Andrew Cuomo has a glaring conflict of interest when it comes to the politics of abolishing ICE. Luxury landlords across the state collect millions in rent from the agency — money they have turned around and funneled to Cuomo’s political campaigns, according to a new report by the New York-based watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative.
Cuomo, meanwhile, hasn’t joined other New York politicians — from likely incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to 2020 hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — in calling to dismantle Immigration and Customs Enforcement, instead telling NY1 recently that the agency “should be a bona fide law enforcement organization that prudently and diligently enforces the law.”
Looking largely at publicly available data from the General Services external lease database, PAI researchers have documented extensive financial ties from Cuomo donors and members of his inner circle to ICE and Customs and Border Protection — the main agencies tasked with carrying out America’s increasingly brutal immigration policies. Since his first run for governor in 2011, PAI found that Cuomo has accepted at least $807,483 from companies, individuals, and the relatives of people who rent space to federal immigration authorities, and furnished many of them with positions in state government.
Rob Galbraith, PAI’s senior research analyst, told me by phone, “We saw that a lot of people were investigating the private-sector actors benefiting from immigration policy. We found that there is a significant overlap [between] those actors and the landlords and real estate interests that have close ties to the Cuomo administration.”
Cuomo’s primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, who has called for abolishing ICE, wrote in an emailed statement that “while its reprehensible that Governor Cuomo has profited from ICE’s existence, it’s hardly surprising. … Many have been bewildered by the Governor’s continued support for ICE as its atrocities mount and so many other New York leaders have called for ICE’s abolition. Now we have an explanation: the Governor won’t call to abolish Trump’s rogue deportation force because his donors don’t want him to.”
In Manhattan, the iconic Starrett-Lehigh Building — co-owned by RXR Realty and Blackstone Group — has for 16 years been home to an ICE Homeland Security Investigation field office, which pays $12.4 million a year to lease part of the sprawling property overlooking the Hudson River, which bills itself as “a place to create, to influence and to succeed.” ICE’s fellow Starrett-Lehigh tenants include period-proof underwear brand Thinx and the offices of Martha Stewart’s multifaceted lifestyle brand.
The agency that handles leasing for federal agencies is the U.S. General Services Administration. Asked about standard procedures for federal agency leasing, GSA Regional Public Affairs officer Alison Kohler said over email that GSA “leases space from private entities when it is the best solution to meet the space requirements of GSA’s federal agency customers.”
In the case of the Starrett-Lehigh Building, GSA — using eminent domain or “condemnation” — relocated federal immigration enforcement offices there after 9/11, when the World Trade Center offices of several agencies that would eventually be consolidated into the Department of Homeland Security were destroyed. “GSA used its condemnation authority for immediate occupancy, and then executed a 10-year lease in November 2002 with renewal options. GSA exercised one option in 2013,” Kohler said.
“The Governor won’t call to abolish Trump’s rogue deportation force because his donors don’t want him to.”
Top executives at both RXR Realty and Blackstone, which acquired its stake in the building in 2015, have close ties to the Governor’s Mansion.
The chair and CEO of RXR Realty is Scott Rechler, whose family has donated at least $613,000 to Cuomo’s various runs for office. In exchange, Cuomo appointed Rechler to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a post he held from 2011 to 2016. In 2017, Cuomo tapped him again, this time for a seat on the board of the notoriously dysfunctional Metropolitan Transportation Authority that he still holds. A New York Times investigation found that Rechler and several other Cuomo appointees continued to give to the governor after taking their state jobs, despite a 2007 executive order from former Gov. Eliot Spitzer that sought to prohibit such arrangements. On top of his government posts, Rechler is also a member of the Real Estate Board of New York, an influential trade lobby for developers in the city whose other members have also given generously to Cuomo.
In a statement over email, Rechler said, “While I have the utmost respect for the career professionals at the Department of Homeland Security and within ICE, as an American, I do find certain federal policies set by the current Administration relating to immigration, including family separation, to be disturbing and inhumane. It is my hope that we rethink our nation’s approach to immigrants and immigration more broadly.”
Private equity giant Blackstone Group is helmed by Trump booster Stephen Schwarzman, but the company has a bipartisan workforce. Senior Blackstone advisor William Mulrow, who does not work in the company’s Real Estate division, helped form a PAC to raise money for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s prospective foray into national politics in 1987, and in the early 2000s, served as vice chair and chair of the New York State Democratic Party. In the midst of a lucrative career on Wall Street, he left Blackstone in 2015 to serve as Andrew Cuomo’s secretary and top adviser. He returned to the private equity firm in April 2017 after leaving his job at the governor’s office, and is now chair of Cuomo’s re-election campaign, responsible mainly largely for courting new, big-dollar donors.
Mulrow was featured in a New York Magazine profile of his Wall Street fraternity, Kappa Beta Phi, performing one-half of what author Kevin Roose calls a “bizarre two-man comedy skit,” in which he was “dressed in raggedy, tie-dye clothes to play the part of a liberal radical,” with his counterpart “playing the part of a wealthy baron. They exchanged lines as if staging a debate between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.” In 2012, Cuomo appointed Mulrow as chair of the New York State Housing Finance Agency and the State of New York Mortgage Agency, just after his stint from 2005 to 2011 as a senior executive at Citibank Inc., one of the architects of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Mulrow’s office did not agree to provide a statement on the record.
