Lobbying firm employing NYC human rights commissioner doing Flint damage control PR for Michigan governor [Updated]

Mercury advised the president of Uganda after that nation enacted a severe anti-LGBT law. Yet, one of its lobbyists sits on the city's Commission on Human Rights.

By LOUIS FLORES

The lobbying firm that employs a city human rights commissioner is providing damage control public relations to embattled Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Michigan) over that’s state’s water crisis in the city of Flint.

The lobbying firm, Mercury LLC, employs Jonathan Greenspun, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Mr. Greenspun is a lobbyist, who has represented real estate developers, and he is tasked as a human rights commissioner with overseeing complaints filed by New Yorkers under the city’s human rights laws.  Separately, the United Nations has recognised that access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right.

Whereas Mr. Greenspun is based in New York City, the Mercury officials hired by Gov. Snyder’s team are based out of the lobbying firm’s Washington office, the journalist Jonathan Oosting noted in a report he filed for The Detroit News.

In a report filed by Lindsey Smith for Michigan Radio, Michican State Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon criticised Gov. Snyder for diverting valuable resources for public relations services during an environmental crisis just to protect the governor’s image.

The City Hall press office has been mum about Mr. Greenspun’s or his lobbying firm’s conflicts of interest.  News about Mercury’s role as Gov. Snyder’s damage control firm was made public in January. 

A request for interview made by Progress Queens to the City Hall Press Office was not answered for this report.

In a controversial move, Gov. Snyder is paying Mercury’s fees out of a nonprofit lobbying group, Moving Michigan Forward, a 501(c)(4) social welfare group similarly-situated as Mayor de Blasio’s own nonprofit lobbying arm, the Campaign for One New York.  Both Gov. Snyder and Mayor de Blasio have faced criticism about the use of nonprofit lobbying groups, which engage in campaign-like activities under the guise of nonprofit work that skirt campaign finance regulations.

Thelma Fellows, an organiser with the NYC Sierra Club in Queens, said that government oversight authorities should be independent of outside influences that may undercut environmental laws or human rights.

“I find it a little surprising and not a good thing,” Ms. Fellows said, of the role of a lobbying firm involved in both doing damage control public relations over the Flint water crisis and having a say on the outcome of New York City human rights cases.  “The right to drinking water should be considered a human right.”

Ms. Fellows was critical of corporations that purchase water rights around the world only to resell it as bottled water, depriving communities of safe drinking water and creating an environmental hazard from the proliferation of plastic bottles.  In the past, Mercury has also represented the Coca-Cola Company in respect of lobbying of the mayor's office, which Mercury performed on the Coca-Cola Company's behalf.  The Coca-Cola Company markets and sells bottled water under its brand, Dasani.

Recently, two New York communities have had water emergencies.  A toxic chemical used in the making of Teflon products has contaminated the drinking water of Hoosick Falls, NY, an upstate village near Albany, and radioactive water has leaked into the groundwater beneath the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits on the banks of the Hudson River. 

Due to increasing questions about the quality of drinking water, the NYC Sierra Club in Queens is planning an event on April 21 at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights to make the public more aware about drinking water safety, Ms. Fellows said.* 

Conflicts of interest with Greenspun and his lobbying firm

As reported by Progress Queens, Mr. Greenspun advised one of the investors on the sale of a portfolio of project-based Section 8 buildings from the New York City Housing Authority to a consortium of real estate developers.  That sale transaction was negotiated without public input in a process that subverted requirements under the City Charter that compel the disposition of city real property to be subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP process.  Besides dodging the ULURP process, the sale transaction was also notable for having taken place shortly after a cash-strapped NYCHA made major repairs to some of the distressed Section 8 buildings that were sold to the consortium, a Progress Queens report revealed.

Mr. Greenspun’s lobbying firm, Mercury, was also employed to represent one of contractors on the controversial Emergency Communications Transformation Program, also referred to as the ECTP upgrade of the city's 911 emergency call system, that is over $1 billion over budget and several years behind schedule.  Mercury has also represented a Super PAC backed by David Koch.  After the Republic of Uganda passed a severe anti-LGBT law, Mercury was paid $600,000 for a one year contract to provide damage control public relations for the government of Uganda.

Recently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights mysteriously scrubbed the names and biographies of all of its commissioners, including Mr. Greenspun, from its Web site. 

Progress Queens has filed a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law for copies of housing discrimination complaints lodged with the New York City Commission on Human Rights after it was revealed in a Federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Manhattan Federal prosecutors that apartment buildings, including at least one built with the controversial 421-a tax abatement program, violated Fair Housing Act accessibility standards for people with disabilities.  Such violations were overlooked by other regulators or authorities, including the New York City Commission on Human Rights.  Even though the civil rights lawsuit was filed under Federal law as amended by the Fair Housing Act, Manhattan Federal prosecutors cited parallel legal authority under a local New York City law that would have given the New York City Commission on Human Rights jurisdiction to also address accessibility violations.

It’s not known if Mercury’s book of business influences Mr. Greenspun’s work on the New York City Commission on Human Rights.  Attempts were unsuccessful to reach Mr. Greenspun for comment for this report.

(*) Update :  The date of the NYC Sierra Club in Queens has changed, and the information has been updated. 

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