A good-government group is calling on city watchdogs to investigate Mayor de Blasio and political nonprofits he has set up that rake in millions, push his political projects, and pay his friends, unfettered by campaign finance restrictions. Common Cause New York says de Blasio's "unprecedented use" of nonprofits to raise money "has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process," and "has created a perpetual campaign...to the detriment of the public interest."
Upon taking office, de Blasio formed the Campaign for One New York, which distributed slick materials selling his universal prekindergarten plan and organized his run as a national pitchman describing the evils of income inequality. More recently he created the United for Affordable NYC, in part with money from the former group, to push his controversial affordable housing plan. Both organizations run on money from big donors including developers, unions, taxi medallion kingpins, and contractors, all spending wildly beyond what they'd be allowed to if they made direct campaign contributions. The groups also hire public relations and consulting firms run by people close to de Blasio, including some former City Hall and campaign staffers.
Campaign for One New York alone had taken in $3.87 million as of last September.
In a letter to the Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance boards today, Common Cause New York director Susan Lerner said that her group believes the arrangements violate the city charter's conflicts of interest provisions, city campaign finance law, "as well as the spirit" of those rules.
Donations to the Campaign for New York have included $350,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, which was negotiating a contract with the city, and $100,000 from the developer Two Trees Management Company, after the company faced off with the mayor over how many below-market-rate apartments to include in its Domino sugar factory development in Williamsburg. Two Trees was recently exposed for taking $10 million in tax breaks on a luxury building where it failed to provide promised affordable apartments.
The aftermath of that fraud being exposed is illustrative. In the ensuing controversy, the PR firm BerlinRosen spoke on Two Trees' behalf, as it has done for years. As it happens, BerlinRosen also consulted on de Blasio's campaign, and according to a New York Times report, collected $490,000 in work for the Campaign for One New York during his first year and a half in office.
Because those donors, like many others, have business before the city, contributions from people associated with them would be limited to $400 if they went toward a traditional campaign.
De Blasio has defended his slush funds in part by saying that they don't lobby or campaign, per se, but rather that they're "supportive of an agenda." Also, he says, they disclose their donors voluntarily, unlike the truly dark money operations run by the likes of the bigger-spending Koch brothers.
"There’s a long history of coalitions forming to achieve policy goals," de Blasio told reporters today, adding, "The idea that organizations would come together to fight for things like full-day pre-K for all, or affordable housing programs that could reach hundreds of thousands of people, I think is understandable and makes sense."
Governor Cuomo also runs a similar nonprofit, the Committee to Save New York.
Lerner, of Common Cause, acknowledged that de Blasio is not alone in his ethically dubious maneuvering, but told the Times that the formation of similar groups in recent weeks, including one backed by Republican developer Paul Massey, galvanized her group.
"The goal of the letter is making clear that we do not accept that dark money is a necessary part of the modern mayoralty," she said, adding, "What we’re seeing is a mushrooming of this problem around the Campaign for One New York."
Common Cause poses several lines of inquiry for both city monitoring agencies, including considering whether soliciting individuals with business before the city is abuse of the mayor's position, and whether "in this age of perpetual campaigning" whether the Campaign for One New York should be considered an election committee and subjected to campaign finance laws. If they find no violations, Lerner asks that both agencies clarify the rules and explicitly ban elected officials from creating such nongovernmental advocacy groups.
The Campaign Finance Board told the paper the board would review the letter, but noted that the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on elections created "some novel challenges."
A Conflicts of Interest Board spokesman said that the board cannot discuss complaints it has received. A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office referred questions to BerlinRosen.