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The New Democrats, Same as the Old

The Shady Ties Between de Blasio and the Clintons

by RICHARD KREITNER

Last Monday, Hillary Clinton headlined a fundraiser at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan for Bill de Blasio, the man who managed her successful 2000 Senate campaign and last month declared himself “proud to come from the Clinton family.” Topping the list of co-chairs for the event—those who have promised to bundle $25,000 for de Blasio—was one Paul Adler, a Democratic powerbroker in Rockland County, and a convicted felon.

Adler has long been a devoted supporter of de Blasio, whom he first met in 1996 when de Blasio ran the president’s re-election operation in New York. When Clinton named de Blasio her campaign manager in 1999, Adler told the Associated Press she would “benefit enormously” from such “a hands-on professional.”

In 2000, Rockland County was one of the most heavily contested swing districts in New York State, and Clinton faced tough opposition in former Rep. Rick Lazio, a social conservative well-liked by leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community. As chairman of the Rockland County Democratic Party, Adler was valuable enough to the Clintons that he was invited to spend a night at the White House, which he reciprocated by hosting Hillary at his home during her listening tours of the state. Serving as a delegate to Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August 2000, Adler was profiled by CNN as one of the “the folks who are the heart and soul of American politics.” He proudly told the camera:

My Rolodex is my most prized possession. It is a 25-year work in progress. It is the tool that enables me to do what I need to do: to get somebody at an embassy to get a donor who allows me to get the superintendent of highways. If the building was on fire, I would run in to get that first.

His main task was cultivating Jewish support in the county, especially among the various Hasidic sects, which often deliver votes in blocs on the strong recommendation of rabbinic leadership. Adler was especially close to New Square, a Skverer Hasidic village of about 7,000 people that may have the most political power per capita of any community in the United States. Its leader, Rabbi David Twersky is seen as infallible by his followers: on Shabbat, hundreds or even thousands of worshippers watch the rabbi eat precisely specified portions of food—so much whitefish, so much egg salad—and eagerly await the honor of consuming his leftovers. The village was most recently in the news in 2011 when a young goon allied with Twersky—the nephew of his top political aide, Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer—set fire to a 43-year old plumber and father-of-four named Aron Rottenberg, who had dared attend services at an outside shul.

In the 2000 Senate election, New Square voted 1400-12 in favor of Clinton, while nearby communities voted just as overwhelmingly for the pro-life Lazio. In December of that year, the senator-elect welcomed Twersky and other New Square leaders to the White House, where they asked the president to review the case of four Skverers who had been convicted two years earlier of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from federal education and housing programs. On his last day of office in January 2001, President Clinton commuted the sentences of the four men. The appearance of a possibly illegal quid pro quo involving New Square’s votes, as well as other suspicious Clinton pardons, prompted the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White (now head of the SEC), to launch an investigation the following month.

A March 2001 article in the New York Times about the case noted the government would have to prove that New Square’s votes represented a “thing of value” which could be traded illegally for commutations. Otherwise, however unseemly the appearance of a deal, nothing illegal could be proven to have occurred. That line would only have been crossed, experts said, had a monetary donation been specifically tied to a certain promised outcome, and no New Square leaders had contributed financially to Clinton’s campaign.

By the time the commutations were granted, de Blasio was already running for a spot on the New York City Council. On December 7th, 2000, just a month after Hillary’s election and two weeks before his and Twersky’s White House visit, New Square Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer—the rebbe’s political liason to outsiders—attended a fundraiser in Manhattan for de Blasio’s council race, donating $2,500, the legal limit at the time. In August 2001, when the Village Voice asked de Blasio whether he had been questioned in White’s pardons investigation, he refused to say yes or no, only adding, “I’m waiting to hear what’s going to happen with that.”

