Interviews & Profiles

Inside Man: a conversation with Eric Adams’ chief counsel Brendan McGuire

The mayor’s top lawyer, a Preet Bharara alum, knows his boss is under a microscope.

Eric Adams’ top lawyer Brendan McGuire talks about his role as chief counsel to the mayor in a Q&A with City & State.

Eric Adams’ top lawyer Brendan McGuire talks about his role as chief counsel to the mayor in a Q&A with City & State. Diane Bondareff/Mayoral Photo Office

New York City Mayor Eric Adams hasn’t been formally accused of any ethical wrongdoing in his first year in office. But he’s certainly raised some eyebrows.

From hiring his brother to a major position, to having a city lawyer represent him on the rat issues at his Brooklyn home, to seeing his chief of staff leave after just one year and launch a consulting and lobbying firm to cash in on his City Hall cache, to all the allegedly less-than-upstanding businesspeople that he likes to spend his evenings with, the good-government groups have had a lot to comment on.

So it’s notable that Adams’ top lawyer was former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s top deputy overseeing public corruption in the Southern District of New York. Brendan McGuire oversaw convictions against former state Sen. Carl Kruger and former New York City Council Member Larry Seabrook. As the chief counsel to the mayor and City Hall, McGuire understands Adams is under the microscope, but he said you’ve got to look at the big picture. Adams has appointed the right people. And the city isn’t for sale.

Through it all, he has kept a relatively low public profile. Even though he’s a former college basketball player, the tall, dashing son of the city’s police commissioner under Ed Koch, he doesn’t seem to want to run for office himself – like a former occupant of his position, Maya Wiley, did in 2021.

Meanwhile, the office now has a higher profile. McGuire oversees 11 offices, including the Office of Labor Relations and the Conflicts of Interest Board. He has also been a leader on thorny legal issues, like maintaining the right to shelter in New York City while tens of thousands of asylum-seekers arrive. 

City & State sat down with McGuire at City Hall to talk about it all. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This month, there was a summit on crime hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton. You organized the mayor’s own summit on crime a couple months ago at Gracie Mansion. There were talks of organizing working groups. What were the results of that “summit to find common ground on public safety efforts?”

Three working groups came out of that summit. One focused on discovery-related issues, one focused on mental health-related issues and one focused on urgent items. And they have been asked to come back with specific feasible deliverables, really a small number of priorities, in the next month or so. And then the idea would be to see what we can take action on.

I think the summit was a real success, because I think it epitomized one of the strongest traits of this administration, which is an understanding that there’s a lot of expertise outside City Hall that we rely on and that we can learn from. And I think that’s the hope in these areas, where so many of these problems have been intractable for so long. Our hope is, if we get the best minds on it, we can make some progress.

So much of this first year has been focused on crime and public safety, it seems. What do you think was the office’s greatest challenge across 2022?

Certainly our greatest priority was crime. Beyond that, it’s really instilling a sense of order in the city. And there’s obviously been so much trauma from COVID, the economy and various other factors, national problems that have affected us here locally. And I think part of what we’re trying to do is demonstrate to the city that we are attempting to restore a sense of order. A sense that government is working for them, that there is a strategy on some of these tougher issues that are really impacting them day to day. That’s why I think the focus can be broadened a bit beyond just crime. Obviously, incredibly important. But other questions that New Yorkers ask every day, which is: Is my government responsive? Are the streets clean? Are my kids getting educated? I think there has been real progress on that. But obviously, there’s work to be done.

One of the really interesting legal questions, and getting to this sense of order, is about cannabis regulation. Was your office involved in this decision to be pretty hands off last year? And now that the legal market is slowly being set up, is that going to change? Will the city have a stronger hand on these illegal cannabis sales?

As in a number of these issues, it’s important to understand where the state has a role, where the city has a role, where there’s discretion to exercise, and where there isn’t. We obviously inherited the legislation that passed before we arrived, which really has centralized the administration and regulation in this area with the state. And obviously, we’re in dialogue with the state on this issue. In many ways, it is obviously just coming online now in terms of the initial stores opening up.

I do think, though, that this has to be an area that we closely monitor to understand what the proper role is for the city here. Because I do think this is an example of well-intentioned legislation that opens up a real variety of issues in terms of quality of life here in New York, who gets to participate, how do the intentions actually translate into reality. For sure the city will remain engaged on this issue. But (we’re) going to attempt to assess how this initial rollout goes so that we’re taking a thoughtful approach.

So the bodegas, the stores that are selling – businesses isn’t over yet. They’re not all shutting down immediately.

