New York Daily News Lawyer tapped as Board of Elections commissioner refuses to give up lobbying, raising conflict of interest concerns by Erin Durkin
Rosanna Vargas, a lawyer who has done lobbying work for her firm, refused to take a pledge of no lobbying while she sits on the Board of Elections.
A registered lobbyist appointed to be a Board of Elections commissioner is drawing scrutiny after insisting she won’t give up the right to lobby city pols while serving in the post.
The Bronx Democratic Party tapped Rosanna Vargas, a lawyer, to to be one of the 10 party-picked officials who run the problem-plagued elections board.
Vargas repeatedly refused Wednesday to promise not to engage in lobbying while she holds the commissioner job — a pledge the City Council has asked for from all appointees to a slew of city boards.
“Pursuant to the law, I am permitted to be a lobbyist and also a commissioner,” Vargas said. “I don’t see that being an actual conflict.”
Vargas, an associate at Akerman LLP, has lobbied for two real estate firms - Azimuth Development Group LLC and Acadia Sherman Avenue LLC, records show.
Council members said none of the dozens of board appointees confirmed since 2014 have refused to take the no lobbying pledge.
“There’s a problem. I know it’s not technically illegal, but I think it does give the appearance of conflict,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn). “Looking at the Board of Elections and the dysfunction that has occurred, the appearance of conflict is going to be an issue with people having confidence in the Board of Elections.”
Vargas said the vast majority of her work is in litigation, and her involvement in lobbying is “very minimal,” limited to two cases in the three years she has worked there. Still, she said the firm wants her to remain registered in case she is needed for lobbying work in the future.
“I will never jeopardize my integrity as a commissioner if I’m appointed,” she said, adding she would seek guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board should any potential conflict arise. “I do not see this being a problem. The firm does not see this being a problem.”
Shocked Council members said that could set up a situation where Vargas is lobbying them to approve a development project - even as she holds power over whether they or their would-be challengers will make the ballot.
“What happens when someone you represent as a lobbyist has business in our districts and wants something from us, and we need your vote in 2017 to get on the ballot?” said Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan).
Developer Azimuth, one of the clients she represented, has sought his support for a tax break for a property in his upper East Side district, he said. “You’re putting us in a bad position,” he said. “Now I have the appearance of impropriety.”
If her lobbying work is as minimal as she claims, Kallos said, she should be willing to give it up.
“With 600 other attorneys, they can use the 599 other folks,” he said.
Vargas also declined to immediately commit to turn over her client and billing lists to the Council, or to produce a letter outlining what activities she will and won’t engage in while serving as a commissioner, but said she would discuss both issues with her firm.
Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) said even if Vargas would never let her clients’ interests influence her official decision making, her position could unduly sway some pols.
And since the 10 commissioners are split between five Democrats and five Republicans, each picked by borough parties, if she has to recuse herself it could swing the results of a vote.
“That has nothing to do with you or your integrity,” Lander said. “My concern is that elected official you’re lobbying could be sitting there thinking, ‘Huh, this is the person who will decide my fate.’”