Every Recent NYC Mayoral Administration Has Been Investigated, But No Mayor Has Been Charged
Past probes have resulted in indictments and convictions against lower-level city employees — and ended the career of at least one mayor.
Shortly after news broke that the FBI had raided the home of Brianna Suggs, a chief fundraiser for Mayor Eric Adams, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn jumped to the mayor’s defense. The longtime Adams supporter questioned whether he’d been unfairly targeted because of his race.
“I’m concerned about whether these investigations are just targeting him because he’s a Black mayor,” said Bichotte Hermelyn, who as chair of the Kings County Democratic Committee backed Adams’ candidacy. “You have people who try to take people down who are really trying to help the city.”
A closer look at New York City history over the last 45 years, however, indicates that every mayoral administration, from Ed Koch onward, has at one point or another become the target of sprawling corruption investigations by law enforcement. That includes David Dinkins (the city’s first Black mayor), Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio and now Adams himself.
A look at the record also makes clear that bringing actual charges against a New York City mayor is tough. In fact, it hasn’t happened in the last 170 years — a timespan that includes the notoriously corrupt reign of Tammany Hall. Only one mayor, Jimmy Walker, resigned while under investigation, in 1932, but even he wasn’t charged.
As for the mayor just before Adams, the scandals that rocked his two terms also reveal how difficult it is to bring charges all the way to the top. Federal prosecutors noted that although they had evidence that de Blasio had done favors for big-money donors, it would be tough to prove he personally benefited from the transactions.
Historically, investigations of City Hall often resulted in charges against lower-level city workers, raised serious questions about the mayor’s ability to run an ethical shop, and in the case of Koch, ended his political career.
“Almost every administration has been investigated for something,” said George Arzt, who served as Koch’s press secretary in the third term when investigations began sprouting up all around. “It comes with the territory.”
Adams’ campaign and administration face a trio of prosecutions and probes: the indictments of six fundraisers who allegedly participated in a straw donor scheme, the indictment of former aide Eric Ulrich for bribery, and now the federal investigation into Turkish donations to his campaign.
That latter investigation is heating up. Last week, federal agents seized Adams’ phones and iPad, reportedly to search for evidence that he had leaned on the FDNY while still Brooklyn borough president to expedite the opening of the new Turkish consulate in Manhattan. The mayor has hired a law firm to represent his campaign and himself personally, and the firm has said it is cooperating fully with the investigation by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
The De Blasio Precedent
Of all the troubles facing mayors over the last 50 years, the circumstances surrounding the multiple investigations of Adams’ campaign fundraising are most similar to those surrounding his predecessor, de Blasio.
In his second term, de Blasio was investigated by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, the Manhattan District Attorney, the state ethics watchdog formerly known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and his own Department of investigation. All documented his ethically challenged fundraising habits, including directly soliciting contributions to a non-profit he controlled called Campaign for One New York from donors who were actively seeking favors from his administration.
Those de Blasio hit up included real estate developers and lobbyists seeking favorable treatment from the mayor’s team. Many wrote hefty checks.
One donor was a Queens restaurateur named Harendra Singh who was fighting City Hall’s demands for back-rent he owed the city.
Singh was indicted in an unrelated corruption scheme and cooperated with the FBI. First he asserted that he’d illegally given de Blasio’s 2013 campaign a free fundraising event at his restaurant worth thousands of dollars that should have been reported under the city’s strict campaign finance rules . Then in his testimony in the unrelated corruption case, he claimed de Blasio had also asked him for campaign donations.
Singh said that he’d told the mayor he’d have to utilize an illegal straw donor scheme to get the dollar amount de Blasio sought. Singh claimed the mayor told him, “Do what you’ve got to do.”
De Blasio later denied this conversation took place, but investigators found that he had directed one of his top aides to intervene in the rent dispute between Singh and the city.
The city Department of Investigation found that de Blasio had violated the ethics rules that govern all city employees, a first for a mayor of New York City, but the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and Manhattan DA decided not to bring charges.
Then-U.S. Attorney Joon Kim made a point of stating he’d found “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the city, after which the mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant city agencies on behalf of these donors.”
Kim also spelled out how difficult it would be to bring criminal charges against the mayor, hinting at a recent Supreme Court case, McDonnell v. United States, that dismissed corruption charges against the then-governor of Virginia after deciding prosecutors failed to show the governor had personally benefited. Kim noted “the particular difficulty in proving criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit.”
Meanwhile, then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. found de Blasio had violated the “spirit” of campaign finance laws by getting donors to steer hefty contributions to upstate party committees in an effort to swing the state Senate to Democratic control.
In response, de Blasio noted that no one was charged but did not dispute the facts of the multiple cases. He still owes a law firm he’d hired to represent him, Kramer Levin, more than $300,000 in legal bills.
The Mayor Who Didn’t Want to Know
For aficionados of New York City corruption scandals, no mayor in recent times saw more unfavorable headlines about graft than Ed Koch in his third and final term.
