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Not one but three journalistic investigations of BP Adams's charity shows dubious practices (self-promotion, entanglement with real-estate projects)

So the New York Times today has a deep dive on Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams's relationship with donors, How Eric Adams, Mayoral Candidate, Mixed Money and Political Ambition, which sounds a lot like a deep dive the Times did on his predecessor, Marty Markowitz. 10/24/11, From Brooklyn Office, Mixing Clout and Charity.

It's unfortunate that such investigations--which rely not only on significant reporting chops but access to documents that are not simply online--come so late in their administrations. (As noted below, The City and Politico previously published their own investigations.)

After all, this comes after numerous institutional endorsements of Adams, which can of course be transactional, as well as a full-throated New York Post endorsement of him, and a second-place nod from the New York Daily News. While the latter did cite his "entanglements" with those doing business, both should have had to reckon more with his record.

And it's confounding that Adams--who refused to be interviewed, a not atypical tactic for him, instead issuing a statement--claimed that "Black candidates for office are often held to a higher, unfair standard — especially those from lower-income backgrounds such as myself."

It's confounding because Markowitz got similar treatment. And it's disturbing because it wouldn't be the first time that Adams had invoked race to court supporters and resist hard questions, such as his defense of scofflaw nightclubs.

The Times's evidence

The Times details how his "fund-raising has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of campaign-finance and ethics laws," such as a fund-raiser from real estate developer David Schwartz, whose Slate Property Group, just happened to get Adams to endorse a zoning change for a project in Downtown Brooklyn.

Those advisory opinions can be strategic--Adams sometimes supports with conditions, asking for concessions (which may well be baked into proposals) rather than oppose projects, such as with the 80 Flatbush project.

But the key here is that Adams's campaign didn't properly disclose Schwartz as an in-kind contributor or an intermediary and nor did his advisory opinion "disclose his fund-raising relationship with Mr. Schwartz." The City Council later approved Slate’s rezoning.

The Slate executive was one of at least three donors receiving the borough president’s endorsement for zoning changes against the wishes of community boards. The others were also later approved by the City Council.

Other details

The Times notes that two lobbyists who influence him "sit on his nonprofit’s board, and a third was recently hired as a campaign consultant." 

And it finds his defense of his role in an Aqueduct racino contract dubious, since newly disclosed document show that bidders were invited to a fund-raiser.

Adams's One Brooklyn makes him the only one of the city’s current borough presidents with a nonprofit that raises private money, mixing of course with politics.

And while it must certify that it spends no more than 10% of funding on communications boosting Adams, he found a workaround: using the money to publicize One Brooklyn’s events and thus himself. See cover at right.

Note that that One Brooklyn publication is published by Schneps Media, which controls the lion's share of neighborhood media in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Paper, Brownstoner, Courier-Life, Caribbean Life) and the Metro/amNY, as well as other publications. Let's not expect a lot of investigative reporting from them.

And though One Brooklyn claims that it can't solicit or accept donations from anyone with a “particular matter” pending before them, "the nonprofit appears to have done so," the Times reports.

The real-estate connection

As with Markowitz, the nonprofit allows donors to offer far more support than they could via campaign finance:
Jed Walentas, who runs the development firm Two Trees Management, is limited to $400 in campaign contributions per election cycle, because he is on the list of people doing business with the city. But Mr. Walentas’s family foundation has given One Brooklyn $50,000, records show. (Mr. Adams’s campaign has also received at least $24,000 from other donors solicited by or connected to Mr. Walentas.)

For his part, Mr. Adams championed a $2.7 billion streetcar plan that Mr. Walentas has promoted through a group he founded, Friends of Brooklyn Queens Connector Inc. The streetcar, Mr. Adams tweeted in 2018, “has real potential to be one of those solutions for our disconnected waterfront.” The project stalled, and Mr. Adams has recently distanced himself from it in the glare of the mayoral race.

The borough president is also in line to issue an opinion on a rezoning request for Two Trees’ next big project, River Ring, a pair of apartment and commercial towers with a waterfront park in Williamsburg

Mr. Adams, in a recent interview, said he was already “extremely impressed” with the way the Two Trees plan had taken account of rising sea levels. “This is how we need to start thinking,” he added. Mr. Walentas declined to comment.
Hmm. That reminds me somehow of what he said in 2013 about affordable housing: "We need to look at what Bruce Ratner is doing, with his great, really cutting-edge, trying to build up using pre-fab housing, can we do this throughout in the borough of Brooklyn, and can we encourage others to do that as well."

