Back in July 2018, Eric Adams’ campaign hired a law firm called Pitta LLP as a political and legal consultant. By then, the whispers had started that the Brooklyn borough president was planning a run for City Hall.
Adams was very familiar with the firm’s leaders.
The same lawyers who run Pitta LLP also operate one of the city’s biggest lobbying outfits, Pitta Bishop Del Giorno LLC, and had, for years, lobbied Adams personally on behalf of multiple clients — including vendors seeking city contracts and several unions.
And they continued to do so, even after Adams hired the Pitta law firm for his campaign.
In the gaggle of major mayoral candidates, Adams is unique in this regard.
All the other candidates fall into different categories: Some have hired campaign consultants that don’t do lobbying. Others are paying campaign consultants that are registered lobbyists but either don’t lobby them — or can’t lobby them because they’re not currently in public office.
Only Adams is a sitting elected official lobbied by his own campaign’s advisors.
In New York, this dual role of lobbyists providing paid advice to the politicians they lobby is legal, but has been criticized for years by good-government groups that see it as a clear conflict of interest.
“It should be banned. It stinks,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the non-partisan group Reinvent Albany. “It’s a well-known loophole that advocates have been trying to get closed for a long time. It’s something that New York lobbyists love to do.”
A United Labor Front
Critics note that from the candidate’s perspective, there are certain advantages to such hires.
In Adams’ case, two Pitta Bishop clients, Transport Worker Union Local 100 which represents transit workers and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181 that represents school bus drivers, have endorsed his mayoral bid.
The ATU’s New York Cope Political Action Committee, 1181’s umbrella group, donated $750 to his campaign, while dozens of transit workers have kicked in small donations totaling nearly $6,000.
In recent weeks, mayoral candidate Adams has been vocal in backing Local 100’s demand for more cops in the subways following a spate of assaults on straphangers.
The Detectives Endowment Association, also a Pitta client, contributed $250 to Adams, a former cop, via its PAC.
The PAC of another Pitta Bishop client, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, donated $1,000 to Adams and gave $2,000 each to the mayoral campaigns of former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and city Comptroller Scott Stringer. The union’s Local 831 ultimately endorsed Garcia for mayor.
Lobbyists are restricted to campaign donations of no more than $400.
In July 2019, Pitta Bishop principals Jon Del Giorno and Vito Pitta each wrote $400 checks to Adams. Pitta’s mother, Antoinette, who is subject to no such restrictions, donated $2,100, $100 more than the maximum allowed for candidates seeking matching public funds from the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Adams’ campaign refunded the $100.
In response to questions, Bill Farrell, a spokesperson for Pitta Bishop, stated that Pitta LLP provides Adams “campaign compliance legal services and counsel” and noted that the firm also advises other candidates in this year’s election, although none of the others are running for mayor. He emphasized that clients’ decisions to endorse or donate to candidates is theirs alone.
Adams’ spokesperson Evan Thies emphasized that Pitta LLP’s advice consisted of “compliance” with the legal requirements all candidates must follow and that the campaign followed all the rules as required. He noted that Adams also hired Pitta LLP for prior elections.
“The campaign follows every rule and law to the letter, and Eric Adams has always — and will always — make government decisions based solely on what is best for New Yorkers,” Thies said. “Pitta LLP is our campaign compliance firm — and they serve in that role for a number of other campaigns.”
Advisor’s ‘Weird’ Role
But the presence of Vito Pitta, one member of the law firm, at some key endorsement meetings has raised questions, THE CITY has learned.
Vito Pitta is a partner in Pitta LLP and a registered lobbyist with Pitta Bishop. In records he’s listed as the Pitta Bishop employee who is specifically lobbying Adams and the borough president’s staff on behalf of clients.
He has also taken on a much more overtly political role, participating in at least two meetings with another mayoral candidate who was seeking the endorsement of two unions: ATU Local 1181 and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, THE CITY has learned. ATU 1181 is a Pitta Bishop client, while the UFA is not.