Whether or not de Blasio ever did, the public never has. But given his leadership of Clinton’s campaign (with a specific portfolio, as one former Clinton aide recently told The Times, of soothing “many of the prickly political factions in New York State,” not a reference to cabdrivers), the timely Spitzer donation, and his relationship with Adler, it is almost impossible to conceive of the possibility that de Blasio did not at least know about New Square’s strategy for obtaining presidential pardons by showering Clinton with symbolically significant Jewish support—or, at most, participate in that strategy by helping procure for Twersky and Spitzer a much-desired visit to the White House to plead their case. Spitzer’s and, more recently and more extensively, Adler’s continued patronage of de Blasio’s political career at least gives the impression that the central figures of the New Square pardons episode remain deeply grateful toward Clinton’s former campaign manager, as they are towards this year’s Democratic candidate for Rockland County Executive, David Fried, another former Clinton aide who helped orchestrate the relationship between the village and the campaign at the time and has been endorsed by the ex-president. Either Spitzer and Adler are rewarding Fried and de Blasio for services rendered or they just happen to be supporting, financially and otherwise, the candidates who thirteen years ago were perfectly positioned to have helped them accomplish what was then their most urgent political—and for the New Square leaders, religious—goal.

In response to a series of questions about New Square and Paul Adler, de Blasio campaign spokesman Dan Levitan wrote: “Bill is proud of his time working for the Clinton Administration and on Hillary’s Senate campaign. The facts clearly show he had no involvement in this matter.”

***

In 1997, when four Skverers—three from New Square and one from Brooklyn—were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, the village refused to participate in the investigation. At one point a mob surrounded  federal agents trying to serve subpoenas. Three other men, including a founder of the village and the mayor’s son, fled to Israel, though those two were later caught and convicted. According to the Talmud, “pidyon shvuyim”—releasing Jewish captives held by gentiles—is one of the most important mitzvahs in Jewish law, and by the summer of 2000, the Skverer community was desperate to spring the men from prison.

Meanwhile, Clinton was struggling in her race against Lazio, having a hard time defeating the “carpet-bagger” label in her newly adopted home state, as well as a general Clinton fatigue. Worse, the Jewish community was apoplectic over the news that the First Lady embraced and kissed Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, just after she slurred Israel, and a new book was out claiming that as a 26-year-old, Clinton had allegedly yelled “You fucking Jew bastard!” at the manager of her then-boyfriend Bill’s unsuccessful 1974 congressional campaign in Arkansas. It became de Blasio’s job to make sure Jewish leaders like Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a longtime Brooklyn macher, at the very least didn’t publicly endorse Lazio.

But for Rockland County there was Adler, who knew the soft spot in the ordinarily Republican-voting Hasidic front. On August 8th, Adler coordinated the candidate’s visit to New Square. Clinton, wearing a head covering and a long black skirt, met with Twersky, Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and assorted Rockland County leaders at the rabbi’s home. The community “embraced her with a warmth that surprised and delighted her campaign team,” The Daily News reported the following year.

As Clinton’s efforts to woo Twersky intensified, the rabbi hatched a strategy to achieve his one goal: winning the release of his four followers from prison. On August 25th, two weeks after Clinton’s visit, a Manhattan appeals court rejected a motion to overturn the convictions. With Adler, Clinton visited New Square again in mid-September, and according to two different accounts, one given to the News and one to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it was either that month or the next when Twersky told Nathan Lewin, the Orthodox Washington lawyer representing the convicted villagers, of his plan to deliver overwhelming support in New Square for Clinton’s Senate bid in order to convince her husband to grant pardons—or at least commutations—to the four men. “I thought he was out of his mind,” Lewin recalled to the News at the time. (In a phone call, Lewin denied having had any knowledge of the rabbi’s plan.)

But sure enough, commutations of the men’s sentences were among the nearly 177 pardons and other remissions Bill Clinton granted during his final days in office. Newly installed as a senator, Hillary Clinton denied reports that she had attended a meeting before the election at which Twersky’s request for pardons was discussed. “Sen. Clinton doesn’t recall ever being present during any discussion of clemency for the New Square people prior to December 2000,” Clinton’s lawyer in the case, David Kendall, told the Daily News. In March 2001, FBI investigators visited the New Square Village Hall and Israel Spitzer’s home. Silver, several Rockland officials, and numerous Clinton staffers—some of whom launched legal defense funds for themselves—testified before a grand jury with lawyers provided and paid for by an unidentified source. But White’s successor as U.S. Attorney, James Comey (now head of the FBI), closed the investigation in 2002, without filing any charges, after 9/11 prompted a redistribution of resources and George W. Bush decided it was bad karma to go after his predecessor.

