Monday, April 08, 2013

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 Syed Zaidi.

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


Six Arrested in Corruption Scandal Involving Senator Smith (IDC-Hollis) and NYC Republican Party Chairmen
Six individuals have been arrested for their role in a corruption scandal uncovered this week. At the center of the controversy,is Senator Malcolm Smith (IDC-Hollis). Smith, a Democrat, wanted to gain access to the Republican ballot in November for a shot at mayor of New York City. Getting on the ballot required signatures from a majority of New York City’s five Republican Party Chairmen. To persuade the Republican leaders in New York City, Smith promised to secure state funds for real estate developers, who in turn would funnel money to Joseph J. Savino, Bronx Republican Party Chairman, and Vincent Tabone, Queens Republican Party Chairman. New York City Councilman Dan Halloran III arranged meetings between the real estate developers and the Republican Party Chairmen and offered to divert City Council discretionary funds to the real estate company. In exchange, he received $18,300 in cash and $6,500 in campaign contributions from the real estate developers. The real estate developers were actually an undercover FBI agent and a cooperating witness. Over the past seven years, 29 state officeholders in Albany have been convicted of a crime, censured or accused of wrongdoing. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who unsealed federal corruption charges against Senator Smith and the parties involved, stated thatpolitical corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that a show-me-the- money culture in Albany is alive and well.” Both the overhaul and enforcement of our state campaign finance laws is well overdue to change the culture of Albany and restore the public’s faith in our representatives.

Albany Times-Union: Smith Scandal Sheds Light on Need for Historic Reform
An Albany Times-Union editorial this week asks New Yorkers to demand reforms in light of the recent scandal involving Senator Malcolm Smith (IDC-Hollis). Although good government groups have been gathering momentum for the reform effort throughout the state, they have been upstaged by Senator Smith. “Exhibit A for tougher campaign finance laws, suddenly, is Malcolm Smith — now not just a state senator, but a criminal defendant.” The quid pro quo deals and mega donations in this corruption scandal are emblematic of the lax enforcement and high contribution limits that characterize the landscape in New York. New Yorkers deserve fundamental reform that will give them ownership of the political process. “Don’t let the Legislature get away with anything less than historic reform.”

At Press Conference, Fair Elections NY Coalition Calls for Immediate Reforms
At a press conference on Wednesday, advocates from the Brennan Center, the New York Leadership for Accountable Government, and the Fair Elections New York Coalition insisted that the latest string of political scandals shows the desperate need to remove big money from politics in Albany. The corruption scheme is indicative of the pay-to-play culture in Albany where big donors are awarded with plush state contracts, funds and tax breaks. “Corruption scandals in New York are, unfortunately, nothing new. The number of state office holders who have been arrested in the last decade is itself a scandal,” said Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. According to a press release from the Fair Elections New York Coalition, the latest arrests and resignations deepen the “crisis of confidence and widen the gulf between the people and their government.” NY LEAD member Peter Zimroth, who served as a partner at Arnold & Porter reminded New Yorkers not to forget the lessons of history. We have an opportunity today to harness this anger and make important change. It happened in 1988 after a series of political scandals in the city. The mayor and the City Council passed landmark laws to give a voice to citizens without access to large sums of money. Now it must happen in Albany.” Video clips are available here.

Former Congressman Mike Arcuri in Post-Standard: Slow the Money Chase
Mike Arcuri, former Congressman from Syracuse and a member of the New York Leadership for Accountable Government, wrote an op-ed this week in the Syracuse Post-Standard encouraging the New York Legislature to adopt campaign finance reform. Arcuri states he is deeply concerned about the corrosive role that large private donations play in political campaigns and the legislative process in both Washington, D.C. and Albany. “As a former member of Congress who witnessed firsthand the outsized influence that big donors and connected special interests have in Washington, D.C., I applaud the efforts of my fellow New Yorkers to create a more positive future for our politics.” Currently legislators spend an inordinate amount of time and energy courting special interests and wealthy donors. Matching small donations with public funds can flip this reality. Several states have already adopted some measure of public financing for their political races, and citizens in these states have already witnessed the enormous benefits. “Qualified people from all walks of life are able to serve, and the relationship between money and politics is greatly reduced. Voters have the opportunity to be in control of their government, not the connected few.”


TED Talk on Campaign Finance Reform by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig

TED is a popular source for intriguing lectures on a wide variety of topics. This week, Harvard Law Professor and Founder of Rootstrikers, Lawrence Lessig delivered a TED Talk about the heavy dependence of Congressional candidates on funding from a tiny percentage of citizens entitled We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim. “When the pundits and the politicians say that change is impossible, [we must say,] ‘That’s just irrelevant.’ We lose something dear … if we lose this republic, and so we act with everything we can to prove these pundits wrong.”

North Carolina Legislature Trying to Gut Public Financing for Judicial Elections
Justice should not be put on sale to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, the North Carolina Legislature and Governor both seem poised to eliminate a successful public financing program for judicial elections. Prior to reforms, judicial campaigns were frequently funded by lawyers and parties that regularly appeared before the courts, creating conflicts of interests for judges and depleting public confidence in the judiciary. In the early 2000s, after witnessing multi-million dollar judicial races, the state enacted a voluntary public financing system. Supreme Court candidates who show they have broad public support and abide by low contribution limits receive $240,000 for their campaign. The program has been highly effective. Every candidate for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals participated last year, and the percentage of campaign funds from attorneys and special interests decreased by 59 percent. A vast majority of North Carolina residents, 79 percent, think that judges receiving campaign contributions from a party with a case pending before the court is problematic. Despite these facts, the North Carolina House and Senate are moving bills to eliminate public financing. The relatively minor cost of the program is a “worthy investment in the infrastructure of democracy.”

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