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Accused conspirator in donation scheme for Mayor Adams’ campaign pleads guilty

The Gothamist, Samantha Max, Apr 18, 2024

The owner of a construction company accused in a conspiracy to make illegal donations to Mayor Eric Adams’ 2021 campaign pleaded guilty in Manhattan Thursday, joining several co-defendants who have already admitted guilt in the case.

Shamsuddin Riza and his company, United Construction Brothers Services, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of first-degree falsifying business records. He also pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted grand larceny. Riza is expected to dodge prison time, according to the plea agreement. While he faces up to four years in prison for each charge, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of three years’ probation in exchange for his guilty plea. 

The development in the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation comes as a federal investigation into Adams’ 2021 campaign donations is also underway. The FBI seized the mayor’s electronic devices last fall and has searched the homes of some of his aides. The mayor has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.

As part of the plea deal released Thursday, Riza also agreed not to organize any political fundraisers or solicit campaign contributions for three years, the deal states.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the plea agreement and Riza’s attorney did not immediately respond to a phone call. 

Four people and two companies have now pleaded guilty in the case. Prosecutors accused the group of attempting to skirt campaign finance laws to benefit Adams’ campaign and curry favor with the candidate. They said the group engaged in a straw donor scheme by recruiting their employees and relatives to make contributions to the campaign, which they later reimbursed. The scheme allowed the defendants to evade donation limits and exploit New York City’s public matching program for campaign contributions, according to the indictment.

Dwayne Montgomery, a retired NYPD inspector with ties to the mayor, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in February. He agreed to refrain from political fundraising for a year, pay a $500 fine and complete 200 hours of community service. Two other men pleaded guilty last fall.

Riza admitted in the plea agreement that between August 2020 and November 2021, he, Montgomery and another co-defendant conspired to make illegal campaign donations and hide the true source of the funds, with the intention of stealing more than $3,000 in matching funds from the city’s campaign finance board. He also admitted to submitting falsified campaign contribution forms that listed other names as donors instead of his own. Riza, Montgomery and others then agreed to purchase money orders from different U.S. Post Offices to pay back the people whose names they used to make straw donations, the plea agreement states.

Read More: The Gothamist

LABOR ILWU, Community Coalition, Defeats Proposed Baseball Stadium on Oakland Waterfront

ILWU, Melvin Mackay, April 18, 2024

Stadium redevelopment project posed threat to waterfront jobs and regional economic engine.

In late 2018, the Oakland A’s, the Mayor of Oakland, Alameda County Supervisors, building and construction trades, local business leaders, state legislators, and the Commissioners at the Port of Oakland formed an impressive and formidable unified front when all of them joined together to announce that they wanted to eliminate a large swath of the working, industrial Oakland waterfront.   This elimination was to have taken place to accommodate the plan of the billionaire owner of the Oakland A’s, John Fisher, to turn Howard Terminal into a miniature version of the gentrified San Francisco waterfront – complete with new condominiums, office towers, and hotels, in addition to a baseball stadium meant to compete with the Giants’ stadium across the Bay.

The A’s envisioned fans sailing in the Oakland navigational channel with an “armada” of boats, watching fireworks and listening to music on party barges in the turning basin, shifting freight rail traffic to non-game days, and replacing truck routes with bicycle lanes and new sidewalks for fans – and shutting down a facility under longshore jurisdiction and the home of a PMA-ILWU training center.  The stadium project also threatened the viability of cargo movements at other terminals in Oakland, increased congestion, and the promise of a future larger turning basin, which is critical to maintaining the Port of Oakland’s competitiveness. 

In the face of overwhelming political odds, the ILWU stood firm and fought for its members.  We also became a founding member of an unprecedented coalition of every major waterfront group that had a stake in the future of the Port of Oakland.  This group was made up of a whole swath of maritime labor, including ILWU locals, the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, Marine Firemen, and more. We began meeting first at the IBU hall in San Francisco and then at MM&P in Oakland.  Joining us were maritime, trucking, and railroad groups, including the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, Harbor Trucking Association, California Trucking Association, and the Union Pacific Railroad, plus individual local Oakland companies like Schnitzer Steel and GSC Logistics, Cool Fresh, and BNSF Railroad.

