De Blasio Scores Campaign Cash from Subjects of His Ethics Probes — While Rival Rivera Scoops Up Ex-Supporters
Backers for the former mayor were fined for forbidden donations. Others have abandoned him and are financing a rising rival’s campaign.
In his bid to win a seat in Congress, former Mayor Bill de Blasio has turned to a familiar cast of deep-pocketed donors — including several whose prior contributions surfaced in the pay-to-play corruption allegations that dogged him throughout his time at City Hall.
He’s also hit up a clique of insiders he’d awarded plum political appointments or top- level jobs at City Hall, although many have jumped ship and are now supporting his rivals in the Congressional District 10 race.
On Friday de Blasio’s campaign filed a fundraising disclosure with the Federal Election Commission stating that he’d obtained $510,537 from a wide variety of contributors. He is one of more than a dozen candidates vying for the newly created district, which spans lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn.
During de Blasio’s two terms at City Hall, his fundraising tactics repeatedly caught the attention of ethics watchdogs and prosecutors. He never faced criminal charges but was admonished for unethical behavior by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, the Manhattan District Attorney and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).
In 2019 THE CITY revealed that the city Department of Investigation had determined that de Blasio had violated ethics rules by personally soliciting donations from individuals who had business pending before City Hall. Several of his donors wound up paying fines to settle state ethics violations.
One such donor was Toll Brothers, the national housing developer, which paid a $15,000 fine in 2019 to settle charges that the firm had provided the mayor with an illegal gift at a time when they’d hired lobbyists to win City Hall’s support for a hotel/condo project in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
JCOPE determined that de Blasio had personally contacted a Toll Brothers executive and solicited a donation for a now-defunct nonprofit he controlled, Campaign for One New York, that promoted his policies. The company then wrote a $25,000 check to the Campaign for One New York, which JCOPE described as an illegal gift.
Despite all of that, in June a Toll Brother executive, David Von Spreckelsen, wrote a $2,900 check to de Blasio’s congressional campaign — the maximum allowed.
On Monday Von Spreckelsen noted that Toll Brothers hasn’t contributed to any candidates since the JCOPE settlement. “It’s the past. We move on,” he said, explaining that he chose to give to de Blasio this time around because he feels he “is best qualified to represent me personally as a resident of Boerum Hill.”
Around that same time, de Blasio’s congressional campaign received five donations of $2,900 each for a total of $14,500 from another familiar set of donors: Charles Tebele and his family.
This was Tebele’s fourth round of generosity for de Blasio, having steered more than $44,000 to de Blasio’s political campaigns for mayor and the White House, plus $139,400 to the ex-mayor’s short-lived gubernatorial exploration committee in January.
Those donations flowed at the same time Tebele had hired lobbyists to try and win COVID-related contracts to provide city hospitals with masks and ventilators at the start of the pandemic. His firm, Digital Gadgets, ultimately won $119 million in no-bid contracts, but the city canceled the biggest one, for $91 million, when he failed to deliver the requested vents.
And Tebele got one more thing from the former mayor — an appointment to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the quasi-city agency that promotes business growth by arranging tax breaks and other forms of public subsidy. Tebele remains on the board.
Tebele said in a text message to THE CITY: “I have supported the leadership of Bill de Blasio for close to a decade and will continue to do so.”
Another donor who sought favors from de Blasio’s City Hall is Robert Levine, president of RAL Companies, who’d hired lobbyist James Capalino to press City Hall on matters that included the administration’s support for a luxury condo in Brooklyn Bridge Park that was opposed by some in the community.
In 2015 de Blasio personally solicited financial support for the Campaign for One New York from Capalino, who then turned to Levine and some other clients to raise $100,000 for the mayor. That September, the mayor met with Capalino and the clients who’d written checks for the organization.
In 2018, Capalino agreed to settle state ethics charges of providing the mayor with an illegal gift by paying a $40,000 fine.
While Capalino did not give de Blasio a dime for his congressional run, Levine wrote the former mayor’s campaign a $2,000 check on June 30. Levine says he also gave to two of de Blasio’s rivals in the CD10 race, former prosecutor Daniel Goldman and Councilmember Carlina Rivera.
On Monday Levine told THE CITY, “I mean, every politician has good and bad,” and pointed out that he’d given to several candidates running for the CD10 seat.