ATU NYC Locals endorse Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for NYC Mayor
Today in the Bronx, ATU NYC Locals 726-Staten Island, 1056-Flushing, 1179-Queens, and 1181-New York, endorsed strong transit advocate and champion of working families Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for NYC Mayor. #ericadamsfornycPosted by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) on Friday, May 7, 2021
A consultant for one of the other mayoral candidates who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity described one of these meetings, a Zoom session in March with ATU 1181 that Vito Pitta joined without mentioning his ties to Adams.
“I thought it was weird at the time,” the consultant said. “He didn’t disclose that he works for Eric Adams.”
“There are things you’d say during the meeting that you wouldn’t say to another candidate, like internal polling,” the consultant added. “You don’t want them rigging the process for the candidate to get what he wants.”
During the meeting, someone asked the candidate to describe their strategy to win, according to the consultant, who noted that is typically not information shared with the public.
Soon after, Pitta’s client, ATU 1181, endorsed Adams. The UFA has yet to make an endorsement in the mayor’s race.
Asked about this by THE CITY, Pitta Bishop spokesperson Farrell noted “that Borough President Adams, who has garnered more major union endorsements than any other mayoral candidate, has had longstanding relationships with both the TWU and ATU unions that predate this election cycle, and that predate our firms’ professional relationships with the clients in question.”
Questions Over Nonprofit
As THE CITY has reported, Adams has come under fire for his fundraising tactics.
Good-government advocates have raised allegations of conflict of interest regarding a non-profit Adams controls called One Brooklyn Fund. One Brooklyn has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from entities seeking favors from Adams — and two lobbyists who have lobbied Adams sit on its board.
Adams insists he scrupulously follows the rules to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.
“I have the highest ethical standards,” he said during a recent campaign stop. “I am the only elected official in the state who has on his team a compliance officer because I know how important it is to be of a high ethical standard. No contribution will ever impact my decisions for the people of this city. Never has. Never will. We will follow any rule that is in place so I am extremely comfortable with how we took the contributions of New Yorkers to give back to everyday New Yorkers.”
But the question remains: How can an elected official be objective in weighing the requests of a lobbyist when they’re writing checks to them and taking their political advice?
Kaehny of Reinvent Albany noted that some of the city’s biggest lobbyists — including the top two, Suri Kasirer and James Capalino — steer clear of political consulting.
But several besides Pitta do. Reinvent Albany, Kaehny said, has called for the city Campaign Finance Board to only allow public matching funds to pay for political consultants who do not moonlight as lobbyists.
In this year’s mayoral run-up, some of the eight top-tier candidates have hired these dual-role firms, while others have avoided them. Political consultants enlisted by the campaigns of Garcia, former nonprofit director Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, do not do lobbying.
The campaign of city Comptroller Scott Stringer, on the other hand, hired Global Strategies as a consultant, paying the firm $269,000 through May 17, records show. Global has multiple clients in its role as a registered lobbyist, including prominent real estate developer RXR Development Services.
Records show, however, that Global has not lobbied Stringer or anyone in his office for the last six years.
Three other mayoral wannabes have enlisted political consultants that also do lobbying: bank executive Ray McGuire’s campaign has paid Greenberg Traurig $160,000 so far; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign has doled out $143,000 to Tusk Strategies, and former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has paid Adams Advisors $96,000 through May 17.
All three — Greenberg, Tusk and Adams — lobby city officials on behalf of multiple clients. But McGuire, Yang and Donovan do not currently hold public office, so any lobbying they experience is meaningless — unless they win.
The New York Times ran an article highlighting the potential for conflicts if Yang wins and Tusk lobbies him as mayor. Bradley Tusk wrote on Medium he would not lobby Yang if the candidate becomes mayor.
Adams’ Solitary Concerns
In contrast, Adams is a sitting elected official who can use his current position to weigh in on topics of interest to Pitta Bishop’s many clients. And records make clear: Pitta Bishop has lots of clients who regularly seek the support of New York City elected officials.
In 2019, the last year records were available, Pitta Bishop represented 85 clients and took in $4.3 million in fees. That made the firm the fifth-biggest lobbying outfit in the city. City & State recently placed Pitta Bishop in its list of top 10 city lobbyists.
Adams’ campaign put Pitta LLP on a regular monthly retainer in July 2018, paying the firm $156,500 through May 17, records show.
