The Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group that is one of the biggest lobbying and campaign spenders in New York State, filed suit against tenant leader Michael McKee on Wednesday alleging he defamed RSA in statements about its 2010 campaign contributions.
RSA alleges that at a City Council meeting in May, McKee testified that RSA had “promised” $150,000 contributions to three state senators if they agreed to vote down two tenant-friendly bills that had managed to get to the floor in Albany eight years ago.
In addition to McKee, the suit includes the Metropolitan Council on Housing, the Real Rent Reform Campaign and TenantsPAC, where McKee is treasurer, as defendants, on the basis that McKee was speaking on their behalf. RSA seeks $40 million in damages, claiming McKee intended “to expose RSA to public contempt, ridicule, aversion, disgrace, hatred, distrust and contempt.”
TenantsPAC, a state political action committee, typically supports candidates who take housing positions contrary to RSA. It spent a total of $158,000 on operating and campaign-related expenses between 2016 and 2017, state election records show.
The 2010 bills in question sent waves of panic through the inboxes of real estate industry lobbyists. Emails included as evidence in the corruption trial of former State Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos capture one particuarly dramatic exchange about the bills between two lobbyists for Glenwood Management. “Albany. All hell breaking loose,” the email reads. “Liz Kreuger and [Dan] Squadron moving bad bills to the floor. [John] Sampson fucking us. They don’t have the votes but terrible precedent giving those bills credibility. We may have stopped them.”
The bills included a measure to require landlords to better document how they use apartment improvements to deregulate stabilized apartments and another measure that would have reformed preferential rents, a tactic that allows landlords to increase rent in a given year by much more than the annual Rent Guidelines Board rules normally allow. The bills did not pass the Senate.
Reached by phone, McKee did not back down from his comments about RSA. “They bought off three Democratic Senators,” he said, referencing David Valesky and two former state senators, Darrel Aubertine and Craig Johnson, who all voted no on the bills. “This is just sheer harassment.”
In 2016, RSA spent $3.6 million on lobbying, making it the largest single lobbying force in the New York State that year. It also spent more than $1 million on state-level campaign contributions that year between its two associated political action committees, election records show. A representative for the RSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When asked whether he could prove that RSA explicitly promised the three senators $150,000 contributions in return for specific votes, McKee said, “That will be a very interesting issue to play out in court. Bring it on.”