Additional reporting by Reuven Blau
A battle rages in Brooklyn’s gritty Gowanus neighborhood over a rezoning plan that would add thousands of new residences to what was once a primarily manufacturing and working-class enclave of row houses and warehouses.
On one side sit real estate developers who’ve already bought up lots and have promised a hefty percentage of the new housing will be affordable. On the other side sit locals, arguing that development spurred by the proposed rezoning would drive the already overtaxed sewage system to the breaking point.
In the middle sits Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president and a top-tier candidate for mayor. He will soon deliver a recommendation that could help determine whether the plan lives, dies or is significantly altered.
A longtime lobbyist for real estate interests with major investments in Gowanus, meanwhile, sits on the board of a nonprofit Adams controls called One Brooklyn Fund. Besides serving on the board, the lobbyist, Ethan Geto, provides pro bono services for the fund: His firm, Geto & de Milly, created and manages the nonprofit’s website.
In 2018 and 2019, Geto personally lobbied Adams to get his support for the rezoning on behalf of two major developers, Property Markets Group and Blue Stone BK LLC, and a property management group, A&E Real Estate, that would benefit from approval of the plan. Geto told THE CITY the lobbying consisted of two “presentations” of his clients’ positions in meetings at Brooklyn Borough Hall, which houses Adams’ office.
As borough president, Adams weighs in on land-use applications that require zoning changes. Although he doesn’t have final say, his recommendations to either approve, reject or modify specific projects have major weight in determining whether the City Council votes up or down before the mayor renders a decision.
A review by THE CITY found that from 2015 through 2019, Adams netted as much as $322,750 in donations — either to his One Brooklyn Fund or to his political campaigns — from lobbyists and developers who were at the time seeking favors from him involving various projects.
Among the THE CITY’s findings:
- A top executive at Two Trees Management, one of the biggest developers in Brooklyn, also sits on One Brooklyn’s board. He served as Two Trees sought and received Adams’ approval to install artificial turf in 2017 in a park the firm was building adjacent to luxury towers it erected at the former Domino Sugar factory site in Williamsburg.
- Another registered lobbyist, former U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, also sat on One Brooklyn’s board while he was being paid to lobby Adams for his support of a real estate development in East New York, records show.
- A big developer, RXR, made a $10,000 donation to Adams’ nonprofit weeks after hiring a lobbyist to seek his backing for a condo tower in Downtown Brooklyn.
As of Friday, Adams boasted the biggest campaign war chest of the mayoral hopefuls between all he’s raised and the millions of dollars in public matching funds he’s been awarded: $7.8 million. The next three up are city Comptroller Scott Stringer ($7.4 million), entrepreneur Andrew Yang ($5 million) and banker Ray McGuire, who has raised $3.6 million without accepting public funds.
Asked about the donations, Adams’ campaign responded with a statement late Sunday: “Thousands of New Yorkers are supporting Eric’s campaign for mayor because they share his vision for the city and believe he is the candidate to lead us out of this crisis. In no way do contributions to the campaign or One Brooklyn affect the borough president’s decisions as a public official.”
His campaign also pointed out that One Brooklyn Fund’s website includes this statement that adheres to city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) rules: “The Office of the Brooklyn Borough President does not accept donations from individuals or organizations with business or pending business before it. Your support will not affect any future business dealings or the disposition of other matters between your organization and the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President.”
Two Fundraising Inquiries
One Brooklyn Fund is a separate fundraising entity not subject to the same restrictions as campaign donations. It’s controlled by Adams and provides financial support to programs across the borough that help small businesses as well as youth and senior citizen programs.
At issue: whether nonprofits like One Brooklyn Fund are a work-around that lets politicians raise big donations far above those restricted in campaigns and essentially promote the elected officials who control them. The city Department of Investigation has twice looked at One Brooklyn’s fundraising, issuing critical findings in 2014 and 2016.
