Newspaper gives vote of approval to paying political candidates

Most political candidates in Queens whose campaigns have done business with the political consultancy Multi-Media Advertising from 2009 through 2012 also received the endorsement of the company’s affiliated newspaper the Queens Tribune.

A New York World review of campaign finance records and endorsements found that of the 15 candidates who purchased services from Multi-Media in competitive races for amounts exceeding $1,000, 11 also received a public endorsement from the Tribune in that race.

Of the remaining four, two were sitting state senators who ran for re-election in 2010. That year, the paper — as a political statement against “enemies of reform” of the state’s redistricting process — made no endorsements of incumbents in state legislative races, even as its sister company printed literature at the behest of the two campaigns and carried out consulting for them.

The other two who did not receive endorsements found themselves facing off against other Multi-Media clients in the same races. In both cases, the paper’s nod went to the client who ended up spending more money — in one case, seven times as much as his opponent.

In all, since 2009 Multi-Media has collected $460,000 from the 11 candidates who received the Queens Tribune’s endorsement in the same races, and an additional $281,000 from the remaining four clients.

Both the Tribune and Multi-Media are properties of a company called Tribco LLC. In January, the company announced that the paper had been sold to PFH Media Group, an investment firm based in Washington, D.C, only to pull out a month later as the Department of Labor investigated payroll practices at another newspaper acquired by the investor.

The Queens Tribune is housed in the same building as Multi-Media Advertising, a political consulting firm owned by the same parent company. Photo: Sebastien Malo

Tribune editor Michael Schenkler and associate publisher Michael Nussbaum declined to comment for this story, following repeated emails and phone calls.

Schenkler has occasionally disclosed the client relationship to readers. In a September 2009 column about the Tribune‘s endorsement of Council candidate Kevin Kim, for example, Schenkler makes this disclaimer: “The Tribune has an affiliated company, Multi Media, which provides print, direct mail, creative and consulting services to business, not-for-profit and political clients.”

“There is no relationship between business with our affiliated company and our recommendations for elective office,” Schenkler continued.

Schenkler detailed his support for Kim as “a gifted and rare individual” whom he believed “will be the first Korean-American to leave a significant mark on New York City electoral politics.” (He also noted that Kim worked in community outreach for Rep. Gary Ackerman – a co-owner of the paper “not involved in its operation.”)

“He came to my office; we spent some time chatting and I was sold. So was Mike Nussbaum who heads up our affiliate company, Multi Media.”

Also hiring Multi-Media as a consultant for the primary was another candidate, Debra Markell, running for the same seat as Kim.

Kim secured the Tribune’s endorsement, and won the primary election with 2,692 votes — or 553 votes more than his closest rival. Markell did not get the endorsement  and came in last out of six candidates, with just 461 votes.

Kim proceeded to also use Multi-Media’s services in a tough general election, in which he chose not to participate in the city’s public financing system for campaigns. By the time all was said and done, Kim had spent more than $223,000 on Multi-Media services for his 2009 primary and general runs. Markell spent much less on her primary run: $29,000.

Markell and Kim did not respond to requests for comment.

Politicians, elected officials, staff members and political operatives interviewed for this piece, Democrats and Republicans alike, described a system of cash and endorsements that is widely acknowledged among the Queens political elite but hidden from the electorate.

Former State Sen. Ada Smith, who left office in 2006 after representing Jamaica, Queens, for eight terms, said that she was aware while in office that candidates expecting endorsements needed to enlist the services of Multi-Media.

“Basically if you bought ads you would be endorsed. If you did not buy ads, you were not even called in for an interview, usually,” she said, referring to paying for campaign literature. She said that she had never been approached by either the Tribune or Multi-Media, and that she has never purchased their services. Those include printing, political consultancy, campaign literature production, advertising, office supplies, direct mail and postage. (Campaign filings do not show whether the advertising was in the Tribune or in other venues.)

Former City Councilmember Allan Jennings came to see the Tribune as a force to be reckoned with.

“Those who are in the political world know. The regular citizens on the street don’t know. The would-be resident who picks up the paper has no idea, has no clue that Multi-Media has gotten paid, and then coincidentally the same candidate who has gotten paid to be the consultant will do his endorsement,” said Jennings, who has been the subject of frequent attacks in the pages of the Tribune and a sibling publication, the Press of Southeast Queens. Vivid coverage of Jennings in the Tribune‘s editorial pages included one column in its gossip section that suggested he might be a gay porn actor of the same name. (He is not.)

