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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Lobbyist hire sparks friction in Suffolk Legislature

A lobbying firm headed by Islip Democratic Party chairman Luis Montes has started work, buttonholing state officials in Albany on behalf of the Suffolk County Legislature.

However, some county lawmakers say they weren't even aware a $24,900-a-year contract with Long Island Government Relations was consummated or that work was underway in the state capital.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) executed the one-year agreement on Jan. 4 without seeking a procedural vote of the legislature as he originally had planned when the idea of hiring lobbyists surfaced late last year.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), majority leader, said she was “totally unaware” Gregory had signed a contract. Hahn, an opponent of the idea, said, “If we lobby separately from the county executive, will our lobbying be at cross-purposes so neither of us get what we want?”

Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he also was unaware of the hiring, but took no position on Gregory’s action. But Krupski asked: “If we hire someone, what is the agenda going to be? We should all have a say, all 18.”

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the GOP caucus leader, called the contract a “complete waste of taxpayer money.” Cilmi said Gregory may have acted alone “because it’s entirely plausible … a majority of the legislature would have balked at the idea.”

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), deputy presiding officer, said he believes Gregory would have had the votes for passage. He said Gregory acted on his own because he wanted to get a lobbying firm on board quickly for a state legislative session in which lawmakers are moving fast on a range of legislation affecting Suffolk.

Under legislative rules, Gregory is empowered “to execute contracts for day-to-day operations and administration of the county legislature without additional . . . authorization.”

Gregory said the county comptroller said he needed at least three proposals from lobbying firms and could act without a vote if the contract was under $25,000. Gregory said he reached out to seven firms and got six proposals.

He said while the county executive’s office in the past has done Suffolk’s lobbying in Albany and Washington, D.C., “it’s important for us to know what’s going on. We’re the policymaking branch of the government, but we’ve had no input.”

Gregory said Bellone aides have talked for a year with Airbnb about legislation to change the hotel-motel room tax that could allow the county collect up to $1.2 million in revenue. Gregory said lawmakers knew nothing about the discussions until recently.  

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman said the county executive's office has given the legislature monthly reports on all lobbying activities.

Kaiman, who is involved in Bellone’s lobbying efforts, said he defers to the presiding officer on the issue of hiring legislative lobbyists. Kaiman said he would work with anyone the legislature hires and try to update them on lobbying efforts.

Cilmi, meanwhile, has raised the specter of patronage, saying the effort to hire legislative lobbyists was motivated by a need to “write a check for someone who needs an additional check.”

Gregory countered that Long Island Government Relations is bipartisan. He said Montes has credentials as Bellone’s former top Albany lobbyist and his partner, Republican Steve Moll, served as an aide to the late GOP Assemb. Robert Wertz.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, said Gregory “just wants to make sure the legislature is pitching in and helping the county in every way possible.”

Schaffer said Montes “knows all the staff people for [Assembly Speaker Carl] Heastie and [Senate Majority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins. His ability to open doors and get access is tremendous.”

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