The well-connected lawyer who has Eric Adams’ ear
When Eric Adams needed space to work on his mayoral campaign, an old friend set him up with a brightly-lit spot in his own downtown Brooklyn office, steps from Adams’ Borough Hall headquarters.
When he was setting up his campaign team, Adams hired the same confidante for legal advice and help putting together ballot petitions.
And when Adams was building a war chest to underwrite his victory in the Democratic primary last month, it was that friend, Frank Carone, who hosted fundraisers and, along with his wife, donated the maximum amount allowed under law. Their Mill Basin, Brooklyn neighbors followed suit, contributing $29,430 to Adams — the Brooklyn borough president who is now the odds-on favorite to become the city’s 110th mayor.
In fact, Carone has been such a constant in Adams’ political and personal orbit, he was summoned over a loudspeaker at an election night victory party a few weeks ago: “Frank Carone, we need you by the DJ area please.”
Carone is an attorney whose practice at Abrams Fensterman has exploded since he joined in 2011. The firm covers a bit of everything — divorce proceedings, criminal trials, medical malpractice cases.
And its more than 100 attorneys also represent real estate, nursing home and transportation companies that rely on city government for their businesses. That’s when Carone’s reputation as a well-connected litigator and man about town became a lucrative asset.
As head of the firm’s Brooklyn office, Carone offers clients strategic advice on government relations while also helping them accelerate the grind of municipal bureaucracy. He relies on a thick Rolodex built over the years, through a keen knowledge of city agencies and control over a piece of the Brooklyn Democratic political machine.
He makes himself a port in a storm, sticking by friends in tough times and inviting them for a home-cooked meal at his house in Southern Brooklyn, replete with neoclassical rooflines and a waterfront pool deck. But Carone can just as quickly exert pressure when he feels he’s been crossed, according to more than a dozen interviews with politicians and operatives who have dealt with him.
Now, after eight years of friendship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Carone has an opportunity for an even closer connection to a government he readily does business with. Carone and Adams are so close, they’ve even spent Thanksgiving together.
“Frank is a very honest broker. He is a man of his word and he’s very public about who he supports. He’s been with Eric since day one,” Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, said. “He’ll continue to be a confidante of Eric’s when he’s mayor — he’ll be one of his top confidantes, one of his top friends in the world — and someone he can rely on.”
Scissura was speaking Wednesday night from a fundraising soiree for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which relies on Carone for legal counsel. While a growing faction of political reformers stopped the organization from a full-throated endorsement of Adams, Carone and party chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, a member of the state Assembly, openly supported his bid.
So far the relationship between Adams and Carone has been of mutual benefit. Few people are closer to the politician, who is said to fiercely value loyalty. Carone’s assistance has ranged from pressuring Orthodox Jewish leaders — whose coveted endorsements were split between Adams and candidate Andrew Yang, according to someone familiar with the matter — to providing office space in Brooklyn’s Metrotech campus for the past year and a half for a mere $680.57. (The Adams team did not receive a bill from Carone until June 15, records show — the same day POLITICO inquired about the missing expense.)
That symbiotic relationship will be scrutinized more closely if Adams takes over City Hall next year, as expected. Mayors before him have landed in the crosshairs of federal investigations for blurring the line between government and politics.
On Thursday, Adams said he would remain independent of special interests when asked about his close relationship with the Hotel Trades Council, but his team declined to answer specific questions about what steps he would take to avoid potential conflicts of interest between City Hall and those who worked for his campaign, saying those matters are being evaluated.
“Regardless of my personal relationships and friendships, be it with the mayor or with whomever, I am always mindful of my ethical and legal responsibilities as a member of the bar. Nothing changes that,” Carone said in a statement. “I will not only do my best to avoid any actual and real conflict of interest — but even the perceived conflict to avoid any question that might create a negative appearance.”
Nevertheless, Adams’ ascent stands to elevate Carone, who also acts as the candidate’s personal lawyer.
In recent years, the Brooklyn attorney and former U.S. Marine has represented developers, taxi fleet owners and nursing home operators, many of whom are regulated by city and state entities.
