Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Lobbyist Has a Dual Role at City Hall

By MIKE McINTIRE Published: June 22, 2005 New York Times

It is all there on a single orange-trimmed page: a series of spending priorities that would cost New York taxpayers up to $17,371,000. And for the past week, it has circulated quietly among City Council members as they work to complete a city budget by July 1.

At City Hall, some nonprofit groups, "even the small ones, feel the only way they can get in the door is to hire a lobbyist," one councilman said.

While it was not an official document, its authorship made it unlikely to be ignored. It came from the Parkside Group, a firm that has carved out a dual role in New York politics: as lobbyist for nonprofit groups seeking city money and as a political consultant to a dozen council members, including the speaker and the Finance Committee chairman, who have a major hand in approving budget requests from those same groups.

Although the City Hall steps are often clotted with people buttonholing politicians with leaflets and whispered pleas for money, the unusually expensive requests found in the Parkside memo, and a few others like it, touched a nerve for some council members and good-government groups. They say it represents a culture of lobbying that is spiraling out of control.

The memo is one of several that have been distributed to council members by professional lobbyists, who are increasingly being hired, often for $40,000 to $60,000 a year, by nonprofit organizations that want city money for the health, cultural and social service programs they operate. The amount paid to lobbyists by these and other clients seeking influence in City Hall hit a record $34 million last year.

"I think it's unfortunate that a lot of these nonprofit groups, even the small ones, feel the only way they can get in the door is to hire a lobbyist. That's disgraceful," said Councilman Tony Avella, Democrat of Queens. "They shouldn't have to go out and hire these people, at exorbitant fees, which comes out of the money we give them."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit civic group that has no budget request before the city, said the competition for money among nonprofits had "created this frenzy" to hire lobbyists out of a belief that doing so would increase their chances of securing appropriations. He also expressed concern about what he called "a growing problem" of council members being lobbied by firms that serve as political consultants to many of them.

"It's a closed circle of influence that is totally inappropriate," Mr. Dadey said. "It clearly gives a lobbyist who does campaign work unfair advantage, because it gives them a level of access to the elected official that they otherwise would not have."

For its part, Parkside has defended its ability to be a consultant to elected officials and to lobby those same politicians on behalf of private clients. Earlier this year, after threatening to go to court, the firm succeeded in getting the city's Conflicts of Interest Board to withdraw a new guideline that would have effectively prohibited the practice.

Yesterday, Evan Stavisky, a Parkside partner, said the firm's political consulting gave it no advantages in seeking budget requests. He also said the total amount being sought by Parkside was not a lot in the context of a $50 billion budget. "It's not surprising that as you're coming out of some of the toughest budget times in recent memory, they're looking to make the case that the work they're doing requires greater support," Mr. Stavisky said. "And as these nonprofits are asked to do more and more, it's also not surprising that they're asking the city to help them do that."

Mr. Stavisky added that it was Parkside's policy to require that none of its nonprofit clients paid their lobbying fees from the proceeds of city money appropriated for them during the budget process.

Parkside was paid a total of $1.7 million by more than 40 clients last year, many of them nonprofits, according to the city clerk's office, which tracks lobbyist registrations. Only four firms reported higher earnings, including Kasirer Consulting, whose principal, Suri Kasirer, is also a political consultant.
Other lobbyists and nonprofit groups have also been distributing wish lists to council members during the budget negotiations, during which the Council is trying to decide how to divvy up roughly $200 million available for community groups in the city budget for the 2006 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The Dryfoos Group is circulating an 11-page memo that requests $14 million for groups including Big Brothers Big Sisters, the American Folk Art Museum and the South Street Seaport Museum.
In interviews over the last few days, half a dozen council members complained about the lobbying, which they said seemed intense this year. Several cited the Parkside memo, which is actually the cover sheet for a binder that was less widely circulated and contained details of each request from groups like the Church Avenue Merchants Block Association and NYC & Company.

One member waved the memo dismissively and likened it to a bank robber's demand note. Another called the $17.4 million being sought "ridiculously large," but added that it had to be taken seriously because of the firm's perceived relationship with the speaker, Gifford Miller, for whom Parkside has consulted in recent years. In fact, it was a measure of Parkside's perceived clout that none of those who criticized the firm were willing to be quoted by name.

Councilman David I. Weprin, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he did not see a problem with Parkside's lobbying effort, and he called the memo helpful for "consolidating the programs and amounts being sought."

"In my opinion, having an advocate, whether it be a professionally paid lobbyist or somebody who works full time for the organization, doesn't change the substance of what they're advocating," he said. "The question is, what's the substance behind it?"
In addition to sitting in judgment of Parkside's budget requests, Mr. Weprin is also a Parkside client. He could be seen stopping to chat with Parkside executives on his way out of a budget meeting earlier this week.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Parkside Lobbyies for Voting Machines

"EVAN STAVISKY of the Parkside Group, which represents another voting machine company, Danaher Controls Inc., said he, too, had been talking to officials in New York City and elsewhere.
Parkside is a busy city lobbying firm. It has worked on the campaigns of more than a dozen City Council members, including the speaker, Gifford Miller. One of its partners is Harry Giannoulis, a member of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, and Mr. Stavisky is well connected in Albany, where his mother is State Senator Tobi Ann Stavisky, Democrat of Queens." - New York Times, May 15, 205

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Conflicts Board Rescinds Memo on Lobbying

By MIKE McINTIRE NY Times,March 3, 2005

Under pressure from lobbying-and-consulting firms, the city's Conflicts of Interest Board has backed away from its first attempt to restrict lobbying of elected officials by consultants who work on their campaigns.

