Corey Johnson's City Council calendar a political potato too hot for a campaign supporter

By LOUIS FLORES

The New York City Council has released a portion of the official 2015 calendar of Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) in response to a request made by government reform activist Michael Petrelis under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.

The months covered by the FOIL request pertained to the period of time between August and October 2015.

Mr. Petrelis made the FOIL request as part of a transparency initiative he calls the Government Access Project, or GAP.  Councilmember Johnson’s calendar was made publicly available online as part of GAP.

For about two years, Mr. Petrelis has been collecting calendar data for public officials in San Francisco, where he lives, and he organised GAP as a central public repository for the information he has been collecting.  The GAP effort has been so successful that he has ventured beyond San Francisco to include public officials in New York City, Chicago, and Oakland, California.  To fund his public records activism, Mr. Petrelis has established a crowdsourced IndieGoGo fundraising campaign, where the public can make contributions to support Mr. Petrelis’ government transparency work.

In an interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Petrelis said that Councilmember Johnson merited scrutiny as a public official, because, “He’s a high profile gay Democratic politician climbing up the political ladder,” adding that, “Since he’s enjoyed a celebrity status since coming out in the pages of The New York Times, its even more important to scrutinize his calendar.”

Mr. Petrelis was referring to an article published in 2000 in which a young Mr. Johnson was interviewed, recounting his experiences with coming out of the closet as a gay young man to his high school football teammates.

“I’m interested in political accountability,” Mr. Petrelis said, who has also filed a FOIL request for a copy of the official calendar for New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton.

“Elected officials are public servants, emphasis on servants, and as servants, they are required to have calendars,” Mr. Petrelis said, adding that, “Calendars equal time cards.  We need to see how the public servants spend their time.

In an era of real estate corruption, meetings with lobbyists and developers

Progress Queens reviewed Councilmember Johnson’s calendar and requested an interview with Councilmember Johnson over several questions about the documents made public via Mr. Petrelis’ FOIL request.  However, Councilmember Johnson did not answer the request made by Progress Queens.

Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 Calendar shows several meetings with lobbyists.  For example, he met with Ethan Geto on August 12 ; with Brad Gerstman of Gotham Government Relations on August 25 ; with George Arzt on September 22 ; with officials from the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Israeli Consulate on October 21 ; and with Gary LaBarbera, the political operative from the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, who had been recently leading the failed negotiation efforts to renew the scandal-ridden 421-a tax abatement program that had become the subject of several political and campaign corruption scandals.

In the past, Mr. Geto’s lobbying firm has represented Forest City Ratner, developer of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, and Toll Brothers, a developer, which has made at least one contribution to City Hall’s controversial nonprofit lobbying arm, the Campaign for One New York

As reported by Progress Queens and other media outlets, Mr. Arzt has acted as a lobbyist on behalf of the controversial real estate developer Extell Development Company.  Extell pushed to create “poor doors” to be used by affordable housing tenants within its luxury apartment buildings, and Extell has been the target of probes by the now-defunct Moreland Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in connection with controversial property tax breaks the company received for its $2 billion luxury condominium tower in Midtown Manhattan, One57

Council member Johnson's meeting with officials from the Jewish Community Relations Council late in the 2015 followed a lobbyist-paid trip made by Councilmember Johnson, along with a larger delegation of New York City Councilmembers, to Israel.  As reported by Progress Queens at the time, the lobbyist-paid trip was financed by two groups, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA Federation of New York.  Councilmember Johnson made the trip to Israel in spite of requests by anti-apartheid activists, including LGBT anti-apartheid activists, that such a trip would violate calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, against Israel until the nation ceased occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ensured equality for Palestinians, and provided for the safe return of Palestinians to Palestinian territories.

Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 calendar also shows meetings with real estate developers, including Douglas Durst at Mr. Durst’s office building.  The meeting with Mr. Durst took place an hour after Councilmember had concluded a prior meeting with officials from the Partnership for New York City, records show. 

The records released by the New York City Council in response to Mr. Petrelis’ FOIL request included redactions, which were not appropriately labeled under Exemptions allowable under FOIL.  The format of the documents released were not conducive to the complete understanding for all of Councilmember Johnson’s appointments.  There were times when Councilmember Johnson was quadruple-booked, so it is not known which appointments Councilmember Johnson kept.  Furthermore, some appointments late in the evening were cut off by the formatting of the documents.  Therefore, it might be possible that there were additional meetings with lobbyists, special interest groups, and big business interests as a consequence of the poor condition of the documents released, but that information is not known.  Those facts are not available to the public.

Councilmember Johnson was elected to the New York City Council in 2013 in an open race to succeed former Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea).  In his race to succeed former Speaker Quinn, Mr. Johnson faced a formidable primary challenger, the civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland.  After Mr. Johnson had defeated Ms. Kurland in the primary race, Crain’s New York Business reported that Ms. Kurland’s former campaign consulting firm, The Advance Group, was improbably paid to duplicitously provide services to the campaign of Mr. Johnson.

In the documents from Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 calendar, it showed that he met Amy Rutkin for lunch on October 26.  Ms. Rutkin is employed as chief of staff to U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-Upper West Side).  Ms. Rutkin is also the spouse of the lobbyist Valerie Berlin from the lobbying firm, BerlinRosen, a prominent lobbying firm that is entangled in providing political counseling to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) at the same time when BerlinRosen represents clients seeking or having business with the City of New York.

Councilmember Johnson’s calendar also reveals several reminders to communicate with newspaper publishers, media outlets, and reporters. 