Koch himself was never the target of investigation, but two powerful political bosses whose support he’d solicited in his rise up the political ladder were. The headline over a Village Voice piece detailing how the Koch administration repeatedly blew off warnings about his mentors described him as “The Mayor Who Didn’t Want To Know.”
Koch’s longtime allies ensnared in multiple corruption probes were Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman, political heavyweights at the time.
At Manes’ request, Koch appointed Geoffrey Lindenauer as deputy commissioner of the Parking Violations Bureau. Lindenauer was a close friend of Manes.
He was also the bag man who picked up payoffs from vendors doing business with the bureau and split the proceeds with Manes, sometimes in the bathroom at Queens Borough Hall, prosecutors alleged. In March 1986 Manes stabbed himself in the heart in the kitchen of his Jamaica Estates home days after Lindenauer pleaded guilty and began cooperating with the feds.
The Parking Violations Bureau also played a role in the case against Bronx political boss Friedman. Koch awarded a $20 million contract to a company in which Friedman had a secret financial stake to provide hand-held computers that produced summonses for the bureau.
In a case brought by then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, evidence — including testimony from cooperator Lindenauer — emerged of a vast network of vendors, including the Lockheed Corporation, paying numerous city officials and political figures like Friedman and Manes to win lucrative PVB contracts. Friedman was convicted and served four years in federal prison.
Though Koch was not personally implicated in any specific criminal act, his inability to see what was going on all around him — either by choice or by ignorance — ended his career. Running for a fourth term against Dinkins in 1989, Koch lost by a margin of 50.4% to 47.8%.
Compared to the whirlwind of investigations and indictments in Koch’s final term, Dinkins’ time at City Hall was far more sedate — but not totally scandal-free. Once again, the Parking Violations Bureau was back in the picture, along with tainted contractor Lockheed.
After the Village Voice revealed that Lockheed had lobbied behind the scenes to win the Dinkins transportation commissioner’s blessing to award the firm a huge new contract, Dinkins suspended contract negotiations and ordered an investigation.
In an August 1993 report, the Department of Investigation revealed how Lockheed had hired James Capalino, a Koch administration veteran, and Basil Paterson, a close friend and former law partner of Dinkins, to get back into the good graces of City Hall.
DOI alleged that Dinkins’ budget director, Philip Michael, favored Lockheed to win the massive contract and that City Hall had granted the company greater access to city officials than any other vendor. Lockheed, meanwhile, paid for expensive meals for staff in the contracting department and engaged in employment discussions with the chief of staff to Dinkins’ first deputy mayor.
As a result, Michael was forced to resign and the contract that had been recommended for approval by Dinkins’ DOT commissioner was ultimately nixed.
In contrast to Dinkins, Giuliani, the former prosecutor who’d convicted Friedman, managed to serve his two terms and get out of City Hall before the taint of corruption by one of his closest aides, Bernard Kerik, became public.
In response to revelations by the Daily News, investigators from the Bronx District attorney’s office made the case that Kerik, then Giuliani’s corrections commissioner, had paid $30,000 for $200,000 worth of bathroom renovations by the affiliate of a construction company the city had accused of having ties to organized crime.
Ultimately Kerik pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor state charges of accepting gifts and loans while a city employee. He subsequently pleaded guilty to federal tax charges in an indictment that alleged he’d begun hiding income from the IRS while he was running corrections and then the police department. (Kerik was later pardoned of the federal charges by former President Donald Trump.)
Schemes Under Bloomberg
For Mike Bloomberg, allegations of corruption didn’t begin to surface in his administration until late in his tenure at City Hall.
Toward the end of Bloomberg’s third term, Wendell Walters, an assistant commissioner in the city Department of Housing Preservation & Development, was charged with pocketing $2.5 million in bribes to greenlight several projects that were part of the mayor’s signature push to create affordable housing.
The indictment alleged Walters’ schemes ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prosecutors say he would accept stacks of cash stuffed inside golf ball boxes, overnight delivery envelopes and even coffee cups. He ultimately pleaded guilty and got three years in prison.
Despite Walters’ key role in the mayor’s affordable housing campaign, Bloomberg downplayed his assistant commissioner’s significance, stating, “We have 330,000 employees in this city and I’d love to tell you that they were all honest, perfect and whatever. I can tell you that the vast majority are.”
The same year Walters was busted, Bloomberg faced his biggest scandal: a scheme by a tech contractor to overcharge the city $700 million to create a no-paper payroll system.
The scheme, prosecutors said, took place throughout the Bloomberg administration, starting in 2003 and continuing into 2010. When city employee unions and the Daily News began raising questions about the steadily growing cost of this boondoggle, Bloomberg defended the program and said there was nothing to see here.
Ultimately indictments ensued, and the architect of the scheme, a former city worker named Mark Mazer, along with two of his accomplices, were convicted of fraud, bribery and money laundering and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The city demanded repayment of some $600 million in overcharges.
This time Mayor Bloomberg offered a terse mea culpa, stating, “Nobody paid as much attention to it as they should have — from me on down.”
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