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Reform groups push for probe into Cuomo ad spending

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Government reform groups are asking the New York state Board of Elections to open an investigation into disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s spending of campaign funds, which he is using to run ads defending his reputation. A spokesman for the former governor says Cuomo is acting within the boundaries of the law.

In addition to the television advertising campaign, which has been condemned by several women’s rights groups as misleading, government reform groups say Cuomo has also improperly used his $16.4 million campaign war chest to hire attorneys and a private spokesman.

They are defending him against the fallout from an August report by the state attorney general that found Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women. The former governor, who resigned from office in August, has denied any wrongdoing.

Susan Lerner with Common Cause says the ads bend the truth and also appear to violate sections of the state’s campaign finance law, which says campaign funds can’t 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.” The law also includes prohibitions against “salary payments” that are not “solely for campaign purposes.”

“Cuomo’s donors gave him money to run for public office,” said Lerner. “Not to use as a personal slush fund to salve his ego.”

Common Cause, along with the New York Public Interest Research Group and Reinvent Albany, submitted a complaint to the state Board of Elections investigation unit last September.

Blair Horner with NYPIRG, who is also a WAMC commentator, says the groups so far have heard nothing back, and are concerned that the lack of enforcement so far sets a bad precedent for other politicians with leftover campaign dollars.

“New York’s campaign finance enforcement system is really akin to the Wild West with no sheriff,” Horner said.

John Kaehny with Reinvent Albany compares Cuomo’s actions to that of Russian oligarchs and others around the world who he says are trying to destabilize democracy.

“Healthy democracies do not have people running around with $16 million that they are using to destabilize elections, threaten, bully and get their way,” Kaehny said. “That’s not OK at all.”

The former governor’s spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, says the government reform groups’ charges are unfounded, because in February Cuomo changed the fund to what’s known as “no designation.” Those funds can be used for purposes like a possible run for office. Azzopardi would not say whether Cuomo plans to run again.

“The future is the future,” he said.

It’s an open question whether the former governor’s spending will sway many opinions. A recent poll by Siena College, conducted before the ads were released, finds that most New York voters have already made up their minds about Cuomo. His approval rating, at 33%, is lower than that of former President Donald Trump, and 80% say Cuomo made the right decision to resign.

Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg says voters seem to be ready to move on.

“It seems clear that the voters are focused on who is in office now and who may be in office in the future,” Greenberg said. “Rather than on who was in office in the past.”

The state Board of Elections is due to meet on Friday. The reform groups hope the commissioners will announce an investigation into Cuomo’s spending.

A spokesman for the board, John Conklin, says he’s not aware of any complaints filed against the former governor’s use of money, and says the investigations unit typically does not confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigations.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.