Some of Eric Adams’s Hires Have Troubling Pasts. He’s Fine With That. – The New York Times


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Mayor Eric Adams believes in second chances, and he has put that philosophy into practice in hiring for his cabinet.
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As Uganda carried out a brutal crackdown on homosexuality in 2014, a Bronx pastor with a history of expressing anti-gay views traveled to the African county and praised its governance.
The pastor, Fernando Cabrera, was chosen in January by the New York City mayor, Eric Adams, to fill a key role as one of the administration’s highest-paid officials.
When Mr. Adams was filling out his executive staff, he saved a $115,000-a-year job for David Johnson, once a top aide to former Gov. David Paterson. Mr. Johnson’s involvement in a criminal harassment case led Mr. Paterson to withdraw from the 2010 governor’s race.
His choice for cultural affairs commissioner, Laurie Cumbo, has a history of making insensitive remarks. As a Brooklyn councilwoman, she raised concerns about Jewish landlords and suggested, without evidence, that blocs of Asians were moving into public housing. More recently, she opposed a law allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections because she said it would dilute the power of Black voters.
As a new mayor, Mr. Adams has made scores of appointments to his administration, including several well-respected government professionals with no known red flags. But the mayor has also surrounded himself with friends and allies with histories of saying or doing things that have led to criticism, protests and even arrests.
They include deputy mayors, chief advisers and lower-salaried aides.
Mr. Adams has shown a propensity to fiercely favor loyalists, as well as a willingness to buck public opinion. He also cites his own arrest on trespassing charges at the age of 15 as evidence that people evolve and should not be written off for past behavior. That philosophy has become an early guiding principle of his mayoralty.
“Everybody’s talking about you know, don’t hold a record of a person for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Adams said in an interview earlier this month. “My life was derailed until I was able to get it back on track, and other people should not be derailed.”
The importance of making careful appointments was underscored this month when Gov. Kathy Hochul’s second-in-command, Brian Benjamin, resigned after being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and falsification of records while he was a state senator. When Ms. Hochul named him her lieutenant governor in August, concerns about Mr. Benjamin’s fund-raising practices had already publicly emerged.
Legal experts worry that Mr. Adams’s embrace of friends and appointees with less-than-scrupulous records risks attracting unwelcome scrutiny, which dogged his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. Other New York political hands fret that his relationships will tarnish his image, while distracting from the work at hand — resurrecting New York City from the throes of the pandemic.
“As a mayor, it’s a different playing field,” said Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a longtime friend of Mr. Adams’s. “Everything he does, everything he says and everyone he associates with is closely scrutinized.”
Mr. Siegel said he has expressed concern to the mayor’s senior advisers that some appointments are causing too much of a distraction “from focusing on the fundamental issues such as racial and social justice.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Adams has become the patron saint of second chances.
The list of advisers with atypical records includes the Rev. Alfred L. Cockfield II, who manages a political action committee associated with the mayor.
In 1998, Mr. Cockfield pleaded guilty to transporting three kilograms of cocaine to North Carolina for a drug organization called the “Poison Clan” and transporting $55,000 in drug proceeds back to New York City, according to case files that have not been reported before. He was sentenced to 46 months in prison but ended up serving a reduced sentence.
Since being released, Mr. Cockfield has gone on to join his family’s church, open prekindergarten centers, found a charter school and get involved in real estate and politics. He declined to discuss his relationship with Mr. Adams, but he noted that after leaving prison, he worked his way through college, drove a school bus, raised a family.
“I’m a minister, right?” he said. “The whole premise of my faith is redemption. There’s always room for redemption.”
Mr. Adams’s clear choice to lead his public safety team, Philip Banks III, resigned from a top Police Department post in 2014, while he was the subject of a federal corruption investigation. He was later named by federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that resulted in several convictions, including that of his top aide. Mr. Banks was never charged.
After Mr. Adams’s courtship of Mr. Banks became public, the backlash apparently led the mayor to avoid giving Mr. Banks formal oversight over the Police Department when he named him a deputy mayor.
Mr. Banks also figured in another questionable incident involving a high-powered couple in Mr. Adams’s inner circle: Mr. Banks’s brother, David C. Banks, the schools chancellor, and his partner, Sheena Wright, the deputy mayor for strategic initiatives.
In 2013, Ms. Wright became embroiled in a dispute with Gregg Walker, who was then her husband; it devolved into mutual allegations of domestic abuse and the arrest of both parties, along with Mr. Walker’s mother.
The City, an online publication, recently reported that after Ms. Wright was arrested, David Banks reached out to his brother, Philip, then a high-ranking police official. The charges against Ms. Wright were dropped.
