Micah Kellner's VPG Meltdown Continues

Micah Kellner's favorite car company was sold at a $47 million loss to the US taxpayer. 

Indiana-based AM General agreed to acquire the Michigan-based MV-1 wheelchair accessible vehicle funded by the Obama administration with a $50 million loan.
AM General said it had reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy to purchase the DOE’s secured loan to the Vehicle Production Group LLC. AM General bought the loan for $3 million.

Assemblymember Kellner received tens of thousands of dollars from VPG and its owner Fred Drasner in exchange for his favorable testimony before the TLC regarding the MV-1.

Micah Kellner: Catering Hall Clown

Honoring his well-established and documented practice of being a hack, Assembly Member Micah Kellner took significant contributions from the lobbyists for a Park Avenue catering hall that fought, and won, an Albany-based battle for a liquor license exemption.

Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 583 Park Avenue has stood for 90 years as a Temple to Science and Health, according to the tenets propounded by Mary Baker Eddy.  Active membership having declined of late, in 2006 the Christian Scientists began renting out their church to the Roses, an entire family of event planners.  The Rose group struck a mutually lucrative bargain with the Christian Scientists, who would be allowed to continue using the church twice a week, in between bar mitzvahs, hedge fund holiday parties and fashion shows.

Anyone who has been on Park Avenue above 59th Street has surely noticed the area’s distinct lack of ground-level retail establishments, nightlife venues, bus stops, etc.  All of that is for a reason: the people who live in the buildings on Park Avenue like peace and quiet and have the resources to impose it.  So when 583 Park Avenue transformed itself from a nearly somnolent tomb into an event venue, the locals were perturbed.  Lines of white limousines, catering trucks, photographers, and crowds: none of this fit the standards of the neighborhood.

The church, now effectively a catering hall, applied for temporary permits to sell liquor at its events, but needed an actual retail liquor license in order to operate as a fully-functional event factory.  The Rose family ran into trouble when applying for a liquor license, as there is a legitimate house of worship, Central Presbyterian, less than 200 feet away, and state law forbids retail liquor sales in such close proximity to churches and schools.

Fortunately, some of the local elected officials were venal and open to the right kind of persuasion.  Micah Kellner and Dan Quart co-sponsored a bill specifically to carve out an exception in the state liquor law to give the church-cum-wedding factory the right to sell liquor all the time.  Lobbyists for the Rose Group contributed thousands of dollars to Kellner’s (and Quart’s) campaigns.  Over the last few campaign cycles Micah Kellner took in around $4,000 from lobbying firm Connelly, McLaughlin & Woloz, and from the principals of the firm, and from Brenda Levin and George Arzt, other Rose Group lobbyists.

As Senator Liz Krueger, who vigorously opposed the exemption, points out, the Kellner/Quart bill is essentially a private bill: it does not have any general applicability to other churches, but pertains only to 583 Park Avenue.  This point will surely irritate the Upper East Side bar owners whom Micah Kellner has targeted in his latest campaign against pub crawls.  Kellner, arguing from a bogus position of civic rectitude, has introduced legislation to strip liquor licenses from bars that participate in what are basically organized tours of bars that offer drink specials to revelers on special occasions.  The problem being, presumably, that it is hard to collect campaign funds from pub crawls.

As we have discussed many times on this website, Kellner is highly amenable to pay-to-play arrangements.  Taxi manufacturers, grocery store owners, offtrack betting machine operators, and now catering halls have found that Micah Kellner is happy to say whatever it is you need him to say, as long as you can meet his price.   As Mark Twain said about the tenets of Christian Science, “from end to end of the Christian Science literature not a single (material) thing in the world is conceded to be real, except the Dollar.”  Sounds like a theology for Micah Kellner.


District 5: Micah Kellner, Wine Salesman and Derby Tout

Last month City Council Watch brought you the story of Assemblymember Micah Kellner and his vigorous efforts on behalf of the Vehicle Production Group and its miracle taxi.  (In case you missed it, the New York Post recapped it yesterday.)  To refresh your memories, Kellner was given more than $20,000 upon completion of his favorable testimony before the TLC.  Unfortunately, things went sour for VPG, and it isn’t likely that much more money will be flowing from that company to the Kellner campaign, now that the government has seized its remaining assets.

However, Micah Kellner made sure to cover his bets, and has brought his dedication to product placement to the service of several other industries.  For example, Kellner has agitated for an end to New York State’s prohibition of the sale of wine in grocery stores.  In 2009 Micah Kellner wrote an editorial for the Buffalo News in which he spoke of allowing supermarkets to sell wine as a “sacred responsibility.”

In 2010 Kellner brandished a “smoking gun” which, he claimed, proved that liquor manufacturer Diageo had improperly worked on behalf of liquor stores trying to preserve their franchise.

In 2011 Kellner, citing a study by “New Yorkers for Economic Growth and Open Markets,” a coalition of wine producers and the food industry, called allowing grocery stores to sell wine “the ultimate win-win-win.”

In 2012 Kellner wrote to the New York Times that the inability to buy wine in supermarkets is the supreme “inconvenience” for New Yorkers.

Here is what he got: $21,600 in NYS and NYC donations from grocery store owners and lobbyists.  Kellner received money from Devon Fredericks and William Wachtel (Zabar family spouses); John Catsimatidis (Gristedes); Howard Glickberg (Fairway); Daniel Wegman (Wegman’s); Whole Foods; Joni Yoswein (New Yorkers for Economic Growth and Open Markets); and a variety of wine and beer wholesalers around the city.

Another good fight that Micah Kellner has been waging is the restoration of Off-Track Betting in bars and restaurants.  Horseplayers and simple devotees of the sport of kings apparently have been at a loss since the last OTB closed its doors.  We read:

Using the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands to make his point, New York Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who represents Manhattan, railed on officials for not moving to offer offtrack betting at bars and restaurants in New York City…

“How is it that New York is such a bad bookie that we can’t make a buck on Derby day?” Kellner said in a May 5 release. “On the day of the most famous race in the country, New York has to get back on the horse. The New York Racing, Wagering and Gaming Commission, with its stalling, is forcing not only the hardcore handicapper but the casual Kentucky Derby fan to scratch from the race.”

Did anyone else know that the Kentucky Derby is now officially called “the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands?”  I didn’t.  But I bet that Micah Kellner does, as he received $4000 in donations from Yum! Brands between 2010 and 2012.

Incidentally, the only other politician to get money in that period from Yum! Brands was Governor Cuomo, and he only got $1000.  Micah isn’t cheap, but he works hard.

So it is good to know that Micah Kellner is on the front lines, working to ensure that New Yorkers can buy a pint of Thunderbird at the local grocery store, put it in their pockets, and then head over to the nearest bar and blow the milk money on the ponies.


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.