A tale of two cities has become a city of two tales.
One tale is what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says about an ever widening pattern of ethically questionable fundraising and influence peddling as he pursues such noble causes as income equality and affordable housing.
The other tale is the whole and actual truth.
In pursuit of the truth, the U.S. attorney’s office and the Manhattan district attorney’s office have subpoenaed de Blasio’s top political aide, Emma Wolfe, and his top fundraiser, Ross Offinger.
Also subpoenaed was the PR firm BerlinRosen, which was co-founded by a close friend of the mayor’s and played a major role both in his election and in his subsequent efforts to further his progressive agenda.
Also subpoenaed was the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit outfit that sought to further his progressive agenda while raking in considerable contributions from developers, unions, lobbyists, and others who have business with the city. The group announced it was closing down last month after the government watchdog Common Cause New York asked the city’s Campaign Finance Board and Conflicts of Interest Board to take a look at it.
After The Wall Street Journal broke the news of the subpoenas on Wednesday, de Blasio avoided the media by ducking out a side door while visiting a homeless shelter in Harlem. He seemed to be doing more of the same on Thursday, when he slipped in the back door for an appearance at a community college in Midtown Manhattan.
But he exited the front entrance after the event and spoke briefly with the waiting media gaggle. He insisted—as he had previously—that he and his team hold themselves “to the highest level of integrity” and would fully cooperate with the investigators.
“Since there is an investigation, I can’t go into any details,” he said. “That’s an ongoing process.”
He was lawyering up without explicitly saying so.
He could have gone into every possible detail if he had so desired. He was asked how he felt about the subpoenas.
“I feel fine because everything we’ve done was legal,” he said.
He was already moving toward his waiting SUV. He was asked if he himself had been subpoenaed.
“I was not,” he said.He reiterated, “Everything we’ve done was legal and appropriate, and we’re going to fully cooperate.”Everything would include what might be called a tale of two Wilhelms, and there may reside a clue to what drives Wild Bill.
As has been widely reported, de Blasio had started life as a Wilhelm. He had then decided to exchange his father’s surname in favor of his mother’s maiden name, de Blasio.
He nonetheless came to idolize another Wilhelm, his first cousin, his deceased father’s nephew John Wilhelm.
The cousin attended Yale and then became a labor organizer after seeing a listing in the help wanted ads. He demonstrated precocious ability and unrelenting drive as he successfully organized Yale’s white-collar workers.
More victories followed in Las Vegas, and Wilhelm became a rising star in the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) as it was trying to shake off longtime influence by organized crime. He was just the guy to become the new secretary-treasurer in 1996; the new money guy had gone to Yale, not jail.
Wilhelm continued to demonstrate why he had also been able to beat Yale. He took on the Las Vegas casinos not with the mob but with a mob of resolute picketers when needed. The membership of the Las Vegas local grew from 18,000 to just under 50,000 as he actively recruited lower-paid housekeepers and custodians where HERE had traditionally concentrated on tipped bartenders and waiters.
“It is critically important for the future of our union to develop its identity as an immigrant union,” he was quoted saying.
Wilhelm was of the opinion that a progressive need not be a zealous reformer. A progressive was somebody who made social progress and might sometimes have to be expedient to get that done. He convinced a casino that it was in both their interests to avoid the election protocols established by the National Labor Relations Board. The casino was soon unionized, albeit with some concessions from HERE.Some of Wilhelm’s detractors say he was also willing to circumvent NLRB rules to put a troublesome local in trusteeship. The anti-union National Institute for Labor Relations Research contends, “Wilhelm has a way of overlooking irregularities in the service of left-progressive causes.” (PDF)In 1998, Wilhelm became the president of HERE, which subsequently merged with the Union of Needle trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). He remained president of UNITE HERE!—the combined moniker acquiring an exclamation point—until his retirement in 2012. His tenure saw women and minorities achieve positions of leadership for the first time.
After stepping down, Wilhelm remained a national hero in the progressive labor movement, one of its true giants, most particularly in the eyes of his cousin Bill de Blasio.