***

Meanwhile, on September 12th, 2000, just a day after being mentioned by The New York Post’s Fred Dicker as a possible replacement for the outgoing state party chair, Adler had been arrested and charged with embezzling at least $375,000 in corrupt real estate deals through bribery, extortion, and mail fraud, including $135,500 for “public relations consulting work” from the developer of the massive Palisades Center mall in West Nyack, which he then funneled through a shell company. According to the complaint, Adler told associates, “If you can’t help your friends, then why get into some of these positions?’” He added that he had not become chairman of the county party to “lose money.” The schemes were similar to the one that in 1987 led to charges against Adler and two associates of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the state government of $20 million in a complicated real estate deal involving a business partner of Governor Mario Cuomo’s son, Andrew; Adler was acquitted on all charges. This time, he was represented by the Bronx-based lawyer Murray Richman, who has made an illustrious career of defending mobsters. (In 2009, Richman bragged to filmmaker Errol Morris: “I had a trial in which my client stabbed the guy in the back four times—uh, no, uh, seven times—and my defense was he kept backing into the knife. And the jury bought it!”)

Responding to demands from Lazio that Clinton return Adler’s donations, a spokeswoman for the First Lady said, “Hillary knows that this is a difficult time for Paul and his family and she wishes them well.” Though the two inquiries were kept separate, as part of the Southern District investigation into Clinton’s pardons the FBI seized two boxes of documents from the Rockland County Democratic Party headquarters, dated 1996-2000: the exact years of Adler’s term as party chair. He faced up to 60 years in prison, but was sentenced to only 19 months in medium-security Otisville penitentiary in a plea bargain his lawyers were careful to assure the Times did not include cooperation with the pardons investigation. In the Post Jack Newfield reported that it was the non-Orthodox Adler who, on that Shabbat morning in January, delivered the news about the commutations to New Square, which Adler’s lawyer denied.

It isn’t clear how much of the New Square portfolio fell to de Blasio in Adler’s absence during the final months of Clinton’s Senate campaign. But it was clearly de Blasio who benefited most from the financial largesse of the community, when Twersky’s aide Spitzer donated $2,500 to what was widely seen as a long-shot run for an open City Council seat in Brooklyn. The district—Brooklyn’s 39th—straddled Park Slope and Borough Park, the urban stronghold of ultra-Orthodox leaders. But the Skverers represent a vanishingly small part of the Borough Park community, and participate almost not at all in its power structure. While Spitzer’s father, Avraham Chaim Spitzer, is a rabbi whose shul is in Borough Park, the synagogue is not in de Blasio’s district. Besides his $2,500 donation to de Blasio’s 2001 council race; a $250 donation to de Blasio’s 2005 re-election bid; and a $3,850 donation to his 2009 public advocate campaign, Spitzer has never before or since donated to a New York City political candidate. Not in Borough Park, not anywhere, not ever: Spitzer’s financial interest in city politics is wholly restricted to de Blasio’s career.

If you are Israel Spitzer, why donate to the nascent, long-shot bid for city council—a city, of course, which you don’t live in—by the guy who just ran the Senate campaign of a woman whose husband is President of the United States and therefore has the unilateral power to grant your most dire political wish? Was he buying access to the Clintons through de Blasio?

“There is no connection whatsoever,” Spitzer said when reached by phone last week. “My relationship to Bill de Blasio is as a councilman and public advocate. We have institutions all over, in Borough Park, in Williamsburg. New Square is not just New Square.”

Did you meet de Blasio when he was working on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign?

“It has nothing to do with the Senate campaign or Hillary. We know him through various activities over the years.”

Your first donation to de Blasio came just a month after the end of Hillary’s campaign, and two weeks before your meeting at the White House with the Clintons.

“I was introduced to him when he decided to run for office, and I thought he was the right candidate.”

“What people may see is obvious,” says Alexander Rapoport, a de Blasio supporter who runs Masbia, a network of kosher soup kitchens that cater to the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. “Obviously, they did vote for her and they were pardoned. They don’t need for explanation. The eye sees what it sees.”

