Money in Politics in New York, April 26 Edition

Syracuse Post-Standard Editorializes In Favor of Small Donor Matching Funds for First Time
On Tuesday, the Syracuse Post-Standard editorialized in favor of small donor matching funds for the first time. According to the editorial, when paired with spending limits and other electoral reforms, public financing of campaigns can help address the culture of corruption in Albany. “Public campaign financing will not cure all that ails the body politic. It cannot detect a larcenous heart. But it seems a relatively cheap and sensible step toward restoring confidence that state government – the Legislature, in particular – acts in the public’s interest.” Although opponents have expressed concern about the costs, the Post-Standardpoints to the $420 million in incentives that the film and television industries received in this year’s state budget. And film and television are only one special interest group out of many that are present in Albany. The editorial notes, “If we value our democracy, we should be willing to invest in it.” Engaging more small donors and making legislators more dependent on their constituents, rather than a few wealthy special interests, offers an added layer of defense against corruption.

Campaign Finance Reform Proposals by Assembly Democrats and Senate Independent Democratic Conference
New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has unveiled a new campaign finance reform proposal. The bill, A4980B, includes a small donor matching component, where every contribution up to $250 by state residents is matched with public funds at a 6-to-1 ratio. “We cannot allow elected public service to become the exclusive domain of the wealthy and the well connected,” Speaker Silver stated. Stronger enforcement of the law and penalties for violations will be enforced by a new body, the Fair Elections Board, to be situated within the state Board of Elections. Organizations making independent political expenditures over $1,000 would have to disclose the name of the person or group behind the spending, and report all major contributors (those that donated over $1,000) to the Board of Elections. The Senate Independent Democratic Conference, headed by Senator Jeffrey Klein, criticized the proposal for failing to eliminate political party housekeeping accounts, and transfers between party committees and individual candidates.”Unless these measures are part of a more comprehensive plan to eliminate party slush funds and slash six figure contributions, we’ll be right back to where we started.  Our members look forward to discussing these proposals alongside the more comprehensive plan outlined by the Independent Democratic Conference last week,” IDC Spokesman Eric Soufer stated.

The Cost of Public Financing is about $2 per New Yorker per Year
Recently, the New York State Senate Republican Conference, which is opposed to publicly funded electionsfinally explained how it arrived at its inflated estimate of the cost of public financing. The method was immediately assailed by campaign finance expert Prof. Michael Malbin, who called it “little more than back of the envelope arithmetic based on incredible assumptions.” The Campaign Finance Institute has used peer-reviewed methods to conclude that the cost of public campaign funding under current proposals would be between $26 and $41 million per year. Senate Republicans’ estimate is many times higher. The Republicans’ calculation unrealistically assumes that there would be two candidates in every general election and each would earn the maximum amount of public funds. For primary elections, the GOP analysis assumes that a quarter of senators would participate in a primary, with one candidate per race receiving the maximum amount of public funds. It is important to note that under Speaker Sheldon Silver’s bill, (1) receiving public funds depends on the candidate’s ability to raise money from numerous small donors, so only donations up to $250 are matched with taxpayer dollars and that (2) candidates are limited to a maximum amount of public funds ($400,000 for Senate candidates and $200,000 for Assembly candidates in the general election race). The Senate Republicans’ assumption, that two candidates in every general election would receive the maximum amount of public funds, does not jibe with the experience of New York City, where a multiple matching funds system is already in place. Between 2001 and 2009, only 51 percent of candidates running in New York City elections received the maximum amount of public matching funds. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, under the least expensive scenario, the cost would be $1.34 per New York resident per year, while it would be $2.08 per New York resident per year for the most expensive scenario—a small price to pay for cleaner elections.

