Money in Politics: This Week in New York
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 and #fairelex.
New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News
1. A report issued this week by the Center for Working Families finds that Pedro Espada’s contributions from the real estate industry skyrocketed once the ex-state Senate Majority Leader took over the housing committee. The report not only finds that Espada’s fundraising shot up by over 650% once he became Chairman of the housing committee, but that over half of the funds Espada raised from 2009 to 2010 came from the real estate industry—and that only three contributions, totaling a mere $800, came from his own district. The full CWF report can be read here.
2. An analysis by Common Cause of donor data from the most recent state legislative election reveals that the vast majority of contributions in state races originate outside candidates’ home districts. For instance, the data shows that two state Senators, Republican Mark Grisanti and Democrat Tim Kennedy, raised from 75% to 90% of their campaign contributions from wealthy donors living outside their districts. Additionally, about $3 of every $4 donated to Syracuse’s two state Senators—Democrat David Valesky and Republican John DeFrancisco—came from corporations or groups, not individuals, and most of that money came from outside the legislators’ district. Susan Lerner, of Common Cause New York, noted that most contributions for state races come “not from the actual voters” but from small clusters of zip codes near the Capitol, Wall Street, and the Upper East and Upper West sides of Manhattan.
3. The Times Union editorial board issued a strong call for Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature to improve the transparency of the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, citing the commission’s recent refusal to release its voting records as a red flag that the commission is too secretive. Given that the commissioners of the new ethics watchdog are appointed solely by the governor and legislative leaders, “when a commission this important and this powerful votes, the public ought to know who is voting and how they vote.”
4. Following the conviction of Yonkers Council Member Sandy Annabi and her political mentor Zehy Jereis on charges of corruption, US Attorney Preet Bharara stated publicly that “the investigation is ongoing,” suggesting that the bribery scandal surrounding Annabi’s sudden support for two development projects may grow. As an editorial in the lower Hudson Valley Journal News opined, “nothing in recent experience suggests, for an instant, that these prosecutions will be the last.”
5. The Buffalo News called on the New York state legislature to refrain from voting itself a pay raise in the absence of progress on needed reforms. The paper urged lawmakers to “focus on the matters that reform state government – the public financing of campaigns, for example –“ before they can consider benefiting themselves. New York legislators are already paid a base of $79,500, making them some of the nation’s “best-paid state legislators.”
National Campaign Finance News
1. In a clear victory for campaign finance disclosure, a federal district court judge ruled late last week that a Federal Election Commission rule permitting the sources of some corporate donations to remain hidden violated the intention of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The rule required disclosure only for corporate contributions that were explicitly earmarked for political purposes, creating an easy loophole for corporate donors who could simply give to campaigns without declaring what the funds were for. Although the rule does not apply to super PACs, the loophole was wide enough to let in $138 million in undisclosed contributions during the 2010 Congressional elections, 80 percent of it to Republican candidates.
2. Public hostility to Citizens United and the broadening perception of partisanship on the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to play a major role in the 2012 elections. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works with Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC supporting President Obama’s re-election, said that his polling and focus groups showed that Citizens United “is probably the best-known decision since Bush v. Gore.” Garin said: “To the extent it would be a motivating issue this year, it would be for Democratic and independent voters around the Citizens United case.”
3. In California, Kinde Durkee pleaded guilty Friday, March 30 to mail fraud after embezzling $7 million from more than 50 campaign clients, including Senator Dianne Feinstein. Durkee, called the “Madoff of Campaign Finance,” was investigated after submitting falsified campaign finance reports to elected officials. Durkee’s case is especially notable for its enforcement and disclosure lessons: As one California paper noted, “Despite a history of fines for campaign disclosure violations issued by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Durkee maintained a client list that included some of California’s most prominent Democratic politicians, political organizations and nonprofits.”