***

“We are supporting him 100%,” Spitzer says of de Blasio’s current campaign. “Not with financial support, but with access support, other support. We’re helping get communities to endorse him.”

Indeed, though he has given $2,500 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 re-election bid, Spitzer has not yet contributed money to de Blasio’s mayoral race.

But Paul Adler has.

For a while after his release, in 2004, Adler kept a low-profile, but as the Rockland County Times noted in March, he has been staging a major comeback in the past three years, winning awards for philanthropy from the Rockland Development Council and for service to the Rockland Business Association, and serving on the boards of several Jewish community organizations. Adler has also regained his real estate license—impossible for a convicted felon in many states—and was hired in 2010 as a vice-president of Rockland-based Rand Commercial, where he tends to blend economic and political boosterism in equal parts. While Adler’s interests may be tangled, they rarely seem to conflict.

Rand Commercial is the leading firm invested in properties adjacent to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement—Gov. Cuomo’s signature infrastructure project—and Adler has served as chief promoter for the project in local media. “It is pretty clear that when we build it, they will come,” Adler has said—a revealing use of the personal plural. “Business creates more business.” Rand has an entire website devoted to the new bridge, listing newly valuable properties for lease near the site, trumpeting Cuomo’s declarations of its necessity, and promising an economic windfall for adjacent communities. Any information Adler may have been privy to related to the bridge’s construction could have been easily and lucratively parlayed into business for Rand Commercial, but perhaps it is only attributable to coincidence or a keen sense for timing that Adler brokered the deal that will move the state police and New York State Thruway Authority facilities to a vacant warehouse owned by a Rand client in West Nyack.

Adler has also championed a projected desalination plant on the Hudson River proposed by United Water, serving the company as an advocate, pressing Rockland officials and community groups like the NAACP to support the plant over the objections of environmentalists, while encouraging the Cuomo administration to approve it. He was also recently admitted to the bar, which requires letters of recommendation vouching that the candidate possesses “the necessary character to justify the trust and confidence that clients, the public and the legal system will place in them.” Bar applications are sealed and confidential under state law.

This summer, when former state senator Nicholas Spano—who worked at Rand before being convicted of tax fraud in 2012—sought a judge’s permission to communicate with his fellow ex-con, a local paper quoted Adler advising Spano to think of redemption as “really a journey, not a destination.”

Adler’s journey has included a sharp spike political fundraising activities—an activity the Adlers never seem to have taken much interest in before his arrest, and is perhaps an attempt to buy back the influence he lost. Since 2005, the Adler household has sprinkled more than $50,000 among dozens of local, state, and federal campaigns—including to Andrew Cuomo. He has held events at his home for Rep. Nita Lowey, a Westchester Democrat, and earlier this month hosted a major fundraiser for David Fried, the Democratic candidate for Rockland County Executive and a former White House advance aide for the Clintons who grew up in nearby Spring Valley, adjacent to New Square. A person who was involved in Rockland politics at the time said that in the fall of 2000, with Adler in prison, Fried pressed those who controlled the president’s schedule to fit in a visit to New Square, just across the Hudson from Chappaqua, where the Clintons had bought a home to facilitate Hillary’s Senate bid. According to the person, who is backing Fried in his current campaign, Fried was on the phone with Spitzer constantly at the time. Bill Clinton endorsed Fried earlier this year, saying he “worked closely” with the advance aide, and in the September primary New Square took the extraordinary step of splitting their usual bloc vote, throwing enough votes to Fried to defeat his opponent Ilan Schoenberger, the village’s long-time political patron who also attended the August 2000 meeting with Hillary Clinton.

