Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rode into office on a wave of populist anger—buoyed in no small part by promises of transparency—has denied an open-records request from local news channel NY1 for emails between his office and a high-powered political operative Jonathan Rosen, whose consulting firm BerlinRosen is deeply entwined with his administration.
Good government groups have accused de Blasio of operating a “shadow government” through a network of former aides and associated non-profits that operate outside City Hall to support his agenda. In a letter to NY1, a city lawyer referred to Rosen as “a consultant to the Mayoralty,” which supposedly conveys the same privilege of confidentiality granted to actual City Hall staff. Normally, emails between city officials and people outside of City Hall are presumed to be public.
“It’s disappointing to see the mayor, whose whole persona in government is about doing it for the people and being transparent about it, and to be relying on a legal analysis from some lawyer about whether this consultant’s communications are protected is ridiculous,” Dick Dadey, of the Citizens Union group, told NY1. “Just disclose.”
Communication between City Hall and Rosen is of particular interest, as Rosen and his firm’s interests are so closely aligned with the mayor’s own. “We have real questions about the role of outside consultants advising elected officials who have public staff to provide them with strategy and communication ideas,” Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York said last year, after NY1 reported that Rosen had attended 20 meetings with the mayor. “When you substitute private influence or privately paid advisors, you lose the public.”
In 2013, the de Blasio campaign paid BerlinRosen $275,000 to help get the mayor elected; in 2014, Campaign for One New York (a now-defunct non-profit lobbying group run by former de Blasio campaign staffers that happens to be under federal investigation) paid BerlinRosen more than $425,000.
At a hearing on political disclosure regulations for nonprofits in 2013, de Blasio, then public advocate, testified against the influence of “shadowy nonprofit organizations” that pose “not only a threat to our democracy but also to the integrity of our nonprofit sector.” Last year, Campaign for One New York, which focused on local issues, granted $480,000 in seed money to the Progressive Agenda Committee, de Blasio’s other (national) nonprofit.
At a press conference today, de Blasio said, “We do everything with high ethical standard, we have a lot of transparency,” and referred to Rosen as an “agent of the city.” Maybe, but then again Rosen is presumably also an agent of the clients his consulting firm works for, many of whom frequently interact with city government—like real estate developers Two Trees Management, Forest City Ratner, and the Durst Organization.
Setting aside the fact that Rosen is not actually an employee of New York City, even if he were somehow deputized (or whatever it is that the de Blasio administration is implying is happening here), there is very little reason to believe that emails between the mayor, his aides, and this so-called agent of the city would not include, for example, “factual data” or “instructions to staff that affect the public”—about which the public is entitled, by law, to know.