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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 disclosurenot 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."
That's its response for Entergy, a giant utility that paid Parkside $78,000 last year to help make sure a pesky council resolution calling for the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant wasn't resurrected. And that's also the response for each of the 30 not-for-profit organizations (most of them Queens-based) that pay Parkside $4,000 to $6,000 per month for very different assistanceto help win council funding grants (the firm has a near perfect batting average).
"You want to have as broad a category as possible so that you are not leaving anyone out. It is consciously broad," explained Giannoulis. "You don't want to be uninclusive," added Stavisky.
Pressed as to whether the stickers complied with even the clerk's minimal rules, Giannoulis later acknowledged he had somehow missed the instructions calling for specific answers that are posted on the city's website. "We may have some refiling to do," he said.
But the lobbyists still remain the soul of discretion when asked exactly what they do for their customers. What about Fresh Direct, the fast-growing (and non-union) home grocery delivery company whose trucks now crowd city streets, and which paid Parkside $48,000 last year? "I don't think for the purposes of this interview we are going to discuss what we do for individual clients," said Stavisky.
On the other hand, they're happy to describe the method behind their fast rise to the top: "We are very good and we work really hard," said Giannoulis. "It is a lot of work. It is hard work. You start from morning and you go to night, and you work weekends."
Connections also help. Driscoll, the eldest of the trio, declined to be interviewed about his own work habits, but he has labored for decades for various Queens pols, including serving as chief of staff to former congressman Tom Manton, who has ruled the Queens Democratic Party organization since shortly after its 1980s scandals.
The job brought its perks. Between 1995 and 2001, Driscoll, an attorney, pulled in more than $320,000 in fees from guardianship appointments he received from judges installed by Manton. Even after 1998, when he became part-time counsel to the Queens County clerk, he kept getting the appointmentsthough he should have been banned from further guardianships, as a 2000 Newsday article noted. How had that issue been resolved?
"As our business was growing he stopped doing the things in question, so it became kind of moot," said Stavisky.
Yet Manton's shadow looms over much of the firm's success. Parkside has run winning campaigns for many candidates backed by the Queens Democratic machine. "We have been proud to be on the right side of some of Tom Manton's right choices," said Giannoulis, citing the firm's campaign work for the city's first Asian American elected official (Councilman John Liu), as well as the borough's first Latino (Assemblyman José Peralta).
But the firm isn't about to buck Manton's choices.
Parkside initially backed a Democratic organization candidate against Queens councilman James Gennaro in the 2001 election. It was Gennaro, chair of the council's environmental committee, who introduced the anti-nuke resolution that Parkside has vigorously opposed on behalf of its utility client. The resolution died, opposed by an overwhelming majority, and has not been reintroduced. When Gennaro ran for re-election last year, this time with Democratic organization support, Parkside ran his campaign. A Gennaro spokesman said the two events were unrelated, as did Giannoulis.
"This is the complete opposite of a problem," said the lobbyist. "This shows that a political client of ours can have a different position than our lobbying client."
Giannoulis himself has enjoyed his own patronage perks. In 1998, he was appointed by former council leader Peter Vallone to the city's taxi commission. The following year, Giannoulis was listed as the intermediary for some $10,000 worth of contributions from taxi industry figures to Vallone's failed mayoral campaign. Giannoulis acknowledged that such solicitations would be improper but insisted the filings were a mistake, one he had tried to correct: "I was there, but I never raised money. They were supposed to have clarified that a long time ago." Vallone's campaign treasurer, however, said the filings were accurate and that he had no recollection of Giannoulis complaining about it.