Read More: ILWU

NYC Council approves Willets Point plan for soccer stadium, affordable housing

The Gothamist, Arun Venugopal, April 11, 2024

Willets Point, a corner of Queens that has long been synonymous with auto repair shops and urban neglect, got the go-ahead on Thursday for a lavish makeover that includes a new soccer stadium and 2,500 units of affordable housing.

The City Council voted 47-1 to approve the final phase of the redevelopment plan slated for a 62-acre tract alongside Citi Field.

“We’re building the largest, 100% affordable housing development New York has seen in over 40 years,” said Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya, who has championed the project, which he called a “once in a lifetime chance to build a new neighborhood, forever changing the map of our city.”

The plan now heads to the desk of Mayor Eric Adams, a major supporter of the redevelopment, who said it would transform “a neighborhood in Queens that used to be known for its junkyards.”

“Housing is the goal — and with today’s City Council vote, I’m proud to say that we just scored the goal of the decade,” Adams said in a statement.

The project’s first phase, which includes 1,100 residential units, has already been approved. Attempts to redevelop the area gained ground under Mayor Michael Bloomberg but eventually faltered before being reinvigorated with the inclusion of a soccer stadium. The new plan also includes a public school for 650 students and a 250-room hotel.

Jennifer O’Sullivan, the chief operating officer for the New York City Football Club, noted that the 25,000-seat, $780 million stadium would be privately financed and “100% union-built,” and said the plan is for it to open in time for the 2027 season.

“With a World Cup coming to New York in 2026, you start to see that this is an opportunity to build New York as one of the soccer capitals of the world,” O’Sullivan said in an interview after the vote.

Queens Councilmember Shekar Krishnan cast the sole dissenting vote. He noted that the NYCFC’s majority owner, Sheikh Mansour, is “one of the wealthiest men on the planet” and that the redevelopment deal would allow the team to avoid paying property taxes.

The city’s Independent Budget Office estimated the arrangement would cost taxpayers $516 million in property tax revenue over the course of the stadium’s 49-year lease.

“This is a bad deal for New York City,” Krishnan said. “And this is a terrible precedent for land use. A stadium on public land, subsidized by hundreds of millions in public funds, is not a good deal.”

City officials have rejected the budget office’s assessment, arguing that it didn’t take into account the $6.1 billion in projected economic activity or 14,200 construction jobs.

Read More: The Gothamist

State report points to reforming mayoral control of NYC schools

The Gothamist, Jessica Gould, Apr 9, 2024

A report from the New York state education department suggested some reforms to mayoral control of New York City’s schools on Tuesday, prompting furious backlash from Mayor Eric Adams.

The nearly 300-page state education department report did not recommend transformative change to the New York City school system’s oversight. But it did note that the city’s top-down approach to education gives the mayor more power than any other district in the United States, and suggested possibly diluting City Hall’s influence over a panel that votes on education department contracts.

State legislators said they’ll use the report to inform their vote on whether to extend mayoral control of schools, which expires at the end of June.

“This report is a thorough, research-based presentation of school governance models in New York City and elsewhere,” state education department spokesperson J.P. O’Hare said in a statement.

Adams lashed out before the report was publicly released, attacking its authors and questioning its methodology.

“So I’m concerned. Is this more political? Or is it about the way we have done it and [what] Chancellor [David] Banks has done,” Adams said during a press conference prior to the report’s public release. “When we sat down and communicated with them, it was clear that either someone did not read the law, or they determined that they were going to do it the way they wanted to do.”

Read More: The Gothamist

Community Board Challenges Hudson Yards Shift: From Residential Dream to Office-Casino Plan

W42nd StreetDashiell Allen, April 8, 2024

Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) says it is “mystified” at a bid by Related Companies, the developer behind Hudson Yards, to modify its plan for the Western Rail Yards to include building offices and a possible casino instead of creating a primarily residential district. 

