It seems that Queens weeklies are giddy about the brownfields grant that was received by the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC-forgetting the controversy surrounding whether the group is legally allowed to lobby in the first place. This controversy was given a renewed focus this past week when the NY Post revealed that AG Cuomo was investigating the political activities of NY charities: "The issue of charities or not-for-profits giving political contributions is a matter we are currently investigating. It is not appropriate, and it is not legal, and we want to make sure it doesn't happen anymore," a spokesman for Cuomo told The Post.
Now we await to see whether or not the AG will be taking a closer look at local development corporations, also not-for-profits, acting as lobbying arms for economic development initiatives. In particular, the aforementioned Willets Point LDC has to answer whether its application for not for profit status with the federal government-where its president Claire Shulman specifically claimed to eschew any direct lobbying-proscribes it from lobbying for the brownfields grant-or for anything else.
Because, as the Times Ledger reports: "The Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corp. got the largest grant among 24 projects across the state to receive money through the state’s Brownfield Opportunity Area Program." Now, this wasn't achieved through any kind of immaculate conception-not when the Parkside Group is involved in advocacy for the group.
All of this is, of course, speculation, since we can't read the AG's mind. But we do know that the local development groups are trying to defend themselves by claiming that what they do isn't real lobbying. Former president Bill Clinton might be of some help with this effort: "Years from now, when we look back on Bill Clinton's presidency, its defining moment may well be Clinton's rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn't lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, "there's nothing going on between us." How can this be? Here's what Clinton told the grand jury..."It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
So it goes with lobbying, we guess. But let's make one thing perfectly clear. Shulman's group was formed by a public/private partnership designed to advance the interests of, not only the city, but of the private business owners who make up the board of Shulman's LDC. This effort was both controversial and difficult-and the LDC was conceived of to advance the interests involved through the creation of the impression that this was a true grass roots initiative-and not the manufactured Astroturfing that it really was.
If, as we believe, this effort was illegal-and not just because Shulman failed to register as a lobbyist-then the entire land use review was corrupted and needs to be overturned since Shulman and her faux group played a central role in the campaign to remove local businesses from their properties. The ball is in the AG's court on this-and the family legacy is at stake as well.
As Crain's reminded us a few years back: "If Willets Point businesses' fight against eviction propels a champion of the underdog into a political career, it wouldn't be the first time. In 1963, a young, unheralded lawyer named Mario Cuomo took on Robert Moses, who wanted to raze the very same Queens site for aesthetic reasons before the 1964 World's Fair. Mr. Cuomo won. "It started a whole chain of events that got me into public life,'' recalls the former governor, who grew up in the borough's rough South Jamaica section."
Can history repeat itself? Stay tuned.