Nothing says “commitment to transparency” like dumping a cache of long-sought public records the night before Thanksgiving. But that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio did last week, when he released a trove of emails between his administration and Jonathan Rosen, a public relations specialist who the mayor considers a close confidante.
The more than 1,500 pages of exchanges, sent between Rosen and administration staff in 2014 and 2015, show that the PR man was intimately involved with day to day operations at City Hall, providing input on communications, monitoring news coverage of the mayor’s key initiatives, and siting in on major policy discussions.
The mayor discussed the release with Errol Louis on his regular “Mondays with the Mayor” segment last night, and if the conversation seemed a little uncomfortable, it’s because NY1 has been suing the administration for access to those very same emails.
Louis asked the mayor if having Rosen in the room presents the possibility that his clients could gain an inside track.
“Even if it’s not a face to face meeting with you, [Rosen and members of his firm are] dealing with lots people in the city,” Louis said. “And that carries with it the imprimatur of ‘this is the mayor’s good friend who sat in the policy meeting when the policy was developed, and now here comes the firm calling on behalf of these private sector clients.”
Mayor de Blasio insisted that having a consultant with clients in the private sector involved in the intimate details of the administration was not only par for the course, but didn’t represent any conflict of interest.
“I can separate out that people can have more than one world view,” de Blasio told Louis. “We all do, right? There’s plenty of people out there that you value their advice, but you know they have a particular field that they’re in, or a particular organization they work for. That doesn’t mean you can’t take their advice and note where that line is.”
The email dump last week suggests that Rosen was virtually a member of de Blasio’s staff, involved in everything from housing policy to PR enforcer. One email from Rosen to consultant Patrick Jenkins, dating from 2014, mentioned an op-ed penned by a local educator critical of the mayor’s universal pre-K initiative, and received a pretty stern response. “Heads are rolling,” Jenkins replied to Rosen. “Unsanctioned piece. Will call.”
At other times Rosen seemed to offer ideas for publicity plays. In March of 2014, Rosen suggested sending De Blasio into the nosebleed seats at a Nets game might earn some good press: “What about him and Dante buying cheap regular guy tix up in the stands to watch and he tweets etc.”
De Blasio has for months been arguing that Rosen and four other politically connected men are “agents of the city” — advisors so trusted and integral to his administration that they’re essentially staff members, and thus exempt from the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), despite being employed by private sector firms.
That particular term — “agents of the city” — appears nowhere in FOIL, and the mayor’s refusal to turn over communications from Rosen and the others has grown into a controversy that’s dogged him for months.
Good government groups say that consultants who aren’t actually employed by the city don’t deserve the confidentiality that public servants do. (A whole lot of case law would suggest they’re right.) And the fact that the five men earn their money in the private sector could create conflicts of interest. Rosen, for one example, represents a range of real estate interests in his role as principal at PR firm BerlinRosen. Common Cause New York has called the mayor’s team of quasi-consultants a “shadow government,” and NY1, along with the New York Post, are trying to get the administration to cough up their communications.
The cache of emails released last Wednesday represent something of a concession by the administration, but are nonetheless heavily redacted. The redactions were made to the communications, according to the Times, based on the theory that some qualify as “deliberative” intra-agency communications. Unlike the fictitious “agents of the city” designation, the intra-agency exemption is an honest-to-god provision of FOIL, designed to protect communication between some city employees. But of course Rosen and the “agents” aren’t city employees.
The Voice earlier this year also requested access to the five men’s communications, and also had our request denied. After an appeal process, longtime civil rights attorney Norman Siegel sought, on the Voice’s behalf, an advisory opinion from Committee on Open Government, the state’s FOIL watchdog, which rejected the mayor’s ploy.
“The records cannot be withheld based on the rationale offered,” the COOG wrote in its opinion signed by executive director Robert Freeman.
The COOG opinion cites a lawsuit against the Bloomberg administration, Hernandez v. Office of the Mayor of New York City, in which the courts rejected an argument similar to de Blasio’s. That case challenged Bloomberg’s withholding of details of his communications with Cathleen Black, who was then a nominee for chancellor of the New York City schools. A 2012 decision in the New York Court of Appeals determined that because Black was only a nominee at the time, and not an employee, her communications weren’t privileged. (That lawsuit involved then–Village Voice reporter Sergio Hernandez.)
De Blasio on NY1 emphasized that the arrangement had been cleared by administration lawyers, and his staff insist that they’re doing their best to be as transparent as possible. “We’ve carefully re-reviewed all of the documents and have expanded our disclosure to make sure that we haven’t missed anything,” Eric F. Phillips, the mayor’s press secretary, said in an email to the Times.
Despite the administration’s assurances, the recent release won’t put the lawsuit to rest. A spokesperson for NY1’s parent company Charter said that for now, “the public records lawsuit is still in progress.”