Friday, March 30, 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.

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

New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics released its 2011 lobbying report this week, which found that the lobbying industry spent a record sum of $220 million last year in its efforts to influence state legislators. As JCOPE’s Executive Director Ellen Biben noted, “Apparently lobbying is recession proof.” The full report can be read here.

2. While JCOPE is an improvement on its predecessor, the ethics enforcement agency was criticized this week for neglecting to focus on legislators’ behavior in their home districts—for instance, Pedro Espada’s embezzlement scandal, which occurred not in Albany but in Espada’s home district in the Bronx.

3. Bill Mahoney of NY PIRG writes in Wednesday’s Times Union that in order for a public campaign financing program to succeed in New York state, it must be accompanied by an overhaul of the state’s current ineffective system. Comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York, Mahoney writes, must also include closing the loophole on “housekeeping” contributions to party committees, setting up regular audits of candidate’s campaign accounts, and giving stronger enforcement power to the state’s toothless Board of Elections.

4. Former Bloomberg aide and convicted felon John Haggerty still has friends in New York: the Daily News reports that three former aides to ex-Gov. Pataki have created a legal defense fund to pay his attorneys. While legal, the defense fund raises ethical questions concerning responses in Albany to illegal conduct by those working in government. Haggerty was sentenced last December to up to four years on charges of money laundering and grand larceny, for his siphoning $750,000 from election funds to buy a house in Queens.

5. US Representative Charles Rangel (D—NY), who was found guilty in 2010 of eleven ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee, is making headlines again. Rangel and his campaign have paid a $23,000 civil fine after it emerged that he used a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office, which effectively amounts to acceptance of campaign contributions beyond the legal limit.

National Campaign Finance News

1. The US Senate held a legislative hearing this week on the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, a bipartisan bill that would create more detailed disclosure requirements for super PACs, corporate donors, unions and other politically active organizations. In the face of Republican opposition to the bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) declared that the flood of spending unleashed by Citizens United “corrodes the very essence of our democracy.” The announcement of the hearing on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration includes a webcast of the hearing, and testimony offered by the Brennan Center for Justice in support of the DISCLOSE Act can be read here.

2. Prior to the Senate hearing, Public Campaign pointed out that although votes on a similar bill from 2010 fell along party lines, several Republican senators have publicly supported heightened transparency requirements for large campaign donors at earlier points in their careers, “when transparency wasn’t a dirty word.”

3. The New York Times opened this week with two hard-hitting editorials on campaign finance and legislative ethics. Sunday’s Times pointed out that the floodgates opened in 2010 by Citizens United have resulted in more than $92 million dollars of outside spending during the current election season—more than double the amount spent by outside groups during the same period in 2008, and six times the amount spent in 2004. The misguided ruling has not only “allowed wealthy organizations and individuals to drown out other voices in the campaign,” but has also set a dangerous precedent by narrowing the definition of corruption to include only bribery, a characterization that is “intellectually dishonest,” since “the broader problem is the ability of moneyed interests to put into office those who support their political agendas or financial interests.”

4. Monday’s Times called attention to a related problem: super PAC spending may allow some federal government contractors to indirectly contribute to political campaigns, which would violate a ban on contractor contributions that has stood since 1940. Although many super PACs still adhere to the decades-old ban, the Times reports that Mitt Romney’s super PAC has accepted donations totaling nearly $900,000 from at least five separate government contractors, a decision whose legality is uncertain given “the new unregulated, unlimited jungle of campaign finance” created by Citizens United.

5. To mark the ten-year anniversary of the passage of his 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Senator John McCain stated in an interview that Citizens United has left parts of the bill in tatters, and that the consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling “are manifesting themselves every day in what will someday be, sooner rather than later, a huge scandal.” BCRA co-sponsor and former senator Russ Feingold was similarly critical, declaring that Citizens United “has turned the election system into a joke.”

