A nonprofit group that spearheaded neighborhood support for the huge Atlantic Yards commercial development in Brooklyn has finally admitted it is being bankrolled by Forest City Ratner, the project's developer.
The $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards, which includes a new Nets arena and a raft of office and residential apartment towers, is scheduled to have its first formal public review tonight at an environmental impact hearing before the Empire State Development Corp.
Until last week, the leaders of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development - BUILD - had repeatedly denied getting any financing from Ratner.
That story began to unravel, however, after this column reported Sept. 29 that the group filed documents with the IRS early this year in which it reported $5 million in donations from Ratner for 2005 and 2006.
Confronted with those filings, the group's leaders at first said the $5 million was only what they were projecting to get for job training programs they would provide for the project. No actual money had been disbursed or even committed by the developer, said Marie Louis, BUILD's chief operating officer.
Then late last week, the group and Ratner made a clarification.
Yes, some money has changed hands.
Forest City Ratner paid BUILD $10,000 earlier this year to distribute copies of a promotional newspaper about the Atlantic Yards project called the Brooklyn Standard.
Then in August, the developer donated an additional $100,000 to the group to pay its salaries.
That was two months after BUILD and seven other Brooklyn neighborhood groups signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner that promised up to one-third of the housing built would be "affordable" and set aside jobs for local residents.
Ratner provided an entire building rent-free for BUILD headquarters on Pacific St. and supplied all of the group's office equipment. The developer also is paying for a public relations firm to represent BUILD and the other neighborhood groups that support Atlantic Yards.
Last weekend, Ratner issued another $28,000 contract for BUILD to hire 100 neighborhood people to distribute a second copy of its promotional newspaper, said the developer's spokesman Joe DePlasco.
The latest issue of that newspaper - 300,000 copies were printed - has a big front-page photo of Mayor Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the project, next to developer Bruce Ratner.
Margaret Perkins was among those who distributed the Ratner paper in Brooklyn this weekend.
Perkins lives at the Brooklyn Woman's Shelter in Brownsville. She and several other women at the shelter say they were paid $12 an hour for their work.
"The people at BUILD pay well," she told me yesterday. "I've done work for them before, during the elections."
During the September Democratic primary, Perkins said, she worked the polls for City Council candidate Eric Blackwell. She picked up her pay for her election work at BUILD headquarters, she said.
Blackwell happens to be the former head of the group.
The incumbent whom Blackwell sought to oust was Councilwoman Letitia James. She is a firm opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, while Blackwell's campaign literature prominently stressed his support for the Ratner development.
James won in a landslide.
According to several sources, the BUILD headquarters was a busy place on primary day. A little-known organization called Community Leadership for Accountable Politics Inc. appears to have organized and paid the polling place volunteers.
IRS rules do not permit tax-exempt organizations to campaign for candidates.
I called BUILD headquarters yesterday to ask Marie Louis and the group's current president, James Caldwell, what involvement the group had, if any, with Community Leadership for Accountable Politics, or with the organizing of Election Day operations for Blackwell.
Neither Louis nor Caldwell responded. Efforts to locate a representative for Community Leadership for Accountable Politics were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, at Forest City Ratner, no one had ever heard of Community Leadership for Accountable Politics.
Originally published on October 18, 2005