Additional reporting by Katie Honan
The city Conflicts of Interest Board Thursday ordered ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio to pay nearly $500,000 in restitution and fines for wrongfully billing taxpayers for an NYPD detail that escorted him around the country during his failed 2019 quest for the White House.
The sanction includes paying the city back $319,794 for travel, meal and lodging expenses for the police posse, plus a $155,000 fine — the largest ever imposed by the board.
COIB had sought an even higher fine of $775,000 — or $25,000 for each of de Blasio’s 31 campaign trips — but an administrative judge who sustained the board’s recommendation, decided a $155,000 fine was “appropriate” given that de Blasio only received an “indirect benefit” to his political campaign.
The size of the fine appears to be related to de Blasio’s decision to ignore COIB’s warning before he announced his campaign for president.
COIB had formally advised him that taxpayers could not foot the bill for the police detail he said needed to accompany him on campaign trips for security reasons. De Blasio then ignored this advice, having the city pick up the tab for his police detail on multiple trips to campaign stops in Iowa, Illinois and South Carolina.
THE CITY first reported on the cost of the detail in July 2019 as the campaign got underway, and soon after, the Department of Investigation opened a probe into who was footing the bill for what was a rapidly growing cost to taxpayers.
In October 2021, then-DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett issued a scathing report detailing de Blasio’s use of the detail to accompany the mayor, his wife and two children. Garnett asserted that the mayor needed to pay back the $319,000 he ran up in NYPD detail costs. DOI then asked COIB to enforce its recommendation after de Blasio insisted he owed taxpayers nothing.
COIB’s response landed Thursday: a terse order demanding that the former mayor cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars that he would not have to pay if he had simply followed the initial ethics advice.
“There is no city purpose in paying for the extra expenses incurred by that NYPD security detail to travel at a distance from the city to accompany the mayor or his family on trips for his campaign for President of the United States,” the Board wrote in its decision. “The Board advised Respondent to this effect prior to his campaign; Respondent disregarded the Board’s advice.”
On Thursday, Garnett’s successor, DOI Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber, applauded the ruling for holding the city’s top official accountable for his choice to break ethical standards that all city employees are required to follow.
“The Conflicts of Interest Board’s conclusions regarding former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s misuse of his security detail reaffirms DOI’s investigative findings, and shows that public officials — including the most senior — will be held accountable when they violate the rules,” Strauber said.
Citing January 6th
De Blasio immediately appealed the decision, filing a lawsuit Thursday against the COIB in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The ex-mayor did not return THE CITY’s calls seeking comment, but Andrew Celli, one of many lawyers who have been representing de Blasio’s response on his police detail problem, dubbed COIB’s order “arbitrary” and contended, “It undermines the city’s compelling interest in allowing its high officials to travel safely anywhere in the world.”
Celli — the law partner of Richard Emery, a major fundraiser for the former mayor and an attorney de Blasio appointed to run the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) — even cited the historic riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol to justify de Blasio’s need for the NYPD presence.
“In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, the shootings of Congressmembers Giffords and Scalise, and almost daily threats directed at local leaders around the country, the COIB’s action — which seeks to saddle elected officials with security costs that the City has properly borne for decades — is dangerous, beyond the scope of their powers, and illegal,” Celli said in an emailed statement.
De Blasio suspended his campaign in September 2019, some 15 months before the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Following DOI’s recommendation to COIB to impose restitution, the board brought the case to the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). A trial began remotely in December, focusing on the pre-campaign warning letter to de Blasio’s in-house counsel.
OATH Judge Kevin Casey noted that the May 15, 2019 letter warned that use of the NYPD detail on the campaign trail “may require substantial public expenditure to support purely political activity” and explicitly instructed de Blasio that while the city could pay the salaries of the detectives in the detail, it could not pay for travel, lodging, meals, car rentals or other costs associated with the detail’s activity on the campaign trail.
The day after his counsel received this letter, de Blasio announced his candidacy for the White House and began traveling the country with NYPD detail in tow, billing the city for everything he had been told his campaign had to pay.
At the OATH trial, de Blasio did not testify. Instead, the judge reviewed a transcript of his interview with DOI that was conducted as part of the investigation.
The transcript portrays de Blasio bobbing and weaving throughout, stating that he’d been given contradictory advice from his lawyers, then claiming he “did not have 100% clear understanding” of the situation.
Shown COIB’s letter clearly stating that the cop detail expenses were not the responsibility of taxpayers, de Blasio responded he was unsure if he recognized the document.
In a May ruling that was only made public Thursday, Judge Casey noted de Blasio had offered only “vague generalities about the specific advice that he supposedly relied upon.”
“The City should be reimbursed for those costs,” Casey said. “To hold otherwise would give [de Blasio], rather than the [COIB], the sole power to decide that City resources can be expended for his presidential campaign.”