Adams Delays Appointment of Ex-Police Official Amid Ethics Concerns – The New York Times

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Philip Banks III, who left the Police Department while under federal investigation, was expected to become deputy mayor for public safety.
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Michael RothfeldEmma G. Fitzsimmons and
As Mayor-elect Eric Adams sought to fill the top law enforcement posts certain to be crucial to his administration, he relied heavily on a single influence: a former top police chief who abruptly retired from the department while under federal investigation in 2014.
The former chief, Philip Banks III, oversaw the selection process, interviewed candidates and recommended who should manage the city’s patrol precincts and its jails.
But now Mr. Banks’s own appointment seems to be in limbo.
For weeks, Mr. Adams has been expected to tap Mr. Banks to continue serving as his voice and his ears on law enforcement issues from inside City Hall, as deputy mayor for public safety.
But amid questions about Mr. Banks’s past, some of Mr. Adams’s advisers have discussed whether to install him as deputy mayor for public safety or perhaps abandon the idea of creating that position and place him in a different role. The debate has stalled the announcement while other members of the new administration have been rolled out in the days before Christmas.
Mr. Adams has no qualms about Mr. Banks, but his team has taken time to consider how to structure his potential job, a person familiar with the thinking of the mayor-elect’s advisers said.
Mr. Banks resigned from the Police Department in October 2014 just as he was to be promoted to become the top deputy to William J. Bratton, then the commissioner. A day earlier, the Federal Bureau of Investigation secretly sought a judge’s approval for a wiretap to eavesdrop on his phone calls and those of others who were under scrutiny.
Federal authorities were investigating a suspected illegal liquor distribution ring; prosecutors later named Mr. Banks as an unindicted co-conspirator in a public corruption case that grew from the same investigation and that ultimately widened to include the mayor and other high-ranking police officials.
Indictments were filed, leading to several convictions, including that of Norman Seabrook, the president of the correction officers’ union. Evidence showed Mr. Banks accepted gifts from people seeking to influence officials, but he was never charged with a crime.
While Mr. Adams and other supporters of Mr. Banks point to his credentials, the questions surrounding Mr. Banks’s integrity could undermine his ability to oversee the department and complicate interactions with law enforcement counterparts. Those issues could be especially fraught for the two federal prosecutors’ offices in the city, one of which joined the F.B.I. in investigating him.
Federal prosecutors’ description of Mr. Banks as a co-conspirator and questions about his past might affect his ability to obtain a top secret F.B.I. security clearance needed for briefings about terrorist threats and other matters, former law enforcement officials said.
The deputy mayor for public safety role is a pivotal one for Mr. Adams, who has said reducing crime and restoring confidence in the police is key to the city’s recovery. Mr. Banks’s appointment had been expected earlier as Mr. Adams’s law enforcement team took shape.
Last week, the mayor-elect picked Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County Police Department’s chief of detectives, to become New York City’s first female police commissioner. Even as he introduced Chief Sewell, Mr. Adams faced questions about Mr. Banks and suggested that the appointment was not a certainty.
Mr. Adams, a former police captain, has known Mr. Banks and his brother, David C. Banks, whom Mr. Adams has appointed schools chancellor, for decades. Philip Banks was a member of the Guardians Association, a fraternal organization of Black police officers, while Mr. Adams led the group in the 1990s. Mr. Adams has defended Mr. Banks from criticism over his past.
“He has not been accused or found guilty of any wrongdoing at all, so I think it would be unfair if we made an insinuation that he is,” Mr. Adams told reporters last month.
In a statement, Mr. Banks said that he never abused his authority with the Police Department or provided any favors in his official role.
“My commitment and loyalty is and always has been solely to the people of New York,” Mr. Banks said. “The authorities tasked with investigating these rehashed allegations have already addressed them, and they concluded that no charges were warranted.”
Mr. Banks and his wife were also under criminal investigation by the Internal Revenue Service in part because of allegations that they had failed to pay taxes on $245,000 in rental income over seven years from property they owned in Queens, according to an F.B.I. agent’s sworn affidavit seeking a wiretap in 2015. Benjamin Brafman, a lawyer for Mr. Banks in the federal investigation, said that the amount of unreported income was substantially less, and that the I.R.S. had taken no action because the income was offset by the couple’s expenses.
For Mr. Adams, the past was less important than the strengths Mr. Banks might bring to his administration in the present. Mr. Banks began work on Mr. Adams’s transition immediately after the general election.
He had a three-hour lunch at a Queens diner with the city jails commissioner, Vincent N. Schiraldi. Mr. Schiraldi said he led Mr. Banks on a tour of city jails, including one where people had been packed into intake cells for days and weeks with little or no food, access to showers and medical and mental health care, and another where improvements to the intake process had been made.
Along with others from Mr. Adams’s team, Mr. Banks discussed the ongoing crisis with Mr. Schiraldi and his executive staff.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you do it this way?’” Mr. Schiraldi said. “It’s hard to understand how many layers there are to the stuff that needs fixing here.”
Mr. Banks also met with top staff at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which looks comprehensively at city law enforcement issues. And he was deeply involved with interviews of potential police commissioners.
Mr. Banks, who turns 59 on Saturday, is originally from Crown Heights in Brooklyn. He joined the city’s police force in 1986 and rose through the ranks. He led the department’s community affairs bureau before he was named chief of department, the top uniformed position on the police force, in 2013.
