A New York anti-corruption commission pointedly critiqued the state’s Board of Elections at a hearing Monday, questioning its enforcement efforts and the dual-party nature of its very structure.
Representatives of the state election board pushed back against the questioning from members of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption at the Manhattan hearing, repeatedly emphasizing a lack of resources and staff at the organization.
The hearing was the third from the Moreland commission, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The commission isn’t technically authorized to investigate the legislative branch of state government, but Cuomo directed the commission to investigate the records of the Board of Elections and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, both executive branch agencies. That probe would consider the connection between campaign contributions, lobbying and lawmakers.
The hearing got off to an aggressive start, with Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County district attorney and a commission co-chair, noting that the information the commission had received from the election board wasn’t complete, easy to use, or entirely voluntarily given. She also noted that an attorney with the board’s enforcement division who had been ordered to appear before the commission had retired and moved out of state.
Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine emphasized the scale of the board’s responsibilities, as it oversees elections all over the state.
“The state board currently addresses its responsibilities with both a budget and a staffing level that has decreased or been flat over the past six budget cycles,” he said. He said the board has a budget of about $5.3 million and a staff of 50 full-time employees. He contrasted that to places like Wisconsin, which has far fewer residents, a slightly larger budget and about the same number of staffers.
The state elections board has a number of positions that have traditionally been evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Commission member Peter Zimroth asked Co-Executive Directors Robert Brehm and Valentine whether the board had to be structured that way and whether it was more harmful than helpful. He went into board emails, which painted a picture of factions, members of one political party at a distance from members of the other.
“Does the splitting of the agency into these two teams have any effect on the agency’s ability to function efficiently?” Zimroth asked.
Valentine said it didn’t. “I think it provides a check and balance,” he said.
The questioning only got more pointed as the hearing went on, with multiple members of the commission questioning the few number of investigations the elections board had undertaken in recent years, and whether it had tried to use the powers it has and the staff it has to fully conduct whatever enforcement work it could.
Rice asked William McCann, deputy counsel in the enforcement division at the board, repeated questions about how complaints about election violations were dealt with, how it was determined whether a complaint merited an investigation and which attorney in the department would look into it.
“Does the enforcement counsel’s political affiliation have anything to do with the assigning of complaints, to the best of your knowledge?” she asked, to which McCann said simply, “No.”
Kathleen Hogan, Warren County district attorney, asked about a complaint of possible fraud in the 2008 election that wasn’t investigated until 2010.
“Was there no sense of urgency on this?” she asked.
“I don’t think that it’s an issue of a sense of urgency, the issue is these matters are in the context of our other responsibilities,” McCann said.