By Joe Anuta and Rich Bockmann
Aside from distributing 5 percent of the city’s budget, the borough president’s powers largely consist of advocating for or against issues that affect Queens and many of the candidates who want the job have ties to government lobbyists paid to influence these types of decisions.
Two of the seven current hopefuls in the Democratic race to fill the seat of Borough President Helen Marshall have been lobbyists themselves, while others accepted donations from lobbying firms or have ties to family members who lobby.
Lobbyists spend millions in New York City each year. Major League Soccer, for example, spent the most out of any company last year to convince city officials that a stadium in the borough is a good idea. On the other hand, many nonprofits and hospitals lobby, and the practice is an acceptable legal avenue to advance a cause or project, according to David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs.
“I think it is important to establish out of the gate that lobbying is a perfectly legitimate form of representation,” he said.
But because lobbying firms are paid to influence lawmakers, the City Campaign Finance Board limits their contributions to $320 for borough president candidates, whereas the normal donation limit is $3,850. Members of high-powered lobbying firms are sometimes former elected officials themselves and often have close ties to sitting city officials, which means they have an outsized advantage compared to the average voter, according to Birdsell.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), businessman Everly Brown, City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), former state Assemblywoman Melinda Katz, Director of Community Boards Barry Grodenchik, Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) are all vying for the seat.
The candidate’s donations on file with the Campaign Finance Board were examined through March 11 for lobbyists registered with the city, high-ranking employees of lobbying firms and unions that are registered lobbyists — the same criteria the board uses to track and limit donations. Donors registered as lobbyists at any time from 2010 onward were included.
Only donations starting with the year 2010 were considered since candidates like Comrie and Vallone were term-limited out after their 2009 election. Money from possible spouses of lobbyists, misspellings and donors who did not disclose their occupation hampered the effort. But overall, clear trends emerged.
Katz was until November a lobbyist at the Park Avenue law firm Greenberg Traurig, which specializes in government affairs. She received 48 donations from lobbying interests totaling about $16,200 of her $387,132 war chest. Some of those firms, Bryan Cave, for example, are involved in Queens projects like a planned 52-home development in Whitestone that is fraught with environmental concerns.
Katz also received 36 donations from employees of Greenberg Traurig, not all of whom were registered as lobbyists, and $1,000 from the political action committee of the firm, which has worked on behalf of a wide variety of clients, including several Queens developers.
Katz, who was once head of the City Council’s influential Land Use Committee, began lobbying in 2010, and received 19 donations totaling about $18,500 from clients who formerly hired her, according to the filings.
For example, the former councilwoman, who also served as former Borough President Claire Shulman’s director of community boards, received three donations totaling $8,200 from a company called Shalimar Management, a real estate firm with interests in Corona’s Lefrak City that hired Katz to lobby the city Department of City Planning in 2012. She also received four donations totaling $7,700 from a company called Constantine DB, an Astoria-based developer that hired Katz to lobby the city Department of Housing and Preservation in 2010.
George Artz, spokesman for Katz, said that these donations came from former colleagues and personal friends, along with people who she formerly worked with who recognized her determination and work ethic.
“No client is going to give her money based on what she would do for them,” he said.
Grodenchik, a former assemblyman, was a lobbyist from 2006 to 2009 for The Parkside Group, the go-to political consulting firm for the Queens Democratic Party, which also takes on a diverse clientele. The director of community boards received nine donations from various lobbying interests amounting to about $2,000 out of his total $104,000.
Grodenchik also received 14 donations from employees of companies he used to lobby for totaling about $4,000. In 2006, he was hired to lobby for Rockefeller Development Group Corp., one of the companies behind the $850 million Flushing Commons project in downtown Flushing. In the current race, Grodenchik received a $2,000 donation from a high-ranking project developer that has partnered with Rockefeller: Christian Lee of TDC Development.
But according to Birdsell, in an age of term limits, lawmakers who move into the lobbying world and then run for office may become more common. If a lobbyist devotes an outsized portion of his or her career to a particular cause, he said, then voters may be in danger of electing a mouthpiece for that issue, although Katz and Grodenchik lobbied for many different clients.
Once elected officials leave office, they are typically barred for two years from lobbying the area where they served, said Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters. But this cooling off period is not instituted the other way around, meaning lobbyists can immediately become politicians without violating any ethics laws on the books.
“As long as your campaign is transparent and voters know that’s what your former job was, that is the decision of the electorate,” she said.
Lobbyists already enjoy an outsized influence in politics compared to the average citizen, and injecting money into campaigns could only compound that influence, according to Bartoletti, which is why the League supports the city’s limits on lobbyist contributions and believes that those lower thresholds can curtail the influence of special interests.
Where the Money Went
Out of all the candidates, Comrie received the most money from lobbying interests — $23,650, or about 20 percent of his total, according to the filings.
Comrie, who took over as chairman of the Land Use Committee when Katz left the Council in 2009, received the bulk of these donations from lobbyists at land-use firms representing some of the biggest developments in the city and unions with construction interests. He banked nearly $3,800 from nine donors with interests in either of the controversial Atlantic Yards and New York University-expansion projects, including $1,500 from the law firm Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP, which lobbied on behalf of both. Comrie also received $3,500 from labor unions representing either construction or building-service trades.
Vallone received about $11,400 from 43 lobbying interests since 2010, though he has more than $1 million in his coffers. Vallone is a business partner with his father, former Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. in a law firm called Vallone & Vallone. Separately, his father also heads a firm called Constantinople & Vallone Consulting, which is registered as lobbying on various projects and for firms including Tully Construction in Queens and the Hunts Point Terminal Market project in the Bronx. However Vallone’s campaign noted that he does not take more than a symbolic a salary from his law firm, has no ties to the consulting firm and works as a full-time council member.
Vallone received 29 donations from clients who hired his father and business partner to lobby, including about $1,200 from a development firm called Mega Contracting that takes on borough projects, and also received donations from both past and current members of Constantinople & Vallone.
A lobbyist named Robert Bookman, who was involved in pushing the paid sick leave legislation in the city council, also gave $3,000 in bundled contributions to Vallone, meaning he collected small donations and packaged them together for the campaign, according to the filings.
Peralta received a little more than $17,500 out of his total $247,186 from lobbying interests.
Of that, $4,020 came from those who either lobby on behalf of or are in executive positions at Sterling Equities, Major League Soccer or the US Tennis Association, all of which have expansion plans in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, though his campaign noted Peralta is against Sterling’s Willets Point proposal. More than $10,000 came from unions and their political action committees, though Peralta’s campaign noted he is the ranking Democratic conference member of the state Senate’s Labor Committee.
Avella received one $50 donation from a lobbyist, and Brown did not have any data on file with the board.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.