Monday, November 16, 2009

Ghostwritten letters on health care for elected officials make NYTimes front page; FCR's orchestration of letters for MTA bid got no such scrutiny

It was front-page news in yesterday's New York Times. The article, headlined In House, Many Spoke With One Voice: Lobbyists’, described how the official record of the House of Representatives's debate on health care contains similar-sounding speeches by many legislators, ghostwritten by lobbyists.

A not dissimilar effort in 2005 orchestrated by Forest City Ratner, in which elected officials sent similar letters to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) endorsing the developer's bid for the Vanderbilt Yard, never generated such skeptical coverage, though the Times covered the issue glancingly, as I'll detail below. (Click on graphics to enlarge.)

From yesterday's article:
Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.

...The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

...Members of Congress submit statements for publication in the Congressional Record all the time, often with a decorous request to “revise and extend my remarks.” It is unusual for so many revisions and extensions to match up word for word. It is even more unusual to find clear evidence that the statements originated with lobbyists.
What about AY?

In the summer of 2005, numerous elected officials and civic representatives sent letters to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority endorsing FCR's bid. I was not yet covering Atlantic Yards, and didn't see the letters until the bid surfaced as part of an affidavit in the 2007 challenge to the AY environmental impact statement.

The letters almost surely came from a template supplied by Forest City Ratner. The examples below--from federal, state, and city elected officials--all contain the same talking points, that the development "is part of the borough's ongoing evolution" and that the project is more than a sports arena. (Click on graphics to enlarge.)

They all promised that the development would be an "economic engine" bringing in $6 billion in new revenues--what I call the $6 billion lie. Interestingly enough, city Comptroller Bill Thompson was more cautious and didn't attach a number.

Press coverage

No one, as far as I can tell mentioned the orchestrated letters at the time. However, an 11/6/05 New York Times article (Routine Changes or Bait and Switch?) pointed out that elected officials in letters kept promising 10,000 office jobs even though the developer had swapped office space for condos. (The letters below all promise 6000 such jobs.)

The Times, however, did not focus on the orchestration of the letters the way it did in yesterday's front-page piece. And the Times let then-FCR executive Jim Stuckey claim that the developer was paying a price for being very open--even though, as seems clear, FCR benefited from letters based on already-stale talking points.

In other words, the Times let Stuckey self-exonerate--even though the evidence should've fueled a much more skeptical cast to the piece.

Senator Chuck Schumer

Representative Ed Towns

Assemblyman Roger Green

State Senator Carl Andrews

City Council Member Lew Fidler

City Council Member Erik Martin Dilan

City Council Member Bill de Blasio

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