Brooklyn Councilwoman Inna Vernikov recently used her government email account to solicit business for a self-defense company she has been involved with, according to a Daily News review of public records.
The first-term Republican lawmaker’s promotion of the nonprofit company, Legion Alpha, Inc., drew a stern rebuke from Richard Briffault, a former chairman of the city Conflicts of Interest Board, who said her use of a government email to boost the firm ran afoul of local government ethics law.
“That’s a clear violation of conflict rules,” Briffault said, pointing to a section of the City Charter that he noted prohibits her from using “public resources for a financial gain of a firm with which she is associated.”
Vernikov’s solicitation came in the form of a Jan. 30 email she sent from her government account to constituents in her district, which covers a slice of southern Brooklyn that includes Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay.
In the email, Vernikov — who’s a member of the Council’s Ethics Committee — wrote that she has “partnered with” Legion to offer classes in Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art, at a local synagogue.
The email included a poster advertising four months of biweekly classes for 30 students at $300 per person. The message also included a link constituents could click to sign up for the paid program.
“Space is limited and there are only a few spots left for this location,” Vernikov wrote.
Also in the email, Vernikov wrote that she has served as “a Chairperson on the executive board” of Legion. A biography posted on her Council website states she still serves in that role.
Corey Feldman, Legion’s president, said this past Thursday that Vernikov is “still very much involved” with his group’s Brooklyn chapter.
“We have her very much to thank for filling that class,” he said, noting that her promotion was “a big reason” why Legion filled all 30 student slots.
A few hours after providing those comments, Feldman called The News back and said Vernikov is no longer “involved in an official capacity” with his group.
“But she does help me a lot with the Brooklyn chapter, and got it off the ground,” he added.
Despite the biography on her Council website, Vernikov said she isn’t on Legion’s board. She also said she hasn’t received any “financial gain” from the group.
“I served in a volunteer capacity … and continue to strongly support their cause,” said Vernikov, who flipped a previously Democratic Council seat in the 2021 election after Donald Trump, Jr. and other prominent Republicans stumped for her campaign.
Briffault said Vernikov likely violated ethics law even if she isn’t currently involved with Legion in a formal capacity, as the rules bar public officials from using “any city resources for any non-city purpose.”
“So personal gain to the member is not essential” for it to be a violation, Briffault added.
Conflicts of Interest Board Executive Director Carolyn Miller, whose agency is tasked with enforcing city ethics law, declined to comment specifically on Vernikov’s Legion solicitation.
“[The law] prohibits the board from commenting on the past conduct of a public servant until such time as the board makes a final finding of a violation committed by that public servant,” Miller said.
Vernikov could also face an ethics headache over a recent discretionary allocation she issued to a group she has ties to, Briffault said, though he added that incident was far less clear cut.
City records show Vernikov steered $10,000 last year to a group called Americans Against Antisemitism from the Council’s discretionary pot, which members can dip into to provide funding for nonprofit initiatives in their districts.
According to tax records reviewed by The News, Vernikov served as a vice president of Americans Against Antisemitism as recently as December 2021. The group’s founder is former Brooklyn State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who used to employ Vernikov as a special assistant and was a prominent supporter of her 2021 Council campaign.
Vernikov’s Council biography page states she still serves as a member of Americans Against Antisemitism’s board, but her annual financial disclosure says she resigned from that position “shortly after” she was sworn into office in January 2022.
Both Vernikov and Hikind said last week she has had no role at Americans Against Antisemitism since early 2022.
Under Council rules, members are prohibited from giving discretionary funds to organizations at which they serve as employees or board members, regardless of whether they’re paid. In addition, Council members are not allowed to award discretionary money to an organization where an “associated person” — like a family member or a business partner — serves as an employee if that person stands to “benefit, or appears to benefit, from the funding.”
The rules also require both Council members and organizations benefitting from their discretionary spending to disclose “any potential conflicts of interest” ahead of an award.
Neither Vernikov nor Hikind would say if they ever made such a disclosure in relation to the Americans Against Antisemitism award.
But they both said in separate text messages that “there is no conflict” related to the award.