NY1's Courtney Gross has been doing some digging and looking at all of the mayor's nonprofit groups and how they have been selling his agenda for the past two years. She filed the following report.
Even before Bill de Blasio was sworn in as the 109th mayor of New York, his political operatives set up The Campaign for One New York.
Campaign was a fitting title.This nonprofit group was an extension of de Blasio’s political operation, which had just won a grueling race for mayor less than six weeks earlier.
And there would be more. Up until this April, there were three groups created to defend or push the de Blasio agenda. They are all nonprofits and closely tied to his 2013 political operation.
Two of the groups were funded in whole or in part by the mayor’s original nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which is now the subject of a federal investigation, raising questions if there’s any quid pro quos to donors.
Since they were formed, observers have raised questions about whether these entities ran afoul of the city's campaign finance and conflicts of interest laws.
"It's an end run around our campaign finance laws, and it sets up a shadow government not accountable to the people," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York.
"There was nothing like the Campaign for One New York, and there was nothing like the solicitations that went on here in the Giuliani administration," former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro said.
Interviews with those familiar with the mayor's nonprofit network reveal its purpose was to deflect attacks against the mayor and promote him on a national stage.
Two of the groups are in the process of being shut down. The Progressive Agenda is now a shell of an organization with no employees and an unclear direction.
"We believe that the work that was necessary to do got done. I am very proud of that fact,"
The Campaign for One New York would raise unlimited sums of cash so it was prepared to defend the mayor against deep-pocketed interests during the first two years of the administration. But a source close to the campaign tells NY1 the plan was to shut it down before de Blasio's 2017 re-election campaign kicked off to avoid any issues with the city's Campaign Finance Board.
It focused on universal pre-kindergarten to start, pushing the idea the mayor was a champion of early childhood education. It was a success, and de Blasio won the funding for the program from Albany.
Behind the scenes, the Campaign for One New York, sometimes referred to as UPKNYC, was collecting thousands of dollars in donations from people who had business with the city.
"Investigative entities can investigate anything, anytime," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "And he has put his all into doing things like affordable housing, pre-kindergarten. and I am sure it ruffles feathers when he does that."
The American Federation of Teachers, the parent of the city’s local teachers' union, was one of the first donors to the nonprofit. It gave $350,000. It's now ensnared in the investigation into the mayor's fundraising.
"We have been asked questions by the authorities, and we have said we will cooperate fully by the authorities," Weingarten said. "We were pretty transparent about the donation when it was made."
The mayor, all along, has said the group did nothing wrong.
"Everyone has a right to judge, but I want you to look very carefully at what these resources were supporting. They were supporting progressive change," de Blasio said in April. "There is a lot of money out there that's trying to hold back progressive change."
All told, the Campaign for One New York collected $4.3 million in donations, directing millions of dollars to the mayor's favorite political operatives. $500,000 to his preferred communication firm, BerlinRosen. $284,000 to the firm of his former campaign manager. And almost $1.4 million to the media company that helped sweep him into office.
It did not end there. Cue the Progressive Agenda.
"Something is changing in America. It is time to take that energy and crystallize it into an agenda that will make a difference," the mayor said on May 12, 2015.
In early 2015, the mayor's campaign decided to go national, the intent being to influence the 2016 race for president and raise the mayor's profile across the country.
This group was run by many of the same people behind the Campaign for One New York, albeit with far less success.
The mayor headed to Iowa in April 2015 and promised to host a presidential forum before the Iowa caucuses, which never got off the ground.
NY1 discovered this week that only one contribution came into the nonprofit in 2015 - what insiders call seed funding - from the Campaign for One New York. It set up a website and a social media campaign. Of the $480,000 it started with, at the end of 2015, there was only $32,000 left.
It currently has no employees. The executive director is gone.
In a statement, a spokeswoman told NY1, "As it goes through this transitional phase, The Progressive Agenda does not have staff right now and is not raising money. TPA does have an impressive core of progressive leaders who support a common agenda that when it is enacted, will restore fairness to our economy and improve the lives of working Americans. Next steps will be announced in the future."
But as the Progressive Agenda was struggling, another nonprofit was starting, infused with money from the Campaign for One New York and hundreds of thousands of dollars from some of the city's most powerful unions. It was called United for Affordable NYC.
It shared something else with the Progressive Agenda: a treasurer, Lora Haggard.
It ran ads in the lead up to a controversial vote on the mayor's affordable housing agenda.
Officials at the Campaign for One New York insist the affordable housing group was not their idea. The unions started it to run a six-week campaign to push the mayor's affordable housing agenda to the City Council. But it was also a place for the Campaign for One New York to drop $150,000 in revenue as it began to shut down.
"Feeling that the first organization was problematic, having more problematic organizations was not a good thing," Lerner said.
Of course, that's over now. These groups are closing or virtually defunct. And last week, the mayor had his first major fundraiser for his 2017 bid for re-election.