Behind-The-Scenes Ethics Board Seeks New Power

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A letter from the Conflict of Interest Board to Mayor Bloomberg allowing two members of his staff to use city offices to administer one of the mayor's private philanthropic ventures. While the COIB issues hundreds of these public waiver letters each year, hundreds of other ethics decisions are kept confidential so as to encourage public officials to seek the board's advice.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

A letter from the Conflict of Interest Board to Mayor Bloomberg allowing two members of his staff to use city offices to administer one of the mayor's private philanthropic ventures. While the COIB issues hundreds of these public waiver letters each year, hundreds of other ethics decisions are kept confidential so as to encourage public officials to seek the board's advice.

It was the classic story. She was the outgoing Department of Education bigwig who wanted to get a $1,000-a-day consulting gig to continue implementing a project she had designed. He was a New York City Fire Department electrician who had his heart set on a moonlighting arrangement with, of course, Avon makeup.

What brought them together?

In order to comply with city law, they both had to seek waivers from the city’s Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) before starting their non-city work. Those waivers—like hundreds of others each year—were made public.

But Joel Bondy’s business with the COIB is secret. In fact, we don’t even know if Bondy— until recently head of the city’s Office of Payroll Administration (OPA) and supervisor of the star-crossed CityTime project—had any dealings with the board.

As our Ali Winston first reported in 2008, Bondy came to city service in 2004 after working as a subcontractor for a company called Spherion—which happened to be in charge of “quality control” for the CityTime system. When someone at a City Council hearing asked about the connection, Bondy said he’d received confidential clearance from the COIB to oversee Spherion despite his former relationship with the firm.

This past December, six people associated with Spherion were arrested for allegedly embezzling $76 million from CityTime. Without naming Bondy, the federal indictment mentioned the close relationship between the company and the head of OPA. Bondy resigned.

Hoping to see Bondy’s purported clearance letter, City Limits sent a Freedom of Information Law request to COIB. The agency denied us, saying that by city law, it can neither confirm nor deny that it ever talked to Bondy about CityTime. COIB then turned down a City Limits appeal, arguing that the city charter trumps the state FOI law. Bondy himself didn’t respond to a request to release the letter. So amid one of the biggest alleged government-contracting scams to hit the city in a quarter century, there’s no way to know whether Bondy lied to the Council, or whether the city’s conflict of interest laws actually permitted his supervising a former employer who went on to allegedly rip the city off for eight figures.

The Conflict of Interest Board works out of an office north of City Hall decorated with posters from a Koch-era arts promotion and trinkets from New York’s East Asian sister cities. Normally operating in obscurity, the board recently has popped into the papers.

The Daily News’ March series on councilmembers’ finances relied in part on COIB reversing an earlier decision to conceal the street addresses of properties owned by Councilmembers. The New York Times in 2009 reported on the close ties between COIB members—who monitor hundreds of mayoral appointees and the mayor himself—and Mayor Bloomberg’s official and philanthropic activities. And after Bloomberg in 2008 got Ron Lauder’s support for the term-limits suspension by promising to appoint Lauder to a charter revision commission that would revisit the issue, good government groups complained that it was illegal for the mayor to use such an appointment for political gain. The COIB cleared the mayor’s conduct.

After Bloomberg finally appointed that charter commission (sans Lauder) in March 2010, the panel spent some time considering changes to the COIB itself. Many who testified before the commission wanted the board to have an independent budget, so that it was not dependent for its life-blood on the officials whom it regulates. The board sought subpoena power, so that it could run its own probes and not have to rely on the Department of Investigations. And good government groups wanted the comptroller and public advocate to appoint members of the COIB, which is now composed entirely of mayoral appointees.

In the end, the commission, pressed for time, met none of those requests. But it did propose—and voters approved last November—raising the maximum COIB fine from $10,000 to $25,000 per violation and requiring that all city employees get COIB ethics training.

After facing a small proposed budget cut in the mayor’s preliminary fiscal 2012 budget, the board is now slated to get a modest increase of $97,000. It’s not clear if that will be enough to fully perform the expanded education mission—it’s estimated that the board would need around $140,000 to hire staff to do the training.

But in a March interview, COIB chairman Steven Rosenfeld noted that the board and staff don’t have to hire “live” trainers to carry out the new mandate; they could instead use the Internet, or train staff at city agencies to do the training themselves.

Rosenfeld is hopeful, however, that the City Council will take up other parts of the board’s annual legislative wish list, which includes expanding the conflicts law to cover district attorneys and to apply to private citizens who induce public officials to violate the rules.

“Twenty years of experience have shown many areas that were vague or internally inconsistent as the law was drafted, have become out of date because there are things in it that don’t apply anymore or are incompatible with 20 years of board interpretation and practice,” he said. “All of these are totally uncontroversial.”

The COIB was created in the wake of the Koch administration scandals, and since then New York has avoided any major municipal corruption mess. But that doesn’t mean the conflict of interest laws are performing as well as they could.

“There is certainly a perception out there, and we hear this in the good government community, that low-level officials are not held to the same standard as high-level officials—that the focus is on low-level officials,” says Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy for Citizens Union.

High-ranking officials do get hit with fines sometimes, but someone looking for possible disparities could certainly find them. In 2010, for instance, the board fined a city clerical worker $1,700 for sending emails from her work account to help her brother’s singing career—a clear no-no. But in 2008, the board permitted Bloomberg’s $245,000-a-year first deputy mayor to make “incidental use of city resources” while helping to run the mayor’s personal foundation.

However it’s hard to draw broad conclusions about the board’s work because of the confidentiality that, possibly for good reason, surrounds much of it. Since it wants to encourage city officials to come to them for advice before they do something that violates the law, much of the COIB’s interaction with officials is never made public. The board received 599 written requests for advice in 2010. In 287 cases, the answer it gave to city employees was private—the kind of advice Joel Bondy may, or may not, have received. In 234 cases, the board issued public waiver letters to folks like the departing DOE official and the FDNY worker mentioned above. Waivers are issued in cases where the board decides that an employee’s act might violate the letter of city law (for example, a prohibition on working on city-funded projects within a year of leaving office) but not its spirit. Waivers are released so there’s a public record of deviations from the strict statute.

Private advice is offered when something a city employee wants to do is either in keeping with—or contrary to—both the spirit and letter of the law. Bondy’s letter, if it existed, might have said that his overseeing a former employer was A-OK because he no longer had any ownership interest in the company.

It might seem odd that a situation like Bondy’s could remain in the dark when simple moonlighting by city employees has to be revealed to the world. But the latter occurs because the conflicts law has a very broad anti-moonlighting clause. If nothing else, the waiver process reveals the hidden talents and fierce work ethic of hundreds of city employees, who—after their municipal day job—teach martial arts, write books, help nonprofits, instruct college kids and stock shelves at Home Depot.

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