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De Blasio Blames His Failure to Pay 2017 Legal Bill on the 2020 Pandemic

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Mayor Bill de Blasio

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mayor Bill de Blasio is now blaming the pandemic for his failure to pay a major lobbyist law firm a six-figure legal bill that dates back to 2017.

The mayor offered vague restitution promises on Thursday, saying he “intends” to pay the $435,000 he owes to the firm of Kramer Levin & Naftalis “over time.”

His remarks came two days after THE CITY revealed that as he mulls a run for governor, the lame-duck mayor has racked up a total of nearly $930,000 in debts to Kramer Levin, campaign consultants and taxpayers.

Kramer Levin represented de Blasio several years ago in multiple corruption probes of his fundraising activities. His legal fees came to $300,000, but with the 9% annual interest the firm usually charges clients who don’t pay on time, that would come to $435,000 — and counting.

During his daily availability with the press Thursday, a New York Times reporter asked the mayor how he intended to pay off what he owes Kramer Levin. In response, de Blasio cited the COVID-19 pandemic, and promised — again — that he’d settle up.

“I think we would be having an entirely different conversation if we hadn’t, over the last year and a half, had a global pandemic. Everything got put on hold,” he said. “Obviously, I intend to address that debt and put together the resources over time. It will take time, but I absolutely intend to address it. That’s what I’ve done in the past.”

The non-payment represents a potential conflict of interest for the mayor. 

Besides representing clients in investigations and civil litigation, Kramer Levin has a thriving lobbyist practice that includes work for multiple real estate entities. Records show the firm regularly seeks favorable treatment from City Hall for clients seeking zoning changes, permits and more.

As THE CITY revealed, the firm does on occasion sue clients for non-payment. But it has chosen not to take legal action against de Blasio.

Multiple Fundraising Probes

Starting in 2015, Kramer Levin partner Barry Berke began representing the mayor in investigations of de Blasio’s fundraising tactics by the Manhattan U.S. attorney, the Manhattan district attorney, the city Department of Investigation and the state Joint Commission on Ethics (JCOPE). 

No criminal charges resulted, but all four investigations cast a shadow over de Blasio’s ethical behavior.

Federal prosecutors found de Blasio had solicited contributions from entities doing business with City Hall — and “directed” subordinates to address the donors’ needs.

The Manhattan D.A. determined de Blasio’s efforts to steer money to upstate campaigns, in what turned out to be a failed effort to swing the state Senate from GOP to Democrat control, violated the “spirit and intent” of campaign finance laws.

DOI found de Blasio violated the city’s ethics rules and JCOPE cited several donors for what they determined were illegal “gifts” to the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit the mayor had created.

Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigns for president in Ames, Iowa, in June 2019.

Besides his Kramer Levin debt, the mayor has another financial headache involving the cost of the full-time NYPD detail that accompanied him across the country during his failed 2020 presidential campaign.

He was told by the city Conflict of Interest Board at the start of that campaign in May 2019 that he must reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the detail. 

He ignored that advice. DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett released a report last week that cited THE CITY’s reporting on the NYPD security tab — and told de Blasio that he needed to put an estimated $320,000 into the city coffers.

After the mayor learned that DOI wanted to question him about the security detail last spring, he said he filed what he called an “appeal” of COIB’s advisory — two years after it was issued.

‘Plenty of Times’

THE CITY also found the mayor owes another $182,000 from prior campaigns to various consultants. On Thursday, de Blasio addressed that issue as well, again promising to pay up as soon as he’s able.

“You know, on the campaign side, it’s not unusual to have debt,” he said. “You pay off your debt. I’ve done it plenty of times. I’m going to take care of this as well.”

This is not the first time the mayor has promised to pay his bills. In April 2019, the mayor claimed he would soon create a legal defense fund after the City Council passed a law elevating the cap on donations from $50 to $5,000 per donor. 

Since then, he’s yet to set up the fund or raise a dime toward his outstanding debt. 

Meanwhile, as he mulls a run for governor, de Blasio has about $11,800 in campaign cash on hand, records show. 

The report released last week marked the second time DOI has found the mayor violated city ethics rules. As THE CITY revealed in April 2019, the agency determined de Blasio personally solicited donations for a nonprofit he controlled from entities with active business before his administration.

Garnett announced Wednesday that she’ll be leaving DOI Nov. 10 to take the No. 2 job at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, ending a three-year run in the city watchdog post to which de Blasio appointed her.

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