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Blair Horner: Questionable Use Of Campaign Contributions

Governor Cuomo stirred up a hornet’s nest when he decided to use the World Series as a way to raise and spend his campaign war chest. He chose to use his campaign contributions to pay for his plane ride to Kansas City to watch the first game of the World Series between the Mets and Royals. His transportation was a private jet owned by the Mets’ owners.

The second event was that the governor was able to obtain a package of tickets to the World Series Games 3 and 4 to be held at Citi Field, the home of the Mets. The governor offered the tickets at $5,500 each to any deep-pocketed campaign donors, which would allow them to watch the game as well as get some face time with the governor at a reception. The Mets’ tickets are reportedly available to the public on StubHub for $1,600. The governor’s campaign would keep the difference.

The second incident generated the most controversy. One New York City tabloid called it “ticket scalping” (when a purchaser of event tickets turns around and sells them at a huge markup). The New York Post hammered away at the governor, noting that while the event was within the limits of the state’s campaign finance laws, as Attorney General, Cuomo had gone after ticket scalpers for engaging in a similar practice.

Because of that firestorm, the governor canceled his fundraisers.

But the first event raised eyebrows too. When the governor gets to fly in a private jet to a World Series game, he must avoid violating the state’s ethics laws. The owners of the Mets have been registered lobbyists and are prohibited from offering gifts to any public official. The governor got around that prohibition by using his campaign funds to pay for the trip on the owners’ private plan.

Should campaign contributions be used to pay for a personal trip on a private jet to a baseball game? How can that expenditure be justified? As far as we know, there was no campaign fundraising involved in the use of the contributions for the trip.

Instead of paying for the trip out of his pocket, the governor was substituting his campaign funds, which reformers believe should be a no-no.

Some argue that the governor should be allowed a perk of going to the World Series. The governor already gets lots of perks – he has a free mansion, use of the state helicopter, staff support, all paid for by taxpayers. He also makes a decent salary as governor, $179,000.

Should his campaign contributions pay for his trip to a ball game?

The incidents illuminate just how bad New York State’s campaign financing system is. It couples the highest campaign contributions limits of any state with limits, with inadequate disclosures, sporadic enforcement, and loopholes that allow elected officials to use their campaign monies in ways that can subsidize their incomes.

Reforms are needed.
The first step is an obvious one and does not put elected officials at a competitive disadvantage. Restrict the use of campaign contributions to the actual campaigns themselves. The loophole that swallows current law is that an elected official cannot use campaign contributions for personal use, but can use campaign contributions if the use is related to the holding of public office. Thus, the governor can argue that flying to a ballgame in Kansas City is part of his job and he can use his campaign contributions to reimburse flying on a private jet owned by individuals who are registered lobbyists.

New York law should be amended to simply state that elected officials can only use their campaign contributions for actual campaign-related activities.

Of course, more needs to be done – lowered contribution limits, expanded disclosures, unique restrictions on those seeking government favors, independent enforcement, and a voluntary system of public financing to provide resources to any New Yorker who wants to run for office, not just those with wealthy friends or connections.

The governor could start by leading by example and pledging to use his campaign funds only for campaigning. In that way, perhaps he could lead all elected officials down the path toward more comprehensive reforms.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.  

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