Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ricardo Morales, Top Deputy at DCAS, Claims He Was Fired For Complaining About City Hall and de Blasio Campaign Donor

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio
The name of this game is corruption. Nothing complicated, just pay-to-play under de Blasio. That's what he does.

Betsy Combier
Editor, NYC Rubber Room Reporter
Editor, New York Court Corruption
Editor, National Public Voice
Editor, NYC Public Voice
Editor, Inside 3020-a Teacher Trials

De Blasio says axing city official who lifted deed restriction on NYC nursing home wasn’t his decision

De Blasio official axed over probe says it was to warn others to keep quiet

Top official claims he was axed for complaining about City Hall's ‘inappropriate involvement’ with de Blasio donor
Harendra Singh
A top city deputy commissioner says he was fired because he complained that City Hall inappropriately intervened on behalf of a major campaign donor to Mayor de Blasio who owed nearly $750,000 in back rent on his Queens restaurant, the Daily News has learned.
Ricardo Morales
Ricardo Morales was a top deputy at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency that was pushing the donor, Harendra Singh, to cough up the loot.

And records show Singh raised $24,000 for de Blasio and held two fund-raisers for the mayor at his Long Island City restaurant, Water’s Edge. He failed to bill de Blasio’s campaign for hosting the fund-raisers, The News found.

Records reviewed by The News also show one of de Blasio’s top aides directly intervened on Singh’s behalf while he was trying to get out of paying what he owed.

Morales was a key figure at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) assigned to deal with Singh, who owed $747,000 in back rent on his restaurant’s lease, records show. The restaurant is on city land.
Water's Edge Restaurant
Morales was fired Feb. 24, hours after de Blasio was interviewed by federal prosecutors in their investigation of the mayor’s fund-raising tactics.

Morales’ attorney, Robert Kraus of Kraus & Zuchlewski, quietly filed a notice of claim in May that he intends to sue the city. “Ricardo Morales was fired for objecting to the pay-to-play culture that surrounded City Hall’s dealings with Harendra Singh,” Kraus said.

“City Hall punished Ricardo in a completely unprecedented manner because he refused to give in to that culture.”

A City Hall spokesman denied any wrongdoing.

“Members of this administration have acted appropriately and there’s never been a credible suggestion or shred of evidence to the contrary,” said spokesman Eric Phillips.

Morales says he was fired “because he reported violations of the NYC Charter’s conflict-of-interest rules as they pertained to City Hall’s inappropriate involvement in negotiating a complex real estate transaction and accompanying litigation” involving Singh and Water’s Edge. He specifically noted that the Water’s Edge owner was a “politically connected donor.”

Morales, then DCAS’ deputy commissioner for asset management, was also involved in the waiver of a deed restriction that allowed a nursing home owner to sell a Lower East Side building to a luxury condo developer.

In his notice of claim, Morales says his firing was also because he “objected to City Hall’s lack of truthfulness regarding the lifting of deed restrictions” on the lot and unspecified violations of City Charter rules.

In March, acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon Kim closed a yearlong investigation of de Blasio without bringing charges, but he made a point of stating that de Blasio and his aides had intervened on behalf of some of his donors. The donors weren’t named, but one of them is Singh, according to sources familiar with that investigation.

In 2014, DCAS officials, including Morales, started going after Singh for back rent. At the time, the restaurateur was well-known to Team de Blasio.

In 2011 and 2013, Singh held two fund-raisers for de Blasio at Water’s Edge — but he didn’t send the campaign a bill. He also bundled more than $24,000 in campaign checks for the mayor. In early 2014, Singh was placed on an elite list of de Blasio donors being considered for political appointments. The list, obtained by The News, shows Singh was up for a slot on the Mayor’s Fund for the City of New York and a committee to lure the Democratic convention to Brooklyn.

The document related to the potential appointments makes clear that even as they considered awarding him these plum assignments, de Blasio’s team was aware there were issues with him. Under “confidential notes,” the document notes Singh had an unspecified “vetting issue.” The document states that city Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Emma Wolfe had listed Singh as a “maybe,” and suggested calling another City Hall employee in another city agency regarding “r/flags” on Singh.

For two years, de Blasio’s campaign hadn’t paid the $2,615 bill owed for the two Water’s Edge fund-raisers.

Then in December 2014, the city Campaign Finance Board began auditing de Blasio’s campaign. It demanded documentation showing that the mayor had paid for the Water’s Edge events.

In a Feb. 19, 2015, email, on the day the documents were due to the Campaign Finance Board, de Blasio campaign staffer Sam Nagourney asked Singh for invoices. Emails show Singh ordered restaurant staffers to “please take care of this today.”

Records show Water’s Edge then provided invoices but it appears they were created long after the events.

De Blasio Ally Didn’t Register as Lobbyist Despite Big Push for a Donor
Neil Kwatra
Frustrated by the pace of negotiations with a city agency over millions of dollars that were in dispute, a restaurateur decided to bring in a hired gun: Neal Kwatra, a political consultant and lobbyist with ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mr. Kwatra ended up working so closely with top City Hall officials on behalf of the restaurant owner, Harendra Singh, that a city commissioner complained that officials were giving Mr. Kwatra confidential information during delicate negotiations to settle a lawsuit with Mr. Singh.

