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De Blasio Didn't — And Won't — Disclose All Who Donated to His Nonprofit

By Jeff Mays | May 18, 2016 7:28am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied outside of City Hall with the AARP and union supporters and called on the City Council to pass his rezoning plans.
Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied outside of City Hall with the AARP and union supporters and called on the City Council to pass his rezoning plans.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

CITY HALL — Mayor Bill de Blasio's nonprofit, launched to advance his political agenda and currently under a federal probe, did not disclose all of its donors, DNAinfo New York has learned.

For example, a $20,000 donation to the Campaign of One New York's predecessor that developer and potential mayoral candidate Don Peebles gave in March 2014 at the personal request of the mayor is not listed on the voluntary disclosures or expenditures that the nonprofit has handed out upon request.

Dan Levitan, a spokesman for the Campaign of One New York, says Peebles' donation was not listed on the the group's voluntary reports because his money was refunded in July 2014.

Levitan declined to disclose a full list of donations, like Peebles', that were cashed and then returned.

Susan Lerner, executive director for good government group Common Cause, said the Campaign for One New York's failure to disclose Peebles' donation is troubling.

"We don't know who else might have donated and asked for their money back," Lerner said. "When an organization is voluntarily disclosing things they get to make up the rules."

The nonprofit's refusal to list everyone who gave money, even those whose funds were returned, shows why such groups should be subject to city campaign finance rules, Lerner added.

Under city Campaign Finance Board rules, any contribution that a campaign or campaign committee receives must be "accepted and deposited, or rejected and returned to a contributor" within 10 or 20 days depending on whether it is an election year.

Campaign donations that are rejected and not deposited do not have to be reported to the Campaign Finance Board. But "any contribution" that is accepted and deposited—as Peebles' $20,000 check was— must be reported.

But as a nonprofit, those rules did not apply to the Campaign for One New York.

It could accept unlimited amounts of money, including from companies or individuals with business before the city, without being subject to city campaign finance laws requiring other entities to disclose how the money is spent or imposing limits on the amounts that can be donated.

In February, Lerner asked the Campaign Finance Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate de Blasio's use of nonprofits such as the Campaign for One New York because it "has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process."

The fact that Peebles' returned donation was not included and that the Campaign for One New York, which was shut down in March, has declined to disclose other returned donations only proves her point further, Lerner said.

"We believe no elected official, whether it's the governor or the mayor or someone else, should be setting up an organization that functions like a shadow government," Lerner said. "This is one of the reasons why we are happy that the mayor has closed the Campaign for One New York."

Peebles' donation was also not listed on the group's 2014 filings with the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The Campaign for One New York registered as a lobbyist for 2014. The designation required the group to submit details about its donors and expenditures.

JCOPE is now investigating whether the Campaign for One New York should have registered as a lobbyist in 2015, which it did not.

JCOPE officials declined to comment on whether Peebles' donation should have been reported, citing the ongoing investigation.

But state rules require "lobbyists who lobby on their own behalf and clients, who devote substantial resources to lobbying activity in New York State, to make publicly available each source of funding over $5,000 for such lobbying."

The rule states the requirement is designed to "provide the public with more information regarding the actual entities and individuals that support lobbying campaigns in New York State."

Levitan said the Campaign for One New York felt disclosure of Peebles' donation was not required.

"JCOPE requires the disclosure of donations that are used for lobbying purposes. This donation was returned, and not spent on lobbying purposes," Levitan said.

De Blasio has called the JCOPE investigation a politically motivated attack from the "executive branch" and the Campaign for One New York has refused to comply with a JCOPE subpoena.

JCOPE has asked a court to force the group to respond to the subpoena.

The mayor has touted his nonprofit's voluntary disclosures as evidence of its transparency.

"Everything that we have been a part of we’ve been adamant about the importance of disclosure," de Blasio said last week at a City Hall press conference where he called the failure of other such nonprofits to disclose one of the "fundamental problems in a democracy."

But Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said de Blasio's "transparency argument falls apart," when there are questions about which donations are being listed and which ones are not.

"It could be an oversight or it could be that they are keeping two sets of books: One for transparency's sake and one that shows politics as usual," Greer said. "There's good intentions here but de Blasio campaigned on helping the poor and being transparent."