Money in Politics: This Week in New York

April 27, 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. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver formally introduced a bill this week that would create a statewide voluntary public matching funds program in New York, calling on fellow legislators to pass the bill and make New York state “the model for the rest of the nation in establishing and preserving fair elections.” In a press release accompanying the announcement, Silver noted, “In light of the devastating effects the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has had on federal elections, we in New York should be leading the way in reducing the influence of money in our own elections.” The full bill, which can be read here on the State Assembly website, in addition to providing new contribution limits and enforcement rules, also stipulates that the public campaign fund would be partially financed with money from Wall Street fraud settlements.

2. Media producer and NY LEAD coalition member Marc Weiss, writing for Newsday, called for New York senators and assembly members to support Gov. Cuomo and Speaker Silver in passing public campaign finance legislation, asking, “Do they want to continue business as usual, or do they want to be part of the solution?” Under the state’s current system, Weiss observed, “regular voters feel disconnected from the process and tune out altogether. He went on to cite a Siena poll conducted earlier this year that found 3 out of every 4 New Yorkers would support a statewide campaign finance reform that includes a voluntary small-donor public matching funds program.

3. Washington Post editorial writer E.J. Dionne offered unequivocal support this week for public campaign finance in New York state, pointing out that, like the New York City small-donor matching system on which it is modeled, the state public finance legislation “creates incentives for more people to participate... expands the number of people speaking through their contributions... [and] opens the way for candidates who might otherwise be driven from the competition by established politicians with access to traditional funding sources.” Simply put, Dionne concludes, “it makes our democracy democratic again.”

4. The Nation reminds us why this year presents such a unique opportunity for the passage of public campaign finance in New York, pointing out that the current legislative campaign has garnered the support of the pro-business Committee on Economic Development, Senator Russ Feingold, and an impressive roster of business leaders and philanthropists. But no bill will pass without the public support of Gov. Cuomo; the article finds that public campaign finance presents the governor with the opportunity “to step into the leadership vacuum and provide a rare glimpse of hope on a mission-critical progressive priority.”

5. Former state Senator Carl Kruger was sentenced to seven years in prison on Thursday for his leading role in a million-dollar bribery conspiracy that exemplified the pay-to-play reputation of the New York state legislature. In imposing the sentence, federal judge Jed S. Rakoff observed that Kruger had engaged in “extensive, long-lasting, substantial bribery schemes that frankly were like daggers in the heart of honest government.” This week also saw closing arguments in the corruption trial of Pedro Espada, Jr., the former state senate majority leader accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from a publicly funded healthcare system in order to finance his lavish personal lifestyle.

National Campaign Finance News

1. The New York Times reports that the same wealthy groups that funded the Republican takeover of the U.S. House in 2010 are now mounting an “aggressive campaign” to capture seats in the Senate, one whose final cost will exceed $100 million by November. Much of that money is evidently funding attack ads against Democratic incumbents; for instance, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D—MO) already faces over $2.2 million in television ads funded by the Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS (an offshoot of the super PAC American Crossroads), and other right-leaning groups. Sen. McCaskill said, “You make one company mad by casting a principled vote, and they say, ‘Okay, we’ll just gin up $10 million of our corporate money and take her out anonymously.’ I think if people figure out that’s what’s going on, they’re going to be very turned off by it.”

2. A new national survey conducted by the independent Opinion Research Corporation on behalf of the Brennan Center revealed that “nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Super PAC spending will lead to corruption.” Nearly three out of four survey respondents also found that limiting contributions to super PACs would reduce corruption, and over 50% of both Republicans and Democrats agreed with the statement that “spending in this election is more likely to lead to corruption.” Candidates across the country are taking notice and adopting campaign rhetoric accordingly.

3. The Times also called on the U.S. Senate to require electronic filing of campaign finance reports, finding that while the House already has a system whereby candidates disclose “by a push of a button,” the Senate does not. Under the Senate’s outdated and inefficient system, the Times reports, crucial information is often not disclosed until after voters have already been to the polls.

4. The corruption trial of disgraced former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards began on Monday. The trial, which is expected to last six weeks, opened with testimony that Edwards knowingly accepted illegal campaign contributions in order to hide an ongoing affair from his ailing wife. Conviction on all six counts would leave Edwards facing up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

5. A former aide to U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK) told the FBI that Rep. Young used campaign funds for personal expenses, including hunting trips, meals, and charter flights. The FBI ultimately cleared Rep. Young of wrongdoing in connection with a budget earmark for a highway, but documents released last week from the investigation show that his aides expressed doubts about “inappropriate” expenses.