In 2010, Jennings sued Queens Tribune Publications LLC for defamation in State Supreme Court in Queens, seeking $10 million in damages. The case is still ongoing. Jennings claims that a 2009 article in the Press had published pictures of an apartment with a damaged ceiling and exposed wires, claiming it was a downstairs unit occupied by a tenant in Jennings’ house. Jennings asserts the pictures “were not however from the apartment of Allan Jennings.” Tribco LLC has denied the allegations.

Numerous interviews revealed widespread fear among political professionals that public criticism of the Tribune would trigger retaliation from the paper. The free newspaper claims a circulation of 146,000, which is not audited.

Among the candidates endorsed by the Tribune in campaigns who did business with Multi-Media in 2012 include newly elected U.S. Rep. Grace Meng; Councilmember Eric Ulrich and attorney John Messer in their unsuccessful bids for State Senate; and defeated Democratic primary runner Yen Chou in her Assembly race.

In the nine months leading up to the Nov. 6 election, the four candidates paid Multi-Media sums ranging from $7,500 to $15,917 for its services, campaign finance records show.

All four were subsequently endorsed in the paper’s pages, either for their primary bid or for the general election, or, in Meng’s case, both.

Other campaigns that did business with Multi-Media between 2009 and 2012 and whose electoral bids were sanctioned by a Tribune endorsement include those of City Comptroller John Liu, Assembly member Ed Braunstein, and Councilmembers Peter Koo, Daniel Dromm, and Peter Vallone, Jr.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, now retired, hired Multi-Media in his cruise to a 15th term in 2010, spending $6,131. That’s not surprising, since he is a co-owner of both the political firm and the newspaper, which he founded in 1970 while working as a public-school teacher. Ackerman did not respond to numerous messages left with Meng’s office, which the retired congressman has designated as a point of contact.

Ackerman’s relationship to Tribco, and the company’s financial condition, are detailed in his annual financial reports to the U.S. House of Representatives, in which he reported holding stock worth between $250,000 and $500,000. Between 2003, the year Tribco took over the paper, and 2008, Ackerman listed annual income from the property as between $15,000 and $50,000. But in 2009 through 2012, he listed “NONE”. Last year, Ackerman reduced the reported value of his shares to less than $250,000, and Tribco placed the property for sale with a broker at a media mergers-and-acquisitions firm.

Some candidates say they see no tie between the business transactions and the newspaper’s endorsements. In a telephone interview, Peter Koo’s chief of staff, James McClelland, said that the councilmember had not hired Multi-Media in order to receive the Tribune‘s endorsement.

“We did not pay for any type of endorsement. We paid for a printing program and a mail program,” he said. “I don’t think any one of our constituents reads the Queens Tribune.”

The office of Rep. Meng was more blunt. “It’s an outrageous and insulting accusation, absolutely without merit,” wrote Press Secretary Jordan Goldes.

The office of Assemblymember Braunstein did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The legality of a newspaper endorsing business associates during a campaign is not addressed by New York campaign finance laws, according to election lawyer Jerry H. Goldfeder.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, said the relationship between the consultancy and newspaper raised questions. “Readers should question the journalism, and whether the journalism is there to serve the community or to serve somebody’s bottom line,” she said.

The newspaper’s ties to political consultancy Multi-Media are many. According to a 2002 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, both the Tribune and Multi-Media are owned by the same umbrella company, Tribco LLC. Management, too, is combined, with the Queens Tribune‘s Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher, Michael Nussbaum, also acting as president of Multi-Media. The three organizations share the same offices on 14th Road in Whitestone, Queens.

In more than half a dozen interviews with former elected officials in Queens, some political operatives and candidates were explicit in their characterization of the Tribune‘s ties to Multi-Media.

“Everybody knows that if you use Multi-Media for printing or for political consulting, you have more than a leg up in getting the Trib’s endorsement. It’s almost a guarantee. And the contrary is true. If you don’t use them, you’re going to be on the wrong side of things,” said a former political candidate in Queens who ran against a Multi-Media–backed opponent.

“It’s huge sums of money, and the fact that the electorate is unaware of it makes it that much more unfair,” he said.

Even when the Tribune has disclosed the relationship, the information is not always complete. For example, the column supporting the Kevin Kim endorsement for City Council stated that only two of the nine Council candidates and one borough president candidate who were doing business with Multi-Media that year would subsequently receive the Tribune‘s endorsement in the primary.

