The Real Deal New York

The influence traders

A look at some of the biggest lobbying firms representing real estate
players in City Hall and Albany

March 01, 2015
By Rich Bockmann

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The federal charges against former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver provide a window into the inner workings of a cast of characters, ranging from a cancer researcher at Columbia University to a parade of lawyers. But also mentioned in the complaint are lobbyists, who roam the halls of the state capitol and play an outsize role in what legislation gets passed and which projects get green-lighted.

The complaint against Silver, which was brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, outlines how lobbyists served as the middlemen, going back and forth from the now-disgraced Assembly speaker, to a law firm that was allegedly paying him kickbacks and a pair of unnamed real estate developers, one of whom was since identified in the media as Glenwood Management’s Leonard Litwin.

Meanwhile, the New York Post identified Litwin’s lobbyist as 63-year old Brian Meara, an Albany power broker whose ties to Silver date back to the 1970s, when they worked together in Manhattan Civil Court. Between 2007 and the first half of 2014, Glenwood paid Meara’s firm $745,000 in consulting fees, according to lobbyist disclosures with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

And while Meara’s influence is undeniable, he is but one of thousands of lobbyists in Albany and Manhattan.

The real estate and construction industries spent $166.3 million on lobbying on the state and city levels from 2007 through the first half of 2014, according to a review by The Real Deal of the disclosures, the most recent available. That was 12.5 percent of the $1.3 billion spent on lobbying during that time period — and second only to the health and mental hygiene industry, which poured $227.9 million into lobbying.

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It’s also clear from the disclosures that real estate firms, like companies in other industries, often hire multiple lobbying specialists at the same time, depending on the projects and policies they are pushing for.

One developer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that what lobbyists provide is access, and a client chooses a lobby shop based on who has the best relationship with the official whose approval they seek.

“They have the access because they know the electeds. They can get developers in front of them,” the developer said. “Once you’re in to talk to the elected, it’s all up to the merit of what you’re seeking. [Lobbyists] are just getting you in the door.”

And in addition to hiring outside lobbying firms, most of the city’s biggest landlords — Vornado Realty Trust, Tishman Speyer and Related Companies, to name a few — have in-house lobbyists and government affairs experts of their own. Many of the staffers in those jobs have worked for the city or state in the past and are plugged into the inner workings of the legislative process and, of course, the key players.

At Forest City Ratner, for example, the person running the external affairs department is Ashley Cotton, a former campaigner for Andrew Cuomo’s attorney general bid who went on to work for the New York City Economic Development Corp. and the Bloomberg administration.

Related has Jay Kriegel, a former television executive and public relations specialist who served in Mayor John Lindsay’s administration, and Charles O’Byrne, who served as chief of staff to Gov. David Patterson.

And at the Durst Organization, Jordan Barowitz, formerly the top spokesperson for the Bloomberg administration, is the point person when it comes to pushing the company’s projects with the city.

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.51.29 AMBarowitz, Durst’s director of media relations and government affairs, ushered the company’s 709-unit West 57th Street “pyramid” rental building through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review, for instance, and is working on a proposed development at Hallets Point in Queens.

Even the Real Estate Board of New York — the industry’s chief lobbyist itself — outsources some of its lobbying to law firms, including Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, which has offices in both Manhattan and Albany, and government relations specialists 99 Solutions.

Below is a look at some of the biggest lobbyists representing real estate players in the halls of City Hall and the state Capitol.

Kasirer Consulting

Suri Kasirer’s eponymous firm has been the top-grossing lobbying shop in the city for a decade. The firm raked in $3.7 million from real estate clients alone in 2013 and the first half of 2014 — more than any other industry lobbyist in the city or state.

Kasirer rose to prominence during the Bloomberg years representing real estate players like SL Green and the Elad Group, along with mega-clients like Cemusa, the Spanish firm that was awarded a $1 billion-plus contract to build new bus shelters.

And in addition to lobbying, she has also established herself as a formidable fund-raiser, most notably for  Bill Thompson, a former city comptroller and mayoral candidate.

Sources say she’s dogged on behalf of her clients, which also include Vornado and Related.

Kasirer told TRD real estate is “maybe 50 percent of our business,” and said that the firm specializes in guiding developers through ULURP.

