Thursday, August 08, 2013

Forest City and pay-to-play: findings suggest, at the least, a coordinated strategy, despite claim that contributions aren't dictated by company

I expressed some skepticism yesterday over a report from the libertarian nonprofit Cause of Action that suggested a cause and effect between campaign contributions/lobbying by Forest City Enterprises (and subsidiary) Forest City Ratner) and public subsidies.

After all, as I noted, some of numbers were questionable and Forest City's gotten support without subsidies. And, of course, this seems to be standard operating procedure for real estate developers.

But that doesn't mean the developer should be absolved. Cause of Action's conclusions are less a verdict than a charge, a call for closer examination of the record, and of cause and effect. There's much reason for skepticism about the developer's tactics.

After all, questions about political contributions have long dogged Ratner. Consider this 12/28/97 article from the New York Post, headlined King of the Retail Deals:
Ask megadeveloper Bruce Ratner why questions of political donations and connections dog virtually every development his hugely successful Forest City Ratner Companies builds - or even vies for - and he snaps, "It's just silly."
Peter Slatin wrote:
In other words, Ratner has been the city's most prolific developer over the past decade. But has he accomplished that through back-room politicking, or even by buying his way to the top? Or has he made his mark by taking risks that other, more established builders have shied away from? The answer may indeed be both.... His supporters note that he has focused almost exclusively on deals and on districts that his rivals dismissed as not worth the headaches.
Contributions part of strategy

Forest City doesn't give the money out of the goodness of their heart, or out of a connection to ideology, or out of a vague support for "good government."

After all, as I've pointed out, despite Bruce Ratner's statement (paraphrased) that he "cannot imagine people, especially Jews, who are not" Democrats, in November 2010, Ratner wrote a check for $7500 to the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, ensuring smooth relations with the party that controls the legislature's second chamber.

Bruce Ratner's brother Michael Ratner, the eminent human rights lawyer, and his wife, live in Greenwich Village, but have made campaign contributions to Brooklyn political hacks, using Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn office as the return address. 

Does the company coordinate donations?

In a Toledo Blade report last December, Ohio smiles on workers' political gifts: Incentives seem to follow firms with hefty political donors, Forest City Enterprises came in third in the contribution list:
Jeff Linton, a spokesman for Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, said donating to a campaign or political group is up to an employee’s discretion and isn’t dictated by the company. Forest City’s employees ranked third highest among the contributors, donating about $883,153. The company was awarded two grants worth a total of $1.2 million in 2010 and 2011.
I'm not sure about the evidence in the Ohio cases examined by the Toledo Blade, but evidence gathered by the press regarding New York and Washington DC projects, and compiled by Cause of Action nationally, suggests there's very much a guiding strategy.

As I reported in March, campaign finance reports suggest significant support via bundling for mayoral candidates Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson

Notably, a prominent Republican executive in Virginia, whose steel company produces key components for both the arena and the first modular tower, has contributed $1,000 to Democrats Thompson and Quinn, in one case through an FCR intermediary.

And in Washington

In an investigation this past May, WAMU in Washington found copious examples of a correlation between campaign contributions and subsidies, and headlined its first installment Major Campaign Donors Score Hefty City Subsidies:
“This is, of course, pay to play politics in gory detail,” Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University, said after reviewing WAMU’s findings. “I doubt that anyone was so stupid as to be explicit about what was being traded...More likely [the trading] is done with quiet understanding about what is expected of people who want a subsidy.”
Forest City Washington: leading political donor
In a followup headlined In Fight For Deals, Developers Make Well-Timed Campaign Contributions,
Fred Cooke, an attorney who has represented developers, council members and other... said there is a “perfectly innocent” explanation for why some companies turn in contributions on the same day: Someone thinks a certain candidate should be elected so they recruit their friends or associates to donate.
Others called it a quid pro quo. In another graphic, below, Forest City's donations peaked in the year it needed subsidies.

From WAMU
Cause of Action's most potent finding

In laying out a pattern of spending in localities where Forest City has project, the Cause of Action report does not drill down significantly to identify cause and effect. However, the most potent finding demolishes Linton's statement about the company's professed hands-off policy:
FCE even went so far as to coordinate donations among employees in FCE project locations: $15.4 million of the [$23 million in] contributions were made by multiple employees of FCE on the same day.

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