Reclaim New York Files Lawsuit Against Empire State Development for Hiding Records on $247 Million in Taxpayer-Funded Promotional Ads

Reclaim’s New York Transparency Project demands release of records showing how ESD spent taxpayer dollars promoting the Governor’s signature programs

(Albany, NY) — New Yorkers have grown accustomed to seeing flashy ads on their televisions that promote the Governor’s signature programs, such as Taste NY, START-UP NY and “New York State of Opportunity.” While the costly commercials and catchphrases have been plentiful, transparency from the state agency buying the ads, Empire State Development (ESD), has been hard to come by.

In response to ESD’s repeated delays and denials of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, Reclaim New York (Reclaim) filed a lawsuit today in State Supreme Court against New York State’s lead economic development agency to obtain public records related to how the agency spent $246.5 million on advertising initiatives.

The suit demands the release of the requested records, a judge’s declaration that ESD’s stall tactics violated state law, and reimbursement of legal fees. Reclaim is being represented by Government Justice Center, an independent not-for-profit legal center.

For the full legal complaint, and additional background on the case, click here.

Governor Cuomo recently signed a measure requiring reimbursement of such legal fees when a plaintiff substantially prevails. After waiting more than six months for basic documentation, this is a prime-example of why we need an increasingly strong law that demands transparency.

“No administration may spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on glitzy promotions without  basic public disclosure of how and why those dollars were used,” said Brandon Muir, Reclaim New York Executive Director. “Fear of transparency is the cancer at the heart of the ESD. This unethical behavior raises serious questions. If the goal is to attract business to New York why are ads running in New York media markets? Shouldn’t the state be able to produce basic invoices quickly for an active effort, central to the Governor’s economic development strategy?”

Muir added, “Our tax dollars bring these ads into our living rooms. We deserve to know why our money is being blown on something that only distracts from the real problems keeping businesses away, like high taxes.”

In the interest of transparency, and to enable the public to hold officials accountable for the advertising costs, Reclaim’s New York Transparency Project submitted four FOIL requests on July 17, 2017 to obtain copies of the contract, invoices, certificates of purchase plans, and work reports between the advertising firm BBDO USA LLC and ESD from the start of the contract in 2011 through 2015.

Since the initial FOIL requests were sent, ESD has failed to offer specific reasons for delaying Reclaim’s requests, often taking until the last possible second to extend their response dates.

“Empire State Development has blatantly violated our state’s transparency law. Public access is the law and it’s necessary for New Yorkers to see how they’re spending our money. This lawsuit legally forces the ESD to give the public the full story,” Muir said.

“Government is broken when a New Yorker is forced to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees, just to see public records,” added Muir. “Our lawsuit puts the new, stronger records access law to use, and sets an example for citizens that transparency is the law.”

Facts of the case:

  • The initial advertising contract between ESD and BBDO was limited to $50 million. Yet, it ballooned to over $246 million by the end of 2015.
  • On July 17, 2017, Reclaim New York sent four Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to ESD for records related to their contract to better understand how the $246.5 million was spent.
  • The records requested included a copy of the contract between BBDO and ESD, any and all invoices related to this contract from 2011 – 2015, certificates regarding advertising purchase plans, and all quarterly work reports submitted to ESD.
  • All four FOIL requests have been repeatedly delayed. Only the contract was provided after a long 6-month wait.
  • Around 40 percent of “Open for Business” and START-UP NY ads ran in-state, according to documents secured by Gannett’s Albany bureau.
  • Government Justice Center (govjustice.org) is providing legal representation for Reclaim.

Reclaim New York is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that empowers citizens, through education and civic engagement, to reclaim ownership of their government. Visit ReclaimNewYork.org.