LETTER FROM NEW YORK : Is it premature hope to think that the vigor with which Federal prosecutors reached a plea deal with Michael Cohen will translate into greater accountability of politicians in New York City Hall ? New York City Hall : 9 May 2007 (CC BY SA 3.0 by Momos)

As Federal prosecutors bring politically-sensitive cases in an election year, do New York City Hall and City Council find themselves in uncharted waters ?

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan reached a plea agreement in the Michael Cohen case weeks before the Democratic Party primary. Is the countenancing of political corruption coming to an end for significant Government officials ?

By Progress New York Staff

As the media discussed the likelihood that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan was investigating the personal financial affairs of Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney of President Donald Trump (R), the Associated Press invoked the possibility that Federal prosecutors would likely wait until after the Congressional midterm elections, seeking to avoid the spectre of bringing forth a criminal case that could have political reverberations in an election year. But that prediction fell flat on its face, when U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley III accepted Mr. Cohen’s plea deal on Tuesday, making public criminal accusations that implicated President Trump.

The political ramifications on President Trump have yet to be fully understood, but already the New York Times is speculating that President Trump has become vulnerable to impeachment by Congress. That Federal prosecutors brought forward the Cohen plea deal so near an election represents a stark reversal of “a ‘very important norm’ for the Department [of Justice] to avoid taking actions that could impact an imminent election.” Nevertheless, the fallout of the Cohen plea deal may soon collect dark clouds over New York City Hall, where politicians, notably Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), narrowly escaped prosecution in 2017, in part, in order to avoid political reverberations in the Municipal election cycle of that year then.

Is it premature hope to think that the vigor to reach a plea deal with Michael Cohen will translate into greater accountability of politicians, regardless of their significant roles in Government ?

To some Government reform activists, the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice tolerated political and lobbying corruption during election years essentially granted significant Government official legal immunity from Federal prosecution. This systemic countenancing of corruption has contributed to massive voter disgust and anger at the establishment politicians, who control the two major political parties, according to widespread activist sentiment.

Locally, advocates for Government accountability and reform point to the role of real estate money in Municipal and State politics as undermining the civic engagement of individuals, thus preventing elected officials from passing meaningful legislation to address social, legal, and economic issues confronting New York residents. On the issue on the unaffordability crisis, activists can cynically understand why residential tenants are no match for the entrenched real estate lobby, but some activists have apparently been dumbfounded to comprehend that the small business community has found itself essentially powerless to call for passage of a weak form of commercial rent control that is pending before the New York City Council, known as the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, or SBJSA. The Office of Mayor de Blasio last year released some records responsive to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, but none of the records showed any lobbying that advocates for the SBJSA say is what is keeping the draft legislation from passage. (The records do show how the press office supporting the Office of the Mayor, which at that time then included Jessica Ramos, was tasked to monitor media reports about the SBJSA.) Moreover, according to information obtained by Progress New York, some advocates for the SBJSA believe that New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) is allegedly engaged in the fabrication of opposition to the SBJSA in order to manufacture a legislative outcome on the bill that is acceptable to Big Money political donors.

The de Blasio administration is the subject of a Federal complaint filed with Federal prosecutors, alleging routine violations of FOIL. Not even the possibility that the entire City Government would be referred to Federal prosecutors for a pattern and practise violation of FOIL has prompted the New York City Council to produce Government records of communication between the Municipal legislative body and David Eisenbach. Mr. Eisenbach is a political candidate with close ties to Council Speaker Johnson and the head of the Friends of the SBJSA, a neoliberal group that some activists believe may be engaged in alleged efforts to weaken the SBJSA on behalf of powerful political or real estate interests. Some Government reform activists say that when Government can operate without any transparency, not only is corruption a likely outcome, but it is its toleration that undermines the public’s faith in Government institutions.

For this report, the press office servicing the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district refused to answer several advance questions submitted for their consideration.

Michael Blecher, the president of Politics Reborn, a group that advocates for political accountability and reform, was hesitant to proclaim the new-found prosecutorial activities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office as signaling a new crackdown on political and lobbying corruption, saying, in relevant part, “The system is as corrupt as ever,” asking, skeptically of the case against Mr. Cohen, “Who’s pulling the strings ? We know corruption is on both sides of the aisle.” Mr. Blecher noted that one of the criminal charges to which Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to, a campaign finance violation, was routinely observed in New York political circles, raising the possibility that Federal prosecutors have been acting situationally in the case against Mr. Cohen, saying, “How many people in New York would be indicted if they enforced that ?”

Another crime to which Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty was lying to a bank, a crime that carries with it the possibility of being sentenced to a maximum of 30 years in prison, amongst other penalties, according to the Cohen peal agreement submitted in Federal Court. To some Government reform activists, the fact that Federal prosecutors would place a greater priority on lies made by Mr. Cohen to a bank over lies made by Municipal politicians to the public means that expectations for greater accountability of New York City Hall may be prematurely hopeful, indeed.