“Some of you may remember the ’60s and ’70s, when I was growing up,” de Blasio told a labor convention in Boston in 2014. “We had a phrase back then; it was ‘What you see is what you get.’ So that is John Wilhelm in a nutshell. John just started right into the fray. There wasn’t any warmup. There wasn’t any period of wandering about, wondering what to do for the world. He just started right into organizing. John never got tired. John never stopped. John never changed his focus.”De Blasio no doubt admired Wilhelm all the more for having helped him get elected mayor that year. The $84,948 that Wilhelm raised for the campaign was certainly welcomed, but the critical difference had come in the form of a larger sum that was routed in such a way that it has drawn the attention of the FBI.As reported by Greg Smith of the New York Daily News, the FBI has taken note of $175,000 that was donated in 2013 by UNITE HERE! to an animal rights group called NYCLASS that has long campaigned for a ban on horse-drawn carriages in New York City.The same sum was transferred two days later from NYCLASS to an organization with the cynical and altogether brazen name NYC Is Not for Sale. A lawyer named Jay Eisenhofer, who has ties to de Blasio, kicked in $50,000 that was similarly routed through the same two organizations.NYC Is Not for Sale was dedicated to thwarting the mayoral candidacy of then City Council President Christine Quinn. The money from Wilhelm’s union and the lawyer and others went toward a devastating TV attack campaign, complete with Wizard of Oz music that suggested she was some kind of wicked witch.
The victorious de Blasio pledged that he would make the carriage horse ban a top priority “from Day 1” and seek to get it done in the first week. He told people that he was being urged to do so by his daughter, Chiara. Really.
As chance would have it, actor Liam Neeson’s nanny is married to one of the horse carriage drivers in Central Park. Neeson joined a counter-campaign, which succeeded in thwarting de Blasio’s efforts.The union that Wilhelm long ran remained no less supportive of de Blasio’s efforts to become not only mayor of New York but a figure as big in progressive politics as his cousin was in the progressive labor movement. UNITE HERE! gave $200,000 to de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York.
De Blasio also raised considerable funds to bankroll an effort to assist the campaigns of three upstate Democratic candidates for state Senate. His goal was to establish a Democratic majority in the state Senate that would facilitate what might be termed progressive progress. The method was to get around pesky campaign finance restrictions by routing the money through the state and county Democratic committees and then to the particular candidates.
All three candidates lost. And—as was first reported by Ken Lovett of the New York Daily News—the Division of Election Law Enforcement of the state Board of Elections launched an investigation into the funding. The result was a formal referral to the U.S. attorney’s office and the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
“It is recommended that this case be referred for further investigation and prosecution as appropriate,” the summary said.
The referral reported that the fundraising operation had been run from City Hall by de Blasio’s staff in coordination with the Campaign for One New York and various unions and political consultants. Some checks bore the notation “donation per Mayor.”
The referral further noted, “As with donations to Campaign for One New York, many of the donors of money contributed to these candidates and committees (in response to solicitations of Mayor de Blasio) also appeared in the database of people doing business with the City of New York.”
These included Alexis Lodde of Texas, who had kicked in $100,000, his first and only New York political contribution. Lodde had earlier secured a New York City school bus contract with a super low bid. He then became a primary beneficiary of a $42 million subsidy to raise the wages of school bus workers. This unusual allocation also gratified the union, which was represented by Harold Ickes, a lobbyist who is particularly close to de Blasio.
The school bus worker subsidy joined a growing list of benefits that City Hall bestowed on contributors.
De Blasio received hundreds of thousands more in taxi industry donations when he ran for mayor. He did what he could to stall the green taxi program. He then moved to put the brakes on what the taxi industry viewed as a bigger threat, Uber.
The taxi cab industry had been a big contributor to de Blasio back when he was the city’s public advocate. The supposed man of the people had opposed the “green taxis” that would serve folks in the outer boroughs where yellow cabs are scarce.
De Blasio sought to cap the number of for-hire vehicles in the city, but the City Council refused to go along. De Blasio then ordered a $2 million, four-month study of the issue. He had, in the meantime, appointed his chief fundraiser in the taxi industry to become an assistant commissioner in the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
And do not forget the real estate developers. They include Two Trees Management, which signed a mega deal with the city to develop the old Domino Sugar Refinery and then kicked in $100,000 to the Campaign for One New York.
The Campaign for One New York, in turn, paid out big sums to consultants with connections to de Blasio. The BerlinRosen firm received $490,000.
