De Blasio to Have Donors Pay Legal Fees for His Corruption Probe

Ethics experts decry the NYC mayor's plan

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio / AP

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio / AP

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's announcement Friday that he will have donors pay for his mounting legal bills connected to suspected corruption in his administration has led ethics experts to publicly denounce the plan.

De Blasio on Friday introduced a fundraising plan to solicit donations from supporters "according to a set of rules" to pay growing debt that he has accumulated since April, when he hired defense lawyer Barry Berke to help with multiple corruption investigations. The announcement has been met with criticism from government watchdogs and legal experts, the New York Post reported Monday.

John Kaehny, the executive director of the reform group Reinvent Albany, told the Post that de Blasio is walking into "a trap of his own making" if he follows through with his proposed fundraising idea.

"He's responding to probes about his fundraising activities by doing more fundraising," Kaehny said.

De Blasio gave few details about his plan Friday but said it would follow "a legal-defense-fund model."

Election lawyer Sarah Steiner said de Balsio's idea was "fraught with all sorts of problems."

"A donor is not giving money to an individual. You're giving money to an elected official," she said. "This sets up potential pay-to-play possibilities … It looks very messy."

David Grandeau, a lawyer and former executive director of the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, noted that JCOPE was already investigating de Blasio's now defunct nonprofit organization, the Campaign for One New York, and could lead to a potential conflict with the mayor's payment plan.

"Obviously, if you give money to the defense fund, you're benefiting the mayor, so that would be problematic for those that are lobbyists or their clients," Grandeau told the Post. "I'm pretty sure the people at JCOPE would consider that to be an illegal gift to the mayor."

"No ordinary person can get legal services with no actual plan to pay for them," said Republican businessmen Paul Massey, a potential challenger to de Blasio in November's upcoming election.

Massey called for "investigators to take a close look at this" and said that the law firm involved–Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel–should recuse itself "until all questions about this ‘arrangement' are answered."

New York City has, according to the Post, $11.6 million in contracts with different law firms representing de Blasio's team in multiple probes, which include an investigation into whether donors gave money for favors to de Blasio's non-profit and allegations that the mayor's staff illegally funneled money through upstate county committees to support Democrats in state Senate races in 2014.

De Blasio's spokesperson, Eric Phillips, backed de Blasio, saying the mayor wanted his own lawyer to prevent taxpayers from paying for his legal defense.

Phillips added that once the proposed legal fund has formed, "the mayor will voluntarily disclose donors and the legal protocols used to comply with any and all regulation related to City Hall."

Berke and the managing partner at Kramer Levin, Paul Pearlman, did not return the Post‘s requests for comment.