Mark-Viverito used campaign committee for legal defense before de Blasio proposed fund for his own defense


Updated 26 February 2017 07:55 In the time leading up to the meeting on Friday between Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office, and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it was reported that Mayor de Blasio was not paying the bills for his personal legal representation. The meeting on Friday between Mayor de Blasio and law enforcement has been reported to be related to a wide-ranging, Federal investigation of Mayor de Blasio's campaign finance activities. Mayor de Blasio has been being represented by the law firm of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, and the unpaid legal bills represent a debt personally owned by Mayor de Blasio to the law firm.

After Mayor de Blasio announced that he planned to set up, in the future, a legal defense fund to pay for those legal bills, Government reform advocacy groups denounced the proposal to use a legal defense fund due to ethical considerations. Kramer Levin already "regularly lobbies City Hall," creating potential conflicts of interest, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. It is not known why Mayor de Blasio has chosen to form, in the future, a legal defense fund for his legal bills instead of paying his attorneys from his campaign committee. As reported by Progress Queens, several of Mayor de Blasio's political committees have already paid $200,000 in legal fees.

In the recent past, several public officials in New York have had to create private legal defense funds, such as former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer), as noted in a report published by POLITICO New York, which also revealed that other officials have structured a legal defense fund as a legal nonprofit organisation known as a 527 fund, named after the section in IRS code that governs such a structure. Still yet other officials have drawn on campaign committees to pay for legal fees. When New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) needed to pay for legal fees in connection with investigations, including by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, she paid law firms from a campaign committee, Viverito NY, according to online records published by the State campaign finance regulatory authority. Council Speaker Mark-Viverito has raised money for the campaign committee, even though she is not a declared candidate for public office in the 2017 Municipal election cycle. Still yet other City officials have relied on outside sponsors to pay for their legal fees. When the City of New York declined in 2012 to indemnify New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna in a civil lawsuit over alleged violations he committed during an Occupy Wall Street protest, his legal fees were promised to be covered by his union, the Captains Endowment Association, according to a report published at that time then by DNAinfo New York.

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito accepted donations from a law firm that lobbies City officials in order to pay, in part, for legal fees in connection with an investigation

Concerns that have been expressed about Mayor de Blasio's unformed legal defense fund include that he refuses to promise to avoid donors, who have business relationships with the City of New York, according to the report published by POLITICO New York. Because Mayor de Blasio refuses to make a commitment to avoid such donors, he may create situations that may present a conflict of interest, critics have charged. However, the concerns over conflicts of interest have not been uniformly applied to all City officials. For example, when Council Speaker Mark-Viverito raised money for her campaign committee, she accepted contributions from a political action committee affiliated with the law firm, Greenberg Traurig, P.A. Attorneys from Greenberg Traurig, P.A., have acted to lobby public officials on behalf of their clients, similar in representation that Mayor de Blasio's law firm, Kramer Levin, offers its clients.

It is not known if Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Deputy Inspector Bologna, or others received legal guidance approving of these arrangements from the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is the regulatory authority which governs rules about gifts to City officials and employees. A spokesperson from the Conflicts of Interest Board declined to answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens for this report. However, it was noted in the POLITICO New York report that, in the past, the Conflicts of Interest Board reportedly issued legal guidance to Councilmember Deborah Rose (D-Staten Island) that fundraising to pay for her legal defense should follow rules applicable to a campaign committee.* The legal guidance reportedly provided to Councilmember Rose has not been made public, according to the POLITICO New York report.

(*) CORRECTION : The unpublished legal guidance reportedly given to Councilmember Rose was that her fundraising activities to pay for her legal defense should follow the rules applicable to a campaign committee.