Who’s out to get Rep. Joe Crowley?

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Rep. Joseph Crowley

Who’s out to get Rep. Joe Crowley?

Who’s out to get Rep. Joe Crowley?
July 7, 2017

There’s been a steady stream of negative stories about Rep. Joseph Crowley in the local press in recent months, and those with an ear in politics and an eye on the papers have noticed – with some speculating that the Queens Democrat’s political enemies are trying to tarnish his reputation. 

The spring of Crowley stories seems to have started flowing on April 2 with a Daily News story on Queens County Democratic Party officials with ties to Crowley raking in millions in Surrogate’s Court fees. A week later, City & State’s Gerson Borrero reported that Jewish leaders weren’t happy with Crowley’s leadership of the Queens Democrats. On April 12, the Observer reported that Crowley family members were getting appointments and payments from the county Supreme Court – a sketchy but not illegal practice, which Queens Patch and the New York Post picked up on the next day.

The Post was back on it May 10 (with a next day follow-up and a Monday editorial), reporting that Crowley was paying his brother with campaign funds to rent office space outside his district. Days later, the Post found that Crowley’s campaign had been paying its treasurer’s son for odd jobs since he was 14. Neither of the payments appeared to be illegal, but both stories included wary quotes from ethics watchdogs. Sample: “This, without a doubt, raises red flags about conflicts of interest.”

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More still: a May 18 Village Voice story about Crowley’s Queens County Democratic Party allies making a killing off foreclosures. A May 24 Post story about Crowley funding a project represented by his brother’s lobbying firm. The Post noted the trend of bad stories in a May 26 editorial, but the news didn’t stop there.

A June 12 Post story about a state investigation of Crowley’s treasurer – allegedly launched thanks to the Post’s earlier reporting. A June 14 Gotham Gazette story about Crowley’s power over a local court system that has largely shut out lawyers of color. A June 19 Village Voice story about Crowley’s rise to power and a newly-announced candidate hoping to challenge Crowley from the left in 2018.

The latest reports come from City & State’s Borrero, who reported rumors on June 19 that some Queens Democrats want Crowley to step aside, and on June 26, that some think Crowley has not been vocal enough in defending House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi against calls for her to step down.

All together, there have been at least a dozen separate issues reported over the last three months, with some of the stories twisting and turning around each other, building on past reporting and concerning the same topics. This sort of consistent, negative press coverage could just be a consequence of Crowley’s growing prominence in Washington, or the result of a competitive press corps digging at the same hole. But some insiders said that political enemies could be handing meaty stories to reporters, hoping the feeding frenzy will help take down the powerful Queens congressman.

Crowley has served in Congress since 1999, but his power extends beyond his district. He’s led the Queens Democratic Party since 2006, where he holds significant power in launching the careers of politicians and judges. And at the beginning of this year, he was named House Democratic Caucus chairman, making him the fourth-ranked Democrat in the House, and is regularly named as somebody who could replace Pelosi as leader.

“The danger for Crowley, who’s in line to be the speaker of the House, is that he gets smeared,” said one political insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Whoever his enemies are, they want to stop it.”

The insider also noted that the string of negative stories is coming as the race for New York City Council speaker heats up. The speaker is elected by the Council members, and county leaders like Crowley have traditionally played outsized roles choosing the speaker.

Another insider said there’s definitely somebody spilling information to reporters about the Queens courts. The intricacies of the system are confusing and only somebody involved would likely know where to point reporters.

But Ross Barkan, freelance reporter who contributes to City & State and wrote the first story for the Daily News said he didn’t get the idea for his story about Crowley allies making millions off the Surrogate’s Court from an inside source.

“As a former Queens Tribune reporter, I had long been interested in doing investigative work about the borough's political scene,” Barkan said. He got a CUNY Urban Reporting Grant to work on the story and, with the help of veteran journalist Tom Robbins, who manages the grant program, “decided to tackle Surrogate’s Court, which is rife with patronage.” 

Reporters have covered patronage at the Surrogate’s Court a number of times over the years, including an investigation from the Post in 1998, the Daily News in 2003, City & State and the New York Times in 2011 and the Post again in 2012. City & State also looked at Crowley’s influence in the court system in 2015.

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With many issues about the court unchanged, the issue was ripe for a reporter like Barkan to look into again. But for the other topics, like the campaign spending, one source had other theories, suggesting allies of state Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein may be planting stories to damage Crowley. Barkan reported in February that Crowley was looking for challengers to take on Queens state Sen. José Peralta, a member of the IDC, and Crowley is close with state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a member of the mainline Democratic conference who is among the IDC’s most vocal opponents.

But discontent with Crowley seems to extend beyond the IDC, as City & State’s Borrero reported about Queens Jewish leaders wanting change, and others calling for a new county leader. Any talk of a challenger remains gossip behind closed doors though, as no Queens Democrat has publicly announced a challenge to Crowley.

When asked for comment on the string of negative stories, a spokesperson for Crowley said that “this is just an attempt to distract from the good work he is doing,” while adding that “Crowley is focused on bringing jobs to his district, expanding health care, enacting immigration reform, and electing Democrats to defeat Trump's agenda.”

Despite the negative stories, Crowley’s power has no sign of waning. A number of sources declined to speak on the record, and those that did had only praise.

Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has long been an ally to Crowley, and his support helped get her elected speaker in 2006. But in a June interview, Quinn said she hadn’t noticed any attacks on the congressman and denied any connections to the upcoming race for City Council speaker. If there are attacks, she said, they’re because of his rising profile in Congress.

“I guess when you become the fourth-ranking member of Congress, the highest New Yorker in House leadership,” she said. “Are people going to shoot arrows at you? Well, probably!”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.