During that time, a review by THE CITY found, its affiliate Pitta Bishop lobbied Adams personally on behalf of eight clients. Pitta LLP partners Vito and Vincent Pitta and Robert Bishop and associate Bradford Gonzalez-Sussman are all registered as lobbyists for Pitta Bishop, records show.
One of Pitta Bishop’s biggest clients is the union representing city jail officers, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA). In the last few years, COBA sought Adams’ support in its fight on one of the most contentious issues at the heart of criminal justice reform: the use of punitive segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement.
Responding to reformers’ calls to end the use of solitary confinement altogether, the city Board of Correction in 2015 changed rules to bar solitary for any inmate under age 22. COBA has said this greatly restricts their members’ ability to enforce order inside the often chaotic environs behind bars and have called for the ability to use solitary for any inmate — regardless of age — who attacks either a correction officer or another detainee.
In 2018, Adams stepped up and backed COBA’s position, holding a news conference to demand reinstatement of solitary as an allowable consequence for any inmate who commits violence.
In a 2019 essay on COBA’s website, Adams repeated that position.
COBA paid Pitta Bishop $9,000 a month for its lobbying effort on the issue throughout 2020, with the firm targeting multiple elected officials, including Adams.
The union also hired Pitta Bishop this year at the same rate to help in its fight against the Department of Correction assigning corrections officers to triple shifts. Pitta Bishop targeted Adams — and no other borough president — in this effort, records show.
A spokesperson for the correction officers’ union did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
Pitta Bishop’s Farrell wrote that the firm’s role “was/is to educate the borough president and other elected and appointed officials as to the burgeoning crises in the NYC jails. Most notably, the physical danger both to COBA’s members and the inmates, caused by the removal of punitive segregation as a tool in dealing with violent and physically abusive inmates and gang members.”
As for the issue of triple shifts, Farrell wrote, “We continually strive to educate and publicize the severe physical, mental and emotional toll on COBA’s members caused by mandatory triple work shifts, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Gas Bill Hike Fought
In some cases, Adams’ has embraced positions Pitta Bishop has lobbied him on. In January 2016, for instance, National Grid, the utility that serves most of Brooklyn, requested a 13.9% rate hike. Two months later, Local 101 of the Transport Workers Union, whose rank and file work for National Grid, hired Pitta Bishop.
The union wanted Pitta to arrange meetings with Adams and then-Public Advocate Letitia James to fight the proposed hike and to address “safety issues,” records show. The union alleged the utility was increasingly relying on outside contractors to do repair work and not properly inspecting its infrastructure.
The fight over the hike dragged out over several years, and in 2019 Adams weighed in, testifying against the proposed hike to the state Public Services Commission (PSC), the agency that regulates utilities. He estimated it would increase the average Brooklyn homeowner’s monthly bill by $13. A subsequent rate hike request was modified and is pending.
Pitta Bishop has also pressed Adams on behalf of private-sector clients, including Wheels Labs Inc., a California company seeking to participate in a proposed electric scooter share in New York City.
In October 2020, several weeks after the City Council passed a law seeking to create an e-scooter share, Wheels hired Pitta Bishop to lobby elected New York City officials to help it submit a proposal to the city Department of Transportation to be part of the program, records show.
DOT specifically sought proposals to run an e-scooter “within the boroughs of New York City outside Manhattan… and in areas underserved by the Citi Bike bike share program.” Pitta Bishop immediately targeted several City Council members and staff of the borough presidents of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn for lobbying.
Then early this year, they gave up on Staten Island and Queens and specifically targeted Adams and one of his aides, records show. In February, DOT picked three other firms for the scooter share and designated the Bronx as the kickoff location. The bill to create the e-scooter program was initially sponsored by Bronx Councilmember and current borough president candidate Fernando Cabrera.
Pitta Bishop’s Farrell explained that the firm’s lobbyists did not meet personally with Adams but with his staff “for product demonstration purposes and to obtain product input and feedback.” He noted that “none of the government individuals our professionals met with had any discretionary decision or selection authority in the NYC DOT’s e-scooter pilot program.”
For its trouble, Pitta Bishop received $45,000 in fees. Wheels Labs — which was not selected by DOT to participate in the share program — did not return several phone calls seeking comment.