Campaign Finance Reform Can Help Crack Down on Corruption
A 2011 report by the Center for Competitive Politics has been seized upon by opponents of Fair Elections to argue that the public financing system in New York City is characterized by consistent abuse of public funds and corruption. But the facts just don’t support that characterization. Since New York City adopted public financing in 1988 it has not faced a corruption scandal on the same scale as the 1980s. The CCP report outlines 24 scandals related to New York City elections in an attempt to argue that public funding does not deter corruption. Brennan Center counsel Ian Vandewalker’s detailed investigation of the report reveals that several cases have no relationship to public financing, including one involving a state legislator who never participated in city elections. Half the cases involve allegations or investigations that yielded no criminal or election law violation. Furthermore, several others listed describe instances where candidates attempted to violate the rules of New York City’s public financing system, but were caught by the city’s enforcement agency and fined or denied public funds. Enforcement is a necessary component of any effective campaign finance reform proposal. Along with vigilant enforcement of the law, disclosure of contributions, and lower contribution limits, public financing of elections can “end the mad chase for campaign cash that starts some elected officials down the road to corruption and … make candidates dependent on ordinary voters rather than special interests.”

Low Grades for NYC Agencies on FOIL

Yesterday, New York City’s Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, published the results of a citywide study on the state of New York’s Freedom of Information Law in the form of a series of report cards. De Blasio FOILed 38 city agencies, measured their response times, rated agency compliance through a snapshot of over 10,000 requests, and issued grades to the 18 most frequently-FOILed agencies. From the report, some of Public Advocate de Blasio’s most important findings are:

  • The process for submitting FOIL requests to City agencies and tracking their status is inconsistent and can be extremely challenging for the public to navigate. 40% of City agencies lack information on their website about where to direct FOIL requests. Neither 311 nor the City’s Green Book provide this information.
  • For the three months of FOIL data analyzed, nearly 1,000 individuals or groups had not received an approval or denial determination after more than six months of waiting – that represents one-in-ten requests that were either ignored or fell through the cracks. While these non-responses represent de facto denials, the lack of firm response impedes the appeal process and legal action.
  • When City agencies responded to FOIL requests, response times varied dramatically by agency. Only 7% of requests to the Department of Education received a response within 30 days, whereas 86% of requests to the Department of Transportation (who received eight times more requests) received a response within 30 days.

While only two agencies (NYPD and NYC Housing Authority) received failing grades, there is plenty of work to be done citywide; fully 10% of all FOIL requests are either lost or ignored, and at problem agencies, that number soars to over 30%, according to the report. Reinvent Albany thanks Public Advocate de Blasio for drawing public attention to the haphazard and murky way that New York City is following the state Freedom of Information Law. New York City is supposed to be in an era of open data and data driven government. Yet, New Yorkers’ single most important transparency tool — FOIL — is being disregarded, gamed, and neglected by city agencies far too often. One simple step the city could take: agencies should be publicly rated as part of their basic performance as part of the Mayor’s Management Report.

US Attny Bharara: “Hold the applause for certain transparency measures”

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s important April 22 speech on political corruption in New York included an interesting section on transparency websites.

Reinvent Albany has strongly applauded online transparency initiatives in New York State and New York City.  This said, we completely with Bharara’s concern that many government transparency sites do not include crucial information that would make them truly potent. For instance, we’d like to see the actual contracts between our state and city governments and businesses and non-profits. We’d also like to see who is actually getting the hundreds of millions in tax credits to unknown businesses, or the full disclosure forms of non-profits that receive billions in government contracts.  Much is still missing, but there is a great deal of  important information relevant to government spending and political and lobbying spending which is already online.  Bharara should have applauded those transparency efforts, even while identifying the additional data that he’d like to see put online.


Excerpt from Preet Bharara’s April 22, 2013 speech.

“One more point on this—the creation of databases and websites which make certain information about government officials public, which seem to promote transparency and are unveiled to great fanfare are a step toward true transparency but by themselves are not enough.

A database that is accessible only by physically going to a city office building to access through an outdated computer portal does not accomplish its intended purpose.  (Bharara is referring to the VENDEX system of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Contracts.)

A government website that is so difficult to navigate that it is nearly impossible to piece together any real-life understanding of the information it purports to convey or that offers millions of rows of data but without any context or meaningful ability to conduct analysis is not that much more helpful than keeping the information locked away in a filing cabinet. (Not clear what this is? NYC Open Data? If so he misses the point of open data entirely.)

We should perhaps hold our applause for certain transparency measures until we’ve scrutinized whether they truly reveal anything about the workings or behavior of government and public officials.”

