Lobbyists are crucial to New York State government culture — both the legal and illegal parts. And this spring, with corruption scandals placing two neophyte leaders atop the State Senate and Assembly, the lobbyists could wield even more influence in shaping state policy. Yet they are the least-understood players in the Albany game, because they avoid the spotlight and because they don’t always fit the sleazy caricature of their profession. In between meetings in the state capital, one of Albany’s top lobbyists — he represents giant investment banks as well as obscure charitable groups — shared some tricks of the big-money trade, and his inside view of just how much impact Preet Bharara’s investigations are having.
What’s a typical day?
There are two types: a non-legislative-session day and a session day. When the legislature isn’t in session, you’re more likely to have in-depth meetings with clients or with the executive branch and state agencies. It’s also an excellent time to meet with legislators in their districts. They like to show you around and show you how the district thinks they’re important. Or we’ll take a legislator to tour a client’s factory or office.
On a session day, we would be meeting with relevant legislators at the capitol to argue either for or against one or more pieces of legislation that are important to the client.
Do many deals get made over lunch or dinner?
No. First of all, nobody eats lunch anymore and [they] haven’t for years. Dinner, sometimes with the younger legislators. They still retain some … what’s the word I’m looking for? Some optimism, some hopefulness about the process. They aren’t jaundiced yet.
Most session days, at least Mondays and Tuesdays, we will be attending fundraisers at night — as many as ten or 11.
For legislators? In a single night?
Yeah. From 5:30 to 7:30, for the most part. Most of them are held at either the Fort Orange Club or the Hilton, some other venues. There will be a table outside the door. Some people may have mailed a check to the fundraiser beforehand, but most people will in fact bring their checks to the fundraiser. The staff of the legislator will have forms to capture information that they need in order to be able to file accurate reports with the Board of Elections.
What’s the atmosphere inside?
They don’t vary much. There is virtually always a bar. Somewhere along the way the legislators became aware enough of us poor lobbyists that they began feeding us. There are generally carving stations so people can get sandwiches. Frequently, pasta stations.
Sounds like a bad wedding reception, only with public policy instead of a DJ.
Some legislators are more foodie. There’s one guy who does his over at Café Capriccio. If you’re a foodie, that’s the one you want to go to.
The legislator is generally at the door and will greet the guests, thank them for coming. Most of the people in the room will know one another, and so an enormous amount of gossip takes place. Kind of like a middle-school cafeteria, I would say. Enormous amounts of gossip and frequently, a good amount of business. You might have two or three lobbyists who are working on the same thing, so they’ll go over in the corner and they’ll say, All right, have you seen Assemblywoman Jane, have you seen Senator Bill, let’s split them up.
It’s rare that the legislator will make remarks but it’s not unheard of. People tend not to stay very long. Go in, have a half a drink. Twenty minutes to a half an hour, then on to the next one. Somebody ought to do a medical study to see if the incidence of liver disease is higher in Albany and correlates with attendance at these fundraisers.
I’m just hoping people aren’t driving between ten fundraisers a night.
Allison Lee, the wife of former Congressman Maurice Hinchey, is a big-time lobbyist up here. She was going between fundraisers and hit a parked car on Lark Street. They sent her to jail for two months, poor soul. Now and then, shit happens.
Lobbyists on opposing sides of an issue must turn up at the same fundraisers.
For the most part, people are polite. Years ago, these two lobbyists, a man and a woman, got into an argument. The woman lobbyist announced, “I’m going to pass this bill if I have to blow every member of the New York State Senate.”
Did she get it passed?
So how much money are you laying out for fundraisers?
Most of the tickets to one of these things run from $250 to $500. Once in a great while if somebody is doing a conference-wide thing it might go to $1,000. So maybe $2,500 to $4,000 a night, two or three nights a week. As the session winds down, there will be big golfing fundraisers for both the
Senate and the Assembly. They tend to be a lot of fun, if you enjoy a six-hour round of golf. If, on the other hand, you’d like to be with your kids or your wife or something, they’re not that great.
Of course, I’m a lawyer, so once in a while I practice law. I go to the office and sue somebody just for the hell of it.
Dean Skelos has been accused of pressing a real-estate lobbyist to get his son a job and money.
I was stunned by that. I’ve never had anybody ask me to help out anyone in their family in a financial way. I have over the years had a couple of people I knew well ask me to see if I could help their children get a job, generally when they were in college or something or looking at summer jobs. No one has ever suggested what the kid should be paid. But if they’re good friends I try to help them. I have kids of my own. I may need their help someday. I understand it offends some people, but you know it’s worked in this country pretty well for 250 years now and I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon.
What about asking you for money in exchange for voting in your client’s favor on a bill?
Now, if you’re saying, I’ll vote for it if you’ll give $5,000 to my campaign … I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody be that direct. I have had a couple of people imply that that would be what they wanted. At that point, my rule of thumb is to just leave their office and not speak to them again about it.
With all the recent investigations and arrests, has anyone ever asked you whether you’re wearing a wire or patted you down going into a meeting?
No, but everybody up here and over at the capitol is aware and nervous of that.
Charlie Dorego, the Glenwood realty lobbyist who is apparently a key informant in the cases against Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos — what do you think of him?
I don’t really know him. I mean, I could pick him out of a lineup. Not that I’m suggesting I’ll have to. His cooperation has put the fear of God in a whole bunch of people up here.
There are a lot of big issues to be decided in the final few weeks of the legislative session this year — including mayoral control of the schools and rent regulations. Are the scandals going to have an impact on getting those things done?
One of the very troubling things about the fact that Bharara talks so much is that the judicial branch is now chilling the day-to-day activities of the legislative branch. Legislators are worried that if they try to change the rent regulations there’s a danger it will be connected to who contributed to their campaign, and everyone will get investigated.
In the longer run, will all this scandal fundamentally change the way Albany operates?
I don’t believe so. The institutional nature of what you do in Albany and what you do in a representative democracy like this, is that even though it’s a messy system, it’s a system that works and lets the people’s voices be heard. You have people come along and say, “Oh, I’ve got a better idea. This will take all the corruption out and we’ll let computers decide public policy.” Well, that doesn’t work. For the most part, the people who get in trouble, they’re just run-of-the-mill bribes. Well, that’s always been illegal. That should be illegal. It will continue to be illegal, but I don’t think there’s anything new about it. You know, Boss Tweed was taking bribes, or I guess maybe he was giving them out.
The system that our founders put in place is a pretty damn good system, so no. I don’t think it will change much.
But the real problem is that it takes ever-increasing amounts of money to get access to the system, and then to grease the system’s wheels.
Do not think money is the only thing that works up here, or works best. A husband and wife whose son committed suicide became consumed with the fact that the boy’s school hadn’t provided certain information. They worked relentlessly and got a bill passed requiring more disclosure.
How long did it take them, without help from a lobbyist?