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."