Are Taxpayers Subsidizing Campaign Offices for These Two New York Congress Members?

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Congresswoman Grace Meng. Grace Meng/Meng for Congress campaign

The federal government doles out massive sums to private landlords each month to maintain Congressman Gregory Meeks’s and Congresswoman Grace Meng’s formal offices in their Queens districts—while the two Democrats simultaneously rent campaign headquarters in the exact same buildings at far, far lower rates.

In 2010, the New York Post reported that Meeks’s Build America Political Action Committee paid $350 a month for Suite 535 at 153-01 Jamaica Avenue, in Jamaica, Queens. The problem, the tabloid noted, is that 153-01 Jamaica Avenue contains no Suite 535, and is in fact only three stories tall.

What the Post neglected to mention was that Meeks has reported the same phantom space as the headquarters of his two campaign committees, Friends for Gregory Meeks and Meeks for Congress, to the Federal Election Commission since late 2006. To this day, his periodic financial filings, his fundraiser invitations and his official campaign website all list this nonexistent office as the nexus and nerve-center of his political operations.

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The door to Suite 205 at 153-01 Jamaica Avenue. Will Bredderman/Observer

The Observer visited the location, and discovered the Meeks campaign and the Build America PAC are in fact lodged in Suite 205 of the building—directly adjacent to Suite 204, which serves as the congressman’s taxpayer-financed district office.

An office of the Legal Aid Society occupies approximately half the building’s second floor. The Meeks campaign and congressional office divide the remaining portion with a private law firm and with an outpost of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Public records show that the NYCCHR pays landlord BLDG Management $8,076 a month for its space.

Meanwhile, FEC records indicate that the Meeks campaign committees and the PAC split the rent in Suite 205 (though both report their address in their filings as Suite 535). As of the most recent FEC disclosure, the PAC allocates $412 a month toward the lease on the space, while the campaign sets aside $1,271.

That latter figure has oscillated wildly at times in years past. In December 2014, for example, it inexplicably fell to $746—while in October 2011, it dropped all the way to $181.

Back in 2007, the rate gyrated between $975 a month and $1,212—except for October, when it sank to $146, and in February, when it shot up to $6,930.

The latest House disbursement records show that BLDG Management charges Washington $10,675.30 a month for the district office—making Meeks’s rent among the costliest in the entire country. The real estate company did not respond to calls for comment.

For context, Congress pays a combined $9,700 each month for fellow Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley‘s two district offices, while rent at Bronx Congressman Eliot Engel’s three official sites together totals a little less than $7,000. Manhattan Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s trio of offices collectively cost the taxpayer $9,500 every month.

Of the entire New York City House delegation, only Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s Lower Manhattan office runs a higher rate: $10,855.59 per month.

The Observer was unable to gain access to the locked campaign suite at 153-01 Jamaica Avenue, but did enter the district office. Given the proportions of the building, it seems unlikely that the latter is vastly larger than either of the other two spaces it shares the floor with—most likely not enough to justify the $2,600 discrepancy between the NYCCHR’s rent and that of the congressional office, and almost certainly not the nearly $9,000 spread between the monthly lease for the district office and that of the campaign office.

It appears similarly impossible that the Meeks campaign accounts and the Build America PAC have continually made the same error about “Suite 535” through nearly 11 years’ worth of filings with multiple levels of government. At the Observer’s request, the firm Competitive Advantage Research conducted a comprehensive review of New York State campaign finance databases for the appearance of the 153-01 Jamaica Avenue address.

The analysis turned up 58 donations the two campaign committees and the PAC made to state and local candidates while listing their location as Suite 535.

“Meeks has apparently fabricated a door number at a real address and given it out as the address of his own campaign to several New York committees, who all report it as his address when transacting with the Meeks campaign,” said CAR founder Jonathan Reznick. “More alarmingly, he also gives this door number to the FEC as the address of his campaign, all in an apparent attempt to give the impression that the campaign office is in a distinct location within the building from his own taxpayer-funded district office.”

It is unclear where the Meeks campaign might have come up with the number 535, although there are 535 voting members of the House and Senate. But the number that stunned good government advocate Susan Lerner, executive director of the group Common Cause New York, was the district office’s astronomical rent.

She called for an independent investigation to ascertain the true market value of both the campaign and district office spaces. Lerner also asserted it was highly questionable for a politician to have his government berth physically adjoining his political headquarters.

“It’s just bad practice to have your district office and your campaign office side-by-side. It results in a blurring of lines between your taxpayer-financed district office and your campaign,” she said. “It does appear as if the taxpayer is paying for a campaign office in addition to a district office, and that’s simply improper.”

It may be more than just improper: House ethics standards state explicitly that the use of public resources for campaign purposes may warrant criminal prosecution. Media representatives at the FEC and the Office of Congressional Ethics both told the Observer they would not comment on individual politicians’ specific situations.

Meeks, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee, has been the subject of numerous corruption allegations and investigations since his election in 1998. His congressional office sent a belated statement to the Observer that inveighed at length against the deplorable state of American journalism, before finally denouncing any suggestion that he has any inappropriate arrangement with BLDG Management for either of his offices.

“I chose a location for my district office that has optimal accessibility near public transportation and local throughways for my constituents,” the emailed remarks read. “My office follows all the required procedures of the House to vet the lease and make the payments.”