The board caused a stir in political circles in January when it issued a memo reminding municipal employees of the ethical rules for taking part in campaigns, which included a new admonition against lobbying by political consultants. It said consultants hired by public officials "may not lobby or in any other way communicate" with those officials on behalf of private clients.

But yesterday, the board circulated a revised version of the memo with that section omitted. In an e-mail message to city officials, the board's counsel, Wayne G. Hawley, said that the earlier memo "does not necessarily reflect the current state of the law as interpreted by the board" and that the board had not placed any "impediments on lobbying of public servants by campaign consultants."

It is becoming increasingly common in New York politics for firms to take on the dual roles of political consultancy and lobbying, an arrangement that some ethics watchdogs say compromises the elected officials involved, because consultants could wield huge influence with the politicians they help put into office. Before it reversed course this week, the Conflicts of Interest Board, the agency charged with regulating ethics in the municipal workplace, appeared to have broken new ground by taking up the issue.

The board's abrupt about-face occurred after a group of lobbyist-consultants threatened to fight the restriction in court, on the ground that it violated their right to free speech. The group's lawyer, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, who specializes in First Amendment cases, said the board overstepped by extending its authority to political professionals outside of government.

"The board can only regulate public servants," he said. "This is an agency that is supposed to be focusing on conflicts of interest, self-dealing. No one anointed them regulators of political activities."

In a brief telephone interview yesterday, the chairman of the Conflicts of Interest Board, Steven B. Rosenfeld, refused to discuss the matter. He would not explain how the original memo came to be issued, what the board's position is on lobbying by political consultants or whether the board intended to address it again in the future.

Last week, before the board moved to rescind the new restriction, Mr. Hawley described it as guidance for public officials that did not carry the same weight as a formal opinion or ruling. Still, it represented the first time a city agency had addressed the potential for conflicts posed by political consultants who serve as lobbyists.

The hiring of lobbyist-consultants crosses party lines and involves all branches of city government.

The Parkside Group, for instance, has worked on the campaigns of more than a dozen City Council members, including the speaker, Gifford Miller, and has also lobbied the Council on behalf of private clients. Maureen Connelly worked on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's 2001 campaign, and then returned to her lobbying firm, which represented clients with business before the Bloomberg administration.

Mr. Rosenkranz declined to say which lobbyist-consultants he was representing, although others involved in the case said Parkside was among them. He said "there is no question" that he would have won a lawsuit against the board if it had not rescinded its action.

"The upshot of their proposal was that politically engaged citizens in New York City would have to choose between two forms of constitutionally protected activity: They can help candidates get elected, or they can petition the government, but they cannot do both," he said. "And the First Amendment says the government does not get to allocate those rights."

The board's confused handling of the issue left some city officials feeling whipsawed. William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, said he was troubled that the board - whose members are appointed by the mayor - did not seem willing or able to stand behind its conclusion that lobbyist-consultants need to be regulated.

"It seems like what they did was issue a verdict, and then try to take it back and say it never existed," he said. "I'm sorry, but the verdict was read in open court and the jury heard it."

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Miller Outspending Most Mayoral Rivals

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller has already poured nearly $1 million into his campaign for mayor, outspending all his Democratic rivals and signaling an early start to what is likely to be one of the most expensive elections in city history.
Mr. Miller has spent more than $931,000 on his campaign since 2002 - about half of that in the last year alone, according to reports filed this week with the Campaign Finance Board.

But Mr. Miller's spending has not helped him advance in the polls, where he remains behind Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and two Democratic candidates: Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx Borough president, and C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough president.

Mr. Miller has sought to play down his efforts, saying he is focusing instead on his work in the Council. "It's months and months and months from an election that I haven't officially announced for, and that people really aren't concerned about," Mr. Miller said at a news conference on Wednesday at City Hall. Yet despite such disclaimers, the recent spending reports filed by Mr. Miller and other likely candidates show that the race has begun in earnest.

The unknown factor is Mayor Bloomberg, who spent more than $73 million of his own money on his 2001 campaign. The mayor, who does not take part in the city's campaign finance program, has not yet been required to disclose his expenses. "We file everything we're required to file when it's due - it hasn't happened yet," said William T. Cunningham, his director of communications.

An analysis of Mr. Miller's campaign expenses shows that the bulk of it, or more than $470,000, has been used to support an extensive fund-raising operation that has already brought in more than $4.2 million in campaign contributions. For instance, Mr. Miller paid more than $200,000 alone to the Esler Group for fund-raising and campaign consulting.

He also spent $40,000 on catering from Noche, a nightclub that is out of business, $17,800 for a 2002 birthday party and fund-raiser at Studio 54, and $15,000 for a similar party in November at the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park. Other expenses included more than $80,000 for designing, printing and mailing invitations to his events, $4,000 for flowers, $700 for gift baskets from Harry and David, and $650 for Latin dancers from Studio Zamora.

The Parkside Group, a lobbying group with close ties to Mr. Miller, received nearly $21,000 in graphic design and printing fees for his fund-raisers, and Global Strategy Group, a political consulting and polling organization, was paid $4,700 to cover expenses for holding a fund-raiser for Mr. Miller.

Brian Hardwick, Mr. Miller's campaign manager, said that as their campaign moves forward, more money would be spent on efforts to reach voters like political ads and direct mailings. "We feel very encouraged by the position we're in to start the campaign in 2005," he said. "We have a lot to show for what we've spent." - January 22, 2005