New York City Mayor Eric Adams finally admitted to owning a Brooklyn co-op that he previously claimed to have sold off. That was just one of the many insights into some of the city’s most powerful politicians that could be gleaned from annual disclosures filed with the the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board that were released Wednesday – but also proof that you simply can’t trust the filings to give a full picture.
For years, Adams had not disclosed ownership of the residence, which he co-owns with a former girlfriend. This year, he did – and also submitted amended disclosures for the past five years that included the co-op. There’s nothing on the site or in the filings to note they have been amended, and updated years after the fact, COIB Director of Annual Disclosure and Special Counsel Katherine Miller confirmed. Adams wasn’t publicly reprimanded for that oversight, and Miller said that confidentiality provisions mean she couldn’t comment on whether Adams was penalized unless the board had issued a public disposition or order. That’s a high bar to clear, Miller noted, since “under the annual disclosure law, a penalty can only be imposed for a failure to include assets or liabilities where there is proof that the failure to disclose was intentional.”
Every year, elected officials including the mayor, comptroller, district attorneys, borough president and City Council members are required to file a report disclosing some of their financial interests. They give some insight into where elected officials are making money on the side, where their money is invested, and whose family members work for the city.
But interpretations of what information needs to be included on the form, and what can be left out, vary wildly. Some electeds, such as Council Member Sandra Ung, included specific information about which stocks they held, and how many shares. Others presumably declined to report their holdings entirely. Council Member Vickie Paladino did not list any retirement accounts or investments on her COIB disclosure. But both her campaign and council website state she is a successful business owner who ran two small businesses for 40 years – and presumably has saved some money. Paladino’s office did not return a request for comment.
The watchdog agency does have a lower standard of what should be disclosed than, say, nosy reporters. As COIB emphasized on Twitter, the purpose of these disclosures is to catch red flags and potential conflicts, where financial interest could conflict with the duties of office. They are not meant to be tax returns or give complete insight into an elected official's finances. Officials do not have to disclose their primary or secondary residences if they don’t derive income from them. And because the COIB disclosures list the value of assets in huge ranges, it is hard, if not impossible, to pin down officials’ personal wealth.
With the above caveats in mind, there are still some notable findings from this year's disclosures – the first ones, from a huge swath of elected officials newly elected in 2021.
New York City’s top prosecutors reported having relatively modest investments. The one exception was Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who had substantial investment income. The Manhattanite withdrew money from four retirement accounts, possibly in excess of $1 million. A spokesperson said the moves were in order to help settle his late mother’s estate. Bragg was also the only city DA who listed outside income in 2021 – because he did not take office until January 2022. Bragg reported earning between $100,000- $250,000 as a New York Law School professor.
Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella’s disclosures distinguished him as the highest earning BP. The former member of Congress earned between $100,000-$250,000 from RTR Financial Services, a collection agency, which City & State reported has a multimillion dollar contract with New York City to recoup debt from unpaid speed camera tickets. Fossella’s senior adviser Ed Burke told City & State that the BP is no longer affiliated with the firm, where he previously served as senior vice president of client services. Staten Island’s comeback kid also reported making $250,000-$500,000 in consulting fees from Patriot Strategy Group. Burke said that firm did “general consulting” – no political work – and that Fossella maintained his ownership of the firm after taking office in January.
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson also earned outside income but in far smaller amounts. Levine reported $5,000-$50,000 in income from renting a condo unit. Levine told City & State it’s in Washington Heights, and he no longer rents it since he and his family moved back in. Gibson reported receiving $1000-$5000 from Local 1199 SEIU pension.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is running in the Democratic primary for governor, is another high profile progressive politician who also collects income as a landlord. Last year he earned between $5,000-$50,000 from a rental property.
Other prominent leaders barely disclosed a thing. Speaker Adrienne Adams’ barebones disclosure originally did not even include a retirement account, which she had disclosed in previous years. Adams has also refused to commit to releasing her tax returns. Adams has since amended her filing to include an IRA with $100,000–$250,000, but did not list where the money is held.
Council Member Alexa Avilés won her seat as a proud democratic socialist, and her filings show she has done well in the free market. The Sunset Park resident has a 50% stake in two condos in Orlando, Florida, and boasts a substantial investment portfolio which earned her between $4,000-$20,000 in dividends alone during 2021.
Aviles has one mutual fund valued between $100,000- $249,000, owns between $5,000-$50,000 in Coca-Cola stock, has two IRAs valued between $100,000-$250,000 each and another retirement account valued between $250,000-$500,000.
Avilés, who is from Brooklyn, told City & State that she rents the Orlando homes to family members. And the 49-year-old former nonprofit program director attributed her strong portfolio to years of smart saving, starting at age 21. “I come from a family that didn’t have much,” Avilés said, noting that she is the youngest of nine siblings. “I had to make sure I squirreled my money away out of fear.” Avilés was proud to disclose more information about her finances than some of her colleagues. “I have nothing to hide,” she said, “and I think that’s what we should be doing.”
COIB notes that over 9,000 agency heads will soon also have to disclose their financial interests. However those will only be available upon request. Until then, you can do your own digging at the COIB website.