WEEK IN REVIEW : Albany may regulate de Blasio lobbying activities after NY1 BerlinRosen report


State Senator Tony Avella (D-Queens) is considering drafting a proposed state law "that would require disclosure for all firms that have substantial contact with elected officials and outside clients," according to a report by the broadcast journalist Grace Rauh of NY1 News.  

State Senator Avella's proposal comes on the heals of of an investigative report by Ms. Rauh in which it was revealed that Jonathan Rosen and his firm, BerlinRosen, exert tremendous influence in City Hall by skirting disclosure requirements applicable to registered lobbyists. 

The unregistered lobbyist,  Jonathan Rosen .  Source :  NY1/Screen Shot

The unregistered lobbyist, Jonathan Rosen.  Source :  NY1/Screen Shot

The proposal to expand regulations to unregistered lobbyists and their firms follows a package of watered-down ethics reforms recently enacted by the state legislature in response to the non-stop public corruption investigation across New York state.

"As we work to repair public trust in our elected officials," State Senator Avella told NY1, adding, "We must no longer tolerate lobbyists in consultants' clothing."

If any action is taken in Albany to regulate unregistered lobbying, the new regulations will impact the external nonprofit lobbying arm of City Hall, the Campaign for One New York, which is being advised by BerlinRosen.  Such regulations may impose disclosure that may act to curtail the coördinated political lobbying activities between a sitting elected official and a closely-controlled nonprofit expenditure group.

Presently, city and state disclosure requirements only apply to individuals, who register as lobbyists.  Rules requiring registration differ across municipalities and the state.  Yet, from City Hall to Albany, there are growing ranks of very influential political consultants, who eschew the moniker of lobbyist in order to skirt applicable disclosure regulations.  Instead, such unregistered lobbyists consider themselves advisors on strategy, the media, and the like.

One day after Ms. Rauh's original investigation report was broadcast on the program, NY1 Inside City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) refused to answer a question about the close relationship between the mayor and Mr. Rosen. 

Mayor de Blasio has developed a pattern of restricting the freedom of the press by demanding that journalists' questions during press conferences stay on "topic" of his daily political messaging.  On Thursday, when Ms. Rauh began to ask a question about Mr. Rosen, Mayor de Blasio cut off Ms. Rauh in mid-sentence, asking her, "Are you on topic ?" 



Greg Kelly and Rosanna Scotto, the anchors of the Fox 5 news program, Good Day New York, on WNYW Channel 5, have separately noted that City Hall imposes a "calculated boycott" against their news program, because the president and general manager of Fox 5 News, Lew Leone, has been critical of Mayor de Blasio in broadcast editorials, according to a report by Azi Paybarah for Capital New York. 

Similarly, press officials at City Hall routinely do not acknowledge requests made by Progress Queens for interviews ; nor do they provide responses when specific questions are submitted by Progress Queens by e-mail to expedite a response.

In the past, Progress Queens has published editorials that have been critical of Mayor de Blasio.

Meetings with lobbyists

As Ms. Rauh noted in her original report, Mayor de Blasio met with Mr. Rosen on 20 occasions in 2014.  Those meetings were confirmed in entries on Mayor de Blasio's official calendar that were released to NY1 News under a Freedom of Information Law request.  

Those 20 meetings are not reflected in 14 meetings Mayor de Blasio had with registered lobbyists.  The 14 meetings with lobbyists were publicly released in on the Web site of the Office of the Mayor.

The consultants employed by Mr. Rosen's firm, BerlinRosen, generally do not register the vast majority of their work as lobbying, although, under state rules, some of their business activities do trigger state disclosures in a few instances, according to a review of state lobbying records.

Another large consulting firm, which provides strategic and media advice so as to avoid the regulations of disclosure applicable to registered lobbyists, is SKDKnickerbocker, the firm that employs Jennifer Cunningham, the ex-wife and political advisor to State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York).

Ms. Cunningham's arrangement with State Attorney General Schniederman has come under criticism, because at the same time she provides unpaid advice to State Attorney General Schneiderman, her firm has been hired to represent a company, Herbalife Ltd., which is reportedly under investigation by the Office of the State Attorney General.  Attorney General Schneiderman's office is further enmeshed with SKDKnickerbocker, because his chief of staff was a founding partner of the firm, and the firm has been a paid campaign consultant to two of State Attorney General Schniderman's rest campaign committees.

"Aspiring to the minimum"

The pattern of skirting regulations has been flagged as a warning sign of cultures, where waning ethics may yield to questionable conduct.

At a speech delivered on January 23 at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara addressed concerns about public officials and special interests deliberately flirting with violating the intent of regulations, saying, in part, "It's a worry that I have that in a lot of places and a lot of quarters, people learn to be focused on just what the line is, the technical line, and they think about how close they can get to the line without going over. And it's what I call, 'aspiring to the minimum.' "

Also left unexplained is how, under the current regulatory framework, unregistered lobbyists are allowed to provide unpaid services to elected officials from City Hall to Albany.  As Progress Queens has previously reported, under the charter of the City of New York, elected officials are forbidden from accepting valuable gifts from firms with business before New York City, and, likewise, firms that lobby elected officials are banned from making valuable gifts.  Notwithstanding this restriction, Mr. Rosen is able to attend meetings with the de Blasio administration, receive inside information about government policy, and provide unpaid services to the mayor and his officials in the form of counsel and advise, even as Mr. Rosen and his firm have business before New York City.  

BerlinRosen has also served as a campaign consulting firm for State Attorney General Schneiderman.

Similar common sense should apply to Ms. Cunningham and the unpaid services she provides to State Attorney General Schniederman, even as Ms. Cunningham and her firm have business before New York state.  

State Senator Avella's proposal to impose greater state regulation of unregistered lobbyists is taking place against a widening of state regulations for registered lobbyists.  As reported by Jimmy Vielkind in an article published by Capital New York, state disclosure laws will apply to a wider group of lobbyists at the municipal level.  However, the state authority in charge of lobbyists' disclosures in the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, which has been revealed to lack political independence from Albany officials.

In the lead-up to Governor Cuomo's expanded ethics reform laws, State Attorney General Schneiderman had proposed his own plan for even greater ethics reforms.  A request made by Progress Queens to the Office of the State Attorney General for comment for this article was not answered.

Postscript to articles about BerlinRosen's former client, Communities United for Police Reform, published last year in The New York Times and in Progress Queens

A November 12, 2014, article by Michael Grynbaum published by The New York Times noted that the police reform coalition known as Communities United for Police Reform, or CPR, had cut ties with its former public relations firm.  The firm was left unnamed in Mr. Grynbaum's report, but it was later deduced by many to be BerlinRosen. 

An editorial published on Progress Queens with information pulled, in part, from Mr. Grynbaum's report, reported that CPR had fired BerlinRosen.  The editorial was followed by both a digest that repeated that CPR had fired BerlinRosen and an article published by Progress Queens in which it was reported that another firm, Progressive Cities, would replace BerlinRosen as CPR's public relations firm.

The information in these prior reports was contradicted last week by Ms. Rauh's TV news segment, in which she reported that BerlinRosen fired CPR as a client.

Requests made by Progress Queens for clarification were sent to the public editor of The New York Times and to CPR.  The request sent to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, was referred to the Corrections Department of the newspaper.  A response has not been received.

The request sent to CPR was sent too late to expect an immediate response.  Any information received from both requests will appear in a future update on Progress Queens.