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Money in Politics This Week: Gov. Cuomo Establishes Moreland Commission to Investigate Corruption

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
July 19, 2013

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 Syed Zaidi.

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


Moreland Commission Launched to Investigate Public Corruption

On July 2, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order to appoint a Moreland Act Commission to investigate public corruption. The commission’s 25 members include district attorneys, prosecutors, defense lawyers, civic leaders and legal scholars. The Commission is co-chaired by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Milton L. Williams, Jr. New York Leadership for Accountable Government member Peter L. Zimroth, a former Chief Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, is also serving on the commission. The commission is charged with examining the effectiveness of campaign finance laws and the structure and functioning of the State Board of Elections and recommending reforms to strengthen the laws and their enforcement. It will also recommend ways to address any weaknesses in the laws that govern public corruption, conflicts of interest, and ethics in government. In December, following the identification of weaknesses in existing laws, regulations and procedures the Commission will issue a preliminary policy report with initial findings and recommendations.

New Digital Platform Can Help Foster Transparent Elections

In a Times-Union op-ed, John Kaehny and Andrew Rasiei ask New Yorkers to help digitize our state government by adopting the State Open Campaign System. New Yorkers use computers, tablets and smart phones regularly to read, shop, bank and interact with friends. Now our state has the opportunity to use these same tools to bring greater transparency and accountability to our elections and political campaigns. The State Board of Elections is burdened by obsolete technology and data systems built over 20 years ago. Establishing an open platform that allows campaigns to report expenditure and contributions and utilizes address and identity verification features to detect and deter abuses would help make our elections fairer. Digital records would also further aid the Board of Elections in their auditing process and provide government watchdogs with real time data that they can import directly into their systems for analysis. As a start-up capital, New York State should lead the way in making our government more transparent through technology.

Real Estate Developers Exploit Loophole to Spend Million on Elections

Real estate developers and unions aligned with them are exploiting a frequently criticized loophole in state campaign finance law to funnel $5.1 million for a new political action committee that aims to elect pro-business City Council members. Under New York state election laws, a corporation can donate $5,000 per year to state campaigns, and an individual can contribute up to $150,000. However, under a 1996 ruling by the State Board of Elections, Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) are considered “individuals” under the law, allowing large real estate developers to funnel funds through each separate building incorporated as a single LLC. Big real estate companies have used these rules to make donations to the Jobs for New York political action committee through a slew of LLCs. For example, Glenwood Management gave a total of $425,000 through 17 different LLCs.  Jobs for New York has spent more than $1.4 million to date, including $432,000 on polling and $339,075 on direct mail. It aims to raise between $7 million and $10 million for the 2013 elections.

New NYC Votes App Allows Residents to Contribute to Campaigns on Smart Phones

Want to contribute money to your favorite New York City Council candidate this November? Just pull your phone out of your pocket! The New York City Campaign Finance Board is expected to roll out a new tool that will allow donors to contribute to local political campaigns from their phone. All candidates for city mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and city council can receive the donations after setting up an account on the NYC Votes app. Contributors simply have to plug in information about their name, address, occupation, and the amount they wish to donate. Voter Assistance Advisory Committee Chair Art Chang, whose firm, Tipping Point Partners, co-designed the app, stated that “We hope that this platform will inform and motivate New Yorkers to vote and stay engaged throughout the year."


U.S. House Passes Farm Bill with Big Giveaways for Agriculture Industry

The U.S. House of Representatives has just passed a farm bill that is expected to cost $195 billion over the next decade, adding an additional $8.9 billion above the current funding level for subsidies targeted towards big agricultural corporations. Food stamps, administered through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, were excluded from the bill. In 2012, more than 46 million Americans received food stamps, with the average individual obtaining approximately $130 in benefits per month. The House voted 216 to 208 in favor of the bill, with all Democrats and 12 Republicans opposing the measure. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic demonstrates, this bill typifies the influence of money on our elected officials and the decisions they make. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) describes Congressmen as “functionally telemarketers.” When lawmakers fundraise, they encounter agricultural lobbyists and corporations, rather than everyday Americans, much less poor people on food stamps. In such an environment “passing a bill without increased farm subsidies seems wholly unacceptable but passing a bill without food assistance for 47 million families feels a-okay.”

New Proposal at Federal Election Commission May Further Hamper Investigations

Few Americans have heard of the Federal Election Commission, and probably even fewer are aware of its legal responsibilities. This should not be surprising, as it turns out the FEC does very little – remaining gridlocked on key decisions affecting our nation’s transparency, ethics and campaign finance laws. For nearly three long years the FEC has failed to pass rules on matters presented before the commission due to the inability of the three Republicans and three Democrats on the panel to come to an agreement. The FEC only accepted 135 enforcement cases in 2012, compared to 612 in 2007. Of the cases that were accepted, 19 percent resulted in dismissal in 2012, compared to less than 1 percent in the past. Now with a temporary 3-to-2 Republican majority due to the departure of Democrat-nominated Commissioner Cynthia L. Bauerly, the Republican Vice Chairman Donald McGahn is determined to push through changes that would further weaken the body. Under the new proposal, agency workers would not be allowed to forward information about potential criminal violations of campaign laws to the Justice Department without approval from the six commissioners, or consult publicly available information when considering enforcement matters. The nation needs a fully staffed and functional FEC. President Obama has nominated Ann Ravel, head of California’s campaign finance agency, and Lee Goodman, a Republican election lawyer, to the commission.

Oregon and 15 Other States Seek to Overturn Citizens United

This July, Oregon became the 16th state to formally call for an amendment to the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. On the eve of the nation’s Fourth of July celebrations, House Joint Memorial 6 passed the state House and Senate. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided by the Supreme Court in 2008, unleashed copious amounts of corporate and union contributions into American elections. Many interest groups and political campaign strategists formed Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s in its aftermath to funnel unlimited, and frequently undisclosed, funds into competitive races. The Oregon resolution urges Congress to propose a constitutional amendment “clarifying the distinction between the rights of natural persons and the rights of corporations” and recognizing “that Congress and state legislatures may regulate all moneys raised and spent for political purposes.” Support for an amendment reversing Citizens United comes on the heels of national efforts by Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People, Move to Amend and other grassroots coalitions. Legislative resolutions or statewide referendums have thus far emerged from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Roughly 500 municipalities have also passed similar measures.

Proponents and Opponents Spend Big in Fight Over Obamacare

As the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare,” goes into effect, opposing groups are launching advertisements touting the costs and benefits of the law. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative 501(c)(4) advocacy group, plans on spending more than $1 million advertising in Ohio and Virginia. The online component of the ads asks viewers to test their “Obamacare risk factors.” Once people enter information such as their gender, age and employer, the site generates various risks presumably associated with the new law, such as longer waiting periods, delayed care, and being forced to share personal health information with the Internal Revenue Service. In a strategic shift, Americans for Prosperity is aiming for liberal-leaning demographic groups such as young women, with ads set to broadcast during popular programs like Chopped, Law & Order: SVU and Good Morning America. Organizing for Action, a group established to bolster support for President Obama’s agenda, is also running ads promoting the supposed benefits of the law. In sum, according to estimates by the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media, over half a billion dollars have been spent since 2010 criticizing or defending the law.