A lobbying firm that works on behalf of the Howard Hughes Corp. recently hired a high-level official from the NYC Economic Develop Corporation, raising concerns over whether such a move represents a conflict of interest given Howard Hughes’ plan to redevelop the South Street Seaport, which is owned by the EDC and leased by the company.
Ashley Dennis, who was chief of staff to former EDC President Kyle Kimball, is now a vice-president at Kasirer Consulting, New York City’s highest-grossing lobbying firm. Kasirer counts among its clients the Howard Hughes Corp., which has paid the firm over $1 million to lobby several city agencies, including the EDC, in support of the developer’s plan for the Seaport, according to public filings.
An EDC spokesperson said Dennis’ last day of employment with the agency was April 24. Dennis, who is in her mid-twenties, is the stepdaughter of former New York Gov. David Paterson.
Howard Hughes has a 60-year lease on the Seaport with the EDC, and has already been granted approval to develop Pier 17 into a shopping and dining destination. Their plans for the Seaport, which initially included a 600-foot residential tower at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, have been met with stiff resistance from the local community.
One of Dennis’ responsibilities at the EDC was to oversee the Seaport Working Group, which was set up to reconcile Howard Hughes’ vision for the Seaport with concerns in the community, which center on preserving the historic character of the district.
The SWG held about a dozen closed-door meetings last year, then was disbanded in December, amid disappointment over the fact that the company seemed to disregard the group’s concern about the height of the proposed tower.
Dennis attended all of the meetings as an ECD representative, and her move to a lobbying firm allied with the developer raised eyebrows among those seeking to preserve the Seaport.
“I can only speculate, but if Ashley Dennis is taking a paid position with Kasirer Consulting, who represents Howard Hughes, it certainly appears to be unethical,” said Diane Harris Brown, a former member of the SWG who belongs to Save Our Seaport, a local preservation group.
According to the city’s conflict of interest law, a city employee cannot negotiate for a job with any company that the employee is involved with as part of their city duties. If a city employee leaves for the private sector, they are banned from contacting or visiting their former city agency on behalf of their new employer for one full year.
Conflict of interest law also states that if a city employee has worked on a “particular matter” for the city, that employee can never work on that same particular matter again for a new private employer, even after a year.
Dennis did not return a request for comment on the matter. Kasirer Consulting provided a statement through a spokesperson. “Kasirer Consulting takes the rules set forth by the Conflict of Interest Board extremely seriously, and Ms. Dennis has strictly followed them,” the statement said. “Per COIB regulations, Ms. Dennis recused herself from working on all issues of interest to Kasirer Consulting or its clients, including South Street Seaport, prior to any discussions regarding employment opportunities with the firm.”
Kasirer forwarded the statement to a reporter through the PR firm Berlin Rosen, which also represents Howard Hughes in its dealings with the media. When pressed, a Berlin Rosen spokesperson said, “Ms. Dennis has permanently recused herself from all matters relating to the Seaport.”
The city’s Conflict of Interest Board said that confidentiality provisions prohibit them from disclosing information about a former city employee moving to the private sector, except in the case of waivers and final findings of violations, which is considered public information. “That said, we have no public information about Ms. Dennis,” said Breanna Injeski, deputy director of enforcement with the NYC Conflict of Interest Board.
Kasirer’s website lists Dennis as a vice president, and touts her former position as chief of staff to EDC president Kyle Kimball, who is set to leave the agency in June.
In a March interview with The Real Deal, Kasirer’s eponymous principal, Suri Kasirer, said she only hires “people who have been in government and politics at a senior level.”
Kasirer said her team consists of three senior lobbyists, two junior staffers and two supporting employees.
She also said real estate accounts for about half of the firm’s business and that they specialize in guiding developers through the city’s uniform land use review procedure, which is the next step for Howard Hughes in realizing its vision for the Seaport.
Catherine McVay-Hughes, chair of Community Board 1 and a former member of the SWG, said Dennis has worked with the community in Lower Manhattan for a range of issues, including Hurricane Sandy recovery and the East River Esplanade, as well as on the SWG.
“She knows this community’s concerns,” said McVay Hughes. “We hope that this will help with any project that she is working on within Community Board 1 so that the project will appropriately address the diverse set of competing interests. In our system there is this revolving door between government and the private sector. It is the job of the stakeholders to protect their interests as we would be doing regardless of who is representing developers in our district.”
Others saw her jump to the private sector as more concerning.
Save Our Seaport released a statement criticizing Dennis’ move to a company representing Howard Hughes to city government. In it, they said Dennis, Kimball and Patrick O’Sullivan, the former vice-president of real estate for the EDC, who left last September, were responsible for negotiating the lease that enabled Howard Hughes to “privatize the Historic South Street Seaport District.”
They also criticized the fact that the South Street Seaport Museum and the New Amsterdam Market, a popular locally sourced market that was located at the former Fulton Fish Market, were excluded from membership on the SWG.
“Now we see how that could have happened,” said Harris Brown in the statement. “It is time for a new governing authority, with local stakeholders to replace the involvement of NYCEDC … We need a master plan for the Seaport.”
In a subsequent interview, Harris Brown said Dennis wasn’t receptive to suggestions or ideas from the community, most importantly regarding proposed alternate locations for Howard Hughes’ residential tower.
“The EDC’s position, as voiced by Ashley Dennis, was that there’s no alternate site for Howard Hughes’ proposed tower,” said Harris Brown. “There’s no point in looking for another site because there is none. They weren’t open to discussing these things.”
Since December of last year when the SWG broke up, Howard Hughes has forged ahead and started the approval process with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Much of what the company wants to do is located within the Historic South Street Seaport District).
Harris Brown stopped just short of saying the SWG was a waste of time.
“I certainly was hoping that our guidelines would have more impact,” she said. “I don’t know that it felt like an exercise in futility, but I do think that Howard Hughes and the EDC really were throwing a bone to preservation friendly people, and it wasn’t much of a bone.”