 93.9 FM radio talk show host Brian Lehrer in December 2015, U.S. Attorney Bharara seemed to suggest one way to improve the ethics of public officials would be to ban outside income. It is not known if U.S. Attorney Bharara would support a proposal for a state law to ban lobbyists from serving in public office in state or city posts.

Progress Queens submitted three questions in advance to U.S. Attorney Bharara's press office about Ms. Vargas' arrangement, but the press office declined to answer the questions.

The Board of Elections is itself reportedly the subject of an investigation by the office of State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) following the decision by Board of Elections officials to purge rolls of registered voters in the time leading up to the New York presidential primary.

Second attempt by Bronx Democrats to mix lobbying with public office

Advocates for government reform viewed Ms. Vargas' arrangement as diminishing faith in the independence needed at the Board of Elections.

"It is unacceptable for a lobbyist with private clients to administer our elections. We need professional administrators with high ethical standards to eliminate such obvious conflicts of interest," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, in a statement provided to Progress Queens, adding that, "The Council should not confirm Ms. Vargas."

In December 2015, Bronx Democrats reportedly supported efforts by Assemblymember Michael Blake (D-The Bronx) to be accepted into the partnership of Hilltop Public Solutions, a lobbying firm, before immense public criticism forced Assemblymember Blake to resign from the partnership. At that time then, Common Cause/NY and another government reform advocacy group, EffectiveNY, opposed Assemblymember Blake's attempt to serve in the dual roles of public official and lobbyist, according to a report filed by the journalist Will Bredderman for The New York Observer.

The Bronx Democratic County Committee is chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo (D-The Bronx). A staff member of his Bronx office deferred comment to Anthony Perez, the committee's executive director. Mr. Perez did not answer an e-mail containing questions submitted by Progress Queens about the apparent repeated efforts by the Bronx Democratic County Committee to support the commingling of public office with lobbying.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has helped to set the tone of accepting lobbyists into public office when he appointed Jonathan Greenspun, a managing director at Mercury Public Affairs LLC, to serve on the New York City Commission on Human Rights in 2014. Borough President Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) has also been accepting of public officials hiring themselves out to clients, notably when Manhattan Community Board 2 Member Anita Brandt was approved to her post, despite the potential for conflicts of interest. In 2015, Ms. Brandt made a paid presentation on behalf of one of her clients before the same Government body on which she served, triggering a warning letter from the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.

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