Why a federal investigation into Mayor Adams’ campaign appears to be deepening

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By Dan Sears

A federal investigation into New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ campaign and allegedly illegal campaign donations from Turkish officials is intensifying. Adams has not been accused of wrongdoing, but the probe directly involved the mayor for the first time after FBI agents approached him with a search warrant and seized several of his electronic devices last week.

WNYC’s Elizabeth Kim, who covers City Hall, recently broke down what happened and what it means with host Michael Hill.

Michael Hill: Let’s start with the news that FBI agents seized the mayor’s electronic devices in public. Walk us through what happened.

Elizabeth Kim: This story broke late Friday after the New York Times reported that FBI agents had approached Adams in downtown Manhattan Monday night and presented him with a search warrant for his electronic devices. The agents then proceeded to search the mayor’s SUV and remove at least two iPhones and an iPad, according to the story.

WNYC reached out to the Adams campaign. An attorney for the mayor said that Adams immediately complied and provided the agents with the devices. He also said the mayor has not been accused of wrongdoing and is fully cooperating with the investigation.

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The lawyer also added that the campaign had “discovered that an individual had recently acted improperly” and that the “behavior was immediately and proactively reported to investigators.” However, it’s unclear who this individual is and what kind of improper conduct they committed.

The week before, we learned that the FBI raided the mayor’s campaign fundraiser’s Brooklyn home. What does it say that investigators are now interested in looking at the mayor’s electronic devices? Is it unusual for them to obtain them in this way?

Kim: This is the first time that the investigation has directly involved the mayor. And yes, the encounter between the FBI and mayor was unusual. Search warrants are a significant investigatory step. To get a search warrant requires a prosecutor to prove to a judge that there was probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed — and that the devices taken from the mayor would show evidence of that.

Investigators could have simply asked the mayor to provide them with these devices. But instead, they opted for a more invasive method in which FBI agents searched the mayor’s vehicle after an event. It doesn’t get more public than that.

One former prosecutor [Daniel Richman] told me that he thought the investigation was now entering an “overt stage” where those who are concerned about their own liability may start reaching out to talk with prosecutors.

Do we know what the FBI was looking for?

Kim: The New York Times is reporting that the search of the mayor’s devices was related to his potential involvement in pressuring fire department officials to sign off on a $300 million consulate in Manhattan for the Turkish government — even though there were safety concerns. This occurred when Adams was still Brooklyn borough president but after he had clinched the primary.

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The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited the building during its grand opening in 2021.

Is it connected to the FBI search of his fundraiser’s home?

Kim: Possibly. The search warrant for Brianna Suggs’ home was also tied to links to Turkish donors, according to the Times, which obtained a copy of the warrant.

But it’s important to point out that the full scope of the investigation is unclear. This could be the sole focus or it could just be a part of it. Federal corruption investigations are typically shrouded in secrecy and what we know so far has been through leaks to the New York Times.

This is not the only investigation that’s threatening the mayor, correct?

Kim: No, it’s not. Over the summer, the Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg indicted six donors for a straw donor scheme that took advantage of the city’s generous matching funds program, which enables campaigns with small donors to tap into public taxpayer money. Bragg has also brought bribery charges against Eric Ulrich, Adams’ former building commissioner.

How is the mayor responding?

Kim: As he was coming from an event Sunday, the mayor told reporters that he was carrying out “his basic duties as borough president” and that he wished that the leaks would stop. The mayor has insisted that he’s followed the rules when it comes to his campaign. Interestingly, he held a conference two days after FBI agents seized his devices but made no mention of the encounter.

But he did reveal that he’s hired a private law firm, WilmerHale, to represent him and the campaign. One of them is Brendan McGuire, who was previously the mayor’s chief counsel in City Hall.

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McGuire will also be representing Suggs, the mayor’s campaign fundraiser. That will be something to watch because if she is charged with a crime, then prosecutors could argue that it’s a conflict of interest for her and the mayor to have the same counsel.

How is the political world responding to this? Are elected officials criticizing the mayor?

Kim: Talk about potential primary challengers for the mayor started heating up after news of the FBI raid on the mayor’s fundraiser. It was considered a very rare move against a sitting mayor. Now, the possibility that a federal corruption investigation may directly involve the mayor has only emboldened more people to think about mounting a run.

The list of potential candidates include two state senators, Jessica Ramos and Zellnor Myrie, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, City Councilmember Diana Ayala, and Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who ran for mayor in 2013.

In terms of criticism, we’ve heard critics of the mayor say that this is a distraction that hurts New Yorkers. When the news of the FBI raid on his fundraiser broke, the mayor canceled an important meeting on the migrant crisis with President Biden to return to the city. And it has not been clear what he came back to do in the aftermath of the raid.

I reached out on Friday to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’s spokesperson for a comment. He called the ongoing developments around the FBI investigation “very troubling” and added that “New Yorkers deserve consistent transparency and clarity about the situation.”

We might expect to hear similar calls for transparency in the coming days, especially if more damaging information comes out about the mayor and the investigation.

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