New York City’s mayor has downplayed the federal investigation into his campaign fund-raising, but, by dodging questions and obfuscating, he’s invited even more public scrutiny.
Because public attention is a finite resource, political crises have a way of obscuring and supplanting one another. On the morning of November 2nd, New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, flew to Washington, D.C., for a full day of meetings about New York’s migrant crisis. “We are headed to D.C. to meet with our congressional delegation and the White House to address this real issue,” Adams said in a video posted on his X account at 7:41 a.m. “We’ll keep you updated as the day goes on.”
For more than a year, without much success, Adams had been calling on the federal government to defray the astronomical costs of housing tens of thousands of immigrants in city-run shelters. He had gone as far as suggesting that without federal help the migrant crisis would “destroy” New York. Though the dispute had damaged his public relationship with President Joe Biden, the Mayor was getting an audience at the White House. But Adams never made his meetings. That same morning, news broke of an F.B.I. raid at the home of one of his campaign fund-raising officials, Brianna Suggs. Already on the ground in D.C., Adams caught the first plane home, in order to “deal with a matter,” as a City Hall spokesperson put it.
Suggs, who is twenty-five, lives with her father and grandmother in a row house in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 2020, and she served on Adams’s 2021 mayoral campaign as a fund-raiser and “logistics director,” according to her LinkedIn page. At Suggs’s house, federal agents reportedly confiscated two laptops, three iPhones, and a manila folder labelled “Eric Adams.” The Times reported that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan is trying to determine whether representatives of the Turkish government illegally funnelled money into Adams’s campaign.
Back in New York, Adams avoided reporters, and put off public appearances. News outlets began combing through his campaign-finance records, paying close attention to the fourteen thousand dollars in donations made by employees of a Brooklyn construction company reportedly owned by Turkish New Yorkers, and to the ten thousand dollars in donations made by employees of a small private university with ties to Turkish institutions. Adams is not the world’s most disciplined public speaker, and City Hall reporters have learned to take him seriously, if not always literally. (“Adams doesn’t just polish anecdotes,” my colleague Ian Parker wrote in a profile of Adams earlier this year. “He is unusually ready to repeat things that are confirmably untrue.”) Yet some of his former statements, particularly those regarding Turkey, took on a newfound significance after the raid. “When I get elected, you’re going to have your first Turkish Mayor,” Adams once told a Turkish American business news Web site. “The Turkish community has really supported and held several fundraisers for me. I’m extremely appreciative of the substantial dollar amount they have.”
Six days after the raid, Adams convened a press conference to address what was going on. He told the assembled reporters that he wanted to be “completely transparent,” and then refused to detail what exactly he had done or whom he had spoken to after returning from Washington. “I did not want to be sitting inside a meeting somewhere when there was something playing out here in the city,” he said. When asked if he was worried that he himself might face criminal charges, he laughed. “I would be shocked,” he said. “WilmerHale . . . that’s the law firm that I’ve retained . . . they are professionals in this area.” He insisted that, as a former police captain, he knew right from wrong. “I cannot tell you how much I start the day with telling my team we’ve got to follow the law,” he said. “Almost to the point that I’m annoying.” Here was a new crisis for the city to grapple with: Could the Mayor be believed?
For years, Adams’s critics have been predicting that a corruption scandal would do him in. Many aides, allies, friends, and associates of his have been investigated, and some indicted, for a range of frauds and bad acts in office. He’s generally stuck by them, valuing loyalty over any other political consideration, even at the risk of appearing personally compromised. In July, the Manhattan District Attorney brought campaign-finance charges against several donors to Adams’s 2021 mayoral campaign, two of which have pleaded guilty. Adams waved it off, saying he was totally uninvolved. “I follow one rule: follow the rules,” he said. In September, his former Department of Buildings commissioner, Eric Ulrich, was indicted on allegations of favor trading and bribery. According to the Daily News, Ulrich, who has pleaded not guilty, told investigators that Adams had warned him to “watch your back and watch your phones.” Adams denied saying this. He has long suggested that he faces more scrutiny than other politicians because he is Black. “My face will show up on front pages of, ‘Is there unethical and immoral behavior?,’ ” he said last week, speaking to a Brooklyn church congregation three days after the F.B.I. raid. “We’re going to be all right.”
It’s true that Adams, despite having come under law-enforcement scrutiny before, has always survived, politically and legally. But the scrutiny this time is of the highest level: on Friday, the Times reported that, two days before Adams’s press conference, he was stopped on the street by F.B.I. agents, who confiscated two of his phones and his iPad. “I have nothing to hide,” Adams said in a statement, though he had chosen not to disclose this incident at the press conference—even after he was asked whether he had been personally contacted by law enforcement. In a statement also released on Friday, Adams’s attorney said, “The mayor has not been accused of any wrongdoing.”
When he took office, Adams embraced the title of “the night-life mayor.” His club-going, flashy clothes, and self-described “swagger” have invited comparisons to Jimmy Walker, the flamboyant Tammany man who held sway as the city’s “night mayor” in the Roaring Twenties. Walker resigned, in 1932, in a corruption scandal, after accepting bribes from businessmen who wanted municipal contracts. According to the Times, the U.S. Attorney’s office is examining whether Adams pressured New York Fire Department officials to fast-track approvals for a new Turkish consulate building in Manhattan, whose grand opening was presided over by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The events in question took place in 2021, after Adams had won the Democratic Party’s mayoral primary, when he was Brooklyn borough president and the de-facto mayor-elect. And yet all of this commotion, over just tens of thousands of dollars in donations and a “temporary certificate” of occupancy negotiated by someone who had not yet taken office?
Adams does himself no favors with his erratic decision-making and inability to avoid drip, drip news stories. During the campaign, he never quite managed to quash suspicions that he actually lived in New Jersey. In the current case, one mystery is why Adams decided to appoint a recent college graduate to a top fund-raising position. Suggs has been described in news reports as “mild-mannered,” “professional,” and the “goddaughter” of Ingrid Lewis-Martin, Adams’s close aide and political enforcer. (“I’m not Michelle Obama,” Lewis-Martin told an interviewer last year. “When they go low? We drill for oil.”) Adams has explained Suggs’s hire by saying that he and Lewis-Martin were looking to create more opportunities for young Black and brown New Yorkers in politics. “We saw an opportunity for her, to open a pathway for her,” he said. “And we brought her on board, and I was pleasantly surprised.” When I went by Suggs’s house recently, her grandmother, a former Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker, answered the door. Her eyes were red, like she’d been crying, and she told me that she had nothing to say to me.
The Mayor’s political instinct when under attack is to return fire. In a Trumpian flourish, one source suggested to the Post that the federal investigation of the Mayor reeks of political retribution by the President: “the manner in which he had his phones taken away in public seems targeted against the mayor in response to his stance on the immigration crisis.” This kind of argument is ludicrous, and dangerous.
Two former federal prosecutors I spoke with acknowledged that taking a sitting mayor’s devices was an extremely aggressive step for the U.S. Attorney’s office, adding that this would only be done at the end stage of an investigation, close to the time when charging decisions would be made. “I think they’re sitting on the ‘we’re going to charge’ button,” one said. Until it’s clear what kind of trouble the Mayor is in, the city’s other crises—the housing shortage, and the ever-increasing number of migrants—are going nowhere. On Sunday, the city opened up an enormous tent facility to house migrants on the grounds of an old airfield in southern Brooklyn. Few know how many shoes have yet to drop here. Adams, for his part, wears Ferragamos.