When one meeting with city officials resulted in an unsatisfactory offer, Mr. Kwatra angrily responded, “I guess you didn’t get the memo from City Hall,” according to the city official in charge of the talks, Ricardo Morales, a former deputy commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, known as DCAS.

Yet none of Mr. Kwatra’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Singh, in 2015, were registered as lobbying work, even though Mr. Kwatra and his company, Metropolitan Public Strategies, have registered as lobbyists for other clients, including United for Affordable NYC, a short-lived nonprofit group created by Mr. de Blasio to support his housing policies.

A search of the public record websites of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the New York City Clerk’s Lobbying Bureau found no record that Mr. Kwatra or his company had registered as a lobbyist for Mr. Singh or his restaurant, Water’s Edge, in Queens, or any of Mr. Singh’s companies.

Mr. de Blasio pushed city officials to help Mr. Singh, a mayoral campaign donor, and the case became a focus of a federal investigation into what prosecutors viewed as a pattern of mayoral favors to campaign donors.

On Monday, Mr. de Blasio, appearing on “Road to City Hall” on NY1, dismissed the notion that Mr. Singh received special treatment because he was a campaign donor.

“It’s been looked at, and there’s just nothing there,” Mr. de Blasio said.

“I think it’s very clear how we run our government,” he said. “It’s an open and transparent government, where we help people bring forward legitimate issues and try to see them through to conclusion.”

Mr. Kwatra, whose mother, Pam Kwatra, is a donor and fund-raiser for the mayor, played a key role in Mr. Singh’s case, but his involvement was not revealed publicly until The New York Times reported it on Monday.

Austin Shafran, a senior vice president of Metropolitan Public Strategies, said on Monday that Mr. Kwatra’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Singh did not meet the definition of lobbying under state and city law.

”Our firm consulted experienced legal counsel, and was advised that we were not required to register as a lobbyist in this case because our work involved the renegotiation of an existing lease that was the subject of litigation, which is explicitly excluded from the lobbying law,” Mr. Shafran said by email. He would not identify the lawyer who advised his company, and said that Mr. Kwatra was unavailable to speak with a reporter.

A group of city documents and emails reviewed by The Times that describe the talks do not mention renegotiation of the lease. They focus instead on unpaid rent, money that the city said was owed by Mr. Singh to rebuild a pier near the restaurant, and lawsuits deriving from those disputes.

Despite all the problems, Mr. Singh was eager to start negotiations on a new lease for the restaurant that would take effect when his existing lease was to expire in May 2017. And documents indicate that Mr. Kwatra was involved in pressing the case for a new lease with city officials.

Officials at the administrative services agency had told Mr. Singh they could not discuss a new lease while he owed back rent and millions of dollars for the pier reconstruction. They made clear that even though Mr. Singh was already operating the restaurant, a new lease would require public hearings under city land use laws and would need to be offered for competitive bidding. Efforts to influence procurement decisions, including decisions regarding new leases on city properties, are frequently considered to meet the definition of lobbying.

That did not stop Mr. Kwatra and Mr. Singh from continuing to push the issue of a new lease. Their efforts included discussions with Mr. de Blasio’s top political aide, Emma Wolfe, the director of intergovernmental affairs, who began participating in the negotiations in mid-2015.

A new long-term lease would have been very valuable, in part because the city’s Economic Development Corporation was considering ways to use other city-owned parcels near the restaurant for a development project that could have included housing, office and retail space — potentially increasing the value and earning power of Water’s Edge.

Mr. Kwatra and Ms. Wolfe’s office worked so closely that Stacey Cumberbatch, the administrative services commissioner, accused a City Hall official of disclosing confidential information during talks to settle the lawsuits and discussions about Mr. Singh’s interest in negotiating a new lease.

The emails show that city officials had discussed the possibility of moving talks for a new lease out of the administrative services agency to the Economic Development Corporation, known as EDC. That could have benefited Mr. Singh by freeing him from negotiating with staff members at the administrative services agency, which had shown itself to be a tough negotiating partner. In addition, Mr. de Blasio had recently appointed Ms. Kwatra to the corporation’s board.

The emails show that this possibility was being discussed internally among city officials (who ultimately rejected it) and was not intended to be shared with Mr. Singh and his representatives. But Gabriel Schnake-Mahl, an aide to Ms. Wolfe who was working closely with Mr. Kwatra, did just that.

“I am speaking with Kwatra today at 5:30 p.m. for an update on their end,” Mr. Schnake-Mahl wrote in an email to Ms. Cumberbatch and Ms. Wolfe on Sept. 3, 2015. “Anything I can share re: why needs to stay in DCAS for future lease? I floated EDC idea to them in past conversations.”

Ms. Cumberbatch wrote back almost immediately: “It’s a DCAS function. Thought EDC idea was confidential bet. us until all worked out with Maria?” she wrote, referring to Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the development corporation.

Mr. Schnake-Mahl replied: “Apologies if I got out in front.”

Mr. Singh was arrested days later in an unrelated political corruption case on Long Island.