Left Conservative Runs Strong in District 19

Council District 19 stretches from the eastern tip of Rikers Island all the way to the border of Great Neck, and is one of the hardest districts to read with any reliability.

Still mostly white, largely suburban in layout and feel, the 19th is one of the few political swing districts in the city, where Republicans can run competitive campaigns and win, and where independent-left Democrats such as Tony Avella maintain tremendous electoral popularity.  As such, the 5-way Democratic primary race for the seat is very much a toss-up, and will likely remain so through the election. 

As we discussed earlier, lobbyist, attorney and Crowley-endorsed Paul Vallone is hoping that his brother’s appearance farther up the ballot in the Queens Beep race will give him coattails, while former Senate Dem flack Austin Shafran is pushing his labor endorsements and leveraging his ties to the old Manes establishment.  John Duane, one-term Assemblyman from the 1980s, is rumored to want a judgeship.  Chrissy Voskerichian is the former chief of staff to incumbent Member Dan Halloran.

We spoke this week to the fifth candidate for the seat, Paul Graziano, a former Green Party organizer who makes a credible case for why he poses a serious challenge to Vallone and Shafran, the two presumed leaders in the race.

Graziano, a lifetime resident of the area, is a preservationist who has fought against over-development in northeast Queens for twenty years.  He argues that his press clippings, which are indeed extensive, are not simply “announcements of candidacy for office like my opponents’, but demonstrate commitment and actual work for the community.”  Graziano worked for Tony Avella as a consultant on rezoning, and credits himself with having protected vast swaths of the district from over-development.

Dismissing the backing of Austin Shafran by labor and of Paul Vallone by County, Graziano stresses the political irrelevance of those forces to northeast Queens.  “The only union that matters in the district is the UFT,” he says, “and even their members are turned off by the leadership.  And nobody around here cares about who Joe Crowley or Grace Meng are backing.”

According to Graziano, the real power brokers in the district are several dozen local civic and homeowner associations.  “When people have a question or problem, they don’t go to the political club or to the local elected: they go to the civic association.” Graziano claims that his decades of work in the community have won him the trust and respect of civic leaders and property owners.

Tony Avella, who rarely endorses anyone for office, has come out for Graziano, and the candidate is confident that Avella’s shiny reputation for clean government and independence will help him as Election Day approaches.  “I don’t say that I will necessarily win,” says Graziano, “but I can promise you that I will be competitive.”

Were Graziano to win, hypothetically, the Democratic primary, the drama would not be over for the 19th District.  Paul Vallone has the Independence Party line, and Austin Shafran won the WFP nod.  Republican Dennis Saffran is a strong candidate, and so the general election could easily become a 4-way battle.

In what has come increasingly to resemble a one-party state, it is nice to know that there are still parts of the city where the electoral season isn’t over in September.


Queens Members Supported Bogus Young Leaders Institute

Van Holmes’ arrest today should implicate four sitting Council members who have dealt with his bogus “Young Leaders Institute.”

Holmes, whose organization received most of its funding from former Sen. Shirley Huntley, is accused of having pocketed $77,000 out of $80,000 in recorded government disbursements.  The group’s early tax filings are filled out in a nearly illegible scrawl, and record Holmes’ annual compensation as $100,000.  No other officers or employees are listed.

The Young Leaders Institute also received substantial money from the City Council.  In 2011, Council Members Ruben Wills, Leroy Comrie, James Sanders and Mark Weprin gave a combined $40,000 to Holmes’ group.  Wills allocated $28,500 to the organization, by far his largest single discretionary grant that year.

Ruben Wills, another Huntley protégé, has his own problems with a fake non-profit group, New Yorkers 4 Life, which he established for seemingly the same purpose as the Young Leaders Institute: as a way to get government money for personal use.

In 2012, Wills’ discretionary funding was stripped from him and superintended by the head of the Queens Council delegation, Leroy Comrie, who together with Mark Weprin steered a mere $8,500 to the Young Leaders Institute.

Van Holmes has made campaign contributions to his benefactors on the Council.  Leroy Comrie received $440, Wills $200 and Donovan Richards $100. 


