My group keeps an eye on state government, but the scandals erupting in New York City have become impossible to ignore. The new controversies, involving major contributors and lobbyists close to Mayor de Blasio, are particularly disturbing because watchdog groups like ours have long considered New York City government much cleaner than New York State’s.
New York City’s tough campaign finance laws are supposed to make it hard to trade money for political favors. What’s more, they are enforced by an energetic and independent Campaign Finance Board, which oversees a carefully constructed system that combines generous public matching funds with limits on contributions to political candidates, limits that are especially strict for lobbyists and others doing business with the city.
The City Charter also has tough language aimed at stopping self-dealing by city officials. In contrast, the state has laughably weak campaign finance laws, ethics rules and enforcement.
Unfortunately, the new scandals embroiling the mayor suggest it may be possible for an elected official to legally get around the city’s anti-corruption systems and essentially take money in exchange for political favors.
That’s a loud signal that New York’s campaign finance and ethics rules, as strong as they are, must be made stronger.
It is sad that the mayor’s main defense is that his fund-raising shenanigans are legal. De Blasio, who is an idealist with big ideas, can do much better than that. As city councilman and public advocate, de Blasio supported increased transparency and government reform. He knows “legal” does not mean “right.” He knows that the ends do not justify the means, and that at the end of the day, it is the poorest, least powerful and most vulnerable who ultimately lose when dollars are traded for political favors.
These scandals are a defining moment for de Blasio. He needs to dig deep and find the motivation to champion signature reforms — or be seen as just another, transactional, money-driven politician, the kind of creature he says he abhors.
First, the mayor, his team and other city elected officials have to be banned from soliciting funds for any nonprofit — which the city’s conflicts of interest rules currently allow city officials to do. There doesn’t have to be a formal rule; de Blasio could voluntarily impose the restriction.
This will be unpleasant, because such a ban would have to bar raising funds for nonprofits that support city government, like the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, as well as nonprofits that support city agencies. But until this nonprofit backdoor is closed, city officials, especially the mayor, will have a huge incentive to use nonprofits to get around the limits that keep elected officials from soliciting huge contributions.
Second, lobbying rules have to be strengthened and lobbying enforcement transferred from the city clerk to the Campaign Finance Board. It simply does not work to have lobbying rules enforced by the city clerk, who is a political appointee of the City Council.
A strong lobbying enforcer could step in to preempt problematic conflicts — such as firms working for both the mayor and for clients who want favors from him.
Third, while legally the city cannot stop lobbyists from funneling other donors’ contributions directly to campaigns, an act known as bundling, the Council and mayor can send an immediate signal that such corrosive behavior is unwanted by passing a package of pending bills that, among other things, eliminates public matching funds for bundled donations from anyone doing business with the city.
De Blasio has set out to do big things. His challenge now is to lead big reforms or risk the city degenerating into an Albany-like culture of pay to play and conflict of interest.