In the first case, investigators concluded that Adams’ office “failed to comply” with rules specified by the city’s Conflict of Interest Board. The violation occurred when attendees at a Feb. 27, 2014, event in Borough Hall were asked whether they were interested in providing “financial support” to One Brooklyn — for upcoming Borough Hall events, according to the DOI closing memo obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
In 2016, DOI concluded that Adams’ office wrongly tried to license the use of Borough Hall to the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence for an event. The licensing fee was to be paid to One Brooklyn. The building is managed by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), the only agency allowed to enter into licensing agreements.
The probe revealed that the One Brooklyn Fund transferred $79,318 in fees to DCAS that were initially paid for by groups hosting events at the historic building in Downtown Brooklyn and were used to pay for staff overtime at the gatherings. In addition, Adams’ office charged city agencies approximately $16,000 to host events at the spot “before changing its policy in March 2016,” according to the DOI report.
‘A Public Benefit’
Mayor Bill de Blasio ran into issues with his now-defunct nonprofit, Campaign for One New York, after DOI determined he’d violated city ethics rules by soliciting donations from individuals with pending matters before City Hall. The city Conflicts of Interest Board later changed the rules to penalize officials who do that.
In 2016, the city Campaign Finance Board ruled that any donation to a nonprofit controlled by an official is considered “related to a candidate’s campaign” if it arrives within a year of an election.
Adams announced he was running for mayor in November. By then One Brooklyn Fund had already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2018, the last year the group broke down its expenses in tax forms, $134,000 out of $237,000 in the fund’s budget paid for “Borough Hall events,” records show.
In an interview with THE CITY, Geto conceded the One Brooklyn Fund could help Adams’ politics prospects.
“The purpose is we want to give funding and support to under-priviledged people and programs who are not eligible for government funding,” Geto said. “Is it good for Eric politically? Of course. From what I have seen them doing, is it a public benefit? Yes.”
Geto said he didn’t know Adams well in 2014 when the newly minted borough president appointed him to the nonprofit’s board. Besides creating and running the fund’s website, Geto said he attends two board meetings annually and at one point in 2018, wrote a $1,500 check to the fund. As a lobbyist, he can’t give more than $400 to any candidate.
Following de Blasio’s fundraising scandals, the law was changed to limit donations to politicians’ nonprofits like One Brooklyn — but the rules apply only to groups determined to have spent more than 10% promoting the official. Much of One Brooklyn’s events and promotional materials have featured Adams and noted his accomplishments as borough president.
A community opposition group, Voice of Gowanus, notes the rezoning plan’s architects estimate it will add 8,200 units to double the population from 20,000 to 40,000 in a neighborhood where, they say, the sewer system can’t support existing residents.
“Mr. Adams’ entanglements are yet another example of the insidious influence of Big Real Estate on our politicians and democratic process,” Voice of Gowanus wrote in a statement to THE CITY.
Geto contended that his affiliation with Adams’ nonprofit board presents no such conflict.
“We try to get to Adams and others — not just him — all the elected officials, and say we hope you’ll be supportive of this zoning, it’s good,” he said. “The fact that I serve pro bono as a volunteer as a civic contribution on that board, I don’t see it as a problem, an issue, a conflict of any kind.”
On seeking support for the Gowanus rezoning, Geto emphasizes that it’s a case of simply arguing the merits of the plan. He notes the project is expected to bring thousands of units of affordable housing to the neighborhood, and that the developers have committed to cleaning up the toxins lurking in the soil along the polluted Gowanus Canal.
“I didn’t get any special favors,” Geto said. “I don’t even know where Eric Adams is on this issue.”
On Sunday evening, Adams’ campaign spokesperson, Evan Thies, said the candidate has not yet taken a position on the Gowanus rezoning and added it “would be inappropriate to weigh in ahead of the public process” that will ultimately shape the final plan.
Developer Branches Out
Another member of One Brooklyn’s board is David Lombino, managing director of the mega-developer Two Trees.
Most of the company’s biggest Brooklyn projects were approved before Adams became borough president. But in 2016 and 2017 Two Trees needed his thumbs up to put artificial turf in at its about-to-open condo development at the former Domino site.
