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 Syed Zaidi.
New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News
1. Two recent scandals involving members of the New York State legislature serve as egregious examples of politicians thinking they are above the law. Senator Shirley L. Huntley, D-Queens, is accused of abusing a non-profit that she created to assist parents in navigating the New York City Department of Education. Huntley and several aides were indicted this week on charges of falsifying records, tampering with evidence and grand larceny. However instead of apologizing, Huntley asserts that the case is a politically motivated attempt to reduce her chances of reelection in the upcoming Democratic primary. Similarly, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, D-Brooklyn, was censured by the Assembly after an investigation revealed that he had sexually harassed two female employees. A secret payment of $103,080 of tax-payer funds was authorized in June to settle a different set of sexual harassment claims against Lopez. “Taxpayers should be funding public education, not to sweep harassment charges aside for bad elected officials,” said Dick Dadey, of Citizens Union.
2. Last week, Reform NY informed readers about 622 campaign committees that had not filed reports detailing their financial transactions with the New York State Board of Elections. This week, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has released the names of sixty candidates in New York state legislative races who have failed to submit personal income disclosure forms. Candidates for statewide elected office must file a disclosure statement regarding outside employment and income, investments, financial liabilities, political activities and gifts, within ten days of certain election petition and nominating deadlines. Ellen Biben, Executive Director of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, stated that “Financial Disclosure Statements are important tools for the promotion of transparency and accountability amongst those who serve the public and those seeking election to public office. The Joint Commission will continue to use its powers and jurisdiction to ensure compliance with State ethics laws.”
National Campaign Finance and Ethics News
1. Political party conventions get $18.2 million every four years from the federal treasury. However, according to a USA Today editorial the conventions will cost three times that amount this year. The Republicans have raised massive funds through corporations and individuals eager to write big checks. Although the Democrats have banned corporate contributions toward the convention, several loopholes such as the donation of in-kind services and office space have been left in place. Disclosure of convention donors has been pushed back to October 15th by both parties. Exclusive post convention events, where donors and lobbyists mingle with politicians—profiled by the Sunlight Foundation—are the real highlight of the political gatherings. For example, in Tampa, Republican Senate candidates were treated to a lavish reception behind a heavily fortified security perimeter, with the cost underwritten by AT&T, AFLAC, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Former lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who was charged with fraud, bribery and tax evasion in 2006, and is now a stern advocate for reform, informed ABC News that “Lobbyists and special interests aren’t going to be spending their money to promote and support events like this out of altruism and the goodness of their heart. They’re doing it because they have an agenda…fed by an improper use of financial resources in a way that tilts it away from members deciding things only on their merits.”
2. Outside groups are busy this week fundraising in Tampa. Conservative Super PACs and non-profits are capitalizing on the Republican convention, holding donor meetings and media events that allow delegates, staffers, activists and Republican benefactors to interact and contribute money. The outside groups are allowed to attend the convention but they may not explicitly coordinate with the party on questions such as the type of messages to run. Americans for Prosperity is hosting a reception on behalf of its foundation chairman, David Koch, and Republican donor Art Pope. Restore Our Future, the lead Super PAC behind Mitt Romney, and American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, are organizing similar fundraisers as well.
3. Not only are outside groups fundraising at the conventions, they are also purchasing thousands of dollars worth of television advertisements to sway public opinion. American for Prosperity, 60 Plus Association, American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and Restore Our Future have spent a total of $430,000 for ad buys on Tampa’s ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates. Priorities USA, Obama’s primary Super PAC, has purchased $6,730 worth of ads in the Tampa market, while his campaign, Obama for America, has spent more than $200,000 on ads in the city. For the Democratic National Convention, the Obama campaign has already bought $112,000 worth of air time in Charlotte, while American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity have spent a total of $67,300 on ad buys in Charlotte for the same week. Analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project shows that negative advertisements have increased by nearly 60 percent this cycle compared to the 2008 election. Barack Obama and Priorities USA have spent approximately $97 million on negative advertisements thus far, while Romney and Restore Our Future have purchased $83 million worth of negative ads.
4. The 2012 Republican Party Platform embraces the highly unpopular Citizens United ruling, calls for the repeal of McCain-Feingold and opposes the DISCLOSE Act. McCain-Feingold, also referred to as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, outlawed soft money—unlimited contributions to political parties for the purpose of “party building” activities. The DISCLOSE Act, which was proposed in the Senate this summer but failed to pass, mandates that non-profit “social welfare” organizations which spend more than $10,000 on electioneering communications per year publicly document all donors that contributed more than $10,000. Opposition to these common sense reform measures illustrates the GOP’s dependence on special interests and wealthy donors. “Republicans are proving that they don’t just tolerate corruption in politics, they actually embrace it,” Josh Otron, political director at Progressives United, stated. Nick Nyhart, executive director at the Public Campaign Action Fund, has argued that “It is a complete endorsement of the role of big money in politics.”
5. While their campaigns are awash with donations from billionaires, both Presidential candidates are rhetorically supporting campaign finance reform. In an interview with Fox News Sunday Romney said that he would prefer federal matching funds and spending limits but blamed President Obama for rejecting federal funding and “spending an unlimited amount based on what he raised” in the 2008 race. While previously denying that contributions have any effect on his policies, Romney openly admitted that unrestrained contributions “increase the potential of money having an influence in politics.” On his Tuesday foray into the website Reddit, President Obama decried the “flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs,” and emphasized the need for a “constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” Obama also voiced his support for the DISCLOSE Act and legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions by lobbyists. If only the candidates would put their money where their mouth is.