Bill de Blasio Has Some Unfinished Business Before He Runs for Congress
Past political fundraising and an ill-fated campaign for president have left New York City’s former mayor with a mountain of unpaid debts — and a trail of loyal donors who have profited from their dealings with City Hall
He owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers, a law firm and political consultants.
He’s got nearly $600,000 in campaign donations that he can’t use.
And he’s got a long history of attracting investigations for crossing ethical boundaries in his fundraising tactics — and of targeting donors who’ve done big business deals with his City Hall.
This is the landscape as Bill de Blasio — newly announced candidate for the 10th Congressional District — faces the strict oversight of the Federal Election Commission, an agency that’s still weighing an ethics complaint against him from his ill-fated 2020 presidential run.
On Friday morning de Blasio formally announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” he was in the race, and by mid-afternoon he’d registered De Blasio for Congress with the FEC.
He’d already been fundraising for days by soliciting contributions through a so-called “testing the waters” committee called New Yorkers for Our Neighborhoods. It’s not known how much he’s raised or who wrote him checks because these types of exploratory committees have no public disclosure requirements.
Going forward, however, that will have to change.
FEC rules state that potential candidates testing the waters must keep track of every dime raised and every dime spent by their exploratory committee. And all contributions are subject to the same restrictions as regular candidate committees, capping individual donations at $2,900, $2,000 from candidate committees and $5,000 from political action committees (PACs).
Now that de Blasio has officially declared he’s running, he can transfer whatever he still has in his exploratory account to his campaign coffers. Under the federal schedule, however, he won’t have to disclose any of this to the public until July 15.
De Blasio has a long and bumpy history with fundraising, repeatedly pushing the legal boundaries and at times crossing the line on both the state and federal rules by personally soliciting money from deep-pocketed donors who were actively seeking favors from City Hall. Under federal rules, he’ll be barred from taking money from corporations and federal contractors.
In October 2018, the city Department of Investigation found that de Blasio had violated city ethics rules by personally soliciting donations from several developers who were seeking approval from his administration for their projects.
Both DOI and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) documented how de Blasio personally called up prospective donors and asked them to donate to the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit he established that promoted his political agenda. Manhattan federal prosecutors investigated him for this as well but in March 2017 declared they would not file charges.
That same month, the Manhattan district attorney announced he’d found de Blasio had violated the spirit of campaign finance law by soliciting donations that were steered into upstate political committees in a failed effort to switch the state Senate to Democratic control. But the DA, too, declined to bring criminal charges.
De Blasio ran into more hot water when he ran for president in 2020.
The FEC flagged his campaign, De Blasio 2020, three times over the interplay between that account and a federal and state political action committees (PACs) that he was simultaneously operating at the time.
Among the concerns was that more than $100,000 in expenses incurred toward his presidential exploration and ultimate campaign — including for polling and travel — were improperly paid for by the two PACs.
The Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance watchdog group, also accused de Blasio of playing a “shell game” intended to circumvent federal donation limits by allowing a significant number of donors to contribute to all three committees.
As of Friday, that complaint was still pending before the FEC.
THE CITY asked de Blasio what if anything he would do differently raising and spending money for this congressional race given his track record of fundraising investigations and the city ethics code citation. His campaign did not respond over the weekend.
Starting From Scratch
Going forward, de Blasio has to essentially start from scratch, despite the fact that he still has a good chunk of change sitting in a bank account that he raised when he was toying with a run for governor. He dubbed that committee New Yorkers for a Fair Future.
Last spring he wound up deciding not to run for that job but, as of the end of March, records show his New Yorkers For A Fair Future still had $588,000 left, plus a few thousand dollars still remaining in his various other prior political campaigns.
Almost none of that can be used in his congressional bid. Federal rules prohibit the transfer of any money raised by non-federal campaigns into federal campaigns. De Blasio’s only option would be to refund each donor and ask them to re-contribute to his 10th Congressional District campaign. Effectively, he would have to hit up his donors all over again.
And as THE CITY has reported, he still owes a wide variety of creditors for past work performed on his behalf.
That starts with the $450,000 he still owes the law firm of Kramer Levin for representing him while he and his fundraising tactics were under investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and Manhattan D.A. Plus he owes more than $220,000 to political consultants from prior campaigns.
On top of all that, last October the city Department of Investigation released a report declaring that his presidential campaign still owes taxpayers more than $300,000 for the use of an NYPD detail that trailed him around the country during his short-lived quest for the White House. He’s said he’s appealed this finding to the city Conflicts of Interest Board.
De Blasio’s most recent campaign fundraising shows that after all the times he was called out for stepping over the line, he was still not afraid to tap a well of deep-pocketed donors — who sometimes happened to be seeking favors from his administration — to support his political ambitions.
Over a 10-day span in January, for example, de Blasio’s would-be gubernatorial campaign, New Yorkers For A Fair Future, collected $139,400 split across three donations from Charles and Nancy Tebele.
Tebele and his family members had previously contributed more than $44,000 to prior de Blasio campaigns — including his failed presidential run in 2020.
That year, Tebele — CEO of the New Jersey firm Digital Gadgets — landed nearly $120 million in no-bid contracts with the city for masks and ventilators near the start of the COVID pandemic. As mayor, de Blasio also appointed him to the board of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Several other entities seeking business from City Hall have also written big checks to help fund other de Blasio political committees.
As THE CITY has reported, in March 2019 the owners of the iconic Manhattan landmark Chelsea Hotel threw a fundraiser and raised $90,000 for de Blasio’s federal political action committee, Fairness PAC. Days later they sought his administration’s support for their planned renovation of the hotel where some long term tenants were refusing to leave.
That same year Queens hotel developers Michael and Terrence Cheng raised $10,000 for the Fairness PAC and several days later got approval from the de Blasio administration for a hotel they were building in the Manhattan neighborhood of Murray Hill.
And another hotel owner, Wei Hong Hu, donated $15,000 to de Blasio’s PACs in 2019. A hotel he was building near Hudson Yards in Manhattan’s far West Side soon after was approved by the administration.
Hu’s hotels have also received multi-million contracts with the city in 2020 to temporarily house homeless shelter residents during the pandemic.
And a hotel he owns in Fresh Meadows, Queens, also began housing inmates released from Rikers Island and state prisons as part of a City Hall effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
That program was run by Exodus Transitional Communities and is now the subject of multiple probes by DOI, the state Attorney General Letitia James and the Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz after THE CITY revealed that Exodus relied on an unlicensed security firm at the Queens hotel.