At that point, I considered it not implausible that modular housing might be a solution, but noted that Adams looked past the failure to meet the promises in the Atlantic Yards Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding, as well as the lack of a promised Independent Compliance Monitor.

And, of course, we now know that the modular housing was a failure.

Note that the One Brooklyn Fund also includes on its board Two Trees' David Lombino and also Winnie Greco, a Bronx resident who serves in the questionable role as liaison to Brooklyn's Chinese community.

Threading the needle?

From the Times:
And while he has come out in favor of a number of his donors’ projects, and of development in general, he has decried the gentrification that has displaced longtime residents and businesses.

Go back to Iowa,” he said in remarks directed at newcomers during a January 2020 event in Harlem. After the comments drew criticism, Mr. Adams tried to clarify: He said he welcomed people from elsewhere but wanted them to invest in their new neighborhoods.

Previous investigations

The City on 4/18/21 published Eric Adams’ Campaigns and Nonprofit Reaped Big Bucks from Lobbyists and Developers Seeking Help, quantifying how "the Brooklyn borough president netted up to $322,750 in contributions from favor-seekers — including some banking on the controversial Gowanus rezoning plan."

Notably, real estate lobbyist Ethan Geto, whose clients are involved in Gowanus, sits on the board of the One Brooklyn Fund, and his "firm, Geto & de Milly, created and manages the nonprofit’s website."

The response:
Asked about the donations, Adams’ campaign responded with a statement late Sunday: “Thousands of New Yorkers are supporting Eric’s campaign for mayor because they share his vision for the city and believe he is the candidate to lead us out of this crisis. In no way do contributions to the campaign or One Brooklyn affect the borough president’s decisions as a public official.”
The article notes that the "city Department of Investigation has twice looked at One Brooklyn’s fundraising, issuing critical findings in 2014 and 2016"--not much more than a slap on the wrist, actually.

The article notes how Two Trees got support from Adams "to put artificial turf in at its about-to-open condo development at the former Domino site" in Williamsburg. 

It quotes Adams' spokesman as saying Adams "had declined to back" the Two Trees-supported BQX streetcar, though, as noted above, Adams rather changed his tun.

And Politico 4/22/21 published How Eric Adams’ official charity boosted his profile ahead of mayoral run, with this summary:
Since assuming the role of borough president in 2014, Adams has had designs on the top job at City Hall. And in the intervening years, he has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ethical gray area where charity and self-aggrandizement intermingle — with fundraising practices that have drawn the scrutiny of investigators and good government groups.
It's retail politics:
The annual soirees allow Adams to hold forth from the lectern, give out awards to business owners and prominent community members — a handful of whom later donated to his campaign — and pose for grip-and-grin photos with honorees. It is a formula the charity has often repeated.

Throughout the year, One Brooklyn hosts cultural events at Borough Hall that have included celebrations of Latino, Caribbean and Russian heritage along with Black History month. Registration documents filed with the state show that more than a third of the organization’s time is spent working on these gatherings, the biggest single component of its mission.
And then there are groups that rent Borough Hall. A quote from Common Causes's Susan Lerner: “You should not be paying a charity that is under the control of an elected official for the use of a public facility."

Another connection

A Wall Street Journal profile today, NYC 2021 Mayor's Race: Adams Pins Campaign to Public Safety, reports:
He credits a mentor, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry of Brooklyn's House of the Lord Church, for encouraging him and about a dozen other young Black men in the mid-1980s to become police officers and help fight what the pastor said were systemic racist practices in the NYPD.

"I told Eric one way to change things is work from within the system," Rev. Daughtry said. "We all can't be outsiders, screaming, marching and making noise. Somebody had to be on the inside."
So that relationship is one reason--not that he needed one, since it boosts his profile--helps explain why Adams has hosted grant ceremonies involving the Atlantic Yards/Nets/DBNA Foundation, incorporating the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, chaired by Daughtry, and with his daughter Sharon Daughtry as executive director.