New York Times, May 18, 2004, By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Council Speaker Gifford Miller has sought help from a lobbyist whose clients often have business before the City Council to fill a crucial position, the speaker's chief of staff. The role is traditionally that of gatekeeper and top adviser to one of the city's most powerful officials.
The lobbyist, Harry E. Giannoulis, a partner in the Parkside Group, a lobbying and political consulting firm, said yesterday that while he did not believe he had played a pivotal role in helping Mr. Miller choose his chief of staff, he had given the speaker advice on what to look for in a candidate and had advised some potential applicants to seek the job. He also participated in meetings at which candidates were discussed, according to Mr. Miller's staff.
''I have encouraged people who have talked to me about it to apply if I think they are good for, or if I think the fit would be good,'' Mr. Giannoulis said yesterday, adding that he had had dozens of conversations with people who have called asking him: ''What's the deal? Is the job open? What's the speaker looking for?''
Mr. Giannoulis wears two hats, one as a consultant helping candidates get elected, another as a lobbyist, who then helps his clients gain access to the people he helps elect. It is a standard strategist-lobbyist model that is common in the city and in the federal government. In this case, Mr. Giannoulis acknowledges wearing both hats at the same time -- saying he is collecting a $2,000-a-month retainer from Mr. Miller's campaign committee for political work while also representing clients like the Telebeam Telecommunications Corporation of Long Island City, which owns pay phones throughout the city.
Mr. Giannoulis said he had lobbied the speaker directly for his clients. It is his dual roles -- helping the speaker find a chief of staff and also lobbying the speaker on behalf of companies -- that have some government watchdog groups concerned, particularly given the power a chief of staff holds in terms of access to the speaker and in helping perform Council business.
''You can't deny the speaker his right as an employer to cast a wide net to get a highly capable chief of staff,'' said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government watchdog group. ''But having a well-known lobbyist involved in the recruitment and screening of candidates for such an influential position raises serious questions, like how does the future chief of staff deal with a request from the Parkside Group if that lobbyist or firm helped that very same chief of staff get his or her job? It may not create a conflict, but it may certainly give the impression of one.''
Mr. Miller's office said yesterday that Mr. Giannoulis had not played a central role in the search for a chief of staff. Stephen Sigmund, Mr. Miller's director of communications, said the search was being headed by two of the speaker's staff members who are overseeing the collection of résumés, vetting and interviewing. After months of searching for a new chief of staff, there are three finalists left, Mr. Sigmund said, adding that Mr. Miller will ultimately decide who gets the job. Mr. Sigmund said that he expects the job to be filled in a few weeks.
''The premise that he is driving this process or even anything akin to that is just, just not real,'' Mr. Sigmund said of Mr. Giannoulis.
''The only role that Harry has had in a couple of meetings, the subject has come up,'' Mr. Sigmund said. ''He has given some input on what kind of qualifications and qualities in what a good candidate would have.''
Mr. Sigmund also said that Mr. Giannoulis put forward the name of one candidate -- an assertion that Mr. Giannoulis denied, saying instead that he told many people who approached him first that if they were interested in the post, they should apply directly themselves. Mr. Giannoulis said that his role with Mr. Miller was no different from the role many lobbyists-strategists have with clients, and that to avoid any potential conflict, his firm discloses all its clients, as is required by law.
Mr. Giannoulis said his role in selecting the chief of staff was minimal. ''I could not tell you all the people he has interviewed, how many people he has interviewed, and I couldn't tell you who he might be hiring,'' he said.
The Parkside Group has had a long and successful relationship with Mr. Miller. It helped him in his two runs for Council and later aided him in his bid to become speaker. The group is also expected to work with Mr. Miller should he follow through on his plans to run for mayor. The firm recently joined the ranks of the top 10 lobbying firms in New York City, Mr. Giannoulis said.
The relationship between Mr. Miller and his political consulting firm started to raise eyebrows among Democrats at a time when his performance as speaker is coming under increasing scrutiny. Mr. Miller has been facing allegations that he has failed to properly handle a sexual harassment case filed against another council member, and he has struggled to assert his authority as leader of the Democratic majority in the Council. With a crowded field of Democrats hoping to take on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg next year, some are hoping Mr. Miller's missteps prove fatal to his ambitions.
But Mr. Miller's problems may stem at least in part from not having a permanent chief of staff, political strategists said. A chief of staff often acts as an alter ego to his boss and, depending on the relationship that develops, is often pivotal in setting and carrying out an agenda -- as well as serving as a shield against political fallout. Mr. Miller has been looking for a chief of staff since Forrest Taylor announced his resignation in February.