Influence Peddlers

Trade secrets of the city's fastest-growing lobbying firm

Talk about a bad news day. On February 8, a major city bank learned that it was going to be slammed that very afternoon at a City Hall press conference for lending money to slumlords. A group called Housing Here and Now was accusing New York Community Bank of hiking the misery index in poor neighborhoods by funneling mortgages to bad landlords. Worse, the new City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, was due to participate as well.

What to do? The bankers picked up the phone and dialed the lobbying equivalent of 9-1-1.

The call went to William Driscoll, a grizzled veteran of Queens politics and partner in a government-relations practice called the Parkside Group. The appropriately named Parkside Group can see City Hall Park from the windows of its spacious Nassau Street offices, and it immediately dispatched troops across the street to see what was up. When the aides arrived and began taking notes, a puzzled member of Quinn's staff asked what they were doing. "We just got hired," came the response.

Chalk up one more client for New York's fastest-growing lobbying firm. Launched in late 2000 by a trio of Queens political figures, Parkside has prospered mightily, thanks in no small part to its ties to the Queens Democratic organization and the council's leaders. City and state disclosure forms show that Parkside took in a whopping $2.2 million last year in fees from 52 clients, a figure that could make it the city's top earner in the lobbying business once those totals are officially compiled by the city clerk. Whatever its ranking, Parkside's revenues have risen faster than the price of oil, up from the $490,000 it earned in 2002.

And that's just the lobbying end of things. The firm has also helped elect many of the same political officials it lobbies. Fifteen members of the current council have used Parkside as a campaign consultant. In last year's elections, city candidates spent more than $550,000 for campaign assistance from the firm. Among them was former Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who became so close to Parkside after it helped him win his post that he asked one of its partners to help him hire a chief of staff. In 2004, Miller launched his ill-fated drive to become mayor right from Parkside's offices.

But for all of the firm's vaunted influence and access, the bank called at a lousy time. That's because there's been a growing buzz about how lobbyists have become the new permanent government for a council that, thanks to term limits, faces constant turnover in members and staff. And Quinn, while owing her own position to many of the same political patrons allied with Parkside, was already looking for a way to place some distance between herself and the influence peddlers.

One council insider said that Parkside's abrupt appearance at the press conference helped galvanize Quinn's decision to unveil a set of reforms right away. "What pissed her off was the assumption that this was the way to reach her," said the source.

On February 16, Quinn stood with Mayor Bloomberg to announce new proposals that would limit lobbyists' access, compel greater disclosure, and double fines for violations. The city's two top officials said they didn't want to wait for scandals like those in Washington and Albany to happen here. What was needed, said Quinn, was a drive to "reduce the influence of special interests in city government."

It's unclear just how these new measures will be enforced, as the legislation has not been submitted. But major issues remain unaddressed. One is the convenient distinction drawn by some firms that visits to city officials are "legal work"—which doesn't require disclosure—not lobbying. Also unresolved is how to cope with firms like Parkside that lobby the people they help to elect (a city hearing last month heard strong testimony that to bar such representation would violate First Amendment protections).

Still, the reforms are a good beginning, said ethics watchdog Megan Quattlebaum of Common Cause/NY, though she added, "The devil will be in the details."

Sitting in their new offices recently, two of Parkside's partners said they could live with any new rules. "From a public policy viewpoint, we think stating who is lobbying whom, and for what duration, is fine. It's a great thing," said Harry Giannoulis, a jovial former Democratic gubernatorial aide who serves as a member of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission. "As someone smarter than me said, 'Sunshine is the best disinfectant,' " added partner Evan Stavisky, the wonkish son of a pair of state legislators.

Parkside gets high marks from those clients willing to talk about it. "They are terrifically skilled lobbyists," said a representative of the city's Central Labor Council, which pays $5,000 a month for the firm's advice.

But the city's laissez-faire attitude about lobbying rules is highlighted by Parkside's disclosure reports to the city clerk, which shroud its work in mystery. Question 6(A) asks for the "Individual and Entity lobbied." For all of its clients, the firm affixes the same adhesive sticker on its filings: "NYC Legislative & Executive; NYS Legislative & Executive." Another question asks the specific subject matter. Parkside slaps on another all-embracing sticker: "Public Policy and Legislation."

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