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 has another job, too—getting candidates for city and state offices elected, and re-elected. Over the 2005 and 2009 municipal election seasons, Parkside earned $3.2 million for advising candidates. On the state level, since 2005, the firm has earned $15 million for political consulting.
Some of Parkside's Willets Point lobbying has been directed at the City Council, where sit some of the very people the firm helped elect. That's because Parkside, founded more than a decade ago, is among a handful of influential firms in New York State that lobby elected officials while also serving as consultants for political campaigns, a practice that is perfectly legal but raises several ethical questions. What happens when lobbying and political jobs overlap? Will elected officials, already subject to a barrage of lobbyists, be even more unduly influenced if the consulting firms they employ for their campaigns are also turning around to lobby them soon after?
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.
Making points on Willets
The $3 billion proposed development at Willets Point has gone through several incarnations. Challenged relentlessly by Willets Point property owners who have protested the use of eminent domain to take away private property, the development, according to its backers, will bring thousands of jobs and economic benefits to Queens.
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.
The county organization picked Simanowitz to run in a 2011 special election and he paid Parkside roughly $40,000 during that race. And Stavisky, facing tough re-election fights in 2010 and 2012, has funneled almost $300,000 to Parkside over the last decade. Stavisky and Simanowitz did not return requests for comment. Both have been very supportive of the Willets Point development.
The chair of the Queens County Democratic Party, Rep. Crowley, is also an unambiguous supporter of the Willets Point project. The scrapyards lie in his Congressional district. Parkside lists Crowley as one of their few Congressional clients on their website. As county leader, Crowley holds sway over many Democratic elected officials, but because it is not a federal issue he'll have no legislative say on the development.
According to lobbying records, on behalf of QDG, Parkside has lobbied former or current clients like Peralta, Stavisky and Simanowitz over the past decade. Beyond the state legislature, QDG's lobbying targets have included the City Council and the Queens borough president's office, where Parkside's ties have run particularly deep.
Lobbying on behalf of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation in 2009, Barry Grodenchik was a key Parkside lobbyist in the early years of the approval process for the development. In 2010 he became a deputy borough president to Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Now running for borough president himself, Grodenchik, who is not employing Parkside for his borough president race, declined to comment.
Though derided as a toothless tiger in the political world, the borough president's office nevertheless plays a pivotal role in the city's lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The beep's approval is an important indicator to the City Council whether a project, no matter how controversial, has received the proper vetting locally. Marshall so far has been one of the biggest boosters of the Willets Point development, penning an op-ed and attaching her support in a Bloomberg press release last year. She employed Parkside for her re-election campaign in 2009.
Last year, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman charged the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC with illegally lobbying—by law, local development corporations are restricted from "trying to influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise." Forced to pay a fine, the city's Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the LDC, restructured itself to comply with the law. During the Attorney General investigation into the LDC's lobbying activities, Parkside lobbyists Stavisky, Grodenchik, Williams Driscoll and Harry Giannoulis were served with subpoenas in 2009.