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Connections can mean business for some lobbyists, records show

In New York's $261 million lobbying industry, observers say, there are always firms that attract clients and higher fees at least in part because of their relationships with state officials.

The Capitol in Albany before sunrise on the

The Capitol in Albany before sunrise on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session on Jan. 9. Photo Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Among the lobbying firms that special interests can choose from in Albany are one whose partner is the father of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s chief of staff, another whose founder was the college roommate of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and another whose directors include the son of a veteran senator in the Senate majority.

The three firms — Bolton St.-Johns, Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates and the Parkside Group — are enjoying some good years, according to an annual lobbying report released last month and monthly filings.

Patrick Jenkins and Associates grew from $37,500 in 2014 before Heastie, Jenkins' former college roommate, was elected speaker to $2.57 million in 2018, according to state lobbying records. And Parkside Group is on track for $2.9 million in compensation this year, from $1.9 million in 2017 before the firm's longtime political clients, the Senate Democratic conference, won majority control of the chamber, according to state records.

Bolton St.-Johns has for decades been a major player in New York lobbying. Since Melissa DeRosa, daughter of Bolton partner Giorgio DeRosa, joined the Cuomo administration in 2013, Bolton’s compensation rose from $5.61 million in 2012 to $9.66 million in 2018, according to state records. From 2011 to 2012 — the start of the Cuomo administration — Bolton's compensation rose from $4.86 million to $5.61 million.

A dozen lobbyists and legislators said these three firms are among what one veteran lobbyist called "the flavors of month" in New York’s $261 million lobbying industry — firms that attract clients and higher fees at least in part because of their relationships with state officials.

There always have been a few lobbying firms with such relationships, which can ebb and flow with whomever is in power. But outside the system, there is concern.

“It may be that money doesn’t buy politicians, but it certainly buys access and people without money don’t have that access,” said Peter Galie, professor emeritus of political science at Canisius College. "Then you’re in the catbird seat.”

"The appearance of power is a form of power,” Galie said. “Such relationships are perceived as such by clients even if they know — at some level — there are no guarantees.”

None of this is illegal. The state Public Officers Law generally warns no official can act in a way to “give a reasonable basis for the impression that any person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor." The value of relationships between lobbyists and elected officials was at the heart of one of Albany’s biggest recent scandals. Two former aides to Cuomo became lobbyists for developers who wanted to curry favor for parts of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion project, only to end up in prison after being convicted in a federal bid-rigging and influence peddling case in 2018. Cuomo wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.

Both Jenkins and Heastie credit the growth of Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates to a strong work ethic and both deny any favoritism.

“It's no secret they have been best friends since college, and Patrick is one of the very best in the business in his own right,” said Heastie spokesman Michael Whyland. Jenkins “has worked in all levels of government and his knowledge of the issues is very extensive. The speaker always looks at issues based on merits and the will of the members of the Assembly majority.”

“I would be naive if I thought that some people didn’t reach out as a result of knowing my relationship with the speaker,” Jenkins said. “But the results that they get I would say has more to do with it than that relationship.”

“I think I work harder because my best friend is the speaker,” Jenkins said in an interview. “I have to build support for my issues and make a solid case, because I feel the responsibility that he has. Also, more eyes are on what I do.”

The Parkside Group partners include Evan Stavisky, son of Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Queens), who has been in the Senate since 1999. The firm has been associated with the Democrats who long had been in the Senate’s minority and worked on their campaigns. In the 2018 elections, Democrats won majority control of the Senate for the 2019-20 session. Parkside’s 2019 lobbying revenue is on track for a 23 percent increase this year after gaining 5 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to lobbying reports.

Meanwhile, the entire state lobbying community grew by just under 6 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Evan Stavisky of Parkside said the firm declines to handle higher education issues because his mother is the Senate Higher Education Committee chairman. He said the firm also declines to handle banking issues because his brother-in-law is Assembly Banking Committee Chairman Kenneth Zebrowski.

“Smart people who want to have their voices heard in the Capitol pay attention to the changes,” Evan Stavisky said. “I think the days of smoke-filled rooms is passed. Your access is directly tied to how well you are able to build coalitions, frame a message and develop the right strategy to advance your agenda.”

Bolton-St. Johns was the third biggest lobbying firm in 2108 statewide. The Albany office of the firm, which also lobbies in New York City, was opened in 1996 by Giorgio DeRosa, who is now a partner. His son, Joseph, joined the Albany office in 2014 after working six years for the state Energy Research and Development Authority, beginning before Cuomo took office.