Meek’s statement to the Observer also included the factually incorrect claim that his campaign is registered to a post office box. At no point did he address the inveterate inaccurate filings with the FEC and other regulatory bodies that placed his campaign office in a fictional suite.

A representative of BLDG Management, Marc Ritt, rang the Observer two days after this article’s publication, and attempted to explain the enormous discrepancy between the cost of the district office and that of the congressional space.

The former, he asserted, is just 483 square feet large, and each of those square feet costs $41.87 per year to rent. The latter, he claimed, is 3,300 square feet at a rate of $41.82 per year.

The company’s math does not add up. At the prices cited, the rent for the district office should run $11,500.50 a month, while the campaign space would cost $1,695.74—rather than the documented $10,675.30 and $1,683.

Nor does it explain the extreme fluctuations in the cost of the latter, or why Meeks elected to falsify records to indicate that the campaign office was on a different floor. Nor did the BLDG representative account for the payment of utilities, as neither of Meeks’s committees nor his PAC show any expenses for water or electricity.

Ritt did confirm that the congressional office moved into the building in 2005, while the campaign relocated there in 2006.

Permits filed with the New York City Department of Buildings show considerable construction, including the insertion of partition walls, on the second floor of the structure during the latter year. The spokesman was unable to say what the purpose of this remodeling was, or who paid for it.

He also refused to provide any accounting for the discrepancy between the congressional office and the Human Rights Commission suite.

Unfortunately, online records of congressional disbursements only goes back to 2009, so it is unclear what the House paid for Meeks’s rent in years prior.

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153-01 Jamaica Avenue, the building housing Congressman Gregory Meeks’ campaign and district offices. Will Bredderman/Observer

The House disbursement list also shows that the federal government shells out $8,375.79 per month to Mehran Properties for Congresswoman Meng’s district office at 40–13 159 Street in the Flushing section of Queens, as well as another $111 to $733 to the same company for utilities. (The congressional allocation for Meeks appears to pay utilities costs directly to the vendors).

A $1,000 donation the congresswoman’s campaign, Grace for New York, made to Queens Assemblyman Francisco Moya in January 2016 reveals that her campaign office sits inside the exact same one-story structure—even though she has registered her committee with the FEC from a P.O. box in the neighborhood of Fresh Meadows. (Moya’s campaign records show a donation of $1,000 to Meng’s account at that same 159th Street address just a few months before).

For that space, Meng’s campaign has paid Mehran Properties $440 a month since October 2015. As with Meeks’s campaign, the only utilities payments Grace for New York shows are for telephone and Internet service—not for water or electricity.

But long before her congressional office assumed that address, Meng’s campaign began reporting monthly payments of $2,750 to Mehran Properties for office rent in April 2012.

Meng’s monthly campaign office fees dipped slightly to $2,450 per month in 2014, FEC filings show. That February, the 113th Congress directory identified her Flushing district office as situated in a non-Mehran property at 32-26 Union Street. The congresswoman had heralded the opening of that site on her Facebook page in June 2013, and on her House webpage two months later.

By the next Congress in February 2016, the directory referred to her Flushing office at its current Mehran-owned location, 40–13 159 Street. The Observer was unable to find any official or informal notice of this relocation, although a congressional phone book published in September 2015 put the outpost at its present address.

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Congresswoman Grace Meng’s district office at 40-13 159th Street. Congresswoman Grace Meng

Between May and June 2014, the Meng campaign’s rental fees to Mehran halved, from $2,450 to $1,225 a month.

By October, the rate had plunged to the current $440—a figure that remained consistent at least through November of last year. These precipitous declines in price would appear to coincide, roughly, with her district office’s move to a Mehran property.

Lerner again called for an independent assessment of the true market value of both the campaign and district offices.

“We want to be assured that the taxpayer is paying only for the district office, and that the campaign office hasn’t obtained some kind of discount,” the advocate said. “If there is a better deal, that deal should be going to the taxpayer, not to the campaign.”

Alex Mehran, one of the owners of Mehran Properties, insisted to the Observer that his company’s transactions with the House of Representatives and with Meng’s campaign were completely unrelated. He attributed the rent drop-off for the campaign to its move to a smaller space, though he refused to divulge the whereabouts of the old location, or any specific details about its dimensions.

“As a real estate company, were able to do it for that price,” he said. “One deal had nothing to do with the other.”

That price is far lower than what other Congress members in New York pay each month for their campaign offices. Engel, the Bronx congressman, gives the Benjamin Franklin Democratic Club $2,000 a month to make use of their space as his headquarters—while Brooklyn Congresswoman Yvette Clarke has a $1,500 rental arrangement with the Progressive Democrats Political Association.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez pays $2,000 a month to rent campaign space from a Brooklyn daycare center.

The only other New York House member with a comparable monthly campaign office rent is Crowley, who pays $600 a month—and, as the Post revealed recently, his landlord is his own brother.

A spokesman for Meng told the Observer that her leadership PAC, At the Table!, chips in $60 a month for the campaign office—bringing the total rent paid to $500—and that the space is only 153 square feet. The district office, he maintained, is 2,573 square feet.

The press representative further asserted that the varying rents the campaign paid over the past few years reflect changes in office space and location, even as Mehran Properties remained the landlord the entire time.

“These were all different campaign spaces of varying sizes that were rented at different times,” said Jorden Goldes. “That is the only reason why there was a difference in price from year to year.”

The congresswoman was re-elected a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in February.

Updated to include comment from Meeks’s office and from BLDG Management.