Did fake donors give real money to Eric Adams? The FBI wants to know.

By | November 4, 2023

It’s a type of ploy that toppled New York’s lieutenant governor last year and derailed a leading Democratic candidate’s 2013 mayoral campaign: the use of so-called straw donors to funneling illegal contributions to candidates from secret sources.

Today, for the second time, Mayor Eric Adams’ campaign is being scrutinized for the same reason.

On Thursday, the FBI raided the home of Brianna Suggs, Mr. Adams’ main fundraiser, as part of an investigation According to a search warrant, his campaign received illegal foreign contributions from the Turkish government and Turkish nationals, disguised as coming from American donors who did not actually give their own money.

And in July, six men were indicted in Manhattan in a similar scheme, accused of funneling thousands of people to Mr. Adams’s campaign. Two brothers have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy in the case, and the media The City and other organizations have found additional inconsistencies in donations to the mayor’s campaign.

Neither Mr. Adams nor Ms. Suggs have been accused of wrongdoing, and Mr. Adams has denied knowledge of illegal contributions. But both investigations appear to focus on whether donors eager to get Mr. Adams’ attention sought to hide large donations by funneling them to straw donors — and who might have coordinated that effort .

“I am outraged and angry if anyone attempts to use the campaign to manipulate our democracy and defraud our campaign,” Adams said in a statement. “I want to be clear: I have no knowledge, direct or otherwise, of any improper fundraising activity – and certainly not of foreign money. We will of course work with officials to respond to inquiries where appropriate – as we always have.

The investigations also raise questions about whether Mr. Adams’ campaign properly vetted his donations to root out abuse. Andrew Yang’s rival 2021 mayoral campaign has asked two staffers to review donations over $100, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A lawyer for Mr. Adams’s 2021 campaign, Vito Pitta, said in an email that the campaign had worked to rigorously report and investigate any questionable contributions. Pitta said the campaign received more than 10,000 donations and worked to match handwriting and signatures, review donor affirmation forms and more.

“Immediately upon learning of the federal investigation, the campaign began a thorough review of all documents and actions of campaign workers related to the contributors in question,” Mr. Pitta said.

In New York, small donations are particularly attractive. A generous matching program provides $8 in public funds for every dollar donated. This turns the maximum donation of $250 into $2,250, a potential incentive for anyone looking to multiply their money.

“It’s probably the stupidest way to try to throw money into trying to influence a candidate,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “They are all reviewed by the Campaign Finance Board, which has the most thorough review and audit process in the United States. I think this is actually a sign of amateurism.

The city’s Campaign Finance Council is closely reviewing donations and looked into those earmarked for Mr. Adams’ first mayoral campaign.

Mr. Adams, a moderate Democrat and former police captain, has been involved in politics for decades, and his fundraising tactics have repeatedly pushed the boundaries campaign finance and ethics laws.

As a state senator, he became embroiled in scandal after a committee he led helped choose a supplier of video lottery machines to Aqueduct Racetrack.

And according to an indictment in the Manhattan case, a retired police detective who worked and socialized with Mr. Adams told a potential donor that Mr. Adams “doesn’t want to do anything if he doesn’t get 25 G” — a reference to the $25,000 minimum he was hoping for to attend a campaign fundraising event.

The early morning search of Ms. Suggs’ Brooklyn home was part of a vast public investigation into corruption. Ms. Suggs, 25, is part of the mayor’s inner circle and is close to Ingrid Lewis-Martin, Mr. Adams’s top aide and longtime confidante, who has played an active role in his and others’ campaigns.

The warrant suggested that foreign nationals made campaign contributions through a straw donation system.

The warrant authorized agents to seize evidence related to payments or reimbursements made to employees of KSK Construction Group in Brooklyn, “or to other persons acting as intermediaries for contributions to the Adams campaign from Turkish nationals.”

City campaign finance records reflect contributions to Mr. Adams’ first municipal campaign from 11 KSK employees, all on May 7, 2021, totaling nearly $14,000. Nine of the 11 were for the same amount of $1,250; most were eligible to earn campaign matching funds, records show.

A decade ago, then-city comptroller John Liu was a leading candidate for mayor when an investigation into his campaign revealed a scheme to funnel money through straw donors.

Two of his former associates were convicted under the program in 2013, including Jia Hou, a former Liu campaign treasurer in her twenties. Mr. Liu, who is now a state senator representing a district in Queens, was not charged, but his mayoral campaign never recovered and he finished fourth in the Democratic primary.

Last year, Brian Benjamin, then New York’s lieutenant governor, resigned after being indicted in what federal prosecutors described as a brazen scheme that appeared to involve straw donors.

Mr. Benjamin was accused of accepting thousands of dollars in illegal donations from a promoter for his 2020 state Senate campaign and unsuccessful bid for New York City comptroller in 2021, the indictment states. (A federal judge later dismissed corruption charges against Mr. Benjamin, but let stand two counts of falsifying records related to straw donations.)

Chris Coffey, a Democratic political strategist and Mr. Yang’s campaign manager, said donors don’t always understand that it is illegal to contribute money in someone else’s name.

“Donors often ignore campaign financing,” he said. “They think it’s like donating to charity where you can get your money back. This adds extra pressure to every campaign to make sure people know the rules.

Even though Mr. Adams knew details about potential donors to his campaign, he gave the impression that he was open to influence, said Mr. Kaehny of Reinvent Albany.

“There is great concern that the city is for sale and that New York has returned to the bad old days when pay-for-play and corruption were just part of political life,” he said. -he declares.

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