City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, selected by U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, may have broken campaign finance and ethics laws to win Speaker race

  • U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley backed a Council speaker candidate, who violated a prohibition against using a committee to reëlect to pay for expenses for the Council speaker race.

  • Federal prosecutors and Municipal campaign finance regulators are mum at the possibility that Councilmember Corey Johnson violated campaign finance and ethics laws.

  • Once again, a lobbyist representing NY-CLASS lobbied on behalf of the winning Council speaker, in part, for free.

By LOUIS FLORES

Nine days after New York City Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) was selected as the new Council speaker, it was reported that his committee to reëlect paid a lobbyist to work on his speakership campaign. The revelation was made in a report filed by the journalist Sally Goldenberg for POLITICO New York. The report was based on disclosures made by Council Speaker Johnson's campaign committee, Corey 2017, with the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Municipal campaign finance regulatory authority.

The disclosures showed that Corey 2017 paid the lobbying firm Tusk Strategies Inc. a nominal sum of $1,000, which the POLITICO New York report described as a partial payment for lobbying services provided for Councilmember Johnson's speakership campaign. Another $1,500 payment is due to be paid, according to the report. The report added that Chris Coffey, the lobbyist, who was employed by Councilmember Johnson's committee to reëlect, also volunteered his time for the speakership campaign. The late work by Tusk Strategies Inc. to represent Councilmember Johnson's speakership campaign came in the face of work by some unions to oppose Councilmember Johnson's speakership race. At that time then, Councilmember Johnson chief rival in the speaker race was identified as Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Jr. (D-Crown Heights), who was described in a report broadcast by the cable news channel NY1 as a rising candidate for Council speaker. In the end, approximately 32 Municipal legislators, who had yet to be sworn into the new legislative session, reportedly tendered their ballots for the Speaker race to a TBA Council speaker candidate reportedly of the sole choosing of U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens).

As reported by Progress Queens, the eight (8) main candidates for Council speaker operated without a dedicated campaign committee for the Council speaker race. Such conditions were in contravention to guidance previously given by the Campaign Finance Board. In 2013, the Campaign Finance Board reportedly provided advice to then Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) that using a committee to reëlect for the speakership race was prohibited, forcing her to form a separate, dedicated campaign committee for the Council speaker race that year then.

That Councilmember Johnson's committee to reëlect both paid a lobbyist to work on his speakership campaign and accepted volunteer time from a lobbyist raises the spectre that he and his lobbyist may face fines from law enforcement authorities. For this report, Erik Bottcher, Councilmember Johnson's chief of staff, and Bradley Tusk, the founder of Tusk Strategies Inc., did not answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens.

As reported by Progress Queens, 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 to a City Councilmember violated regulations stemming from the City Charter that specifically ban gifts by lobbyists to public officials, referred to as the Lobbyist Gift Law. Ultimately, each of then Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Scott Levenson, the president of The Advance Group, a lobbing firm that represented Councilmember Mark-Viverito during her speakership campaign, 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. The Advance Group was separately fined by the New York State Attorney General's Office to settle another investigation into campaign finance improprieties during the 2013 election cycle.

A flood of money in City Council races comes from certain participants of the real estate industry, who receive valuable benefits from official acts made by Councilmembers, who have power and authority over matters pertaining to land use

The committees to reëlect of two Council speaker candidates, Councilmembers Johnson and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), raised in excess of $500,000 in campaign funds for the 2017 Municipal election cycle. Such amounts were made possible, because both candidates opted out of the matching dollar funds program of the Municipal campaign finance regulator, which would have otherwise imposed campaign finance caps that would have prevented a campaign committee from raising in excess of approximately $200,000. The rush of big money donations into Councilmember Johnson's committee to reëlect, particularly from the real estate industry, became a campaign issue for Councilmember Johnson. Separately, an activist group had earlier critiqued the sizeable campaign contributions from the real estate industry flooding into Councilmember Van Bramer's committee to reëlect. According to information obtained by Progress Queens, anti-corruption activists question the connection between large political donations made by some participants in the real estate industry and valuable benefits from changes in public policy received that those participants in the real estate industry. In New York City, decisions about major changes to land use are made by the New York City Council.

For this report, Matthew Sollars, a spokesperson for the Campaign Finance Board, as well as the press offices of the U.S. Attorneys' Offices in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, did not answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens. Council Speaker Johnson represents Council District 3, which encompasses the West Village, Chelsea, and Hudson Yards neighborhoods in Manhattan, which are subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan.

