Opinion: Why you need to calm yourself over the FBI investigation into Eric Adams’ campaign fundraising

Context provides a sobering look at a probe that ultimately may not impact the New York City mayor.

Election attorney Laurence Laufer.

Election attorney Laurence Laufer. Image courtesy of Laurence Laufer

Everybody calm down. 

Members of the media and political class are in a frenzy about the search warrant executed at the home of Mayor Adams’s fundraiser and the seizure of his electronic devices. Sure, I understand how salacious this spectacle seems.  But before jumping to conclusions, let’s first consider what this actually is. And isn’t.

What it is is an investigation to find evidence.  Not necessarily a prelude to a prosecution. 

Warrants don’t equal guilt. They are merely an investigative tool. There’s no accusation of wrongdoing on the part of anyone within the 2021 Eric Adams mayoral campaign operation, never mind any indictments or arrests.

All we know is the focus of the Department of Justice seems to be about $14,000 contributed to the Adams campaign about a month before the June 2021 primary election.  For context, consider that the Adams campaign had raised more than $4,000,000 in contributions to that point in time.  And had already received public matching funds more than sufficient to fully fund its primary campaign to the legal max.  In other words, DOJ appears focused on a set of contributions that were a very small drop in a much larger campaign bucket and timed to be utterly irrelevant to Mr. Adams primary campaign prospects. 

 Not generally the stuff of which conspiracies are made.

So, what’s much more likely is that the DOJ’s gathering evidence to investigate a much bigger fish: Turkish foreign agents. Potentially part of a larger scheme with other players and international diplomatic implications.  But that too is just speculation at this early stage. Time will tell. After all, this is the United States government we’re talking about, not a local precinct. They don’t do small-time.

And even if foreign agents illegally contributed to the 2021 campaign through straw donors, it is at least just as likely as not that that occurred without the campaign’s knowledge. If that’s where the evidence leads, the campaign – and by extension Mayor Adams -- would be the scheme’s victim, not its perpetrator. For example, in a separate case being prosecuted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, several individuals have pled guilty recently to a straw donor scheme. Again, without any allegation or evidence the campaign was in cahoots. 

Unfortunately, over the years, straw donors can and do manipulate our campaign finance system – in campaigns at all levels of government. Even when campaigns take measures to prevent fraud. Here, Adams’ campaign counsel says the campaign team checked handwriting samples, matched donors to bank accounts and addresses and looked for sequential money orders to prevent any illegal activity. Also, the campaign would have obtained a document from each contributor affirming their contribution was from their own personal funds. Indeed, the City’s Campaign Finance Board designed this form to protect against violations – and facilitate prosecution of bad actors.

Those compliance steps are necessary but not always sufficient. New York City’s campaign reforms have incentivized high-volume small dollar fundraising through reduced contribution limits and public matching funds.  But that dynamic has a downside: human nature. It is nearly impossible to prevent all contributor-initiated malfeasance from the campaign side.  

Moreover, in New York City, straw donors target publicly funded campaigns.  Only the least sophisticated would be unaware these campaigns are thoroughly audited by the CFB following extensive public disclosure and documentation submissions. So, if we posit these folks aren’t just idiots, that makes it rather more likely than not their schemes are consciously designed to avoid detection.     

Questions have been raised about CFB flags to the Adams campaign about the contributions now in question and others. The implication is that the campaign should have dug deeper – and exposed the alleged scheme now under investigation. But let’s not conflate apples with oranges.

Those flags are about the possible need for intermediaries to be identified by the campaign – in other words individuals who bundled multiple contributions, not straw donors.  The CFB routinely asks for that information based on an algorithm that automatically identifies a group of contributions from contributors with a common employer around the same date, not because the CFB suspects a crime was committed.

According to reports, in this case, the campaign claims that intermediaries were not disclosed because the contributions were part of a campaign-sponsored event.  As a long-time campaign lawyer, let me say the rules concerning intermediary disclosure in connection with campaign-sponsored events are complex. Even experienced lawyers may find themselves in good faith disagreement about their scope. The campaign may well have a plausible legal basis for its decision not to disclose intermediaries here. In any event, that remains to be assessed by the CFB in its post-election audit. 

No, I would never claim all campaigns are innocent victims. Certainly, over the years, charges have been brought and sustained against campaigns for scheming with contributors to funnel money illegally into their accounts. State Sen. John Liu’s campaign staff was convicted of using straw donors in the 2013 mayor’s race, for instance. The difference in the Liu campaign prosecution is that prosecutors found clear evidence campaign staffers had knowledge of the straw donor scheme. In the case of the Turkish donations and the Adams campaign, it bears repeating that no one on the campaign side – no one – has been accused of wrongdoing.

So, let’s not rush to judgment.