District 19: Paul Vallone, Coming and Going

Following his arrest for charges of bribery, District 19 Council Member Dan Halloran decided not to run for re-election, and opened the field up to a number of well-connected contenders hoping to take his seat.  

Austin Shafran, former mouthpiece for the Senate Dems and the Empire Development Corporation, has leveraged his mother's position in the Teamsters Union to great effect, and has snapped up endorsements from labor and the establishment.  He has even garnered contributions from the executives of the Epoch Times, so at least we know he is solid on Red China.

John Duane, brother of former state Senator Tom Duane, was an assembly one-termer back in 1982, and is seeking his grand return to elected office now.  He caused a minor scandal 30 years ago when his campaign, supposedly without his knowledge, released a forged letter of endorsement from then-Senator Frank Padavan. Devoted corruption-watchers will thrill to know that a young(ish) Carl Kruger organized the dirty tricks on behalf of Duane, who lost his re-election bid in 1984.

Paul Vallone, of the Astoria Vallones, took up technical residency in Flushing in the 1990s, though he continued voting in Astoria until 2004.  He vied for the nomination in 2009 and lost, and has decided to try again.  Paul Vallone has been active in the community in the usual way, serving on the community board, cleaning up graffiti, “singing Christmas Carols at Queens Cerebral Palsy Homes for almost 30 years,” etc., etc.

Professionally, Paul Vallone is listed as the Managing Partner of Vallone & Vallone, a legendary Astoria law firm founded by his grandfather in the 1930s.  The firm, however, no longer seems to exist as an independent entity.  Its website is non-functional.  Furthermore, Paul Vallone and his father Peter, Sr., and the firm of Vallone & Vallone itself, are listed as “of counsel” to Sacco & Fillas, another Queens law firm.

It is rather unusual (possibly unheard of, and possibly unacceptable) for an entire law firm to be of counsel to another law firm, and probably represents a kind of end-run around regulations against fee splitting arrangements.  In other words, the Vallone name carries a lot of weight and generates phone calls, but the firm farms out the legal legwork to Sacco & Fillas, and is officially of counsel to keep things looking ethical. 

Paul Vallone’s bio on the Sacco & Fillas website notes that Vallone & Vallone “can get you through the door from staff to principal,” and indicates the real value of the Vallone name: influence.  Indeed, the actual family business since Peter Vallone the Elder left politics has been lobbying city government on behalf of a variety of clients through the firm Constantinople & Vallone.

Paul Vallone doesn’t say it anywhere in his campaign information, but he is officially registered as a Constantinople & Vallone lobbyist, along with his father and his brother Perry.  A number of Paul Vallone’s major campaign contributors are among his lobbying clients.  For instance, Deborah Gaslow of Boca Raton contributed the maximum $2,750 to the campaign.  Ms. Gaslow is the wife of Peter Gaslow, owner of furniture maker Empire Office, which has paid Constantine & Vallone $40,000 over the last 18 months.       

The owner and senior employees of Mega Contracting have donated more than $3,000 to the campaigns of both Paul and Peter Vallone, Jr., while Mega Contracting has paid Constantinople & Vallone $240,000 in fees since 2010.  Mega Contracting, incidentally, has been awarded contracts for the construction and rehabbing of a number of municipal projects, including NYCHA houses, MTA station upgrades, and work on schools, police precincts and city hospitals.

So Paul Vallone has represented these folks as a lobbyist, and hopes to continue to represent his former clients when he takes office.  Seems like putting the cart before the horse, doesn’t it? The usual trajectory of a political career is first to be a public servant and eat bread from the sweat of one’s brow, and then after a time to leave office and cash in as a lobbyist.  Paul Vallone is reversing the typical course of a political career, starting out as a lobbyist, and then seeking elected office!  It looks as though the revolving door revolves both ways.


