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Commentary & Opinion

New York's Porous Campaign Finance Law Under Scrutiny

For many years, New York’s campaign finance laws have been mocked. Appropriately so.

From its sky-high campaign contribution “limits,” to its weak enforcement, to its “swiss cheese-like” disclosures, New York’s law has fostered a “pay-to-play” system coupled with near-total lack of accountability. That system has contributed mightily to the scandals that have plagued state government.

Once again, that system has come under scrutiny.

Former Governor Cuomo left office last month with a massive campaign war chest. According to the most recent reports, the former governor left with $18 million in campaign contributions. The former governor had raised boatloads of money for an anticipated run for a fourth term. He raised it the old-fashioned way – huge contributions that largely originated from special interests with business before the government.

Those contributions were not donated to the man, but to the candidate for governor. What is to become of all that money now that he has left office?

Under New York’s Election Law, there are general restrictions on how campaign contributions may be spent. The law says that campaign “funds shall not be converted by any person to a personal use which is unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”

For many of us, it might come as a surprise that elected officials can use their contributions for any expenses outside of running for office. After all, they are called campaign contributions for a reason. Yet, state law allows campaign contributions to be used by a public official or political party chief for costs outside of running for office – as long as it’s not for purely personal reasons. Using them to buy a yacht, for example, is verboten.

But it is a gray area. There have been many instances in which an elected official used campaign contributions for things like a cover for their inground pool, the leasing of luxury cars, even a clown for a child’s birthday party.

The most egregious example, however, is when the campaign contributions are used to cover legal costs that are unrelated to a campaign. The former Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader drained millions from their campaign accounts in failed attempts to fend of prosecutions for corruption. Both were convicted and sent to federal prison.

And other statewide officials forced from office left with significant campaign accounts. For example, former Governor Spitzer and former Attorney General Schneiderman were forced to resign. In both of their cases, they offered refunds to campaign donors.

The situation with former Governor Cuomo is different, largely due to the amount of the war chest and how the former governor is intending to use it.

Despite public statements that he has no intention of running for office, the former governor is paying for a press person from his campaign war chest. Why? It’s not clear, but certainly this is in part an attempt to respond to media inquiries about the criminal, civil and legislative investigations still plaguing the former governor.

So, the question is: Should a private individual who is not running for office use millions of dollars in campaign funds to pay for a personal press person to respond to media inquiries? Is that why the donors sent their campaign contributions?

Last week a coalition of reform groups filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections to act on the question. Where is the line of what’s allowed and what’s not? If the former governor can use his campaign funds to hire a press person, why not other personal staff? A driver? Or maybe even a butler?

It’s not likely that the State Board of Elections will act on this matter. The law is more loophole than law, and elected officials have long viewed their campaign accounts as a personal cookie jar – an approach the Board of Elections has too often blessed.

That must change. There are former elected officials that have held onto tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions they collected over the years in office and then used those monies to continue to exert influence over politics for years after their terms ended. In contrast, California politicians are required to close their committees 60 days after losing an election or leaving office.

The California approach makes sense. Once the days of campaigning are over, it should be time to close the campaign account.

It also makes sense that New York laws should be changed to ensure that campaign contributions are used narrowly to cover expenses for running for office, nothing else.

It’s long since time for Albany to close this loophole.

Blair Horner is executive 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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