August 21, 2016; Albany Times-Union

Nonprofits that lobby extensively—especially those with close ties to special interests—can find themselves being investigated by government oversight agencies if they appear to be too cozy with their benefactors. New York State’s lobbying and ethics watchdog agency is investigating a nonprofit with ties to New York’s biggest political spender, reports the Albany Times-Union.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) gave the president of the Manhattan nonprofit Pledge 2 Protect 15 days to respond to a letter concerning a potential violation of state law. The Times-Union says that a successful case from JCOPE could affect other lobbying donors and groups. JCOPE would not comment on the letter, citing it as part of an ongoing investigation; Pledge 2 Protect did not respond to the paper’s requests for comment, either.

Pledge 2 Protect was founded in 2013 to fight the building of a marine waste transfer station on the Upper East Side of Manhattan The nonprofit has close ties to Glenwood Management, a large real estate company. Glenwood also opposed the building of the station.

An ethics reform law passed in 2011 was intended to force groups like Pledge 2 Protect, issue-oriented nonprofits that lobby, to disclose their donors—requiring those groups that spend more than $50,000 annually to disclose donors of more than $5,000.

The Times-Union reports that in the second half of 2013, nearly $700,000 was funneled from unknown donors to a law firm, Marquart & Small, which then passed the funds on to Pledge 2 Protect, which meant that only the name of the law firm showed up on lobbying disclosure filings submitted—not the names of the original donors.

Glenwood reportedly feared that the Upper East Side waste transfer station, intended to ease the trash removal burden on poor minority communities in New York City, would have made its luxury residential developments less desirable places to rent.

While intentionally filing a false lobbying disclosure is illegal, it is not clear that using third parties to obscure lobbying donors breaks any New York law. Pledge 2 Protect’s former lawyer said he had been assured by JCOPE that its reporting method was legal.

JCOPE has been criticized for the perception of not investigating Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political allies. Its current executive director is a former counsel to Cuomo, and Glenwood is Cuomo’s biggest campaign donor, as well as a big donor to many other elected officials. Marquart & Small has various connections to Glenwood’s executives, as well.

Proponents of the waste transfer station believe that Glenwood has been bankrolling the opposition, but there’s no evidence, says the Times-Union. The company’s lawyer would not comment.

Other lobbying groups can also be unclear about their donors. The New York Civil Liberties Union, for example, successfully sought an exemption from JCOPE to avoid disclosing its donors, arguing that it could lead to retribution. A new ethics bill that the governor is expected to sign would increase donor disclosure for some types of lobbying groups and donors, and some nonprofit lobbying groups are concerned about the bill.

Pledge 2 Protect spent more than $1 million in efforts to persuade New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio to cancel building the marine transfer station. While it was not successful in that effort, it won some concessions.—Larry Kaplan