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Who’s Watching the Powerful: The Bureaus Tasked With Keeping Officials in Check

A number of agencies, boards and committees look out for corruption and malfeasance in municipal life but their investigation and enforcement powers vary.

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An ad campaign in the early 1990s by the Department of Investigations.

Courtesy of Peter Benjaminson

As mayor, Bill de Blasio faced down major ethics and corruption investigations, yet avoided courtroom consequences in every instance.

Now, his successor says he wants to play by the book.

Mayor Eric Adams has brought on a federal anti-corruption prosecutor, Brendan McGuire, to serve as his legal counsel and, before Adams was sworn in, chose two deputy comptrollers to join a City Hall team created to root out “waste, fraud and abuse,” he said in late December.

He has good reason to get ahead of the critics. In a short time, the new mayor has taken heat for a number of appointments. He chose Philip Banks as deputy mayor for public safety, despite Banks’ being implicated — though never charged — in an FBI bribery and fraud investigation.

Adams also picked his brother as his head of security with an initial salary of $210,000 a year, and scrapped his choice to lead the city Economic Development Corporation after THE CITY reported he had failed to disclose previous lobbying.

“They got off to a very bad start with a combination of the mayor’s brother and the appointment of Banks,” said Richard Briffault, Columbia Law School professor and the former chair of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board between 2014 and 2020. “He points out that [Banks] was never indicted. That’s hardly an endorsement.”

Eric Adams gives his mayoral victory speech in Downtown Brooklyn on Nov. 2, 2021.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

Adams has vigorously defended his choices, telling reporters in mid-January: “I’m going to hire the best people for the job that I’ve known throughout my years in government.” 

Days later, when asked about lawsuits pending against chief of staff Frank Carone and one of his former businesses, the mayor said, “I am hiring the best people to do the best job for the best city on the globe. That’s my only comment on that. Every day, people critique my appointments.”

When asked to comment on this story, City Hall referred to those statements.

‘Lead by Example’

Meanwhile, the city’s oversight watchdogs have already kicked into gear.

With his brother’s hiring, Adams publicly agreed to defer to COIB, then decided to pay him only $1 in a waiver from the ethics board. But the conflicts board is just one of a web of entities that keep an eye on the city’s most powerful officials and agencies.

At the start of a new administration, it’s worth knowing who and what has the ability to keep City Hall, elected officials and our city agencies in line — as well as the limitations of their powers.

The answer varies widely according to the target and scope of the investigation, or whether the matter is a full-blown criminal or an issue of misconduct, an ethical violation, or mismanagement, experts told THE CITY.

One thing they agree on: the actions of the boss matter more than the actions of the agencies monitoring corruption.

“It’s really extremely simple when it comes to how the mayor fights corruption in city government, and the way is to lead by example,” said John Kaehny, executive director at the watchdog group Reinvent Albany. 

“The fish rots from the head,” he added. 

The Department of Investigation

How to report: You can make a report to DOI through an online form here, by calling (212) 825-5959 or by mail at 180 Maiden Lane, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10038.

One of the oldest law enforcement entities in the United States, the city Department of Investigation was born from some of the most corrupt stuff in New York’s history: the 19th Century graft of Boss Tweed.

It was the infamous fraud involved in the building of the Tweed Courthouse, now the Department of Education building on Chambers Street, that cost taxpayers between $11 and $15 million, $9 million of which was likely spent to line pockets.

“That’s when the people of New York got shocked enough to say that they were going to put inspectors general in each city department,” said Peter Benjaminson, former press secretary at DOI and the author “Secret Police: Inside the New York City Department of Investigation.”

Today, that original mission remains, though the department has evolved. A dozen units headed by inspectors general oversee investigations of the huge constellation of city agencies, including squads dedicated to NYCHA, the public hospitals, the School Construction Authority and the NYPD.

A DOI ad campaign in the early 1990s solicited tips.

Courtesy of Peter Benjaminson

With more than 300 employees including 171 investigators, the agency takes on an array of issues, from probes of individual city employees — like last year’s report on de Blasio’s improper use of his NYPD security detail during his presidential campaign — to systemic audits, such as a pair of DOI reports in 2016 on oversight failures at the Administration for Children’s Services connected to children’s deaths.

DOI has the authority to make arrests but cannot enforce its findings. That’s where collaboration with prosecutors comes in, noted Mark Peters, former DOI commissioner from 2014 to 2018, especially for complicated white-collar criminal cases.

