Friday, April 27, 2012

Money in Politics This Week

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 Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver formally introduced a bill this week that would create a statewide voluntary public matching funds program in New York, calling on fellow legislators to pass the bill and make New York state “the model for the rest of the nation in establishing and preserving fair elections.” In a press release accompanying the announcement, Silver noted, “In light of the devastating effects the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has had on federal elections, we in New York should be leading the way in reducing the influence of money in our own elections.” The full bill, which can be read here on the State Assembly website, in addition to providing new contribution limits and enforcement rules, also stipulates that the public campaign fund would be partially financed with money from Wall Street fraud settlements.

2. Media producer and NY LEAD coalition member Marc Weiss, writing for Newsday, called for New York senators and assembly members to support Gov. Cuomo and Speaker Silver in passing public campaign finance legislation, asking, “Do they want to continue business as usual, or do they want to be part of the solution?” Under the state’s current system, Weiss observed, “regular voters feel disconnected from the process and tune out altogether. He went on to cite a Siena poll conducted earlier this year that found 3 out of every 4 New Yorkers would support a statewide campaign finance reform that includes a voluntary small-donor public matching funds program.

3. Washington Post editorial writer E.J. Dionne offered unequivocal support this week for public campaign finance in New York state, pointing out that, like the New York City small-donor matching system on which it is modeled, the state public finance legislation “creates incentives for more people to participate... expands the number of people speaking through their contributions... [and] opens the way for candidates who might otherwise be driven from the competition by established politicians with access to traditional funding sources.” Simply put, Dionne concludes, “it makes our democracy democratic again.”

4. The Nation reminds us why this year presents such a unique opportunity for the passage of public campaign finance in New York, pointing out that the current legislative campaign has garnered the support of the pro-business Committee on Economic Development, Senator Russ Feingold, and an impressive roster of business leaders and philanthropists. But no bill will pass without the public support of Gov. Cuomo; the article finds that public campaign finance presents the governor with the opportunity “to step into the leadership vacuum and provide a rare glimpse of hope on a mission-critical progressive priority.”

5. Former state Senator Carl Kruger was sentenced to seven years in prison on Thursday for his leading role in a million-dollar bribery conspiracy that exemplified the pay-to-play reputation of the New York state legislature. In imposing the sentence, federal judge Jed S. Rakoff observed that Kruger had engaged in “extensive, long-lasting, substantial bribery schemes that frankly were like daggers in the heart of honest government.” This week also saw closing arguments in the corruption trial of Pedro Espada, Jr., the former state senate majority leader accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from a publicly funded healthcare system in order to finance his lavish personal lifestyle.

National Campaign Finance News

1. The New York Times reports that the same wealthy groups that funded the Republican takeover of the U.S. House in 2010 are now mounting an “aggressive campaign” to capture seats in the Senate, one whose final cost will exceed $100 million by November. Much of that money is evidently funding attack ads against Democratic incumbents; for instance, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D—MO) already faces over $2.2 million in television ads funded by the Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS (an offshoot of the super PAC American Crossroads), and other right-leaning groups. Sen. McCaskill said, “You make one company mad by casting a principled vote, and they say, ‘Okay, we’ll just gin up $10 million of our corporate money and take her out anonymously.’ I think if people figure out that’s what’s going on, they’re going to be very turned off by it.”

2. A new national survey conducted by the independent Opinion Research Corporation on behalf of the Brennan Center revealed that “nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Super PAC spending will lead to corruption.” Nearly three out of four survey respondents also found that limiting contributions to super PACs would reduce corruption, and over 50% of both Republicans and Democrats agreed with the statement that “spending in this election is more likely to lead to corruption.” Candidates across the country are taking notice and adopting campaign rhetoric accordingly.

3. The Times also called on the U.S. Senate to require electronic filing of campaign finance reports, finding that while the House already has a system whereby candidates disclose “by a push of a button,” the Senate does not. Under the Senate’s outdated and inefficient system, the Times reports, crucial information is often not disclosed until after voters have already been to the polls.