Reaction to Councilmember Johnson's calendar

Progress Queens contacted an official with 1199 SEIU PAC, the political campaign fund operated by the powerful healthcare workers’ union for comment about Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 calendar.  In 2013, the political action committee was one of several donors, which made contributions in the amount of $2,750 to Mr. Johnson’s 2013 campaign committee. 

The political action work of 1199 SEIU is very influential, and their support can help elect candidates to public office and to select public officials to serve in legislative leadership positions.  Furthermore, 1199 SEIU periodically mobilizes its membership and resources to support a political agenda that benefits tenants, working families, unions, union members, and low-income New Yorkers.  In 2015, for example, 1199 SEIU hosted a meeting for Mayor de Blasio, union officials, and some legislators to strategize on the passage of stronger rent regulations for tenants, even though Mayor de Blasio was advocating for passage of reform 421-a tax abatement legislation, which has been largely seen as being responsible for unleashing gentrification pressures leading to mass tenant displacement and the upward spiral of rent costs.

If 1199 SEIU can advocate for better government sometimes, why wasn’t it pressuring candidates that it has helped to elect to office to take action to produce the better government that it reportedly seeks ?  A candidate that 1199 SEIU helped to elect to public office, namely, Councilmember Johnson, was having meetings with “poor door” lobbyists, real estate developers, and other big business interests, which have espoused a neoliberal economic agenda that has acted in contravention to the interests of 1199 SEIU’s members.

When asked for comment about Councilmember Johnson’s redacted calendar and the details of some of his meetings, a representative of 1199 SEIU became defensive and paranoid, asking whether Progress Queens was alleging that 1199 SEIU was participating in some of the meetings that had been redacted, even questioning why Progress Queens would care to examine the calendar of a New York City Councilmember from “Lower Manhattan.”  After it was explained that Progress Queens was only seeking 1199 SEIU’s comment about the ethical conduct of a candidate that 1199 SEIU helped to elect to office, the union’s political action official said that the political campaign fund’s contribution had “nothing to do” with the condition or content of Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 calendar, adding that “This is not for attribution,” and requesting that Progress Queens submit a list of questions by e-mail to the political campaign fund.  No response was received from 1199 SEIU PAC in response to a list of questions submitted by Progress Queens, as requested.

A government reform advocate in Councilmember Johnson’s municipal legislative district, John Fisher, said that there were probably conflicts of interest between the union and various public officials and business interests, noting that 1199 SEIU was trying to sell its building near Times Square for larger commercial real estate development.

“The relationship of unions, politicians, and developers is an example of systemic corruption,” Mr. Fisher said, adding that, “It’s as bad as Wall Street banks were behaving in 2007 and 2008.”

When asked by Progress Queens about 1199 SEIU’s failure to keep politicians, like Councilmember Johnson, accountable for his meetings with real estate lobbyists and developers at the same time when 1199 SEIU has been advocating for greater tenant protections, Mr. Fisher said, “It means that they are not consistent.  They are selective about who they go after,” adding that 1199 SEIU had an “interest in real estate” that was “greater than tenant rights, which is not good for their members, because they are probably tenants.”

Of Councilmember Johnson’s meeting with Mr. Durst, the real estate developer, Mr. Fisher speculated that zoning lawyers representing Mr. Durst's real estate company were probably also in attendance. 

Speaking generally of Councilmember Johnson’s record on transparency, Mr. Fisher, who founded the tenant resource Web site TenantNet, said that he had experienced difficulties obtaining what should have been public information when Councilmember Johnson had served as chair of Manhattan Community Board 4 prior to his election to the New York City Council.  “He’s been M.I.A.,” said Mr. Fisher, referring to past requests for information from Community Board 4, adding of Councilmember Johnson that, “We’ve not been able to get anything out of him.”

In the past, Councilmember Johnson has faced questions about his commitment to government transparency. 

In 2014, the political reporter Celeste Katz filed a report for The New York Daily News, noting that Councilmember Johnson had reportedly threatened to shut out Councilmembers from participating in the process to select a new Board of Elections commissioner, if Councilmembers were caught leaking to the press details about the Manhattan City Council delegation’s secretive deliberations to select the new Board of Elections commissioner.  And some government reform activists have privately complained to Progress Queens about Councilmember Johnson’s practice of blocking activists from viewing his Twitter timeline. 

Speaking generally about the power of FOIL requests, Mr. Petrelis, the San Francisco activist responsible for obtaining Councilmember Johnson’s partial 2015 calendar, told Progress Queens that his primary goal was to inspire the public to request access to public records.

“Politicians keep calendars.  People can request them,” Mr. Petrelis said, referring to public officials receiving requests for documents under freedom of information laws, “They must provide them.  A lot of people don’t know this.  I hope from my new Web site, people can see that they can get these records.”

Against a backdrop of seemingly endless political and campaign corruption taking place in New York, the nation’s top Federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district has called for greater participation in keeping government officials accountable for ethics and transparency reforms.

At a speech delivered at Fordham Law School in March 2015, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara spoke about the need for all stakeholders to join in efforts to fight political and campaign corruption.

Speaking generally about public officials, who refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of public corruption, U.S. Attorney Bharara said, in part, "Anyone, who denies the fact or suggests that corruption is not a pervasive problem, given the cases that we've brought recently in Albany, is off-base, and everyone, who is in a position to do something about it, bears a responsibility to cure the problem, and that includes prosecutors, and the public, and the press, and the politicians themselves."

Reference Document and Further Reading