Friday, August 28, 2009

Is it Legal?

It's been two months since Willets Point United filed a complaint with the office of the New York State Attorney General about the alleged illegal lobbying activity conducted by Claire Shulman and her erector set lobbying entity mouthful called, the Flushing, Willets Point, Corona Local Development Corporation. Now the AG is Andrew Cuomo, and the Cuomo family has deep roots in the borough of Queens-not to mention Queens politics; and it's hard not to envision that the investigation of someone like Shulman creates a certain conflict in the body and soul of the aspiring Cuomo-but AC has confounded critics in ther past, and perhaps he will again on this issue by showing just how little he regards political privilege.

Still, since the complaint was filed on June 30th, one can understand the skepticism of WPU that the AG will come out swinging on this issue. But this is a situation that cries out for clarification-if not vigorous prosecution. We have, for instance, the contradictory statements from Shulman herself and those of the mayor's spokesman concerning just what the money for the LDC was supposed to go to. Lobbying, or not? As the NY Times pointed out last week: "The Mayor's spokesman, Andrew Brent, tells the paper that when the city gave Shulman $450,000 -- coincidentally, the same amount Shulman reported spending on lobbying work -- they never expected her to lobby with it. She was supposed to do "outreach, public relations, and marketing," says Brent -- she never mentioned lobbying (which might be defined as outreach, public relations, and marketing aimed at elected officials)."

Now, as we pointed out, Mayor Mike has taken time out from his strenuous campaign schedule to say something different from what his aide and economic development officials told the NY Times last week. In an interview with the Times Ledger, Bloomberg famously told his subjects: "These groups are designed to lobby,” Bloomberg continued. “I don’t know if they technically broke the law.”

Now here's a dude who came after the football player Plaxico Burress hammer and tongs for carrying an illegal firearm, after the hapless Burress literally shot himself in the foot. A warning? After all, Burress only managed to hurt himself for his own illegal stupidity. Not happening with Savonarola Blomberg. When it comes to the issues he deems important, it's throw the book at 'em. But, when it comes to a situation where the interests of one Michael Bloomberg are being advanced, the potentially illegal activity is reduced to a technicality it seems.

That doesn't mean, however, that everyone must see the world through the mayor's own jaundiced eyes-and the latest issue of the Queens Tribune hones in on the story: "In the build-up and battle for the redevelopment of the Iron Triangle, the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation championed the proposed rezoning and rebuilding of the 62-acre plot of land. With former Borough President Claire Shulman, 83, at the helm, the corporation actively promoted Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan. It initially hired prominent lobbying firm the Parkside Group before advocating the plan to elected officials – and then taking over those duties itself, spending about $450,000 on lobbying efforts."

Uncertainty about the legality of the lobbying effort remains-with even a veteran lobbyist unsure of how to view things: "Yet the group’s actions fall within a legal purgatory, according to attorneys interviewed by the Tribune. There is no legal precedent for such a case. “The spirit of the law is meant to go towards paid lobbyists hired to affect legislation,” said Sid Davidoff, President of the Advocacy Association of New York. [For Shulman] “The question is ‘Where’s the prime responsibility?’ It is very gray, and that’s part of the problem.” The Mayor’s office and the Economic Development Corporation maintain the corporation was hired to perform outreach efforts, while Shulman told the Times lobbying was part of the equation. While the corporation’s actions are common, several attorneys disagree on the definition of the word “lobby.” Federal, State and City laws vary, each setting thresholds for both financial and interpersonal activity."

But, in the end: “A five minute meeting [with an elected official] does meet the threshold,” Davidoff said. “If you’re attempting to affect legislation, then it is lobbying.” The question then is not whether Shulman and the LDC lobbied, but whether they were allowed by law to do so. As WPU told the paper: "A complaint brought by Willets Point United, a collective of landowners in Willets Point opposing eminent domain, sparked the controversy. “Our lawyers informed us that she broke state corporation laws, that she lied to the IRS, filled out fraudulent tax returns,” said Jerry Antonacci, head of WPU. “You can’t tell me this lady is a veteran of politics and doesn’t know the law.”

Here's the crux of the matter. The incorporation papers for the LDC proscribe lobbying. The LDC's filing with the Federal government to obtain it's tax exempt status-signed by Claire herself-specifically denied any lobbying effort, in spite of what the former Queens BP now is proclaiming from the roof tops; in effect, placing Shulman squarely in a perjured situation.

So, with all of this swirling around, and the issue of the city government possibly funding an illegal effort to wrench long established businesses from their land in the forefront, it is incumbent on Mr. Cuomo to act expeditiously-since the money to the LDC is still, at least as far as we know-still flowing from the city's coffers. In this case, justice delayed is really justice denied-and if Cuomo won't act, it may be necessary to appeal this to a higher law enforcement authority to see just how technical this violation of law might really be.