4. The corruption trial of disgraced former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards began on Monday. The trial, which is expected to last six weeks, opened with testimony that Edwards knowingly accepted illegal campaign contributions in order to hide an ongoing affair from his ailing wife. Conviction on all six counts would leave Edwards facing up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

5. A former aide to U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK) told the FBI that Rep. Young used campaign funds for personal expenses, including hunting trips, meals, and charter flights. The FBI ultimately cleared Rep. Young of wrongdoing in connection with a budget earmark for a highway, but documents released last week from the investigation show that his aides expressed doubts about “inappropriate” expenses.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Money in Politics This Week

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 Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. This week saw the publication of several editorials calling on Gov. Cuomo to maintain his commitment to creating a public campaign finance program in New York state, beginning with a Sunday New York Times editorial that cut to the heart of the matter: “There is no mystery about what New York State needs: do it like New York City.” The Times also noted that Cuomo now has “big-time support” for public campaign finance in the form of the NY LEAD coalition, the subject of a front-page story in the Times last week.

2. On Monday, the Newsday editorial board called public campaign finance “New York’s chance to blunt big donors,” noting that the current contribution limit of $60,800 for a state candidate is over 12 times the national median, and citing a recent report by NYPIRG that found that just 127 donors gave one third of the total amount of money raised by state-level candidates and political parties. The editorial praised Gov. Cuomo for supporting public campaign finance but adds, “better still would be action to make it a reality.” Monday’s Times Union reported that Cuomo’s popularity, together with emergence of the NY LEAD coalition, have created what Citizen Action Executive Director Karen Scharff calls a “unique moment in time” for public campaign finance. A Times Union editorial also highlighted one of the major benefits of public campaign finance: not only a reduction in the influence of corporate money, but a “surge in civic engagement,” based on new information released by the Campaign Finance Institute (below).

3. The Campaign Finance Institute released a new report by Prof. Michael Malbin finding that a state-level public matching funds system would “reverse the importance of small and large donors” in state electoral campaigns, and that “importing something like the city’s program is likely to bring greater participation and equality to the state’s campaign finance system.” Prof. Malbin’s report concludes that a small-donor matching funds program is likely to boost the total percentage of small donations ($250 or less) in state races from 6% to 54%, allowing small donors to be “the most important financial constituents instead of the least important.” The full study can be downloaded as a PDF here.

4. As if to confirm the conclusions drawn by the Campaign Finance Institute, the Wall Street Journal noted this week that hedge funds have contributed tens of millions of dollars to state political candidates and parties within the past few years, and that the amounts are steadily growing: from $4.1 million in 2006 to over $7 million in 2010.

5. Advocates for Fair Elections for New York held a well-attended press conference in Albany on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to pass a public campaign finance bill before the end of the legislative session in June. The press conference included statements from NY LEAD, Citizen Action, the Brennan Center, NYPIRG, and Citizens Union, among other organizations and community groups from across the state.

6. An Albany grand jury is deciding whether to indict former Sen. Majority Leader Joe Bruno on new charges of receiving kickbacks while he was in office. Bruno, who was earlier convicted of fraud by a federal district court, saw that conviction overturned on appeal thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that limited the definition of “honest services fraud,” which includes accepting bribes and kickbacks. Bruno spent nearly $2 million in campaign contributions to fund his legal defense during his trial in 2009.

7. In other news concerning disgraced New York state senators, former state Sen. Carl Kruger, facing over a decade in prison for taking over $500,000 in bribes during his tenure in office, appealed to a federal judge for mercy this week in a sentencing memorandum that emphasized his “humble and modest life.” He will be sentenced in Manhattan federal court next week. Meanwhile, testimony in the embezzlement trial of former Sen. Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. revealed that Espada took in over a quarter of a million dollars from his Soundview Health Care Network, ostensibly for “unused vacation time,” in order to reimburse Soundview for the “personal expenses” he charged to its corporate American Express card—expenses that included tickets to sporting events and bills from restaurants near Espada’s home in Mamaroneck.

National Campaign Finance News

1. 2012 is shaping up to be the most expensive presidential race in history, with Mitt Romney’s campaign now estimating that it will spend a total of $1 billion in the general presidential election this summer and fall, including $800 million from joint fundraising between the Romney Campaign and the Republican National Committee. The campaign also states that another $200 million will likely be spent by super PACs.

