Follow the Money, Carefully

Categories: Citystate

In his famous charge to a generation of political journalists, Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to "follow the money." But where the money leads isn't always crystal clear. Take this week's announcement by city comptroller William Thompson.

Thompson, who oversees the investments of the city's very large pension funds, announced that he and several other institutional investors were writing to energy companies to request reports on "how future greenhouse gas limits will affect their financial bottom lines and steps they are taking to reduce those financial impacts and improve their competitive positioning."

The letter to the firms read:

    The scientific community is in general consensus that climate change poses imminent health and global risks, and economists therefore predict that future regulation of greenhouse gases is inevitable. As institutional investors, we must evaluate the long-term value of the companies in which we invest.

One of the 43 firms that received the note from Thompson, et al., is KeySpan Energy in Brooklyn.

In the 2001 and 2005 election cycles, KeySpan personnel donated $4,500 to Thompson's campaigns; Chairman Robert Catell gave a combined $3,250.

That's a minuscule amount against the $3.4 million Thompson—a Democrat widely expected to run for mayor in 2009 if Michael Bloomberg is reelected this year—has raised so far in the 2005 cycle. But when it comes to money-in-politics stories, the dollar figure isn't always important. In January, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller had to return a mere $1,000 from a convicted felon. Way back in '97, the Voice spotlighted a few grand in checks that then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer received from (and in some cases returned to) mob-linked sources.

There are two ways to read the KeySpan gifts to Thompson. On the one hand, the fact that KeySpan was targeted by his office proves the firm didn't buy protection when it donated to the comptroller. On the other hand, is it right for Thompson to accept money from a power company that hasn't addressed global warming? Should he be accepting cash from a firm in which the city pension funds might invest, period?

Of course, those questions wouldn't have come up this week if Thompson hadn't decided to raise the greenhouse issue. But that's one of the paradoxes of being an activist comptroller—among other things, he has asked companies to sever ties to Iran, improve internal governance, and bar discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Unlike the wealthy mayor, Thompson has to ask others to fund his campaigns.


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