Yeah. And I think enforcement is really important. And the sheriff’s office has been leading on that. And ensuring that both those in the administration understand what are the rules so that those rules can then be applied consistently – to particularly those who are selling illegally. And there are then related products and related conduct that can spawn from this, that really needs to be closely watched as part of the overall effort to instill and restore order.

What’s the chain of command for your role? Does the mayor come directly to you, or do you go through the chief of staff? And how often do you talk? Do you have a standing meeting, or is it just based on what issues come up?

This mayor has designed this office that had traditionally been called counsel to the mayor in an effort, I guess, to demonstrate the senior level of this position, (and) it’s now called chief counsel to the mayor and City Hall. I directly report to the mayor. And he and I, at the time of the transition, last year, had a number of conversations about what his view was of the need to raise the profile of this position within City Hall.

The mayor is someone who has always surrounded himself with lawyers. Three of the deputy mayors that he appointed are lawyers. His outgoing chief of staff, his incoming chief of staff are lawyers. So he is someone who wants to surround himself with folks who have that way of thinking.

The office in particular is one that is designed differently than it has been in the past. There are a higher number of experienced lawyers in the office sitting here in City Hall. And in addition, I have a portfolio of city agencies reporting to me, which is different than in the past. And those are some of the enforcement and regulatory type agencies. It’s a position that requires regular contact with the mayor. It can be issue-based, it can be strategy-based, it can be crisis-driven. But it’s one where he made clear from the get-go that this was a position that he very much wanted to be one that was regularly informing him in every aspect of the job.

Does the mayor listen to you? How often have there been disagreements?

The mayor does listen. The mayor recognizes that I am an independent voice here. And I think one of the reasons that our initial conversations about me joining the administration were so productive was I think he recognized that I was not necessarily just going to tell him what I thought he wanted to hear. My obligation is not just to him, my obligation is to City Hall, and to the leadership team, and to all those who work here. And that is what my team and I strive to do as we’re, each day, confronted with dozens of decisions, whether it’s compliance, ethics or policy. So he does listen – that doesn’t mean we necessarily always agree. And I think that’s the mark of a healthy relationship.

You used to run the public corruption unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District. I would imagine that people working there might have an idea that everybody who works in government, they’re all scoundrels trying to take from the public fisc. Has your perspective changed since you’ve entered into a mayoral administration? Has your thinking evolved about public corruption and public servants?

I’m not nearly the cynic that you are, or that you think prosecutors are. When you do public corruption work, it actually helps you realize that the vast majority of public officials are decent, hard-working, honest people. Because you do have so much exposure to them, you’re able to really intrude in a lot of ways – legally – but intrude in the way in which they conduct their business. So I didn’t come in with that view.

At the same time – and I think it’s a testament to why the mayor recognized the importance of having someone with my profile in this position – there are obviously ways to do things the right way, and there are ways to do things in a different way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s corrupt. It doesn’t mean it’s unethical. But you can do things that are less than consistent with integrity, and less than consistent with the way in which good government should be practiced. Over this past year in City Hall, I have been really impressed by the degree to which this team has been willing to buy into a culture of good government, a culture of integrity, doing things the right way, even if no one may be looking. There’s obviously a lot of external scrutiny on those in City Hall, and rightfully so. And so one of the messages that we have been emphasizing from the get-go is that every choice you make matters. And it’s not just for you, it’s for your team, it’s for the mayor. And I like to think that we’ve built a strong foundation in that regard.

I want to ask about a couple of specific ethical concerns, like the rat violation. Look, it’s goofy because it’s rats. But a deputy chief counsel represented Adams before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings for his personal rat issues. You oversee OATH, and Rahul Agarwal works for you. Didn’t that look like the mayor is using government staff for his personal issues? Is that allowed?

I can understand that impression. I’d make a distinction of what you said, which is that Rahul (Agarwal) came to represent the mayor. It was made clear that, given the exigency of the circumstances, the mayor had a hearing scheduled that he was to personally appear on, and then due to city business was unable to call in. And when Rahul did call in, he made clear that he wasn’t appearing for the mayor, he was simply notifying so that folks weren’t going to be stuck on the line waiting for the mayor. So that may strike some as a distinction without a difference. But given the time sensitivity that we were under at the time, I had asked him to call in, so that folks weren’t waiting on the mayor. And again, that is something that the mayor has handled and will continue to handle on his own. To the extent he needs any assistance with that, he’ll take that up with a personal representative.

(Editor’s note: Agarwal did not only alert people that the mayor could not make it – he also filed a motion to vacate on Adams’ behalf. Asked after the interview to clarify, a spokesperson in the City Hall communications office declined to comment.)

