A probe swirling around New York City’s mayor has cast a harsh light on some of the nation’s most lax campaign finance laws, with contribution limits so easy to get around that even government watchdogs acknowledge a ring of truth to the familiar excuse: Hey, everybody’s doing it.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been bedeviled by a criminal probe of an effort he helped organize in 2014 to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic state Senate candidates. He insists that he and his team have done nothing wrong and suggested they have been unfairly singled out for a common practice in New York’s opaque campaign funding system.
While New York law restricts individual donations to any candidate at just over $10,000 — already among the highest such limits in the nation — party committees can receive individual donations of more than $100,000, and the committee can then transfer an unrestricted amount to the candidate.
The legal restriction at issue in the de Blasio case is that such an arrangement can’t be specifically worked out in advance. Money can’t be given to a party committee with a direction that it’s passed on to a particular candidate.
For his part, de Blasio said he and his allies — a network of committees, consultants, politicians and operatives — have done everything properly and suggested a political motive behind singling him out.
“Everything was done very carefully, meticulously, with legal guidance, and consistent with what so many other people have done,” de Blasio told WNYC Radio on Friday.
The case referred by New York’s Board of Elections in January to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. involves donations to Senate candidates Justin Wagner, Terry Gipson and Cecilia Tkaczyk. All lost contested 2014 races that kept Republicans in control of the chamber.
Elections board chief enforcement counsel Risa Sugarman, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a foe of de Blasio, recommended the criminal referral. Her office subpoenaed bank records and work by prominent consultants involved.
Sugarman noted large, unusual donations to the two counties’ Democratic committees that in turn made large donations to the candidates.
Campaign records show, for example, the Ulster committee got $60,000 that October from the New York State Nurses Association political action committee and $102,300 each from two union PACs. Over the next two weeks, the committee transferred $320,000 to Tkaczyk.
“Review of the documents revealed evidence of campaigns that were coordinated at every level and down to minute detail,” Sugarman wrote, later calling the violations “willful and flagrant.”
Attorney Laurence Laufer, representing de Blasio and others named in the memo, responded to Sugarman last week, saying she showed “profound misunderstanding of election law.”
“There is nothing novel about the 2014 Democratic Party campaign to elect Democratic candidates to the state Senate, other than your attempt to selectively criminalize it,” Laufer wrote.
Campaign records show some of the same consultants mentioned in the Sugarman memo were being paid in 2014 by the state Democratic Committee, which Cuomo heads and was funding with millions of dollars from his own campaign account during his re-election race.