Monday, November 18, 2013

Money in Politics This Week

The Brennan Center regularly compiles 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 Katherine Munyan and Syed Zaidi.

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


Moreland Commission Co-Chairs Support Public Financing
In recent press interviews, two members who head the anti-corruption commission appointed by Governor Cuomo, Democratic Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and Republican Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, said that they are in favor of public financing of elections as a means to reduce the dominance of big money in state politics. Rice told Newsday that recent hearings and investigations conducted by the commission have made her “more confidant that public financing of campaigns has to be part of any meaningful campaign-finance reform.” Large amounts of private contributions for public service “is a recipe for disaster,” she continued. Fitzpatrick said that he believes public financing for elections could reduce the pay-to-play culture so prevalent in the state legislature. When asked about the costs to taxpayers, he replied that he is a fiscal conservative and believes the “savings would ultimately be astronomical in the long run.” He went on to criticize aspects of New York politics that reformers have long called problematic, including the inappropriate use of “housekeeping” accounts, the LLC contribution loophole, the lack of enforcement by the State Board of Elections, and the undisclosed outside income earned by state lawmakers. The commission’s report of its findings and recommendations is set to come out on December 1. Good-government groups have proposed that the report include comprehensive reform, including harsher penalties for corruption and public matching funds for small donations.

Attorney General Says Moreland Should Recommend Public Financing
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently informed The Capital Pressroom on WCNY that he thinks the Moreland Commission should pursue systematic reform of our election system rather than just a few corrupt politicians. Any findings of illegal behavior are to be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, but the commission has really been “empowered and designed to find weaknesses in existing laws and recommend better ways of doing business,” Schneiderman stated. He added that “public financing should be a part of whatever comes out of this.”

Poughkeepsie Journal Editorial: Moreland Commission Must Follow the Campaign Money
This week, a Poughkeepsie Journal editorial encouraged the Moreland Commission to continue its series of investigations into potentially corrupt practices in the state legislature. There is evidence that political party “housekeeping accounts,” which face no contribution limits,  are being used to advance candidate campaigns rather than for administrative and party-building activities – as dictated by law. The editorial calls for “legislation designed to put reasonable limits on campaign contributions and negate the opportunity for people to buy access.”

Business Community Should Get Behind Reform
This week, Cynthia DiBartolo, chairperson of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, wrote an op-ed in the Albany Times-Union, asking New York’s business community to come together behind comprehensive reforms of our campaign finance laws. “We cannot continue to foster a system that risks elevating businesses with the best political connections above those with the best business practices.” But New Yorkers now have a historic opportunity to fix the system; by lowering contribution limits and instituting public matching funds for small donations, citizens can ensure that their representatives once again become dependent on them rather than special interests. As the Moreland Commission puts forth recommendations for reform on December 1, the business community should help ensure that these reforms become a reality.

Former Bronx GOP Chairman Pleads Guilty on Corruption Charges
Former Bronx Republican Party Chairman Jay Savino pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Tuesday on several corruption charges. Savino was accused of accepting a bribe of $15,000 in exchange for agreeing to assist State Senator Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) in his run for New York City mayoral elections. He has been charged with three federal counts, including bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud. In sum, the charges could lead to a 30 year prison sentence.


Biden Hires Former Corporate Lobbyist as Chief of Staff
On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced that his current senior aide Steve Richetti will replace Bruce Reed as his Chief of Staff next month. Richetti has had a thirty-year career in Washington, moving in and out of Capital Hill staff positions and K Street lobbying firms. After leaving the Clinton administration, Richetti founded his own lobbying firm, Richetti Inc., representing big corporate clients including Fannie Mae, General Motors, AT&T, and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.  Richetti deregistered from lobbying with Congress in 2008 after Obama won the presidential election.  He remains president of Richetti ,Inc., but his brother, Jeffrey Richetti, is registered to do the actual lobbying. According to a statement from Biden’s office, Steve Richetti ‘s continued role with the firm involves advising clients on “public policy, communications strategy, and grass-roots efforts.”

FEC Debates Bitcoin Contributions to Candidates
On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission debated a proposal to allow candidates and committees to accept bitcoins as an in-kind contribution, similar to computer equipment or stock shares. A ruling on the issue was requested by the Conservative Action Fund, a Super PAC funded largely by Shaun McCutcheon, whose challenge to federal contribution limits is being considered by the Supreme Court in McCutcheon vs. FEC.  Bitcoins allow people to make online payments without going through a bank or other third party. The payments are public, but only bitcoin addresses identify the parties, and the currency has been associated with black market drug purchases – although this has not deterred investors.  FEC commissioners indicated that contributions must include the contributor’s name and address, but debated how to classify bitcoins.  Since they are not a national currency, bitcoins are unlikely to be classified as money. Bitcoins also pose another challenge to the enforcement of contribution limits – since their value varies with supply and demand, a bitcoin contribution’s worth could change drastically between when it is given and it is converted into dollars.

States Consider Campaign Finance Law Changes
Now that Election Day has come and gone, state legislators are debating changes in campaign finance rules for the next election cycle. In Michigan, a new Senate bill would double limits on individual contributions to candidates and political committees. The bill would also require candidate committees to file new finance statements in off-election years.  New Hampshire is also considering increasing how much donors can give to candidates.  Massachusetts legislators, alarmed by the flood of secret money from outside groups into Boston’s mayoral race, are introducing legislation that would require independent groups to disclose their donors within a week of spending more than $250 on a campaign and list their five biggest donors on television ads.

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