Brooklyn Borough Prez Marty Markowitz: Arm Twister or Force of Nature for Nonprofits?

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October 25, 2011; New York Times | Marty Markowitz seems to be New York City’s happy political power broker. According to the New York Times, Markowitz has worked with real estate interests such as Forest City Ratner, the developer of the massive Atlantic Yards complex in downtown Brooklyn, to move their projects through the often-stalled pipeline. As a gesture of political gratitude, Forest City Ratner has contributed $1.7 million since 2003 toward charities favored by the borough president—part of more than $20 million the Times says Markowitz has raised from developers and special interests for four charities that Markowitz has created.

For example, the developer of the City Point project, Acadia Realty, recently expressed its gratitude by giving a $50,000 grant to one of Markowitz’s charities, part of the $300,000 it has given to Markowitz’s charities since 2005. Markowitz is known for hitting up corporate executives for donations to his charities, and has been described as “relentless, seemingly unable to take no for an answer.”  Of course, the execs all worked for corporations with public sector issues in Brooklyn: subsidies for real estate projects; zoning disputes; and other issues that might require the borough president’s intervention.

The Times notes that Markowitz’s “nonprofit network is so intertwined with his office that anyone who wants to hold events in Brooklyn Borough Hall, a stately Greek Revival building on Joralemon Street, pays a fee to one of the charities, Best of Brooklyn, not to the city”—totaling $200,000 in recent years. Markowitz sees no problem with fundraising for his personal network of charities, justifying it by saying that the charities “help make up for shortfalls in city financing . . . [and do] commendable work, including sending children to camp, running the borough’s restaurant week and promoting tourism.” He doesn’t think that there’s any problem with donors who “might feel compelled to give because of his political influence,” because, as Markowitz told the Times, “I know the difference between right and wrong, and ethical and nonethical.”

The four groups are Camp Brooklyn, the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series, the Seaside Summer Concert Series, and Best of Brooklyn. Markowitz gets no money from them, but two of his aides work at both the borough president’s office and the charities. Markowitz would not release a formal list of donors nor the size of their donations, but the Times estimated their revenues since 2003 at anywhere between $20 million and $45 million.

Politics? Does the fact that Markowitz opposed Wal-Mart’s effort to open up a Brooklyn site until last spring, when Wal-Mart donated $150,000 to Markowitz’s Martin Luther King Jr. concerts, demonstrate a kind of unseemly dynamic of politicians and corporations trading political favors?  Markowitz says no, but union leader Patrick Purcell of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 disagrees: “When somebody changes their mind after a corporation has come in and given a large donation, it is seen as an example of everything that people are disgusted with in politics.” The Times article provides several other examples of businesses whose charitable generosity seems to correlate with subsidies and support from Markowitz’s office.

Markowitz may see no problem, but the ethical issues are sort of obvious—even though Markowitz’s charities are a sort of Brooklyn boosterism-oriented kinds of groups. It doesn’t matter: if they are seen as the charities of the borough prez, the donations from corporations with borough business, particularly if subject to Markowitz’s arm-twisting, look bad. On the other hand, if Markowitz runs for Mayor, as has been rumored, he will be opposing billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who uses his self-financed foundation to provide lots of support to numerous charities that often end up providing good press for the Mayor—or more. If you were Markowitz facing off against the Bloomberg Foundation, plumping for four charities might seem to be a modest but necessary campaign strategy to counter an opponent who is one of the richest men in the nation.—Rick Cohen