In recent years, Kasirer lobbied on behalf of Cornell University in its successful bid to build a tech campus on Roosevelt Island and for Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.

The company is also advising the Howard Hughes Corp. on the highly anticipated
and controversial plan to redevelop the South Street Seaport and surrounding area in Lower Manhattan.

She is also one half of a political powerhouse marriage: Her husband, Bruce Teitelbaum, served as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s chief of staff.

Her team, she said, consists of three senior lobbyists, two junior staffers and two supporting employees.

Kasirer’s own career stretches back to her days as a special assistant to former Gov. Mario Cuomo and she said a background working in government is key to being an effective lobbyist.

“I only hire people who have been in government and politics at a senior level,” she said.

In 2009, Kasirer addressed the lobbying industry’s “bad rap.”

“Some of the perception of what lobbyists do is that they’re sitting in a smoke-filled back hall making a deal giving some kind of quid pro quo for the special interests,” she said. “The reality is, nobody is going to support your project as a favor to you. These things are too complicated, and there’s too much at stake.”

Capalino & Company

Jim Capalino earned his political chops under Ed Koch, working in Koch’s congressional office, on his mayoral campaign and in his administration, as commissioner of the city Department of General Services.

But he had a foot in the real estate world, too. In the mid-1980s, while Koch was still helming the city, Capalino did a three-year stint as a broker at the commercial firm Edward S. Gordon Company, which later became CBRE in New York. He would go on to partner with Forest City Ratner and later head operations at AJ Contracting.

His Manhattan-based firm, Capalino & Company, founded in 2000, employs nearly two dozen lobbyists, including a real estate practice headed by former Cassidy Turley vice president Tim Kucha. The company brought in $2.9 million from real estate in 2013 and the first half of 2014, public filings show.

The firm represents Argent Ventures, the landlord of Grand Central Terminal, in regard to air rights matters and the proposed East Side rezoning, as well as Atlas Capital in its plans to develop the St. John’s Terminal building in Soho.

Last year, the company represented the Fortis Property Group in its successful bid to redevelop Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital.

Patricia Lynch Associates

In Albany, Patricia Lynch is a known lobbying powerhouse. And like her counterparts, she too got her start in the land of legislators.

She worked as a top aide to a pair of members of Congress before heading to Albany, where she was communications director for the now-embattled Silver for most of the 1990s.

Lynch launched her firm in 2001 and, as the New York Times noted in 2010, has had “a hand in virtually every significant legislative issue in recent years.”

On the real estate front, she played a major role in killing the New York Jets’ proposal to build a football stadium on Manhattan’s Far West Side and helped secure a huge public works contract to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. The firm counts Vornado, Related and Thor Equities as clients.

But Lynch’s business has taken a hit over the past few years amid ethics and tax tangles, and insiders are now wondering if her influence will wane with Silver out of power.

The firm brought in $1.5 million from real estate in 2013 and the first half of 2014, but overall her business was down a little more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2013.

In 2010, she agreed to pay the state $500,000 after then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo accused her of providing gifts and campaign contributions to Comptroller Alan Hevesi in return for favorable policies on pension fund investments for her clients. (Hevesi served 20 months in prison as part of a kickback scandal involving the state’s pension fund.)

In recent years, the IRS hit Lynch’s firm with at least three tax liens for unpaid federal payroll taxes totaling about $1.5 million. Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.

Constantinople & Vallone Consulting

His name may get second billing, but Peter Vallone Sr. carries serious political clout as the longtime former City Council speaker — and the patriarch of a political dynasty in his home borough of Queens.

Not only did he serve as the first Council speaker from 1986 through 2001, but his son, Peter Vallone Jr., served there from 2002 through 2013. His grandson, Paul Vallone, is now a member of the Council as well. 

The eldest Vallone and partner Tony Constantinople run a firm of seven out of their office in Manhattan. The firm, which brought in $1.3 million from real estate during the 2013–2014 time period, has a strong Queens base, with clients including construction contractors TA Ahern of Woodside and Mega Contracting of Astoria.

Constantinople & Vallone has lobbied on behalf of Hidrock Realty’s 320-room hotel at 133 Greenwich Street. Other real estate clients include Sheldon Solow’s Solow Management, Bizzi & Partners and the Sapir Organization.