2. The Democratic Party and the Obama campaign raised $53 million in March in preparation for the upcoming general election season. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out that the average contribution to the campaign in March was small—a little over $50—but the president ahs also held big-ticket joint fundraisers with his victory committees and the Democratic National Committee, events at which wealthy donors can write checks for up to $38,500.

3. The Obama White House has also shown itself friendly to lobbyists; as the Times reports, “the regular appearance of big donors inside the White House underscores how political contributions continue to lubricate many of the interactions between officials and their guests.” Although the Obama administration has publicly declared that it will not accept contributions from registered lobbyists, this does not stop big donors with access to the White House from bringing lobbyists with them on their visits.

4. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which allows presidential candidates to opt into using volunteered public funds to finance their campaigns, is steadily shrinking, according to FEC records. Those records show that in 2010 fewer than 7% of Americans chose to make a donation to the fund, far below the funds’ high-water mark of 29% in 1980. President Obama was the first major-party candidate to opt out of public funding for both the primary and general elections in 2008, and both he and Mitt Romney are expected to opt out of the system this year as well, leading some to wonder whether the PECF will last much longer. The New York Times called upon candidates to fix the presidential public financing system – and to stop selling White House access to big campaign donors.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Money in Politics This Week

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 Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. “An unusual and well-heeled coalition, trying to tap public anger over the flood of money into politics, is pushing to enact a public financing system for elections in New York State,” reported the New York Times in a front-page article on the New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD) coalition.  The Times listed prominent business leaders who support NY LEAD, including Barry Diller, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, restaurateur Danny Meyer and philanthropist Davis Rockefeller Sr. The Times reported that these leaders believe “New York, which they call a symbol of institutionalized corruption, could become a national model for the effort to free elections from the grip of big money.”

2. In preparation for the launch of the Fair Elections for New York campaign, a series of events in Albany and across the state are being held to call attention to state legislators’ reliance on out-of-district campaign contributions—further evidence of the need for a state public campaign finance system that relies on small donors and local money. A partial list of upcoming public events can be found here.

3. The Utica Observer-Dispatch is the latest paper to add its voice to the chorus calling for public financing of elections, noting in an editorial this week that lobbying interests and super-wealthy contributors have skewed the electoral process against the small donor. The paper cited recent reports by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) as evidence of the outsized influence that Albany lobbyists currently enjoy.

4. Speaking of lobbying, the Daily News reports that the NRA has given New York state legislators over $200,000 since 2003: more than the pro-gun group has spent on campaign contributions in any other state. Almost half of these donations came in 2010, when the New York legislature defeated a bill that would have required bullet casings to carry unique markings. Democrats, including Jose Peralta (D-Queens), who sponsored the “microstamping” bill in the Senate, argue that the gun lobby’s donations to the GOP are a key reason for the demise of the bill. On Friday, the Daily News editorial board expressed its strong support for the microstamping law, arguing that senate Republicans should “stop kowtowing to the NRA.”

5. Former governor George Pataki announced this week that he has formed a super PAC, “Tipping Point,” intended to raise money to protect incumbent Republicans in the state legislature and unseat vulnerable Democrats. Pataki declared in an interview that he hopes the super PAC will raise an amount “in the high seven figures. If things go well, in the low eight.”

6. The Times Union editorial board writes this week that the three seats left open by retiring Assembly members will create new opportunities for more competitive races during the next election cycle. Although the decisions by assemblymen Ronald Canestrari (D-Cohies), Jack McEneny (D-Albany) and Bob Reilly (D-Colonie) means the loss of lawmakers who voiced strong support for campaign finance reform and other reform measures, the empty seats will ensure that no candidate in the next election arrives with the advantages of incumbency. “As for reform,” the Times Union writes, “we’ll be looking to those new, would-be incumbents to talk about what it might look like.”

