Monday, July 22, 2013

The Real Face of Political Corruption

There has been a great deal of attention paid to the efforts of the US Attorney for the Southern District to root out political corruption-and a spate of elected officials have been convicted and imprisoned pursuant to his efforts.

Governor Cuomo, last seen punting on the Willets Point illegal lobbying issue while he was Attorney General, has now jumped into the fray using the Moreland Act commission to root out corruption as well. The NY Post’s Fred Dicker reports:
Despite Cuomo’s high-profile announcement last week that he had assembled “the best minds in law enforcement and public policy . . . to address weaknesses in the state’s public corruption, election and campaign-finance laws’’ to serve on the 25-member commission, he failed to name a single specific area of corruption or individual to be probed. 

As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody’s getting into the act.” But as helpful - or not - as the current efforts are, they overlook the systemic nature of political corruption-a variant of what Plunkitt of Tammany Hall used to describe as “honest graft.” In a recent issue of City Limits, one such variant is on display in the form of the role political consultants play as both consultants and lobbyists:
The firms that both consult and lobby turn the typical pay-to-play concerns of government watchdogs on their head. The issue here is not who's giving money to a campaign, but who's receiving candidates' money—in exchange for valuable help.
Consultants are, according to political observers, vital components of any operation: They are in many instances the quarterbacks of campaigns, plotting get-out-the-vote efforts, crafting media strategy and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition. By accepting or rejecting a client, skilled consultants can significantly affect the odds of a campaign succeeding.
"When a firm helps someone get elected to office, that firm may have an easier time getting access to that office when they're trying to influence how they're going to vote on a particular issue," says Bill Mahoney, the New York Public Interest Group's legislative research coordinator.”

This incestuousness has a particular resonance when it comes to the development of Willets Point where the predations of the Parkside Group are skewing the political debate and skirting the bounds of legality:
Remaking the cratered world of Willets Point, Queens has been a developer's dream since the imperious and seemingly everlasting reign of Robert Moses. A veritable galaxy of auto repair shops in the shadow of Citi Field, Willets Point is without sewers or paved roads, but its land, long eyed hungrily by developers, may undergo seismic change over the next decade. According to the glowing blueprints, a shopping mall, affordable housing and glittering office buildings will replace the greasy repair shops that tourists eye warily from the expressways.
Actually making this development—controversial, among other reasons, because it will displace many property owners and immigrant laborers—a reality is partially the job of the Parkside Group, perhaps the most dominant political force in the borough that is not elected by anyone. Since last May, they have represented the Queens Development Group LLC, the name for the duo of real estate companies that have won the bid for phase one of the Willets Point development, Sterling Equities and Related Companies. That's one of many lobbying clients Parkside claims. Last year alone, according to the city's lobbying database, the firm billed $1.8 million for its work with city officials on behalf of clients.”
Parkside is the engine that has been driving the Willets Point project from the get-go-and it was this consulting group that was one of the originators of the illegal lobbying scheme that was finally exposed by the NY State AG. Parkside was the official lobbyist when Claire Shulman’s LDC was fined by the NYC Clerk’s Office a record $59,000 for failing to register as a lobbying entity-something that Parkside should have been aware was the law.

Parkside should have also been aware that it was per se illegal for the LDC to lobby at all-and therefore illegal for Parkside to represent the group in a lobbying campaign to re-develop the Iron Triangle. If it wasn’t the actual originator of the illegal scheme, Parkside was, and is, its major aider and abettor. In this capacity, it should have been sanctioned and removed from any effort to further assist in the city’s corrupt deal to hand over Willets Point property to Related and Sterling Equities.

In fact, no such sanctioning took place-neither EDC nor the Shulman LDC were punished; and the Parkside enablers were allowed to escape punishment as well. But the group not only escaped punishment, it was also allowed (as was Sterling) to profit from its questionable actions:
The battle over Willets Point illustrates how a consultant like Parkside manages to occupy almost every pivotal sphere of the issue. Besides its work for the Queens Development Group, Parkside also lobbies for labor unions that are in support of the Willets Point development, like Local 1500 UFCW and 32BJ SEIU. Meanwhile, Parkside often works side-by-side with the Queens County Democratic Party to ensure, in most instances, their handpicked candidates gain or retain their offices. Four of the elected officials with districts that include or border the Willets Point development—Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, State Sen. Jose Peralta, Congressman Joe Crowley and State Sen. Toby Stavisky—have employed Parkside for their political campaigns, funneling the firm many thousands of dollars.”
So Parkside-just as Sterling Equities was able to-turned running an illegal scheme into a hugely profitable reward: the representation of the partnership that seeks to redevelop the Iron Triangle at the expense of the existing property owners. Making the situation even more dicey-if that were possible-is the fact that the development’s chief booster, State Senator Toby Stavisky is the mother of Parkside principle Evan Stavisky.
So what we can see at Willets Point is how honest graft operates-and does so at the expense of democracy and the property rights of the Willets Point business owners. In the case of Willets Point, however, the line between honest graft and its more familiar cousin-graft per se-is a thin one indeed.
The US Attorney and the governor are busy fighting corruption-all the while letting a systematic corruption grow and fester under their vigilant noses. As the old aphorism goes:

The law in all of its majesty, punishes the thief who steals the goose from off of the Commons, but lets the greater felon loose, who steals the common from the goose