How a top New York mayoral candidate was caught up in a classic Albany scandalMay 13, 2021
NEW YORK — As a rising star in the New York State Senate a decade ago, Eric Adams was one of the key people who negotiated a lucrative deal to bring slot machines to the nation’s biggest city.
The gamble did not pay off.
Those pushing the issue were hoping to land a gaming contract at Aqueduct Racetrack, a 127-year-old state-run thoroughbred facility near John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. And as chair of the Senate Racing and Wagering Committee, Adams — now a leading candidate for mayor of New York — was considered instrumental in the selection of a company to run video slot machines at the track.
What transpired was a classic Albany tale of lobbyists exercising undue influence, backroom dealing at the highest levels and finger-pointing that threatened Adams’ political career.
“It’s a really incredibly shameful episode in Adams’ time in the state Senate,” said John Kaehny, the executive director of good government group Reinvent Albany, in a recent interview. “He’s one of the key actors in the entire ill fated drama here … The level of cynicism and shamefulness, and just total, total obtuseness to the conflict of interest, and putting the public interest last — it’s just incredible.”
Now, with his mayoral campaign surging weeks before New York City’s primary, Adams is likely to face renewed attacks over the issue as candidates prepare to face off in the first televised debate of the primary election Thursday. The Brooklyn borough president has much to lose: He is now on the cusp of overtaking Andrew Yang as the frontrunner in the race after closing the gap in recent weeks.
A scathing, 308-page state inspector general report on the casino affair found that Adams gave non-credible testimony to investigators, got campaign cash from Aqueduct Entertainment Group — the troubled gambling outfit trying to cut the deal — and showed “exceedingly poor judgment” by attending a victory celebration when the pick was first made. Eventually, the entire arrangement fell apart.
“At each turn, our state leaders abdicated their public duty, failed to impose ethical restraints and focused on political gain at a cost of millions to New Yorkers,” then-Inspector General Joseph Fisch said in a statement at the time.
Under a state law, the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly and then-Gov. David Paterson had to agree to the selection of AEG to open the “racino” in Queens. The firm was later disqualified and replaced with Genting New York, which now runs the Resorts World Casino at the site.
“The decision made by the State delivered thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual tax revenue to New York,” said Adams spokesperson Evan Thies when asked recently about the issue. “Borough President Adams has always acted ethically and made decisions as an elected official based on facts and merit.”
POLITICO reported last month on ethical questions raised over Adams’ use of his office and an official charity he created that helped boost his profile ahead of his current mayoral run.
The inspector general’s probe found a chaotic process with no guidelines for choosing a bidder, driven by lobbyists and political favors.
The IG found potential violations of state ethics laws by former Sen. John Sampson, the Democratic conference leader, who was accused of leaking internal Senate documents with information about other bidders to an AEG lobbyist and pressuring the group to use a favored developer. Then-Senate President Malcolm Smith was also accused of potential violations because he continued to advocate for AEG after claiming to recuse himself from the process. Both men later went to prison for unrelated crimes.
The imbroglio became a political football in the 2010 state elections, seized upon by Republicans who successfully won back control of the state Senate that year.
Adams was not accused of legal violations, but he did not emerge unscathed. The Brooklyn borough president has maintained that his conduct was proper.
The IG’s report says Adams was “very involved in Sampson’s decision-making process” and was “handpicked by Sampson to assist in the selection process.”
Adams got $3,500 in campaign donations from AEG groups and another $3,000 from the chair of AEG’s Nevada-based gambling component in the months leading up to the pick, according to the report.
The state inspector general zeroed in on a Manhattan dinner between Paterson, Sampson and Adams as key to making the selection — and said Adams’ testimony about the get-together, which he denied being a full participant in, was not credible.
The dinner took place in January 2010, and Paterson testified that he dined with Sampson and Adams, who “formally asked me to join them in proposing AEG.”
“[M]y understanding was that Senator Adams was asked by Senator Sampson to conduct an evaluation of all the groups, that they had some kind of a process, and at the end of the process that Adams became convinced that AEG was the best alternative,” Paterson told investigators. Sampson also testified that he had dinner with Paterson and Adams, but said he did not recall advocating for AEG at the meeting.
Adams, however, testified that he was not a part of the dinner meeting. He said that he happened upon the governor, Sampson and a representative from AEG at a restaurant on 57th Street. “I just said hello to them, and I moved on,” he said.
The inspector general deemed his account “incredible.”
“Adams’s version of events strains credulity,” he wrote. The report later concludes: “The Inspector General further finds that Senator Adams provided incredible testimony to the Inspector General regarding a pivotal dinner with the Governor and Senator Sampson which was contradicted by both Governor Paterson and Senator Sampson, in an apparent effort to limit his involvement and responsibility in the choice of AEG.”
Adams also came under criticism for attending a victory celebration at the home of AEG lobbyist Carl Andrews. Sampson, Smith and other lawmakers also attended the February 2010 party.
“It reflects, at a minimum, exceedingly poor judgment for these senators who were actively involved in the selection of AEG to cast aside any pretense of preserving the appearance of objectivity and celebrate with AEG principals and lobbyists at the home of an AEG lobbyist paid to influence them in regard to a contract which had yet to be finalized,” the inspector general wrote. “Their attendance at this victory party impairs public confidence in their actions, heightens the appearance of impropriety in AEG’s selection, and further reveals the relationship between these senators and Andrews which afforded him access and influence beyond that of other bidders.”
Adams has defended his role in the Aqueduct process, insisting his testimony that he did not attend the dinner is accurate and that the party he went to was a regular annual event, not a special victory celebration.
“My conduct during this process was always proper and above reproach,” he told the Brooklyn Paper at the time . “As we worked to select a new operator for the Aqueduct, my actions were guided by an important goal: to serve the best interests of the people of the state of New York, and of my district by finding the bidder that would develop a project that expedited job creation and reflected the input of the community.”