New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and one of her former political consultants are subjects of a city ethics probe, Crain's has learned.
The noncriminal investigation, which is being conducted by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, centers around Ms. Mark-Viverito's acceptance of free assistance during her 2013 race for council speaker, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.
The speaker recently paid $20,000 in campaign cash to a law firm to represent her in the investigation. In November 2014 and again this month, Ms. Mark-Viverito's campaign fund made $10,000 payments to Ballard Spahr Stillman & Friedman. The Conflicts of Interest Board has been deposing figures in the investigation.
In the midst of the competition to succeed Christine Quinn as speaker, the Daily News reported that Ms. Mark-Viverito's acceptance of pro bono help from the Advance Group—a prominent Manhattan lobbying and campaign consulting shop—could run afoul of a city ethics regulation. Good-government group Citizens Union called for the Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate.
The Advance Group had helped Ms. Mark-Viverito prepare for debates and to network with council members and county leaders, who behind closed doors helped decide the internal leadership race. Though Ms. Mark-Viverito's speaker bid had advantages, including the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, she was not especially popular at the time among many of her council colleagues, from whom she needed 26 votes, or county bosses, who controlled many members' votes.
The ethics question arose because as a public servant, Ms. Mark-Viverito is prohibited by the City Charter from taking a "valuable gift" from a firm that intends to do business with the city. Lobbyists are also prohibited from providing such gifts. The Advance Group has extensive lobbying business before city government, including the powerful speaker.
A public official found to have violated the rule can be fined up to $25,000, and someone providing improper assistance up to $5,000.