Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Getting closer to Greenland: Brooklyn BP Adams, pushed by Forest City to meet with new partner in China, finally met in Brooklyn (plus questionable liaison)

In Brooklyn, (l.-r.)  Borough President Eric Adams,
Greenland's Xu Jing, Borough Hall Liaison Winnie Greco
Representatives of the Greenland Group, the Shanghai-based new majority owners of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, have been invisible to the public, letting developer Forest City Ratner--the local member of Greenland Forest City Partners--stay out front.

Of course, top Greenland officials have been to Forest City offices in Brooklyn. And they met 6/11/14 with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and staff.

Also present has been Borough Hall's questionable volunteer liaison to the Chinese community, who lives in the Bronx and claims on one web site that she is "director of China-US affair in Brooklyn."

That liaison, Winnie Greco, is likely more focused on organizing business deals in China (see below) than representing the interests of the Brooklynites who are neighbors to the project Greenland now controls.

Forest City Ratner, documents reveal, also pushed hard to get Adams to meet with Greenland on his trip in May to China, and supplied talking points for him. The Borough President's team tried to make it work, though it ultimately didn't come to fruition.

Only a FOIL reveals Greenland

It's certainly not irregular for a Borough President to meet with a major local investor. It would be remiss not to do so.

But until I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, no information about the two meetings--one planned but not achieved, the other executed--had surfaced publicly. That contrasts with the steady effort by Adams's office to promote some (but not all) meetings, events, and public statements, such as his salute to the late Joan Rivers.

Greenland's role is key to the ongoing ramp-up in Atlantic Yards construction, including two towers in the next year, railyard work, and installation of a green roof over the arena.

A happy junket to China

When Adams on May 22 took a delegation to China that included Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna, small business owners, and local Chinese-American leaders, the stated purpose was "to mutually promote economic development and tourism."

The itinerary included "the signing of sister city agreements with Yiwu and the Chaoyang district of Beijing" plus discussions with government officials about bringing a friendship arch to Sunset Park, Brooklyn's Chinatown.

According to the press release, the trip also would include "tours of local schools and tourism promotion-related events."

What about Greenland?

Adams's visit was to include to Shanghai, home of Greenland, the major Chinese developer that was about to formalize a planned joint venture with Forest City, buying 70% of the project, except for the arena and first tower. (The joint venture last month renamed the project, dubiously, as Pacific Park.)

A Greenland meeting struck me as plausible, so I sent a query. Adams spokesman Stefan Ringel said he'd try to answer my question about Greenland, but did not. He did clarify who was paying expenses for Adams and Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna:
International airline tickets and city-to-city transportation, in addition to lodging, food and intracity travel while in Hong Kong as well as lodging while in Beijing, is paid for by the Sino-America New York Brooklyn Archway Association Corp. Lodging, food and intracity travel in the other trip locations is paid for by the host local governments.
Digging deeper, Forest City's nudge

So I filed a FOIL request, which revealed a more complicated story.

A copy of the trip itinerary did not mention Greenland. However, emails released via FOIL show that, in mid-May, Ashley Cotton, Forest City's Senior VP for External Affairs, contacted the Borough President's office to arrange an Adams meeting with Greenland in Shanghai.

"Can u make this work?" Cotton wrote to Kai Feder, who heads Adams' Capital Budget & Economic Development Office. "They want to do this!"

Feder then asked Greco, Borough Hall's volunteer liaison to the Chinese community (since the previous administration of Borough President Marty Markowitz) and an organizer of the trip, to adjust the itinerary in Shanghai. Greco took steps to do so.

Forest City's talking points for Adams

In Brooklyn: Adams, Xu Jing exchange business cards;
Greco (l.) and Forest City Ratner's Jeff Rosen look on
Forest City wanted Adams to express support for the pending joint venture, which would infuse new capital into Atlantic Yards and reduce the company's financial risks.