Sometime between July 2016 and throughout 2017, Two Trees hired Slater & Beckerman to lobby city planning officials and Adams on this issue, according to a spokesperson for Berlin Rosen, the public relations firm representing Two Trees.
During that time, as Lombino sat on One Brooklyn’s board, a foundation controlled by the Walentas family, which owns Two Trees, gave between $25,000 and $80,000 to the fund, records show. The next year, Two Trees employees and the Walentas family donated and raised $17,800 for Adams’ political campaign.
One of the campaign donations, for $5,100, exceeded the limit and Adams had to return $3,100 of it.
Thies noted that the borough president had declined to back another pet project of Two Trees: a plan for a street-level railway from Brooklyn to Queens known as the BQX. That project has floundered despite support from de Blasio.
A Bundle of Donations
Another One Brooklyn Fund board member also raised campaign donations for Adams that year.
Ex-Rep. Towns, as a registered lobbyist, can’t give more than $400 to a candidate. But he can collect or “bundle” donations from others, and in a November 2018 lobbyist disclosure form reported he’d raised $11,000 for Adams’ campaign that year. City records show him as an “intermediary” for Adams that year — raising $6,940 through 45 donations collected on the same day.
In late 2017, Arker Diversified Companies hired Towns to lobby only two officials — Adams and Letitia James, then the city’s public advocate. The subject at hand was labeled “affordable housing issues” and Arker’s then-pending plan for a nine-story, 422-unit affordable housing residence built on the site of a former state mental institution in East New York.
Adams’ campaign spokesperson pointed out that by then the borough president had already testified in support of the project, calling on the developer to give preference to residents of the surrounding community for 50% of the units. As of last week, the project had yet to receive a certificate of occupancy from the city.
An Arker executive did not respond to written questions submitted by THE CITY about this project. Towns did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss his role as a board member of One Brooklyn.
A $10K Contribution
Before the summer of 2019, another major New York City developer, RXR, had never given a dime to Adams’ nonprofit.
That changed not long after the firm hired Suri Kasirer, a major city lobbyist, to seek Adams’ support for a massive residential tower RXR planned to build on top of Long Island University’s Downtown Brooklyn campus.
Starting in May 2019 and continuing all last year into this February, RXR paid Kasirer to seek Adams’ support for the project. In August 2019, RXR gave $10,000 to One Brooklyn Fund.
RXR Senior Vice President David Garten said the firm donates to a number of nonprofits in Brooklyn as part of its long-term community engagement strategy. He said Kasirer was retained to support the government approval process for the project, which began construction in 2019.
Adams’ campaign spokesperson said the project does not require a zoning change and he was not clear what government action RXR was seeking.
Tax Break Sought
Another donor seeking Adams’ support was Abrams Fensterman, the law firm for Brooklyn’s Kings County Democratic County Committee, which paid Kasirer $90,000 between March and December 2018 to lobby the borough president and other elected officials on “real estate issues” for Cactus Holdings Inc.
Cactus Holdings is a Queens-based real estate holding company that owns, among other things, Western Beef supermarkets across the city.
In June 2018, a petition by Western Beef came before the New York City Industrial Development Agency, an arm of the city’s Economic Development Corp., seeking tax breaks as well as relief from having to conduct a pricey environmental review at a proposed Bronx site.
That marked the first IDA meeting attended by Adams’ then-new appointee to the board, Khary Cuffe, according to minutes of that June 12 meeting. The board unanimously approved both requests from Western Beef, the records show.
In the two months that followed, Abrams Fensterman lawyers, including Brooklyn Democratic Party counsel Frank Carone, gave Adams’ campaign at least $4,000 in contributions.
The firm had already given the One Brooklyn Fund between $5,000 and $20,000 back in 2016.
Through a spokesperson, Carone said no specific project was the focus of the 2018 lobbying by Kasirer. He said there was no connection between the lobbying and the donations to Adams campaign or the fund.