Like the council, the firm is something of a family
affair, too.

Vallone’s son, Perry, is a company principal. He previously worked in the real estate division of New Jersey law firm Greenbaum Rowe and Smith and later as an in-house attorney for the national homebuilder K. Hovnanian Homes.

Connelly, McLaughlin & Woloz

The three named partners in this outfit are either former journalists or spokespeople, so it makes sense the firm is a hybrid of a public affairs-lobbying company and a public-relations firm.

The company, which is headquartered in the Woolworth Building across the street from City Hall, employs six specialists and logged $626,000 in business from real estate last year.

Principal Michael Woloz, who worked under Vallone Sr., said the firm’s two-pronged approach is especially helpful when it comes to dealing with large and complicated real estate projects.

“I’d say almost any real estate project in New York City has some element of controversy to it,  because there are communities to work with and concerns to address,” he said. “We’re able to put all the pieces together in that sort of public affairs context,” Woloz said.

The firm’s real estate division is headed by Kathleen Cudahy, who served as legislative counsel to the City Council speaker and as a policy advisor and strategist in Bloomberg’s 2001 campaign for mayor, according to her bio on the firm’s website. Her profile states she’s managed real estate accounts including Vornado, RFR, Chetrit Group, and Stellar Management. She also lobbied on behalf of Tishman Speyer, as it dealt with pushback from Stuyvesant Town tenants when the company attempted to deregulate rent-stabilized apartments.

Geto & de Milly

Another hybrid firm, Geto & de Milly, specializes in lobbying and media strategy.

The Fifth Avenue–based company was founded by Ethan Geto, who worked with former Bronx Borough President and state Attorney General Robert Abrams, along with Michelle de Milly, the media specialist who worked at the forerunner to the state’s Empire State Development Corp.

The company worked to gain community support and lobby on behalf of Zeckendorf Development for 15 Central Park West and guided Toll Brothers through ULURP for its proposed 450-unit condo project in Gowanus, later picking up the Lightstone Group as a client when it took over the development and changed course with a planned 700-unit rental.

David Von Spreckelsen, president of Toll Brothers City Living, said that once the City Planning Commission is receptive to an idea, the most important person to convince is the local Council person, who at the time was Bill de Blasio.

Geto & de Milly “had the trust of de Blasio, the community board and the other local elected officials.”

Forest City Ratner, Taconic Investment Partners and the Chetrit Group are also clients.

Law firms

While lobbying is not their bread and butter, law firms with big real estate practices are required to register as lobbyists when dealing with government. And some firms even have specialized government affairs units that do actual lobbying.

Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker

Perhaps the most interesting fact about this firm, at least for real estate insiders, is that it’s been it’s the go-to firm for the Real Estate Board of New York when it outsources its lobbying activities in Albany. REBNY paid the law firm $310,000 in 2013 and the first half of 2014 to lobby on the budget and regulatory issues affecting real estate.

Other clients include the state Association of Realtors and Stellar Management.

The firm’s government-affairs outfit, which is based in Albany, is run by founder Ken Shapiro, who served as legal counsel to the three Assembly speakers who preceded Silver.

Greenberg Traurig

The firm’s government relations arm was founded by Ed Wallace, a former vice president at Boston Properties who previously served as Manhattan’s councilman-at-large and chief of staff to Borough President Carol Bellamy in the days of the Board of Estimate.

Wallace is now the co-chair of Greenberg’s New York City office, where Melinda Katz, former chair of the Council’s land use committee, worked before she was elected Queens borough president.

The company’s government practice represented New York University in its expansion bid as well as Extell on Riverside Center, negotiating with the local community for a 750-student school at the site.

“It was a triple win. The project was approved. The community has a school and the city helped create hundreds of jobs and affordable housing units,” Wallace said. “Our approach is to convert the traditional community-developer tennis match into a quilting bee.”

Correction: The Fortis Property Group was the successful bidder to redevelop Long Island College Hospital. A previous version of this post misstated this fact.

  • Anon resident

    Also, follow the $ when it comes to Donald Capoccia who happens to be a large donor to Cuomo, sits on the REBNY board, and the Battery Park Authorities Board.