15 Minutes With NYC Mayor De Blasio's Counsel

By Michele Gorman
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Law360 (November 23, 2020, 6:15 PM EST) -- Any sensitive legal issue facing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, from pandemic-related closures to police reform and concerns surrounding the presidential election, crosses the desk of his counsel, Kapil Longani.

Kapil Longani

Currently: Counsel to the mayor of New York City
Previously: Senior counsel to Ranking Member Elijah Cummings for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform
Law school: University of Florida Levin College of Law

Despite the demands and challenges of his job, Longani says he can't imagine a more purposeful existence than his career in public service. He previously served as senior counsel to the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

"The fact that you can be a very, very, very small part of hopefully bettering people's lives and protecting them is deeply satisfying," Longani told Law360 during a recent interview.

Previously, he was the Democratic staff's lead investigator into the Flint water crisis and the Trump administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now, he advises on matters in New York City involving heated outdoor dining areas and last week's closure of public schools due to rising coronavirus cases, though he declined to explain the legal implications under consideration in that decision.

Here, Longani shares more about his responsibilities and workflow, legal considerations when advising the mayor and a lesson shared with him by Cummings. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You're known as the "chief problem solver" around town. How did you get this title?

My job requires adaptability and the ability to push the mayor's priorities and figure out creative ways to get what the boss wants done in a legally appropriate fashion. That often entails legal work. But then it also entails being a psychologist as well, and talking to people and convincing them in other agencies, but also in City Hall, that this is appropriate and, more importantly, that it is legal.

You have to be very creative and adaptive in this environment, especially the COVID environment. My priorities every day really involve whatever the mayor's priorities are. I myself have to be adaptable, my team has to be very adaptable. Our job at the end of the day is making sure that our client's needs are met. Our client just happens to be the mayor of New York City, and he has a lot of really tough problems that need to be solved, that require a great deal of creativity. I think that's why people look at me in that fashion.

This job — while I am a lawyer — to do it well, it takes skills that go far beyond just being a good lawyer and knowing the law.

What does a city general counsel do, and how do you interact with other city legal departments?

In terms of what my office does, in a nutshell, any extensive legal issue that the mayor is dealing with crosses my desk first. I would analogize it to the White House Counsel's Office. When I was hired, that's one of the things I told the mayor. I said, "You're the second most powerful elected official in the country. And you deserve a legal team that is equivalent to that and as elite as the White House counsel."

That is why I think one of my most proudest achievements here is really creating a team of exceptional lawyers, exceptional public servants who are creative and adaptable — I mean they're workaholics to boot. We can't be wrong. When you're advising the mayor of New York City on legal issues, there is no margin for error. What we tell him, he then goes and tells nine million people. We have to make sure that we are right. In many ways, we're on an island.

Every day, any sensitive legal issue that the mayor is dealing with is going to come across my desk — be it issues relating to affordable housing, NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority], the opioid litigation and obviously any legal issue involving the pandemic, from travelers' quarantines to consent for testing in schools.

For the last couple of weeks, for example, some of the mayor's priorities included travel restrictions, testing and tracing in schools, and that's been our focus. But then on top of that, we also deal with nonpandemic-related issues. For example, my office manages the Civilian Complaint Review Board, as well as the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. CCRB is the largest civilian oversight entity in the country. Managing them is an interesting endeavor and one full of twists and turns.

On a day-to-day basis in terms of COVID, we do all kinds of things. The mayor will sometimes ask me to meet with community leaders. I'll talk with our public health officials on a regular basis. And then, of course, I'll be talking with the state and the governor's office on a regular basis, as well. In terms of what we do, it's really a smorgasbord and there really is no typical day.

What are some of the legal risks you've had to consider related to the health and safety and closing of businesses during the pandemic?

In March, one of the first issues we had to confront was a cruise ship that came in. We were thinking about, "Well, how do we deal with these passengers when they disembark?" We had to figure out, "What are we going to do here? How are we going to ensure public safety of New Yorkers while also respecting the legal rights of these cruise passengers?"

My office worked very closely with the New York State Department of Health and NYC Health + Hospitals in order to figure out what we were going to do to ensure that we respected their legal rights, but also protected people.

