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Stop the Abuse of Campaign Contributions

Here in New York, we are used to seeing politicians spend campaign contributions on everything from pool covers to trips to Europe. It’s as familiar a part of the state landscape as the change in seasons.

  • Suzanne Novak
Published: May 22, 2006

Albany Times Union

May 22, 2006

Stop the Abuse of Campaign Contributions
by Suzanne Novak

Some campaign donors to U.S. Rep. Tom Delay are reportedly angry that, after deciding not to run for re-election, Delay may use their money for his legal defense fund against felony charges.

New York’s big money political donors must find this anger in Washington almost quaint. Why all the fuss? Here in New York, we are used to seeing politicians spend campaign contributions on everything from pool covers to trips to Europe. It’s as familiar a part of the state landscape as the change in seasons.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, used almost $8,000 of campaign money to have a staff aide join Mr. Bruno and his son (a lobbyist) on a 10-day trip to Italy; Bruno points out that the aide did meet with Italian officials.

State Sen. Martin Connor, D-Brooklyn, spent more than $70,000 in campaign funds to pay for a Jeep Grand Cherokee and related parking and insurance costs; the campaign donations were collected even though Connor was unchallenged for re-election.

Former State Sen. Guy Velella, R-Bronx, funded his legal defense against bribery charges with campaign funds.

State Sen. Serphin Maltese, R-Queens, used campaign contributions to pay for food and veterinary care for his “office cat.”

Best of all, Howard Mills, the state insurance commissioner, accepted $15,000 in campaign contributions in 2005. And he doesn’t even claim to be running for office. But he says he might, someday.

None of this would occur if elected officials feared that donors would respond by refusing to fill their campaign coffers the next time around. But, like clockwork, those coffers are generously replenished by contributors seeking favorable treatment from the state government.

How does this happen, you ask? First, New York’s existing campaign finance law is a study in the art of deception. State legislators have passed laws that pretend to limit money’s influence on politics; but when they run for office, these same officials are barely disturbed by contribution ceilings that are so high as to be meaningless. Among states that limit contributions, New York’s limits are the highest, or among the highest, in almost all categories.

For example, not only can a lobbyist contribute $50,100 per election cycle to a statewide candidate, but that same lobbyist can contribute as much as $84,400 per year to a political party, which in turn can funnel that money to a candidate without limit.

Next, restrictions on the spending of campaign contributions are almost nonexistent. It is against the law for campaign funds to be converted to a personal use unrelated to a political campaign or holding public office. But no one in the state seems to know what constitutes personal use since the prohibition lacks any further description. In practice, everything under the sun is justified with an office-holding purpose.

The hollow laws governing “personal use” are colliding with a far older and more powerful law: human nature. Lawmakers can’t resist using campaign funds for personal purposes. Finally, New York has no meaningful mechanism for enforcing ethical standards. Thirty-nine states provide external oversight of their state government officials through independent ethics commissions.

In New York, the fox is guarding the hen house. Executive branch wrongdoing is overseen by a commission of mainly gubernatorial appointees; the state Legislature is monitored by a committee of its peers. There is no requirement that suspected ethical violations result in referral to a prosecutor.

Albany apologists say that it’s unfair to lump together the current campaign finance system with old-style corruption. But think again. Today’s politicians often seek contributions from donors who have their eye on government contracts.

Both candidate and donor pursue their self-interest, knowing that the campaign cash is as likely to subsidize the lawmaker’s lifestyle as to pay for bumper stickers. Described in those unvarnished terms, we’re getting uncomfortably close to Tammany Hall-style graft.

The Brennan Center, along with other organizations, has put forward a plan to strengthen the ethical rules governing legislators, which would, among other things, bring an end to the misuse of campaign contributions. Albany needs to get started now. The Legislature should give teeth to the bar against personal use of campaign money; outlaw the spending of campaign contributions for official duties; ban gifts to government officials; and create an independent ethics enforcement commission.

And that still leaves the need for a major overhaul of New York’s campaign finance regime, including instituting a public financing system and dramatically lowering contribution limits.

Let us restore some semblance of rationality to the money flow in New York. News of a politician spending thousands of campaign dollars on a car, a cat, a criminal lawyer, or a cover for a pool should provoke more than a shrug or a laugh.

Suzanne Novak is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.