Bill de Blasio’s Potential Conflict of Interest

Nonprofit headed by former aides receives donation from teachers union as contract negotiations occur

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio / AP

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s contract negotiations with a teachers union in May have been criticized for a potential conflict of interest.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) donated $350,000 to a nonprofit lobbying group run by former de Blasio aides that campaigns on the mayor’s education initiatives.

The AFT is the parent union to United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—the union that had been negotiating with de Blasio.

The nonprofit, Campaign for One New York (CONY), formerly UPKNYC, argues in favor of universal pre-kindergarten, which would be paid for by increasing taxes on New York’s wealthiest.

CONY received the donation about a month before de Blasio and UFT reached a nine-year contract agreement that approved incremental yearly pay raises totalling 19 percent when compounded.

StudentsFirstNY, an education advocacy group, says the union’s donation to CONY raises ethical questions.

The organization has called for the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board to look into the issue, saying the nature and timing of the contribution is troubling.

StudentsFirstNY posted a letter on its website Wednesday that Jenny Sedlis, the organization’s executive director sent to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

"I urge the board to immediately look into these questions," Sedlis said in the letter. "New Yorkers deserve to know whether it is a conflict of interest for Mayor de Blasio to take large Super PAC contributions from a union with whom he is negotiating a new contract."

Sedlis also criticized the educational value of de Blasio’s agreement with UFT, questioning why a pay increase came with a two-and-a-half hour decrease in weekly instructional hours.

"The city entered the talks with a strong bargaining position yet it wound up paying significantly more while giving teachers the right to work less," Sedlis wrote.

De Blasio’s office had not returned requests for comment on the issue. However, a spokesman told Crain’s the donation had "zero" impact on the mayor’s agreement with UFT.

Whether the board would investigate following Sedlis’ letter was not immediately clear.

If it does, the conflict would likely be investigated as a violation of gift rules, which exist to prevent public figures from using their position for personal gain, offering preferential treatment, or losing their independence in making official decisions.

Even appearing to have broken any such rules can be subject to an investigation.

Wayne Hawley, deputy executive director of general counsel at the board told the Washington Free Beacon the board was not permitted to disclose information about investigations, nor could it confirm whether it had received Sedlis’ letter.

However, findings of violation are made available to the public when they occur, Hawley said.

CONY was founded as UPKNYC in November after de Blasio took office and has since raised $1.8 million in contributions.

A reporter at a press conference on Thursday asked de Blasio about the nonprofit’s donors.

"I don’t think they expect anything and I would never feel comfortable if they did," de Blasio said about donors who might expect something in return for contributions.