In a statement, Ms. Wright said that she “never asked anyone to make any phone calls on my behalf.” She was released from police custody “almost immediately not because of any outside influence, but because the facts of the case were so obvious,” she wrote.
The charges against Ms. Wright’s ex-husband, Mr. Walker, and his mother were also dropped.
“It makes me worried that it’s the people who’ve demonstrated the greatest willingness to violate the rules that are now the people with the greatest power,” Mr. Walker said in an interview.
In the recent interview, Mr. Adams said that his arrest as a teenager prejudiced potential employers against him when he was forced to disclose it. And he said he would be a hypocrite if he subjected his own potential employees to a standard that did not allow for an individual’s personal development.
“I’m not forgiving you while you’re still on that wrong track,” Mr. Adams said. “We are going to hold you accountable. But if you are not on that track, and you try and get your life together, I’m the guy you want to see.”
Mr. Adams also extends that philosophy to his personal life.
After hours, he can sometimes be found socializing with Robert and Zhan Petrosyants, twin brothers who in 2014 pleaded guilty to taking part in an illegal check-cashing scheme.
Robert Petrosyants defended the mayor as a steadfast friend.
“I’ve been friends with Eric since a long, long time ago, and we stayed friends and then I had that issue, that financial issue,” Robert Petrosyants said in an interview. “As friends, he didn’t turn his back on me.”
The mayor’s emphasis on loyalty and redemption gives some political observers pause.
“If he spends the vast majority of his time dealing with the fallout of people in his inner circle who have behaved or are behaving badly, then that means he can’t do his job,” said Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University. “And he seems really excited to do this job.”
More crucially, the mayor risks being compromised if he associates with people who may have connections or activities “that would put him into a conflict of interest,” said Ross Sandler, the director of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
But Sid Davidoff, a veteran lobbyist and a former aide to Mayor John V. Lindsay, said the general public is not as concerned with Mr. Adams’s appointments as they are with whether the garbage is picked up and the subways are safe.
He defended the mayor’s second-chance philosophy. “I think he deserves the time to show that the people he’s appointed are the right people for the job regardless of what has happened in their past,” Mr. Davidoff said.
With questions arising so frequently about his hiring practices, Mr. Adams has adopted a pattern of political triage: Weigh the uproar, delay a decision and then make the hire — sometimes with lessened rank and responsibilities.
He followed that pattern with his brother, Bernard Adams, a retired Police Department sergeant and most recently, a parking administrator in Virginia. The mayor initially sought his brother for a position as a deputy police commissioner who would oversee security for the mayor and other dignitaries, despite his having little experience with that kind of work.
Following a prolonged outcry about giving his brother a job with salary of more than $200,000, Mr. Adams instead named him as senior adviser for mayoral security for a salary of $1 per year.
Ms. Cumbo’s appointment was also under consideration for weeks, allowing immigration advocates to voice their opposition. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Cabrera, the minister who championed the anti-gay Ugandan government, was under consideration for management of the city’s mental health programs, according to Politico. Following an outcry, he was instead named as a senior adviser in the mayor’s new Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships.
His appointment, along with that of two other pastors who have opposed gay marriage and in one case expressed intolerance for homosexuality, invited further controversy. At a well-attended protest in City Hall Park, L.G.B.T.Q. leaders said they felt betrayed. But Mr. Adams said the pastors had privately apologized to him, and he believed they deserved another chance.
One of those pastors, Erick Salgado, had opposed same-sex marriage and complained on Twitter that Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, was in favor of allowing “your daughters to share the bathroom with a transgendered.”
Several employees who identify as gay and transgender protested Mr. Salgado’s arrival as an assistant commissioner at the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs and filed formal complaints to the agency’s commissioner and the mayor’s office.
“As a queer and trans person in this office, this appointment makes me feel personally unsafe,” one employee wrote in emails reviewed by The New York Times.
Employees say their concerns were ignored or met with perfunctory acknowledgments. City Hall officials declined to comment.
Only once has the mayor reconsidered an appointment in the face of opposition. In March, Mr. Adams appointed the Rev. Kathlyn Barrett-Layne to the Panel for Educational Policy, a board that advises the chancellor. The Daily News then reported she had written a book describing homosexuality as a sin.
Mr. Adams forced Ms. Barrett-Layne to resign. He said he decided to keep the three male pastors with homophobic records because he said they had evolved, and she had not.
In an interview, Ms. Barrett-Layne disagreed and said that her name and reputation had been “defamed.”
“There’s been no outreach, no conversation or communication or an opportunity to explain,” Ms. Barrett-Layne said.
Mr. Adams said he does have limits when it comes to his circle of friends and potential hires.
“If someone was a serial killer, am I going to say, ‘You know what, this is just not a fit for me?’” the mayor said humorously. “Yes.”
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