Among the talking points Cotton forwarded to Adams: "We are hopeful that you will close with FCRC [Forest City Ratner Companies] this June so that the project can stay on track and continue to be built out."

According to the briefing Cotton sent to Borough Hall, Forest City also wanted Adams to stress some generally positive messages: that Brooklyn welcomes foreign investment and diverse populations and that Atlantic Yards was a critical project, providing jobs, economic development, and housing.

Chinese business culture prizes government backing for private projects. For example, when Forest City and the New York City Regional Center began recruiting green card-seeking Chinese investors in 2010 to supply low-cost financing for Atlantic Yards via the EB-5 program, a regional center rep told a New York State economic development official: "Showing government support of an EB-5 project is critical."

Following up

Ultimately, that planned Shanghai meeting didn't happen. Ringel explained:
"There was an effort made to arrange a meeting between Borough President Adams and the Greenland Group during his visit to China, though it was ultimately not possible to finalize such a meeting in the attempted time window. Borough President Adams looks forward to a continued dialogue between he, Forest City Ratner, the Greenland Group and other key stakeholders as he pursues a shared goal of advancing affordable housing construction in Pacific Park on an accelerated timetable."
Brooklyn BP Adams and Greenland's Xu Jing
It's certainly politic to say their shared goal is advancing affordable housing, but without a documentary report of their interactions, it's hard to take that on faith.

A meeting in Brooklyn

There was more to the story. The FOIL response also indicated that, on June 11, Adams and Greco met at Borough Hall in Brooklyn with various executives from Greenland, including the head of their United States subsidiary and a member of the parent company's 18-member management team.

Photocopies of meeting photos, taken by official Borough Hall photographer Kathryn Kirk, were attached, and some are reproduced here.

"Borough President Adams met with a vice president of the Greenland Group, on Wednesday, June 11th in Brooklyn Borough Hall, to have a meet-and-greet and to begin a working relationship," Ringel stated in response to my query. That VP, as indicated in the picture above right and this photo of Greenland's 18-member management team, is Xu Jing (aka Jing Xu).

Asked if Adams conveyed the talking points shared by Cotton, Ringel responded, "The meeting... was a basic meet-and-greet; it was not the type of meeting where more in-depth conversation would be shared."

Still, it's likely the meeting accomplished at least some of Forest City's goals, by indicating that the borough's top official was welcoming and supportive. (He's since leaned Forest City's side in the company's dispute with Skanska over the stall in the modular project.)

The full group at the meet-and-greet

Beyond Adams and Xu Jing, the meeting included I-Fei Chang, the hard-charging president of Greenland US, Greenland's Hu Gang, Borough Hall liaison Greco, and Forest City Ratner executive Jeff Rosen, according to Borough Hall.
(l-r.) I-Fei Chang of Greenland USA, Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, Xu Jing of Greenland Group,
Borough Hall Liaison Winnie Greco, Jeff Rosen of Forest City Ratner, Hu Gang of Greenland Group
Markowitz's previous help

This was not the first time a Brooklyn Borough President has proven cooperative with Forest City's China ventures.

In 2010, Markowitz appeared in a video, produced by a company Forest City hired to market Atlantic Yards to potential immigrant investors in a program known as EB-5, aimed to reassure those investors. "Brooklyn is 1000 percent, 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards," Markowitz declared.

Regarding Forest City, he added, "I can assure you that their reputation is unbelievably reliable. They're a great company to work with; they've worked very closely with government. The most important thing: they make a promise, they keep it."

The curious non-profit behind the trip

Adams's China trip raised eyebrows in other ways. In June, the New York Posreported that the Sino-America New York Brooklyn Archway Association Corp., which spent nearly $7,000 on trip expenses for Adams and Reyna, had no discernible institutional history. The Post reported:
The Brooklyn Eighth Avenue mailing address for the group has no signs bearing its name, and a worker in the sixth-floor suite said that its members meet there only once every couple of months.
Court records show Greco, who lives in The Bronx, was sued by banks three times since 2007 to recover debts of about $40,000.
She also has at least a half-dozen nonprofits and limited-liability companies registered in her name — including one that was involuntarily dissolved by the state of Massachusetts for not filing its annual reports.
Later, when the Post asked Paul Mak, listed as one of the three association's three directors, how it paid for the trip, he said, “I have no idea.”

