money in politics

Developers Donate Big to Queens DA Candidate Who Vows Construction Crackdown

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks at the National Action Network headquarters on MLK Day 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When Queens Borough President Melinda Katz announced her candidacy for district attorney in December, she sought to stand out as an advocate for workers injured or ripped off on the job – especially on construction sites.

“Developers and construction companies will be held accountable if they fail to follow the law and keep their workers safe,” reads a Katz for DA campaign platform in which she promised to assign an investigator to every workplace accident that results in serious injury.

That hasn’t deterred real estate developers from donating to her campaign, leading up to a likely decisive June 25 Democratic primary vote in the race to succeed longtime Queens DA Richard Brown.

Katz’s fundraising filings with the state Board of Elections show that more than $250,000 of the roughly $1 million her two campaign funds had collected through Jan. 11 came from real estate developers and other industry interests. That makes her the seven-way contest’s top recipient so far of real estate-related contributions.

Her donors represent a who’s who of New York City real estate – including David Walentas of Two Trees Management, Winston Fisher of Fisher Brothers and John Catsimatidis of the Red Apple Group.

The earliest contributions, dating back to January 2018, went to a committee Katz established to run for an unspecified citywide office in 2021. Funds were later transferred to her DA race committee, the Katz campaign confirmed.

Some of those donors have supported Katz for years, including in her two runs for Queens borough president, a seat she’s held since 2014. Borough presidents give advisory recommendations on developers’ land use applications.

And as a Council member from 2002 to 2009, Katz served as chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee, which casts decisive votes on such applications.

In between those elected positions, she worked as a lobbyist with the law firm Greenberg Traurig. Among her clients was a company associated with Forest Hills-based Muss Development. Principal Joshua Muss and an associated firm have donated $5,400 to Katz campaign funds since 2018, and Muss family members donated nearly $14,000 to past campaigns.

Katz told THE CITY she will “absolutely” prosecute developers who are at fault, and not just contractors implicated in construction fatalities or injuries.

“You have to make an atmosphere in the development world where rushing is no longer an excuse,” said Katz, 53. “You want to make sure that they understand that the atmosphere of Queens is changing.”

She and other DA candidates are seeking voter and donor support at a tumultuous time in Queens politics, following the upset election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the longtime congressional seat held by former Democratic county chairman Joe Crowley.

The primary battle also comes amid growing labor activism that helped shut down Amazon’s plans to locate in Long Island City.

Indictments for Construction Deaths

In her platform, Katz alludes to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s indictment of a construction company owner after a wall collapsed at a Bed-Stuy worksite, killing an 18-year old laborer. In January, the owner pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and other charges, said a spokesperson for Gonzalez, and was sentenced to five years probation and $150,000 in fines.

Gonzalez also is looking into the death of Luis Sánchez Almonte in a collapse at a Sunset Park construction site last year, according to his office.

Katz vowed to create a joint task force with city agencies to investigate workplace safety violations, similar to one Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. established in 2015 after 22-year-old worker Carlos Moncayo was buried alive at a Meatpacking District construction site. In June 2016, the construction company was convicted at trial, with second-degree manslaughter as the top count. A foreman was later sentenced to one to three years in prison.

“This will not only provide justice for victims of workplace safety violations, but will also send a clear message to developers that any effort to cut corners will have severe consequences,” Katz’ platform says.

The borough president calls the real estate industry just one of many interest groups contributing to the campaign  — and said it wouldn’t affect her ability to be an independent and aggressive DA.

“Yes, that is true that I take money from them,” Katz said. “They do support me but I think like any industry, good players don’t mind having oversight.”

During her stints as a City Council member and borough president, Katz signed off on numerous development projects for donors to Katz 2021 and Katz NYS. These include:

• Hallets Point in Astoria, a complex by the Durst Organization now taking its first tenants. The City Council approved the site’s rezoning in 2013. Members of the Durst family have donated nearly more than $24,000 to Katz campaigns since 2007 – including $400 from principal Helena Durst in 2018, the maximum allowed in citywide races from contributors doing business with local government.

