Mayor's move to shield outside advisers draws criticism

AP News
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Posted: May 20, 2016 6:10 PM
Mayor's move to shield outside advisers draws criticism

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has long relied on the advice of outside advisers, has moved to classify his inner circle of private-sector consultants as agents of the city, shielding their communications from public disclosure.

The designation, which has sparked outrage from good-governments groups that say the network of outside voices acts as a shadow government, comes as his administration has been besieged by a joint federal and state probe and a swirling number of scandals that have driven down his approval ratings and raised the possibility he could face a primary challenger next year.

De Blasio, a first-term Democrat, revealed the agent of the city title when he defended his administration's decision not to release the emails of close friend Jonathan Rosen under the state's freedom-of-information law. Rosen, who advised de Blasio's successful 2013 mayoral bid, was a part of a now-shuttered nonprofit group that advanced the mayor's agenda and is the head of a public relations firm that represents some clients who have business with the city.

"Jonathan Rosen is someone who I consulted with for years and years, and we made a legal determination that that was a category that was different and appropriate," de Blasio said this week. "It's just as simple as that."

De Blasio's administration has since bestowed the title of agent of the city to other longtime advisers: John Del Cecato, a political consultant and ad-maker; Bill Hyers and Nicholas Baldick, consultants who steered the 2013 campaign; and Patrick Gaspard, a close friend who is U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

The agents were not paid by the city but, with the exception of Gaspard, represent firms that received payment from de Blasio's political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York. That group, which de Blasio began to close earlier this year, is at the center of several inquiries into the mayor's fundraising efforts.

Administration aides on Friday declined to specify the criteria for the agent of the city designation but said the men and their staffs are exempt from disclosure when related solely to city businesses. But good-government groups object to the shield, in part because it eliminates a conflict-of-interest safeguard.

"It's disappointing to see the mayor rely on a novel legal definition to defend the creation of a shadow government that is nothing more than an outside political operation," said Dick Dadey, head of Citizens Union, a government watchdog. "It is unacceptable that New Yorkers are unaware of a group outside City Hall doing City Hall's business."

Another group, Common Cause New York, called for the city's Conflict of Interest Board to review the emails in question.

"The proliferation of the city's shadow government remains a matter of public interest, especially given this protected class of individuals who operate without oversight or accountability," said Susan Lerner, Common Cause New York's director.

De Blasio has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But several members of his staff, as well as Rosen's firm, have been issued subpoenas as part of a flurry of conflict-of-interest and fundraising investigations that have generated weeks of bad headlines for the mayor.

Correspondence between government officials and private citizens is usually considered public. The attempt to shield the correspondence is an unusual step, though not unprecedented. De Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, attempted to block the release of emails between the city and Cathie Black before she took office as schools chancellor. The Bloomberg administration argued Black was working as an agent of the city, but the courts disagreed and ordered the emails released.

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