De Blasio Ally Didn’t Register as Lobbyist Despite Big Push for a Donor

0
2061

(By WILLIAM NEUMAN)  NY Times Frustrated by the pace of negotiations with a city agency over millions of dollars that were in dispute, a restaurateur decided to bring in a hired gun: Neal Kwatra, a political consultant and lobbyist with ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mr. Kwatra ended up working so closely with top City Hall officials on behalf of the restaurant owner, Harendra Singh, that a city commissioner complained that officials were giving Mr. Kwatra confidential information during delicate negotiations to settle a lawsuit with Mr. Singh.
When one meeting with city officials resulted in an unsatisfactory offer, Mr. Kwatra angrily responded, “I guess you didn’t get the memo from City Hall,” according to the city official in charge of the talks, Ricardo Morales, a former deputy commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, known as DCAS.
Yet none of Mr. Kwatra’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Singh, in 2015, were registered as lobbying work, even though Mr. Kwatra and his company, Metropolitan Public Strategies, have registered as lobbyists for other clients, including United for Affordable NYC, a short-lived nonprofit group created by Mr. de Blasio to support his housing policies.
A search of the public record websites of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the New York City Clerk’s Lobbying Bureau found no record that Mr. Kwatra or his company had registered as a lobbyist for Mr. Singh or his restaurant, Water’s Edge, in Queens, or any of Mr. Singh’s companies.Mr. de Blasio pushed city officials to help Mr. Singh, a mayoral campaign donor, and the case became a focus of a federal investigation into what prosecutors viewed as a pattern of mayoral favors to campaign donors.
On Monday, Mr. de Blasio, appearing on “Road to City Hall” on NY1, dismissed the notion that Mr. Singh received special treatment because he was a campaign donor.
“It’s been looked at, and there’s just nothing there,” Mr. de Blasio said.
“I think it’s very clear how we run our government,” he said. “It’s an open and transparent government, where we help people bring forward legitimate issues and try to see them through to conclusion.”
Mr. Kwatra, whose mother, Pam Kwatra, is a donor and fund-raiser for the mayor, played a key role in Mr. Singh’s case, but his involvement was not revealed publicly until The New York Times reported it on Monday.Austin Shafran, a senior vice president of Metropolitan Public Strategies, said on Monday that Mr. Kwatra’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Singh did not meet the definition of lobbying under state and city law.
”Our firm consulted experienced legal counsel, and was advised that we were not required to register as a lobbyist in this case because our work involved the renegotiation of an existing lease that was the subject of litigation, which is explicitly excluded from the lobbying law,” Mr. Shafran said by email. He would not identify the lawyer who advised his company, and said that Mr. Kwatra was unavailable to speak with a reporter.Mr. Shafran’s description of Mr. Kwatra’s activities was disputed by Mr. Morales, who was in charge of the talks with Mr. Singh. Mr. Morales, who was fired in February and has filed a notice of claim against the city in which he says he was fired for standing up to City Hall, said they did not involve a renegotiation of the lease.
A group of city documents and emails reviewed by The Times that describe the talks do not mention renegotiation of the lease. They focus instead on unpaid rent, money that the city said was owed by Mr. Singh to rebuild a pier near the restaurant, and lawsuits deriving from those disputes.
Despite all the problems, Mr. Singh was eager to start negotiations on a new lease for the restaurant that would take effect when his existing lease was to expire in May 2017. And documents indicate that Mr. Kwatra was involved in pressing the case for a new lease with city officials.Officials at the administrative services agency had told Mr. Singh they could not discuss a new lease while he owed back rent and millions of dollars for the pier reconstruction. They made clear that even though Mr. Singh was already operating the restaurant, a new lease would require public hearings under city land use laws and would need to be offered for competitive bidding. Efforts to influence procurement decisions, including decisions regarding new leases on city properties, are frequently considered to meet the definition of lobbying. That did not stop Mr. Kwatra and Mr. Singh from continuing to push the issue of a new lease. Their efforts included discussions with Mr. de Blasio’s top political aide, Emma Wolfe, the director of intergovernmental affairs, who began participating in the negotiations in mid-2015.