The Corporate Lawyer Moonlighting as a New York Assemblymember

Keith Brown makes $142,000 representing his Long Island district — and about half a million representing corporate real estate interests.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   February 21, 2023
Republican Assemblymember Keith Brown makes triple his legislative salary as a lawyer for warehouse developers and other real estate interests. | Photo: New York State Assembly / Illustration: New York Focus

WHEN LOCALS IN North Bellport, Long Island, arrived to be briefed on yet another proposed warehouse development last September, they were greeted by a predictable set of envoys: four white men in suit jackets with a flipboard, ready to illustrate the benefits the company would bring to the majority Black and Latino town. Leading the meeting was a tall, middle-aged lawyer in a navy blue suit and glasses, speaking on behalf of his client, the developer.

Monique Fitzgerald, a member of the Brookhaven Landfill Action & Remediation Group (BLARG), thought he was just “some corporate guy.” Kerim Odekon, a volunteer with the environmental justice group, thought little of the lawyer’s presence until someone else recognized him in a video BLARG posted of the meeting.

It was then that the group realized who he was: Assemblymember Keith Brown, a Republican representing a nearby district of central Long Island — and making more than three times his legislative salary representing corporate landlords.

Brown earned between $450,000 and $550,000 from his legal practice during his first year in office, according to financial disclosures — the same amount as the year before. (Disclosures for 2022 are not yet available.) On the available forms, he describes his practice as “appearing before County, Town and Village Boards and County, Town and Village Agencies to obtain approvals for development projects.”

He often takes big corporate clients, including a Wegman’s and a Marriott franchise. Since shortly before his election in November 2020, he has been the attorney of record for another warehouse landlord suing a town in a neighboring district over truck traffic rules. He filed a document in the case as recently as last month. His firm’s website lists Brown’s client as “the largest owner of industrial warehouse space on the East Coast.”

New York lawmakers are officially part-time employees; they are permitted to earn outside income, and there is no indication that Brown has broken state ethics laws. In an email to New York Focus, Brown denied any impropriety.

“I take seriously the rules of the Legislature and there is absolutely no conflict of interest associated with this project,” he wrote, referring to the warehouse development at issue in the September meeting. “My role is to provide legal services related to local zoning laws on the AIREF Logistics Center.”

It’s not uncommon for state lawmakers to work second jobs. A 2019 analysis by the good government group Common Cause New York identified 59 lawmakers — about a quarter of the Assembly and Senate combined, split roughly between Democrats and Republicans — who reported income from a second job on their 2017 disclosure forms. At least 14 earned more than $79,500, their legislative salary at the time.

“The issues that you’ve presented with Assemblymember Brown are textbook issues that come up when you have outside income for elected officials, of any kind,” said Sarah Goff, deputy director of Common Cause New York. “New Yorkers should never have to question who an elected official is representing.”

ALBANY REFORM GROUPS have long pushed for a cap on outside income. They secured a partial victory in December, when lawmakers gave themselves a pay raise to $142,000. The raise includes a provision that will limit income from outside work to $35,000 a year starting in 2025 — a quarter of lawmakers’ salaries, and less than a twelfth of what Brown made in 2021.

But the restriction falls short of what reform groups had sought. A 2018 report by a state committee led by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli called for New York to adopt rules that the US Congress has had in place for nearly 50 years: a 15 percent cap on outside income, and a complete ban on income where the lawmaker has a “fiduciary relationship” to their employer or client — that is, a legal obligation to serve the interests of the people cutting their paycheck. That includes working as an attorney.

Back on Long Island, Fitzgerald wasn’t shocked to learn that a politician was working on behalf of a major corporation.

“There’s always that kind of tie-in where the corporate and the governmental representatives are linked,” she said. “And then you ask yourself, why aren’t you getting any allyship with your elected officials?”

The developer Brown was representing at the September meeting was Ares Management, a global investment firm with a large real estate portfolio, which includes warehouses. Through a subsidiary, the firm is seeking to build a 500,000-square-foot distribution center in North Bellport, on Long Island’s south shore.

North Bellport is one of relatively few towns in Suffolk County with a majority Black and Latino population, at 23 and 37 percent, respectively. The town is home to the Brookhaven Landfill, a longstanding source of air and water pollution. It has high asthma rates and the lowest life expectancy on Long Island — nearly 14 years lower than just the next town over, according to 2018 census estimates.

Fitzgerald, who is Black and indigenous, grew up in North Bellport and now lives in nearby Patchogue. She helped found BLARG in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020, and sees the fight against polluting facilities in the area as part of a larger movement for racial justice. Besides the landfill, North Bellport and its outskirts are home to a power plant as well as cement and asphalt plants, bringing with them a steady stream of diesel trucks.

Logistics companies’ planned expansion into the area could exacerbate truck pollution. Six warehouse projects totaling more than 4 million square feet are under development within three miles of the landfill, including Ares’s Station Road Logistics Center, which is separated from the landfill only by a housing subdivision. All six are seeking hefty local tax breaks.

Station Road is already “like a truck parking lot,” Fitzgerald said. “The idea of putting more warehouses in a community that is already suffering from air pollution from trucks … it doesn’t make sense at all.”

Odekon, a doctor at Stony Brook University, agreed.

“This is the opposite of what we should be doing, from a public health perspective, in a vulnerable community,” he said.

A spokesperson for Ares declined to comment for this story.

IT’S NOT CLEAR whether, or how, Brown’s legal work has influenced his efforts in Albany. Of the 39 bills he’s introduced so far, none bear any immediate connection to commercial real estate interests. (Only one, allowing a property tax break for a local fire department, has been signed into law.)

At least one of his clients, though, has generously funded his campaigns. Brown’s largest donor in the 2020 campaign cycle was Hartz Mountain Industries — the developer of the warehouse just outside his district that he is still representing in court. The company donated $5,000 to his campaign in September 2020, just weeks before he sued the town of Huntington on behalf of a shell company for the warehouse. It donated another $1,500 in 2022.

Hartz did not respond to requests for comment.

Other real estate and construction interests have also backed his campaigns, including the New York State Association of Realtors; Breslin Realty Development Corp., which owns a wide array of commercial properties on Long Island; and the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.

Brown’s continued legal earnings have likely also helped his reelection efforts. Filings show that he was the single largest donor to his own campaign in 2022, at $20,000. His firm was not far down the list, adding another $6,350. His partner at the firm, David Altman, pitched in an extra $1,000.

Brown comfortably won reelection last November, after a much closer race against a Working Families-aligned Democrat in 2020. He declined to respond to written questions about his campaign contributions and other details in this story.

Altman did not respond to requests for comment.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, said lawmakers earning outside income have made efforts to “insulate” their business practices from their work in Albany, particularly since corruption charges brought down former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senator Dean Skelos in 2015. But the wall is often thin, he said, underscoring the need for strict restrictions on outside income.

Whether a lawmaker like Brown faced a formal conflict of interest or not, Horner added, “it would at minimum be a bad look.”

Goff, of Common Cause, said that even the appearance of impropriety can undermine trust in elected officials when it is already at an “all-time low.”

New York Focus sought input for this story from officials in charge of monitoring ethics in the legislature. None provided comment.

A staffer for Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, who chairs the chamber’s ethics committee, referred requests for comment to the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, which did not respond.

Simon’s counterpart in the Senate, Neil Breslin, did not respond to requests for comment. According to Breslin’s own financial disclosure statements, he earns as much as $50,000 a year working for the law firm Barclay Damon, specializing in real estate.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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