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NYC Councilwoman Zhuang’s office use of city email to solicit funds for nonprofit potential violation

Brooklyn Councilwoman Susan Zhuang’s office recently used official city email accounts to solicit donations for a private non-profit group with reported ties to China’s government — actions that appear to run counter to local ethics laws, the Daily News has learned.

The request for donations came in the form of a Feb. 7 email sent from a Zhuang staffer’s official Council address. The message, a copy of which was obtained by The News, said Zhuang “would like to invite” supporters and constituents to a Feb. 24 Lantern Festival Parade in Sunset Park, a Lunar New Year event attended by several local elected officials, including Mayor Adams.

“Additionally, we would like to extend an invitation for you to join as a sponsor for the event,” the message continued.

The email then urged any groups or individuals interested in being a “sponsor” to contact another aide in Zhuang’s office via that staffer’s official Council email address.

People who contacted the second staffer were in turn sent a document that made clear that in order to sponsor the event they would need to donate money to Asian American Community Empowerment, Inc., a Brooklyn nonprofit that organized the parade and has reportedly advocated for and worked with Chinese government entities.

The document, which was shared with The News by a source who received it from Zhuang’s office, listed off “sponsorship” levels for the parade — $50,000, $10,000, $5,000 and $1,000 — along with explanations for event perks invitees would get if they contributed, like a “3 minute speech on stage” for donors in the top dollar category.

The document, which the source translated into English from Chinese, specified the donations should be made via check payable to Asian American Community Empowerment, which goes by the acronym BRACE.

Susan Lerner, executive director of the Common Cause New York good government group, said there are multiple potential legal issues at play with the Zhuang team’s solicitation. The most obvious one, she said, is that the City Charter explicitly states elected officials and their staff cannot use “City letterhead, their title or City email account(s)” as part of services provided on behalf of nonprofits.

The other action that could be problematic, Lerner said, is if Zhuang didn’t secure a waiver from the city Conflicts of Interest Board allowing her staff to ask for donations to BRACE while on city time.

“You can actually use your city time to solicit donations for nonprofits if you get a waiver from COIB,” Lerner said, using an acronym for the board. “But you can’t use your Council email.”

Mayor Eric Adams delivers remarks at BRACE and Councilmember Zhuang's first annual Brooklyn Lantern Festival Parade on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Violet Mendelsund / Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Eric Adams, center, is pictured with John Chan, left, and Brooklyn Councilwoman Susan Zhuang at BRACE and Councilmember Zhuang’s first annual Brooklyn Lantern Festival Parade on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Violet Mendelsund / Mayoral Photography Office)

Zhuang, who was elected in November to represent a slice of southern Brooklyn that includes Sunset Park and Bensonhurst, wouldn’t say last week whether she or her staff consulted COIB about the matter.

“Like all elected officials, we invite people to participate in community events, as we did here for the Lunar New Year Lantern Festival,” Zhuang said in an email.

Zhuang said her office “did not solicit nor raise any funds associated with this parade.” However, when emailed a copy of the message her office sent out soliciting contributions to BRACE, Zhuang didn’t respond.

City ethics law violations can result in fines.

Citing confidentiality rules, COIB Executive Director Carolyn Miller said she couldn’t disclose whether Zhuang or her staff sought guidance about BRACE. Miller also said she’s barred by law from commenting “on the past conduct of any individual public servant until such time as there is a final finding of a violation by that public servant.”

In incorporation records, BRACE describes itself as group that seeks to “unite” local “Chinese communities to facilitate and empower its constituents to advance their social, political, and economic engagement.”

The Diplomat, an international affairs magazine, reported in 2021 that BRACE is also part of the United Front movement, a network of groups outside China that are either influenced or controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party.

The goal of United Front work is to “stifle criticism” of the Chinese Communist Party abroad, “spread positive views of China, and incentivize voters in foreign democracies to influence their domestic policies in ways favorable to China,” the federal government’s U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded in a 2018 study.

Under the leadership of its chairman, John Chan, BRACE has in recent years worked closely with China’s consulate in New York on various projects, including helping amass 1 million face masks early on in the COVID pandemic that were then shipped to China, The Diplomat reported.

John Chan speaks at a press conference at Golden Imperial Palace on 62nd St. on Monday, June 4, 2018. (Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News)
John Chan speaks at a press conference at Golden Imperial Palace on 62nd St. on Monday, June 4, 2018. (Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News)

BRACE has also held local events promoting Chinese Communist Party talking points. That includes convening symposiums on the CCP’s belief that Taiwan should be reabsorbed into the Chinese mainland and a December 2019 forum condemning sanctions and other reprimands imposed on China by the U.S. government over Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses against political dissidents in Hong Kong and ethnic Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, according to The Diplomat.

In a 2017 Chinese television interview unearthed by The Diplomat, Chan offered praise for the international affairs policies of President Xi Jinping, China’s autocratic leader, on the occasion of the conclusion of the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress.

“Overseas Chinese are bridges and messengers connecting the Chinese dream with the world dream,” Chan said in that video. “Overseas Chinese should stay closely united like pomegranate seeds and build the Chinese dream together, as President Xi said.”

Chan didn’t return emailed requests for comment last week, and neither did Jack Poon, who’s listed in state records as BRACE’s treasurer. A person who picked up the phone last Friday at a number listed for BRACE said Chan was not there before hanging up.

Zhuang, who’s a member of the Council’s Republican-majority Common Sense Caucus, didn’t offer comment on whether she was aware of BRACE’s CCP affiliations before last month’s parade.

In video from the Feb. 24 event, Zhuang and Chan can be seen together on stage embracing Mayor Adams while handing him a plaque that Zhuang told him was meant to “honor” him for his “important work for our city.”

It’s unclear how much money was raised for BRACE as part of the parade.


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