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by on September 8, 2018
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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hired a lobbyist for a natural-gas pipeline company to run his re-election campaign at the same time his administration was throwing a potential lifeline to the company’s controversial New Jersey-New York pipeline project.

Less than three months before the administration postponed a decision on the project, The Williams Companies also donated $100,000 to a Democratic Party governors’ organization that supports Cuomo, government records show.

 

Cuomo Campaign Manager Was Lobbyist for Controversial Pipeline. Listen 4 min. Queue. Maggie Moran in 2008, when she worked for N.J. Gov. John Corzine

Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi asserted that there was no link between the lobbying, the donations and the administration’s pipeline decisions.

“Protecting New Yorkers and our environment are this administration’s top priorities, which is why decisions on individual projects are made at the agency level by career public servants who conduct a rigorous review of the facts and the science,” Azzopardi said.

The company — Transco, a subsidiary of Tulsa-based Williams — has been seeking permission to build the pipeline from Cuomo administration regulators since June of 2017. The natural-gas project runs 23 miles from Old Bridge, New Jersey to Rockaway, New York.

As residential customers seek to switch from heating oil to cleaner, less-expensive natural gas, Williams has argued that the pipeline expansion is necessary to “help ensure that reliable gas supplies are available to support these conversions.” The company says the project will displace about 900,000 barrels of heating oil a year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in New York City and Long Island.

Critics say the location of the pipeline puts the waters and shores of Lower New York Bay at risk of contamination and other environmental damage, and that it will encourage the region’s reliance on fossil fuels, thereby setting back the fight against climate change.

Just this week, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringerechoing local activists, called for the project to be terminated.

Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) temporarily denied a water-quality certification for the pipeline in April. But the ruling also allowed the Williams subsidiary to re-submit the proposal for approval “without prejudice” — a maneuver that keeps the embattled project alive. The company submitted a new application in May. Cuomo has declined to answer questions about whether or not he agrees with Stringer that the proposal should be blocked.

Amid the intensifying battle over the pipeline, Williams hired lobbying firm Kivvit to advocate for its interests in Albany last fall, according to state ethics records. Among the lobbyists registered to represent Williams is Maggie Moran, a well-known operative who advised Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

Maggie Moran, Registered Lobbyist

In June of this year, while she was registered as a pipeline lobbyist, Cuomo hired her to take the reigns of his campaign. Moran took over two months after Joe Percoco, who ran both of Cuomo’s previous campaigns, was convicted on federal corruption charges — one of several corruption scandals that have dogged the Cuomo administration in recent months. She took a leave of absence from Kivvit when she joined the campaign, a Cuomo spokesman says.

State records show that Moran, who declined an interview request, began lobbying on behalf of Williams in September 2017 — three months after Williams first submitted its pipeline proposal to Cuomo administration regulators. Those records also show that Moran’s lobbying has been specifically targeted at the executive branch that Cuomo heads. Kivvit’s website says Moran “oversees all aspects of Kivvit's day-to-day operations” and Kivvit has continued to lobby for Williams in 2018. Kivvit’s managing director is former Cuomo communications director Rich Bamberger.

The Money Trail

As Cuomo administration regulators were reviewing the pipeline this year, Williams made two donations totaling $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which lists Cuomo as a member of its leadership team and which has provided the campaign with polling research.

Internal Revenue Service records show that the money arrived in two donations in February — $50,000 from The Williams Companies and another $50,000 from the New York subsidiary Transco, the Williams Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company. Soon after, the governor's association made an in-kind contribution of polling research worth $20,000 to Cuomo’s campaign, according to state disclosure records.

A Cuomo campaign spokesperson, Abbey Collins, said the governor did not solicit Williams’ contribution to the DGA.

Azzopardi, the spokesman for the governor’s office, said: “At no point did the agency or the governor’s office get approached on this project by Kivvit — any suggestion otherwise would be a trip into tinfoil hat country.”

The company has given regularly to both the Democratic and Republican governors’ associations in the past.

The 2018 donations appear to be among the company’s largest ever to the governor's association. The DGA has said corporate donations to the group cannot be earmarked to specific campaigns or candidates, and therefore there is no link between donations and public-policy influence.

Williams spokesman Keith Isbell declined to discuss the company’s lobbying activities, its relationship with Moran or its donations to the DGA on the record.

“New York’s energy demands continue to grow at a startling rate,” he said. “The Northeast Supply Enhancement project is a critical step toward ensuring New York has the infrastructure in place to meet that demand with a mix of energy sources that are reliable, affordable and clean.”

