South Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake Joins Hilltop Public Solutions
The political establishment in the Bronx and Albany is agog at journalist Mike Allen’s POLITICO Playbook item reporting that South Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake is joining Hilltop Public Solutions. Hilltop is run by Mayor Bill de Blasio bestie Bill Hyers. Hilltop Public Solutions says provides business, non-profit and other entities the strategies and tactics to win modern campaigns at the federal and state level.
Allen reported in Friday’s Politico Playbook, “Michael Blake joins Hilltop Public Solutions: Blake previously served in the White House as Associate Director of Public Engagement & Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, coordinating African American, Minority Business and county and statewide elected official outreach.”
Nowhere in his item does Mike Allen mention that Blake is presently a freshman legislator in the New York State Assembly.
Reached on his cell phone, Assemblyman Blake told POLITICO New York that the release did not mention the fact that he is an Assemblyman because “you’re not supposed to be utilizing your title or position for influence.”
He told POLITICO that his work for Hilltop would be entirely on “projects that are national and international in focus,” and which are “predominantly political” campaigns, and would not be consulting for any clients with business before the state. He said he would “absolutely” disclose his clients on his annual disclosure forms.
Ravi Batra, an attorney and former member of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) expressed shock that a sitting state lawmaker would risk creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. Batra says that Blake could not consult on issues involving New York state and New York City. And because New York is reliant on federal aid and actions, Blake couldn’t be involved in those issues as well. “He would have to create a massive Chinese FireWall to avoid any conflicts,” said Batra in a phone interview.
Morgan Pehme, executive director of the political watchdog group, Effective NY, wrote in an email, “This strikes me as a grievous, very poorly thought out conflict of interest.”
David Grandeau, a frequent of JCOPE and ethics reform in Albany and former head of the defunct Lobbying Commission, chuckled when told about Blake’s new paid gig, saying, “they just decided to cut out the middle man.”
“There is no prohibition in the lobbying act regarding a legislator taking political consulting job,” said Grandeau. He pointed out the ethics law for lawmakers also makes the outside post permissible. He called it a “sad state of affairs” when given the current climate surrounding corruption prosecutions, that a sitting lawmaker would take a job that presents conflicts. He said that clients of the firm with business before the state should cause Hilltop to recuse itself from becoming involved.
On its website, Hilltop touts its network of public affairs professionals [helping] our clients inject their voices into local policy debates. And that it has developed new ways to generate custom-made contacts [for] grassroots advocates to reach “federal and state lawmakers [who] have learned to tune out generic, cookie-cooker grassroots campaigns.”
In recent years, firms like Hilltop, SKDKnickerbocker, Mercury Public Affairs, and BerlinRosen with close ties to elected officials they help get elected have come under criticism and scrutiny because they have skirted state lobbying registration laws. PR firms work with clients to promote key issues before the State Legislature through coordinated lobbying activities. New York’s JCOPE is contemplating requiring “public relations” firms such as Hilltop to register as lobbyists.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also from the Bronx, seemed caught by surprise and his office had no comment before press time.