Al D'Amato's influence broadens as his Park Strategies firm grows
ALBANY -- The consulting firm headed by former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has quickly become one of the fastest rising lobbying outfits in New York, absorbing other companies and adding experienced political hands from either major political party.
A Newsday review of lobby records shows D'Amato's firm, Park Strategies, earned $5.9 million on lobbying in 2013 -- a 60 percent jump from the year before and a 150 percent increase from 2011. That likely will place Park Strategies in the top five companies when the annual state lobbying report is published in March.
Insiders say D'Amato, as a former Republican senator, has the clout to get calls returned 15 years after leaving office -- some think his firm has the power to block legislation in some cases. But they add that his focus seems to be more about expanding his business than influencing politics.
"He's the lobbyist you never see, but you feel the presence," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, one of the few lobbyists who agreed to speak on the record about the former senator. "He's wired everywhere. The influence stems from his business -- he has so many contacts. He's not only the former senator from New York, he's a major lobbying player."
D'Amato, now 76, has rapidly expanded his business at a time when others his age would have retired.
"I got a 4-year-old and 6-year old -- I can't retire," D'Amato said in an interview, laughing. He said he still very much wants to be involved in the intersection of politics and business.
"I think it's a drive to be the best we can and it's fun," he said. "I love it."
D'Amato has had a Washington lobbying business since leaving office. In the last two years, his New York arm has mushroomed. Late in 2012, Park Strategies merged with Capitol Public Strategies, an Albany-based firm filled with top aides from ex-Gov. George Pataki's administration, such as David Catalfamo (Pataki's former communications director) and Ryan Moses (former state Republican Party executive director).
Tighter ties to Albany
Park also added Fred Hiffa, a former Republican Assembly staffer. Hiffa, before joining Park, was a principal in another huge Albany-based firm, Ostroff-Hiffa, which ranked No. 9 in New York lobbying firms in 2012. D'Amato also recently hired Juanita Scarlett, a former aide to Democratic Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer and Mario Cuomo.
The firm also has other Democrats as lobbyists, including former Assembly Speaker Mel Miller and former Nassau Deputy County Executive Anthony Cancellieri.
"They've greatly improved the visibility they have in Albany over the last couple of years," said one political consultant who asked not to be named. "They'll have an impact."
Another Republican lobbyist said the acquisitions showed Park had to beef up its state government presence with fresh faces in part because D'Amato left government in 1998. The new additions have stronger ties with current state and local government officials, the source said.
As a result, Park Strategies had contracts with more than 100 clients in 2013.
Seventeen companies paid the firm at least $100,000, led by Veolia Transportation Services. The company, which runs the Nassau County bus service, paid Park $300,000 last year.
Other significant Long Island-based contracts included Nassau Health Care Corp. ($160,000), North Shore-LIJ Health System ($140,000), Brookhaven Memorial Hospital ($120,000), Long Island Compost ($95,000) and the new Nassau Events Center ($60,000), which will run the renovated Nassau Coliseum.
The company represents numerous gambling interests or communities that host gambling, such as Nassau Off-Track Betting Corp. ($96,000), Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp. ($50,000), the Stronach Group ($110,000), GCI Technologies ($90,000) and Madison County ($60,000).
Bipartisan strategic advice
D'Amato said most of Park Strategies' income isn't from lobbying but rather "strategic advice," "designing programs" and offering expert testimony.
"It gives us great reach and it gives us depth," D'Amato said of the expansion. "For a long time, we were viewed as a Republican firm. That makes you less effective. People said: 'The governor, the attorney general, the comptroller. They're all Democrats. How you gonna talk to them?' We were able to dispel . . . [the Republican label]. We have geographic and political diversification."
One longtime lobbyist said D'Amato is "no longer a hard-core Republican. He's a businessman" who appeals to both sides of the political aisle.
"D'Amato has found a way to continue to make himself relevant," the Democratic lobbyist said. "I keep thinking sooner or later the bloom is going to be off the rose. But he keeps going."
D'Amato said he plays a different role now.
"Am I less partisan? Yes, the nature of my business demands I be," he said. "If my clients viewed me strictly a partisan Republican, I would not be looked upon as someone who should give them advice. If I allow my party politics to guide my viewpoint, I could damage my clients. I can't afford to do that."
D'Amato has been a high-profile supporter of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and has endorsed Cuomo for re-election, to the chagrin of some Republicans. One insider said the two talk often.
"I can support the governor because as it relates to business, it's been good. As it relates to the taxpayers, it's been good," D'Amato said. "Some of the partisan Republicans may be upset with me. That's their right."
D'Amato said he was "very proud of the fact" that he had a good working relationship with Cuomo, including in Washington when he was a senator and Cuomo was federal housing secretary.
He said he continues to support "good Republicans," such as Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).
When D'Amato endorsed Cuomo earlier this year, state Republican chairman Ed Cox sought to dismiss the move as business-related. "As Senator D'Amato has said on many occasions, he's a businessman now and it's all business with him," Cox said at the time.
Once a kingmaker
During his run in the Senate from 1983 to '98, D'Amato was the most powerful Republican in the state. He was seen as GOP kingmaker when in 1994 he picked George Pataki, then an obscure state senator, to successfully challenge then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. But Pataki has been the only Republican in the last two decades to win a statewide race. D'Amato himself was defeated by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 1998.
Some Republicans said other party members want D'Amato to be as involved as he was in the 1990s. He said he won't be, but he's still a fundraiser and adviser. "I don't know the last serious candidate who didn't want to talk to him," said one Republican who's worked on many campaigns.
Others said D'Amato isn't driving campaigns anymore but instead hopping on campaign trains. And they point out he's made "bad bets" in some recent contests, such as backing Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, for president in 2008, and Bill Thompson, a Democrat, for New York mayor last year.
D'Amato said he's still involved in politics, but downplayed the degree.
"I would say my political activity, as it relates to fundraising, has diminished," he said. "At the time, I was an elected Republican official. I had a responsibility to help my constituents first, but also my party. There was a greater loyalty that was expected of me and I fulfilled it. My role today is much, much diminished."
Some believe the former senator's reach into state policy goes too far. In 2012, the unlikely allegiance of anti-smoking activists and cigarette companies pushed for a higher tax on roll-your-own cigarettes. The Democratic-led Assembly passed the bill, but the Republican-controlled Senate adjourned without taking it up. Activists contended Park Strategies, which was being paid $10,000 per month by an Ohio-based loose-tobacco supplier, blocked the bill.
"It's impossible to know what happened, but apparently one company with a $10,000-a-month lobbyist was able to block a bill," said Russ Sciandra, then-state director of the American Cancer Society.
D'Amato countered that the tax hike "would have put those guys out of business and I thought that was wrong."
"I don't know that we did anything improper," D'Amato said. "Look, all I can hope for is to get a fair hearing. We don't always get our way . . . but we are fierce advocates."
"You can't make a pig fly, but you get a hearing," he said. "That's made us effective."