Preet Bharara april 22 2013

U.S. Attny Preet Bharara — Public Corruption in NY: More than a Prosecutor’s Problem

If you love New York, you have to read the amazing speech U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara gave to the Citizen’s Crime Commission today.  Bharara highlights “gaping holes in transparency,” and a “culture of corruption that has grown like barnacles on a boat bottom.”  His speech is so interesting because is a sober minded realist — whose job is wading through corruption — yet, he’s an optimist who clearly believes we, New Yorkers, can do much better.


Prepared Remarks of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara
Public Corruption in New York: More than a Prosecutor’s Problem
Citizens Crime Commission

April 22, 2013

I want to thank Richard Aborn and the Citizens Crime Commission for inviting me and for organizing events like this. Before I get started, please silence your cell phones and body wires, as the case may be.

Why am I here this morning and why am I talking about this? Because public corruption in New York, from all the available evidence, appears pervasive and because it is more than a prosecutor’s problem. Recent and not-so-recent events paint a fairly dismal portrait of the state of government in the State of New York. It is a portrait of a show-me-the-money culture, as I have said before. It increasingly seems that the best way to find Albany on a map is to look for the intersection of greed and ambition. So is corruption in New York rampant and is it worse than elsewhere? All the available evidence says that the answer, sadly, is yes.

… And so after such a disheartening spate of scandals, it is heartening to see that many people are beginning to take the problem more seriously than perhaps they have until now.
And that is good because state lawmakers matter. State legislators, believe it or not, are important. Each senator represents more than 300,000 people; each assemblyman, almost 130,000. Senators confirm appointments of state officials and court judges. State lawmakers determine our budget. They decide how much money goes to children’s education, to public safety, to transportation, to health, and to public welfare. They decide what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished. And they draw the boundaries of the electoral districts in which you live, work, and vote.

Preet Bharara April 22, 2013 to Citizens Crime Commission





Ind Dems Propose Massive Campaign Finance Overhaul

Amidst the swirling winds of a bitter Spring day, and rumors of more indictments of state elected officials, the State Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) has proposed an ambitious overhaul of New York’s campaign finance laws.  IDC’s detailed proposal is rooted in New York City’s campaign finance system, and includes many proposals championed by good government groups. The centerpiece of IDC’s package is a six to one public match for the first $250 of any political contributions, and a $2,600 limit on campaign contributions. The proposal also includes a new Campaign Finance Board, caps on campaign spending, stiffer penalties, and increased disclosure requirements.

The IDC is a group of four state senate Democrats led by Bronx Senator Jeff Klein, which split from the rest of the Democratic caucus. Klein is senate “co-leader,” and his caucus currently holds the balance of power in the state senate. (Disgraced Queens senator Malcolm Smith was a member of the IDC until his arrest on bribery charges last week.) The IDC proposal is important because Klein is an ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the IDC proposal, which has been strongly endorsed by good government groups like Citizens Union, League of Woman Voters and NYPIRG,  is a trial balloon for reforms the governor is expected to introduce sometime in the next three or four weeks.

Independent Democratic Conference Campaign Finance Proposal
April 12, 2013

  1. Create the Campaign Finance Board within the State Board of Elections.
  2. Six to one public match for the first $250 received from an individual.Public campaign contribution match funded by 10% surcharge on state litigation, tax check-off.
  3. Limits on campaign expenditures for all candidates. (Still very big numbers.)
  4. Limits on individual campaign contributions, $2,600/candidate each election cycle.
  5. $10,000 limit on contributions to state and county parties.
  6. Transfers between parties and candidates capped at $2600.
  7. Ban on corporate contributions to candidates and political parties.
  8. Elimination of party house keeping accounts. (Unlimited slush funds.)
  9. Create statewide “doing business” database of state vendors.
  10. $260 donation limit per candidate, and no match, for anyone doing business with state.
  11. Increased penalties for violations of $5,000 for failure to make required filings, $10,000 for “knowingly” violating other campaign finance rules.
  12. Increase power to Attorney General to prosecute campaign finance fraud.
  13. End to “Wilson Pakula” rule allowing party leaders to allow candidates from other party’s on their party ballot line. (IE. Democrat on Republican line.)