Rory Lancman: The Sad Fate of District 24

Former Assemblyman Rory Lancman has been avidly seeking a better job for several years.  In early 2012 he announced his intention to run against Bob Turner for Anthony Weiner’s old seat, but was hobbled in his search when the 9th Congressional District was eliminated.  The new district, the 6th CD, had been designed to be New York’s first “Asian seat,” and Lancman annoyed Queens County Dem bosses when he decided to play the spoiler in Grace Meng’s run.  In the end, Meng won an absolute majority of the vote against Lancman and Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, and a week after the November election the outgoing Assemblyman announced his intention to run for the 24th Council District, held for three terms by the term limited James Gennaro.

Lancman lucked out when two of his competitors for the nomination dropped out of the race: Isaac Sasson, lottery winner and election perennial, and Martha Taylor, popular district leader and activist, who appeared to have the support of Queens powerbroker Joe Crowley.  Health problems sidelined Taylor, and Sasson has decided to focus on philanthropy, leaving Lancman a virtually clear shot at the Council seat in central Queens.

So who exactly are they getting at the southern end of Utopia Parkway?  As an assemblyman Rory Lancman liked to promote alarming-sounding bills, preferably containing the word “terrorism.”  His most notable piece of legislation is the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act,” which would shield New Yorkers from libel judgments in countries that make it particularly easy to establish defamation, i.e. Britain.  The New York law addressed a legal problem commonly known as “libel tourism,” or the practice of shopping a case to find a favorable jurisdiction.  Changing “tourism” to “terrorism” may have helped Lancman win headlines, but resulted in the meaningless phrase “libel terrorism.”  Why not a bill addressing “arson robbery” or “rape embezzlement?”

Along similar lines we have the “Non-Profit Homeland Security Preparedness Study Act,” which requires the state to examine the “security needs of New York State non-for-profit institutions and what resources and strategies are available to assist with providing security.”  The initial survey of non-profit groups revealed the startling fact that “88% identified funding as a needed resource.”

One week following the allegations that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had raped a maid at the midtown Sofitel, Rory Lancman announced, at a press conference outside the hotel, that he would introduce a bill to ensure that chambermaids be given alarm buttons in case they are set upon.  As Lancman ominously described it, “We send hotel workers into rooms. By themselves. With no security.”  And here we are, several years later, and people are still entering rooms.  By themselves.  With no security.

Rory Lancman’s real work, however, has been in the service of his own guild, trial lawyers.  He agitated vigorously for a bill called the “Institutional Investor Recovery Act.”  This law would supposedly strengthen the unusually robust Martin Act, which gives the New York Attorney General practically unlimited power to prosecute securities fraud, with the terms “security” and “fraud” defined as broadly as imaginable.  The IIRA piggybacked on the anti-bank sentiment of the post-collapse Occupy Era, and promised implicitly to “recover” the moneys lost by large pension funds as the stock market went down.  The real function of the act would be to empower securities fraud lawyers with the authority of the AG to go wildcatting.  Did the fund lose money?  Let’s sue!

Maybe it would have been a great spur for social justice if the bill had passed.  Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann certainly thought so.  BLB&G is one of the largest law firms in securities litigation, and recently negotiated a $730 million settlement out of Citigroup, for which they requested $146 million in fees.  Passage of the IIRA would give BLB&G latitude to pursue settlements of this size with an unprecedented degree of freedom.  In their self-published magazine “The Advocate for Institutional Investors” BLB&G came out strong for Lancman’s bill.  The firm and its employees have also contributed at least $7500 towards Lancman’s campaign.

Rory Lancman has also been a vigorous advocate for worker safety, and chaired the Subcommittee on Workplace Safety.  Some of the contacts he made in that role paid off for him after he left the Assembly: the personal injury and class-action “mass tort” law firm Moretti Ratner (partners of which contributed $10,000 to his campaign) hired Lancman at some point in the last year, it appears.  In what seems to be a theme this electoral season, the candidate does not mention his actual day job in any of his campaign material. 

Just as a piquant endnote to this article, we direct your attention to Alex Adjmi, part of the Adjmi real estate family, which owns a great many high-profile buildings.  Alex Adjmi contributed the maximum $2750 to the Lancman campaign in January of this year.  Some years ago, in an earlier chapter of his life, Mr. Adjmi served 44 months in federal prison for laundering tens of millions of dollars in cash for South American cocaine cartels.  Pecunia non olet and all that, but surely there are some limits!