Albany Corruption

In the last few years, Cuomo has faced multiple corruption scandals, fueling critics’ assertions that he is too close to Albany influence peddlers. Percoco, one of his closest aides, was convicted in March, and in July several other top Cuomo allies were found guilty of perpetrating a massive bid-rigging scheme.

Despite questions about special interests and revolving doors, Cuomo decided to hire a registered lobbyist to run his campaign amid the corruption trials. That decision follows Cuomo’s 2015 hiring of lobbyist William Mulrow to serve as his top aide in Albany.

Cuomo appointed Mulrow as chairman of his reelection campaign last year, and Mulrow returned to his job at Blackstone, a Wall Street colossus that also has had fossil fuel-related business before Cuomo’s administration.  

Cuomo is now facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon, who has demanded an end to pipeline approvals. During the campaign, the governor has touted his environmental record, including his formation of the U.S. Climate Alliance with other blue-state governors following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement last year. The Cuomo administration has also rejected two other proposed pipeline projects.

But Cuomo has declined to reject fossil-fuel industry campaign cash, and earlier this year, he affirmed his support for natural gas development — even as environmental groups continue to pressure his administration to block proposals for new gas-fired plants and pipeline projects around the state.

In the New York pipeline fight, the Cuomo administration denied Williams’ subsidiary Transco a water quality certification, citing “potentially significant environmental impacts that raised serious concerns.”

“The construction of the project could have significant water quality impacts in New York State,” said Cuomo DEC appointee Thomas Berkman in a letter released just weeks after Nixon entered the primary race against the governor. “This includes potentially significant impacts from the resuspension of sediments and other contaminants, as well as to habitats due to the disturbance of shellfish beds and other benthic resources. In addition, the construction of the Project could potentially impact Atlantic sturgeon and other protected species.”

However, because state regulators rejected the application “without prejudice,” the state allowed Williams to resubmit its proposal in May. That has raised fears among environmental activists that Cuomo’s administration is delaying a decision on the pipeline until after next week’s gubernatorial primary and the general election in November.

According to bi-monthly reports filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Moran was registered to lobby the executive branch of New York State government on behalf of Williams as recently as May and June of this year — just as the pipeline’s water quality permit was resubmitted, and just before she joined the Cuomo campaign as manager.

Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said, “Maggie was not on the campaign when the decision was made by the governor’s administration.”

She said Moran’s firm handled media relations and advertising for the company, but didn’t lobby the legislature or the executive branch. She said it was required to register as a lobbyist by new rules about companies that have contact with the press.

In a letter filed with state ethics regulators, an official from the Williams Companies said the conglomerate hired Moran’s firm to “engage in communications activities to the general public that spur communications to the executive and legislative branches of New York State government.”

Client Support

Williams is not the only Moran client with business before Cuomo. State records show that as of June, Moran has also been registered to lobby “administrative branches of New York State government” on behalf of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which is currently negotiating with the New York Department of Health over the price of its cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi. Records show that Vertex hired Kivvit in May of this year, immediately following a state panel’s recommendation that New York’s Medicaid program impose a price cap on Orkambi.

Another of Moran’s clients at Kivvit is Tesla, the electric carmaker. It's the parent company of SolarCity, a solar-panel factory known as RiverBend that's at the center of the ongoing Buffalo Billion probe. That investigation has seen Percoco convicted in federal court on three counts of bribery and fraud, and another former Cuomo aide, Todd Howe, plead guilty on similar charges.

Kivvit clients have contributed at least $544,000 to Cuomo’s campaigns since 2014, according to state campaign finance disclosures. Moran herself has donated $10,000 to Cuomo since 2015, records show.

In addition to approval from the Cuomo administration, Williams’ northeast pipeline also needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose five commissioners — four of whom are appointees of President Donald Trump — are expected to rule on the project later this month.

The agency issued a report in March finding that the project “would result in some adverse environmental impacts,” including “long-term impacts on air quality and noise” from a compressor station. However, the same report also asserted that most of the “impacts would be temporary and occur during construction.”

A coalition of environmental and citizens groups, Stop the Williams Pipeline, submitted more than 6,000 comments in opposition to the pipeline to the commission during its public comment period. The group is also collecting signatures on a petition its members plan to submit to Cuomo later this year.

In announcing his opposition to the pipeline this week, Comptroller Stringer said he was concerned about the impact on many of the region’s sensitive ecosystems.

“The 23-mile pipeline would extend from New Jersey, along the Staten Island coast, past Coney Island and into the Rockaways,” he said in a statement. “Allowing the construction of the pipeline risks damage to many of New York’s most precious habitats and natural assets, including New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ many beaches.”

By David Sirota and Chase Woodruff

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