Monday, February 11, 2008

Scorning no-donation policy, FCR gives $58K to Assembly Campaign Committee (which doesn't need it)

Forest City Ratner, playing hardball in court and public relations, has now apparently reversed a pledge to refrain from campaign contributions, with a major unrestricted "soft money" donation last month: $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee's Housekeeping account.

The donation--allowed via a campaign finance law loophole Common Cause has decried--may be payback to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and an effort to ensure sympathetic legislators as Atlantic Yards proceeds, given that the Democrats are not about to lose their grip on the Assembly.

FCR consistently spends a lot of money on lobbying, but CEO Bruce Ratner years ago "sharply cut back" on campaign contributions, as a 2004 article from Newsday reported, quoting Ratner's friend Henry Stern: “He decided this was getting him into trouble, because every time he won a project, people would say it was because he gave money."

Then again, as I reported, brother Michael Ratner and sister-in-law Karen Ranucci, both Greenwich Village residents, have readily supported the Brooklyn Democratic machine, apparently doing Bruce Ratner's bidding.

"Soft money" for the Dems

A search on "Ratner" in the state campaign finance database shows that the company hadn't given any state political contributions in at least nine years until January 7, when the latest check was written. (The database only goes back to 1999.)

It was the third-largest contribution received since July, representing more than ten percent of the commitee's take for the Housekeeping account.

The "Housekeeping" loophole

And what's a Housekeeping account? As Common Cause reported in August 2006, it offers donors--corporations, organizations, etc.--a loophole, allowing unlimited donations for the vague concept of "party building" (aka "soft money"), despite a general $5000 annual limit on corporate contributions.
(Here's a list of contributors the New York Observer compiled at the time.)

Common Cause observed:
The size of these contributions, their origin and the fact that current or hopeful elected officials are involved in soliciting them raise serious concerns about the potential for corruption or its appearance.

The second major problem is that while the theory behind our state’s soft money loophole is that these funds will be used only for party building purposes and not for candidate elections, this legal barrier does not hold up in practice.


Common Cause's conclusion:
The potential it creates for corruption or its appearance means that New York State leaders must ban soft money.


Payback or pay forward?

Given that the Democrats have long controlled the Assembly and are in no danger of losing their majority, the contribution might be seen as payback to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who produced a crucial December 2006 approval vote for Atlantic Yards as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board.

The crucial test for Democrats in New York is control of the State Senate, long held by the Republicans in New York's peculiar "three men in a room" tradition of political spoils. The Republicans' three-seat edge is now in jeopardy. Will Forest City Ratner donate to the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee?

Then again, the contribution may be aimed to ensure that state subsidies, including housing subsidies, are made available, and that the Assembly be willing to consider future support for the project. (Extraordinary infrastructure, anyone?)

City contributions

A check of the city campaign finance database shows that Forest City Ratner gave contributions to candidates in city elections as late as 2002: the two most recent contributions were $4500 on 11/21/01 to Public Advocate candidate Betsy Gotbaum and $4500 on 1/10/02 to C. Virginia Fields, running for Manhattan Borough President. Gotbaum notably claimed to be against eminent domain while supporting AY.

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