6. An Associated Press review of Mitt Romney’s campaign contribution records sheds some much-needed light on the “bundlers” who have steered millions of dollars to Romney’s war chest, and whose identities the Romney campaign has declined to make public. Although federal law only requires disclosure of bundlers who are also registered lobbyists, both GOP and Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally disclosed the identities of their top fundraisers. The Romney campaign is a rare holdout.

7. Partisan gridlock and bureaucratic inertia have rendered the FEC increasingly unable to exercise its enforcement power, Politico reports, finding that the FEC’s inaction has left “campaigns and super PACs to test the boundaries of the new campaign finance world” with little fear of effective oversight by the federal government. The Campaign Legal Center compared the FEC commissioners to “the cops in the doughnut shop” for their chronic inaction.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Money and 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. The latest Newsday op-ed to call for public financing in New York state, by Make the Road New York member and community organizer Maria Magdalena Flores, explains why public financing is needed to combat apathy among working-class and minority voters. Flores offers some startling statistics: in the most recent state elections for New York assembly, state senate and governor, a mere 6% of contributions came from donors giving $250 or less, compared to a whopping 64% in the last city council elections. New York City’s public financing program has opened the door “for meaningful participation from working-class communities,” resulting in a city council that is not only more racially and economically diverse, but that is also better positioned to represent the interests of ordinary New Yorkers.

2. On Thursday, the Times Union editorial board strongly urged Gov. Cuomo to continue pushing for campaign finance reform, especially in light of its harsh criticisms of last week’s redistricting deal. New York’s campaign finance laws are “embarrassingly weak,” creating a regime that invites abuse and lets “the special interests overwhelm ordinary voters.”

3. The results of a nationwide State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity were published this week, giving New York an overall grade of D, ranking it 36 out of the 50 states (based on a numerical score of 65 out of 100), and issuing D or F grades for its handling of ethics enforcement, political financing, and state budget processes, among other areas. The full report card can be found here. The least corrupt state? New Jersey. In the wake of the investigation’s findings, the Times Union argues that a voluntary matching funds system, similar to New York City’s public financing program, remains “the only way to limit the power of big campaign checks,” and that Albany’s dismally low grade is simply “one more indication of the broken system of campaign finance in Albany that puts the interests of CEO campaign contributors before the interests of our communities.”

4. The state report accompanying New York’s report card singles out the ineffectual State Board of Elections for special criticism. The report card cites NY PIRG’s Bill Mahoney for the view that the Board is underfinanced, understaffed, and unable to enforce its regulations, and concludes that “the 19.5 million citizens of the Empire State can agree on one thing: Albany is defined by dysfunction and corruption.” The State Integrity Investigation also highlights another anti-corruption report, jointly published in February by the University of Illinois political science department and its Institute for Government and Public Affairs, finding that New York’s number of federal public corruption convictions since 1976—over 2,500 and counting—is the highest in the nation.

5. As if to illustrate the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, the federal corruption trial of former state Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., continued this week, with Judge Frederic Block excoriating Espada’s attorney for using questionable courtroom tactics, and with Espada characterized during trial as a “puppet master” for his alleged embezzlement of funds from the Soundview Healthcare Network. The Times reports that more than a dozen witnesses testified on Thursday that Espada had paid them for personal services with funds from a subsidiary of Soundview.

National Campaign Finance News

1. A New York Times editorial this week blasted the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC that has raised nearly $1.8 million with the stated purpose of defeating long-serving incumbents in both parties. As the Times pointed out, while political entrenchment is a problem given partisan gerrymandering, this is a case where the end does not justify the means. Super PACs give corporations and the wealthy disproportionate influence: for instance, 95% of the money donated to the Campaign for Primary Accountability comes from just “four wealthy men with conservative bents.”

2. As the Republican presidential primaries continue into the spring, the remaining candidates are maxing out their donors and may be unable to sustain their current spending levels, allowing super PAC spending to drive their campaigns. For example, Mitt Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future, which is overwhelmingly funded by just a handful of wealthy individuals, spent more than $12 million in February on attack ads.