Greco, who ignored the Post's queries, was finally buttonholed at a rally. She reportedly said, “Right now we don’t get money from nothing — the private [donations],” before walking away, offering the excuse that she speaks English poorly.

If she doesn't speak English well, then how much does her role as liaison serve Brooklyn versus serving her own interests?

The ethics of funding such trips

Queried about the ethics of funding such trips, Ming Xia, Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, CUNY, told Brooklyn Brief's Matthew Taub (as reprinted in the Brooklyn Eagle):
"While there may not be any underhanded motives, residents of Brooklyn have a right to know who is funding a trip on their elected official’s behalf. If the funding is in fact coming from the Chinese government, then we have to be cautious and aware of what China wants from the Borough President. If it is funded by civic or business groups of the Chinese living in New York, we have to be cautious and aware of what these groups want, realizing that some Chinese groups will seek special favors from public officials (such as contracts, grants, connections to federal officials to secure visas, etc.)."
Greco is also one of five board member of Adams's own nonprofit, the One Brooklyn Fund, which, according to the Post, began soliciting support before it had permission to do so.

It's certainly possible that Greco, in visiting China on behalf of Adams, might be making some contacts useful to her other activities.

Greco's other activities

Greco is listed as Executive Secretary of the New York Chinese Business Association, headquartered in Flushing.

Her LinkedIn biography, perhaps stale, describes herself as self-employed in the construction industry at aaecdac, which is the American Asia Economy and Culture Development Association Corp, which according to a Google translation:
purpose is to establish a Sino-US two State bridge friendly exchanges, promote bilateral cooperation and exchanges in diplomatic, cultural, commercial, social, scientific, educational and sports fields; promote friendly exchanges and interaction between American and Chinese governments and parliaments; promote the city between the United States cooperation and exchanges between the conclusion of friendly relations and urban matchmaking; promote friendly exchanges with the United States and non-governmental exchanges....
That organization in 2011 organized a trip to China by New York Assembly officials, including Peter Rivera (who has some baggage, according to the Voice) and staffer Daniel Figueroa.

Greco is/was CEO of the food exporting company Valley Fresh Direct, in Warwick NY, in Orange County near the New Jersey border.

Her bio not so coherently trades on her volunteer role, stating, "As the director of China-US affair in Brooklyn, Mrs. Greco is an active business developer and has been widely recognized by her outstanding efforts in bilateral business.

There's no such position as "director of China-US affair in Brooklyn."

Greco did make three campaign contributions to Markowitz, including $4,450 in 2007, which surely helped her keep a good relationship with Borough Hall. (The latter actually exceeded the limit by $600, so she had to get a refund.) There's no evidence of a contribution to Adams, but, as noted, she's helping with fundraising.

More on Valley Fresh Direct

The company's web site states:
Valley Fresh Direct is the food export arm of The New York Sino Agricultural Sciences Organization, Inc. (NYSASOI). With its headquarters located in the unique Black Dirt agricultural area, Warwick, New York, Valley Fresh Direct has the mission to match high quality Hudson Valley-based agricultural goods with China’s need to import over half of its food supply from reliable export partners around the globe.
Last November, Greco and colleagues reported on a Valley Fresh Direct trip to China to set up trade arrangements.

Valley Fresh Direct has reportedly changed its name to ManaFoods, though the web site has not been updated. (That may be a reference to Mana Greco, surely a relative.)

HudsonValley Insider reported 4/15/14 that the company wants to buy  "property at the former Mid-Hudson Correctional Facility site in Warwick for the establishment of an agricultural education and exchange project" involving U.S. and Chinese farmers.

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