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Money in Politics: This Week in New York

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.

  • ReformNY
May 18, 2012

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 Robert Friedman.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. WYNC touts the findings from the new joint report by the Brennan Center and the Campaign Finance Institute, Donor Diversity Through Public Matching Funds. A significantly greater number of small donors contributed to campaigns in New York City, which matches donations of less than $175 at a six-to-one ratio, than contributed to state-level elections, where no matching exists. The results also evidence greater participation by minorities and low-income individuals under New York City’s public matching fund system. The report notes the ongoing campaign to institute a similar system for New York State elections, suggesting that small donor public financing could increase the diversity of the donor base for state elections.

2. Super PACs are already dominating this federal election cycle, and an article from Crain’s New York Business suggests they may play a major role in New York City elections as well. “There will be super PACs,” said New York Republican State Committee Chairman Ed Cox. “It’s impossible not to have them. They’re a part of the process now.” Such organizations could put unlimited dollars behind policy issues or mayoral candidates, according to some sources. Nonetheless, heightened disclosure requirements and a vigilant city Campaign Finance Board, according to the Board’s former general counsel, Laurence Laufer, may mean that these organizations work within greater restraints in New York City than at the federal level.

3. After more than a decade of accusations of misusing public funds, the law has finally caught up with the former New York State Senator Pedro Espada. A federal jury convicted Espada of four counts of theft, and he now faces up to forty years in prison. The charges stemmed from Espada’s unlawful use of over $400,000 belonging to a health clinic he helped found in 1978. Espada became known statewide in 2009 after taking part in a coup against party leadership shortly after the Democrats gained a narrow majority in the Senate. Two other Senators involved in that political turmoil – Hiram Monserrate and Carl Kruger – recently pleaded guilty to separate corruption charges.

National Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. The Federal Elections Commission continues to press Congress to extend the ban on using campaign funds for personal use, according to The Hill. The ban currently covers candidates and candidate committees, but the FEC is urging Congress to extend it to reach campaign funds held by all political committees, including Leadership PACs and party committees. The Department of Justice has echoed the FEC’s concern, noting a “dramatic rise” of theft of funds intended for use in a campaign. To date, Congress has not taken action to respond to the FEC’s recommendation.

2. An op-ed published in The Columbus Dispatch examines the distaste for Citizens United expressed on both sides of the political aisle. Particularly troublesome to congressional representatives is the lack of transparency, and both Republicans and Democrats interviewed cited the need for increased disclosure. “There are national groups dropping in and out of communities without it being clear as to their interests,” said Rep. Mike Turner, a Dayton, Ohio Republican.

3. Proponents of increased disclosure of campaign contributions and curbing rampant spending in politics won a victory this week. Last month, in Van Hollen v. FEC, the District Court for the District of Columbia struck down FEC rules that undermined a federal law requiring organizations that make electioneering communications to disclose their major donors. The Huffington Post reports on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision denying a stay of the District Court’s judgment.  While the FEC chose not to appeal the initial ruling, two private groups intervened to seek a stay. The Court of Appeals rejected their request two to one.

4. Some suggest that secretive spenders will find loopholes to exploit even after the Van Hollen decision. In an article on Slate, Richard Hasen argues that mandated disclosure for “electioneering communications,” which stop short of urging listeners and watchers to vote for a particular candidate, could lead to an increase in “independent expenditures,” which do expressly encourage voting for or against a certain candidate. While this express advocacy could cause the groups to lose tax-exempt status, Hasen notes that the FEC’s thin history of enforcement may lead to groups taking that risk. Another possibility Hasen flags is that the Supreme Court could hear the case, leading to a potential stay of the new disclosure requirements.