By Jared Chausow
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Despite the roster of prominent Albany lobbyists on the payroll, the Last Store isn't a lobbying group, Leggitt says. She calls it a "grassroots coalition of wine retailers from around the state."
In fact, the group itself is a registered lobbyist, according to state filings. In all, eight lobbyists are listed in the filing, including Saunders.
Not that the supermarkets' own lobbyists didn't spend a lot of money themselves, but the state documents also show that the Last Store group spent $412,000 on lobbying—including $3,875 for a party, $100,000 for an economic study, and more than $200,000 for "consulting services" paid to Mercury—mostly in February and March, right when the wine bill was being considered.
Just a few days after the Last Store showed up, another group also surfaced. On February 2, another organization calling itself a "grassroots" group began circulating press releases opposing the wine ban repeal. This one called itself "Law Enforcement Against Drunk Driving."
LEADD press releases stated that allowing wine sales in supermarkets would lead to more drunk driving and would increase petty theft in supermarkets and alcohol use among teenagers. (Leggitt also points out that the numbers show that in states where wine is sold in grocery stores, there is more underage drinking.)
LEADD claimed a whole list of backers, including several district attorneys and a number of law enforcement unions across the state.
Gordy Warnock, LEADD's spokesman, is also vice president at Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations, which owns Mercury Public Affairs. Prior to that, he was vice president and legislative director with the union that represents New York State police officers. Before that, he was a state trooper.
One of the other prominent names in the law enforcement group was Daniel Sisto, vice president and legislative director of the troopers' union, where Warnock once worked.
Sisto says that LEADD was not formed specifically to block the wine bill and that Mercury did not come to him and ask him to form it. Actually, he says, he asked Mercury to get involved.
"We had been discussing how to make it more accessible for law enforcement to weigh in on issues that would further enforcement, and we decided to get together and become a cohesive group," Sisto says. "This issue just happened to be a jumping-off point."
In other words, Sisto is saying that LEADD wasn't merely created by the liquor lobby to give a law enforcement gloss to its efforts, and will not be dismantled when the wine bill goes away. If that's true, however, why hasn't LEADD taken positions on any other issues?
"We're in the process of trying to expand education programs and public service," Sisto says. "Unfortunately, LEADD is not my only position."
Records from the New York State Public Integrity Commission indicate that LEADD has never filed any papers as a lobbyist.
The two groups had close ties beyond the Mercury connection: LEADD posted press statements on the Last Store website. A Facebook page for LEADD lists Leggitt, the Last Store spokeswoman, as "creator."
Another member of the anti-supermarket group was lobbyist Brian Meara, who has represented a long list of well-known businesses and organizations, including the Yankees, Verizon, Philip Morris, Donald Trump, and several big real estate developers. Meara, when he's mentioned in news stories, is almost always identified as a longtime friend of Speaker Sheldon Silver. And he is also referred to as a longtime liquor store lobbyist.
In other words, the sudden "grassroots" movement that had sprung up against the wine bill was anything but.
It was actually made up of two professional organizations employing longtime lobbyists with multiple connections to each other. And their work was just beginning.
By March, the state's Sheriffs' Association was complaining about being included on LEADD's list of supporters. The association had actually decided to stay neutral in the debate over the bill. "While there are many sound arguments advanced by both sides, they seem to be more related to political, practical, and financial policy concerns than specifically related to law enforcement concerns," the association's executive director, Peter Kehoe, noted on March 12. Subsequently, the group was removed from LEADD's list of backers.
Other law enforcement officials who also appeared on the LEADD list of supporters admit to the Voice that they had no idea the liquor lobby was underwriting the group's efforts.
"We never took a position on the bill," says Thomas Sullivan, head of the Lieutenants Benevolent Association, which represents NYPD lieutenants. "And no one even asked us if they could use our name."
Sisto, however, insists that the organizations were contacted and had consented to allow their name to be used. "For everyone on the list, myself or someone with the group spoke to someone in their union," he says. "I don't know what their individual vetting process is."
The Suffolk PBA was listed as a LEADD supporter, for example, but the association's Fred Sayles says that the union, in fact, had no position on the wine bill. Sayles agreed on his own to attend a press conference in the Long Island town of Patchogue in opposition to the measure. But he says he was not aware that the liquor store lobby backed the group.