"Bolton-St. Johns for two decades has been a top five lobbying firm in New York, regardless of which administration or party was in control at the state and city levels,” said Mike Keogh, a partner and general counsel for Bolton. “Clients hire our firm to tap into our diverse insights and policy expertise that inform effective results-oriented strategies.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Melissa DeRosa doesn’t handle any issues in which her father directly lobbies, although the administration works with other lobbyists in Bolton-St. Johns. State lobbying client records show that Melissa DeRosa recused herself from handling issues on which her father directly lobbies, including gaming, a health care client and some labor unions.

"This is not a new issue for me — my father went into this line of work nearly 30 years ago, and I have been involved in government and politics for a decade and a half," Melissa DeRosa said. "I have fully complied with the public officers law recusal policy for years and worked with JCOPE to ensure the highest standards are met to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. I feel honored to serve the people of this state and it's a responsibility I do not take lightly."

A lobbyist who asked not to be identified, who works for another firm that has worked on projects with Bolton, said Giorgio DeRosa had mentioned his daughter’s role with Cuomo  at many meetings of clients and lobbying firms, but never made promises of action by her or the administration. Another lobbyist for a competing firm who also asked not to be identified said clients “put two and two together” to pick Bolton because of the Melissa DeRosa connection, but that because Bolton and the Cuomo administration are so careful not to exploit the relationship, the firm might not have the access the client perceived.

“Nothing needs to be said,” said a former government official now working in the lobbying world of lobbying firms with connections. “It may get you a good meeting, and that can be 90 percent of it.”

 Bolten said Giorgio DeRosa tells clients directly that hiring the firm won't provide special access or influence with Melissa DeRosa. 

Bolton, in statements to Newsday, noted that much of its recent growth has been for its lobbying of New York City Hall. Records show that of Bolton’s $9.6 million in total compensation in 2018, $4.5 million was for lobbying New York City. Bolton’s state-only lobbying while Melissa DeRosa worked for Cuomo increased from $3.22 million in 2012, before she joined, to $5.11 million in 2018, according to state lobbying records.

Bolton-St. Johns said that since the end of the recession, lobbying is up for most firms and two firms remain larger than Bolton with greater growth. Azzopardi noted this period also included a down year for Bolton; in 2017, Bolton's compensation dropped $300,288 to $8,516,843. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics said 2017 was a flat year for lobbying, when three other firms among the top 10 lobbyists also saw a drop in compensation.

The lobbying industry in New York has seen tremendous growth over the last decade, with some long established firms growing bigger than Bolton, Parkside and Jenkins. For example, one of New York’s biggest firms, Brown & Weinraub — founded by former advisers to Gov. Mario Cuomo and which now boasts a legion of former government officials — grew 212 percent in compensation from 2012 to 2018, This year the firm hired former Cuomo top aide, Howard Glaser, and former Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) along with a former Senate attorney.

The James F. Capalino & Associates firm, which primarily lobbies New York City, grew by 170 percent. Mercury Public Affairs grew 169 percent and its staff includes longtime Cuomo aide Charlie King and former Sen. Jeffrey Klein (R-Bronx), a Cuomo ally. Pitta, Bishop & Del Giorno, another firm focused on New York City, grew at 160 percent, and is the state’s biggest firm in terms of compensation. Kasirer LLC, another firm focused primarily on New York City, grew 112 percent. 

From the period 2013 to 2018, which would include the Patrick B. Jenkins firm, Jenkins grew 792 percent, Brown grew 140 percent, Capalino grew 133 percent, Mercury grew 117 percent, Kasirer grew 99 percent, Ostroff Associates grew 89 percent and Bolton-St. Johns grew 64 percent.

For some firms with connections with elected officials, the benefit can often be brief, and many lobbying firms have declined, reformed, or folded when their political patron lost power. Patricia Lynch Associates had a meteoric start in 2001 when she left her post as top adviser to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, but has since dropped well off the top five firms since Silver was charged and convicted of corruption. Lobbyists close to former Gov. George Pataki and former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno experienced similar short-term boons.

“The public should be concerned because it’s a big money game and unless you are part of the big-money system you don’t hire the big-money lobbyists,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Lobbyists say the history of connected lobbyists is based more on perception than reality.

"I think there is a perception that some people have better access than others, and sometimes that directs who gets hired,” said James D. Featherstonhaugh, a longtime lobbying figure in state government. “There were some years I was the flavor of the month, [but] at the end of the day I have found very, very few legislators who will do anything substantive for someone just because they are pals with them” 

CORRECTION: Bolton St.-Johns' compensation dropped $300,288 to $8,516,843 in 2017, and the Parkside Group's 2019 lobbying revenue is on track for a 23 percent increase this year. An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect dollar amount for Bolton's compensation decrease and an incorrect year for Parkside's lobbying revenue.

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