3. Payday lending companies contributed more than a quarter of a million dollars last month to Mitt Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future, a finding that emerged as major payday lenders are drawing heightened scrutiny from federal regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Romney campaign refused to comment on the specific contributions.

4. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fended off criticism this week that President Obama spends too much time fundraising, arguing that the President spends the “vast preponderance” of his time on official duties. The incident serves as a reminder that 2012 presidential election will likely be the most expensive in history, which creates additional costs for the voting public: less time for public officials to focus on the interests of their constituents. For reformers and public officials alike, this should suggest the growing need for public financing of elections.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The other factor that could decide the Senate contest in Brooklyn

Although both sides have declared victory, the race to replace State Senator Carl Krueger remains too close to call. The preliminary results released by the Board of Elections show David Storobin with a 143 vote lead over Lew Fidler. While several news outlets have focused on the 757 absentee ballots which remain to be counted, recent anomalies with New York's voting machines show that in a very close contest, only a hand count can ensure that the right contestant has won.

Just last month, the results of an upstate City Council race declared to have been won by challenger Augustine Beyer by a single vote were overturned after a full hand recount revealed a two-vote discrepancy that tilted the race in incumbent Richard Slisz’s favor. The voting machine was unable to read one improperly marked ballot where the voting oval had been circled rather than filled in. The hand inspection was enough for election officials to determine that the voter's intent had been to vote for Mr. Slisz. Perhaps more troubling however, was the second ballot with a vote for Mr. Slisz’s that was never scanned or registered by the machine at all.

Furthermore, the results from a Daily News investigation into the exceptionally high overvote rates the Brennan Center uncovered in the South Bronx indicate that these voting machines are far from infallible. The Daily News found that one of the machines used to scan ballots in the South Bronx made errors in reading nearly 70 percent of ballots during the September 2010 primary.

In our report analyzing overvote rates in New York, we listed one of the precincts in Mr. Kruger’s district — AD 46, ED 051— as having Brooklyn’s 8th highest overvote rate in 2010. Many other precincts in this senate district did not provide any data at all, but given the demographics of the district, it seems likely that there were other precincts with high overvote rates both in 2010 and 2012. In some of those cases, voter intent may be clear to the human eye, but not a machine.

Unfortunately, New York City does not publish the number overvotes — as is done in Rockland County— making it virtually impossible for anyone outside the Board of Elections to identify areas where voting machines have registered high rates of uncounted votes.

A provision adopted by the City Board of Elections requires a hand recount of paper ballots in contests where the margin of victory is less than 10 votes or half a percent of the total votes cast. Given the newness of these machines and recent history, even a margin slightly higher may warrant a careful hand recount to ensure that the actual winner is declared the victor. If a recount does happen, look for totals (and maybe even the declared winner) to change.

Event: The Benefits of Public Financing in NY State

The Brennan Center for Justice
“The Benefits of Public Financing in New York State”
Thursday, March 29, 2012
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
161 Avenue of the Americas, 12th Floor
New York, NY 10013

On March 29th, 2012, the Brennan Center kicks off a panel series examining the future of public financing for political campaigns. At this first event, leaders from New York’s legal, business, academic, and civil rights communities will explore the “Benefits of Public Financing in New York State.”

Panelists include Michael Malbin, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute and political science professor at SUNY-Albany, who will speak about New YorkCity’s successful public financing program and the potential benefits for New York State. Mike Petro, Vice President of the non-profit, non-partisan, business-led public policy organization, Committee for Economic Development, will also speak on how public financing will benefit our economy by improving public policy and discouraging wasteful rent-seeking by businesses. Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, President of the NAACP New York State Conference and member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, will discuss the ways in which public campaign financing can support a broader civil rights agenda.

Space is limited. Please RSVP to Jonathan Backer at or 646-292-8371.