By LOUIS FLORES
A determination made by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, purportedly approving the making of a lobbyist-paid trip to Israel last February by a delegation of New York City Councilmembers headed by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem), remains hidden from taxpayers.
When the office of Speaker Mark-Viverito was contacted by Progress Queens in February 2015, for a copy of the determination issued by the Conflicts of Interest Board, at that time then the Council Speaker's office refused to answer the request. A renewed request was made by Progress Queens late Monday to the Council Speaker's office. If a response is received, then that information will appear in a future update.
Controversy surrounding the undisclosed Conflicts of Interest Board determination was highlighted in a report written by Sarina Trangle and published online on Monday by City & State.
As reported by Progress Queens, the controversial City Council delegation trip to Israel was paid for by two lobbying groups, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA Federation of New York. According to the lobbyist gift rule under the City Charter, elected officials are forbidden from accepting valuable gifts from firms with business before New York City, and, likewise, firms that lobby elected officials are banned from making valuable gifts. The Jewish Community Relations Council lobbies government officials for grants and programs for Jewish issues, and the UJA Federation of New York lobbies government officials in respect of issues and budget allocations for Jewish causes. Notwithstanding the receipt of a determination issued by the Conflicts of Interest Board, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito made the final approval of the making of the trip, said one of the municipal lawmakers, Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), who made the trip.
The lobbyist-paid trip by the City Council delegation to Israel triggered controversy for the Councilmembers making the voyage, because the trip was being made after a finding by the United Nations showed 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.
For Speaker Mark-Viverito, the trip to Israel represented the second major controversy involving her receipt of lobbyist-paid gifts. The same Conflicts of Interest Board, which issued its determination about the controversial lobbyist-paid trip to Israel, is reportedly also investigating Speaker Mark-Viverito over her acceptance of free consulting services during her 2013-2014 speakership campaign, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. The campaign consulting services were reportedly provided by The Advance Group, a firm that acts as both campaign consultants and lobbyists.
Although Speaker Mark-Vivierito is under reported investigation for ethics violations, she has managed to keep her leadership post. Other legislative leaders, notably up in Albany, namely, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) and State Senator Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), have had to step down from their respective leadership posts following the making of allegations of ethics violations and corruption charges against each state legislator.
The municipal culture of accepting gifts from lobbyists is spreading to other elected officials.
Public Advocate Letitia James (D-New York City) departed on May 3, on her own trip to Israel, according to a report published by JPUpdates. Public Advocate James was the lead official amongst a 16-member delegation of community leaders traveling to Israel on a trip paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the two groups, which paid for the February trip by the City Council delegation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) is also reportedly making his own trip to Israel this summer.
The non-stop lobbyist-paid trips to Israel made by elected officials have earned the ire of some human rights activists, who support the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, against Israel over that nation's violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The BDS movement is reportedly growing across the United States.
Separately, government reform activists have long complained that the city's and state's ultimate arbiters of ethical conduct by public officials, namely, the city's District Attorneys and the state's Attorney General, may also be encumbered by their own conflicts over the outsized roles of consultants or lobbyists in their respective offices.
Some activists have raised questions about whether District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan) ever fully and timely honored a campaign debt to Mark Guma, a campaign consultant. According to the municipal campaign regulatory authority, unpaid campaign debts can be considered to be in-kind contributions to campaign committees, thereby seen as gifts.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) accepts non-paid advisory services from his ex-wife, Jennifer Cunningham, an influential yet unregistered lobbyist who styles herself as the "most powerful woman in Albany," according to the Web site of her consulting firm, SKD Knickerbocker.
Given the possibility that prosecutors may be conflicted about the role of lobbyists in their own respective offices, some government reform activists privately worry about who will keep municipally-elected officials accountable for allegedly violating the lobbyist gift law.