News & Politics

Will Eric Adams survive the federal investigation into his campaign?

Previous mayors have emerged from federal inquiries relatively unscathed – but former prosecutors say the investigation into Adams seems particularly aggressive.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends a news conference on Nov. 14, 2023.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends a news conference on Nov. 14, 2023. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City Mayor Eric Adams may escape the federal investigation into his 2021 mayoral campaign relatively unscathed – just the latest in a long line of mayors who have survived investigations that touched their own inner circles. But several former federal prosecutors said “the aggressiveness” of some of the actions authorities have taken in recent weeks suggest there is strong evidence that someone – whether Adams or someone else in his orbit – has broken the law.

News of the federal investigation has galvanized the mayor’s critics and spurred questions about to what degree – if any – Adams was involved in alleged wrongdoing. While there’s yet to be any official declarations, the investigation could also spur serious movement to challenge Adams during the 2025 mayoral race, potentially adding further to the mayor’s plate as he contends with the ongoing migrant crisis and deep budget cuts. 

Searches and seizures

There are many unknowns about the full scope of the federal criminal inquiry, which reportedly focuses on whether Adams’ campaign conspired with Turkish leaders to receive illegal contributions and whether Adams improperly pressured fire department officials to approve a new high-rise Turkish consulate despite safety concerns. Adams hasn’t yet been accused of any wrongdoing. Nor has 25-year-old Brianna Suggs, his chief fundraiser whose home was raided by the FBI.

It was that Nov. 2 raid, which was later revealed to be part of a larger series of FBI raids, that first brought the investigation to the public eye. But authorities have been looking into the Adams campaign’s finances since at least the spring, according to The New York Times. 

Days after the raid on Suggs, FBI agents reportedly approached the mayor after an event in Manhattan, asked his security detail to step away and seized several of his electronic devices. The seizure of Adams’ phones and iPad doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a target or a subject. It just means authorities have strong reason to believe the devices may contain evidence of federal crimes.

But former federal prosecutors described the move as a very aggressive step.

Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and lecturer at Columbia University’s law school, said that federal prosecutors would be unlikely to authorize the seizure of the mayor’s devices unless they had very strong reason to believe that they contained evidence of potentially illegal activities. All search warrants require a showing of probable cause, but when it comes to a high-profile figure like Adams, she said federal prosecutors would likely assess things “even more carefully” than they would in a normal case.

“There’s another consideration when you have a subject like Eric Adams which is this is going to all come out – the press is going to go crazy, people are going to see he’s under investigation,” Rodgers said. “You do really want to hesitate another beat and say ‘how likely do we think it is that we’re going to charge this?’ because it’s damaging to his reputation even to have it out there as an investigation that has advanced this far even if it’s never charged.”

Adams and his team have worked hard over the last couple of weeks to defend the mayor in the realm of public opinion, stressing their complete cooperation with authorities while condemning leaks about the investigation. Adams’ team also identified and later suspended a City Hall staffer who allegedly lied to federal investigators, the New York Post reported on Nov. 15.

“We have the same goal as (the U.S. Attorney’s Office) on this. They have an investigation. They want to see it through. I can guarantee you that the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not want their investigation playing out in the press in dribs and drabs and through leaks. That’s not the way they operate. It serves no one,” Lisa Zornberg, the mayor’s chief counsel, said earlier this week. “We are trying, and have been extremely cooperative and respectful.”

At a weekly press briefing last Tuesday, Zornberg emphasized that she’s seen “no indication” that the mayor is a target in the investigation. Both she and the mayor repeatedly rebuffed questions about whether anyone else connected to the mayors has had their devices seized.

The investigation continues

Rodgers said she hasn’t seen anything yet that suggests Adams is chargeable. An investigation into an alleged straw donor scheme could ensnare people who fundraised for Adams but would be less likely to implicate the mayor itself. But another former federal prosecutor, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak by their current employer, said they would be surprised if the investigation doesn’t “go right to the top” given that federal investigators authorized a search of his personal devices.

“It could potentially be somebody in his circle, but again, these actions are so aggressive that to me there is a calculus that you’ve got to undergo where you are wondering, is the deliverable worth it?” they said. “I’m not sure that the sole target being Adams’ quote, unquote ‘people’ is worth that kind of search.”

Any charges in the case could come relatively soon, perhaps by the spring. CNN recently reported that at least one former city official has received a grand jury subpoena in relation to the investigation. “You’re not going to be able to fault (U.S. Attorney Damian Williams) for overbaking the cake. He wants to move quickly and promptly on things like this,” the former federal prosecutor said.

Rodgers said it will take at least a few months for authorities to go through all of the evidence collected through search warrants. The coming period will be rife with conversations with potential leads, including potential individuals who authorities may have held off on contacting before the investigation exploded into the public view. 

Potential charges will depend on what investigators find over the next couple of months. Rodgers said it’s possible charges could come first for people related to a straw donor scheme because those charges are not “particularly serious” as far as federal crimes go and can prompt people to flip and turn over more evidence.

“They typically don’t charge the straw donors themselves – the people who were employees who just agreed to have their name used or whatever, but you could see some charges coming on that side of things,” she said. “That might lead to more information to charge other people kind of higher up in the chain to speak.”

Political consequences

Every New York City mayoral administration dating back to Ed Koch was subject to a corruption investigation at some point or the other. None ever had charges brought against them, although the same can’t be said of a handful of lower-level City Hall employees under their purview. In the case of Adams’ immediate predecessor, Bill de Blasio, federal and state prosecutors ultimately concluded that although his fundraising practices may have violated “the intent and spirit” of the law, they did not amount to crimes.

Adams’ own fundraising tactics or relationships with donors have repeatedly been scrutinized. Six people who contributed to Adams’ campaign were charged over the summer with running a straw donor scheme. The mayor was not implicated then nor was he again two months later when his then building commissioner was charged with taking bribes.

Even if Adams does not end up named in an indictment, he may not emerge from the investigation unscathed, according to Democratic political strategist Evan Roth Smith. Potential 2025 mayoral challengers are watching closely to see where things fall. There’s also a possibility – one that Adams has already been asked about and dismissed – that the investigation and the public pressure distracts him from his mayoral duties in a way that dooms him with voters, Smith said.

“All of us who watch the mayor have noticed the change in his demeanor,” Smith said. “I’ve seen how Mayor Adams handles an attack or an allegation or an accusation when he’s confident – with a smile on his face and a quip at the ready. That’s not the Eric Adams we are seeing right now. We are seeing someone who does seem a little more subdued and a little more cowed.”

While the raid brought the inquiry into the public view – as did Adams’ swift departure from D.C. where he’d planned to meet about the migrant crisis – authorities have been looking into his campaign finances since the spring, according to The New York Times.

A former high-ranking law enforcement official, who requested anonymity due to his current position, told City & State that Adams has always been someone on the edge of law enforcement investigations given his relationships with shady characters. “It’s kind of almost classic,” they said. “He invited this by mixing business and politics.”