In 2019, city records show Carone worked with lobbyist James Capalino to resolve a stop-work order placed on a Park Slope condo project being built by Haysha Deitsch, who attracted criticism of biblical proportions for shuttering a senior center at the site. He worked with lobbyist Suri Kasirer on a potential rezoning for supermarket chain Western Beef, which also sought city tax breaks. And he dealt with rezoning matters for nursing home operator Allure Group, which was at the center of a scandal during the de Blasio administration.
Carone has long represented the Podolsky real estate family, and helped them navigate a $173 million portfolio sale to the city in 2019. And he hopped on the legal team of Forest City Ratner and Greenland USA in 2015, when a planned commercial tower in their massive development project Pacific Park came under threat from P.C. Richard & Son.
Even government agencies have sought the services of Abrams Fensterman. Carone represented SUNY as it fought to sell the former Long Island College Hospital site in Brooklyn Heights to Fortis Property Group — a transaction ultimately consummated after a judge’s 2015 ruling. And he is currently representing a Surrogate Court judge that the Brooklyn Democratic Party helped get on the bench.
In 2011, Carone was named Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s appointee to the board of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and was reappointed by de Blasio in 2015. Abrams Fensterman has represented cab fleet owners who are regulated by the commission, though Carone said the firm only handles insurance matters in those cases.
Carone, who is now looking to expand his business into Florida, does this work without registering as a lobbyist. He told POLITICO that he will often recommend a lobbyist such as Kasirer or Mercury Public Affairs. Sometimes he will retain these firms himself on behalf of a client, bringing them under the veil of attorney-client privilege.
Adams’ spokesperson Evan Thies offered a relatively muted response when asked about Carone, calling the attorney “a strong supporter of the campaign and a knowledgeable counsel.”
Carone’s deep ties to Brooklyn politics originate at the Thomas Jefferson Club in Canarsie, where another politico, Frank Seddio, also got his start. The two started a law firm that eventually merged with Abrams Fensterman in 2011, the same year Carone was named counsel to the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Shortly thereafter, Seddio was elected party chair — cementing the locus of power in their home turf until Bichotte Hermelyn took over Seddio’s spot last year.
As a member of party leadership, Carone has influence over which candidates the organization supports in local elections. As law chair of the party’s executive committee, his firm also provides assistance to bolster the campaigns of their picks: Abrams Fensterman will bind petitions, ensure a candidate gets on the ballot and fend off legal challenges.
And with an attorney sitting on the party’s judicial screening committee, Abrams Fensterman helps decide which judicial candidates will receive the backing of the party.
Major New York law firms have long sought to hire former elected officials to demonstrate their cachet within government and the courts. In Manhattan, former Assembly Member and current Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright is the director of strategic planning at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron — a firm co-founded by Sid Davidoff, an adviser to former mayors John Lindsay and David Dinkins and an occasional confidante of de Blasio.
Until the rise of Abrams Fensterman, several observers told POLITICO, a similar operation was lacking in Brooklyn.
“Having politically influential attorneys that know the lay of the land is a value-add, which is why sophisticated clients have traditionally sought out the big law firms,” former Council Member David Greenfield said. “What Frank has done is recreate a large, Manhattan-style law firm in Brooklyn.”
Carone’s practice, where he was made partner in 2017, is more locally focused — especially when it comes to connections with the Kings County courts.
“It’s less Harvard and more Brooklyn Law School,” one borough political source said.
Yet Brooklyn is fast becoming the center of the universe in New York: Tish James, a former Council member from Crown Heights, is currently investigating Gov. Andrew Cuomo in her post as state attorney general. Former Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represented Flatbush, is expected to cruise to reelection as city public advocate. Council Member Brad Lander of Park Slope is on track to become the city’s next comptroller.
And Adams, a long-time Brooklyn pol, is practically measuring the drapes in City Hall, confident of his chances in November. If he needs any advice, Carone is just a phone call away.
“When people outside of government have the ear of elected officials, you have to be very careful about what their interests are and that they are not influencing decisions,” said Mariana Alexander, head of the New Kings Democrats, an insurgent political faction that has long warred with the Brooklyn county party. “And when the person runs a law firm with matters before the city, it’s even more critical that there be a separation.”
One Brooklyn-based politico described Carone as “an old-school operative.”
“Frank’s going to do what’s in Frank’s best interest,” the person said. “And he’ll have an open door to City Hall.”