Upstate in Buffalo, 726 Exchange Street houses offices and a Port of Entry for CBP, which pays $1.42 million each year for the roof over its head to a shell company (an LLC) of Western New York real estate mogul Howard Zemsky’s Larkin Development Group. Zemsky and his wife, Lesley, have given $125,000 to Cuomo. In 2015, Cuomo nominated him to be the CEO of Empire State Development and commissioner of the New York State Department of Economic Development, making a total salary from the state of $1 a year. Kohler says that CBP — via GSA — had a prior lease with the Zemsky-owned LLC, and that GSA then “executed a follow-on lease through the Other than Full and Open Competition procurement method,” as opposed to a competitive bidding process. That lease became effective in 2015.
According to the New York Times, all of Lesley Zemsky’s $95,000 in donations to Cuomo were given after her husband’s appointments. Zemsky himself stopped donating to Cuomo after taking those positions, though that didn’t stop Cuomo from bringing him along to an at least $1,000-a-seat fundraiser for his campaign last summer, attendees to which very likely included executives at companies that Zemsky has the power to award contracts and tax breaks to through his controversial upstate development plans. To fortify the pair’s friendship, Zemsky paid an estimated $5,000 last summer to charter a private plane for Cuomo to and from Buffalo to officiate his daughter Kayla’s wedding. “Obviously, I am not going to ask him to come across the state at taxpayer expense, so I provided transportation,” Zemsky told the New York Daily News.
After publication, Jason Conwall, spokesperson for Empire State Development, emailed the following statement:
The CBP lease dates back more than a dozen years and the location was selected through the General Services Administration’s standard procurement process. The CBP is one of more than 20 tenants in the same building in Larkin Square, an area of Buffalo that has experienced an incredible economic turnaround because of Mr. Zemsky’s redevelopment efforts. Mr. Zemsky’s record and ethics are beyond reproach, and for the past four years he has served as a public servant for the salary of one dollar. To allege or insinuate any impropriety would be categorically false and irresponsible to print.
On whether Zemsky and Cuomo have spoken about immigration policy, Conwall wrote, “Mr. Zemsky serves as the Governor’s chief economic advisor.”
Another Western New York landlord, Uniland Development, collects $1.95 million per year from ICE and $562,756 from CBP in rent, in Buffalo and Cheektowaga, respectively. Uniland and the family that controls it, the Montates, have altogether donated at least $39,500 to Cuomo’s campaigns. Both of these properties, GSA writes, were obtained via a competitive bidding process for a federal contract that Uniland won.
The PAI report goes on to list several other ICE and CBP lessors that have given to Cuomo in smaller amounts. Researchers also note that Cuomo attended a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser in a private box at Mets stadium for the lobbying firm Constantinople & Vallone, which represents private prison and immigration detention center contractor GEO Group.
Staff from Cuomo’s offices did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment. A spokesperson for ICE refused to comment on leasing, directing us to submit a FOIA request. A spokesperson from CBP referred us to GSA.
Cuomo’s critics say he could be doing much more — starting with forsaking his conflicts of interest on the issue. Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road Action, which organizes in immigrant communities around the state, said Cuomo “should return these campaign funds immediately.”
“It’s deeply concerning that while Andrew Cuomo continues to say he stands with immigrants — and even mistakenly claims he is an immigrant and undocumented — that he is also continuing to hold campaign cash from those profiting from ICE and CBP,” referencing a statement the governor made in April.
As governor, Cuomo has very little say over the future of ICE, a federal agency. Valdés and other immigration rights advocates around the state, however, argue that he could help ensure more undocumented New Yorkers stay out of its facilities.
Among the biggest demands from immigrant rights’ groups is for the state to pass legislation allowing undocumented New Yorkers to obtain driver’s licenses — something that 12 other states already do. The dangers of the policy became apparent last month in the case of 35-year-old delivery driver Pablo Villavicencio Calderon. Attempting to deliver a pizza to an Army base at Fort Hamilton, Calderon presented his IDNYC, meant to provide undocumented city residents with a form of identification in dealing with various agencies. Military police at the gates of the base refused to accept the ID and demanded a driver’s license. Calderon didn’t have one and in response, the officer on duty called ICE to take him into custody. He now faces deportation.
“It’s deeply concerning that while Andrew Cuomo continues to say he stands with immigrants … he is also continuing to hold campaign cash from those profiting from ICE and CBP.”
Driving while undocumented presents other dangers, as well. Getting pulled over is often a premise for local law enforcement to call on ICE and trigger deportation proceedings, something that’s all the more likely when a driver can’t get something as simple as a new license plate because they don’t have a license. Unlicensed driving is a particular concern for immigrant communities in rural and suburban areas, where — absent robust public transportation — cars are one of the only ways to access work and schools.
It was former Gov. George Pataki who issued a 2001 executive order to restrict licenses only to New Yorkers who could prove they were in the country legally. Cuomo’s critics argue that he could use the same powers to roll back the decision. “ICE is now routinely using minor traffic violations as justification to tear apart families. Cuomo should restore access to driver’s licenses for all New Yorkers, regardless of status. He has the authority to sign a driver’s licenses executive order today to immediately protect immigrant communities,” Valdés told The Intercept over email.
Make the Road and other groups also argue that Cuomo could leverage more political capital to pass the New York state DREAM Act, which would give undocumented students access to the same financial aid and in-state tuition available to U.S. citizens. He’s added it as a line item to the state’s annual budget in the past, but Republican control over the New York state legislature — thanks to the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of rogue Democrats who caucus with Republicans — has left the measure as one of many progressive priorities that pass through the Assembly only to languish in the Senate.
For now, the question is whether Cuomo’s donations from ICE and CBP landlords will continue to languish in his campaign’s coffers.
Update: July 12, 2018, 3:10 p.m.
This piece has been updated to include comment from a spokesperson for Empire State Development received after publication.