Another potential ethical challenge is about to face the office, and that’s chief of staff Frank Carone leaving and starting his own private firm. He told Politico that he’s not going to lobby the mayor, he’s not going to appear before the office – though his staff might appear before the mayor’s office. Has the mayor’s office set standards with regard to Carone? Are there going to be hard and fast rules about whether or not he can appear and talk to the mayor?

Yes. We have met with, and will meet with, all outgoing senior officials, not just with Frank, but also with Lorraine Grillo, who we’re also very sorry to have leaving. This is very important. And this is an area that we are very much focused on. One of the benefits of having a more robust chief counsel’s office than in the past, is you have a lot of lawyers who are able to interface with the Conflict of Interest Board on a regular basis, which is what we do. They are a very important agency. And they provide guidance to city employees on these kinds of issues. And so in consultation with them, we have provided a set of guidelines, and will provide to other departing senior level officials. And folks like Frank, folks like Lorraine, they very much understand the importance of this. And so I don’t expect that it will be an issue. And I think that we will obviously be very sensitive to it. But there is every reason for me to believe that both of them, as well as others, are not going to want to put the administration in any kind of difficult situation through their next jobs.

Carone was saying that he has clients lined up, he told Politico that. It seemed to me like that meant he was soliciting business while he was chief of staff. There are rules against soliciting being hired by a company. I don’t know if this applies, technically, since he’s looking for clients. But I’m wondering if you’re aware of that situation, if you’ve talked with Frank, with COIB, about the specifics of him starting his own private firm while still chief of staff?

Yeah. So he did not start the private firm while chief of staff. I think, as he made clear in the press release, this was a company that he is sort of revamping, that he had previously had. So of course, I’m sure he spent some time thinking about what his next step was going to be. And as I understand it, he’s beginning to kind of build it out, he made mention of getting office space. But he was not actively soliciting clients while chief of staff. I think he is someone who has a set of relationships that I think as he’s starting out here, he’s in contact with clients. I think that’s not uncommon for folks in the consulting space or legal space or elsewhere. But no, he did not, during his time here, did he spend time setting up the business.

(Editor’s note: McGuire was wrong about this, according to Carone. The former chief of staff told City & State in an email that the city regulations are narrow construed. He was negotiating with potential clients that had city business, such as Northwell Health, while still employed by the city. But this was allowed, Carone said, because he was not working on any “particular matters” involving those prospective clients while chief of staff.)

Broadly on this point, Adams has a target on his back as the mayor, everybody knows that. And a lot of the flack he’s gotten in the press, or just from the public, has been about who he chooses to spend time with. Are you worried about those optics, of spending time with the Petrosyants brothers, for one example? Or is your job just the letter of the law?

It is not just the letter of the law. And the mayor, I think, has been clear on this. There are inferences made, that I think frankly have distorted the nature of his relationships with some of these people. Whether he’s either met someone in the past, or even if he has spent time with someone – oftentimes, this comes from a place of decency and generosity with the man. He is trying to mentor people. People may or may not choose to accept that explanation. But I think it’s an unfair leap to say OK, if you are spending time with people who may have violated the law in the past, or behaved improperly in the past, that therefore you are and that therefore, as a public official, there is something corrupt about that.

I think it is fair to ask questions about it. But I don’t think it’s fair to jump to the conclusion that, because you’re choosing to spend time with people who are trying to restart their lives, in effect, that therefore there’s something wrong with that, or there’s something somehow corrupt with you.

I can say that I was very careful when thinking about this job, and one of the reasons why I decided to join the administration was the mayor’s commitment in this area. There’s less attention paid to actually, OK, what are the steps a mayor could take to ensure a government of integrity. And line those up against, OK, here’s who he’s had dinner with, or here’s who he may have tried to help in his personal life. Those don’t get clicks. But if you’re really being responsible about getting a full sense of the person, and a full sense of his intentions, you’ve got to pay attention to those. Those to me are what are really impressive about the first year again, and to me, more than far outweigh any concerns that may come with who he chooses to spend time with, on occasion, in his personal life.

Back in September, when many asylum-seekers were coming to the city, you said the administration felt it was time to “reconsider the practices that the city developed that flow from the right to shelter.” Has the city adjusted anything about the practices regarding the right to shelter since then, whether it’s for asylum-seeking migrants or for New Yorkers that previously lived here?

No. 1, the right to shelter evolved from a late 1970s case that was filed that was obviously the result of a focus on domestic unhoused New Yorkers. And at no point, as this case law has evolved, could anyone on any side of the issue predict that there was going to become a day when tens of thousands of individuals from the border would be bused here.

