Money in Politics: This Week in New York

April 20, 2012

Crossposted at ReformNY

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. This week saw the publication of several editorials calling on Gov. Cuomo to maintain his commitment to creating a public campaign finance program in New York state, beginning with a Sunday New York Times editorial that cut to the heart of the matter: “There is no mystery about what New York State needs: do it like New York City.” The Times also noted that Cuomo now has “big-time support” for public campaign finance in the form of the NY LEAD coalition, the subject of a front-page story in the Times last week.

2. On Monday, the Newsday editorial board called public campaign finance “New York’s chance to blunt big donors,” noting that the current contribution limit of $60,800 for a state candidate is over 12 times the national median, and citing a recent report by NYPIRG that found that just 127 donors gave one third of the total amount of money raised by state-level candidates and political parties. The editorial praised Gov. Cuomo for supporting public campaign finance but adds, “better still would be action to make it a reality.” Monday’s Times Union reported that Cuomo’s popularity, together with emergence of the NY LEAD coalition, have created what Citizen Action Executive Director Karen Scharff calls a “unique moment in time” for public campaign finance. A Times Union editorial also highlighted one of the major benefits of public campaign finance: not only a reduction in the influence of corporate money, but a “surge in civic engagement,” based on new information released by the Campaign Finance Institute (below).

3. The Campaign Finance Institute released a new report by Prof. Michael Malbin finding that a state-level public matching funds system would “reverse the importance of small and large donors” in state electoral campaigns, and that “importing something like the city’s program is likely to bring greater participation and equality to the state’s campaign finance system.” Prof. Malbin’s report concludes that a small-donor matching funds program is likely to boost the total percentage of small donations ($250 or less) in state races from 6% to 54%, allowing small donors to be “the most important financial constituents instead of the least important.” The full study can be downloaded as a PDF here.

4. As if to confirm the conclusions drawn by the Campaign Finance Institute, the Wall Street Journal noted this week that hedge funds have contributed tens of millions of dollars to state political candidates and parties within the past few years, and that the amounts are steadily growing: from $4.1 million in 2006 to over $7 million in 2010.

5. Advocates for Fair Elections for New York held a well-attended press conference in Albany on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to pass a public campaign finance bill before the end of the legislative session in June. The press conference included statements from NY LEAD, Citizen Action, the Brennan Center, NYPIRG, and Citizens Union, among other organizations and community groups from across the state.

6. An Albany grand jury is deciding whether to indict former Sen. Majority Leader Joe Bruno on new charges of receiving kickbacks while he was in office. Bruno, who was earlier convicted of fraud by a federal district court, saw that conviction overturned on appeal thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that limited the definition of “honest services fraud,” which includes accepting bribes and kickbacks. Bruno spent nearly $2 million in campaign contributions to fund his legal defense during his trial in 2009.

7. In other news concerning disgraced New York state senators, former state Sen. Carl Kruger, facing over a decade in prison for taking over $500,000 in bribes during his tenure in office, appealed to a federal judge for mercy this week in a sentencing memorandum that emphasized his “humble and modest life.” He will be sentenced in Manhattan federal court next week. Meanwhile, testimony in the embezzlement trial of former Sen. Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. revealed that Espada took in over a quarter of a million dollars from his Soundview Health Care Network, ostensibly for “unused vacation time,” in order to reimburse Soundview for the “personal expenses” he charged to its corporate American Express card—expenses that included tickets to sporting events and bills from restaurants near Espada’s home in Mamaroneck.

National Campaign Finance News

1. 2012 is shaping up to be the most expensive presidential race in history, with Mitt Romney’s campaign now estimating that it will spend a total of $1 billion in the general presidential election this summer and fall, including $800 million from joint fundraising between the Romney Campaign and the Republican National Committee. The campaign also states that another $200 million will likely be spent by super PACs.

2. The Democratic Party and the Obama campaign raised $53 million in March in preparation for the upcoming general election season. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out that the average contribution to the campaign in March was small—a little over $50—but the president ahs also held big-ticket joint fundraisers with his victory committees and the Democratic National Committee, events at which wealthy donors can write checks for up to $38,500.

3. The Obama White House has also shown itself friendly to lobbyists; as the Times reports, “the regular appearance of big donors inside the White House underscores how political contributions continue to lubricate many of the interactions between officials and their guests.” Although the Obama administration has publicly declared that it will not accept contributions from registered lobbyists, this does not stop big donors with access to the White House from bringing lobbyists with them on their visits.

4. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which allows presidential candidates to opt into using volunteered public funds to finance their campaigns, is steadily shrinking, according to FEC records. Those records show that in 2010 fewer than 7% of Americans chose to make a donation to the fund, far below the funds’ high-water mark of 29% in 1980. President Obama was the first major-party candidate to opt out of public funding for both the primary and general elections in 2008, and both he and Mitt Romney are expected to opt out of the system this year as well, leading some to wonder whether the PECF will last much longer. The New York Times called upon candidates to fix the presidential public financing system – and to stop selling White House access to big campaign donors.