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Mayor’s Fund Less Generous Under Mayor’s Wife

NEW YORK — In the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance the City of New York became a fundraising juggernaut: The city-run nonprofit, which channels donations to city programs or causes, raised tens of millions of dollars from private sources.

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Mayor’s Fund Less Generous Under Mayor’s Wife
J. DAVID GOODMAN, New York Times

NEW YORK — In the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance the City of New York became a fundraising juggernaut: The city-run nonprofit, which channels donations to city programs or causes, raised tens of millions of dollars from private sources.

But under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the fund has not kept pace. Contributions are stagnant, if not falling, and now support fewer programs.

And the chairwoman of the nonprofit, Chirlane McCray, has largely been missing in action: She has attended less than half of the fund’s board meetings, and her outreach to donors has been sporadic.

McCray, the mayor’s wife, has not even set foot in the fund’s office for nearly a year; her public schedules in 2017 recorded less than 20 hours spent on Mayor’s Fund business during the entire year.

Even as fundraising has stalled, the fund has moved into larger offices — which include a new, private office for McCray — and the cost of running the operation has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years.

The performance of the Mayor’s Fund — McCray’s only official role among her many unofficial responsibilities, including overseeing the city’s mental health initiatives — provides a window into her leadership style at a time when she is contemplating a run for office of her own.

“It’s about being an active chair,” McCray said in a recent interview. She defended her tenure and said that she frequently took part in activities outside the fund offices, like visiting programs that it had financed.

“I know what goes on,” McCray said, adding that she was justified in skipping board meetings. “It’s not necessary for me to sit through them if I can be raising thousands of dollars to actually pay for” fund programs. She added, “This is 2018, work can get done in all kinds of ways.”

The nonprofit was created in 1994 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani to raise private-sector money to finance some of his pet projects, including a children’s book featuring his dog. It was reorganized and given its current name by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg after he took office in 2002, when the city was reeling from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Bloomberg, a billionaire whose charitable efforts are well known, conceived the fund as a way for philanthropists, corporations and others to help subsidize city initiatives.

De Blasio had to seek permission from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to name his wife to chair the fund, because city rules barred him from giving the job to a relative. The mayor argued that she would be “exceptional” and was “uniquely qualified” to connect government with for-profit and nonprofit groups.

From mid-2002 through mid-2014, the fund raised an average of $32 million a year, although that number is inflated somewhat by a spike in donations after Hurricane Sandy (and includes large donations from Bloomberg).

From the fiscal year that began in July 2014 — the first year the fund was under full control of de Blasio and McCray — through June 2017, the fund raised an average of $22 million a year. In the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, the fund raised $14 million, according to a spokeswoman, Cynthia Olson, putting the fund on pace for its lowest annual revenues in more than a decade.

The number of programs the fund supports has also declined, from 123 during de Blasio’s first year in office to 97 the next fiscal year. After a brief rise, the number declined again. There were 85 programs at last count, according to Olson.

But the fund itself has become a much larger operation, adding employees and salaries. The organization spent $753,000 on management and fundraising in the fiscal year that ended in June 2017, 50 percent more than two years earlier.

“The amount of time it takes to manage a $50,000 program or project is not infrequently the same amount of time that it might take to manage a $5 million program or project,” said Darren Bloch, executive director of the Mayor’s Fund, defending the staffing increase. He said that a better measure of the fund’s success was the number of programs that it finances — a number that has also fallen.

The fund has also moved into a larger space, in a building across from City Hall, which, for the first time, now includes a separate office for the chairwoman. The office has McCray’s name on a metal plaque on the door. Inside there is a small desk with a computer; a bookshelf is adorned with bibelots and certificates of appreciation with her name in fancy script.

McCray last stopped by in May 2017, Olson said.

The first lady was a similarly infrequent presence at board meetings, attending just five of 12 since being appointed, according to the meeting minutes. The fund’s federal tax returns say that she spends only an hour a week on fund business. Her public schedules indicate she spends even less: a total of 19.5 hours spent on fund activities in all of last year; 35 hours in 2016. (Her spokeswoman, Kate Bernyk, estimated she spends 10 percent of her time on fund business.)

And while the fund’s bylaws define the chair as “the lead fundraiser,” officials struggled to show her direct involvement with those efforts. In interviews with more than a dozen donors and others who had contact with the fund, none said that they had substantive conversations with McCray. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a donor to the fund virtually since its inception, recalled receiving a brief phone call from McCray in 2015 when the foundation was considering a large donation to support a mental health initiative. He also attended a meeting of philanthropic organizations at Gracie Mansion to discuss the initiative, at which McCray spoke. But he said that he had no in-depth conversations with her about fund business.

