Chirlane McCray Nearly Doubled Her Official Staff Payroll With Undisclosed Taxpayer-Funded Hires

Chirlane McCray Nearly Doubled Her Official Staff Payroll With Undisclosed Taxpayer-Funded Hires
Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray, along with Toya Williford, Executive Director of The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City hold a media availability at City Hall on Tuesday July 14, 2020. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

By Yoav Gonen, originally published by THE CITY

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The city’s First Lady officially has eight employees who support ThriveNYC and other projects. But at least 14 people on the government payroll work on her team, ahead of a potential Brooklyn borough president run.

First Lady Chirlane McCray is employing a shadow staff of at least six full-time workers who don’t appear on her official roster — with their salaries paid by other city agencies or their roles obscured within the wider office of her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, government sources say and records show.

McCray, who is mulling a run for Brooklyn borough president, volunteers her time and is not employed by the city government. But she has built up a portfolio of work that includes a billion-dollar endeavor to improve the city’s mental health services, known as ThriveNYC.

Her staff now stands at 14, sources say — at a time that the mayor is raising the specter of laying off up to 22,000 municipal workers in October because of a pandemic-driven budget gap.

Officials in McCray’s office didn’t say if they were among the city agencies reportedly asked to identify personnel who would be among the potential layoffs. But they said, like other city agencies, they’re working to identify savings.

McCray has been expanding her staff since December ahead of a potential campaign for Brooklyn borough president — she told PIX 11 in February that she was “thinking about” joining the race.

Her office did not respond to a question about McCray’s intentions for that contest, scheduled for a likely decisive June 2021 primary as current Borough President Eric Adams departs due to term limits.

Payroll Nears $2 Million

Asked for a list of her current staff members, McCray’s office last month provided the names of eight full-time employees who together collect roughly $1.1 million in salaries through the office of the mayor.

But according to current and former employees in the Mayor’s Office, as well as public records, McCray’s staff count has actually been 15 throughout much of 2020, with a collective payroll that’s closer to $2 million. A recent departure brought the staff ranks down to 14.

That count excludes other city and nonprofit employees who support McCray on specific projects that she oversees — including private fundraising on behalf of the city government, managing the Gracie Mansion mayoral residence and spearheading ThriveNYC.

The six current off-roster workers include Felicia Lee, a $140,000-a-year communications advisor employed since April 2018, whose salary is paid by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The salary of a $130,000 director of policy, Grace Choi, hired in January 2019, is paid by the city Department of Social Services, according to city government sources and public records.

McCray’s 2019 public schedule shows both Lee and Choi regularly attended meetings with her — including a January 2019 “Team Lunch” at La Masa restaurant in The Bronx.

Yet officials in McCray’s office did not name those two staffers among the eight full-time employees.

McCray’s social media manager, who has been working for her for two years, also was not listed on the staff roster provided to THE CITY. Public records show she is on the payroll of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Two lower-level staffers who sources said support McCray’s work full-time were also excluded from the official staff count.

Recent Hires

As of late 2019, the First Lady’s staff included a chief of staff and two deputy chiefs of staff, as well as a deputy communications director, press secretary and a speechwriter — plus a number of additional support staff.

Her director of policy, a second speechwriter, and communications advisor were placed on other payrolls, records show.

Since December, according to her spokesperson and public records, McCray has added a $105,000 director of operations and a new speechwriter at a salary of $117,000.

The other two speechwriters have since departed, officials in McCray’s office said.

The sources and records show McCray also hired a $70,000 videographer in February, whose name was not on the list of staff members provided to THE CITY by her office.

The videographer, whose work for McCray includes a “Baking with the First Lady” clip that was posted during the height of the pandemic in early April, is listed as a Department of Health employee in city records.

Officials in McCray’s office said the videographer and social media manager work out of a central creative communications office that’s housed in the Mayor’s Office — which is why they aren’t counted as McCray staffers. They said the two employees’ time isn’t entirely dedicated to McCray, but current and former administration officials countered that contention.

In late April, just over a week after de Blasio announced that his budget office anticipated a $7.4 billion two-year revenue loss as a result of the coronavirus-induced financial crisis, McCray hired a longtime employee of the mayor’s office to serve as her senior advisor, at a salary of $150,000.

Officials in McCray’s office said the advisor, Dabash Negash, was brought in as a replacement for one deputy chief of staff who left earlier this year — and that her transfer from the Mayor’s Office was in the works before the coronavirus outbreak started.

As for the two lower-level McCray aides, unnamed on the list of employees provided, the officials said one works jointly for McCray and the mayor, while the other is considered an employee of Gracie Mansion. Both are paid out of the office of the mayor, records show.

Well-Worn Practice

Placing executive employees on agency payrolls, making the central office look smaller than it really is, is not an unknown tactic in New York government — a move that’s been criticized for undermining transparency.

In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reportedly came under federal investigation for hiding executive office personnel in various state agencies, according to the Times Union.

A Cuomo official defended the practice at the time by arguing that the agencies were a part of the executive branch, and said the practice was a longstanding one, introduced under former governors. On Monday, officials in Cuomo’s office couldn’t immediately provide an update on the status of the probe.

McCray has played an unprecedentedly prominent role in government as the spouse of a New York City mayor — including travels on the presidential campaign trail, complete with a taxpayer-funded NYPD detail, during de Blasio’s brief candidacy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray campaigned for president in Iowa in June, 2019.

In the wake of McCray’s acknowledgement of political aspirations, her high-profile status has come under increased scrutiny.

In February, City Council member Antonio Reynoso, a borough president hopeful, questioned her figurehead position for a citywide program targeting new parents — beginning in Brooklyn.

In April, de Blasio named McCray a co-chair on a task force focused on racial equity in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

Asked in June about criticism of her growing public responsibilities in the context of a potential political run, McCray said she had no certainty about her next steps.

“I’m a volunteer in this administration and everything that I do is because I care deeply about the people that we serve and I wanted to be a part of this administration in a way that would contribute to helping people live better lives,” she said at a mayoral press conference on June 11. “Again, I don’t know what the future holds for me”.

McCray’s prominent role in her husband’s administration had been debated even before this year — particularly with questions about the effectiveness and value of ThriveNYC. A number of elected officials have praised McCray’s work as an advocate for boosting access to mental health services and for seeking to combat stigmas associated with mental illness.

Yet questions have persisted about whether ThriveNYC has done enough to target people who are the most seriously mentally ill.

First lady Chirlane McCray spoke about the Thrive NYC program at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in September 2018.

As attention intensified in early 2018, de Blasio argued that it was unfair his wife couldn’t get paid because of existing nepotism rules, considering how much work she was doing for the city as an unpaid volunteer.

More recently, at the June 11 press conference, he suggested that sexism and racism might also play a role in the questions about his wife’s role in the administration.

“I remember in the first days of administration, when I said that my closest advisor was our First Lady and the person I turned to in making the most important decisions, the personnel decisions, the key policy decisions, and she was going to play a profoundly foundational role in this administration,” de Blasio said at the time.

“I don’t know what was motivating the critics, but this has been the fact from day one, long before she even considered anything in terms of public office.”

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