Meet Bill de Blasio's Shadow Government
This week, NY1 reported that City Hall had denied its request for email correspondence between Bill de Blasio and Jonathan Rosen, a powerful political consultant who meets frequently with the mayor and whose firm helped get him elected. As it turns out, Rosen isn’t the only one granted such privacy.
Rosen is one of the main characters in what good government groups describe as de Blasio’s “shadow government,” a network of former aides, advisors, and associated non-profits that complement his political agenda. Their history is long and profitable: A review of the mayor’s 2014 schedule by NY1 shows that Rosen met with de Blasio 20 times over the course of the year; this year, the two have already met five times. Rosen’s consulting firm, BerlinRosen, was paid $270,000 for getting the mayor elected in 2013 and received more than $425,000 from de Blasio’s non-profit, Campaign for One New York, in 2014. BerlinRosen’s spokesman, Dan Levitan, was the spokesman for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign, and Rosen’s wife Debbie is chief of staff to de Blasio’s budget director.
While some communication between city officials is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law, there is a presumption in favor of disclosure when it comes to correspondence between city officials and anyone not employed by the city. Correspondence with outside consultants retained by city agencies is subject to the same exemptions—but the operative word there is “retained.” When the city retains an outside consultant, there are records of that exchange (i.e. a contract).
But in this case, the mayor’s lawyers have justified exempting Rosen’s correspondence with the mayor by dubbing him an “agent of the city.” The Committee on Open Government’s executive director, Bob Freeman, told Gawker that he could not recall this language ever appearing anywhere in the relevant case law. “An agent of the city,” he repeated. “What is that?”
When Gawker asked for clarification as to the definition of ‘agent of the city’ and who receives such a designation, a mayoral spokesman provided the following statement, attributed to Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor:
The Mayor’s counsel has determined that in certain circumstances the five following individuals are considered personal advisors to the Mayor: Jonathan Rosen, Nicholas Baldick, Bill Hyers, John Del Cecato and Patrick Gaspard. As personal advisors to the Mayor, their communications to the Mayor’s Office, along with those of their support staff working at the principal’s direction on those particular matters, are exempt from disclosure when related solely to City business and not on behalf of any client.
None of these five men, the mayor’s counsel’s office said, are paid or compensated by the City—that is to say, they have not been retained by a city agency. (At a press conference on Wednesday, the mayor had said that a question about whether the city was paying these advisors—who had not, at that point, been named—was “willfully missing the point.”)
But even if they were being paid by the city, certain parts of the advisors’ correspondence would still be subject to disclosure—specifically, statistical data, factual tabulations, instructions to staff that affect the public, policy decisions, and external audits. (‘Facts,’ basically.) The likelihood that correspondence between the mayor and his personal advisors would not contain such information is slim at best. As Freeman notes, “If you send a memo to your boss recommending some course of action, you’re gonna back it up with data.”
In justifying the exemption, the city’s lawyers cite several different court decisions, but the most important one is a 2001 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the test of an outside advisor’s relationship is whether the advisor “does not represent an interest of its own, or the interest of any other client.” According to this ruling, such consultants’ “only obligations are to the truth and [their] sense of what good judgement calls for.” This is echoed in Wiley’s statement, which notes that the personal advisors’ communications are exempt from disclosure “when related solely to City business and not on behalf of any client.”
The nature of these personal advisors’ work, however, makes it hard to trust in their “sense of what good judgement calls for” when it comes to keeping city business and their clients’ business in separate silos, if only because many of their clients are in the business of dealing with the city.
BerlinRosen represents a number of clients who frequently themselves have business before the city, like Two Trees Management, which owns huge swathes of highly-valuable property along the Brooklyn waterfront and is (successfully) pushing for the development of a ludicrous streetcar line there; The Durst Organization, one of the oldest family-run real estate development firms in the city; and Forest City Ratner, whose founder, Bruce Ratner, pulled the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn to become the crown jewel of his $4.9 billion Metropark development project. BerlinRosen also represents the Service Employees International Union.
