Lobbyists smoothed way for FreshDirect

The site in the Harlem River Yard where FreshDirect plans to build its headquarters

The site in the Harlem River Yard where FreshDirect plans to build its headquarters

 

Consultants helped online grocer gain support and subsidies

In its quest to relocate to the Bronx with millions of dollars in city and state tax breaks and subsidies, FreshDirect has spent freely on well-connected lobbyists and consultants, public records, other documents and interviews show.

These specialists have helped the online grocer gain access to high-ranking government officials, navigate the labyrinth of city land use rules and meet the opposition of a determined group of opponents.

Since early in 2012, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. announced FreshDirect’s plan to move to Port Morris, the company has

  • increased its payments to its longtime lobbyist the Parkside Group
  • employed a law and lobbying firm, Akerman Senterfitt LLP, to close deals for subsidies and zoning changes
  • used Marathon Strategies, a communications consulting firm, to polish its image
  • hired former activist Majora Carter as a consultant to build local support

Because the consultants aren’t obliged to disclose their compensation and the lobbyists’ reports combine work related to the move to the Bronx with other lobbying on the company’s behalf, it is impossible to tell just how much FreshDirect has spent in its campaign to win approval for its move and the accompanying tax breaks and grants, but the reports suggest that it is at least $200,000.

Among those lobbied by the Parkside Group and Akerman Senterfitt LLP are a deputy mayor, the borough president, the heads of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, the city Economic Development Corporation and the state’s Empire Development Corporation, the counsel to the governor, City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, the Bronx director of the Dept. of City Planning and members of Community Board 1 and its district manager Cedric Loftin.

Parkside has represented FreshDirect since 2004, according to the records of the City Clerk. Through 2011, it was paid a retainer of $48,000 a year to advance FreshDirect’s interest in city and state legislation and in regulations concerning trucking and workman’s compensation.

In 2012, its fee shot up to $6,500 a month. Through the first six months of 2013, according to state and city records, it has earned $112,000 to lobby state, city and local officials in connection with FreshDirect’s move from Queens and the grants and subsidies that added up to $128 million.

Months before FreshDirect’s planned move was announced, Parkside officials met with Deputy Mayor Robert K. Steel, with the borough president and with Seth Pinsky, then head of the Economic Development Corp., filings with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics show.

Last June and July, Parkside president Harry Giannoulis appeared at community board meetings to make FreshDirect’s case.

Widely known as a powerhouse political consultant and lobbyist, Parkside has helped dozens of candidates, most of them from Queens and Brooklyn, win elections. Its lobbying clients include unions, the New York Public Library and other nonprofits and large corporations and real estate firms.

Marathon Strategies boasts of its ties with Gov. Cuomo and other high-ranking Democrats, including Hilary Clinton. It describes itself as expert in “Crisis Management, Competitive Intelligence and Research, Media Relations, Political Strategy, E-Reputation, and Content Development.”

Two Marathon employees serve as spokesmen for FreshDirect: Peter Ajemian, formerly an operative for the 2010 Cuomo campaign, and Kyle Sklerov, who until February had served as a spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation, where he provided his agency’s defense of the FreshDirect deal.

The Akerman firm earned just under $50,000. It put the finishing touches on a $1 million grant from the borough president in meetings with Diaz and Maureen Cintron and Frank Randazzo of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. The firm also met with Carol Samol, who heads the Bronx Office of the Department of City Planning, about the zoning exception necessary for the grocer’s move to the Harlem Rail Yard, a particularly contentious issue that led to a raucous meeting of Community Board 1.

FreshDirect hired Majora Carter, who won fame as a tireless activist waging a struggle for environmental justice, to persuade local grassroots organizations to support the company’s move.

Carter has had mixed success. Green Bronx Machine and Health People endorsed FreshDirect’s move to the Bronx, and were rewarded. A $10,000 grant from FreshDirect enabled the urban farming program to build a green wall at a Hunts Point charter school, and FreshDirect supplied the food and the volunteers that allowed the health program to sponsor a holiday meal in Melrose. But other grassroots organizations, including Sustainable South Bronx, which she founded, repudiated Carter’s efforts.

Since the Herald broke the news that Carter was a paid consultant to FreshDirect, she has refused to speak to its reporters, saying through the company’s communications director, Carter’s husband James Chase, that the Herald would have to agree to submit any story in advance and agree to a series of pre-conditions governing what words it could or could not use.

Hours after this story appeared online, Marathon Strategies’ Ajemian responded on behalf of FreshDiect, saying via email, “Like most large companies, FreshDirect uses outside consultants to help achieve its business goals,” and reiterating the company’s contention that the move would bring jobs to the Bronx. None of the other consultants answered requests for comment.