Eric Adams Has a Secrecy Problem

Gunnar Larson g at
Fri Apr 14 06:36:55 PDT 2023

Mayor Eric Adams has declared “there is nothing more important” to him than
transparency, but when it comes to thorny issues like his personal taxes or
potential conflicts of interest within his administration, his record to
date is cloudy.

Last year THE CITY noted that tax forms he’d filed with the IRS in prior
years raised questions about whether he’d improperly written off repairs to
his personal apartment. In response, he promised to file amended forms and
make them public to clear the air.

To date he’s provided no evidence that he did that.

Then THE CITY discovered he’d failed to file the required gift tax form
over a co-op he claimed he’d “gifted” years ago to a friend. Again he vowed
all the required paperwork would be mailed out to the IRS pronto and
disclosed to New Yorkers.

Again he’s released no proof that he did what he promised to do.

On Tuesday, after initially saying he would not make his tax returns public
— even though mayors have done so for decades — Adams promised to release
“tax information.” He gave no date for doing so and declined to describe
what “information” he planned to release.

Then there’s Adams’ refusal to make public advice the city Conflicts of
Interest Board (COIB) has given his top appointees on potential conflicts
they face as city employees.

Incoming staff often request advice so they can avoid ethical pitfalls
involving prior employers or other relationships. Adams’ predecessor, Bill
de Blasio, for the most part publicly disclosed conflict-of-interest advice
letters sent to his top staff.

Adams, in contrast, refuses to do that, insisting that advice about
potential conflicts among top staff is private.

De Blasio also routinely updated a published weekly schedule of his
meetings with lobbyists, a protocol he implemented after criticism grew
regarding his interactions with lobbyists who represented donors to a
controversial nonprofit he once controlled, the Campaign for One New York.

As reported last month by PoliticoNY, Adams has said he has no intention of
posting any such list. To date he has not explained why.

John Kaehny, director of the non-partisan government ethics group Reinvent
Albany, said Tuesday Adams should release his tax forms and disclose any
Conflicts of Interest Board letters of advice sent to his top appointees to
assure the public that their interests are being properly represented by
City Hall.

“I’ve never heard that a person running for mayor or governor doesn’t say
they’ll be the most transparent ever,” he said. “Overall the top elected
officials have to be way more transparent about their finances than the
average person does because they have so much power. That’s part of the
trade-off: you get a lot of power, you have to have a lot of disclosure.”

‘Free Speech and Transparency’ Order
Before he arrived at City Hall, Adams spelled out his promised commitment
to public disclosure repeatedly. When he announced the appointment of
Brendan McGuire in December as his counsel, for example, he tweeted, “There
is nothing more important to me than accountability, transparency and
effective governance.”

A month into his tenure, Adams signed Executive Order 6 entitled
“Protecting and Facilitating Free Speech and Transparency.” Among other
things, the order enshrined the concept of full public disclosure and
stated, “A free society is best maintained when the public is aware of and
has access to government actions and documents, and the more open a
government is with its people, the greater the understanding and
participation of the public in government.”

Disclosure of personal tax forms is not required, but mayors dating back at
least to Ed Koch have made them public, albeit to differing degrees. Mike
Bloomberg, for instance, who was mayor but also a billionaire, heavily
redacted the forms he released to the press. The point was to allow the
public to get a clear picture of their mayor and his or her personal
financial interests and pressures.

In Adams’ case, past history indicates he has filed forms that raise more
questions than answers.

Adams’ tax-related questions center on the income he receives and the
expenses he makes as the owner of two Brooklyn properties. He owns a
townhouse on Lafayette Avenue and, in years past, co-owned a unit in a
co-op on Prospect Place.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams says he lives in a Bed-Stuy basement
apartment with his son, June 11, 2021.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams says he lived in a Bed-Stuy
ground-level apartment with his son, before moving to Gracie Mansion. |
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY
Last year, Adams promised to amend his filings over questions of whether he
improperly wrote off repairs for his own residence he claimed in the
Lafayette Avenue townhouse.

As THE CITY reported at the time, on forms he filed with the IRS from 2017
through 2019, Adams claimed he lived zero days at the address. To the
public, he claimed he’d been living there the whole time.

