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FBI seizes NYC Mayor Adams’ phones as campaign investigation intensifies

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09: New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks during a Veteran's Day breakfast celebration at Gracie Mansion on November 09, 2023 in New York City. Adams held a gathering of veterans from all branches to celebrate Veteran's Day ahead of Saturday's parade. F.B.I. agents recently searched the home Adams' chief campaign fund-raiser and authorities are investigating whether his 2021 campaign for mayor received illegal donations from the Turkish government. Neither Adams nor chief campaign fund-raiser have been accused of wrongdoing. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)  (Michael M. Santiago)
By William K. Rashbaum, Dana Rubinstein and Michael Rothfeld New York Times

NEW YORK – FBI agents seized Mayor Eric Adams’ electronic devices early this week in what appeared to be a dramatic escalation of a criminal inquiry into whether his 2021 campaign conspired with the Turkish government and others to funnel money into its coffers.

The agents approached Adams after an event in Manhattan on Monday evening and asked his security detail to step away, a person with knowledge of the matter said. They climbed into his SUV with him and, pursuant to a court-authorized warrant, took his devices, the person said.

The devices – at least two cellphones and an iPad – were returned to Adams within a matter of days, according to that person and another person familiar with the situation. Law enforcement investigators with a search warrant can make copies of the data on devices after they seize them.

A lawyer for Adams and his campaign said in a statement that the mayor was cooperating with federal authorities and had already “proactively reported” at least one instance of improper behavior.

“After learning of the federal investigation, it was discovered that an individual had recently acted improperly,” said the lawyer, Boyd Johnson. “In the spirit of transparency and cooperation, this behavior was immediately and proactively reported to investigators.”

Johnson said Adams has not been accused of wrongdoing and had “immediately complied with the FBI’s request and provided them with electronic devices.” Adams had attended an anniversary celebration for an education initiative at New York University.

The statement did not identify the individual, detail the conduct reported to authorities or make clear whether the reported misconduct was related to the seizure of Adams’ devices. It was also not immediately clear whether the agents referred to the fundraising investigation when they took Adams’ devices.

Adams, in his own statement, said that “as a former member of law enforcement, I expect all members of my staff to follow the law and fully cooperate with any sort of investigation – and I will continue to do exactly that.” He added that he had “nothing to hide.”

The surprise seizure of Adams’ devices was an extraordinary development and appeared to be the first direct instance of the campaign contribution investigation touching him. Adams, a retired police captain, said Wednesday that he is so strident in urging his staff to “follow the law” that he can be almost “annoying.” He laughed at the notion that he had any potential criminal exposure.

Spokespeople for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, whose prosecutors are also investigating the matter, declined to comment.

The federal investigation into Adams’ campaign burst into public view Nov. 2, when FBI agents searched the home of the mayor’s chief fundraiser and seized two laptop computers, three iPhones and a manila folder labeled “Eric Adams.”

The fundraiser, a 25-year-old former intern named Brianna Suggs, has not spoken publicly since the raid.

Adams responded to news of the raid by abruptly returning from Washington, D.C., where he had only just arrived for a day of meetings with White House and congressional leaders regarding the migrant influx, an issue he has said threatens to “destroy New York City.”

On Wednesday, he said his abrupt return was driven by his desire to be present for his team, and out of concern for Suggs, who he said had gone through a “traumatic experience.”

“Although I am mayor, I have not stopped being a man and a human,” he said.

But he also said he did not speak with Suggs on the day of the raid, to avoid any appearance of interfering in an ongoing investigation.

The warrant obtained by the FBI to search Suggs’ home sought evidence of a conspiracy to violate campaign finance law between members of Adams’ campaign, the Turkish government or Turkish nationals, and a Brooklyn-based construction company, KSK Construction, whose owners are originally from Turkey. The warrant also sought records about donations from Bay Atlantic University, a Washington, D.C., college whose founder is Turkish and is affiliated with a school Adams visited when he went to Turkey as Brooklyn borough president in 2015.

The warrant, reviewed by the New York Times, indicated authorities were looking at whether the Turkish government or Turkish nationals funneled donations to Adams using a so-called straw donor scheme, in which the contributors listed were not the actual source of the money. The warrant also inquired about Adams’ campaign’s use of New York City’s generous public matching program, in which the city offers an 8-to-1 match of the first $250 of a resident’s donation.

The federal authorities also sought evidence of whether any Adams campaign member provided any benefit to Turkey or the construction company in exchange for campaign donations.

This is not the first time Adams or people in his orbit have attracted law enforcement scrutiny. In September, Eric Ulrich, Adams’ former buildings commissioner and senior adviser, was indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on 16 felony charges, including counts of bribe-taking and conspiracy.

In July, Bragg indicted six people, including a retired police inspector who once worked and socialized with Adams, on charges of conspiring to funnel illegal donations to Adams’ 2021 campaign.

Separately, the city’s Department of Investigation was investigating the role of Timothy Pearson, one of the mayor’s closest advisers, in a violent altercation at a migrant center in Manhattan.

Adams has also had skirmishes with the law before becoming mayor. Soon after he was elected Brooklyn borough president, he organized an event to raise money for a new nonprofit, One Brooklyn, which had not yet registered with the state. The invitation list was based on donor rolls for nonprofits run by his predecessor, records show.

A city Department of Investigation inquiry concluded Adams and his nonprofit appeared to have improperly solicited funding from groups that either had or would soon have matters pending before his office. Adams’ office emphasized to investigators that the slip-ups had occurred early in his administration and promised to comply with the law going forward.Earlier, while Adams was a New York state senator, the state inspector general found that he and other Senate Democrats had fraternized with lobbyists and accepted significant campaign contributions from people affiliated with contenders for a video lottery contract at Aqueduct Racetrack.

In response to a Times examination of his fundraising record in 2021, Adams attributed the scrutiny in part to his race.

“Black candidates for office are often held to a higher, unfair standard – especially those from lower-income backgrounds such as myself,” he said in a statement then. “No campaign of mine has ever been charged with a serious fundraising violation, and no contribution has ever affected my decision-making as a public official.” He added: “I did not go from being a person that enforced the law to become one that breaks the law.”

Adams is not the first city mayor whose fundraising has attracted federal scrutiny. In 2017, federal prosecutors examined episodes in which Bill de Blasio, who was then the mayor, or his surrogates sought donations from people seeking favors from the city, and then made inquiries to city agencies on their behalf.

In deciding not to bring charges, the acting U.S. attorney, Joon Kim, cited “the particular difficulty in proving criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit.” De Blasio received a warning letter about those activities from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board.