“Usually, the partnership starts way before the arrests are going to happen,” he said.

Typically, DOI would look into possible wrongdoing, then bring a matter to the appropriate prosecutor — be it a federal U.S. attorney, a local district attorney in one of the boroughs or the state attorney general — to “work on it together to make sure that the investigation we were doing meshed with what the DA [or other prosecutor] thought they could charge.”

Not all of DOI’s work ends in a courtroom, however. The agency also looks at waste, fraud or abuse that may not rise to level of a criminal matter, but shines a light on major problems, like a 2018 report about the NYPD’s failure to properly investigate sexual assault cases, Peters said.

In those cases, “the purpose is not to embarrass the agency or the city,” Peter said, but to “get systemic change.”

According to its mission and charter mandate, DOI is built to operate independently from the rest of city government. But is it truly independent? It depends on whom you ask, and when.

Over time, the relationship between DOI and City Hall, in particular, has morphed. During the Parking Violations Bureau scandal of the mid-1980s, Mayor Ed Koch claimed such separation from DOI that he had no knowledge of the issue. (The scandal led to a major reexamination and overhaul of the agency.)

On the other hand, Mayor Rudy Guiliani — a former federal prosecutor — met weekly with his DOI Commissioner and invited him to cabinet meetings, press reported at the time. Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized, and ended, that practice. De Blasio appointed his former campaign treasurer, Peters, but later canned him, a move Peters claimed the mayor made in retaliation for critical investigations. De Blasio has vigorously denied that.

The agency now reports to the City Council and the Mayor’s Office, and its commissioners are appointed by the mayor.

“Why should you be able to fire the person investigating you?” said Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of the good-government group Citizens Union and a former city public advocate. “That should be changed. I really think it’s crazy.”

Per the city charter, the mayor has the power to sack the DOI commissioner, though they must explain why they did it and allow the commissioner a chance to offer an explanation, as well. 

Daniel G. Cort is DOI’s acting commissioner, and the agency is still awaiting its next permanent leader to be installed. Adams has nominated Jocelyn Strauber, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor, to lead the agency. She must be confirmed by the City Council to get the job. No hearings have been scheduled as of last week.

“DOI’s success and uniqueness as a municipal watchdog is based in large part on the legal foundation that imbues DOI with many of its powers and with independence,” said agency spokesperson Dianne Struzzi.

The department cannot be “eliminated on the whim, fear or desire of the leaders in city government” and is able to “investigate anyone in city government, all the way to the top echelons,” she added.

City Council

How to report: Contact the office of Council member Gale Brewer, chair of the oversight committee, here or at (212) 873-0282.

Each of the City Council’s 38 committees has the ability to play a role in oversight by holding hearings, asking questions and keeping leaders accountable. All committees and the Council Speaker have subpoena power.

But one in particular is dedicated to the task: the Committee on Oversight and Investigations. The committee is relatively new, created in 2018 and headed up by then-Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx). In the role, Torres pushed for investigations into lead poisoning and chronic lack of heat in public housing, and the taxi medallion loan crisis.

Now, Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) has taken over as chair, an appointment fought by the Adams administration, as THE CITY has reported.

Brewer told THE CITY in a recent interview that she has “no problem investigating anything, but I will do it in a way that is fair.”

Gale Brewer speaks at a rally in City Hall Park supporting women running for office, July 13, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Asked by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer this week if Adams should be afraid of her, Brewer didn’t mince words.

“I like people to be afraid of me, as long as we’re all going to work together to get things done,” she said, adding of the mayor: “I don’t think he’s afraid of anybody, do you?”

Peters said in his time at DOI, the oversight committee was critical for moving investigations along, and that Torres “did a terrific job.”

“We had a close working relationship,” he said of the now-member of Congress. “Richie was able to use hearings and his committee to force city officials in public to answer questions. And that’s a very powerful mechanism for getting change.”

He thinks Brewer will be a “smart, aggressive chair.” Even the Council’s small Republican faction seems to think so; minority leader Joe Borelli said last month the former Manhattan borough president will “leave no stone unturned.”

Conflicts of Interest Board

How to report: File a complaint with COIB through its online form here or by mail to 2 Lafayette Street, Suite 1010, New York, NY, 10007.

The COIB is the city’s independent entity in charge of enforcing New York’s conflicts of interest law in the City Charter.

