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Lobbying firms register with Nassau under new disclosure rules

Alfonse D'Amato is shown in this photo taken

Alfonse D'Amato is shown in this photo taken in Manhattan on January 5, 2015. Credit: John Roca

Ten lobbying firms and nine companies with in-house lobbyists have registered with Nassau County during the first six months of its new disclosure requirements -- with most focusing their efforts on County Executive Edward Mangano's office.

Among the 19 businesses, 67 individual lobbyists have registered since June on behalf of 54 clients, including labor unions, large builders and county contractors, online records show.

Those clients include Forest City Ratner, the Brooklyn company leading the $260 million Nassau Coliseum renovations; KPMG, the financial advisers that want to help the county lease its sprawling sewer system to private investors for as much as $800 million; and American Traffic Solutions, the operators of the county's red-light camera program, which typically gets more than $5 million annually in ticket revenue.

Former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's Park Strategies is the largest local lobbyist, with 20 clients, followed by the nine clients claimed by Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, where former Democratic county Legis. Michael Zapson is one of several politically connected partners. Companies that registered to use their own lobbyists -- for some, in addition to hiring outside firms -- include Aetna, which provides health benefits to county employees, and Uber, the app-based transportation service seeking to expand into Nassau.

Skelos arrests led to change

While many of the lobbyists have operated in Nassau for years -- and have disclosed activity with New York State -- they never before had to register locally. The change was prompted by the May arrests of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, on federal corruption charges partially related to a $12 million county contract.

No county officials were charged with wrongdoing, but federal prosecutors allege that Dean and Adam Skelos improperly influenced the awarding of the contract to an environmental company as a way to get Adam Skelos more money from the company -- which had hired him as a consultant.

Adam Skelos was not registered with the state as a lobbyist, and county lawmakers said they didn't know he had often contacted county officials before the contract's 2013 approval.

After the case became public, Mangano, a Republican, issued executive orders, later passed into law by the county legislature, that established the lobbyist registry and required lobbying disclosure with each contract given to lawmakers.

"County Executive Mangano's requirements for lobbyist registration and disclosure have added an additional layer of transparency to the governmental process," said Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin. "No appointment is held or legislation discussed unless the lobbyist is registered with Nassau."

All but one of the 19 entities that have registered so far listed Mangano's office as one of its expected lobbying targets. Fifteen registrants also listed the Nassau County Legislature.

"Nassau's new system is very beneficial to the public because it provides more disclosures about the firms we do business with than any other county in the state," Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said in a statement.

'We had nothing'

But Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said the system doesn't go far enough. He said he'd like to see lobbyists detail all phone calls and emails they have with officials to determine their influence on the bidding process.

"The registry, to be fair, is better than what we had," he said. "But we had nothing."

Abrahams said he believes that even if the new requirements had been in place when Adam Skelos was contacting officials, the vendor that he represented may have been able to withhold his role because he was technically a "consultant."

County officials, however, said that disclosures are required for all "lobbying activity," regardless of company title.

In addition to registering, firms also must report their compensation from listed clients. For the first period of June 1 to Aug. 31, the lobbyists reported being paid a total of $336,000, led by $123,000 billed by Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, which is based in Garden City.

The firm's nine clients listed on its county registry include the New York Cosmos soccer team, which is seeking to build a stadium on state property in Elmont; the Nassau County Village Officials Association, which advocates for state and county aid, and the nonprofit Family Residences & Essential Enterprises Inc., which for years has received grant-funded county contracts to provide various mental health services.

"Our experience so far is that county officials have been very diligent in making sure that we have registered our clients that we contact them about," said Stephen Malito, Davidoff's government relations chairman.

Manhattan-based Park Strategies, which is also one of the larger state lobbyists, filed in Nassau to represent 20 clients, including Forest City Ratner (which also registered its own employees as lobbyists); Gannett Fleming Engineers, which has won more than $6 million in county contracts since 2011, mostly to design and oversee wastewater treatment plant improvements; and Allvision, a company that was poised to erect large electronic billboards across Nassau before the project stalled earlier this year.

System largely paper-based

On its first quarterly statement, Park reported $79,000 in billings, including $15,000 from Nassau Events Center, which Forest City Ratner set up for the purposes of the Coliseum redevelopment project. Nassau Events Center this spring received county approval to partially finance the $260 million plan with foreign investments.

Dana Sanneman, a Park spokeswoman, said in a statement that the firm was pleased Nassau had started a system that "assists government in becoming more transparent." But she said one drawback of the county's system is that it is largely paper-based, rather than allowing for online filing as does New York State, which she called "more user-friendly."

Currently, the county posts scanned copies of filed reports on its website, but users cannot easily search for or cross-reference specific clients or lobbyists, as they can with the state system. For example, without clicking into each report, they'd be unable to determine that Albany-based Ostroff Associates represents American Traffic Solutions, the county's red-light camera vendor -- which also ran the short-lived school-zone speed-camera program -- or that Uber, which has its own filing, is also represented in a filing by Craig Johnson, a former Democratic state senator and Nassau County legislator.

Despite the system's early limitations, Johnson said it's an important step for Nassau.

"When I was an elected official, I believed in transparency, so I think it's a good thing to have," said Johnson, who reported being paid $1,000 earlier this year to meet with county officials about its new Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has mulled regulating Uber and other ride-sharing services.

For lobbyists, "this is not a very onerous system, frankly," he said. "All they're asking us to do is disclose who we represent. It's not really hard to do."


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