In December 2005, right as the debate over the Atlantic Yards complex was heating up and before the city made several crucial decisions about the project, Forest City Ratner gave between $450,000 and $1 million to a nonprofit closely associated with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The donation came six months after a meeting with Mr. Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris that Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner reported was a lobbying contact—although the parties now dispute that it should have been characterized as such.
What makes the contribution stand out is how unusual it is: Mr. Ratner, Forest City’s chief executive, tends to shun any of the civic glitz that other developers put on in order to “give back” to the communities in which they build. Mr. Ratner, a former city consumer-affairs commissioner, eschews campaign contributions and doesn’t even serve on the Real Estate Board of New York, preferring to allow his senior employees and paid lobbyists to exert influence on his behalf instead.
Mr. Ratner is, however, registered as a lobbyist with the city, and might meet six to eight times a year with city officials to discuss his real-estate projects. In his quarterly accounting of lobbying activities, he reported that on June 2, 2005, he met with Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Harris for the purpose of discussing the “Mayor’s Fund to Advance NY,” according to records on file at the City Clerk’s Office.
Spokesmen for the Mayor and for Mr. Ratner said that the encounter was not a lobbying session, but instead was a regularly scheduled meeting of the board of directors of the Mayor’s Fund, of which Mr. Ratner has been a member since June 2003.
“It was not a private meeting or anything like that,” Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, told The Observer in an e-mail. “It should not even have been listed on the lobbying form because it was a public board meeting.”
Mr. Ratner had given relatively few contributions to the city before that meeting, either directly or through affiliated nonprofits such as the Mayor’s Fund, an organization set up in 1994 to solicit private contributions for city causes. But on Dec. 5, 2005, three different entities of Forest City gave a total of between $450,000 and $999,997, according to filings with the city Conflicts of Interest Board. That amount was earmarked, according to the records, for the restoration of the carousel at Coney Island, which the city had purchased earlier that year and for which Mayor Bloomberg had said he was seeking private funds to defray costs.
“Bruce and Forest City Ratner have indeed supported the rehabilitation of that amusement, and they are guilty of thinking it will be much loved again by kids and their families,” Mr. DePlasco said.
By comparison, according to filings that go back to April 2003—when contributions to the city were required to be made public—Mr. Ratner has given just $100,000 to $239,994 to all agencies of the city. About half of that amount came in the form of an in-kind donation. The carousel gift was also unusually large even for the Mayor’s Fund, which in the past two years has received such large grants only from foundations and from the host committee for the 2004 Republican National Convention.
“It is not the same as a campaign contribution, but it nevertheless is a contribution to a cause that is dear to the Mayor’s heart,” said Megan Quattlebaum, the associate director of Common Cause New York, a lobbyist watchdog organization. “I think it’s fair to say that Forest City Ratner has used a number of different strategies to advance the Atlantic Yards project. The open question for the public is whether this is part of the larger effort, or whether it is a charitable effort with no self-interested motivation.”
Earlier this month, the state Temporary Commission on Lobbying reported that Forest City Ratner had spent $2.1 million on lobbying last year—the third-highest total for any company in the state.
The self-financed Mr. Bloomberg is wealthy enough not to have to wade into the ethical morass that campaign contributions present to lesser politicians. But the way that he has mixed philanthropy with politics has created a virtual club in which the city’s über-class can rub elbows and only those who have a half-million dollars to throw to good causes can join.
The city’s Olympic-bid committee, for example, routinely gathered $50,000 checks from big-name companies, while at a Gracie Mansion breakfast a couple of months ago, Mr. Bloomberg hit up about a dozen real-estate developers for $5 million each for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, of which he is now the chairman.
After all, these donations to the Mayor’s pet causes are far higher than the $4,950 that an individual would be legally able to donate to a Mayoral campaign.
Since coming to office, Mr. Bloomberg has sought to revive the Mayor’s Fund, adding people like Liz Smith, John Rosenwald Jr., Harvey Weinstein and Daisy Soros (George’s sister-in-law) to the board, and hiring Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey’s sister, Megan Sheekey, as its president. Rob Speyer, the guy who last fall bought Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on behalf of his family’s real-estate firm, is the new chairman. It has paid off: Donations to the fund are up from $3 million or so a year to about $15 million annually, according to tax records.
But part of Mr. Bloomberg’s obligation, in order to raise money for these good causes, has been to abide by one stipulation handed down by the city’s Conflict of Interest Board in a May 2003 ruling: officials soliciting on behalf of city-affiliated nonprofits must refrain from asking “a prospective donor who the official knows or should know has a specific matter either currently pending or about to be pending before the City official or his or her agency, where it is within the legal authority or the duties of the soliciting official to make, affect or direct the outcome of the matter.”
By the time that June 2005 meeting happened between Mr. Ratner and the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg had already pledged his support and $100 million of city funds for Atlantic Yards, a 22-acre complex that’s supposed to consist of 6,430 apartments and an arena to house the Nets basketball team.
But it was still very much a project where Mr. Bloomberg could have affected the outcome—and he still is affecting the outcome. The City Planning Commission—of which the Mayor appoints seven of 13 members, including the chairman—endorsed the project last fall. In his budget for this year, which came out in January, the Mayor added another $105 million, largely to help Mr. Ratner buy the land he needs on which to build.
John Gallagher, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said that the Coney Island carousel was not on the agenda for the June 2 meeting and that no fund-raising took place.
“Solicitations from the members for donations are not made at these meetings,” Mr. Gallagher said in an e-mail. “Indeed, as board members, their role is mainly to assist in fund-raising from their community for these projects.”
Daniel Goldstein, the spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a coalition of groups fighting the Atlantic Yards project, was far from scandalized to learn about the June meeting and Mr. Ratner’s December contribution.
“To a lot of people, this makes [Mr.] Ratner look good, giving money to the city,” Mr. Goldstein said. “I don’t know if there is anything unseemly about it. It’s par for the course. [Mr.] Ratner wants to stay in good favor with the administration, but he’s been in good favor since the beginning. These guys all play together.”