“I’m basically an advocate for the democratic system and I’ve given to just about every one of the candidates including Dan Goldman, Carlina Rivera and de Blasio and others to stimulate the system and let them all run. That’s my motivation here.” (Only de Blasio’s contribution showed up in the Federal Election Commission disclosure records submitted by Friday’s deadline.)
Asked how he felt about de Blasio after the JCOPE investigation that found his donation was an illegal gift to the mayor, Levine responded, “There are certain things he did that I support, including pre-K and a number of other things in terms of economic development in the city and jobs training that he was an advocate for.”
The same day Levine wrote a check to de Blasio another familiar face arrived with a checkbook in hand to max out with a $2,900 contribution: Selim Rusi of Salmar Realty. An individual with the same last name at the same address gave another $2,900, and another Salmar executive, Marvin Schein, put up another $2,900.
In 2016 Rusi was amongst 11 donors affiliated with Salmar that gave to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign. In 2014 the firm had won a $3.5 million grant from EDC to subsidize a development in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, called Liberty View Industrial Plaza, and thus it was limited to a maximum donation of $400 as an entity doing business with the city.
Rusi nevertheless gave de Blasio the standard maximum — $4,950. The city Campaign Finance Board ordered the campaign to return all but $400 of that donation and de Blasio eventually did.
Rusi did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.
One more donor, who contributed $562 to de Blasio’s congressional campaign, was David Kramer, head of the Hudson Companies, which built a luxury condo in Brooklyn Heights on top of a new public library, demolishing and replacing the old branch.
Kramer wrote a $5,000 check to de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York in February 2014 shortly after the mayor arrived at City Hall. He subsequently required City Hall’s permission to erect a 409-foot-tall luxury condo in Brooklyn Heights because it was built on top of a public library, and received it after promising to build some units of affordable housing at a separate location.
The fact that Hudson was chosen over other bidders who offered the library more money or promised to build affordable units on site attracted the attention of federal and state prosecutors. The company was never subpoenaed and no charges resulted from the investigations.
Through a spokesperson Monday, Kramer declined to comment on his contribution to de Blasio.
De Blasio also turned to former staff and political appointees, getting contributions from many, including his Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks ($500), his Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter ($1,250), ex-mayoral aide Henry Berger ($1,000) and his first deputy mayor Dean Fulehan ($1,000) Former deputy mayor Richard Buery and ex-EDC Commissioner James Patchett both maxed out with $2,900 checks.
But some of de Blasio’s former inner circle hedged their bets, giving to their former boss and also to a rival candidate — Rivera.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer, appointed by de Blasio to chair the Economic Development Corporation, gave $2,900 to the former mayor — but also $1,000 to Rivera. Former DOT Commissioner Henry Gutman gave $2,900 each to de Blasio and Rivera.
And many of his former acolytes jumped ship altogether — with Rivera scoring generous donations from former de Blasio supporters.
That includes developer Jed Walentas, a long-time de Blasio donor who gave $5,800 to Rivera for both the primary and general elections. Walentas declined to speak to THE CITY but David Lombino, a spokesperson for his firm, Two Trees, said Walentas found Rivera to be “charismatic” and good on “resiliency issues.”
Stephen Nislick, who gave $50,000 to de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York as head of the anti-horse carriage group, NYCLASS, shifted his support to Rivera with a $2,900 maximum donation.
In 2014 de Blasio asked Nislick for donations to Campaign for One New York while NYCLASS was lobbying the mayor to ban horse carriages from Central Park. Nislick and another NYCLASS board member wound up donating $125,000 to the mayor’s group, but later paid a $10,000 fine to settle JCOPE’s allegations that the donations constituted an illegal gift.
Nislick did not return THE CITY’s calls seeking comment on his change of heart.
By the time de Blasio left City Hall, the carriage ban they wanted had not yet been enacted. A new bill to do that is now pending with the City Council, and Rivera — a longtime animal rights supporter — is weighing whether to support it.
A poll of likely voters released Monday by the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, found Niou and Councilmember Rivera tied for first place, each with 16%, and de Blasio at the bottom of the pack of well-known candidates with 3%.
The poll indicates the race remains a toss-up, however, with 40% of voters still undecided as the Aug. 23 primary inches closer.