In early September, Unshackle Upstate, a pro-business lobbying group based in Rochester, New York, announced a proposal to cut taxes on upstate New York businesses, suggesting that the cuts be paid for through revenue generated by allowing natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing. Unshackle Upstate has long been a supporter of fracking in New York State, operating as the political arm of two upstate business groups: the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Rochester Business Alliance. The group is also closely aligned with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; co-founders Andrew Rudnick and Sandra Parker both had positions at the Committee to Save New York, the now-defunct lobbying group that coordinated with the governor and are Cuomo appointees to the Western New York and Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Councils respectively.
Though publicly Governor Cuomo has not taken a firm stance on fracking (recently he called the economic benefits “inarguable”, but said the question was still open as to whether they outweighed the practice’s environmental and health effects), the business elites that he has enlisted to push his economic agenda are staunch supporters. We first highlighted Governor Cuomo’s ties to the pro-fracking community through the Committee to Save New York last summer. With the fracking issue still undecided and with Unshackle Upstate’s new push to permit it, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this group of connected businesspeople is tied both to the governor and to the fracking industry.
Unshackle Upstate’s energy industry ties and heavy fracking lobbying
Unshackle Upstate was formed in 2006 by Sandra Parker of the Rochester Business Alliance and Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to “achieve reforms in Albany that make Upstate New York a stronger place to do business.” Since then the group has blamed taxes and regulation for upstate New York’s economic decline, pushing an austerity agenda including tax cuts, reduced health care spending, and reducing worker’s compensation liability under the state’s scaffold law. Lately, that agenda has included the permitting of natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing. A recent Unshackle Upstate press release asserted that cutting taxes and allowing drilling are “things that need to be done if New York is serious about improving Upstate.”
Unshackle Upstate has deep ties to companies with a stake in New York’s fracking future and the group is a zealous advocate for gas drilling.
Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the group led until recently by Unshackle Upstate co-founder Andrew Rudnick, has a number of companies tied to fracking among its most prominent members:
- Buffalo Niagara Partnership directors Daniel C. Oliverio and David J. Murray are partners at the law firms Hodgson Russ LLP and Phillips Lytle LLP respectively. Hodgson Russ and Phillips Lytle are two of the most prestigious law firms in Buffalo; they are also both named as members of the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York, an oil and gas industry advocacy group, in a letter sent in April to Governor Cuomo by IOGA director Brad Gill, so far the only public record of the group’s membership.
- Another BNP director, Anna Marie Cellino, is president of the National Fuel Gas Corporation – a company that owns a gas utility in addition to pipeline, energy marketing, and gas drilling companies. Four National Fuel subsidiaries are listed as IOGA members in Gill’s letter to Cuomo.
- David F Smith, National Fuel’s former CEO and current executive chairman, is the former chairman of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, BNP’s sister organization, and is a former director of BNP. Smith currently leads the Business Council of New York State, another pro-fracking business lobby which, like Unshackle Upstate, is tied to the Committee to Save New York. We covered the Business Council’s ties to frackers and to the Committee to Save New York in detail in last year’s “The Committee to Frack New York?”
- A fourth BNP director, Dennis W. Elsenbeck, is a regional director at National Grid, the British-based gas and electric utility. National Grid is a member of Energy Coalition New York, a lobbying group for utility companies that has lobbied on two fracking bills in the state legislature this year. National Fuel is another Energy Coalition New York member
Unshackle Upstate’s other founding organization, the Rochester Business Alliance, is similarly tied to fracking interests:
- Mark S. Lynch, a Rochester Business Alliance board member, is president of both Rochester Gas & Electric (RG&E) and New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG), which are subsidiaries of Iberdrola USA, the US segment of the global energy conglomerate. RG&E and NYSEG are both members of Energy Coalition New York.
- Another Rochester Business Alliance board member, Brian Flanagan, is a partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody LLP, which itself is a member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York.
The links between fracking groups, especially the Independent Oil and Gas Assocation, and Unshackle Upstate through its two founding organizations can be seen in this map, generated using data from LittleSis:
Unshackle Upstate’s ties to fracking interests do not stop at its ties through the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Rochester Business Alliance boards, however.