We coordinate, for example, with the New York City Department of Transportation. The Open Restaurant Program is a program that will last well beyond this administration. My team was involved in working with the Department of Transportation very closely in ensuring that people could dine safely outdoors on these streets. We talked about the type of dividers they'd have to put in place, what streets needed to be closed down. In doing so, my office is responsible for drafting executive orders. Where we needed to suspend certain laws, we did that. It's been an incredible success.

When you talk about risk management, that's an everyday thing that we have to do when we're coordinating with these agencies, and making sure at the end of the day that the public health and safety trumps everything else.

Same thing, we worked with the New York City Department of Education on school reopening — can you mandate student and staff testing? Those are all legal questions that relate to protecting people's health and things that we have to discuss and advise the mayor on before the policy goes into play.

How have you handled and dealt with the city's response to police reform?

I'll give you a couple of examples of how CCRB has been involved in police reform.

No. 1, the use of body-worn camera footage in investigating cases has increased exponentially. In 2019 alone, there were 531 cases with body-worn camera footage used. When you compare that to other oversight entities around the country, you realize just how extraordinary that is. The fact that the CCRB is using body-worn cameras on behalf of the public to hold police officers accountable is something I think that the mayor and all of us are very proud of. I think that was a really, really significant reform.

Secondly, more recently we've made a change that allows nonparty witnesses to file complaints against the police. Before that change, you had to be an actual witness or a victim, somebody that was involved in the actual incident to file a complaint. Now, let's say, you're on YouTube and you see something that someone posted on YouTube or Facebook. And you say to yourself, "Wow, that looks like there could be some issue here with the police response." You can turn around and report that to CCRB, and CCRB can then open an investigation, which again is a really significant step forward.

What's the most complicated issue or topic that you've had to legally advise the mayor on this year?

One of the things that we did — and I'm very proud that my team was leading this effort in many ways — was the creation of an election protection unit comprised of 500 nonpartisan volunteers. We called this group the New York City Election Observers Corps who went out on Election Day to ensure that people were allowed to vote without interference. I think there was this real calming effect on people, just seeing us out there and knowing that we were out there in force, along with law enforcement agencies, to ensure that their right to vote was protected.

We were really proud of that, along with the fact that we called over 700,000 New Yorkers to get the vote out. I think that was really awesome.

Is there one piece of advice that Cummings gave you that you've taken with you into your current role?

In a message he wrote on the transcript of the Michigan governor's 2016 testimony regarding the Flint water crisis, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings applauded Longani's work as the Democratic staff's lead investigator on the issue.

To create opportunities and challenge your staff. He always emphasized giving your staff the opportunity to grow and the confidence to learn how to succeed, and, more importantly, how to deal with failure.

I was a staffer on the Hill for the first time. Here I am on the committee of oversight investigation, the major oversight committee at that time for the Trump administration. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, frankly. I remember Elijah Cummings coming to me and saying, "Look, I want you to be the lead investigator on the Flint water crisis. No one is looking at it right now; it's not a national story. But I have a gut feeling that there is something awry here."

For the next two and a half years, I led that investigation. The fact that he singled me out and gave me that opportunity, and then supported me every step of the way, I grew in leaps and bounds. There was no doubt there were incredibly tough times during that investigation. But it culminated with [the now-former Michigan] Gov. Rick Snyder coming to Capitol Hill and giving testimony under oath. Reaching that point and being able to give the people of Flint a sense of fairness, a sense of "we are going to hold people accountable; nobody is above the law," it was one of the great privileges and honors of my life.

When I left, Chairman Cummings signed the transcript of that hearing, the front page, and he said, "Kapil, Thank you for just being you. I am so proud of you!"

I still look at it every night. Regardless of the day that I have, it inspires me. I hope in that way I do the same thing for my staff.

If you find time to relax, what do you like to do?

I love eating. We just had Diwali. My family has a tradition of making this sweet once-a-year jalebi. It's this orange-looking pretzel. It's very small, and when you eat it, it's like a jolt of sugar — literally a jolt of sugar.

When these things come out of the fryer, you can eat a pound of them. And that's what I do. I eat a pound of jalebi on Diwali, because it's one of the great sweets in the world. Anybody that hasn't tried it should.

Check out Law360's other general counsel interviews as part of our "15 Minutes With" series.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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