Skip to Content
Eric Adams

‘Attack Dog’ City Hall Lawyer Lisa Zornberg Went From Prosecuting Corruption to Defending Eric Adams

"She gets away with saying things that wouldn’t be that credible if they came from someone who wasn’t a white woman who has degrees from elite institutions and worked at some of the most elite places."

Lisa Zornberg looks at a reporter asking a question during the mayor's weekly press conference.

Lisa Zornberg at the mayor’s weekly media availability in March (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

In Mayor Eric Adams's escalating war with the City Council, he has increasingly turned to a powerhouse lawyer who is firmly in his corner.

Lisa Zornberg, the chief counsel to the mayor and City Hall, has become a vocal defender of Adams amid spats with the Council and ethics probes.

Last week, she launched an impassioned attack on legislation, sponsored by Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, to require a Council confirmation vote for many mayoral appointees.

In a five-minute speech at Adams's weekly press conference, Zornberg called the bill "highly problematic" and said it "runs against the grain of what has been systematic in New York City for 140 years."

"That was tried in New York City in the 1800s. You know who loved it? Tammany Hall loved it," she said. It was the latest in a series of broadsides delivered by the mayor's top lawyer against his many foes. 

Zornberg is a former federal prosecutor who was chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, and then a partner at the white shoe law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

"It is clear that Ms. Zornberg is bright and has had a distinguished career in the U.S. Attorney's office," City Councilmember Lincoln Restler, the chair of the government affairs committee and one of Adams's leading antagonists on the Council, told Hell Gate. "I've been surprised by how she has enthusiastically defended the ethical lapses of this administration. And I do wonder what long-term impact her service with Mayor Adams will have on her credibility and reputation."

Zornberg joined the administration last summer, replacing outgoing counsel Brendan McGuire, who kept a relatively low public profile. Adams hailed her at the time as "a badass." "She is just a fighter, a straight shooter," he said.

A native of Sea Gate, Brooklyn, and daughter of teachers, Zornberg graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when she was a lower court judge. Barely five feet tall, Zornberg got the nickname "tiny tornado" from a Village Voice story about a mob prosecution.

Adams said it was important to him to have a former prosecutor looking over his shoulder to cry foul "way before people go across the line."

The chief counsel provides legal advice to the mayor and his administration, supervising a handful of other lawyers. She also oversees 10 City agencies, including the Office of Contract Services, the Office of Labor Relations, the Business Integrity Commission and the Commission on Human Rights, a portfolio that was expanded under Adams. 

Whatever she may be counseling the mayor in private, in public she has been his staunch defender. She soon found herself fending off questions on looming ethics probes, as Adams faced an FBI investigation into whether his campaign conspired with the Turkish government to receive illegal foreign donations, leading to the seizure of the mayor's phones and raids on multiple aides' homes.

"I'm going to jump in here. So, many of you know that in addition to being chief counsel to the mayor and City Hall, I was formally the chief of the criminal division at SDNY, and that informs the approach. We're going to be very disciplined," Zornberg said at a November press conference, intercepting one question after another that had been directed at the mayor and declaring that—as far as she knows—the mayor is not the target of the investigation.

She spoke up for the mayor again when he was accused of a sexual assault two decades ago, saying that the city Law Department would defend the mayor in the case—an arrangement that has raised questions—and disparaging his accuser, saying the woman is so litigious she has written a book on how to file lawsuits.

More recently, Zornberg has become a leading voice in Adams's high-profile political and policy clashes with the City Council. 

"She's their attack dog," a Council source said. "She gets away with saying things that wouldn't be that credible if they came from someone who wasn’t a white woman who has degrees from elite institutions and worked at some of the most elite places."

Zornberg repeatedly criticized another bill pushed by the Council, to require NYPD officers to log information about low-level stops of New Yorkers, calling it "highly problematic for New Yorkers and for effective policing." The Council ultimately overrode Adams's veto of the bill. 

The mayor's lawyer again turned to history to mount an impassioned defense of Randy Mastro, who Adams is expected to name as the City's corporation counsel. The position is one of a handful that already require a confirmation vote, and Mastro, best known as a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, has faced widespread opposition in the Council, where members also object to his work representing Chevron. But Zornberg criticized "some of the really imbalanced things I've seen stated about him in the media," called him "an incredibly top notch, world-renowned lawyer," and compared Mastro's representation of unsavory clients to John Adams defending British soldiers in 1770.

Zornberg also went after Restler directly, sending a letter to the Speaker in May demanding an ethics probe into the Brooklyn councilmember for remarks he made at a Council hearing about the City's response to sexual assault claims. Zornberg charged he had engaged in "harassing and inexcusable" behavior. 

