District 5: Micah Kellner, Car Salesman

Micah Kellner, currently a member of the assembly, is seeking a 20% pay raise, a shorter commute and a 4-year election cycle by becoming Council Member for the 5th CD, on the Upper East Side.  AM Kellner hopes to replace term-limited Jessica Lappin, and he has received her endorsement and the support of other local electeds, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney.  Money has flowed in from the UFT and 1199 SEIU, and his fundraising is running 3-to-1 against his only serious primary opponent.  All the stars are aligning to elect AM Kellner to the City Council.  

Micah Kellner has served the 76th District since a special election in 2007.  Prior to that he worked as an aide for a variety of New York State politicians.  Kellner has garnered attention for being the first “openly bisexual” Assembly Member, and also for having been born with cerebral palsy.  His attention to issues impacting the queer and disabled communities has earned him a measure of visibility and respect that more senior politicians might envy.  Even while serving as a state legislator he has found time to serve as the “Assistant Organizer” for the “NYC Bisexual, Pansexual and Queer Meetup Group” on meetup.com.

Assembly Member Kellner has accepted an exceptionally large amount of money from the taxi industry, which might strike one as unusual, considering that he does not serve on any transit-related legislative committees.  In this election cycle he has taken at least $12,000 from taxi or taxi-related entities, which is about 8% of his total fundraising so far.

Micah Kellner’s 2012 run for the Assembly provides some depth to his relationship with the transportation industry.  That year, when he ran unopposed in the primary, he accepted at least $40,000 just from transit-related individuals and corporations, much of which was filed as “uncoded” with the state.  This money came from major medallion owners, including $4000 each from Evgeny “Gene” Freidman (who was recently in the news for his assertion that Mayor Bloomberg personally promised to “destroy [his] fucking industry” when he leaves office), Guy Roberts, and Neomi Yakuel, all of whom are on the board of the Greater New York Taxi Association, a powerful trade organization.  To give some perspective to these numbers, Guy Roberts gave $5000 to Governor Cuomo: aside from his contribution to AM Kellner, that was the extent of his state giving that year.  The same disproportionate activity holds for much of Kellner’s donor list.

So while the taxi industry is known for its deep pockets and its campaign advocacy, something odd is definitely going on when a three-term Assembly Member without significant committee membership is raking in this much cash.  We can begin to understand what made AM Kellner worth it to the yellow cab industry when we look at the controversy that attended, and continues to attend, the “Taxi of Tomorrow.”

Mayor Bloomberg, starting in 2011, attempted to resolve a number of problems with taxis in New York City.  He wanted a standard “iconic” taxi that medallion owners would be obligated to use.  And he wanted to answer the need for street hails in the outer boroughs, where livery companies provide ad hoc illegal service.  The Mayor pushed the Taxi and Limousine Commission to pick a standard model (the Nissan NV 200) and he convinced Albany to pass a bill that would allow the TLC to issue up to 30,000 street hail permits that would allow livery cars to make street hails in upper Manhattan and outside Manhattan.

Medallion owners were not pleased with these developments, especially the latter, which would diminish the value of their franchise: medallions now auction for upwards of $1 million, and their number has only been increased three times in 75 years. 

But another group was angry, too.  Advocates for the disabled were already suing the city for not providing an accessible taxi fleet, and the fact that the Taxi of Tomorrow would not be wheelchair-accessible was not lost on them either.  These two groups, medallion owners and advocates for the disabled, joined forces to stop the Mayor’s efforts, and were willing to use any available legal means.  So we saw the Greater New York Taxi Association, not generally known for its good works (Gene Freidman’s bio on the GNYTA website lists the “Israeli Defense Force” as one of his favorite charities), suing the City over ADA requirements, over its failure to allow for hybrid vehicles as stipulated by the City Council, etc etc.

