U.S. Attorney Damian Williams became the fifth head of the Manhattan Federal prosecutors' office in as many years, following a period of unstable turnover in the office and a sense of a loss of faith in the U.S. Dept. of Justice. U.S. Attorney's Office/SDNY/Public Domain

Letter From New York : Ethical questions stemming from the Bill de Blasio-Eric Adams transition at City Hall serve up a first test for U.S. Attorney Damian Williams

Damian Williams was sworn in as the new U.S. Attorney to great fanfare. He faces a test with the Bill de Blasio-Eric Adams transition.


Updated 24 Jan 2022 13:36 When Damian Williams was sworn-in as the new U.S. Attorney for Manhattan’s Federal prosecutors’ office last October, his ascension was met with great fanfare, and not undeservedly. He made history as the first Black man to head that office.

An investiture ceremony followed a month later, featuring his new boss, who was also, in the way élites orbit each other, his former boss, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Also speaking at the ceremony was the man responsible for U.S. Attorney Williams’ appointment, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). Already a member of New York’s genteel, legal community of élites from Ivy League schools, Mr. Williams was taking the helm of SDNY, the acronym by which the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district is known. With a large legal staff, though lacking in diversity, SDNY brings forth some of the most complex civil and criminal cases in the Nation.

In remarks, Sen. Schumer spoke of the expectations facing Mr. Williams : “I’m confident he will confront wrong-doing in every form and pursue the facts without fear or favour as he rebuilds public confidence in an unbiased and professional Department of Justice and takes on the weightiest issues facing our society, like public corruption, financial crime, racial bias in policing, and gun violence in our communities.”

The press office supporting U.S. Attorney Williams declined to make him available for an interview.

As noted by Sen. Schumer, the rise of U.S. Attorney Williams took place as public confidence in the Government’s ability to hold people in power accountable for crimes, particularly corruption, has been shaken. After reports of politicisation, abuse of discretion, and bias by the former Trump administration, the Biden administration has not rushed to remake the U.S. ministry of justice.

Visit C’est Vrai for a sneak peak at advanced network analysis about Eric Adams .

Federal prosecutors apparently find corruption everywhere they look. But the role of money in politics remains constant.

Following the 2016 arrest of New York City correctional officers’ union head Norman Seabrook, then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said that, “We intend also to be as aggressive as ever in exposing corruption wherever we find it. And it is too bad that we seem to find it everywhere we look,” according to a report broadcast by the NPR public radio network. 

The kind of public corruption that occurs in New York State from Buffalo to New York City Hall doesn’t end when one governor resigns in disgrace or there is a changing of the mayoralty at New York City Hall.

Within months of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Hochul succeeding Andrew Cuomo as governor, her committee to reëlect had raised more money (in excess of $21 million) than former Gov. Cuomo had in reserves (in excess of $18 million) before he stepped down. As political bosses like to say in New York, “To the victor goes the spoils.”

Justice isn’t as independent as élites make it out to be.

Contrary to the illusion that SDNY is truly independent and “sovereign” from political influence, every U.S. Attorney must follow the Justice Manual, a set of uniform guidelines established by the U.S. Dept. of Justice. In the manual, Federal prosecutors must obtain the opinions of the Civil Division or Criminal Division heads in Washington under some conditions, notably for significant cases, and therein lies an opening for political meddling. Indeed, when then U.S. Attorney Bharara had been investigating the premature closure of the Moreland Commission, then Gov. Cuomo called the White House to complain, unsuccessfully, it turned out, about the Federal scrutiny he was facing at that time then. Whilst the Obama White House claimed the high road vis-à-vis Gov. Cuomo’s complaints, the White House had also made sure that the Justice Dept. never launched one major ethics investigation of the Obama administration.

The Justice Manual has been the subject of recent controversy over the removal of sections pertaining to press freedom and racial gerrymandering. Nevertheless, it guides Federal prosecutors.

