MANHATTAN (CN) – Facing an imminent indictment for campaign-finance violations, the mayor of Mount Vernon, New York, went to court Monday for emergency relief.
Filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, the petition by Mayor Richard Thomas comes two months after the Democrat was arrested this past March on a felony complaint filed by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Among other things, Schneiderman accused Thomas of misdirecting more than $57,000 in his campaign money to cover rent, car payments, a $2,000 Chanel purse and expensive meals, including one at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. during a family vacation to Mexico. Thomas also is accused of failing to disclose that individuals and businesses at times paid his American Express bills and made an NYU tuition payment for him.
But Thomas claims in his petition Monday that “an improper referral” formed the basis of Schneiderman’s year-long investigation.
“The office now threatens to file an illegal indictment against Mayor Thomas,” the petition states.
Elected in 2015 with 70 percent of the vote, Thomas tapped Boies Schiller attorney Randall Jackson for the legal battle. Just north of the Bronx, his constituents in the city of Mount Vernon number nearly 70,000.
Monday’s petition references Schneiderman’s resignation last week after allegations came to light that he physically abused former girlfriends, but the crux of the case involves the referral Schneiderman’s office received from the state Office of the Comptroller to investigate Thomas.
“The Comptroller’s Office, however, has no authority to investigate or prosecute the election committee or inaugural committee activities that are the focus of this investigation and the felony complaint,” the petition states.
Thomas claims that there has been no allegation against him concerning the misuse of public funds.
“Thus, the entire investigation here, in which Mayor Thomas is accused of somehow engaging in ‘larceny’ from his own campaign funds and his own inaugural funds, as well as false reporting of the same, is outside of the scope of the comptroller and therefore outside the attorney general’s authority,” the petition states.
As to Schneiderman’s abrupt exit last week, “under a cloud of impropriety,” Thomas says, “there is no attorney general.”
“An acting attorney general not appointed by the legislature has no authority to take an official action such as seeking an indictment from a grand jury,” the petition states.
Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of democratic reform group Citizens Union, said in a phone interview Monday that Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli were authorized to prosecute this case by the Task Force on Public Integrity.
As for the mayor’s claims about the authority of Acting New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, Gotbaum said Schneiderman’s successor is “legitimately the attorney general.”
“Barbara Underwood has the authority,” she said. “It’s not about the individual, it’s about the office.”
Thomas also claims that his threatened indictment would interfere with his work as mayor. In addition to his prosecutor problems, Thomas was hit in late March with ethics claims involving his alleged receipt of more than $100,000 as a trustee for a public charter school system; charter school trustees generally are unpaid.
Mayor Thomas’ office did not respond to a request for comment Monday. A spokesperson for state Comptroller DiNapoli said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
“We look forward to proving our case against the ,ayor in court, and will not be distracted,” Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said Monday in an email.
Boies Schiller attorney Scott Wilson said he had no comment beyond the petition.
Gotbaum said her office could not find any state campaign-finance law that covers Mayor Thomas’ scenario.
“It seems to me that if someone is misusing campaign finance funds in the state, not in the city [which has campaign finance laws] … it’s very difficult — there’s no campaign-finance law that goes after them as far as we can tell,” Gotbaum said.