It's been a busy few days for Democratic Presidential Candidate Bill de Blasio, between yukking it up with Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, preparing for the hotly-anticipated Northern Iowa Wing Ding on Friday, and doing some occasional mayor stuff as well. While he attempts to clear the hurdles necessary to appear in the next Democratic debate in September, de Blasio's campaign has been hit with a fundraising complaint from the Federal Elections Committee, inviting a new round of scrutiny into his campaign finance operation. There are also some unrelated pay-to-play allegations that have cropped up, too.
But what does it all mean? Is our mayor running a crooked campaign or is he necessarily gaming a flawed system? In the absence of answers from the man himself—de Blasio hasn't taken off-topic questions from local reporters in 14 days—we've done our best to make sense of the mayor's ethical issues.
Give it to me straight. How bad is it?
This federal ethics complaint against de Blasio's campaign was filed on Wednesday by the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, and accuses the mayor of hoovering up money through his two political action committees and funneling it to his struggling presidential campaign. (It's actually the second complaint that has been filed against the mayor's campaign in this regard: the first was filed by a conservative watchdog group last week, and accused the mayor of illegally using his PACs "as a slush fund.")
De Blasio's "shell game," according to the Campaign Legal Center, allowed the mayor to triple-dip with wealthy donors who'd already exceeded the federal contribution limit to his campaign. He then used that money for campaign expenditures such as travel and polling, allegedly in violation of federal law.
The complaint, which follows reporting in Politico and the CITY, identified 25 donors who'd given to both PACs and also donated the maximum $2,800 allowed to the de Blasio campaign. Politico notes that the vast majority come out of the real estate, finance and legal world. Among the hardcore Blaz-heads are luxury condo developer William Lie Zeckendorf, luxury condo developer Daniel Brodsky, and luxury condo developer and Chrysler Building owner Aby Rosen.
Beyond the potential violation of federal campaign contribution limits, there are also New York City's campaign finance laws, which closely regulate political contributions from those with business before the city. According to Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, the mayor's choice to ignore those standards to further his White House ambitions is "an absolutely outrageous violation of the spirit of the law."
"He's a walking ethical disaster, constantly looking for loopholes and ways to skirt the intent of our city's campaign finance laws, and now he's lifting the same strategies up to the federal level," Lerner told Gothamist.
"Pay-to-play"..."Spirit of the law"...Weird-ass Blasio fundraising arms...Haven't we gone through this already?
No, you're thinking of the other time de Blasio was embroiled in a sweeping fundraising scandal involving the city's high-rolling developers and other powerful players. That was a whole three years ago, when his now-defunct nonprofit, Campaign for One New York, came under heavy scrutiny for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from individuals seeking favor with the city.
Both federal and state prosecutors ultimately decided against charging the mayor, but still noted that he'd acted contrary to the intent and spirit of the law. Meanwhile, a report made public earlier this year from the city's Department Of Investigation found that the mayor had violated conflict of interest laws by personally soliciting donations from those with business before the city, despite being repeatedly warned not to do so.
Okay, but surely he's learned his lesson by now?
"Not from the evidence before us," says Alex Camarda, Senior Policy Advisor at Reinvent Albany, another good government group. Even worse, says Camarda, the mayor's latest gambit could clear the path for just about any local elected official to set up a federal PAC and bypass New York City's campaign contributions laws (which de Blasio himself championed.) "He still has an 'ends justify the means' approach, and now he's providing a blueprint for future candidates to circumvent the local campaign finance laws."
The real lesson de Blasio has learned, according to Lerner, might be that it's easy enough to exploit gray areas in the campaign finance system, both at the local and federal level. "We need leaders who have a clear sense of what is right, not just what is legal," says Lerner.
Asked for comment on this, the Mayor's Office directed us to his presidential campaign, whose spokesperson said they were reviewing the recent FEC complaint, and declined to answer further questions.
Are there any other campaign related shenanigans I should know about? He's not saying "Con Don" anymore, is he?
Much less, thankfully. But with his chances of meeting the threshold for the next Democratic debate looking increasingly slim—he's currently at a little less than 7,000 individual donors, putting him about 123,000 donations shy of qualifying—the mayor is apparently turning to his old pals in the Orthodox Jewish community.
On Thursday, Politico reported that "a fundraising request for 10,000 donors giving just $1 each is circulating online and on WhatsApp" throughout Williamsburg's Satmar sect. The message claims that the mayor "personally asked" for this support in order to qualify for the debate, and requests that recipients urge their wives and children to donate as well. Translated from Yiddish, the message strongly implies that the donation would lead to favorable treatment in the future, according to the outlet.
A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office declined to comment on the mass text.
On the whole, observers say that de Blasio's fast and loose approach to fundraising effectively undercuts his own rhetoric and actions in New York City.
"For a proselytizer of NYC's campaign finance system," said Lerner, "the mayor seems to have no real idea about what's important about it."