7. The New York Post finds that NYC Comptroller John Liu has spent more in legal defense this year than he has raised in campaign contributions. The past year has seen Liu’s campaign weather a number of legal problems related to the Comptroller’s campaign finance reports, including an ongoing federal investigation, as well as the arrest of both his former treasurer Jenny Hou and a campaign fundraiser, Oliver Pan, who was indicted for his role in a straw bundling scheme.

National Campaign Finance News

1. The battle of the presidential super PACs has apparently begun, the New York Times reports, finding that the Republican super PAC “American Crossroads,” with a war chest of over $200 million, is planning to roll out a huge anti-Obama advertising blitz within the coming weeks and throughout the summer. That “American Crossroads” was co-founded by Republican political strategist Ed Gillespie—who recently signed on as a senior adviser to the Romney campaign—seems to only increase the evidence that the ostensibly “independent spending” of super PACs is anything but, and that voters can expect, as the Times reports, that “the general election campaign will be fought in large part by proxy, via the super PACs.”

2. The upcoming presidential contest “is going to be the most moneyed election in the history of the United States,” according to Bob Edgar of Common Cause. The campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has stated that its goal is to raise $600 million this election season, while President Obama is forecast to raise even more than the $750 million his campaign took in four years ago. These fundraising goals, writes the Times, “make it virtually certain that neither party’s nominee will accept public funds for the general election or the spending limits that come with them.” 

3. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s eponymous super PAC (“Every Republican is Crucial, ” or “ERIC”) recently donated $25,000 to an anti-incumbent super PAC (“Campaign for Primary Accountability”). Cantor evidently intended the money to be used to support Representative Adam Kinzinger, who Cantor supported in a GOP primary against Representative Don Manzullo. This episode illustrates the outsize influence super PACs can have: GOP officials expressed “no doubt” that the $239,000 spent by the Campaign for Primary Accountability significantly contributed to Kinzinger’s victory.

4. The New York Times called on President Obama this week to “nominate [to the FEC] respected nonpartisan individuals dedicated to fair campaigning, and do it soon.” The President promised during his campaign to reform the Federal Election Commission, and he has the authority to name replacements for five sitting commissioners. The paper, however, acknowledged that Republicans would likely seek to block any nominations.

5. Jury selection has begun in the trial of former Senator John Edwards on charges of violating federal campaign finance law. Edwards was indicted last June on six counts of conspiracy, making false statements, and accepting illegal campaign contributions—including using over $900,000 in campaign donations to hide an affair with the filmmaker Rielle Hunter. Opening arguments in North Carolina federal district court are scheduled to begin later this month.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Money in Politics this Week

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 Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. A report issued this week by the Center for Working Families finds that Pedro Espada’s contributions from the real estate industry skyrocketed once the ex-state Senate Majority Leader took over the housing committee. The report not only finds that Espada’s fundraising shot up by over 650% once he became Chairman of the housing committee, but that over half of the funds Espada raised from 2009 to 2010 came from the real estate industry—and that only three contributions, totaling a mere $800, came from his own district. The full CWF report can be read here.

2. An analysis by Common Cause of donor data from the most recent state legislative election reveals that the vast majority of contributions in state races originate outside candidates’ home districts. For instance, the data shows that two state Senators, Republican Mark Grisanti and Democrat Tim Kennedy, raised from 75% to 90% of their campaign contributions from wealthy donors living outside their districts. Additionally, about $3 of every $4 donated to Syracuse’s two state Senators—Democrat David Valesky and Republican John DeFrancisco—came from corporations or groups, not individuals, and most of that money came from outside the legislators’ district. Susan Lerner, of Common Cause New York, noted that most contributions for state races come “not from the actual voters” but from small clusters of zip codes near the Capitol, Wall Street, and the Upper East and Upper West sides of Manhattan.

3. The Times Union editorial board issued a strong call for Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature to improve the transparency of the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, citing the commission’s recent refusal to release its voting records as a red flag that the commission is too secretive. Given that the commissioners of the new ethics watchdog are appointed solely by the governor and legislative leaders, “when a commission this important and this powerful votes, the public ought to know who is voting and how they vote.”