The new proposal is a far cry from the plan agreed upon in 2009 by MCB4, Related and the City of New York, for six buildings containing 5,762 housing units on the Western Rail Yards (W30th to W33rd St bw 11/12th Ave). The new proposal would include 1,507 units, 324 of which would be subsidized-affordable, and the Community Board is none too pleased by the change. 

Related submitted its revised plans to the Department of City Planning on February 20. The new proposal includes three buildings — one that would be residential and two commercial, including a 2.5 million square foot hotel and “gaming facility.”

The change, according to Related’s Draft Scope of Work, is necessary because the zoning approved in 2009 “was geared primarily toward condominium development and does not offer the flexibility needed [for] residential, office, community facility, open space, and other uses.” 

Read More: W42nd Street

Working-Class People Rarely Have a Seat ‘At the Legislative Table’ in State Capitols

STATELINE, Robbie Sequeira and Josh Kurtz, April 6, 2024

Just 116 of the nearly 7,400 state legislators — about 2% of Democrats and 1% of Republicans — meet the definition of working class compared with 50% of U.S. workers.

In her first few months as a Minnesota state legislator in 2021, state Rep. Kaela Berg often wondered: “What the hell am I doing here?”

A single mother and flight attendant without a college degree or prior political experience, Berg now had a seat at the legislative table, shaping policy decisions in her home state.

As she ran against a former two-term Republican representative — a commercial real estate agent — she also was struggling for housing and living in a friend’s basement.

“I’m living in [her] basement, running for office, and the pandemic hits,” said Berg. “I went from three jobs to one. … I found that while I can pay my bills, I can’t qualify for a new apartment because you have to show two or three times the rent and I can’t do that.”

While it was gratifying to receive support from working families in her district, her transition to state policymaker felt overwhelming.

“I had the worst case of impostor syndrome,” Berg, a member of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said in an interview. “I’m thinking, ‘Who do I think I am? I’m a working flight attendant. I don’t have a college degree. Why did I let somebody talk me into this?’”

Berg is a rarity in politics: a working-class state legislator.

Just 116 of the nearly 7,400 state legislators in the United States come from working-class backgrounds, according to biennial study conducted by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, respectively.

The researchers define legislators as “working class” if they currently or last worked in manual labor, service industry, clerical or labor union jobs. They found that 1.6% of state lawmakers meet that definition, compared with 50% of U.S. workers. Only about 2% of Democrats and 1% of Republicans qualified as working class.

Read More: STATELINE

NYC’s ‘worst landlord’ going to jail after turning himself in to city sheriff

The Gothamist, David Brand, Mar 31, 2024

A notorious New York City landlord turned himself in to the city’s sheriff on Thursday to begin a two-month jail sentence after blowing off a judge’s orders to correct a raft of hazards at two Upper Manhattan apartment buildings he owns.

Daniel Ohebshalom was found in contempt of court earlier this monthfor failing for years to fix hundreds of alleged violations both Washington Heights buildings, where tenants have faced crumbling ceilings, chronic vermin infestations and lead paint on the walls, according to city housing records. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development first sued Ohebshalom for needed repairs in the buildings in 2021.

“The ongoing conditions that the tenants of the subject premises have had to endure, have remained uncorrected since November of 2022, at least 16 months before this writing, and often longer,” Manhattan Judge Jack Stoller said in his contempt order on March 8.

A spokesperson for Sheriff Anthony Miranda said Ohebshalom, who lives in California, turned himself in at the sheriff’s Manhattan office at 3 p.m. Thursday, nearly two weeks after his arrest warrant was issued. Ohebshalom lost a motion to dismiss the arrest on Tuesday, court records show.

Ohebshalom will serve his 60-day sentence at Rikers Island and was being transported for intake there Thursday afternoon, the sheriff’s office said. Ohebshalom will serve his 60-day sentence at the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island, according to Department of Correction records.

His attorney did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment on his arrest.

Read More: The Gothamist

Building on the Best of New York’s Social Housing Policy

JACOBIN, Jonathan Tarleton, March 29, 2024 

The New York state legislature is calling for the revival of Mitchell-Lama, a program that built over 160,000 affordable housing units in the mid-20th century. It’s a welcome proposal — but we need bigger ambitions for social housing policy today.

