District 3: Corey Johnson's Secret Life

The race to succeed Christine Quinn in the 3rd Council District, covering the west side of Manhattan roughly from Canal Street to Central Park, is shaping up to be a battle between 2009 Council contender Yetta Kurland and Community Board 4 Chair Corey Johnson.

Yetta Kurland has a civil rights law practice and, until recently, her own radio talk show.  She incurred the undying enmity of CM Quinn in 2009 when she ran against her in the primary and, to the Speaker’s embarrassment, won more than 30% of the vote.  Coupled with Kurland’s vociferous opposition to the Quinn-approved closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Christine Quinn initiated a vendetta against Kurland, waging a virtual “Anybody but Yetta” campaign that has worked for the benefit of her rival, Corey Johnson, “the youngest” chair of a community board.  Quinn’s influence has won Johnson the support of the local clubs, local political endorsements and some labor backing.

Johnson boasts a long resume of accomplishment.  To wit:

Corey is also a Director on the Hudson Yards Development Corporation, a Member of the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Moynihan Station Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Javits Center Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Hudson River Park Strategic Planning Task Force, a Member of the Friends of the Hudson River Park Trusts Neighborhood Improvement District Steering Committee, a Board Member of Save Chelsea, a Member of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, a Member of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, a Member of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, and a Member of the 100/200 West 15th Street Block Association.

What is odd about this extensive list of activities is the absence of any positions that offer remuneration, i.e. money.  Nowhere on his campaign material, nor in his interviews, nor upon repeated questioning to his campaign manager will the Corey 2013 machine explain the most primary question we all have about anyone we meet: What does he do for a living?

This is not an idle question.  Poke around on candidate websites for a little while and you will have no trouble figuring out how these people make money.  In fact, the subject is usually foregrounded, because in New York City politics it is important to have some kind of explanation for how you pay the rent, before other people reach their own conclusions.   So the wall of community service cited above becomes a screen: an act of misdirection that we are demanded to accept.  The guy is hiding something.

What it turns out he is covering up and scrubbing from his Internet presence is his work as Director of Governmental Relations and Community Affairs for GFI Development Company, beginning in July 2008.  GFI Development is the real estate development branch of GFI Group, which according to the company website “has been at the forefront of credit derivative brokerage services, leadership that we are now leveraging to help establish an active, liquid Exotic Credit Derivative market.”

Exotic credit derivatives, for those among us with short memories, are those quaint financial instruments that enable banks to make massive bets on the failure of loans, without having to actually own any of the underlying debt.  Credit derivatives caused a minor kerfuffle in the markets in late 2008.  GFI Group “handled as much as 40 percent of the credit-derivatives trades between the world's banks in 2007,” according to Bloomberg.

Well, Corey Johnson had nothing to do with any of that, of course…he worked for the real estate development arm of GFI.   And real estate development firms are wholesome, salubrious entities.  Which must be why after I asked Johnson’s campaign manger about his work there, his speaker bio at the Gay Center website was scrubbed.  (Compare here and here.)  And his LinkedIn profile was closed. 

GFI Development buys old buildings and turns them into hotels, condominiums and the like.  Corey Johnson’s job was to facilitate the political side of things, as we see in this June 2009 article detailing his advocacy on behalf of a GFI development before Community Board 2 in Brooklyn. 

In 2008, around when they hired Corey to be their front man in New York City, GFI Development bought the old Breslin Hotel, on 29th Street, which was an SRO.  Their efforts to evict or buy out the existing tenants led to a series of court battles, but eventually the Breslin gave way to the trendy Ace Hotel.  Corey Johnson had his birthday party there when it opened in 2010, and was so delighted that he even wore a tiara, according to this record of the evening.

At the time of the Ace Hotel’s opening, Corey Johnson, top lobbyist and community affairs director for GFI Development, was also Vice-Chair of Community Board 4 and Co-Chair of the CB4 Land Use Committee.  Is this a conflict of interest?  Well, it is true that the Ace Hotel at 29th and Broadway is two blocks east of CB4’s eastern boundary, so maybe not, technically.  But it clearly isn’t something Corey Johnson is proud of, or else he would mention it at least once, wouldn’t he?

Nor, it is fair to say, is Corey proud of his “community affairs” role in the cleansing of the tenants of the Breslin hotel.  Charges of mismanagement of the hotel once GFI bought it abound.  Water turned off, heat turned off, neglect of upkeep: all the usual things that happen when a developer wants to gut a property and redo it for a better class of tenant.  We know he isn’t proud of it because he doesn’t talk about it.  Nor will he specify when he left the company, which seems to have happened in 2011 at some point.

It is easy to let politicians say whatever pretty things they want to about themselves and their good works.  Corey Johnson cleans up well, but that doesn't mean he isn't dirty.