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Top City Lobbyist Found Many Ways to Give — Including Gracie Mansion Fixes

By  Jeff Mays and James Fanelli | September 6, 2016 7:39am 

 James Capalino, who lobbied to have the deed restriction lifted at the Rivington Hous, has given money directly to city agencies that his firm interacted with.
James Capalino, who lobbied to have the deed restriction lifted at the Rivington Hous, has given money directly to city agencies that his firm interacted with.
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Facebook/James Capalino

NEW YORK CITY — The city's top lobbyist has not only been a first-rate fundraiser for Mayor Bill de Blasio's political campaigns — he's found other ways to give, directly to city agencies.

James Capalino, whose lobbying firm played a role in the controversial deed switch that turned a Lower East Side AIDS hospice into a future luxury condo development, donated more than $5,000 worth of iPads and video games in December 2014 to the Department for the Aging's Grandparents Resource Center program, records show.

The 10 iPad Airs and $1,713.90 in children's video games were given to grandchildren of people in the program during a holiday event. The Department of Aging reported the donation to the city Conflict of Interest Board because the amount was greater than $5,000.

Records show that Capalino's firm lobbied the agency in the year before and after the donation.

In one instance, in June 2014, Capalino and Company met with the agency's commissioner, Donna Corrado, on behalf of its client Catamaran, according to email exchanges obtained by DNAinfo New York.

The lobbying firm wanted to discuss ways to promote and distribute a city prescription discount card that Catamaran administers.

In another instance, in July 2015, members of Capalino's firm met with Corrado and Deputy Commissioner Caryn Resnick to discuss affordable senior housing and a city rezoning proposal that would encourage this type of development, records show.

"I'd love to meet with you, the commissioner and whomever else might be appropriate to chat with you about your perspective, how we can help identify players for this arena to ensure that the housing gets built both with the NYCHA [request for proposals] and with the proposed text amendments from City Planning," Claire Altman, a director at Capalino's firm, wrote in an email to Resnick.

A follow-up email shows that they settled on an hour-long meeting July 21 of that year.

Capalino's firm also showed up in a March 2015 email chain involving Corrado and the approval of a lease for the Bay Ridge Center, a city-funded nonprofit that provides senior programs. Capalino's firm represented a building owner offering a lease to the center.

But Corrado nixed the proposed lease because the rent was too high.

"Are you kidding?" Corrado wrote to an assistant commissioner when she was informed of the yearly rental amount.

Capalino has been a big booster of de Blasio and the mayor's causes. He has bundled $44,940 in campaign contributions for de Blasio's re-election campaign. His firm also gave $10,000 to the Campaign for One New York, the controversial nonprofit set up to promote the mayor's policies. Two of Capalino's clients also donated $10,000 apiece to the nonprofit, which shut down earlier this year.

But Capalino's giving didn't stop there.

Records with the Conflict of Interest Board show that his firm donated between $5,000 and $19,999 to the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, the private nonprofit that preserves the mansion where de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, live.

In 2014, Capalino donated between $5,000 and $19,999 to a fund to help the families of murdered NYPD detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. The fund was handled by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and reports donations only in a dollar range.

Capalino is a big supporter of city parks. He purchased $9,500 worth of tickets for annual galas hosted by the Battery Conservancy in 2014 and 2015. He is also a board member of the Friends of the High Line.

"Clearly he is someone who is a supporter of conservancies,” said Hope Cohen, chief operating officer of the Battery Conservancy.

Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Capalino and Company, said the firm's giving to the Department for the Aging and nonprofits was part of its corporate social responsibility push.

"Our philanthropic program is central to our mission and we proudly support many charities helping New Yorkers most in need," she said.

"Last year alone, our team made over $330,000 in contributions to 140 organizations, volunteered thousands of hours for worthy charities and were honored a number of times for our philanthropic efforts."

But Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College, said donations from a lobbyist such as Capalino always raise questions.

"Anytime you see donations one of the questions is what do they want?" Zaino said.

"It is absolutely possible he is doing this out of the goodness of his heart and he cares about aging issues, for example, but that’s harder to accept when the person is a lobbyist and their job depends on access and the ability to wield influence.”

Last week, de Blasio said that he has limited contact with Capalino “because of the atmosphere we’re in and the ongoing investigations" — federal, state and city — into the mayor's fundraising activities. 

Emails showed that Capalino began lobbying de Blasio directly shortly after he took office.

"You know, he — going into the mayoralty — was someone that I respected and was a friend, someone I talked to a lot over the years. But I do not have contact with him anymore,” de Blasio said.

The donations raise issues for someone such as de Blasio who ran on a progressive platform.

“I would not pretend de Blasio can control who is donating to what, but the real question is did he really remove himself from this relationship?” Zaino said.

“The appearance itself is problematic for the mayor, especially someone like de Blasio who ran on and made his name on the fact that he was not beholden to large interests and that he would work for the people."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Capalino and Company represented the affordable housing developer Arker Companies. Arker is not a client of the lobbying firm.