Walker recalled that he would often get calls from Patricia E. Harris, who served as the previous fund chairwoman while she was the first deputy mayor to Bloomberg, to invite him to meetings to talk about donating to programs, like Bloomberg’s initiative to plant 1 million trees.

Harris missed only one board meeting in the last four years she served as chairwoman, the period for which records were available.

Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said that McCray’s public schedules listed fundraising calls made on behalf of the fund, but an analysis of those schedules showed just three such calls in the first three years de Blasio was in office. The pace appeared to pick up last year, with 16 calls on the schedules and seven more in the first two months of this year.

City Hall later provided a list of 44 people contacted by McCray in 2015 and 2016. Several people on the list, when asked about the call, either did not remember the interaction or did not recall discussing donations.

“She makes calls to share what our priorities are and to get attention and interest from others,” said Bloch, describing McCray as a key part of the organization’s fundraising. He said that she does not typically make direct requests for money, which is a task that he or another staffer will do in follow up calls.

However, of the 25 one-on-one calls identified on the schedules, in only three cases did the person or the organization they were associated with, follow up with a donation, according to a list of contributions provided by the fund.

One exception was Marilyn Simons, a philanthropist married to hedge fund billionaire James Simons. The couple donated $260,000, earmarked for McCray’s mental health initiative, in 2015 and 2016. McCray’s schedules show that last year she made three calls to Simons, in July, September and December. In December, the Simonses made another donation, of $250,000. A spokeswoman said that they had pledged an additional $250,000, which will be paid this year.

Marilyn Simons declined to be interviewed.

But another pattern is revealed by the calls: almost half of those contacted by McCray were contributors to her husband’s mayoral campaigns (the Simonses each gave the maximum donation to de Blasio’s re-election campaign last year). In at least two cases, a person made a campaign donation to de Blasio within days of one of McCray’s calls on behalf of the fund.

There is no limit to the size of donations to the fund, as there is for campaign contributions, and as a nonprofit controlled by the mayor’s office, the fund has routinely and legally raised money from donors who gave to de Blasio’s campaigns and his political causes.

“We understand we’re working at a sensitive intersection of civic investors and public projects, so we try to be sensitive to it,” Bloch said. “If you’re civic-minded, you’re probably involved in campaign support as well as philanthropy and the rest of it, so it’s hard to. There’s no separation as a practical matter.”

Familiar figures in de Blasio’s orbit who gave to the fund include James F. Capalino, a top lobbyist and campaign contributor to the mayor who also made donations, later ruled improper, to the Campaign for One New York, a political nonprofit started by de Blasio that the mayor was forced to shut down amid ethics questions and the investigations into his fundraising. The inquiries were closed in 2016 without charges being filed. In several cases, donations to the fund coincided with city action on a particular project, though donors dispute any effort to curry favor with the administration.

Two Trees Management, a real estate developer that in 2015 donated $100,000 to the Campaign for One New York, gave $11,750 to the fund in April 2016, just weeks after de Blasio said he would shut down the Campaign for One New York. The previous February, de Blasio had announced plans to build a streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, in neighborhoods where Two Trees has developments. A company representative, David Lombino, said McCray did not solicit the donation, which went to an internship program known as Ladders for Leaders.

Harold Fetner, a real estate developer who joined the fund’s advisory board in 2014, made multiple donations to the fund, through companies he owns, from 2015 through 2017, totaling $67,350. He also made maximum contributions to de Blasio’s inaugural fund in 2013 and to his 2017 re-election campaign.

In May 2017, Fetner Properties was named by the city as the developer of a project to build affordable and market rate apartments on New York City Housing Authority land in Harlem. A spokesman for Fetner, Sam Spokony, said there was no link between the donations and the development project.

Besides the calls that McCray makes to donors, she has met with potential donors and hosted an annual Christmas fundraiser at Gracie Mansion. But the fundraising work has mostly been done by others: Bloch; Gabrielle Fialkoff, the fund’s vice chairwoman, who also works as a senior adviser to de Blasio and was the finance chairwoman of his 2013 mayoral campaign; and Daniele Baierlein, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser who previously worked at the Podesta Group, the powerful Washington lobbying firm. Baierlein was hired last year as director of development.

Under McCray’s leadership, the fund has made priorities of mental health, youth employment and immigration services. The three largest programs, according to the most recent tax filing for 2016, were federal grants for anti-poverty initiatives, civic service programs and a Bloomberg-era effort known as the Young Men’s Initiative aimed at supporting black and Hispanic men.

McCray declined a request for a follow-up interview to discuss the fund’s activities in more detail. After The Times reviewed its findings with staff at the Mayor’s Fund, officials on May 18 announced the addition of 19 members, including Marilyn Simons, to its advisory board, a largely ceremonial position chiefly aimed at fundraising.

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