Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rehabbing the Lobby

If your head is spinning concerning the question of just what the city was funding when it forked over $450,000 to the indelicately named Flushing, Willets Point, Corona Local Development Corporation, you're probably not alone. Even EDC, the funding agency, remains at odds with the mayor-not to mention Claire Shulman, the LDC's head-over what the funding was supposed to be used for. The bigger question, however, is whether the local group was legally allowed to do precisely what Shulman claims her group's primary purpose was: lobby the city with the city's own money.

Which is why, as the NY Daily News reports this morning, Willets Point United has asked the US Attorney's Office to investigate the entire matter: "A group of property owners at Willets Point are taking another swing at a city-funded development company for a lobbying goof. Willets Point United asked federal prosecutors late last week to wade into its battle with the Flushing Willets Point Corona Land Development Corp. The corporation's leader - former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman - was slapped with a record fine recently for not registering as a lobbyist. "We're hoping the U.S. Attorney will do something about this," said Michael Rikon, a lawyer who represents the business group. "Anything to stop this."

Regardless of the lapses of the 83 year old Shulman, the legality of her group's activities political activities should be examined-and the question of the proper use of the public money resolved: "The development corporation pushed to rezone the gritty industrial area of Willets Point by swaying City Council members - a violation of state law that restricts such corporations from lobbying. Shulman's group was partially funded by the city Economic Development Corp., which is also barred from lobbying."

If the activities aren't legally permitted-and let's not forget that Shulman, while admitting that her group's creation was solely for the purpose of lobbying, checked the "No lobbying" box on a federal disclosure form-than the entire process was corrupt and, in our view, should be thrown out. This is no mere technicality: "The illegality of Shulman's actions should nullify any rezoning efforts, business owners said. The appeal to federal prosecutors comes two months after the group asked state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate Shulman's organization. Cuomo's office is reviewing the complaint, a spokesman said Tuesday."

But what's up with the EDC and its spokesman Dave Lombino? Haven't they gotten the mayor's message? A week ago, the Law and Order mayor said the following: "These groups are designed to lobby,” Bloomberg continued. “I don’t know if they technically broke the law.” Well, someone should know, and if not the city's chief executive, than either the NYS Attorney General or the US Attorney should intervene with a clear ruling on this matter. The latest request, however, reflects WPU's skepticism over the willingness of AG Cuomo to investigate his own backyard.

As Gerson Borrero reports, Cuomo is going after State Senator Pedro Espada tooth and nail-but ignoring other potential malefactors, as was suggested by Senator Ruben Diaz: "Eighteen days after receiving a written request from State Senator Rubén Díaz that he look into New York State legislators who have family members on the public payroll, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo still has not responded...“I have not heard anything form Cuomo since he called after I sent the letter,” Díaz said on Sunday afternoon after church services. A disappointed Diaz told The Borrero Report, “We continue to read stories about investigations about Pedro Espada, but nothing from Cuomo about the investigation I requested.”

Concerns about a selective outlook is what prompted WPU to turn to the Feds-but the ball is in Cuomo's court to prove that he can rise above parochial interests-and his own self interest. By fully investigating the Willets Point lobbying affair-even the Sainted Shulman and the billionaire mayor-Cuomo will clearly show New Yorkers that he is the kind of strong and impartial leader that the state needs.

In our view, aside from the legality of the group's main activity, an investigation needs to focus on who is funding-and will potentially benefit from the LDC's lobbying activities. Because we read that: "In July, the city-funded group was fined a record $59,090 because Shulman forgot to register as a lobbyist. The fines will be paid from private donations, not city funds, Shulman's spokesman said."

Are these private funds coming from real estate firms with an eye on the Willets Point properties? If so, who are they, and how much are these, "private funds," also supporting a lobbying effort that will-potentially-accrue to their benefit? All of these firms, in our view, should be registered as lobbying the city-and the use of the LDC subterfuge shouldn't be allowed to cover up the intentions of predatory real estate scavengers. The entire situation has the redolence of an episode of The Sopranos.