Can a real estate lobbyist enforce regulations against housing discrimination ?
By LOUIS FLORES
Jonathan Greenspun, a registered lobbyist and managing director at Mercury Public Affairs LLC, has been named by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to serve on the New York City Commission on Human Rights, City Hall announced on Friday.
Mr. Greenspun was a Bloomberg administration official, who left office in 2006 in favour of a post at a lobbying firm, where Mr. Greenspun would go on to trigger controversy over refusing to disclose the names of city officials he had begun to lobby, according to an exposé published in 2007 by The New York Daily News. Mr. Greenspun was identified by The New York Daily News as one of many lobbyists, who had been "hiding the names of city employees they've tried to influence in apparent violation of the law."
As a managing director at Mercury, Mr. Greenspun lobbied New York City government on behalf of the technology company, Intergraph Corporation, which was a contractor on the city's troubled Emergency Communications Transformation Program, or ECTP, outsourcing technology contract to upgrade the city's unwieldy 911 emergency call system. The primary contractor on the ECTP contract, Hewlett-Packard, initially resisted efforts to work with Intergraph on a solution to the New York Police Department's upgrade of its Computer Aided Dispatch system, according to a draft 2007 memorandum between Bloomberg administration officials. The ECTP project has been faulted by government reform advocates for having ballooned by about $1 billion over budget, for falling several years behind schedule, and for still failing to properly work. The troubled ECTP project has led to several deaths, raising questions of possible criminal negligence by ECTP consultants. The journalist Gary Tilzer and the blogger and political commentator Suzannah B. Troy have blamed the role of lobbyists for pressuring city officials to keep, at times, unqualified and over-billing consultants working on the ECTP project. Following Mr. Greenspun's appointment to the city's Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Tilzer published a reference to Mr. Greenspun's ties to the ECTP project.*
Given the serious disclosure issues raised by the 2007 report published by The New York Daily News, Mr. Greenspun's appointment to the city's Commission on Human Rights worries government reform activists, who see this appointment as an example of the revolving door between government and lobbyists. As a lobbyist, Mr. Greenspan has represented real estate developers, in addition to technology companies.
The city's Commission on Human Rights is tasked with enforcing the New York City's human rights laws, which prohibits discrimination and affords protections against discrimination. One of the areas where the Commission on Human Rights enforces laws against discrimination is in housing. One of the major controversies to have erupted during the young de Blasio administration has been the advent of the use of "poor doors" by low-income residents at newly-development apartment complexes. Segregating low-income residents to use separate entrances has been called a form of discrimination by civil rights activists. Lobbyists working for real estate developers have been seen as being responsible for getting "poor doors" approved by government officials. It's not known how Mr. Greenspun would advocate for New Yorkers discriminated against by real estate developers when Mr. Greenspun has worked as a lobbyist for real estate developers.
City Hall was asked a series of questions by Progress Queens : whether the mayor consults with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board before appointing a lobbyist to a government post, whether Mr. Greenspun's background as a lobbyist would help to further the work of the city's Commission on Human Rights, whether City Hall condones the failure by lobbyists to disclose the names of government officials being lobbied, and whether Mr. Greenspun's involvement in the ECTP mess was ever considered an issue. City Hall refused to address any of these questions, and, instead, issued a general statement intended to smooth over any issues by invoking the "progressive" moniker that it applies to every one of the administration's appointees, whether they deserve the distinction or not.
In the City Hall statement issued today to Progress Queens, City Hall officials wrote, "This administration is extremely deliberate in its selection of leaders who are progressive, diverse and highly skilled. The administration has full confidence in Mr. Greenspun’s commitment and ability to deliver on CCHR’s mission to protect and enforce the human rights of all people in New York City."
Contrary to Mayor de Blasio's use of the "progressive" label to describe Mr. Greenspun, Mayor de Blasio's press release, which announced Mr. Greenspun's appointment, noted that Mr. Greenspun has been a long-time operative for conservative Republican Party officials. "Prior to working for the City of New York, Greenspun served under Governor George E. Pataki. Greenspun’s political work includes Mike Bloomberg’s 2001 mayoral campaign ; Rick Lazio’s 2000 Senate campaign ; Al D’Amato's 1998 Senate campaign ; and Governor Pataki’s 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns," read, in part, Mayor de Blasio's press release.
According to background information gathered by Progress Queens, the city's Conflicts of Interest Board generally does not vet appointments of lobbyists to positions in city government ; although, a government management official may request an opinion from the Conflicts of Interest Board about a particular lobbyist. The Conflicts of Interest Board appears to be limited to only monitoring existing government employees or officials for compliance with conflicts of interest rules. Progress Queens was told that the primary rules that would apply stem from the Lobbyist Gift Law, which bans lobbyists from making gifts to public servants. Officials at the Conflicts of Interest Board encourage government management officials to consult with the Conflicts of Interest Board, but there is no mechanism to compel the pre-screening of lobbyists, who are being considered for government jobs or appointments.
The city's Conflicts of Interest Board refused to comment about the mayor's appointment of a lobbyist to the city's Commission on Human Rights. The Conflicts of Interest Board treats any consultations it may have with administration officials as confidential, Progress Queens was told.
In the run-up to the selection of the new speaker of the New York City Council last January, the city's Conflicts of Interest Board was found to be asleep at the switch when it came to enforcing compliance of the Lobbyist Gift Law. Various news and blog reports showed that Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito's speakership campaign receiving unpaid campaign consulting services from a lobbying firm, The Advance Group, up until the very end, helping her to cinch the speakership race. The Advance Group routinely lobbies Councilmembers and other city government officials. One report published by The New York Daily News asserted that the unpaid campaign consulting service arrangement between Councilmember Mark-Viverito and The Advance Group "may have violated city ethics rules," but the city's Conflicts of Interest Board has apparently never taken any disciplinary or enforcement action against Speaker Mark-Viverito or The Advance Group. Lax enforcement by the Conflicts of Interest Board of its own rules worries government reform activists as real estate lobbyists are appointed by the de Blasio administration to city government posts that oversee housing discrimination.
A message left by Progress Queens with the city's Commission on Human Rights, requesting an interview, was not answered.
This article has been updated to include a reference (*) requested by Mr. Tilzer.