Ethics committee holds hearing Thursday amid questions about lobby group

Jun 7, 2012

A lobbying group closely allied with the policies of Governor Andrew Cuomo has been in the news a lot in the past couple of days, in articles raising questions about  multi-million dollar donations to the group known as the Committee to Save New York,  and policies later advocated by the governor.

The New York Times first reported that the gambling conglomerate Genting donated over $2 million dollars to the committee, just weeks before Cuomo made Genting’s plan to build a casino and convention center in Queens the centerpiece of his State of the State plan.

The Buffalo News reports that a major Buffalo business association solicited nearly one million dollars in 2011 in bundled donations for the Committee to Save New York. Cuomo awarded Buffalo one billion dollars in economic development grants in his State of the State, the only upstate city to receive such a large sum.

The Committee to Save New York has made public, under state lobbying disclosure rules , that they’ve spent over $12 million on advertising and other promotions of Cuomo’s policy agenda, including a property tax cap and budget cuts. The group, which has registered as a not for profit 501C-4, spent more than any other lobbying entity in 2011. But under current rules, 501 C-4s do not have to publicly say who gave them donations to carry out the promotional campaign.

The newspaper reports come as the recently formed state ethics commission, known as JCOPE, is holding a hearing on new rules to require greater disclosure from 501C-4 groups as well as more conventional lobbyists.  

The New York Public Interest Research Group’s Russ Haven plans to testify at the hearing. He says the use of 501C-4s to advance political and public  policy ideas isn’t new; health care organizations have used them.  But he says what’s different about the Committee to Save New York is that instead of being against politicians’ policies, it is in lock step with them.

“Often it was groups joining forces to do battle with the governor,” Haven said. “So this is new.”

The Wall Street journal reports that even before Genting made the two million dollars in donations to the Committee to Save New York, top company executives pitched their idea to Cuomo with a slide presentation at a private fundraiser held for the governor in Westchester County last October.

Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, says it’s “disquieting” that the Genting presentation took place at a fundraiser. She says the revelations  contribute to an atmosphere of cynicism and skepticism and raise questions about a pay-to-play culture in New York .

“It seems as if the price of getting the governor’s ear is a campaign contribution,” Lerneer said. “And ordinary New Yorkers don’t have the price of admission.”

Lerner, who also plans to speak at Thursday’s ethics commission hearing, says full disclosure is necessary, as soon as possible.

“The least we can do is have complete transparency,” Lerner said.

Haven, with NYPIRG, believes, based on his study of the new law that set up the ethics commission, that the public  likely won’t see details of any donations to the Committee to Save New York from 2011. He predicts JCOPE will be limited to requiring only new donor information going forward, or at the most, donations that occurred in this calendar year.

Earlier this week, Cuomo said talks between  Genting and his administration over the Queens convention center had broken down, and he would now wait until expanded gambling is actually legalized in New York state, then take open bids to operate casinos and build convention centers.