De Blasio Defends Letting Private Consultant Sit In On Housing Policy Meetings

"There are people who are longstanding friends and colleagues and advisers. I'm not going to ask them to stop being friends and advisers because they happen to have clients."

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Inside City Hall.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Inside City Hall. Screengrab/NY1

Mayor Bill de Blasio asserted last night that there was no legal or ethical problem whatsoever with his decision to have a private consultant who represents numerous real estate interests sit in the room while members of his administration discussed his vast rezoning proposals.

The claim came during his weekly “Mondays with the Mayor” segment on NY1, in response to a question from host Errol Louis about the tranche of emails the administration dumped on the eve of Thanksgiving in partial compliance with the station’s Freedom of Information Act request. The messages that revealed Jonathan Rosen—the co-founder of the political consulting and lobbying firm BerlinRosen—had taken part in meetings about the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, an initiative that successfully changed building regulations citywide. NY1 and the New York Post have taken the mayor’s office to court to force it to cough up its correspondence with five outside advisers, including Rosen—and de Blasio’s lawyers have insisted such exchanges are privileged since the consultants all qualify as “agents of the city.”

The mayor reiterated that his administration had cleared all aspects of Rosen’s participation with the city Law Department.

“Everything was first discussed with the City Hall lawyers,” he said. “All of the structures were set up with legal guidance, and with an explicit understanding that we were going to avoid any conflict.”

BerlinRosen’s website lists a number of top developers among its clients, including Two Trees, SL Green and Forest City Ratner—all companies whose principals have either given directly to the mayor’s campaigns, or donated to his defunct “shadow government” political nonprofits, most significantly the Campaign for One New York. BerlinRosen also handled communications for the Campaign for One New York, and for de Blasio’s own election and re-election efforts.

In spite of this tight web of connections, the mayor maintained today that he and Rosen had a completely ethical and legal agreement that they would never discuss the company’s lobbying business.

“Jonathan Rosen’s never talked to me, since I’ve been mayor, about a client,” he said. “His advice was absolutely welcome, but that there had to be a division in terms of not representing his clients to me. And we stuck to that.”

De Blasio also justified the activities of the Campaign for One New York, now the subject of a federal probe, asserting he had gotten the prior approval of the city Conflict of Interest Board and that the nonprofit had proved crucial to promoting the “laudable goals” of universal prekindergarten and affordable housing. The city Campaign Finance Board determined in July that the Campaign for One New York’s activities had skirted along the outermost boundaries of legality under municipal regulations.

“I have the mandate of the people, Errol, to pursue universal pre-K, to pursue affordable housing. That’s what my campaign was all about,” he said, defending one message from his fundraiser Ross Offinger, which included a list of big name real estate figures he intended to hit up for cash. “It’s a list of people who are major voices in the business community who we were trying to get support form on these issue campaigns—on pre-K, on affordable housing. Which is something that every administration does.”

“That’s normal and absolutely acceptable,” he continued.

Bizarrely, de Blasio at one point during the segment argued that the late Mayor Ed Koch set a precedent for the Rosen relationship in his infamous dealings with city political bosses—prompting Louis to point out that those liaisons led to the “city for sale” scandals that wrecked Koch’s third term and landed several of the powerbrokers in jail.

The mayor also insisted that Rosen’s presence as the only private sector figure at internal meetings did not give any member of the administration the impression that his clients must receive special treatment.

“There are people who are longstanding friends and colleagues and advisers. I’m not going to ask them to stop being friends and advisers because they happen to have clients,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to be very clear that we’re not going to favor anybody because of a personal relationship, and that’s been a clear standard.”

“I would not overrate the role of any adviser. They don’t set the policy. I set the policy,” he added.

De Blasio Defends Letting Private Consultant Sit In On Housing Policy Meetings