Behind the scenes at City Hall, a communications consultant and his public relations firm, BerlinRosen, wield tremendous influence. NY1’s Grace Rauh has more on the firm's co-founder, Jonathan Rosen, and the calls for reform from government watchdogs.
The first big real estate test for the city's new mayor put his advisor, Jonathan Rosen, in a tough spot. Rosen's client, Two Trees, had big plans to redevelop the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg. But when Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to get more affordable housing out of the deal—it looked like the project might fall apart. In the end, Two Trees agreed to build a small amount of more housing for low-income New Yorkers, but it was, at the very least, an awkward situation for Rosen. Two months after the mayor he helped elect took office, one of his clients was going to war with City Hall.
It was an early example of the position Rosen and his firm occupy in de Blasio's New York: at the nexus between City Hall and private interests. It's a place often rife with conflict.
That's because in addition to advising Mayor de Blasio, Rosen's firm, BerlinRosen, also advises real estate companies—like Forest City Ratner and SL Green; labor unions, like SEIU and Communication Workers of America; and progressive advocacy groups like Coalition for the Homeless.
The public relations firm has close ties to many other elected officials as well. BerlinRosen worked on the campaigns of 15 members of the City Council—including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
The firm advised City Comptroller Scott Stringer and was instrumental in Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's election. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has also been a longtime client. He was indicted on fraud and extortion charges earlier this year.
The firm's dual role—consulting for political candidates and then advising the groups trying to sway them—is gaining the attention of government watchdogs. BerlinRosen is hardly the only firm who does both types of work, but the firm's political reach and its relationship with Mayor de Blasio sets them apart.
Many of BerlinRosen's political clients say they hired the firm simply because they do excellent work.
“BerlinRosen are smart and strategic and they make their clients, their campaigns, both for public policy and for office, better,” says Councilman Brad Lander.
At the start of the mayor's race, then-Public Advocate de Blasio was in fourth place in Democratic primary polls. Rosen was part of the inner circle that helped the future mayor catapult to the front.
“People heard a clear message and a clear vision for the city and they responded,” Jonathan Rosen said in September of 2013.
The mayor has paid BerlinRosen $270,000, nearly all of it for his mayoral bid.
Rosen might have been expected to follow de Blasio to City Hall, but instead he remained at the firm he co-founded in 2005.
“It's a very tight interconnected web of influence because you've helped to elect the candidates to elected office and you are also helping to have the groups that you represent influence the actions of those elected officials. And controlling so much of that process does pose tremendous opportunities for conflict,” says Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union.
A review of the mayor's schedule from last year shows that Rosen attended 20 meetings with the mayor. It is that level of access that alarms government watchdogs.
“We have real questions about the role of outside consultants advising elected officials who have public staff to provide them with strategy and communication ideas,” says Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York. “When you substitute private influence or privately paid advisors, you lose the public.”
A spokesman for de Blasio says public concerns are always the sole priority of the mayor. He says Jonathan Rosen is a trusted friend and close confidante of de Blasio's. The pair has known each other for years.
Anyone with business before the city knows BerlinRosen has close ties to the administration.
“We should congratulate them on their success. There's no laws being broken. They are doing what everyone else has done,” says political consulatant and lobbyist Hank Sheinkopf. “Private clients aren't hiring them because they don't think they are connected to City Hall. Of course, they are hiring them because they are connected to City Hall.”
The firm's real growth, though, began before de Blasio became mayor. In fact, it appears to be closely tied to former Assembly speaker Silver's decision to hire the firm in 2008. He has been one of the firm’s biggest political spenders.
“It's certainly true that around when they started working together their billables swelled,” says Jon Reznick of Competitive Advantage Research.
BerlinRosen sells strategic communications services and says it is focused on helping clients with media campaigns.
“Our company has always felt that having outside PR firms brings a great external presence and a great external set of ideas. A consultant has a way of looking at a project that we are knee-deep in from a little distance,” says Forest City Ratner’s Ashley Cotton.
The firm has consistently said that it does not lobby. If it did, it would be required to disclose its clients and reveal how much they paid for services.
Politicians who hired the firm for campaigns say Berlin Rosen has never lobbied them.
“In passing they may have said to me, hey, we have this client, you should get to know them. Primarily good non-profits that do good work in my district. But they have never once asked me to do anything—asked me to vote on a bill, asked me to work on a budget item. They have never lobbied me a single time in my 14 months in the Council,” says Councilman Corey Johnson.
The firm and Rosen may have the ability to shape policy in more subtle ways, though. BerlinRosen is deeply involved in the mayor's non-profit lobbying group, the Campaign for One New York.
The organization has been raising private money to bolster mayoral initiative—like the expansion of pre-K. Last year, the campaign raised $2.2 million. The American Federation of Teachers was the biggest donor with a gift of $350,000.
BerlinRosen's work on the campaign is so intertwined with City Hall that reporters calling the mayor's press office with pre-k questions last year had their calls returned by BerlinRosen.
“I don't want to make it seem as if BerlinRosen is the problem. The problem is right now this tremendous expansion of these outside entities with real blurring of what it is they are doing and absolutely no real guidelines for where the limits are,” says Lerner.
Last year, the Campaign for One New York paid Berlin Rosen more than $425,000, $150,000 more than the firm made working on the mayor's campaign.
The mayor's non-profit is now soliciting a new round of contributions. Unlike campaign contributions to candidates in the city, there are no limits on donations to the non-profit.
Jonathan Rosen founded the firm with Valerie Berlin in 2005, after working together on New York's Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. They both live in Park Slope. Rosen's wife, Debbie, is chief of staff to de Blasio's budget director. Berlin's wife, Amy Rutkin, is chief of staff to Rep. Jerry Nadler.
Rosen is fairly press-shy, and tries to stay out of the public eye. He declined to comment for this story.
“He's usually home with his wife and kids at night instead of out on the circuit,” says Cotton.
The firm has roots in progressive politics. But its appetite for some causes appears to be changing. Take the group, Communities United for Police Reform. They were a client, speaking out on an issue that was a de Blasio campaign priority. Last fall, the firm cut ties with them as they demanded the de Blasio administration end its crackdown on low-level crimes and punish officers involved in Eric Garner's death.
“The mayor needs to hold police accountable and he's not. He's not holding Bratton accountable and he's not holding the NYPD accountable,” says Loyda Colon of Communities United for Police Reform/Justice.
A source says BerlinRosen told the police reform group that the firm could no longer advise the mayor and keep them as a client because it was a conflict.
Other apparent conflicts though don't seem to bother Rosen. He has continued to retain clients with business before the city. Government watchdogs say his type of work is ripe for reform. The line between lobbying and strategic communications consulting, they say, is a gray one—and while they argue that everyone has a right to try to influence government, they say the public has a right to know who is attempting to sway City Hall.