• Willets Point, north of Citi Field, which is undergoing redevelopment approved by the Council in 2013. Co-developer Sterling Equities contributed $10,000 to a Katz campaign fund in July.

• The soon-to-open TWA Hotel at JFK Airport. As borough president, Katz gave advisory approval in 2016 to a lease agreement with the city Department of Small Business Services. Tyler Morse, CEO of hotel developer MCR, donated $25,000 in November 2018 — the most of any other contributor reported so far.

• In December, two weeks after declaring for DA, Katz approved the Mattone Group’s request for a special permit to overhaul a College Point shopping center. Donors associated with the Mattone family contributed nearly $14,000 in the months leading up to the approval process.

The Halletts Point development in Astoria was approved by a City Council committee Katz chaired.
The Halletts Point development in Astoria was approved by a City Council committee Katz chaired. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

An Industry with Wide Reach

Katz is not the only candidate for DA taking in significant real estate dollars.

Councilmember Rory Lancman also has raised more than $1 million as of January, upwards of $67,000 of it from real estate developers. Among them are Hal Fetner of Fetner Properties ($5,000), Adjmi family company A&H Acquisitions ($20,000), Kevin Maloney of Property Markets Group ($5,000) and Martin Dunn of Dunn Development ($5,000).

Records show the Real Estate Board of New York donated $6,500 to Katz and $5,000 to Lancman through political action committees.

Lancman and Katz have each raised more than $110,000 from limited liability corporations, many held by landlords of Queens properties, according to campaign finance filings.

Lancman said he has no reservations about taking money from real estate interests.

“When you run for office you are soliciting and developing relationships with a wide range of people and it is inevitable that one of them at some point in their lives is going to get themselves in trouble or be a defendant in a case that you’re prosecuting,” he said.

Lancman, added: “I’m going to raise as much money as I can within what the law allows.” The donation limit for the primary is roughly $38,000.

“I’m going to raise as much money as I can within what the law allows," said Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman, running for DA.
“I’m going to raise as much money as I can within what the law allows,” said Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman, running for DA. Photo: Emil Cohen/New York City Council

John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said in a statement that “it makes no difference whether or not a candidate accepts contributions from the community responsible for generating more than half of New York City’s tax revenue.”

“Also, we would expect political candidates who decline real estate contributions will decline contributions from any sector or industry that lobbies or advocates government officials,” he added.

Stepped-Up Ethics Scrutiny

Judge Greg Lasak, the only other candidate to so far hit the $1 million contribution mark, is receiving significant support from lawyers and law enforcement, including Sergeants Benevolent PAC and the New York State Troopers PAC — regular donors to DA races.

Three of the four other candidates say they’re taking a pass on real estate developer contributions.

“It really is about accountability and showing that you’re there for the community and no one else,” said candidate Tiffany Cabán, a public defender. “You can’t take corporate money. These are the very people that you are going to be holding accountable when you get into office.”

Katz is performing her balancing act between real estate donors and construction workers following a conflict-of-interest reckoning for Manhattan DA Vance.

During his 2017 reelection campaign, Vance took heat for declining to prosecute following investigations of Harvey Weinstein and the Trump family, while accepting campaign donations from attorneys working with them. Vance halted fundraising mid-campaign and asked Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity to review his practices.

The Columbia experts recommended New York DA candidates take measures to avoid conflicts, including fundraising without knowing donors’ identities. They also urged sitting DAs to refuse or limit contributions from donors with actual or potential conflicts of interest.

Said Lancman, asked about the recommendations: “Blind fundraising is impractical and for the most part a myth, and to my knowledge we have neither solicited nor accepted contributions from lawyers with cases before the office or from staff at the District Attorney’s office.”

A Katz spokesperson said the candidate “fully supports” the report’s call for publicly financed district attorney elections — but won’t unilaterally follow its recommendations.

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