This year’s budget season in New York State, running through and likely past the coming April 1 deadline, is taking on a familiar contour to years’ past: a devastating housing crisis rages, certain promising legislative proposals are put forward to address it, and prospects for their passage appear murky. Some if not all are likely to be shot down by the governor and real-estate money.

Among the refrains coming out of the legislature this year is the annual call for a “Mitchell-Lama 2.0,” a revival of the revered state and city program that funded the creation of an impressive number of middle-income rentals and co-ops across New York from the 1950s up until the fiscal crisis of the late ’70s. This is good news: Mitchell-Lama is one of the most successful social housing programs in US history, and its still-robust ranks of apartments in New York City and beyond are vital bulwarks against the ongoing decimation of affordable homes for regular people.

Mitchell-Lama originally set out to fill a gap in the state’s housing supply. Households faced a dearth of homes postwar, and many working- and middle-class people were too well-off to qualify for public housing or too cash-strapped to afford market-rate homes. To address this, the program offered developers low-interest-rate mortgages covering up to 95 percent of project costs, ongoing property tax breaks to reduce operating costs, and occasionally a ready-made site prepared with federal urban renewal funds — in exchange for what was supposed to be permanently affordable housing and a cap on developers’ profits.

This program funded the creation of 420 projects with over 165,000 apartments across the state, 140,000 of those in New York City. About half of those city homes took the form of a limited-equity co-op: apartment complexes owned collectively by their residents and kept out of the speculative real-estate market by strict formulae that limited resale value and sought to maintain the homes’ affordability for future generations.

Today, the state senate has proposed $250 million for the creation of a New York Housing Opportunity Corporation to finance a similar mix of new affordable rentals and co-ops on state-owned land. Meanwhile, the state assembly has earmarked $500 million for Foundations for Futures, a plan to finance Mitchell-Lama-like limited-equity co-ops.

Read More: JACOBIN

As Deadline Looms, Local Journalism Sustainability Act Advocates Seek FY’25 State Budget Inclusion

Chelsea Community News, Scott Stiffler, March 29, 2024

What do the bald eagle, gray wolf, and American peregrine falcon have in common? Well, besides a reputation for majestic poses based largely on postage stamps bearing their illustrated likeness, “Each faced the brink of extinction and have now rebounded,” crowed a December 28, 2023 featured content article published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of theEndangered Species Act.

Fast forward to present-day Albany—where conservation-minded legislation of a different kind existsin the form of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. First introduced in 2021, its sponsors—NYS Assemblymember Carrie Woerner (Saratoga-D) and Chelsea’s own NYS Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (Manhattan-D/WFP)—have succeeded in making the Act part of the NYS Senate’s One House budget resolution. With the budget passage deadline of April 1 fast approaching, lawmakers and NYS Governor Hochul continue to negotiate behind closed doors, while advocates on the local levels work to ensure the Sustainability Act doesn’t go the way of the dodo.

This legislative approach to conservation comes at time when heavy losses have already left their mark on community-based journalism. “More than 3,000 newspapers have shuttered across the country since 2004—and New York newspapers have been particularly hard hit,” reads a March 19 press alert from the recently formed Empire State Local News Coalition (a statewide advocacy group comprised of 150+ local print and digital newspapers). Since 2004, notes the Coalition, New York’s statewide newspaper count went from 501 to 260 (30 of those losses happening in 2022 alone). “A quarter of New York’s counties are down to their last newspaper,” the Coalition’s alert states, adding, “Orleans County recently became the first in the state to have none.”

Among the top contributing factors when a newspaper ceases publication is the sharp decline in advertising revenue. Add to that the pandemic era’s mass exodus of advertisers—concert, sporting, and entertainment events, churches, restaurants, theaters, and bars—whose combined business had long been the bread and butter of the hometown newspaper’s bottom line. Paid subscriptions have also dwindled, alongside a steady rise in competition from online destinations where news, like so many other things, is free for the taking.

