Monday, March 28, 2011

It Pays to Be a Lobbyist in Brooklyn

A couple of weeks ago it came out that State Senator Carl Kruger was accused of taking $1 million in bribes including money from Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist on behalf of developer Forest City Ratner. (See NY Times)

Forest City Ratner is not alone in hiring lobbyists to get what it wants from the city, however. It seems like nearly every big company, developer and organization in Brooklyn (and greater New York) has a lobbyist working behind the scenes.

 The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, National Grid, Walmart, St. Francis College, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn Tech Alumni Association, PfizerBrooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Navy Yard, 360 Brooklyn Investors (1 Brooklyn Bridge Park), Two Trees Management Co. -- they all shell out cash to lobbyists to get their message in front of city council members, borough presidents and city agencies.

For the most part, there's nothing illegal about this. Some programs that benefit Brooklynites have eased their way through the State Legislature or City Council because of lobbyists.

The Ratner/ Lipsky case, however, shows the seamy side of lobbyists and the unhealthy effect all that money can have on business and politics in Brooklyn.

Follow the Money

We took a little survey of prominent Brooklyn organizations to see how much they spent on lobbyists.

Two government web sites provide data concerning lobbyists: the New York City Lobbylist database (most figures we cite come from here) and the NYS Commission on Public Integrity's lobbyist online filing system.

It turns out the money flowing to and from lobbyists from Brooklyn organizations is like an underground stream crisscrossing the landscape, from DUMBO to Borough Hall to Downtown Brooklyn to City Hall to the offices of city council members and government agencies.

Last year, for example, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce paid $60,000 to lobby council members about the budget and local law. National Grid paid $60,000 for similar services; St. Francis College laid out $72,000. Maimonides spent $120,000; Brooklyn Tech Alumni coughed up $60,000; the Brooklyn Historical Society paid $48,000; SUNY Downstate spent $90,000. And these are just the small fry.

Why Do They Hire Lobbyists? 

Because that's how business is done in this town. Here's one example: In 2008, DUMBO developer Two Trees, working to get the controversial Dock Street project approved, paid three lobbying firms roughly $212,000 to twist arms at a long list of city agencies plus borough presidents and council members. Officially, the subject of the lobbying was "discretionary land use approvals and local law."

In 2009, Two Trees paid five different lobbyists roughly $211,000 to lobby the above groups plus the Brooklyn Office of the Dept. of City Planning and the School Construction Authority. (Two Trees said it would include a 300-seat school in the building.) In 2010, Two Trees spent roughly $140,000 on lobbyists.

It Takes an Army

Life is good for lobbyists in Brooklyn. One developer alone, Forest City Ratner, paid roughly $3,819,600 over the past five years to lobbyists pushing his controversial Atlantic Yards mega project. (It must be hard to keep track of a few bribes when that kind of money is flying around.)

The Forest City Ratner company (under the name Atlantic Yards Development Co.) paid lobbyists $1,023,000 in 2009 and $298,000 in 2010. In 2008, the company paid lobbyists under two names: $72,000 to lobbyists under the Forest City Ratner name and $298,000 under the name Atlantic Yards Development Co. In 2007, under the name Forest City Ratner, they laid out $980,000. In 2006 they paid lobbyists $1,148,600.

Hiring a lobbyist isn't always a guarantee of success. Ex-councilman Kenneth Fisher was paid $7,500 by the Hannah Senesh School in Carroll Gardens in 2008 to lobby government groups for the "acquisition of a lot currently owned by the City of New York" -- one of the protected "gardens" of Carroll Gardens. The resulting uproar, which involved outgoing Councilman Bill de Blasio, derailed the scheme.

Photos by MK Metz

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the column, but if you want to really follow the money the web is a little more complicated. The lobbying is the most transparent, but go for the details: follow the campaign contributions, follow the unregulated procurement lobbying, follow the member item outlays (federal, state and local), follow the hiring of friends and relatives, follow the non-profit organization spending and travel, follow the connections between non-profit organizations and the "volunteer" staff for petition gathering and get out the vote drives, follow the relatives paid by the non-profits, follow the judicial election selection, etc., etc., etc. In comparison, lobbying is probably the cleanest because it, arguably, is the most transparent, while the others are all hidden and unexplored.