Tens of thousands of dollars go to lobbyists in the fight over city’s jail plan
With the possibility of a bigger jail coming to Boerum Hill, wary neighbors are turning to an age-old lifeline: cash.
Neighborhood opponents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rebuild and expand a jail in Boerum Hill have spent more than $30,000 on a “boutique government affairs” lobbyist to sway the city toward building a smaller Brooklyn lockup — or toward scrapping the plan altogether. Not to be outdone, national group JustLeadershipUSA, which supports the borough-based jail plan, spent $32,500 of their own on a lobbying firm in support of their campaign to close Rikers.
Residents of Boerum Condominium at 265 State St. — a 210-foot-tall, 21-story luxury apartment building directly across from the current 11-story Brooklyn Detention Complex — pooled $11,350 in late 2018 to hire to G. Fontas Advisors Inc., a lobbying group run by George Fontas. The subject of the payment was “Brooklyn Detention Complex ULURP Process,” according to city lobbying records. ULURP stands for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the process the city uses when developers — including the city itself — want to build something taller or bulkier than existing zoning allows.
The luxury building at 265 State St. itself upset some neighbors — when it was being developed — who thought it was too tall for the historically brownstone neighborhood.
Throughout the land-use process, many Boerum Hill residents have called for a smaller “in-context” jail. Both the local community board and the borough president have, to some degree, echoed those concerns. Community Board 2 called for a jail that houses no more than 815 beds, and Borough President Eric Adams put his foot down at 900 — both down from the current city-proposed plan of 1,150.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which spearheaded the borough-based jail plan, has said it plans on further reducing the size of the jails. The original plan for the Brooklyn facility called for a building 435 feet tall with 1,500 beds. MOCJ lowered that to 395 feet in May and plans on further reducing the size.
Samuel Kooris — whose name appears as the principal client of Boerum Condominium — declined to comment on the building’s payments to Fontas.
Fontas received another $20,000 from a group called Brooklyn Jail Reform, Inc. The subject of the payment was simply “ULURP,” and the targets were Councilmember Stephen Levin, the Mayor’s Office and Borough President Eric Adams.
Brooklyn Jail Reform, Inc., is the business name for fairjailsbrooklyn.org, which was part of a coalition of groups in the five boroughs that came out against the mayor’s plan in June. The group’s website shows a rendering of what the neighborhood might look like if the new facility is built.
While MOCJ declined to comment on the rendering used by Fair Jails Brooklyn, they have shared their own rendering of the proposed Brooklyn Detention Complex.
The money from Fair Jails Brooklyn and the Boerum Condominium — a combined $31,350 — is all from residents of 265 State St. and other nearby buildings, a source with knowledge of the payments told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Andrew Scruton, who is listed on public lobbying records as Brooklyn Jail Reform’s principal officer, declined to comment on the group’s stances and goals beyond what is already available on on the website.
“It happens very frequently where a community decides that there is, for them, a noxious use of a site. They try to go against it. It could be a homeless shelter. It could be a bicycle path. It could be anything that the community is against where they pool the money and raise the money and get help from a lobbyist,” said George Arzt, a veteran political consultant.
Arzt said the situation was similar to when concerned Midtowners opposed the opening of a men’s homeless shelter on 58th Street. In that case, community members spent over $100,000 on lobbyists to fight the city’s plan — so far to no avail.
On its website, Fair Jails Brooklyn describes itself as a group of “concerned residents dedicated to progressive criminal justice reform.”
“These groups will often support the broader goal, but when it comes to having to make a personal sacrifice or negatively impacting their wealth of course they’re not supportive,” said Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, an organization that supports transparency in government.
Fair Jails Brooklyn’s issues with the proposal have more to do with the physical stature of the proposed jail than any criminal justice reform issues, according to points made on their website. They argue the mayor’s plan is “out-of-context with the height and mass of other buildings in the neighborhood” and that the plan would strain local infrastructure. They also said any new jail should be no taller than the surrounding buildings.
“The bigger process issue is the resources that a few local neighbors can use to put their thumb on the scale.”
Councilmember Levin told the Brooklyn Eagle in July that he believes the new building will have to be at least twice the size of the current 11-story, 170-foot-tall Brooklyn Detention Complex.
Quinn Raymond, who lives in Boerum Hill, blasted residents’ use of lobbyists, saying the demand for a smaller facility is at odds with the criminal justice reforms the residents claim to support.
“As the inaccurately named ‘Fair Jails Brooklyn’ states, the new jail should indeed be ‘designed to ensure better, safer, and more humane conditions for the detainees.’ However this is directly at cross-purposes with their demand for a cramped, inadequately sized facility. You can have one or the other,” Raymond said in a letter to Borough President Eric Adams obtained by the Brooklyn Eagle.
“People have complained bitterly about the ULURP process here, but to me the bigger process issue is the resources that a few local neighbors can use to put their thumb on the scale,” Raymond, who works as a security consultant, told the Eagle.
Camarda said that the fiercest pushback against these projects — whether it’s a homeless shelter, a jail or even a bike lane — often comes from the communities with the means to do so.
“Often you’ll have individuals who have a personal stake in the opposition to an asset going into their community that could impact their property values,” he said. “In this instance, homeowners will in all likelihood have their property values reduced or increase less because of the jail that will go in. Or at least that’s the perception, if not the reality.”
But neighborhood residents are not the only ones dishing out for lobbyist help on the Brooklyn jail. There’s money on the other side too.
JustLeadershipUSA — a nationwide organization whose goal is to halve the country’s incarcerated population by 2030 — also spent more than $30,000 on a firm called Park&K Public Affairs, LLC, to lobby Councilmembers Stephen Levin, Diana Ayala, and Daniel Dromm. $6,500 of the $30,000 was for the “Borough Based Jail ULURP,” while the other $26,000 was for “Rikers.”
Ayala said she had been contacted by Park&K, who “facilitated dialogue” between the Bronx councilmember and JLUSA. Ayala represents the area of the Bronx where a Manhattan jail is planned.
On the other side, Levin said Fontas has set up meetings with his office, as well as expressing particular concerns for Fair Jails Brooklyn and Boerum Condominium, and that he takes the groups’ concerns into account as he does with any community member’s.
JLUSA, through its #CLOSErikers campaign, has been vocal in its support for the mayor’s borough-based jail plan, showing up at community board and borough president hearings across the city. Many members of the group were formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island.
“We invest resources to maximize the effectiveness of our engagement on behalf of directly impacted communities,” said Brandon Holmes, #CLOSErikers campaign coordinator with JLUSA, about the payments to the lobbying firm.
Payments to lobbyists weren’t confined solely to Brooklyn. In the Bronx, the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association — which sued the city over the jail plan — has given $48,000 to Kasirer LLC so far this year regarding “real estate issues.”
The group had its own plans for the space that the city wants to use for the Bronx facility: affordable housing.
Suri Kasirer said that only some of that money was related to the jail plan and Arline Parks, the CEO of the Bronx group, said they had been working with Kasirer LLC long before the city announced its borough-based jail plan.
Camarda said whether it’s jails, homeless shelters, liquor licenses or waste transfer stations, better-off communities like Boerum Hill will always be able to tip the scale more because of their funding.
“There isn’t a lot that can be done about it because of the constitutional protection on free speech — but there is this disparity when it comes to wealthier communities hiring a professional lobbyist,” he said.
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