When Mayor Eric Adams decided to appoint his brother, Bernard Adams, as head of his security detail, it attracted renewed attention to a small city agency charged with holding the conduct of city elected officials and employees to certain ethical standards: the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB).
When asked about the appointment on Thursday, which comes with an annual salary of $210,000, Adams said his chief counsel, Brendan McGuire, is spearheading a review with COIB and that he would ultimately defer to whatever guidance they provide.
“It is up to COIB,” said Adams. He went on to stress, “My opinion doesn’t matter. It’s C-O-I-B, that’s the opinion that matters.”
Hear WNYC Senior Politics Reporter Brigid Bergin explain the role of the city Conflicts of Interest Board:
What is the Conflicts of Interest Board?
The New York City Conflicts of Interest Board is meant to serve as the city’s conscience. It’s intended to preserve the public’s trust in city government, providing ethics training, answering questions about compliance with the city’s conflicts of interest and ethics laws, and lobbyist gift law. It also administers the law mandating annual financial disclosures and acts as the enforcement agency when people violate these laws. The five-person board works in conjunction with a staff of 25 people and a budget that registers as less than 1% of the city’s near $102 billion total budget.
“The essence of all of it is making sure that public servants are serving the public and not serving their own interests or serving the interests of people associated with them,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School, who served as the chair of COIB from 2014 to 2020.
“Appearances also matter,” he added, “in terms of public confidence in the integrity of their officials.”
Would Mayor Adams have interacted with COIB before?
Yes, in several different ways. As a candidate and elected official, he has filed mandatory annual financial disclosure reports and received training as Brooklyn borough president, most recently in November 2020. The law states, “each public servant shall undergo training” at least within 60 days of becoming said public servant, “and periodically as appropriate during the course of his or her city service.”
Are you allowed to hire a relative?
In the New York City Charter, Chapter 68, under section 2604 entitled, “Prohibited Interests and Conduct” the law states:
“No public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.”
It defines a person “associated” with an official as:
“A person or firm ‘associated’ with a public servant includes a spouse, domestic partner, child, parent or sibling; a person with whom the public servant has a business or other financial relationship; and each firm in which the public servant has a present or potential interest.”
When asked about these portions of the law at Thursday’s news conference, Adams pointed to previous instances where mayors hired direct members of their family for positions in city government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired his daughter, Emma, as a researcher and an administrative assistant and his sister, Marjorie Tiven, to be commissioner to the United Nations. Then Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped his wife Chirlane McCray to run the city’s not-for-profit Fund to Advance New York City. He also sought waivers for his children, Dante and Chiara, to work as interns in City Hall. All these positions were unpaid.
In waivers from COIB published by City & State this week, the agency said the hirings would be “impermissible without a waiver” since they clearly violate the letter of the law. However, the waivers were granted in each case with COIB noting among other qualifications that these individuals would be “uncompensated.”
An official in the Adams administration confirmed that a waiver request was submitted this week. What makes Adams' request distinct from those of previous mayors is that his brother, who started December 30th, is being paid a salary and will oversee a staff of 40 NYPD officers.
“The law says it’s improper to use your position to obtain a financial gain or private or personal advantage for somebody with whom you are associated,” said Briffault, the former COIB chair. “The financial gain seems to be the concern there.”
At a press conference Friday, Adams blamed recent criticism on a bias against “blue collar” workers. He said he planned to hire the best and most qualified people for his team to end inequality and dysfunction in the city.
“And the reason I can do that is because I'm the mayor,” he added.
Has COIB ever penalized someone for hiring a family member?
Yes it has. In enforcement case summaries COIB posts online, there are scores of examples of other city employees cited for violating the city ethics laws, specifically when it comes to nepotism. In one case, an associate director for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation paid a $3,000 fine to COIB because the person “took part in the hiring process for his brother and supervised his brother’s contract employment for sixteen months.”
The board also posts opinions online that provide guidance on these issues and often set precedent for whether certain waivers are granted going forward. In a 1990 opinion, issued not long after COIB itself was reconstituted following the 1989 City Charter revision, COIB ruled it was a violation of law for an elected official to even pass on the resumé of a family member to a city agency for a job.
Three years later, in another opinion, the Board said it would be a violation if a City Council member nominated a family member for an opening on a community board, even though those are unpaid positions.
“While membership on a community board is an uncompensated position, there is a certain degree of power and prestige in holding such a position, and such appointments must be deemed to confer private or personal advantages,” COIB wrote.
So who will ultimately decide whether Adams’ brother qualifies for a waiver?