The filings appear to show that he wrote off repairs to the entire building
— including improperly writing off fix-ups of the apartment where he told
the public he was living. He blamed his accountant, and promised to update
the IRS. As of Wednesday, Adams had yet to produce documentation of such a

THE CITY also raised questions about his co-ownership of a Brooklyn co-op
that he wasn’t documenting on the annual financial disclosure forms he was
required to file as a state senator and then as Brooklyn Borough President.

Confronted about this, he claimed he’d actually given away his shares of
the co-op to the woman with whom he owned it. He provided a one-page letter
dated Feb. 9, 2007, as documentation of this, but THE CITY found records
indicating he was still listed as a co-owner well into 2021.

If he in fact gifted the property to his friend, he would be required to
file a gift tax form — but he admitted that he did not. After THE CITY
identified the omission, he promised to amend his prior forms, but as of
Wednesday he had yet to produce documentation that he had done so.

On Friday, Adams said “no” when asked if he’d commit to releasing his most
recent tax forms for 2021. On Tuesday he reversed course somewhat, saying
he now planned to release unspecified “tax information” at a non-specific
time in the future. He would not say if that would include his actual tax

Mayoral spokesperson Fabian Levy did not respond to THE CITY’s request to
see documentation of Adams’ promised amendment clarifying the apartment
repair write-offs in prior years and a gift tax filing regarding the co-op.
Levy told the New York Times that the mayor requested an extension on his
2021 filing last week as he was quarantining with COVID. That gives him
months to release whatever “tax information” he plans to release.

Norman Siegel, a veteran civil rights attorney and longtime advisor to
Adams, said the mayor should provide the requested documentation on prior
year filings, stating, “If any elected official says they’re going to
provide an amended complaint or form, you need to hold them accountable for

Siegel was at Adams’ side when the mayor announced his free speech
executive order.

He added that he was optimistic regarding the mayor’s promise to release
“tax information” about his latest filing. “I’m in favor of transparency,”
Siegel stated. “I’m hoping that Mayor Adams provides the tax information
consistent with prior mayors. It does now appear that he’s moving in that
direction. That’s positive.”

Refusal to Release Records
Another key issue is Adams’ refusal to disclose the advice letters the
Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) has provided to members of his cabinet to
guide them on how to avoid conflicts — a refusal that reverses the policy
of his predecessor, de Blasio.

When de Blasio first arrived at City Hall in January 2014, he made public a
COIB letter advising his newly appointed deputy mayor for housing, Alicia
Glen, who had left a job at Goldman Sachs where she’d made investments in
affordable housing projects. He also released a COIB letter for his new
Housing Commissioner Vicki Been, who had previously run a real estate think
tank at New York University called the Furman Center.

And de Blasio selectively released advice letters he himself received from
COIB over two issues: His solicitation of money from entities doing
business with City Hall for his non-profit, Campaign for One New York, and
whether he had to reimburse the taxpayers for his use of an NYPD police
detail during his brief and unsuccessful run for president.

When THE CITY requested the same kind of COIB advice letters for Adams’ top
level appointees, the mayor refused to turn them over. The City Hall legal
team argued that they were protected from disclosure under the
lawyer-client privilege, and were exempt from release under the Freedom of
Information Law as inter-agency communications.

Last week, THE CITY appealed that rejection and awaits City Hall’s response.

Recipients of these letters are free to release them if they choose. One of
Adams’ top appointees, Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn
Strauber, provided THE CITY with a copy of her own without hesitation.

The letter advised that her membership on the board of a nonprofit called
Publicolor, which has pending contracts with the city Department of
Education, could present potential conflicts.

During a February City Council hearing on her confirmation, Strauber said
she planned to resign from that position, stating, “I want to be very clear
in my views on this. I have resigned from or committed to resign from the
Publicolor...board in light of initial indications from the Conflicts of
Interest Board that that’s a complicated situation to manage given the many
touchpoints with the city.”

The COIB letter also made clear to her that she did not have to resign from
the board of a private school, but in the interests of eliminating all
appearance of potential conflict, she decided to step down from the
position, too.
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