An incrementalism in lobbying by public servants of other public servants
By LOUIS FLORES
For the third time in as many years the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board took action against Manhattan Community Board 2 over violations of conflicts of interest rules, raising new questions about the absence of any response from Borough President Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) to the lack of compliance by Community Board members with provisions of the City Charter.
A warning letter dated 25 February 2016 was issued by the Conflicts of Interest Board to Community Board 2 member Anita Brandt. The issuance of the warning letter concluded the Conflicts of Interest Board review into a presentation made by Ms. Brandt on behalf of her client before Community Board 2’s Landmarks Committee, of which Ms. Brandt is a member.
On August 12, 2015, Ms. Brandt made a presentation before the Landmarks Committee, seeking approval for a design application filed by her client, the upscale West Village restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea. Before Ms. Brandt, who earns a living as an architect, made her presentation, she checked with the chair of Manhattan Community Board 2 about her potential conflict of interest, and she was advised that she could make the presentation, so long as Ms. Brandt recused herself from voting on the plans, which she did, according to a recounting of the events in the warning letter. The chair of Manhattan Community Board 2 is Tobi Bergman.
In a report filed by the journalist Danielle Tcholakian for DNAinfo, Community Board Chair Bergman said that the Conflicts of Interest Board’s initial determination was that Ms. Brandt’s presentation on behalf of her client “was improper.”
The Conflict of Interest Board noted in its warning letter that because Ms. Brandt followed through with her “presentation of a private, paying client’s architectural plans” before the Landmarks Committee, her appearance before the Landmarks Committee was in violation of § 2604(b)(6) of City Charter rules governing the conduct of public servants.
Manhattan Borough President Brewer, who has a role appointing some members to various Manhattan Community boards, kept with her policy of refusing to comment about the pattern of conflicts of interest found by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board at Manhattan Community Board 2. A request for an interview made by Progress Queens was not answered by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office. Past efforts by Progress Queens to seek Manhattan Borough President Brewer’s comments have likewise proven unsuccessful.
As previously reported by Progress Queens, the Conflicts of Interest Board has fined each of Jo Hamilton and John Sweeney at Manhattan Community Board 2 for having separately accepted gratuity from the same business, Soho House, the exclusive, membership-only social club, whilst they served on Community Board 2, even as Soho House had business before Community Board 2.
The conflicts board overlooked possible unregistered lobbying
Questions exist about how Manhattan Borough President Brewer or Community Board 2 maintain compliance with City Charter rules. A handbook available online for Manhattan Community Board 2 members appears to not have been updated since 2008, and it is not known if Community Board members are required to file annual statements certifying individual compliance with City Charter rules.
Bob Gormley, the district manager for Manhattan Community Board 2, refused a request made by Progress Queens for an interview for this report.
The Conflicts of Interest Board has a policy of not commenting about determinations it makes, but the warning letter provided limited guidance to public officials facing conflict questions. Should officials face situations where they face potential conflicts, those officials “with questions about the conflicts of interest laws” were encouraged to contact the Conflicts of Interest Board directly. The warning letter concluded with the provision of the Conflicts of Interest Board general phone number, (212) 442-1400, and the warning letter was made public “in order to provide guidance to others faced with similar situations.”
Whereas the Conflicts of Interest Board has earned praises for its efforts to increase a public conversation around government ethics, the warning letter it issued in respect of Ms. Brandt was silent about actions a public official should take if the official was being paid compensation from a special interest to influence the outcome of a Community Board matter. According to the Lobbying Bureau of the City Clerk’s Office, lobbying activities were generally defined along eight broad categories, and one such category specifically pertained to improvements made to real property : “Any determination by the Mayor, the City Council, the City Planning Commission, a Borough President, Borough Board, or a Community Board concerning zoning or the use, development, or improvement of real property subject to City regulation” by a person employed to influence an outcome constituted lobbying. If Ms. Brandt had been paid to make a presentation before a Community Board tasked with determining the outcome of an application for making an improvement to real property, then the Conflicts of Interest Board left unaddressed whether Ms. Brandt’s activities constituted lobbying that required registration with the City Clerk’s Office.
Efforts made by Progress Queens to contact city lobbying officials were unsuccessful.
The impossibility of receiving city lobbying guidance
The Web page for the Lobbying Bureau of the City Clerk’s Office provided no telephone number for a lobbying rules hotline, but the contact Web page for the City Clerk’s Office, which oversees municipal lobbying registration, listed the city’s 311 service as their contact number.
An attempt was made by Progress Queens to reach the Lobbying Bureau, but a reporter spent approximately 20 minutes being subjected to questions by a 311 operator and two different supervisors about the nature of the reporter’s call. The supervisors identified themselves as Angela and Marissa. The final supervisor, Marissa, improbably said that the Lobbying Bureau has no telephone number. Given that it’s impossible for a person with a question about city lobbying rules to be connected with the Lobbying Bureau by dialing the 311 service number provided on the contact Web page of the City Clerk’s Office, it’s not known how queries by government officials about city lobbying rules are supposed to be answered, much less if they are even meant to be answered.
Whereas the Conflicts of Interest Board has the power and authority to fine city officials, it has no jurisdiction over business interests, which may seek an unfair advantage in proceedings before Community Boards. The limited findings in the warning letter left unaddressed whether business interests may pay public officials to become unregistered lobbyists, so long as those activities were reviewed in advance by the Conflicts of Interest Board. Such situations would mean that the public would lose their representation in the government official whilst that government official acted in a paid, potentially unregisterd lobbying capacity on behalf of private business interests. As previously reported by Progress Queens, even District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan) has remained mum about the spree of misconduct by Community Board members.
Lobbying opens the door to more money in politics
The lack of a response from Manhattan Borough President Brewer, the lack of lobbying guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board, the impossibility of reaching the Lobbing Bureau of the City Clerk’s Office for basic information about lobbying rules, the absence of any probes by municipal prosecutors, and the incrementalism in lobbying-like activities by government officials comes at a time when lobbyists are earning money hand-over-fist under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City).
On the day before the Conflicts of Interest Board issued its warning letter to Ms. Brandt over her compensated representation of private interests before Community Board 2, the journalist Erin Durkin filed a report for The New York Daily News, noting that special interests spent over $86,2 million in municipal lobbying fees in 2015, a record amount that represented a nearly 20 per cent. increase in municipal lobbying spending from the previous record of $71,9 million, set in 2014.
Even the activities of Mayor de Blasio’s own nonprofit lobbying arm, the Campaign for One New York, are facing examination. Three days after Progress Queens reported that there was law enforcement interest in the activities of the Campaign for One New York, the journalist J. David Goodman filed a report for The New York Times, noting that the good government group, Common Cause/NY, had lodged a complaint with each of the Conflicts of Interest Board and the New York City Campaign Finance Board, requesting an official review of the nonprofit lobbying arm’s compliance with City Charter and municipal campaign finance regulations.
- No response from Beep Gale Brewer after pattern of conflicts of interest shown at Manhattan Community Board 2 [Progress Queens]
- Conflicts board fines second Manhattan Community Board 2 member over free Soho House membership [Progress Queens]
- Jo Hamilton, a former member of MH Community Board 2, fined for conflicts of interest violations [Progress Queens]