At the time of Mr. Banks’s resignation, the illegal liquor investigation was focused on some individuals who also had ties to city government. Through those connections, the federal investigation expanded to examine whether high-ranking members of the Police Department had abused their positions in exchange for personal benefits, resulting in charges and convictions for some who were involved. It also led to a federal investigation of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fund-raising that ended without charges being filed against him.
Investigators learned that Chief Banks accepted high-priced meals, tickets to sports events and foreign and domestic travel from two businessmen. The businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, were given favors by senior police officials who were Mr. Banks’s subordinates and who also received benefits from the two men, according to two people with direct knowledge of the investigation.
Schools Chancellor: David Banks. The longtime New York City educator who rose to prominence after creating a network of public all-boys schools will lead the nation’s largest public school system as it struggles to emerge from the pandemic.
Police Commissioner: Keechant Sewell. The Nassau County chief of detectives will become New York City’s first female police commissioner, taking over the nation’s largest police force amid ​​a crisis of trust in American policing and a troubling rise in violence.
Commissioner of Correction Department: Louis Molina. ​​The former N.Y.P.D. officer who currently oversees a public safety department in Las Vegas will be tasked with leading the city’s embattled Correction Department and restoring order at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.
Chief Counsel: Brendan McGuire. ​​After a stint as a partner in a law firm’s white-collar practice, the former federal prosecutor will return to the public sector to advise the mayor on legal matters involving City Hall, the executive staff and administrative matters.
Transportation Commissioner: Ydanis Rodriguez. ​​The Manhattan council member is a trusted ally of Mr. Adams’s. Mr. Rodriguez will face major challenges in his new role: In 2021 traffic deaths in the city soared to their highest level since 2013, partly due to speeding and reckless driving.
Health Commissioner: Dr. Ashwin Vasan. Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the current commissioner, will stay in the role after Mr. Adams takes office to provide continuity to the city’s pandemic response. In mid-March, Dr. Vasan, the president of a mental health and public health charity, will take over.
Deputies. ​​Lorraine Grillo will be the top deputy mayor, Meera Joshi will be deputy mayor for operations, Maria Torres-Springer deputy mayor for economic development, Anne Williams-Isom deputy mayor for health and human services and Sheena Wright deputy mayor for strategic operations.
Mr. Rechnitz, a developer and investor, and Mr. Reichberg, a fixer in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, both raised money for and developed close relationships with Mr. de Blasio. They also nurtured friendships with police officials, which they used to obtain favors for associates such as police escorts.
Chief Banks and Mr. Rechnitz became close, according to investigative documents and testimony. They socialized, played backgammon together, dined at kosher steakhouses, smoked cigars at the Grand Havana Room in Midtown Manhattan and traveled together. They went to Israel, and twice to a resort area in the Dominican Republic — including once on a private jet.
Mr. Rechnitz, who cooperated with federal investigators, spent tens of thousands of dollars on Chief Banks and other police officials, according to his court testimony and summaries of his interviews with the F.B.I.; New York Police Department rules do not permit members to accept more than “tokens of appreciation,” such as pen and pencil sets, for their service.
Mr. Brafman said that the Israel trip had an official component because Chief Banks met with intelligence officials there. Mr. Rechnitz testified that Chief Banks had also insisted on paying for his own coach plane fare. But Mr. Rechnitz said he upgraded the chief and others to first class and paid for hotel rooms and tours, including a helicopter ride and visit to Masada, an ancient desert fortress.
On a trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with Chief Banks and Mr. Seabrook, Mr. Rechnitz paid for prostitutes for all of them, he testified. Mr. Banks strongly denies that he had any involvement with prostitutes.
Mr. Rechnitz also told authorities that he rented a Porsche for Mr. Seabrook and Chief Banks and bought them foot massages on a trip to Los Angeles. Mr. Seabrook was convicted in 2018 on bribery and conspiracy charges for steering $20 million of union money to a hedge fund, in a case stemming from the same investigation. Mr. Seabrook, who is in prison, could not be reached for comment on Mr. Rechnitz’s allegations about prostitution and other matters.
Chief Banks gave Mr. Rechnitz a “gold card” from the Police Department — intended for officers’ family members — to use if he ever got into trouble with the department, according to Mr. Rechnitz. He once allowed Mr. Rechnitz to store a bag of diamonds in his office safe at Police Headquarters, Mr. Rechnitz testified.
But he said the chief was careful not to take official police actions to benefit him. “If I said, ‘OK, give me a police ride to the airport, a police escort, or do these other things,’ he would not go for it,” Mr. Rechnitz testified.
Mr. Banks also gave $250,000 to Mr. Rechnitz to invest.
Mr. Rechnitz later testified that he had not actually invested Mr. Banks’s money but returned it with an unearned profit of $25,000.
Federal prosecutors decided not to bring charges against Mr. Banks because they ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had personally used his position to do favors for the businessmen, according to the two people familiar with the investigation.
Mr. Rechnitz pleaded guilty in 2016 to fraud conspiracy charges. Mr. Reichberg was convicted in 2019 on bribery and conspiracy charges involving police officials. Mr. Banks submitted an affidavit before that trial asserting that, based on legal advice, he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify.
By then, Mr. Banks had already moved to his next chapter: In 2015, he founded a consulting company to work with police departments on community relations issues, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Jonah E. Bromwich, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Jan Ransom contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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