In lobbying probe, ethics commission critic faces $4M threat

ALBANY — In early 2021, a lobbying group purchased more than $850,000 in television commercials that ran across New York, encouraging residents to contact their state senators and voice opposition to tax increases.

Deep-pocketed lobbying groups typically must disclose donors providing more than $2,500 — under a state law meant to reveal those who are seeking influence government. Yet in a filing submitted last July, “Don’t Bankrupt New York” disclosed little about its six-figure spending and indicated the group took in no contribution over $2,500.

The person responsible for that paperwork was David Grandeau, the state’s pugnacious former top lobbying regulator. In private practice for the past 15 years, Grandeau works as a compliance lawyer for the type of deep-pocketed interest groups he once targeted. Far from operating in the shadows, Grandeau has openly touted his ability to obscure the sources behind clients’ lobbying spending, tweaking the state’s lobbying regulators for allegedly failing to keep pace with him.

“If someone hires me and doesn’t want to disclose who’s funding them,” Grandeau said in 2014, “I’ve forgotten 10 different to do it that [the Joint Commission on Public Ethics] doesn’t even know about.”

Such tactics have now put Grandeau in the crosshairs of embattled commission, a much-criticized ethics and lobbying enforcement body which faces extinction in a month.

On March 29, JCOPE commissioners voted to begin a full-blown investigation into “Don’t Bankrupt New York” for allegedly submitting a series of false lobbying filings. They are threatening to fine Grandeau an early sum of more than $4.2 million.

Grandeau contends it’s JCOPE that’s corrupt, arguing that the commission’s actions are retribution for his decade of making inflammatory critiques of the body and its commissioners and staffers.

“I criticize them because they’re a bunch of corrupt, incompetent clowns,” Grandeau said in an interview last week.

Unable to resolve the dispute, Grandeau provided the Times Union with his correspondence with JCOPE about the investigation, which had not previously been publicly disclosed.

Grandeau said he was retained to work for “Don’t Bankrupt New York” by Jamestown Associates, a national Republican firm based in Virginia that creates and places political television ads. Jamestown’s CEO was the lead ad-maker for President Donald J. Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. In New York, Jamestown worked for an election spending group in 2013 whose biggest donor was David Koch, the now-deceased conservative billionaire known for shadowy political expenditures.

When Grandeau first spoke to Jamestown over the phone about performing lobbying compliance, the firm sought advice “regarding the different ways to register to the lobbying group.” One “avenue of disclosure” Grandeau said he had suggested was creating a “coalition” to disclose spending under a JCOPE measure implemented in 2019.

JCOPE’s sweeping lobbying regulations that year were meant to make state government more transparent. Yet Grandeau says the “coalition” aspect was written in a way enabling the type of disclosure filing tendered by “Don’t Bankrupt New York.”

Coalitions were a “mythical name that they created in regulations — one that serves to hide the identity of the members,” Grandeau said. “By definition, that’s what a coalition is.”

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