Into this breach stepped/was pushed AM Micah Kellner, who offered as a kind of minor Great Compromise his Access-for-All bill which would mandate expanded accessibility for yellow cabs and livery cabs, and would allow for a greatly-reduced 6,000 livery street hail medallions.  The GNYTA and other industry groups were very happy with this proposal.  The advocates for the disabled were somewhat assuaged.  And Micah Kellner could rest knowing he had demonstrated his willingness to do the bidding of industry while maintaining his reputation as a representative for disabled people.

But if the story ended there, there wouldn’t be much story.  Pushing things further still, Assembly Member Kellner didn’t just choose to fight for accessible transit: after all, that is a laudable goal, and if it requires compromises with industry, well, who is the virgin amongst us?  No, Micah Kellner chose to fight for one specific vehicle that the City should adopt as its answer to all its taxi needs.  And here is where he crossed into shadow country.

On October 20, 2011, the TLC held a hearing to consider approval of a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle, the MV-1, produced by a new automobile company called the generic-sounding Vehicle Production Group or VPG.  Speaking on behalf of the MV-1 was the chairman of VPG, Fred Drasner.  Also testifying for adoption of the MV-1 was Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who spoke of the car’s “terrific suspension,” and who concluded by stating that “when the time comes, I think you should vote for this rule because this vehicle does work.”

Council Member Oliver Koppell also testified in favor of adopting the MV-1, but the difference between the two elected officials is that Oliver Koppell never accepted money from the maker of the MV-1, while Micah Kellner did.

Fred Drasner, chairman of Vehicle Production Group, contributed $3800 to Micah Kellner’s 2010 Assembly campaign.  And after AM Kellner demonstrated what a great car salesman he could be, the money really started to flow. 

On December 2, 2011 the TLC approved the MV-1 for use as a yellow cab.

On December 7, 2011 Fred Drasner contributed $2500 to Micah Kellner’s campaign.

On January 10, 2012 the Vehicle Production Group released a press release about the unveiling of the MV-1.  The release included the following quote from NYS Assembly Member Micah Kellner: “The time for a taxi for all has arrived.  Whether you are on two feet or four wheels, the MV-1 will insure no one is left at the curb."

On January 10, 2012 Fred Drasner contributed $5000 to Micah Kellner’s campaign.

Also on that date, the Vehicle Production Group and Clean Energy Fuels, a major investor in VPG, each contributed $5000 to Micah Kellner’s campaign. 

In July, 2012 VPG contributed another $5000 to the Kellner campaign.

When asked for comment multiple times, the Kellner campaign did not respond.

I am not an expert on campaign finance law, and cannot say whether this timeline indicates violations of those laws.  But I think anyone with the tiniest speck of understanding of cause and effect could draw certain inferences that don’t make Micah Kellner glow with moral rectitude here.  Basically it seems that the folks at Vehicle Production Group (which sounds like an East German factory conglomerate) spotted a likely front for their push to get a juicy contract, an agreeable legislator with solid credentials as an advocate for the disabled, and decided to buy him.

It is funny: back in August of 2011 when Micah Kellner was making the case for his compromise bill, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg said, “we didn’t realize that [Kellner] had quit his job as an assemblyman and become a spokesman for the medallion owners.” 

The sad truth is that Kellner didn’t have to quit his assembly job.  In fact, he realized it was more lucrative and effective to do both jobs at the same time.



In just the last few weeks, there were even more baroque developments in this twisted story.  Vehicle Production Group was one of five automobile companies to have been given loans by the Department of Energy to pursue "green cars."  The other companies were Ford, Nissan, Fisker and Tesla.  VPG went belly-up in early April 2013, and its assets have been seized by the Treasury.  It appears that the company was never really in a position to produce as many cars as it said it could, or else the contracts it was hoping for never came through.

There have been no charges of fraud proffered (yet)  regarding VPG, but the taxpayer is out $45 million of the $50 million the company was loaned.  Intriguingly, Jim Johnson, an Obama bundler who led the 2008 vice-presidential search committee, is Vice Chairman of Perseus, one of the lead investors in VPG.