Former Mayor Bill de Blasio violated conflicts of interest rules more extensively than previously known — but the city’s ethics board kept the breaches under wraps by admonishing him privately, documents obtained by THE CITY show.
Twice in 2016 the Conflicts of Interest Board sent a letter to de Blasio privately warning him that his conduct ran afoul of the City Charter.
The first letter admonished de Blasio for using government workers at City Hall to operate and maintain his personal Twitter account.
What’s more, the @billdeblasio account was tweeting out political messages — including an attack on then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump — a clear no-no for government workers on city time, the board members determined.
The second letter, in late November 2016, wagged a finger at de Blasio for 16 political emails sent from his government Blackberry device — brought to the board’s attention via the Wikileaks document dump that also exposed DNC emails during the presidential campaign that year, including those that appeared to favor Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
THE CITY obtained the two letters through a Freedom of Information Law request submitted while de Blasio was still mayor.
The two previously obscured cases bring the total number of private warning letters that de Blasio received from the Conflicts of Interest Board to four — all during his first five years as mayor.
City Hall released two other conflicts board letters to de Blasio, one from 2014 and the other from 2018, after unsuccessfully battling a New York Times lawsuit that sought the documents’ release. Those earlier letters cited de Blasio for personally soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from people with business before city government.
None of the cases resulted in discipline by the board.
De Blasio received the two 2016 warning letters even as some lower-level municipal workers whom the board found to have similarly misused city resources or personnel got punishments that ranged from a public admonishment to fines of thousands of dollars.
For example, this past February, the board made public a settlement with Adrienne Felton, a former community affairs rep in the office of the Public Advocate, who was found to have borrowed a city vehicle to travel to six campaign events in 2018.
Felton served that year as a volunteer for the campaign for Attorney General of then-Public Advocate Letitia James, and drove to five events in Brooklyn and Queens and one on Long Island, the settlement shows.
The Conflicts of Interest Board hit Felton with a fine of $1,000.
Felton didn’t respond to a request for comment from THE CITY, but her attorney in that case, Steven Isaacs, said that high-ranking government officials should be treated no differently than other municipal workers.
“Ms. Felton and anybody else in her situation is always disappointed to learn that the government treats in certain cases, especially this one, an elected official who should be held to the highest standard, differently than the people who toil and put in the many hours of work trying to do the best they can in sometimes unclear rules and regulations,” said Isaacs, of the firm Isaacs, Devasia, Castro & Wien LLP in Manhattan.
“Even if rules are clear, then it seems simplistic that government officials — especially like in this case, the highest ranking official in the city of New York — should be treated no better and no worse than anybody else.”
De Blasio didn’t respond to a voice message left on Monday seeking comment.
Conflicts of Interest Board executive director Carolyn Miller declined to comment on the board’s decisions to issue private warning letters, but board documents say they’re typically issued when there’s insufficient evidence of a violation, the infraction is minor, or the violation is of a new or untested interpretation of the rules.
Between 2014 and 2019, the board issued between 28 and 71 private warnings annually, records show. In all those years, except 2016, the board made a higher number of public dispositions of cases — largely levying fines.
Miller said the board stopped issuing private warning letters in 2020, but declined to comment on what sparked the move, citing the confidentiality of board deliberations.
‘Misuse of City Resources’
The newly surfaced warning letters to de Blasio obtained by THE CITY don’t make clear how much time City Hall subordinates were required to dedicate to the mayor’s personal Twitter account, nor for how long.
But the letter in the first case noted that the @billdeblasio account operated by City Hall workers was violating a number of rules, including by veering into politics. In one example cited, de Blasio screenshotted a Tumblr post from his wife, Chirlane McCray, slamming “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.”
“Using subordinate City employees to engage in political activity on your behalf constitutes a misuse of city resources and personnel,” then-board chair Richard Briffault wrote in one of the letters, dated April 22, 2016.