Yet in the weeks that followed the publication of the column, four of the nine Council candidates, running in primaries, general elections or both, were endorsed by the Tribune. Borough president candidate Helen Marshall also received the Tribune’s endorsement that year.

Such disclosures are not consistent, and in other races examined for this article — every story that appears in a search for “Multi Media,” “disclose,” “disclosure” and “disclaimer” — candidates have received endorsements from the Tribune without readers being informed of their payments to Multi-Media for campaign services.

Not every client snagged the newspaper’s support. A handful of campaigns spent modest amounts on Multi-Media services — between $99 and $533 — without receiving an endorsement.

And in 2010, Senate candidates Isaac Sasson spent nearly $144,000 and Shirley Huntley spent $90,000 with Multi-Media without receiving the endorsement.

That year, Schenkler indicated he would withhold endorsements for any state Assembly or Senate incumbent who refused to sign former Mayor Ed Koch’s “New York Uprising,” a coalition advocating for nonpartisan redistricting.

The newspaper put candidates who did not pledge on a list of “enemies of reform.” Both Sasson and Huntley were included.

Sasson, a rabbi who entered politics after becoming a lottery millionaire, lost in the primary against Toby Stavisky and John Messer. Huntley won but subsequently lost her seat in the 2012 election, while under indictment for alleged misuse of a grant from her office.

In two cases, one Multi-Media client was outspent by another who then received the endorsement. In 2009, despite spending $18,169 with Multi-Media before the primary election, City Council candidate Yen Chou failed to get a Tribune endorsement for that primary, which she won, and the subsequent general election. The general election endorsement went instead to Republican nominee Peter Koo, who spent $126,208 on Multi-Media services solely on the general election.

Koo’s chief of staff James McClelland said of the Trib’s endorsement that it hadn’t been “important to win the election” since the paper isn’t widely read by the majority Asian-American electorate in his district.

In the 2009 primary Chou’s opponent, James Wu, received the endorsement instead — one of two instances in which the endorsement went to a candidate who was not a Multi-Media client in a race opposing a Multi-Media client. (The other went to Democratic candidate Joseph Addabbo in the 2012 general election, after the Tribune had endorsed Republican Multi-Media client Eric Ulrich in his primary.)

The Tribune‘s claimed circulation tops those of Queens’ four other major weeklies, the Chronicle, the Courier, the Gazette and the Ledger. It’s not unheard of for community newspapers to offer endorsements to candidates who are also advertisers – and in low-turnout primaries, which often decide local races, the paper’s support can be important.

Former Sen. Smith says such papers’ local impact is significant. “It had some cachet in the local neighborhood, and people would look at them just as they would look at The New York Times possibly,” she said.

Candidates also cite these endorsements in mailers and other materials sent to voters.

The power of the local press was on full display in the tight 2009 City Council race between Democratic nominee Kevin Kim and Republican Dan Halloran.

Halloran did not allow Multi-Media’s role in the race to go unnoticed. In September 2009, the Tribune ran a story originally headlined “Democratic Victor vs. Pagan Lord” that detailed Halloran’s unconventional religious practices.

Halloran fired back in the pages of the rival Queens Chronicle: “The Tribune has endorsed my opponent. The publishers of that paper also own Multi-Media Advertising, which has been paid over $80,000 by my opponent’s campaign. I am a man of faith – and now my faith is under attack by a newspaper working for my opponent.”

The following month, Schenkler responded to Halloran’s suggestion that the Tribune had gone on the attack because Kim was a Multi-Media client.

“In this column on Sept. 3, we disclosed our affiliate’s business relationship with Kevin. We also disclosed that this paper’s founder Gary Ackerman had encouraged us to help Kevin. Heck, we disclosed that we liked Kevin. In every one of Kevin’s regular campaign filings, he discloses that he does business with Multi Media.

“Nothing contained above or nothing in my relationship or this business’ relationship with Kevin Kim can change the news, the facts, or the secrets that his opponent lives with.

“When we discover something that may be significant about a candidate for public office or an elected official, this paper will disclose it. Period!”

Kim received a separate endorsement for the general election, and lost to Halloran by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said that the Tribune claims a circulation of 160,000; in 2012, it advertised a circulation of 146,000.

The New York World has a publishing partnership agreement with the Queens Chronicle, in which the World provides articles free of charge, as we do with any news organization that seeks our content.

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