Payback time

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Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner, who said that he stopped making political contributions because they created an appearance of impropriety, abandoned that policy last month with a large donation to a “slush fund” controlled by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Ratner’s $58,420 contribution to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee on Jan. 7 drew immediate criticism from good government groups as evidence that a “pay-to-play” culture festers in New York State — especially in light of the significant role Silver played in getting the controversial $4-billion mega-development approved in late 2006.

“The ordinary citizen sees a contribution like this and he becomes extremely cynical about the way business is done in New York,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, whose 2006 report, “Life of the Party: Hard Facts on Soft Money in New York State,” drew attention to these legal, though largely unmonitored, soft-money contributions to party committees.

“Such donations gives the public a reason to think something is going on behind the scenes — which is exactly what Ratner said he was trying to avoid,” Lerner added.

Ratner’s contribution was first reported on the Web site Atlantic Yards Report.

A “housekeeping” account is one of many accounts maintained by political parties. In theory, “housekeeping” accounts are set up to raise money for party-building activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives and voter registration, Lerner said.

“But in practice, housekeeping accounts are a political slush fund controlled by the speaker,” she said. “Money given that way is money that gets dispensed and used by the party bosses rather than by an individual candidate. It gives much more bang for the buck.”

And gives the appearance of a payback. After all, Silver held all the cards in December 2006, when Atlantic Yards needed the approval of the three-man Public Authorities Control Board. Both Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R–Rensselaer) and then-Gov. Pataki supported the project — and Silver eventually got on board after lobbying by state officials and Forest City Ratner.

That same three-man panel killed a West Side stadium for the football Jets in 2005 when Silver voted no.

Forest City Ratner certainly does spend amply on persuading elected officials. In the months before the PACB vote, Ratner spent $2.105 million to lobby state and local lawmakers — at least four times more than he had ever spent before.

At the time, state watchdogs said it is common for developers to throw money at Albany and City Hall when a project is going through the approval process — a practice that also creates the appearance of a “pay-to-play” system.

It was exactly that appearance that Ratner had said he was trying to avoid, having virtually stopped giving campaign contributions to political candidates.

Forest City Ratner executives and Ratner family members, such as his brother Michael and his ex-wife Julie, still give generously, but Bruce Ratner does not. In fact, the developer has not personally made a political contribution since sending then-Mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger a $1,500 check in 1997.

Before that, Ratner had given money to Comptroller candidate Liz Holtzman, Mayor Dinkins, former Borough President Golden, Ed Koch and Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president.

Ratner’s company has not given to a candidate since giving $4,500 to newly elected Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields in 2001 to help pay for her inauguration party.

In 2004, Newsday reported that Ratner had “sharply cut back on donating funds to political campaigns — an unusual move for a real estate developer,” to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The article quoted former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, a longtime Ratner friend, saying that the developer decided the donating to campaigns “was getting him into trouble because every time he won a project, people would say it was because he gave money.”

Even though the donation to the state Assembly Democrats came after the approval of Atlantic Yards, opponents were still saying that Ratner’s cash had tainted the process because Ratner still needs state favors.

“The $58,000 goes to the body controlled by Sheldon Silver … who will have a lot of say over the developer’s housing, bonding and other financing needs over the coming months,” Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn said in a statement. “Forest City Ratner’s key Atlantic Yards financing has not been finalized, including ‘affordable’ housing subsidies, the arena bond, and the amount of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT).”

A spokesman for the group, Dan Goldstein, said the contribution speaks for itself.

“After at least a nine-year hiatus from state political donations, Forest City Ratner has made a huge contribution … at a time when the developer is actively pursuing Atlantic Yards financing agreements involving state officials,” he said.

The executive director of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, Kathleen Joyce, said she could not comment for this story, but promised to find someone who could. That person never called The Brooklyn Paper.

A spokesman for Forest City Ratner said only, “No comment.”

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Reader Feedback

Norman Oder says:
Here's the original Atlantic Yards Report coverage:
Feb. 14, 2008, 9:27 pm
MDDW from Brooklyn Heights says:
Comment MDDW Part 1:

So Forest City Ratner gives $58,420 "soft money" donation to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee's Housekeeping account and neither Sheldon Silver nor his office will return phone calls or e-mail from the press starting with WNYC’s reporter Matt Schuerman?
(See link below)

So you are a fly on the wall in Sheldon Silver’s office:

An aide worries about returning the communications from Schuerman before the WNYC story runs. “$58,420? Don’t worry we need to say something?”

“Don’t worry,” says Silver: “It’s a one-day story. We’ve got the money. It will blow over in a day. Then nobody's ever going to remember or think about it again."

But it isn't a one day story because the Brooklyn Papers then call. Sheldon Silver and his aide make a new assessment- And don't call back.
Feb. 15, 2008, 9:29 am
MDDW from Brooklyn Heights says:
Comment MDDW Part 2:

The Brennen Center assesses “We're sure this very large check has nothing to do with the ongoing legal and political battles surrounding Atlantic Yards.” Tongue in cheek or not, how much more humorously inaccurate does this assessment seem when Mr. Silver stonewalls and won’t return phone calls? (This will have some died-in-the-wool-democrats thinking in two-party terms.)

We need to call upon all politicians to be effective in doing the right thing on Atlantic Yards which means recovering the many hundreds of millions of dollars being improperly spent on it without proper competitive bid and having a smaller properly designed project awarded to multiple developers by competitive bid without eminent domain abuse. Ratner’s $58,420 "to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee should not prevent that.

Work is needed to correct one of the worst mistakes Sheldon Silver ever made.
Developer's Donation Raises Eyebrows
by Matthew Schuerman.
Feb. 15, 2008, 9:30 am

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