NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this year that he could count on one hand the number of people who qualify as "agents of the city," individuals who offer him policy advice but whose communications with City Hall are shielded from public view.
But now the mayor needs a second hand.
City Hall has revealed in a Nov. 23 court filing that there are now six so-called agents of the city. They consider Joshua Gold, a lawyer who ran the mayor's political nonprofit that's now under investigation, as someone whose communications with the mayor should be kept secret.
The legal filing, in response to a lawsuit from NY1 and the New York Post to reveal de Blasio's communications with the "agents of the city," says that Gold is a "lawyer with extensive experience in operating political campaigns," who was hired to lead a public relations effort to promote UPKNYC, the nonprofit de Blasio founded to promote his successful plan to bring universal pre-K to New York City.
UPKNYC is the precursor to the Campaign for One New York, which U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating whether donors received anything in return for their donations.
The now-shuttered nonprofit lies outside of city campaign finance rules and was able to accept unlimited amounts of money from companies and individuals with business dealings before the city.
Good government groups have called the "agents of the city" designation "fictional" and an attempt by de Blasio to block transparency. They say the mayor has no legal precedent to withhold the emails of people who are not employed by the city.
Communications between the mayor and his taxpayer-funded staff who work for the city are normally withheld from public disclosure.
"This administration has taken the position that outside employees with no responsibility to taxpayers and no restraints on conduct can engage in policy discussions that are secret. That's the definition of a shadow government," said Common Cause New York executive director Susan Lerner. "That he's adding to that designation is even more troubling."
The previous five "agents of the city" are Jonathan Rosen, Nicholas Baldick, Bill Hyers, John Del Cecato and Patrick Gaspard.
Rosen is a principal and co-founder of the BerlinRosen public relations firm, which was a core strategist for de Blasio's mayoral campaign in 2013 and his current reelection effort. Baldick is the founder of Hilltop Public Solutions where Hyers is a principal. Hyers also served as de Blasio's campaign manager.
Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the firm that created the famous 2013 campaign ad featuring Dante de Blasio. Gaspard is a close friend of the mayor's who is also the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.
BerlinRosen, Hilltop and AKPD were paid millions of dollars by the Campaign for One New York to run the organization or serve as consultants.
Fifteen hundred pages of emails from Rosen released by City Hall the night before Thanksgiving show that he was deeply involved in city policy, weighing in on decisions regarding universal pre-K and consulting with one of the mayor's top aides, Emma Wolfe, on how to handle public relations issues.
The emails also show Rosen trying to get first lady Chirlane McCray to speak at events held by his clients and also recommending individuals for jobs within the de Blasio administration.
The city's court filings admit that Rosen has clients with business before the city and say that the 1,500 pages of emails released cover those communications except those in which "Jonathan Rosen or BerlinRosen employees are consulting with the Mayor's staff or the Mayor on issues of public policy in furtherance of the Mayor's policy agenda."
AKPD has no clients with business before the city, the filing claims, and neither does Gaspard who provided free advice "in his capacity as a close personal friend of the Mayor."
Gold's client, the Hotel Trades Council, endorsed de Blasio in the 2013 general election after supporting former Council Speaker Christine Quinn in the Democratic primary.
While both Baldick and Hyers have clients with business before the city, the only emails that were withheld were those discussing "public policy in furtherance of the Mayor's policy agenda," according to the filing.
The city's argument is in part based on a ruling from the city's Conflict of Interests Board that granted waivers to two de Blasio advisers to continue working with the mayor after leaving City Hall to go work for Hilltop, which ran the Campaign for One New York and associated groups, despite a one-year ban on doing so.
The board, which said such waivers are normally granted "sparingly, and only in exigent circumstances," nevertheless granted it because it said the Campaign for One New York was a nonprofit "partner" of the city.
Good government groups and experts questioned the ruling, which was first reported by DNAinfo New York. The entire episode showed how easily paid consultants moved in and out of de Blasio's City Hall, they said.
While declining to release certain, emails, city officials said they would allow the courts to review a sample of the emails they are not releasing.
But Lerner said all of the emails being withheld under the "highly problematic" agents of the city designation should be public.
"We don't believe there is a valid basis for withholding from public disclosure communications between the mayor and people outside the administration," said Lerner. "We look forward to the court clarifying this situation and, we hope, clearly instructing the mayor and his admin as to the scope of the Freedom of Information Law."