Money and Politics This Week

November 18, 2011

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics

NY Campaign Finance and Corruption:

1. The Second Circuit overturned ex-state senator Joe Bruno’s corruption conviction, paving the way for a retrial and rejecting Bruno’s arguments for double jeopardy. The court found that “the government’s evidence... would permit a reasonable jury to find that Bruno performed virtually nonexistent consulting work for substantial payments.” As an example, the court observed that a new jury could reasonably conclude that a payment to Bruno of $40,000, ostensibly for a racehorse, was “an illegitimate gift.”

2. William Boyland’s acquittal on corruption charges related to his ‘no-show’ consulting job continues to generate controversy. A member of the jury that exonerated Boyland stated that the assemblyman “clearly did things wrong,” but that the jury “could not connect the dots” to reach a consensus on the legality of Boyland’s acts. After a relieved Boyland told reporters that he was “going to sleep and breathe” after the acquittal, The Capitol blog remarked that this “doesn’t seem much different from what he had been doing all year in Albany.”Commenting on the Boyland case, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, “It should be a jarring wake-up call. Instead, it seems no matter how many times the alarm goes off, Albany just hits the snooze.”

3. Citing a dizzyingly long list of New York state legislatorseither convicted of or facing charges for corruption—including Joe Bruno, William Boyland, former comptroller Alan Hevesi, former Assemblymen Clarence Norman, Roger Green, and Brian McLaughlin, and former Assemblywoman Diane Gordon—City Room wryly remarks that perhaps New York’s official state motto, “Excelsior,” should be changed to “Ubi Est Mea?”, or “Where is mine?”

4. The federal criminal trial of Bronx City Councilman Larry Seabrook continued this week, as prominent Bronx lobbyist and lawyer Stanley Schlein took the stand against Seabrook, testifying that

Seabrook steered him to a local contractor looking to contract for work at Yankee Stadium. Seabrook is facing 12 counts of money laundering, fraud, conspiracy and receiving corrupt payments.

5. Further proof of the value of strong campaign finance enforcement: An undercover FBI sting culminated in the arrest Wednesday of Xing Wu Pan, a fundraiser for NYC Comptroller John Liu, for illegally funneling thousands of dollars into Mr. Liu’s campaign account. After an FBI agent posing as a businessman offered to donate $16,000—over three times the legal limit for individuals—Mr. Pan recruited 20 straw donors to circumvent the limit. He is charged with two counts of wire fraud. Mr. Liu released a statement Wednesday disavowing any knowledge of the fraud. Meanwhile federal officials continue their investigation of the comptroller’s campaign finance operations.

Other News Nationwide:

6. A study released November 16 by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington examined campaign donations to members of key House committees and found that becoming chairman or the ranking member leads to a massive jump in donations from regulated industries. House Financial Services Committee chairman Spencer Bachus has seen contributions from all sources increase by 234 percent since 1998, while contributions from the financial industry jumped 620 percent. CRE Executive Director Melanie Sloan said, “People who are giving you that much money – it is not out of the goodness of their hearts – clearly they want something.”

7. The New York Times criticized the proliferation of “super PACS” and unlimited contributions in this election cycle, calling them a “noxious weed . . . in the lawless jungle of campaign finance.” The editorial called for the Department of Justice to pursue criminal investigationsagainst fundraisers who improperly attempt to influence the candidates, observing: “It is now clear that giving to a candidate’s PAC is equivalent to giving to his campaign; the leaders of the PAC, for all practical purposes, are the campaign’s bag men.”

8. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig advocates for a national small-dollar public funding system for Congress. He suggests giving every voter a “democracy voucher” that could then be given to any candidate for Congress who agreed in advance to finance his or her campaign by either those vouchers or individual contributions capped at $100. Lessig argues that such a program would “weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions.”