Mayor Eric Adams has declared “there is nothing more important” to him than transparency, but when it comes to thorny issues like his personal taxes or potential conflicts of interest within his administration, his record to date is cloudy.
Last year THE CITY noted that tax forms he’d filed with the IRS in prior years raised questions about whether he’d improperly written off repairs to his personal apartment. In response, he promised to file amended forms and make them public to clear the air.
To date he’s provided no evidence that he did that.
Then THE CITY discovered he’d failed to file the required gift tax form over a co-op he claimed he’d “gifted” years ago to a friend. Again he vowed all the required paperwork would be mailed out to the IRS pronto and disclosed to New Yorkers.
Again he’s released no proof that he did what he promised to do.
On Tuesday, after initially saying he would not make his tax returns public — even though mayors have done so for decades — Adams promised to release “tax information.” He gave no date for doing so and declined to describe what “information” he planned to release.
Then there’s Adams’ refusal to make public advice the city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) has given his top appointees on potential conflicts they face as city employees.
Incoming staff often request advice so they can avoid ethical pitfalls involving prior employers or other relationships. Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, for the most part publicly disclosed conflict-of-interest advice letters sent to his top staff.
Adams, in contrast, refuses to do that, insisting that advice about potential conflicts among top staff is private.
De Blasio also routinely updated a published weekly schedule of his meetings with lobbyists, a protocol he implemented after criticism grew regarding his interactions with lobbyists who represented donors to a controversial nonprofit he once controlled, the Campaign for One New York.
As reported last month by PoliticoNY, Adams has said he has no intention of posting any such list. To date he has not explained why.
John Kaehny, director of the non-partisan government ethics group Reinvent Albany, said Tuesday Adams should release his tax forms and disclose any Conflicts of Interest Board letters of advice sent to his top appointees to assure the public that their interests are being properly represented by City Hall.
“I’ve never heard that a person running for mayor or governor doesn’t say they’ll be the most transparent ever,” he said. “Overall the top elected officials have to be way more transparent about their finances than the average person does because they have so much power. That’s part of the trade-off: you get a lot of power, you have to have a lot of disclosure.”
‘Free Speech and Transparency’ Order
Before he arrived at City Hall, Adams spelled out his promised commitment to public disclosure repeatedly. When he announced the appointment of Brendan McGuire in December as his counsel, for example, he tweeted, “There is nothing more important to me than accountability, transparency and effective governance.”
A month into his tenure, Adams signed Executive Order 6 entitled “Protecting and Facilitating Free Speech and Transparency.” Among other things, the order enshrined the concept of full public disclosure and stated, “A free society is best maintained when the public is aware of and has access to government actions and documents, and the more open a government is with its people, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.”
Disclosure of personal tax forms is not required, but mayors dating back at least to Ed Koch have made them public, albeit to differing degrees. Mike Bloomberg, for instance, who was mayor but also a billionaire, heavily redacted the forms he released to the press. The point was to allow the public to get a clear picture of their mayor and his or her personal financial interests and pressures.
In Adams’ case, past history indicates he has filed forms that raise more questions than answers.
Adams’ tax-related questions center on the income he receives and the expenses he makes as the owner of two Brooklyn properties. He owns a townhouse on Lafayette Avenue and, in years past, co-owned a unit in a co-op on Prospect Place.
Last year, Adams promised to amend his filings over questions of whether he improperly wrote off repairs for his own residence he claimed in the Lafayette Avenue townhouse.
As THE CITY reported at the time, on forms he filed with the IRS from 2017 through 2019, Adams claimed he lived zero days at the address. To the public, he claimed he’d been living there the whole time.
The filings appear to show that he wrote off repairs to the entire building — including improperly writing off fix-ups of the apartment where he told the public he was living. He blamed his accountant, and promised to update the IRS. As of Wednesday, Adams had yet to produce documentation of such a filing.
THE CITY also raised questions about his co-ownership of a Brooklyn co-op that he wasn’t documenting on the annual financial disclosure forms he was required to file as a state senator and then as Brooklyn Borough President.
Confronted about this, he claimed he’d actually given away his shares of the co-op to the woman with whom he owned it. He provided a one-page letter dated Feb. 9, 2007, as documentation of this, but THE CITY found records indicating he was still listed as a co-owner well into 2021.
If he in fact gifted the property to his friend, he would be required to file a gift tax form — but he admitted that he did not. After THE CITY identified the omission, he promised to amend his prior forms, but as of Wednesday he had yet to produce documentation that he had done so.
On Friday, Adams said “no” when asked if he’d commit to releasing his most recent tax forms for 2021. On Tuesday he reversed course somewhat, saying he now planned to release unspecified “tax information” at a non-specific time in the future. He would not say if that would include his actual tax forms.
Mayoral spokesperson Fabian Levy did not respond to THE CITY’s request to see documentation of Adams’ promised amendment clarifying the apartment repair write-offs in prior years and a gift tax filing regarding the co-op. Levy told the New York Times that the mayor requested an extension on his 2021 filing last week as he was quarantining with COVID. That gives him months to release whatever “tax information” he plans to release.
Norman Siegel, a veteran civil rights attorney and longtime advisor to Adams, said the mayor should provide the requested documentation on prior year filings, stating, “If any elected official says they’re going to provide an amended complaint or form, you need to hold them accountable for that.”
Siegel was at Adams’ side when the mayor announced his free speech executive order.
He added that he was optimistic regarding the mayor’s promise to release “tax information” about his latest filing. “I’m in favor of transparency,” Siegel stated. “I’m hoping that Mayor Adams provides the tax information consistent with prior mayors. It does now appear that he’s moving in that direction. That’s positive.”
Refusal to Release Records
Another key issue is Adams’ refusal to disclose the advice letters the Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) has provided to members of his cabinet to guide them on how to avoid conflicts — a refusal that reverses the policy of his predecessor, de Blasio.
When de Blasio first arrived at City Hall in January 2014, he made public a COIB letter advising his newly appointed deputy mayor for housing, Alicia Glen, who had left a job at Goldman Sachs where she’d made investments in affordable housing projects. He also released a COIB letter for his new Housing Commissioner Vicki Been, who had previously run a real estate think tank at New York University called the Furman Center.
And de Blasio selectively released advice letters he himself received from COIB over two issues: His solicitation of money from entities doing business with City Hall for his non-profit, Campaign for One New York, and whether he had to reimburse the taxpayers for his use of an NYPD police detail during his brief and unsuccessful run for president.
When THE CITY requested the same kind of COIB advice letters for Adams’ top level appointees, the mayor refused to turn them over. The City Hall legal team argued that they were protected from disclosure under the lawyer-client privilege, and were exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Law as inter-agency communications.
Last week, THE CITY appealed that rejection and awaits City Hall’s response.
Recipients of these letters are free to release them if they choose. One of Adams’ top appointees, Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber, provided THE CITY with a copy of her own without hesitation.
The letter advised that her membership on the board of a nonprofit called Publicolor, which has pending contracts with the city Department of Education, could present potential conflicts.
During a February City Council hearing on her confirmation, Strauber said she planned to resign from that position, stating, “I want to be very clear in my views on this. I have resigned from or committed to resign from the Publicolor…board in light of initial indications from the Conflicts of Interest Board that that’s a complicated situation to manage given the many touchpoints with the city.”
The COIB letter also made clear to her that she did not have to resign from the board of a private school, but in the interests of eliminating all appearance of potential conflict, she decided to step down from the position, too.