Friday, August 21, 2009

Pointed Illegality

As the NY Times is reporting this morning, former Queens BP Claire Shulman has been spearheading an illegal but successful Willets Point lobbying effort-initiated and funded by, none other than the City of New York itself; and she failed to properly register her activities as required by the city's supposedly strict lobbying law: "The group, the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, eventually received hundreds of thousands of dollars in public and private money, and spent much of it to help push through the plan through the City Council."

And Shulman understood what her role was-no mistake about it: "That was the whole idea,” Ms. Shulman said in an interview. “The idea I had with Dan Doctoroff was that we would help the city do what the mayor wanted, to clear Willets Point and develop it in the best interest of the city, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.” In other words, Ms. Shulman added, “We lobbied the city for the city.”

She did understand her role very well; just not its legal requirements: "Her lobbying for this latest plan became an issue this year when the city clerk’s office, which regulates lobbyists, fined her group a record $59,090 for failing to register her activities with its office. But the issue of whether the group should have been lobbying at all went unaddressed. Even now, Ms. Shulman is not sure her group did anything wrong. In its 2007 federal tax returns, the group claimed it had spent no money on lobbying. The group has hired a lawyer to help it comply with all laws and regulations."

Now hold it one second. Shulman's group was set up to grease the wheels for the redevelopment effort that the Bloombergistas have been proposing for Willets Point-a plan that involves telling 250 businesses and 2500 workers to simply. "Hit the Road Jack!" Shulman, for her part, was all over this effort, hectoring city council members and testifying on behalf of the city's plan before relevant review bodies. Yet this LDC flatly stated in a federal filing that-contrary to its stated charter-that it wouldn't be lobbying at all!

Sounds like a crime was committed here-and what's with the city's own seemingly large fine? The largest lobbying fine in New York City's history and no press release? After all, the fine was levied in April and no one was even aware of the fine for the attempted end run of the law until August? Gee, when we were fined by the City Clerk for a late filling of our lobbying client list, the fact quickly became fodder for Page 2 of the NY Post. Why the silence by the clerk here?

But the silence isn't even the most troubling aspect of this phony grass roots effort to allege that there was greater local support for the Willets Point replacement than there actually was. In the first place while the LDC was fined, Shulman-even though she is the group's lobbyist-apparently wasn't fined at all. Since both the entity (FWPCLDC) and the lobbyist failed to properly file, both should be subject to the penalties that the law provides.

But what exactly is the city doing here with tax payer money-to lobby itself? As the Times points out: "In late 2006, as the Bloomberg administration girded for what promised to be a bruising rezoning fight over the Willets Point section of Queens, it enlisted the help of Claire Shulman, the former Queens borough president. At a meeting in City Hall that December, Ms. Shulman and Daniel L. Doctoroff, then a deputy mayor, agreed to form a nonprofit group with city and private money. Its primary purpose, Ms. Shulman said, would be to lobby on behalf of the mayor’s plan to turn the long-neglected area near the New York Mets stadium into a thriving hub of shops, hotels, condominiums and a convention center."

So what we have here is apparently a collusion between Doctoroff-already burned by his West Side Stadium failure-and Shulman to set up an illegal lobbying effort with city funds. And EDC, which acted as the midwife of this illegal pact, should have known better since all of the LDC's paper work must be vetted by the agency before any funds are remitted: "Local development corporations like Ms. Shulman’s have been around for decades. Ranging from tiny neighborhood groups to giant quasi-public agencies like the city’s Economic Development Corporation, these loosely regulated organizations are designed to encourage businesses and industry to invest in local areas. But one thing they are not supposed to do is lobby. State law says local development corporations are not permitted to “influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise.” Ms. Shulman’s group eventually reported spending $450,000, roughly half its total budget, on lobbying, city records show."

As Jerry Antonacci of Willets Point United tells the Times: “They knew what they were doing,” said Gerald Antonacci, the leader of Willets Point United and the president of Crown Container, one of the area’s more than 250 companies that will be required to move when construction begins. “This was all planned out. They knew she was hiring lobbyists. This wasn’t a mistake.”

But now EDC, caught in this web of illegality, is trying to obfuscate its role: "The administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says that it never encouraged Ms. Shulman to lobby and that the $450,000 it gave to the group was not used for that purpose. “The city regularly partners with local organizations that promote growth and economic development,” said David Lombino, a spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation. In the case of Ms. Shulman’s group, he added, “we are funding a scope of work that includes public outreach, organizing community support and proposing and advocating for area improvements.”

And Bloomberg's shill chimes in: "Andrew Brent, a Bloomberg spokesman, pointed to a letter Mr. Doctoroff sent Ms. Shulman three weeks after their first meeting. It outlined the goals of her group, including conducting and leading “outreach, public relations and marketing efforts” to support the proposed redevelopment in Willets Point, but it never mentioned lobbying elected officials." So, when Shulman was doing all of this lobbying as the point person for the city's effort, was everyone asleep?

Smell test anyone? Please don't insult our intelligence. And if what EDC is saying has any validity whatsoever, than why hasn't the agency shut down the illegal operation that was misusing the funds it was given? Why is this LDC still in business-with Shulman now registered to lobby on it behalf? Shulman, although no youngster has, in our view, a much better recollection of what she was doing for the city: "Ms. Shulman, borough president from 1986 to 2001, provides a starkly different account. “We hired lobbyists from the time we began, because we were told it was something we were supposed to be doing,” she said."

The whole matter has been referred to the Attorney General's office; and we're waiting patiently to see if the AG will pursue this with the appropriate vigor: "The attorney general’s office is reviewing the complaint. In recent months, the office has been looking into lobbying by local development corporations, and has identified a “small but not insignificant set” of groups that appear to be improperly lobbying, said a person briefed on the attorney general’s initial review."

The entire Willets Point redevelopment effort is revealed for what it is-an illegal heist, the kind that is known in law enforcement parlance as, "an inside job." And the city's own role-not to be diminished at all-was aided and abetted by some of the very firms that stood to benefit from the eviction of the existing companies: "Half the group’s revenues came from the Economic Development Corporation, which is also barred from lobbying. The other half came from corporate sponsors, including the Mets organization, which has long eyed the property, and several developers and construction firms that are expected to vie for lucrative redevelopment contracts when the city puts out requests for proposals in coming months."

Sounds just like what the Supreme Court has cautioned about when it comes to eminent domain proceedings-the use of a public purpose pretext to take away property from private hands and shift it to other private hands. This is beginning to look like one big criminal enterprise-and perhaps Cuomo needs to expand his purview; because if the LDC has been functioning outside the law, there an entire cohort of co-conspirators that need to be brought to justice, beginning with Doctoroff himself.

As the Willets Point plan heads to court, one key issue is whether the city has acted arbitrarily and capriciously in the process. To which, we believe should be added-and illegally too! And the proposed taking of the land owned by the Willets Pointers should be stopped in its tracks until all of the partners in crime can be properly identified and appropriately punished for running an illegal conspiracy to steal people's property.