This story was originally published on 9/20/19 by THE CITY. (By: Greg B. Smith)
On the same day would-be President Bill de Blasio unveiled a campaign finance reform plan he hopes to take national, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own fundraising tactics shadowed him at home.
A state watchdog agency on Thursday revealed three deep-pocket developers seeking favors from City Hall settled charges that they had made illegal gifts to de Blasio by writing five-figure checks to his now-defunct charity, the Campaign for One New York (CONY).
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) announced that the trio — Toll Brothers, an affiliate of Park Tower Group Ltd. and Brookfield Properties — each agreed to pay penalties ranging from $15,000 to $30,000.
The announcement came as de Blasio floated a national campaign finance reform proposal via an exclusive interview with Vox.com. He said his plan would encourage democracy by adding more matching funds to small donations and further limiting the amounts deep-pocketed contributors could give.
The Vox report didn’t mention JCOPE’s settlements with the developers — or that the agency’s announcement its four-year-old probe of Campaign for One New York donations is ongoing.
De Blasio’s press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, released a brief statement in response to the JCOPE findings: “Fundraising for the now-defunct Campaign for One New York has been thoroughly investigated by JCOPE. JCOPE has never found that mayor violated the law.”
Developers Sought City Help
JCOPE’s findings relate to donations revealed in an April report by THE CITY, which detailed how de Blasio and his subordinates sought contributions from entities — Toll Brothers and Park Towers, among them — actively seeking favors from City Hall.
THE CITY disclosed the existence of a Department of Investigation report that found de Blasio had violated city ethics rules with his Campaign for One New York fund-raising tactics.
One example included in the DOI report involved a Toll Brothers executive who told investigators de Blasio called him in 2015 and asked him to contribute to the Campaign for One New York. This was just a few days after the Department of Buildings had removed a stop-work order on the developer’s hotel project in Brooklyn Bridge Park, records show.
Shortly after the call from the mayor, Toll Brothers wrote Campaign for One New York a $25,000 check, records show.
THE CITY also revealed that in 2015, a business associate of the development firm Park Tower Group arranged a meeting with de Blasio. During the session, the developer told DOI the business associate, who was not identified, “mentioned raising money for Mayor de Blasio’s policies.”
At the time, Park Tower was seeking City Hall approval of a big mixed-use project in Brooklyn called Greenpoint Landing.
The JCOPE settlement identified the Park Tower’s “business associate” at the meeting as Ross Offinger, a longtime campaign aide of de Blasio who was Campaign for One New York’s chief fundraiser. Shortly after the meeting, Park Tower donated $50,000 to CONY, records show.
Toll Brothers, Park Tower and the third developer, Brookfield, agreed to pay the fines to settle JCOPE charges that they violated the law prohibiting clients of lobbyists actively seeking government help from giving gifts to public officials.
Brookfield, Toll Brothers and Park Tower each had retained lobbyists to press City Hall for various projects at the time the companies wrote checks to Campaign for One New York.
In May 2015, Brookfield made a $50,000 donation to Campaign for One New York at a time when one of the firm’s projects, Manhattan West near Hudson Yards, needed City Hall approval. JCOPE said it had evidence the donation was made after “a recommendation made by or on behalf of the mayor” to a Brookfield executive.
The executive, “who had actual knowledge of the events,” died before JCOPE opened its investigation, settlement documents state.
Hearings Averted by Payments
After JCOPE officials told the developers they intended to conduct public hearings airing the illegal gift charges, all three quietly agreed to settle, according to state investigators.
In July, Toll Brothers agreed to pay a $15,000 penalty. Brookfield agreed in August to pay $30,000. On Sept. 10 Park Tower’s affiliate Greenpoint Landing Developers signed off on a settlement, agreeing to pay $20,000.
The settlements were only made public Thursday.
Last year, James Capalino, a lobbyist who’d arranged to raise $100,000 in donations to de Blasio’s non-profit, agreed to pay a $40,000 JCOPE fine. And two founders of the anti-horse-and-carriage group, New Yorkers for Clean Livable & Safe Streets, paid a $10,000 JCOPE fine for donations totalling $125,000 they made to Campaign to One New York.
De Blasio’s fundraising for Campaign for One New York and other endeavors has been the subject of multiple investigations.
The Manhattan U.S. attorney and the Manhattan district attorney opened probes in 2015, but ultimately decided not to bring criminal charges.
Then-interim U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, however, noted that de Blasio and his aides had taken steps to help certain donors to CONY. And Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance said the mayor’s tactics violated the spirit of campaign finance laws.
In May, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board voted to codify rules that prohibit government officials from soliciting donations for city government-affiliated nonprofits from individuals with business pending before the city. The rules can’t be applied retroactively.