U.S. Rep. Crowley reportedly exerted the greatest influence in selecting Councilmember Johnson to become the new Council speaker, according to several press reports. Because he is based in Queens, he is nominally subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn. It is not known how U.S. Rep. Crowley is responding to news that the Council speaker candidate of his choosing violated campaign finance prohibitions and the Lobbyist Gift Law. Lauren French, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Crowley, did not answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens. In Queens, as with the remainder of New York City, communities denounce large-scale rezonings that activists charge will spread gentrification, leading to the displacement of long-term residents, like in Willets Point and in Long Island City, but Democratic Party officials, such as U.S. Rep. Crowley, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), Council Speaker Johnson, and Councilmember Van Bramer, never oppose these rezonings. These officials receive large amounts of political donations from the real estate industry. Anti-corruption activists have made connections between developers behind large rezonings and campaign contributions to the political committees of elected officials, but law enforcement agents appear to rarely investigate those ties.

Councilmember Johnson's campaign treasurer, Mathew Bergman, was paid $27,500 in compensation for having served as an officer of the committee to reëlect, according to the online records of the Campaign Finance Board. As campaign treasurer, Mr. Bergman may become legally liable for some actions undertaken by a campaign committee, according to regulations administered by the Campaign Finance Board.

The report published last week by POLITICO New York made the connection that Tusk Strategies Inc., also represents NY-CLASS, the animal rights activist group that has long sought to ban, and, lately, to alternatively shrink, the horse carriage industry that operates in Midtown Manhattan. In 2013, The Advance Group, the lobbying firm that assisted then Councilmember Mark-Viverito to win the speakership race, had also represented NY-CLASS. News reports, including one published by The New York Daily News, have indicated that real estate development may be a motivator to ban the horse carriage industry.

Because many campaign consulting firms also double as lobbying firms, when an official owes his or her elected office or leadership position to his or her campaign consulting firm, the campaign consulting firm earns an unfair, inside advantage to lobby the official on issues for which the lobbying firm is privately paid. In 2014, NY-CLASS reportedly became the subject of a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation related to its own campaign finance activities, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. Two years later, NY-CLASS faced document demands made by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, according to a subsequent report published by The New York Daily News. A wide-ranging, Federal investigation that revolved around the campaign finance activities of Mayor de Blasio, into which NY-CLASS reportedly figured, was closed in early 2017 without the filing of any charges.

As experienced between 2013 and 2017, corruption investigations can take several years before a disposition is made by law enforcement agencies.

During a speech, the former top Federal prosecutor in Manhattan described some factors and considerations that are weighed by law enforcement agents, who are investigating public corruption cases, including aspects that involve the public's franchise rights.

Federal prosecutors permit fraud and criminality to continue, in order to "hold responsible and to incapacitate as many people as possible"

During the question and answer portion following a speech delivered on January 23, 2015, at New York Law School, then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara defended his office’s actions in connection with the case against former Assemblymember Nelson Castro (D-The Bronx), a State lawmaker, who was allowed to run for reëlection at the same time when he was reportedly the subject of a Federal corruption investigation. Then U.S. Attorney Bharara said, in part, that, “We make decisions all the time about when to be overt in an investigation and when to remain covert, because we have sometimes competing principles and interests,” adding further, that, “We, all the time, get information about someone engaging in bad conduct, and, sometimes, it’s the case you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, you let it go on,” he said, referring to the bad conduct, adding that, “and you monitor it, and you make sure that people are not unduly harmed in the broader interest of trying to make sure you can gather and develop enough evidence, so that when it becomes public, that person doesn’t flee, that person doesn’t destroy evidence, and that person can be held accountable and put in prison for as long as is deserved.”

Then U.S. Attorney Bharara qualified his comments by saying that, “In addition to that, we’re not only just talking about that person, because, sometimes, it comes to light that someone is engaged in bad conduct, but he or she is not the only one, or he or she is at the bottom of the totem pole, and there are six other bad guys,” adding that, “And, sometimes, with great care and sensitivity, you have to make judgment calls of how long you let something go on,” before saying that, “because, the goal is to hold responsible and to incapacitate as many people as possible, who are responsible for breaking the law.”

Speaking of his office’s development of its case against former Assemblymember Castro, then U.S. Attorney Bharara said it was a “particularly difficult struggle, because at the time, if I recall correctly, at the time the election was coming up, we did not have all the evidence with respect to other people, who engaged in bad conduct, and so it is a legitimate question as to whether or not we should have thrown up our hands and called it a day and exposed that person and then gone home, as opposed to letting it run a little longer, so a number of other, additional people, including another public official, could be charge and held accountable.”

In explaining his office’s position, then U.S. Attorney Bharara added, in part, that “we thought long and hard about it.  So, for people, who disagree with the decision” to allow former Assemblymember Castro to run for reëlection while under investigation, “you should understand that we didn’t do it in a cavalier way or in a casual way. We thought about it a lot, because enfranchisement is important.”

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