CITY HALL -- An Upper East Side councilman is calling for an investigation after a spokeswoman for the New York City Board of Elections sent an errant political text message to an Advance reporter inviting the reporter to a campaign fundraiser at her home for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for mayor.
“I know you are swamped but wanted to invite you. It’s a fundraiser for Ruben for mayor, BOE spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Diaz wrote to the reporter via text. “He will be joining us for a meet and greet.”
Vazquez-Diaz and the BOE insists she did nothing wrong because the phone she sent the text message from during a weekday shortly before noon was from her personal phone that she does not get reimbursed for, though she also has a separate work issued cell phone she uses too.
But the cell phone number Vazquez-Diaz sent the errant text was from a number many other reporters use to reach and communicate with the BOE spokeswoman. She has also listed that number on official BOE press releases.
Vazquez-Diaz claims she was on her lunch break at the time she sent the text message.
“City employees should not be inviting people to political fundraisers while they are at work, and if they have two phones and if a city agency has gone through the expense of issuing a work phone to that staff member, they should make sure to use that phone for public purposes,” said Upper East Side Councilman Ben Kallos (D), who reported the text incident to the city’s Department of Investigations.
City code states that public servants cannot use city issued supplies including phones for any non-city purpose or pursue personal or private activities when they are required to work for the city.
They are also prohibited from trying to “force anyone to do any political activity.”
Additionally, deputy mayors, agency heads, deputy or assistant agency heads, chiefs of staff, directors, or members of boards or commissions cannot ask anyone to contribute to the political campaign of anyone running for city office or to the political campaign of a city elected official running for any office. Appointed officials and elected officials cannot hold political party positions.
The city’s official directory for city employees lists Vazquez-Diaz’s title as director of communications and public affairs at the BOE.
TEXT CROSES MURKY LINE OF USING CITY POSITION FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES, FORMER CONFLICT OF INTEREST BOARD HEAD SAYS
Mark Davies, the former executive director of the city’s Conflict of Interest Board, said the incident crosses the murky line of using one’s city position for political purposes.
“If it is a personal cell phone used for City business, the question arises whether by using for political purposes a cell number that one regularly gives out for City business one is thereby using one's City position for political purposes, which is prohibited; if the name of the agency or the title of the sender is listed in the text, then the case for misuse of City office becomes stronger,’ Davies said.
Davies, who served as the head of COIB for 22 years, said it becomes an issue when someone passes off their personal cell phone number as a city number and then uses it to contact the same people for political purposes, especially if that person’s number appears in the text or caller ID.
“To me, it would be like writing a letter on a blank sheet of paper and writing one's City agency at the top of the page,” Davies continued.
The city’s Conflict of Interest Board declined to comment on the incident.
Vazquez-Diaz also said neither she nor her husband are related to Diaz Jr.
“Under the city’s conflict of interest board provisions and the board’s policies and procedures, use of government resources for political activity are prohibited, but in this case Ms. Vasquez is using her own personal phone, so there’s no implication. The city is not paying for the phone, doesn’t pay for service for the phone, it’s her own personal device that she pays for, so she’s able to use it for activities that are prohibited from using city resources,” said Steven Richman, who has served as the BOE’s general counsel for more than 20 years.
Kallos said BOE employees should not be weighing in on their preferred political candidates when the institution they work for is expected by New Yorkers to run fair elections.
“I think people have to be sensitive to their [political] positions and particularly somebody at the Board of Elections should not be weighing in on a candidate that their institution will have to run a fair election for,” said Kallos.