(Plus, according to campaign finance data, Jordan Barowitz, vice president and director of external affairs at Durst, raised $24,750 for de Blasio in 2013; Bob Sanna, executive vice president and head of construction at Forest Ratner, raised $13,600.)
Oddly enough, the city has disclosed correspondence between de Blasio and Rosen in the past. From a New York Times story in November:
Earlier this year, Mr. de Blasio described Mr. Rosen as a close friend who “doesn’t represent the interests of his clients when he talks to me.”
But emails obtained by The Times under the state’s Freedom of Information Law show that Mr. Rosen has represented the interests of his clients in exchanges with members of the de Blasio administration.
Several of Mr. Rosen’s requests to City Hall concerned invitations for the mayor to attend events for his firm’s clients.
In one instance, Mr. Rosen made what he described as “a shameless plug” for the mayor to appear at a gala for the Brooklyn Public Library. “Benefits public library system of our fav borough. (full disclosure I do their P.R.),” he wrote. The mayor did not attend the event.
Emails also reveal how Rosen coordinated an appearance by de Blasio at a conference in Chicago organized by the Democracy Alliance, a BerlinRosen client run by an advisor to George Soros. After de Blasio delivered the keynote address at the conference, the Times reported, a Soros nonprofit donated $250,000 to Campaign for One New York.
As it happens, one of the mayor’s other “agents of the city,” Bill Hyers, was Campaign for One New York’s chairman before it was shuttered earlier this year. (He served as campaign manager for de Blasio in 2013.) Hyers is also a partner at Hilltop Public Solutions, a public affairs and political consulting firm founded by another of the mayor’s personal advisors, Nicholas Baldick. The de Blasio campaign paid Hilltop about $330,000 for its services; now, it represents Airbnb (whose director of public policy, Chris Lehane, a former aide to Bill Clinton, has met with the mayor twice since his hiring last summer) and Fortis Property Group, which is redeveloping the old Long Island College Hospital complex, against the closing of which, as a mayoral candidate, de Blasio protested. He was arrested, which made for a great photo op.
Airbnb has spent the better part of the past three years fending off scrutiny from Attorney General Eric Scheiderman and a variety of New York City and state legislators. Lehane visited City Hall less than a week after de Blasio announced that his administration would be “aggressive” with landlords who use the platform to run illegal hotels. “If they want a good working relationship with the city of New York, they must be transparent,” de Blasio said at the time.
In addition to Rosen, Hyers, and Baldick, John Del Cecato also worked on de Blasio’s mayoral campaign—his “Dante” television ad was widely (if somewhat dubiously) credited with winning de Blasio the election, and whose consulting firm, Chicago-based AKPD, was compensated $7.6 million, according to campaign finance records.
The only one of the mayor’s named personal advisors who didn’t work on the 2013 campaign is Patrick Gaspard, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. De Blasio and Gaspard became friends while working for Mayor David Dinkins. But even in separate hemispheres, a 2014 Politico profile details, the two remained in close contact:
Even in his official diplomatic Cape Dutch-style mansion in Waterkloof Ridge, Gaspard hasn’t quite let go of his past life as one of New York’s top political operatives, especially with his best friend becoming the new mayor of New York. He’s such a constant presence by phone, in inboxes and through text messages that people talk about him as if they might still run into him on the subway.
As Bill de Blasio preempted a runoff for the Democratic nomination in September, there Gaspard was. As de Blasio deliberated over who to pick for administration jobs, there he was. As members of the City Council divided and fought over who to pick as their new speaker on Wednesday, there he was again — checking in with people, and having others ask him for advice, talking through his own sense of where things might go, and why.
In dubbing these five men “personal advisors,” or “agents of the city,” or whatever absurd, bureaucratic designation they come up with next, City Hall has granted these five men a special privilege available to no other resident of New York City, which in turn conveys an unprecedented level of access and influence. And what benefit does that access and influence provide? Thanks to the mayor’s prevarications, we can only speculate.