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.