In a reversal, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now planning to allow the city to pay roughly $2 million to cover the majority of his outstanding legal bills related to multiple investigations of his fundraising efforts.
De Blasio made the announcement in a blog post on Medium on Friday morning, just before the July 4 holiday weekend.
“A large portion of the bills — around $2 million — relate directly to my public service and decision-making in government," de Blasio writes in the blog post.
"I have been reluctant to ask taxpayers to shoulder the burden of my compliance with these reviews. But after giving this a great deal of thought, it has become increasingly clear that the most appropriate course of action is to let the City cover the costs for legal work tied to my government service, as it would for any of its employees in a similar situation,” de Blasio said.
The decision marks a significant change of heart for the mayor, who was always allowed to use city funds to pay any legal bills for his defense related to his government work, but who originally waved off that idea.
The city is already paying the roughly $13 million in legal fees for other city employees who were involved in the dual year-long state and federal probes into his fundraising, including an outside nonprofit group that backed his agenda, and an effort to topple the Republican majority in the state Senate.
De Blasio has long said those efforts had no bearing on the actions of his administration, as investigators probed whether the mayor and his aides had provided preferential treatment to those donors. The investigations concluded earlier this year without any charges being brought.
De Blasio had retained the services of high-powered law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis and Frankel for more than a year. The Daily News has reported that de Blasio’s lawyer from the firm, Barry Berke, charges $850 an hour.
In a surprise to some good government groups, de Blasio announced earlier this year that he intended to set up a legal defense fund to cover all of the costs related to his legal defense.
Critics immediately questioned how such a fund could be structured to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest like the ones that gave rise to the original investigations into the mayor’s fundraising.
And de Blasio’s plans for the legal defense fund were further constricted when the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board issued a ruling earlier this year prohibiting the mayor from accepting donations of more than $50 from almost every possible class of donor who might give to such a fund, making the task of fundraising to cover the millions of dollars in legal bills extraordinarily difficult.
De Blasio announced Friday that he still intends to set up a legal defense fund to pay a significant amount of his legal bills, for the costs of defense that weren’t related to his work as mayor.
“Legal bills related to some non-governmental work reviewed during the investigation will be paid for with private dollars donated to a legal defense fund. This fund will likely need to raise around $300,000 to satisfy my outstanding debt,” de Blasio said.
The Conflicts of Interest Board had argued in its ruling limiting de Blasio’s ability to raise money in increments larger than $50 that the city’s current law doesn’t make a distinction between gifts made to public officers and donations made to legal defense funds. Therefore, the board said donations couldn’t be larger than the dollar value public officers are currently allowed to receive as gifts.
In response, de Blasio raised the possibility of passing legislation that would distinguish gifts made to public servants through legal defense funds from other types of gifts. Some City Council members, such as Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, have said they would be willing to sponsor such legislation.
De Blasio raised the prospect of passing such legislation in his Medium post Friday, while also promising to fully disclose his donors and how much they donated.
“New York City lacks any realistic legal or regulatory framework allowing for the operation of such funds. Members of the City Council have expressed interest in establishing such a framework. I would support those efforts,” he said.
“While the Council’s legislative process would dictate the regulations surrounding these donations, there is no doubt that any fund assisting me will provide full disclosure to the public so that everyone can see who is contributing and how much they are giving,” he said.
“Employers have a legal and moral responsibility to cover the costs of representation when employees are doing their jobs, like we were. It’s true in the private sector and it’s true in government,” he said.
Read the full Medium post here.