All the fundraising and the conflicts of interest appear to form a pattern. The word “pattern” is used in the criminal referral. It also appears in the racketeering statute. And it is sure to spur the interest of a federal prosecutor, most particularly U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
After the Daily News reported on the criminal referral and its contents, a prominent campaign lawyer named Laurence Laufer prepared a letter on de Blasio’s behalf. Laufer contended that the referral constituted “a complete misreading and utter disregard of the state’s unambiguous election law.” Laufer further described it as “a blatantly political document” that “was leaked to the press.”
With the apparent hope of a little positive spin, de Blasio held a press event on Monday to announce that each and every homeowner in the city would be receiving a $183 one-time refund on water and sewer charges. He somehow thought it was a good idea to have a huge check for that modest amount set up as a prop behind him when he stepped before the TV cameras.
“A large check is a glorious thing, don’t you think?” he actually said.
De Blasio afterward began to take questions about the criminal referral regarding some bigger than big campaign checks. He said the referral should never have been “put into the public domain.” He was asked if he thought it had been leaked for political reasons, and he declared himself anxious for what he termed “a full airing of the facts.”
“I think it’s important that the facts be found in this case,” he said. “A lot of very good people are having their names dragged through the mud over these last few weeks—a lot of people that I respect greatly and have worked with for years. That’s not right. That’s not fair… I want all the facts out there because I’m quite convinced the facts will show that everything was done legally and appropriately.”
He could have started airing all the facts he wanted, right then and there.
He instead said, “But when you see something done in this kind of fashion—when you see an inappropriate leak, when you see the law being misconstrued in such an obvious fashion, of course it begs the question of motivation, but I’ll leave it to all of you to uncover.”
Leak or no leak, there remained the issue of the fundraising and the influence peddling. He produced nary a fact in that regard before he abruptly fled with two final words:
The next day, de Blasio again faced the cameras, but this time in City Hall for the release of the budget for fiscal year 2017. His progressive zeal seemed particularly justified when he spoke of the billions the city is now losing because the Republicans in Congress forced a compromise that excludes undocumented immigrants from Obamacare. New York City folks were also sure to be outraged at the huge imbalance between what the state takes from the city in taxes and returns in expenditures. His irregularities seemed almost minor in comparison, and you wondered if maybe the ends justify the means.
But then you saw the words on the first page of the budget summary.
“Progressive, Honest, Responsible Government.”
The word “Honest” seemed to jump from the page and hang in the air. It followed de Blasio as he slipped out the side door of the homeless shelter on Wednesday and in the back door of the community college on Thursday. It was waiting for him when he decided to face the reporters after all.
But he lawyered up, saying he could not offer any facts because there was an investigation. He might as well have been Donald Trump saying he could not release his tax returns because he was being audited.
The mayor then rode off.
“We’re about getting the people’s business done,” his spokeswoman said.
She said she also was not going to go into the details.
“Why not?” a reporter asked
“For one, I don’t know the details,” she said.
The mayor sure does.
Nobody thinks he has sought to enrich himself. He is not corrupt in the way of the rapacious Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall chieftain of old for whom the courthouse behind City Hall is named.
If de Blasio is corrupt, it is in a new way. A suggestion of what may drive him came on a day when an FDNY lieutenant was shot while trying to put out a fire where a fugitive was holed up.
Rather than rush to the hospital to bolster the firefighter and his family, de Blasio chose to go for his morning workout at a Brooklyn YMCA. His routine complete, he paused to step on the scale and raised an index finger.
For an eternal few moments, de Blasio nudged the little weight on the horizontal beam until the arrow at the end matched up with the little line. His full focus was on exactly how much he weighed.
And perhaps his ultimate focus is on taking his measure in other ways. The obvious comparison for him to make would be with his cousin, the other Wilhelm.
A tragic twist will come if Wilhelm’s stature is lessened as a result of his effort to elevate de Blasio. The horse carriage drivers who stood to lose their jobs are union members and the big backers of the ban include a real estate guy who would love to develop the sites where the stables now stand. One has to wonder why the members of UNITE HERE! have not squawked about so much of their money being poured into what threatens to become a scandal.
The Campaign for One New York is now closed and de Blasio must know that he has stumbled in his stated goal to end the tale of two cities.
But he can make it a city of one tale right now.
He just needs to be honest.