Rather than mete out discipline, the members gave de Blasio a chance to correct the violation — granting him 15 days to demonstrate that he had brought the management of his personal Twitter account in line with city rules.
“The Board has concluded that no enforcement action will be taken in this matter provided that you bring yourself into compliance with chapter 68,” reads the letter.
The correspondence obtained by THE CITY doesn’t mention what steps de Blasio took to correct the situation.
In the second case, de Blasio was similarly cited for misusing city resources — this time by using his government-issued Blackberry to send out at least 16 emails about the 2016 presidential election, as revealed by Wikileaks.
Once again, the board opted to close the matter with a private letter — pointing out to de Blasio that even a single such email is a violation of the city charter.
“The Board is sending you this letter as a reminder of Chapter 68’s strict restrictions on the use of any city resources for political activities,” reads the Nov. 30, 2016 note.
The other two, previously released letters concerned de Blasio’s violations of prohibitions on fundraising directly from people and companies with business pending before the city on behalf of his City Hall-affiliated non profit, The Campaign for One New York, which had backed his pet initiatives and boosted him politically.
The Conflicts of Interest Board’s former chair, Richard Briffault, told The New York Times in 2019 that in those cases private warning letters were the only option because the mayor violated a provision of the city charter that didn’t have an associated rule specifically barring the conduct.
That meant that no other dispositions were available to the board, according to Briffault, who didn’t respond to an email from THE CITY seeking comment.
A fifth case involving an evident de Blasio violation of the city charter is still pending, in a case where de Blasio used nearly $320,000 in city taxpayer dollars to fund the lodging and travel expenses of his NYPD security detail during his failed campaign for U.S. president in 2019. COIB had explicitly warned de Blasio ahead of time that such spending would violate city ethics rules.
Last year, de Blasio’s Department of Investigations commissioner, Margaret Garnett, cited the city charter prohibition on using personal resources for political purposes in demanding that de Blasio refund the money.
“That’s a violation of those rules,” Garnett said at the time, adding: “The campaign or the mayor personally should have reimbursed the city for those expenses.”
De Blasio disputed the investigation’s findings, and has cited a letter from his City Hall lawyer asking the conflicts board to reconsider its stance forbidding use of an NYPD detail for political purposes.
While on the campaign trail for U.S. Congress earlier this year, de Blasio maintained that the outcome of the case was still being worked out with the Conflicts of Interest Board.
The board declined to comment, citing confidentiality requirements.
Worker Fines and Public Shaming
De Blasio’s avoidance of consequences for his ethics violations, and the protection offered by private warning letters, contrasts with penalties for some underlings who violated ethics rules.
Among the conflict board’s settlements for misuse of city resources by municipal workers was one in which an associate project manager at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection drove about 10 miles out of the way to run a personal errand while on a work trip.
The 2020 disposition says Winston Ebanks drove a city vehicle to a work-related function in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in November 2017, but detoured to Jamaica, Queens, for a non-city purpose at a residential address there.
He was fined $400.
And in a number of relatively minor cases — including a sanitation truck driver who, as part of his route, collected items from his own home to discard at a dumpsite along the way — the board decided to admonish the violators publicly rather than through a private letter.
Last year, a Department of Correction worker who used his government account to send four emails related to his campaign for a union position received a public warning over his behavior.
“The Board is issuing this public letter as its final disposition of this matter to provide guidance to other public servants in similar situations and to serve as a formal reminder of the importance of strict compliance with the city’s conflicts of interest law,” the letter said.
Richard Washington, a labor attorney, said he’s represented dozens of municipal workers — including a number whose violations were relatively minor, but whose outcomes weren’t as favorable as de Blasio’s.
“I wish that people that work for the city who don’t have the highest-paying jobs but have very essential functions — I wish they were afforded that same level of leniency and discretion when the conflicts of interest board was disposing of their matters,” he said by phone. “The city really does cherry pick what information it wants to give to the public about people that work for the city, and I think that’s unfortunate.”