No. 2, as the mayor has said, the city’s shelter system is now really nearing a breaking point, if not at a breaking point, with a record high. Not only those who may come, but those who are already in the system – New Yorkers as well as asylum-seekers – the services and the care of those people are going to be compromised, all of them, if we don’t identify a solution, and obviously if the federal government doesn’t identify a solution very soon, that will enable us to handle any additional influx.

And the answer is not just open up more hotels, because you need more than just physical space. You need staff who is trained. You need other types of services and resources. We are not in the business of trying to come up with a half-baked plan, even though some may say just keep opening up more buildings. It’s a big city. That doesn’t work.

When does somebody become a New Yorker? Is there a legal difference between somebody who takes a bus to New York from the border, from somebody who may have already been here?

It’s a fair question. It’s a way to frame it. We think about it less as “Who’s a New Yorker?” There’s many different definitions, but a lot of us would say one of the things that we love about New York is that it’s a low bar to becoming a New Yorker. We don’t intend to change that, and obviously this city has a rich history of welcoming those from all over. 

But more than that, it’s figuring out what is the right solution for this high-need population, which has different needs than the individuals that are here in the city who may have a homelessness problem that is recurring, or may have mental illness or other things, but many of whom already have roots or connections to the city. This is a different group with a different set of needs. And so you can’t just do a one-size-fits-all approach. And so from a legal standpoint, it’s important to recognize that difference. And then consider, OK, what are the options here? Because we all feel a moral obligation to do what we can for anyone who comes into the city. But if you’re going to govern the city responsibly, you have to then consider, OK, legally, what are we required to do? Despite the fact that we may morally be trying to do everything we can to help them rebuild their lives.

You are a white guy, grew up in Manhattan, went to private schools. You’re not the type that the mayor usually gets along with. And you’re not the type who typically voted for Adams in the primary. Why does he get along with you?

You do a lot of just labeling here. (Laughs.) You’ve got to get to know me. I’m not so bad! You might find a couple of reasons why someone might like me. Look, the mayor is someone who connects with all types. I like to think that I’m somewhat similar in that way, although I think he’s better at it. He definitely got a lot of votes. The other two things that have drawn me to the mayor, and hopefully have helped me in this role is No. 1, a love for the city, and a desire at this point in the city’s time, to do everything possible to bring the city back to where it belongs. And then I think secondly, is a work ethic. I’ve been in some pretty demanding environments. I’ve not been around anyone who works as hard as this mayor. And that’s something that has always drawn my respect. Whatever comes of this team, it is not going to be for lack of effort.

The previous counsel to the mayor, Kapil Longani, had a podcast. Maya Wiley, another counsel, went on to run for mayor. You’ve kept a relatively low profile in this first year. Would you ever run for office after Adams’ tenure?

I have no plans to do that. I’m focused on doing this job now. What I really want to highlight, as we wrap up today, is the culture of integrity that we’ve built and that we continue to build. No mayor previously has asked a former chief of public corruption to serve as his lawyer. No mayor in the past has said, I want to set up a Mayor’s Office of Risk Management and Compliance, essentially an internal audit function here in City Hall.

The other indicia here in terms of making sure that we do things the right way, I think are also clear. Another appointment that got very little attention is Milton Williams, who’s the chair of the Conflicts of Interest Board. This is a person of the highest integrity. And this was a very thoughtful, deliberate choice by the mayor. And he’s told his team of lawyers to be in constant touch with COIB, it’s just inconsistent with, and I think completely puts the lie to, a lot of the criticism that you were referring to earlier, in terms of the way in which the administration conducts itself.

To bring in two senior members from Scott Stringer’s team, the comptroller’s office, Marjorie Landa and Lisa Flores, who have reputations as being very tough, rigorous people who were no friends of the prior administration because of the degree to which they were demanding in their previous positions. To say let’s bring them in here, in house, these are all marks of someone who is wanting to be rigorous and responsible in the way we conduct ourselves. So, again, that’s part of the balance of the picture that really needs to be considered.

One final thing. You were the one that got a conviction against Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death,” who was just freed in a prisoner swap with basketball star Brittney Griner. How did it feel to see that?

That was a very significant investigation and prosecution. I completely appreciate the position that our government was in. Having said that, he was someone who, prior to his arrest, was a real destabilizing factor in very sensitive parts of the world. And I don’t know to what degree he may return to being the threat that he was prior to his arrest. But I will say that does concern me, even though I understand the balance of factors that the administration had to consider.