Money in Politics In New York: Week of April 23

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.

Money in Politics This Week

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.

What the Governor Can Do to Increase Transparency Using Technology

This is a continuation of our series of posts summarizing recommendations for using the explosion in information technology to open New York State’s government.

Citizens Union • Common Cause NY • League of Women Voters of NY State
Reinvent Albany • New York Public Interest Research Group

 

 Recommendations for Governor Cuomo

 

  1. Create a FOIL Center webpage and post all non-personal FOIL requests, refusals and disclosures within a week for Chamber and agencies.
  2. Create an Open NY or Innovation Team to help spread good transparency and technology ideas and practices throughout the executive branch, and to implement the transparency revolution.
  3. Issue executive orders to put government digital information online, starting with the most frequently FOILed and requested documents.
  4. Adopt DOH Metrix data transparency/collaboration goals for all agencies.
  5. Fully use NY Performs as a public accountability tool: Fully fund and deploy NY Performs online performance system, and make fully available to public.
  6. Fund an upgrade of the Authorities Budget Office website.
  7. Pick one area for fast tracking greater transparency: for instance, consumer financial information, mortgages, insurance, bank rates and credit card rates.
  8. Launch a high caliber “Project Sunlight” site at Office of General Services.

A New Transparency for NY State: Basic Principles

This is the first in a series of posts summarizing recommendations for using the explosion in information technology to open New York State’s government.

Citizens Union • Common Cause NY • League of Women Voters of NY State
Reinvent Albany • New York Public Interest Research Group

 

Basic Principles

We urge our elected leaders to adopt and publicly endorse the following basic principles for using Information Technology to open up government.

  1. Government information is public information. Information subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law is public information, except for privacy, security and contractual concerns.
  2. Public digital information should be put online in a searchable, usable, common format, and kept updated.
  3. State policymakers should use Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to guide what information goes online first. The universe of digital records is huge. New York State government gets twenty thousand or more FOIL requests a year. The most FOILed (non-personal) records should be posted online in usable formats.
  4. The State should seek ways to use technology to keep the public informed and engaged. Information Technology is abundant and cheap. Most transparency measures involve a change in mindset, not great expense.
  5. Online digital information should be searchable, downloadable, and usable by the public. Government documents should be online in common, usable formats like TXT and CSV. Government should not hide information in plain sight — scanned paper copies of documents, saved as image files in PDF format are unsearchable from the web or within the document. They are effectively inaccessible to the public.
  6. Government should welcome and share public feedback
  7. Government websites should give the public many opportunities to comment on government decisions before they are made. Those comments and responses should be shared.
  8. The state should use online maps to show the public what government is doing.

A picture is worth a thousand words – a map is worth ten thousand. A government serious about transparency will post information online as interactive maps as the federal government did with Recovery.org, including spending, tax breaks, capital projects, member items, economic development projects, etc.

Money in Politics in New York This Week

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.