The letter caused some head scratching in city political circles because Restler's comments, if a tad harsh, were hardly out of the ordinary for Council hearings, where politicians grilling administration officials is the whole point. Zornberg also complained that he called out an official's salary, which is a matter of public record. The Speaker's office quickly shot down the request for an ethics probe. 

In the latest clash, Adams and his top lawyer have been trying—unsuccessfully—to stop legislation that would require Council confirmation for 20 top City Hall jobs, including the Transportation, Buildings, and Sanitation commissioners. 

The Council passed the bill on Thursday with a veto-proof majority, but it's still far from a done deal. It would have to be approved by voters in a referendum, and Adams has created an eleventh hour Charter Revision Commission that could, through a quirk of City procedure, prevent the measure from getting on the ballot this year. 

Zornberg railed against the bill, citing then-Governor Grover Cleveland's support—in 1884—for giving the mayor unilateral power over appointments. "This history is rich and important in New York City, and the City Council should study it," she said. She argued that charter revision commissions formed over the years "have continually repeated this power of the mayor is necessary for the proper governance of New York City. It is essential."

But Eric Lane, who led a landmark charter revision commission in the 1980s that completely overhauled City government, said the bodies have in fact acted over the years to limit the mayor's power. 

"I think that is, let's say, ahistorical. Or not accurate," he said. "This is just not a thoughtful statement on her part at all."

Lane said the administration's arguments might appear to carry more gravity coming from City Hall's chief counsel, but are still misguided. "They're trying to achieve credibility with a lawyer," he said. "They feel like it adds authority to it." But he added, "I don't think her statements here have made sense."

The invocation of Tammany Hall—the political machine known for blatant graft that controlled city government for decades—drew laughs from critics, who say if anyone is bringing back the spirit of Tammany, it's Adams's City Hall. 

"It is beyond rich that this administration, which has employed cronies, hacks and many unethical figures, and is closer to the county machines than any mayor since Ed Koch, would claim that the party machines somehow benefit from this legislation," Restler said. 

"The unsavory figures of New York City politics want Eric Adams to continue to have unilateral power to pick every single person in his administration because that's how they know they're going to get taken care of."

Council spokesperson Shirley Limongi echoed these comments, calling it "interesting that this Administration would bring up Tammany Hall when there have been major ethical and qualifications questions raised about many of its appointments."

While Tammany Hall did support requiring legislative confirmation for mayoral appointees—because they sometimes lost mayoral elections but had a firm grasp on the Board of Aldermen, according to Terry Golway, a historian who has chronicled the Tammany era—it was in a very different political era. The City Council did not yet exist, with legislative power instead held by the Board of Aldermen. The modern five borough city did not exist either, and New York City consisted only of Manhattan. 

The Mayor's Office declined to make Zornberg available for an interview, and did not respond to questions sent through the press office. 

Former colleagues at SDNY and Debevoise & Plimpton lavished her with praise in a press release when her appointment was announced, but none of them responded to Hell Gate's requests for comment. 

One former counsel to the mayor said the role Zornberg has taken on is not surprising. "I do not think that what she is doing is atypical or out of the ordinary," the lawyer said, adding it makes sense for her to hone in on issues of governance and distribution of power.

"A mayor's counsel probably isn't the best person to go out there and do political stumping," the former counsel said. "You'll see a lot of people in communications and policy roles who don't have law degrees…They're often looking at things through a substantially political lens. And a mayor’s counsel, while they of course will understand politics, they're really best dispatched to explain the law, its history, and why things are the way they are."

But the Council has not been swayed, moving forward with its proposals despite City Hall’s objections. The Council source said Zornberg has had minimal contact with the body behind the scenes, and her public broadsides have only further alienated members.

"This is an administration that doesn't operate out of a long-term goal or strategy," the person said. "It looks and feels exactly like that happened in the Trump administration, where the commissioners are performing for an audience of one."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

As Change to Broker Fees Looms, Real Estate Agents Are Suddenly Concerned That the Rent Is Too High

At a rally to oppose the FARE Act, REBNY and real estate agents expressed a newfound concern about rising rents and the lives of tenants.

New York State Lawmakers Once Again Fail to Pass Meaningful Climate Legislation

While Governor Hochul's last-minute congestion pricing "pause" had a lot to do with it, there's plenty of blame to go around.

We’re So Back: East Village Dollar Slice Joint Is Back to Selling 99 Cent Slices

Owner Sana Ullah said that cratering demand at the elevated price point motivated him to bring it back down.

We’re Not Alone in UFO Encounters Doc ‘They’re Here’

The film about UFO enthusiasts upstate premiered at Tribeca Festival and is light on aliens, heavy on community.

June 11, 2024
See all posts