Mayor Bill de Blasio treads an ethical fine line

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Call it the Bill de Blasio law of large numbers: Donate big to the causes of a mayor who has flirted with fundraising irregularities, and you might need a lawyer yourself.

The mayor, however, sails on just fine.

That’s what happened with Brooklyn businessmen Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, de Blasio donors who were charged in 2016 with involvement in corruption schemes. De Blasio provided access but was not charged.

The same situation unfolded for Long Island restaurateur Harendra Singh, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to attempting to bribe de Blasio for help with Singh’s Queens restaurant. In an ongoing federal public corruption trial on Long Island brought by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, Singh described getting help from de Blasio’s staff. But the U.S. attorney for the Southern District didn’t use Singh’s stories in a pay-to-play investigation of the mayor.

On Monday, NYC saw yet another example regarding lobbyist James Capalino and leaders of the animal-rights group New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets. They agreed to pay thousands in fines and settled with the state ethics board for alleged Lobbying Act violations regarding the mayor’s now-defunct nonprofit Campaign for One New York, which fought for de Blasio’s issues.

The ethics board’s inquiry into donations to the mayor’s nonprofit continues, but de Blasio appears safe from legal jeopardy: Local and federal prosecutors released statements last year declining to charge de Blasio.

That wasn’t absolution. Joon Kim, then the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District, noted that de Blasio “made or directed inquiries” on behalf of donors.

De Blasio eventually changed his fundraising practices, and the City Council strengthened some city disclosure and fundraising rules. All could be stronger.

But through it all, de Blasio has acted sanctimoniously. It’s true he was not accused of swaddling himself in personal gifts from donors, as is alleged of others in the Long Island case. Still, the attention paid by de Blasio’s administration to big donors’ problems is troubling. It might not have been illegal, but it’s still wrong when money buys access.

Correction: The original version spelled James Capalino’s name incorrectly.