The members of COIB, with input from the agency’s staff. The board has five members who are currently appointed by the mayor to non-overlapping six-year terms. Members can serve a maximum of two terms. There is currently one vacancy, which will be filled by Adams, and will soon be two more. The current members were all appointed by de Blasio.
Beginning this year, due to a change to the City Charter passed by voters in 2019, the city comptroller and public advocate will each appoint a new board member to replace individuals whose terms are expiring. Those appointments are due January 30th and are subject to City Council approval.
The current board chair is Jeffrey Friedlander, an attorney who retired from the city Law Department in 2015 after serving “alongside 13 corporation counsels and under seven mayors,” according to his biography. He was appointed to COIB in March 2017 and made chair in April 2020, when Briffault’s term ended. His term is set to expire in March, unless he is reappointed for a second term.
Other board members include Nisha Agarwal, de Blasio’s first Immigrant Affairs commissioner and later senior advisor, whose term also runs through March of this year.
Wayne Hawley, who spent 18 years on staff with COIB, ultimately serving as the deputy executive director and general counsel until he retired in 2017, is in his first term. It runs through March 2025.
Fernando Bohorquez, Jr. was appointed in April of 2014. He is a partner at the law firm of Baker Hostetler. He is currently in his second term, which runs through 2024.
Board members meet publicly once a month and are paid a per diem rate approved by the City Council of $250 per meeting for members and $275 for the chair. Their last meeting was held earlier this week on Monday.
What does the staff do?
COIB relies on a small staff, with a headcount of just 25 employees and a budget of $2.5 million, to train any of the city’s nearly 400,000 employees and elected officials in Chapter 68 of the New York City Charter, which spells out the city’s ethics law. They also provide guidance related to the board’s extensive rules and laws governing lobbyist gifts, not-for-profits affiliated with elected officials and the annual financial disclosures.
In 2020, according to their annual disclosure, the agency trained more than 10,000 city employees through online courses (not every city worker is trained each year). The legal advice unit issued 410 waivers, which permit a city employee to engage in conduct that is technically in violation of the city's ethics law (most waivers are for second jobs outside of a city position). The enforcement unit issued 50 public findings of conflicts of interest violations, including four instances cited in its report of so-called high-level city employees with significant conflicts of interest. Those accused of wrongdoing do have the option to defend their actions.
In one case, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson paid a $5,000 fine after COIB found she violated ethics law by using her city position as City Council member at the time to avoid a ticket after being pulled over for using her cell phone while driving. Gibson was driving in her district and chaired the council’s Public Safety Committee at the time she was pulled over. In that position, she was responsible for holding oversight and budget hearings of the NYPD. To avoid the ticket, she called the deputy chief at her local precinct, which led to her ticket being voided, which COIB said was a misuse of her city position.
In another, city Board of Elections executive director Michael Ryan paid a fine of $2,500 after he allowed a vendor to provide a two-night stay at a Midtown Manhattan hotel. Ryan was serving as an unpaid member of the vendor, ES&S’s national advisory board, and was staying at the hotel for one of their meetings. While COIB had approved the vendor paying for his travel expenses so that he could attend the meetings as part of his work for the city, “the Board determined that there was no City purpose for the Executive Director, who lives in Staten Island, to accept a hotel stay in conjunction with an Advisory Board meeting held in Manhattan.”
Do elected officials always follow COIB’s guidance?
No they do not. De Blasio was warned repeatedly that his fundraising practices for his nonprofit, Campaign for One New York, which included reaching out to individuals with business before the city, violated city ethics law. COIB sent two warning letters to de Blasio, one in July 2014 and another in September 2018, which were recently made public after The New York Times sued over a Freedom of Information Law request.
The second letter from COIB, published by The City, noted that by continuing to make fundraising calls after COIB’s initial letter, “you not only disregarded the Board's repeated written advice, but created the very appearance of coercion and improper access to you and your staff that the Board's advice sought to help you avoid.”
While COIB can issue fines of up to $25,000, the mayor received no penalty. The final letter also noted that the city council had passed legislation to regulate nonprofit entities associated with elected officials and since de Blasio’s nonprofit disbanded in 2016, similar fundraising violations were not expected to occur again.
When will we know COIB’s opinion about whether Adams can hire his brother?
It’s unclear. While the board is not scheduled to meet again until next month, when past mayor’s have submitted their waiver requests, the board has issued its response in as short as a few days. If COIB grants a waiver, it is subject to a Freedom of Information Law request or the requester can make it public.