Right before Hurricane Harvey hit, President Donald Trump rolled back rules that would have made communities more resilient to floods. A new report released Tuesday by Democracy Forward shows that this rule change was a priority for his longtime friend and New York City real estate magnate who was given a role in shaping infrastructure policy.
The LeFrak Organization is one of the largest privately-held real estate firms in the United States, with holdings in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. The company’s chief executive, Richard LeFrak, was appointed by Trump last year to be the co-chair of his Infrastructure Council. The controversial, and now disbanded, council was tasked with developing federal infrastructure policy and advising the president and the Transportation Department on these issues.
LeFrak’s involvement raises questions over conflicts of interest and cronyism, the report argues. These questions over his influence come on top of unprecedented private sector involvement in policy decisions under the Trump administration. According to Democracy Forward, as co-chair, LeFrak “appears to have had the president’s ear on infrastructure spending and regulatory policy, including where he stood to benefit.”
LeFrak’s appointment came after years of lobbying by his company against flood protections. Between 2013 and 2016, the LeFrak organization spent $320,000 lobbying Congress on “Flood Map Issues” and other issues the report states. In 2015, for example, the company criticized new federal flood regulations enacted by President Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that required the company to raise the height of a Jersey City site by about three feet before construction because this would increase development costs.
Last August, Trump signed an executive order rescinding the Obama-era flood rules that had set stricter building standards aimed at reducing flood-related damages and requiring that federally-funded infrastructure built along the coastline take into account future projections for sea-level rise.
LeFrak’s company, the Transportation Department, and the White House did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
The LeFrak Organization wasn’t the only entity criticizing these flood standards. The National Association of Home Builders welcomed Trump’s rollback of the rules, which came just weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast.
In the wake of the devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, however, the Trump administration seemed to have a change of heart and said it would consider reinstating the flood rules it had just rescinded.
A leaked version of the latest draft of the White House’s infrastructure plan published by the Washington Post instead shows proposed plans to scale back environmental regulations including changing the approval process for natural gas pipelines going through national parks.
Any mention of reinstating a version of the flood protection standards is “utterly lacking” from the draft, Rob Moore, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, told ThinkProgress. “The Trump administration set that expectation and failed to meet it.”
Having rules around meeting the flood standards would have ensured that any infrastructure that is being rebuilt after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria would have been much more resilient, Moore said. Instead, “now they’re being put back exactly the same way [without stronger protections],” he said. “That’s horrible.”
The president’s state of the union is expected to highlight infrastructure as a bipartisan centerpiece. Yet the rollback of flood protection standards is one infrastructure area that both conservative and liberal groups seem to agree on. Both environmental groups and free-market think tanks previously argued that there was little upside to removing a rule aimed at saving taxpayer money and preventing loss of life in flood-prone areas.
UPDATE, 2/1: A letter was sent by the LeFrak General Counsel to Democracy Forward regarding the claims laid out in their report. According to the letter seen by ThinkProgress, the lobbying undertaken by the LeFrak organization was taken in conjunction with Jersey City regarding flood map adjustments for Hudson County, New Jersey beginning in 2013. These adjustments would have impacted some of the company’s developments.
The letter argues that Democracy Forward “baselessly conflates” this issue with actions taken by the Trump administration. It states: “The subsequent Executive Order by President Obama that your report cites had no effect on the narrow issue for which Jersey City and the LeFrak Organization provided feedback, nor did any subsequent Executive Orders by the Trump Administration.”