In 2013, Unshackle Upstate employed the affiliated lobbying and public relations firms Hinman Straub Advisors LLC and Corning Place Communications to advocate for its interests in Albany. Through those two firms, Unshackle Upstate lobbied on 60 bills related to fracking and natural gas development in the New York State Legislature out of 65 fracking-related bills in lobbying records analyzed by PAI/LittleSis. Both Hinman Straub and Corning Place were also retained by IOGA of New York to lobby on the fracking issue. In fact, IOGA employed the exact same lobbyists from both firms to advance its interests. Through Hinman Straub and Corning Place, IOGA lobbied on 55 of the 65 bills in our analysis, 53 of which Unshackle Upstate also lobbied on.
Those bills include A4559, a bill that would prohibit the use of fracking wastewater on roads for dust control or de-icing; S4841, which would prohibit fracking in land operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; and S336, which would require a health impact assessment be completed before the state issued permits to frack for gas. The New York State Department of Health began a health impact assessment in late 2012, though its results are still forthcoming.
Unshackle Upstate’s close Cuomo connections
On the other side of the equation, Unshackle Upstate is closely tied to New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, via the Committee to Save New York, a now-defunct group that was formed to advance the governor’s economic agenda. Shortly after Cuomo was elected, New York real estate and business interests formed the Committee to Save New York, which spent $12 million in 2011, more than any other group, praising the governor and supporting his proposed property tax cap and cuts to state spending. In 2012, CSNY again topped the list of New York’s lobbying spenders, laying out $4.2 million. The second largest spender that year was ExxonMobil.
Though Cuomo initially denied coordinating with the Committee, claiming only to have consulted with its members in the same manner as he would with any advocacy group, in 2012 his spokesman acknowledged the governor’s stronger relationship to CSNY, calling it “wholly proper, common, and necessary.” The Committee to Save New York had a strong alliance with fracking interests, through the Business Council of New York State and the Partnership for New York City, which are explored in great depth in the PAI/LittleSis blog post “The Committee to Frack New York?” from last year.
In addition to those ties to fracking interests, CSNY is linked to Unshackle Upstate. Three Unshackle Upstate board members had positions on the Committee to Save New York board of directors:
- Unshackle Upstate co-founder Sandra Parker was a co-chair of the Committee to Save New York board.
- Andrew Rudnick, Unshackle Upstate’s other co-founder, was a member of the CSNY board of directors.
- Unshackle Upstate director Garry Douglas was also a CSNY board member.
The Committee to Save New York disbanded in early 2013 in the wake of new rules requiring the group to disclose its donors.
Unshackle Upstate’s ties to Governor Cuomo go beyond their affiliation with his lobbying group, however. Five of Unshackle Upstate’s six “leadership team” members are Cuomo appointees to various quasi-governmental positions:
- Unshackle Upstate co-founders Andrew Rudnick and Sandra Parker were appointed by Cuomo to the Western New York and Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Councils respectively. The governor established these councils early in his term “to develop long-term strategic plans for economic growth for their regions.” (Since retiring from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Rudnick has apparently also left Unshackle Upstate, though his replacement at BNP, Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, has also taken his position at Unshackle Upstate. Though Gallagher-Cohen has so far not taken Rudnick’s position on the Development Council, Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO of BNP’s sister organization Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, is a member.)
- Lou Santoni, an Unshackle Upstate board member, is a member of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council.
- Unshackle Upstate’s executive director, Brian Sampson, is a member of the Chairman’s Committee overseeing Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils.
- Garry Douglas, an Unshackle Upstate board member, served on Cuomo’s Economic Development and Labor transition team.
The diagram below shows Unshackle Upstate’s ties to the various Cuomo-appointed groups listed above as well as to the Independent Oil and Gas Association through Hinman Straub and Corning Place Communications:
What’s more, Cuomo administration aides have even written press releases for Unshackle Upstate. In July 2012, the New York Times reported that statements for Unshackle Upstate and the Cuomo- and fracking-linked Business Council of New York State had actually been written by staffers in Cuomo’s office.
Though Governor Cuomo has remained outwardly neutral on fracking, the business and real estate elites with whom he has surrounded himself have clearly staked out a position in favor of gas drilling. In Albany’s transactional politics, what does it mean that a group that formed at Cuomo’s urging and spent more than $16 million advancing his agenda is such a staunch supporter? Does the Governor’s installation of fracking supporters in influential positions in three upstate Regional Economic Development Councils belie his environmental caution in the face of his belief that it is “inarguable” that fracking will be an economic boon?
The ties in this article can be found on LittleSis, PAI’s tool for researching connections between powerful people and organizations.
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