4. Following the conviction of Yonkers Council Member Sandy Annabi and her political mentor Zehy Jereis on charges of corruption, US Attorney Preet Bharara stated publicly that “the investigation is ongoing,” suggesting that the bribery scandal surrounding Annabi’s sudden support for two development projects may grow. As an editorial in the lower Hudson Valley Journal News opined, “nothing in recent experience suggests, for an instant, that these prosecutions will be the last.”

5. The Buffalo News called on the New York state legislature to refrain from voting itself a pay raise in the absence of progress on needed reforms. The paper urged lawmakers to “focus on the matters that reform state government – the public financing of campaigns, for example –“ before they can consider benefiting themselves. New York legislators are already paid a base of $79,500, making them some of the nation’s “best-paid state legislators.”

National Campaign Finance News

1. In a clear victory for campaign finance disclosure, a federal district court judge ruled late last week that a Federal Election Commission rule permitting the sources of some corporate donations to remain hidden violated the intention of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The rule required disclosure only for corporate contributions that were explicitly earmarked for political purposes, creating an easy loophole for corporate donors who could simply give to campaigns without declaring what the funds were for. Although the rule does not apply to super PACs, the loophole was wide enough to let in $138 million in undisclosed contributions during the 2010 Congressional elections, 80 percent of it to Republican candidates.

2. Public hostility to Citizens United and the broadening perception of partisanship on the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to play a major role in the 2012 elections. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works with Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC supporting President Obama’s re-election, said that his polling and focus groups showed that Citizens United “is probably the best-known decision since Bush v. Gore.” Garin said: “To the extent it would be a motivating issue this year, it would be for Democratic and independent voters around the Citizens United case.”

3. In California, Kinde Durkee pleaded guilty Friday, March 30 to mail fraud after embezzling $7 million from more than 50 campaign clients, including Senator Dianne Feinstein. Durkee, called the “Madoff of Campaign Finance,” was investigated after submitting falsified campaign finance reports to elected officials. Durkee’s case is especially notable for its enforcement and disclosure lessons: As one California paper noted, “Despite a history of fines for campaign disclosure violations issued by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Durkee maintained a client list that included some of California’s most prominent Democratic politicians, political organizations and nonprofits.”

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Benefits of Public Financing for New York State

At a recent Brennan Center event, panelists offered a variety of valuable perspectives on the urgent need for New York State to adopt public financing and comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Professor Michael Malbin, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute, presented new data supporting an increase in small donor participation in New York State elections. If the state adopts New York City’s model of public campaign financing, Malbin predicted a ninefold increase in the percentage of funds generated by people donating less than $175.

Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, President of the NAACP New York State conference, explained why campaign finance reform is a civil rights issue. Dr. Dukes observed that politicians who represent minority districts are forced to raise money out-of-district to remain financially competitive under our current system. This, she said, means that minority communities do not get the representation they deserve.

Lisa Genn, an attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, moderated the panel and also presented maps illustrating data provided by Professor Malbin and the Campaign Finance Institute.  These maps demonstrated that the large donors who dominate the current campaign finance system live in a small collection of predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods. By contrast, small donors — whose participation is encouraged and amplified by New York City’s multiple match public financing system — live in every neighborhood in the city. This suggests the ability of public financing to empower underrepresented communities.

Michael J. Petro, Executive Vice President of the Committee for Economic Development, described the widespread business support for public financing and campaign finance reform. He explained how public financing promotes competition, and allows elected officials to focus on good public policy — which is good for the economy, and good for business.

Professor Zephyr Teachout of Fordham University School of Law concluded with a passionate address about her own experiences exploring a run for Congress in 2005. She explained how fundraising affects the thinking of even the best-intentioned politicians and advocates. In order to demonstrate viability, every candidate must attract large contributors, whose concerns are very different than those of potential constituents. Teachout argued that public financing that matches small contributions — as currently proposed for New York State — would have allowed her instead to appeal to a much broader spectrum of donors to launch a run for office.

Many constituencies are fighting for public campaign financing in New York State. These panelists added their voices to a chorus of citizens that includes leaders from New York’s civil rights, business, labor, religious, academic, and reform communities. As they forcefully concluded, it is time for the legislature to act.

See more videos from the event here.