A relevant section in the Justice Manual provides Federal prosecutors with the option of accepting a resignation of a Government official in order to settle or close a criminal investigation. That appeared to happen when Philip Banks III resigned as the top uniformed NYPD officer in 2014 after it was later revealed that he was the subject of a Federal wiretap warrant and a possible target of a wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation. 

Yet, the finality of the closure of that investigation was recently tested after Mayor Eric Adams (D-New York City) appointed Mr. Banks as deputy mayor of public safety, a position that would enbable Banks to work out of NYPD headquarters and oversee, in part, NYPD operations and policy. Mayor Adams didn’t stop there. Soon thereafter, Mayor Adams named his brother, Bernard Adams, to a top post within the NYPD, and the outrage was swift. But Mayor Adams’ response to the outrage was one of entitlement : He was the new political boss, and he viewed his power, authority, and discretion as absolute. 

That Mayor Adams signaled his authority as superseding ethics laws and rules will be a test for the new U.S. Attorney. For this report, a spokesperson for SDNY declined to answer questions about the ethical and legal conundrum being created by Mayor Adams.

An end-run around SDNY is the goal of politicial bosses.

Despite all of SDNY’s highfalutin rhetoric about its independence and mission, Sheelah Kolhatkar, in the New Yorker, notably drew attention to the shortcomings of SDNY, even under its former star top prosecutor. She pointed out that the insider trading cases brought by SDNY under then U.S. Attorney Bharara’s leadership didn’t provide “a redress for the actions of major banks and Wall Street firms that contributed to the financial crisis.” Likely political influence was noted in the essay, when then U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff said he believed that decisions were made in Washington about the limited cases that SDNY did bring against Wall Street.

Similarly, it could be argued, that a series of one-off cases brought by SDNY against public officials over Government and political corruption deliberately stopped short of a purge of the bossism and campaign corruption that is structurally part of Government in New York.

It’s not just the current New York City mayor, who is reportedly engaged in an end-run around the work of SDNY. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio (WFP-New York City) was a former target of a wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation. He recently set up a campaign committee to reportedly explore a run for the governor’s office. The campaign was all for naught, it turned out. Less than three months after news of the campaign committee’s formation came to light, former Mayor de Blasio pulled the plug on his run. But not before he raised over $800,000 in net donations. 

Former Mayor de Blasio is reportedly indebted by almost $1 million to several institutions, including an estimated $435,000 to a law firm, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, over his White Collar criminal defense in connection with the Federal campaign finance investigation. The wide-ranging, Federal corruption probe into then Mayor de Blasio’s campaign finance activities was closed in 2017 without the filing of charges. Despite protestations made by Mayor de Blasio — that he didn’t knowingly break the law — it was revealed that he was actually warned against engaging in wrong-doing, but he reportedly did it anyway. Then, he reportedly tried to prevent the release of the incriminating warnings, possibly raising another test for U.S. Attorney Williams. The SDNY press office did not answer questions submitted in advance for this report about Mayor de Blasio’s latest fundraising.

The same indignation expressed by then Gov. Cuomo at expectations that Federal investigations shouldn’t be politically undermined was similar to the haughty reaction by Mayor Adams at expectations of compliance with ethical rules against nepotism and was, in turn, not too dissimilar from the attitude by Mayor de Blasio when it came to expectations set by the Conflicts of Interest Board over the raising of political donations from individuals and corporations doing business with the City of New York. Collectively, their actions made it clear that they thought that, as political bosses, the rules didn’t apply to them.

Each of Gov. Cuomo (the Committee to Save New York), Mayor de Blasio (the Campaign for One New York), and Mayor Adams (One Brooklyn Fund) have also run political committees that appeared to flout the rules, but apparently not so severely to face accountability. Seemingly, there is an end-run around SDNY oversight available to significant Government officials at every turn. 

As public safety and public campaigns are engulfed in questionable ethics, U.S. Attorney Williams can claim for himself the prestigious domain of coddling political bosses whilst maintaining the careful pretense of justice.