In its current form, the Act establishes a refundable tax credit to news organizations with 100 or fewer journalists (50% tax credit against the first $50,000 of an employee’s salary, capped at $200,000 in total). Statewide, the cap is $20 million. Eligible print, digital, and broadcast news outlets must be in existence for at least one year, focus on local news, and employ at least one journalist whose output is exclusive to the outlet’s area of coverage. (Said the New York Press Association (NYPA) in a March 18 email to its membership, “Remember, this is a refundable tax credit, meaning that you can benefit from the entire credit even if you have zero tax liability.”)

Julie Fedler, ad director at Capital Region Independent Media (a Local News Coalition member), recalled that “While we are proud we haven’t missed an issue since COVID, we all know that local newspaper subscriptions were already dwindling. Having less local reporters hasn’t inspired new subscribers, but we pivot and continue to strive to serve our communities.” Passage of the Sustainability Act, says Fedler, “would put feet on the street to engage with our communities, to deliver our people the news they deserve, and to give them a voice.”

This projected result is of particular interest to Sustainability Act co-sponsor Senator Hoylman-Sigal, who says the decline of state capital-assigned reporters over the years has made local media’s role more important than ever. “Community news outlets,” he notes, allow electeds to “communicate with constituents about the work we do” while “shining a bright light on government that holds us accountable. What we do in Albany needs to be scrutinized.”

Read More: Chelsea Community News

UnHomeless NYC

The Brooklyn RailJoseph Masheck, March 29, 2024

How many times have we rushed past the small non-commercial Hudson Guild Gallery, in a public housing project in Chelsea, on our way to some big-bucks exhibition? It now has a show on the theme of homelessness and housing, with works by well-known conceptual as well as unknown artists. If that sounds like something very good for somebody else to see, I have found it more critically stimulating than one might suppose.

The Hudson Guild itself (nothing to do with glitzoid Hudson Yards) is something like a 129-year old free-form settlement house, where normally amateur art is pursued as a social-service activity. Then again, this isn’t just another neighborhood, art-wise. Here, under Director of Arts Jim Furlong, the curators Maureen Connor, Jason Leggett, Tommy Mintz, Robert Robinson, and Midori Yamamora filled the modest space with works by Willie Baronet, Michael Corris, Elena Grachev, Martha Rosler, Hope Sandrow, Vicky Virgin, Sachigusa Yasuda, plus the collaboratives Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and CoHabitation Strategies.

This is by no means the first art exhibition to highlight homelessness, even apart from a more strictly architectural-design emphasis—in general, another ball of wax. Some such shows have had more or less the same seemingly non-institutional title. Intrinsic to this one was Martha Rosler’s largely photographic, but also constructed, mixed-media exhibit Timeline for Unhomeless NYC at Hudson Guild, dated 1989–present, including the ongoing history of her If You Lived Here…, an installation with an activist history of its own, shown in the USA and in many cities abroad. The title If You Lived Here… alludes to privileged US suburban living: billboards along highways or railroads saying, “If you lived here you would be home now,” but here applied ironically to those living on the street. Before, Rosler emphasized the problem (in historical extension of the slum photography of Thomas Annan and Jacob Riis); now there seems more of a thrust to solve it.

Large-looming as well as central to the overall concept here is We Are All Homeless (2022), attributed to Willie Baronet as, so to speak, its authorly collector-in-charge. It displays many inscriptional drawings made by homeless panhandlers on rectangular sides of corrugated boxes. The most frequent word, by far, is “help,” and the next is “hungry.” Individual subtleties have personally formal as well as expressively general interest—including the impulse, as emotionally constrained by the situation, to force a joke. If this weren’t an art gallery it might almost be cruel to be so detached, but I was drawn to a vertical piece using lowercase “l’s” in a stack of three words, as on a button: 

HElP
HElP
 ME.

The “I’s” are so arbitrary, since even people who confuse capitals and lower case write “L”—a wayward usage that might even satirize the current foolish design cliché of dotting upper-case “I’s.” It would be nice to know the name of the actual artist. (Baronet paid each artist, but perhaps with little time at a red light.) 

Read More: The Brooklyn Rail