News & Politics

The Heavyweight Albany Lobbyist They Call ‘Feathers’

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My cover story this week about Albany lobbyists featured “Feathers,” otherwise known as James Featherstonhaugh, who is the final toll on the thruway to the state capitol. Everyone, apparently, pays.

Over the course of a four-decade career as unofficial state gatekeeper, Feathers has championed just about every interest, including currently, for example, Goldman Sachs and the Human Rights Campaign. Futures and options for Goldman are as important to him as futures and options for gays.

Unlike most Albany lobbyists, however, Feathers also routinely represents the public officials he lobbies–while in office, before or after.

He represented Governor Mario Cuomo personally in a dispute years ago over his personal use of state aircraft. He represented Andrew Cuomo in 2003, when the State Lobbying Commission came after him for acting as an unregistered lobbyist on behalf of a coalition seeking reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. He was Shelly Silver’s personal attorney when the commission fined Caesar’s $25,000 for giving the assembly speaker a cut rate on a lavish Las Vegas hotel room while it had state business before him. He represented former GOP attorney general Dennis Vacco, whose firm paid a $50,000 fine for charging a “success fee” if it secured casino approvals from the state. And, completing the cycle, he was not only Senate leader Joe Bruno’s attorney, he was his alter-ego.

When I got the legend on the phone for my cover a week ago, I asked him first about his ties to the Cuomos.

Confirming that he’d represented Mario (and his campaign committee), Feathers added that he’d called the former governor when he and his former partner, James Roemer, wound up in protracted litigation over the breakup of their small Albany-based law firm. Willkie Farr, the Manhattan firm Mario had joined, took Feathers on as a client in the late 1990s, he said. One element of the legal battle between Feathers and Roemer involved Roemer’s alleged siphoning off of fees due the firm from upstate governments as salaries for himself.

When Andrew became attorney general several years later, he served subpoenas on Roemer about pensions Roemer was receiving tied to the same salary payments, and the two became embroiled in a major legal battle about the legality of Roemer’s public pensions and those of others Roemer came to represent. The intertwine is emblematic of just how ubiquitous Feathers is in the life of the state and the Cuomos.

I asked Featherstonhaugh if his recent hiring of Frank Hoare, who had been a top aide to Andrew in the AG’s office, was an attempt to build a bridge to the second Cuomo. “I never felt I needed a bridge to Andrew,” said Feathers.

Then I read Feathers the most derogatory graphs I’d already written about him and asked for his response. One detailed a laundry list of questionable ties he had to the convicted Bruno, and Feathers didn’t flinch or disappoint.

“Feathers sees nothing wrong with being in a real estate partnership with the Senate leader he lobbies, Joe Bruno, or his brother Peter, or representing the Bruno family business, or doing a land deal with Bruno’s son, Kenny, or hiring Kenny as a lobbyist in his firm,” I read. “Accurate,” he replied, “all of it is accurate.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them talking to people they know,” Feathers declared, referring to Bruno or any other public official, “even if they are a lobbyist. Does he have to talk to people he doesn’t know or doesn’t like? Does he have to speak only to strangers?” Feathers said he represented Bruno “when he was just an ordinary run-of-the-mill senator” and knew him so well that he “could predict what his position would be” on any issue before he lobbied him. “Oh, what a terrible thing,” he mocked, “the senator is talking to people he knows.”

Feathers recently added Steve Boggess to the firm’s government affairs unit, the most recent reminder of how wired the lobbyist is with the Senate GOP. Boggess was Bruno’s top aide for 15 years, and held the title of secretary to the Senate for 11 years, even under Dean Skelos, the new Republican leader installed in 2008 when Bruno stepped down after more than 13 years as majority leader.

His firm had also, in earlier times, hired Kenny Bruno and John Cordo, a young lawyer on Bruno’s staff that Feathers said Bruno had all but “adopted.” Now in his own firm, Cordo, according to Feathers, endeared himself to Bruno because “he didn’t subject Joe to long-winded speeches” about policy matters, but was “more instinctive” and “aggressive,” like Bruno himself. This is a theme of Feathers’ running commentary on Bruno, made explicit when the lobbyist had to testify at Bruno’s federal trial last year and apologized to his old pal for testifying that “leaders would not even know about some legislation.” Of course, this kind of willful and even proud ignorance was an invitation to gabbers like Feathers, who may have been so confident of his ability to predict Bruno’s positions because he often shaped them.

After we’d discussed his Bruno testimony, Feathers said that he didn’t see the Bruno case as an example of lobbyist abuse, contending that lobbyists did not play a large role in the charges against the ex-leader. I said that the case revolved around Bruno’s attempt, while in office, to act as if he was a lobbyist himself, collecting $3.2 million in consultant fees to push unions with state business to assign pension assets to companies that hired him. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I take it all back.”

No one embodies the hardcore lobbying ethic of Albany better than Feathers. He spoke for his caste when he reacted to my suggestions that new lines had to be drawn, hopefully in an Andrew Cuomo executive order, minimizing or eliminating entirely direct contact between high-level state decisionmakers and lobbyists. “Make all the rules you want so long as they’re clear,” he opined.

Asked about setting up an Office of Lobbying Relations in the executive chamber that would act as a filter for useful information that lobbyists often provide, Feathers was dismissive, arguing that “decisionmakers need to be the ones listening.” He called it “a waste of time” to talk to “generalists” in such a unit, contending they would have no way of knowing what information was useful. He sees no value in efforts to reduce the power of connections, contending that the word lobbyist “is actually an acronym for citizen.” This alternate-universe contention is so stunning as to make Feathers the one who is “naïve,” the label he blithely threw at my idea.

Tony Shorris is the only state official I know who ever attempted to do any part of what I’m suggesting here. He was the head of the Port Authority, appointed in 2007 by Eliot Spitzer. He refused to talk to lobbyists. He barred his staff from talking to lobbyists. The first thing Governor David Paterson did when he replaced Spitzer was fire Shorris. Paterson replaced Shorris with a registered lobbyist, Chris Ward, who represented the construction industry. There was no better early sign of what the Paterson administration would be like–a plaything for Albany insiders and interests.

This lobbying office idea builds on Shorris’s brave actions. It recognizes the plague of influence-peddling that afflicts state government and creates a buffer that will turn Feathers into a memo writer. Let’s see how much charm he can squeeze into a paragraph. Can he make a semi-colon look like a wink?

Andrew Cuomo is a wary, wary insider himself, who at 25 was his father’s special adviser, in charging of smoking out wirepullers and finaglers. He has shared whispers in every stairwell in the Capitol. No one knows better than him that James Featherstonhaugh is not just a citizen petitioning his government. No one knows better than him that the public pricetag for Albany schmoozes is unsustainable, and that the time has come to draw a line in the corridor.

Research assistance: Lily Altavena, Samantha Cook, Ryan Gellis, Puneet Parhar

wbarrett@villagevoice.com

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