The Facebook page for last Sunday’s “Democratic Unity Event” for Fried at Adler’s palatial home in New City, a secular community a few minutes’ drive from New Square, said “Everyone is welcome,” and the open door on a drizzly Sunday morning seemed to emphasize the point. In her rousing speech (“We need someone who’s gonna take us out of this darkness and into the light!”), Kristen Stavisky, Adler’s successor as Democratic county chair, named and drew applause for all the “electeds” in the room—all the public officials, that is, including sitting judges, willing to attend a fundraiser in a disgraced ex-convict’s home: David Carlucci, state senator; James Skoufis, assemblyman; Ellen Jaffee, assemblywoman; Christopher St. Lawrence, Mayor of Ramapo (whose town hall was raided in May by the FBI, investigating the construction of a widely-scorned baseball stadium midwifed, according to Skriloff and others, by Adler); Louis Falco, Rockland County Sherriff; and many more. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent a staffer. When Adler took the floor he especially called out New Square’s Spitzer, standing just to the side, for recognition. I can tell you that I’ve personally spoken with the governor,” Adler told a captivated room. “The governor will be in to campaign on this. Senator Schumer will be in. Senator Gillibrand will be in. The entire state delegation is going to be down here.”

“I don’t think candidates for political office should actively seek and obtain support, including financial, from a convicted federal felon,” says Michael Bongiorno, who as Rockland County District Attorney in 2000 helped put Adler behind bars. “I think it shows extremely poor judgment on the part of anyone who does so.”

“He is very involved with the community,” Fried says, explaining his willingness to accept Adler’s support. “He was recently admitted as an attorney, which required passage of the ‘Character and Fitness’ test. He is one of the largest donors to community programs and agencies including the JCC, and he is very involved with numerous organizations that are important to me.”

Last week, as Hillary Clinton hosted the Roosevelt Hotel event for de Blasio, her husband attended a fundraiser for Fried. Despite his $25,000 co-chairmanship of the de Blasio fundraiser, rumor has it Adler attended Fried’s. Through a spokesman, Fried declined a follow-up request for comment about his role in obtaining the New Square commutations.

“Adler is part of a small cabal that controls Rockland County,” says Robert Rhodes, a self-described left-wing Democrat who is president of the anti-developers group Preserve Ramapo, which has endorsed Fried’s Republican opponent Ed Day in the county executive race. “He’s a guy who goes to prison, then comes back here raising money for the county Democratic machine.”

***

And not only for the county machine.

Last January, the day before formally declaring his candidacy for the mayoral race, de Blasio wrote on Facebook, “My family is making a very important announcement at our home in Park Slope tomorrow.” Adler’s comment, the very first on the page, was simple: “Good luck.”

But Adler knew it would take more than luck to elect the long-shot de Blasio, having already hosted a Rockland County meet-and-greet for the candidate at his home and, along with Clinton alum Harold Ickes, co-chaired a high-dollar fundraiser for de Blasio at the Waldorf Astoria in 2010, widely seen as the first public hint of de Blasio’s mayoral aspirations and of Clintonian support. Adler has donated $1,500 so far to the mayoral campaign, while his wife Mary and son Samuel, who both also happen to work for Rand Commercial, have donated $4,950 and $250 to de Blasio, respectively, and their daughter, who was hired by Gov. Cuomo as a press officer for the state’s economic development agency, has donated $425. Adler attended de Blasio’s victory party in Gowanus on primary night last month.

Written by Adler and graced with his visage, the official Twitter feed of Rand Commercial—which does not handle city-based properties—spends a lot of time concerned with the New York City mayoral campaign:

Reached by phone, Adler praised de Blasio’s “very progressive mindset” and declared his belief that “the winds are blowing for change.” When asked whether de Blasio played any role in the New Square pardons, Adler said Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager “didn’t have anything to do with that, he had nothing to do with anything.” Asked whether he recalled de Blasio attending any meetings between Clinton and the village leaders, Adler said no, called this reporter “sleazebag” twice, and hung up.

The response de Blasio spokesman Dan Levitan e-mailed did not address questions concerning Paul Adler—including whether the candidate has ever discussed New Square with him. A subsequent request for comment has not been returned.

But on Monday, when Adler sent his announcement about chairing the Clinton/de Blasio fundraiser—from his Rand Commercial e-mail account—he wrote:

We are all inextricably linked together, so let’s be active participants in making history once again.

I know I am always asking to you to support this cause or that candidate, but, we always seem to in the right place at the right time, and this time is no exception.

Richard Kreitner is a writer and researcher in New York City. He is on Twitter at @richardkreitner and can be reached at richard.kreitner [at] gmail.com.