What does that look like? According to COIB’s enforcement records, it could be a city employee doing work on a side gig while on the clock at a city job, driving an agency car for personal reasons or an elected official accepting gifts from a group doing business with the city.

The board has five members — appointed by the mayor, comptroller and public advocate —serving staggered six-year terms, and a professional administrative staff. Jeffrey D. Friedlander is its current chair, a de Blasio holdover, and Carolyn Miller is COIB’s executive director.

If needed, COIB refers cases to DOI for further investigation and carries out a number of enforcement actions ranging from warning letters, settlements, a referral to the city’s administrative court or monetary penalties. For example, THE CITY recently reported how COIB once fined Adolfo Carrion, the new commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, $10,000 for a home renovation gift made in 2007.

A lot of the agency’s work, however, is “educational and informational,” said Briffault, the former COIB chair. They conduct programs, trainings and give “informal advice if people have issues about whether they can or cannot do something,” he said.

On social media, COIB gets creative on disseminating ethics info, sometimes through skits and musical comedy.

But Kaehny at Reinvent Albany thinks COIB is “completely hamstrung by the City Charter” to go after big fish.

“They’re not really designed to thwart malfeasance and big corruption by the most powerful elected officials and officials,” he said. 

For example, COIB warned de Blasio twice after he solicited donations from real estate figures for his nonprofit, Campaign for One New York, that he used to boost pet projects and his short-lived run for president. But those warning letters came to light only after a protracted legal fight by The New York Times following a DOI report obtained by THE CITY in 2019.

“The COIB could be way more powerful if they changed the rules a little bit — if those private warning letters were public, for instance,” Kaehny said.

Chad Gholizadeh, deputy director of enforcement at COIB, said in a statement that COIB’s members have “strived to maintain their independence and will continue to apply the conflicts of interest law even-handedly across all of city government.”

City Comptroller

How to report: Contact the city Comptroller’s Research and Investigations Unit by email at ReportFraud@comptroller.nyc.gov, by filling out this form or by calling (212) NO-WASTE.

As the fiduciary watchdog for the city, the comptroller is something of a natural adversary for City Hall, often serving as a public critic and watchdog for city policies and spending.

The office audits city agencies to see how they’re spending money, manages the city’s public pension funds and reviews all city contracts, among many other tasks. By holding the pursestrings, the comptroller has real power to say “we’re not going to pay you” to badly behaving contractors, said Kaehny.

“They’re hugely important. And if they’re doing their job, it makes big money corruption much, much harder. There’s just no no doubt about it,” he said.

Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) holds a City Hall rally on deterring reckless driving, Feb. 11, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Brad Lander, the new comptroller, told THE CITY he’s ready to go.

“The Mayor has openly welcomed me — in his words — to ‘audit the hell’ out of him and his agencies, and I plan to do just that,” he said.

“My job as Chief Accountability Officer is to make government more effective and efficient at delivering services to New Yorkers. That requires both collaboration and an independent, honest accounting of how funds are being spent, how programs operate, and whether they achieve our shared goals,” he added.

The state comptroller also has the ability to oversee the fiscal health of New York City’s government, and has a special division to do so. Their work includes oversight of public authorities in the city, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Specialty Investigators

There are a number of specialized investigative entities apart from those above whose job it is to look at particular agencies or areas of the city. They include:

Last Line of Defense: Local, State and Federal Prosecutors

Unfortunately, New York has a long and rich history of public officials being convicted of crimes.

There are lots of overlapping prosecutorial offices that can bring a criminal case.

There are five local district attorneys, one for each of the city’s five counties, which correspond to our boroughs. The Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorney’s offices both have dedicated public corruption units. And the state attorney general has a Public Integrity Bureau.

But Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said, historically, federal prosecutors have made the biggest impact when it comes to high-level wrongdoing by municipal officials.

Then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani personally tried the corruption trial that stemmed from the Koch-era Parking Violations Bureau scandal. And to name just a few cases from this century: Federal prosecutors took down City Council members Angel Rodriquez on bribery and extortion charges in 2003, Miguel Martinez on theft of public money in 2009 and Dan Halloran on corruption charges in 2015.

In New York City, U.S. attorneys oversee the five boroughs via two districts: the Eastern District — which covers Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island — and the Southern District, which covers The Bronx and Manhattan.

“They’re the big guns, and that’s who everybody’s really afraid of,” Kaehny said of the feds.

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