By: Chris Bragg – Times Union 5/24/2109 and “GRAFT” Podcast
ALBANY — On a single day in 2014, at least seven people with some financial tie to Long Island aviation magnate Adam Katz donated a total of $70,000 to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaign.
As reported, Cuomo received $10,000 from Jeffrey Schecter — Katz’s attorney in a 2006 divorce case with his ex-wife — and the same sum from Gerald Modell, the Katz family’s tax lawyer.
According to people with knowledge of the matter, at least four more people who donated to Cuomo that day were also passengers of Talon Air, the luxury private jet company Katz owned at the time, or had other financial ties to the company.
The donors included Doron Kessel, the owner of GMK Real Estate Investment, Paul Prager, CEO of Beowulf Energy, Andrew May, of Hercules Corp. and Ivan Kaufman, of Arbor Realty averaging $7,500.
Kaufman owns a 2008 Hawker Beechcraft, which was managed by Talon Air and chartered out of Nassau County’s Republic Airport, the base of Talon’s operations. Katz sold Talon in 2018.Kessel, Prager and May flew at certain points on private jets Talon Air either owned or which were owned by a third-party and managed by Talon, the people familiar with the matter said. In addition to Kessel using Talon Air for flights, public records also suggest another business tie to Adam Katz: Both are associated in public records searches with a company called GMK Renovations.
A Katz spokesman, Steven Greenberg, confirmed that GMK had worked for Katz’s real estate companies. He said that “Mr. Katz has never had any ownership or interest in GMK, which is owned by his friend of more than 30 years.”
Between 2010 and 2015, Katz raised or donated at least $677,000 for Cuomo’s campaign from family, friends, Talon customers, lawyers and business associates. Many of the Katz-linked donors gave in identical amounts on the same days, and count their donations to Cuomo as by far their largest in New York elections.
In his campaign fundraising for Cuomo, Katz has consistently maintained that he never compensated anyone in any way for donating, including with any cash, business opportunities, or discounted or free flights, which at market rate can costs tens of thousands of dollars for a single trip.
Under New York election law, it is illegal to reimburse someone for making a campaign donation. While sources told the Times Union that Kessel, May, Prager and Kaufman were all Talon customers in some respect, Greenberg, Katz’s spokesman, would only say that “some” were customers. He said Katz knows all four men well.
“All four are longtime friends (some for 30 years) of Mr. Katz, some of whom have been Talon customers,” Greenberg said. “Mr. Katz has done charitable work with each of these friends over many years. For various political events or Board of Elections filing deadlines, Mr. Katz fundraised campaign contributions from dozens of people in the course of a day or two, which, as you know, is very common in political fundraising.”
“All four made donations with their own money — like everyone else you’ve inquired about — and none was compensated or reimbursed in any form or manner — also like everyone else,” Greenberg said. A spokeswoman for Kaufman maintained that he had donated the money to Cuomo independent of Katz. The Kaufman spokeswoman did not have a comment on why he happened to donate on the same day as so many other Katz associates.
Reached by phone, Andrew May denied that he had ever been a Talon customer. He also said he did not remember making the 2014 donation to Cuomo, or whether Katz had solicited the donation.
Cuomo also received $10,000 that 2014 day from Curtis Katz, Adam’s elderly father — a major landlord who amassed a substantial real estate fortune. Adam Katz now holds numerous New York City and Long Island residential real estate properties.
Another donor to add to Katz’s fundraising tally is Katz’s elderly mother, Renee Katz-Nave, who gave Cuomo two donations in 2013 worth $10,000.
Her giving included $5,000 on Oct. 30, 2013 — the same day that Jerry Rynkiewicz, a contractor who has done renovation work on Katz’s home and condo properties, gave the governor $10,000.Though Rynkiewicz also donated at least $5,000 more on the same day in 2013 as 10 Katz companies, the contractor has insisted to the Times Union that Katz never asked him to donate to Cuomo.Offering a different account, Katz’s lawyer, Greg Zucker, told the Times Union that Katz did solicit the donations from Rynkiewicz.
Katz and his associates have also donated in a similar pattern on the federal level to another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice.
Ivan Kaufman has given a total of $255,000 in New York state elections, including a total of $82,500 to Cuomo. Andrew May has given $95,000 in New York elections, including $80,000 to Cuomo Doron Kessel has given three donations in New York worth $15,250. Paul Prager, whose business is based in Maryland, has given a total of $36,000 in New York elections.
While neither of those two men have given to Cuomo in their own names besides their donations on Jan. 14, 2014, Prager’s company, Beowulf Energy, gave $10,000 more to Cuomo in 2017.
Katz’s own campaign giving to Cuomo has sparked controversy, including allegations of pay-to-play following a 2016 decision by the governor’s administration that gave Katz’s company the lucrative development rights to 54 acres surrounding Suffolk County’s Republic Airport. Another company had already been awarded the rights to develop the same land a year earlier. But that bidding process was partially scrapped and shifted from the state Department of Transportation to Empire State Development Corp.
A January 2018 review by the state Comptroller’s office concluded the complaints raised by the rival company, LI Cleantech, were “not of sufficient merit to overturn the contract awards.” Katz and LI Cleantech recently agreed to a settlement that bars Cleantech from filing future lawsuits challenging the state award of those parcels to Katz.
Following a Times Union article that ran earlier this week detailing the airport bidding process, state GOP chairman Ed Cox released a statement calling for a criminal investigation.
The Cuomo campaign has repeatedly insisted that campaign donations never influence administration decisions. Never!