Growing Federal law enforcement interest in Queens County politics

Scrutiny of activities of Democratic Organization of Queens County now includes Council speaker race : source

By Progress New York Staff

Information being reviewed by Federal law enforcement about the activities of the Democratic Organization of Queens County includes the county political committee’s involvement in the recently-concluded speaker race for the New York City Council, according to a source.

The head of the county political committee, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), played a signficant role in selecting Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) as Council speaker. As reported, U.S. Rep. Crowley obtained the pledges from approximately 32 members of the New York City Council for a no-name, T.B.A. Council speaker of U.S. Rep. Crowley’s choosing before U.S. Rep. Crowley ultimately selected Councilmember Johnson to serve as Council speaker, according to media reports. Information about the selection was leaked to the media on 20 December 2017 — weeks before any Councilmember with authority to cast their votes had been sworn into office.

Requests for comment to the Federal prosecutors’ offices in both Brooklyn and Manhattan went unanswered, as did requests for interviews addressed to the offices of U.S. Rep. Crowley and Council Speaker Johnson.

The interest in the activities of the county political committee, based on separate instances of sourced information, suggests that the law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is engaged in information-gathering. As previously noted, the county political committee had been the subject of reports that attorneys with close associations with the county political committee were profiting from their relationship to the county political committee. Other reports have questioned the independence of the Queens County court systems due to conflicting personal, financial interests of county political committee leaders, members, or associates. In Queens, the county political committee exerts great sway in the selection of the Queens County district attorney and the justices and administrators serving in the Queens County court systems. Critics of the alleged undue influence of the county political committee on the Queens County court system have, for example, expressed concern that associates of the county political committee receive preferential treatment in civil litigation, which critics have alleged is a form of corruption. Another consequence of the alleged undue influence of the county political committee on the Queens County court systems include how Queens has largely resisted criminal justice reforms that have begun to be explored or adopted in other New York City court systems, such as in Brooklyn.

The nexus of land use, campaign contributions, and the centralisation of power by the Council speaker

Although the sources do not yet confirm issues about the county political committee that are of interest to Federal law enforcement about, the information gathering is taking place as concerns over public corruption and gentrification increasingly come to the fore in Queens

In New York City, there is no popular control over changes in land use. The method by which large real estate development projects typically get approved, the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP, denies the public any binding say in changes in land use, even in their own neighborhoods. The New York City Council possesses total power and authority over matters pertaining to changes in land use, leading to conditions where individuals with high risk attributes, such as public officials who have the power to pass legislation and approve land use changes, are able to receive political contributions from participants in the real estate industry, who are affected by changes in land use. U.S. Rep. Crowley raises significant amounts of contributions for his campaign committee and for his Super PAC from the real estate development industry, as does Council Speaker Johnson and other members of the City Council, notably amongst them, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Woodside).

Under these conditions, U.S. Rep. Crowley has proposed an affordable housing program that is supported by some participants of the real estate industry. Separately, Council Speaker Johnson recently announced that he would further diminish public participation in matters pertaining to land use by refusing to permit Councilmembers to reject large-scale real estate development projects in their respective Council districts. U.S. Rep. Crowley has not condemned Council Speaker Johnson’s bid to centralise power over land use. For this report, attempts to obtain responses from the offices of U.S. Rep. Crowley and Speaker Johnson have not been successful. In that past, Federal authorities pressed public corruption charges against former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) when it was alleged that his actions were benefiting some participants in the real estate development industry.

In the recently-concluded Municipal election 2017, Council Speaker Johnson, Councilmember Van Bramer, and others, were able to raise political contributions in excess of election cycle caps set by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, because they opted out of participating in the matching dollar campaign finance program designed to minimise the influence of money in politics. As shown, Council Speaker Johnson and Councilmember Van Bramer each raised in excess of $500,000 for last year’s election, even though neither Council Speaker Johnson nor Councilmember Van Bramer faced a primary challenger. Their respective campaign committees ended the election cycle with substantial surplus balances, demonstrating that the campaign fundraising was excessive and had no electoral purpose. Matthew Sollars, a spokesperson for the municipal campaign finance regulatory authority, said in a written statement that, “Post-election audits for all candidates in the 2017 elections are underway. The results of those audits will be made public as they are completed.”

Analysis performed by the campaign of Marni Halasa, a general election rival of Council Speaker Johnson, showed that Council Speaker Johnson received approximately 70 percent of his campaign contributions from donations of $1,000 or more and, of those donations, approximately 68% came from big business leaders, including from the real estate development industry.

For his part, Councilmember Van Bramer was reported to have received over $100,000, or approximately 20%, of his campaign contributions from individuals with ties to the real estate development industry, according to analysis performed by the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project. Of the $500,000 in donations raised by Councilmember Van Bramer’s committee to reëlect, only $2,000 (or <1%) was reported to have been bundled by intermediaries, demonstrating that Councilmember Van Bramer’s committee to reëlect was directly appealing to real estate executives in order to have been able to raise six figures in campaign donations from some participants in the real estate development industry. Further analysis showed that donations from real estate interests were clustered on certain dates. Because of the lack of transparency, it is not known how Councilmember Van Bramer’s committee to reëlect was able to coördinate the clustered raising of campaign contributions from real estate executives without the use of intermediaries. Councilmember Van Bramer ran for reëelction with support from the county political committee.

Clusters of donations from real estate executives without the reported use of intermediaries

The county political committee and gentrification in Queens

Councilmember Van Bramer has preëmtively announced an interest in campaigning in 2021 to become Queens Borough president. That office is responsible for sending land use change applications filed under ULURP to the City Council for final approval. Councilmember Van Bramer’s bid for borough presidency can only succeed with the support of the Queens Democratic county committee. Councilmember Van Bramer ended the 2017 election cycle with nearly $300,000 in surplus campaign contributions. According to news reports, Councilmember Van Bramer was sending urgent fundraising requests by e-mail to potential donors until just days before Election Day. The high-volume of surplus funds shows that Councilmember Van Bramer’s committee to reëlect engaged in excessive fundraising that had no purpose for the 2017 Municipal election cycle. For this report, the office of Councilmember Van Bramer did not answer an interview request.

As Queens faces an onslaught of gentrification, activists are expressing concern that county political leaders are promoting real estate development projects without the consent of their constituencies. Even as Council Speaker Johnson threatens to refuse to permit Councilmembers to reject large development projects in their respective Council districts, Councilmember Van Bramer has not expressly said he would defeat, for example, the disposition of City real property in Long Island City, the location of a project that is opposed by the community. At a recent rally, Councilmember Van Bramer said that the Government Agency responsible for the disposition of public parcel, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, an Agency that can be regulated by the New York City Council, was going to open the public parcel for bidding, despite community opposition, revealing how, by abdication, elected leaders refuse to use their powers and authorities to act in tandem with the consent of their constituencies on matters pertaining to land use.

The high-volume of surplus political donations shows excessive fundraising was done for no electoral purpose

State prosecutorial action to combat campaign finance irregularities

Because the U.S. Department of Justice has been subjected to political influence from the White House and because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling making it more difficult to charge officials with public corruption, the Office of New York State Attorney General has been taking a more aggressive approach to prosecuted cases of public corruption. Recently, State Attorney Eric Schniderman (D-New York) announced corruption charges against an elected official from Westchester County, Mayor Richard Thomas (D-Mount Vernon), demonstrating that even if the top Federal law enforcement Agency has become incapacitated, State prosecutors have authority to prosecute cases involving campaign finance irregularities.

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