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In Unexplored Territory, City Council Members Bundle Campaign Donations


greenfield city hall alatriste

Council Member Greenfield and colleagues at City Hall (photo: William Alatriste)


The bundling of campaign contributions by elected officials for fellow candidates in New York City is not new or illegal, but it raises questions about an unexplored area of campaign finance law, especially as the City considers updates to the rules of its heralded campaign finance system.

In New York City electoral campaigns, individuals often lump together contributions from multiple donors to show their support for a single candidate. These bundlers, or intermediaries, as they are termed by the Campaign Finance Board, are monitored to ensure that they comply with the strict disclosure requirements. The act of bundling itself is recognized as a method of potential influence or a means to curry favor with a candidate. It’s not surprising to see real estate developers and lobbyists in the CFB’s bundler database.

Included among the bundlers, though, are even elected officials themselves. City Council members and members of the State Assembly have, in the past and in the current election cycle, bundled donations, throwing up questions about the city’s campaign finance framework that haven't been dealt with in the past.

Council members can bundle donations from others, donate their own personal money, or donate from their campaign accounts to other city campaigns. Members use these tactics to support current or potential colleagues, at times in apparent interest of advancing their prospects for the prized position of being elected Speaker of the City Council by fellow members.

For the still-young 2017 election cycle, two City Council Members have bundled contributions for other members and candidates. Brooklyn Council Member David Greenfield has collected $16,250 in total for four other candidates, all of whom are currently members of the City Council -- Karen Koslowitz, Mark Levine, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and Dan Garodnick. Garodnick is term-limited next year, but has raised money, it seems, for a potential future run for another position. Council Member Corey Johnson has also bundled nearly $15,000 for Carlina Rivera, legislative director to term-limited Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera is running for the seat Mendez will vacate, which neighbors Johnson’s seat in Manhattan.

“Councilman Greenfield is proud to support outstanding colleagues in government and believes it's appropriate to do so in the most transparent manner,” said Stephen Snowder, Greenfield’s communications director, in an email. Council Member Johnson was not made available for comment.

Greenfield and Johnson’s bundling is not novel. In the 2013 cycle, a number of elected officials were bundlers, although the practice is not widespread. For instance, in the last cycle Garodnick bundled $7,250 for Scott Stringer’s campaign for Comptroller and $1,500 for City Council Member Andrew Cohen’s campaign; then-State Assembly Member (now Congresswoman) Grace Meng bundled $4,000 for then-Comptroller John Liu’s mayoral campaign; there were other smaller bundles for as little as $75 for a candidate. In the 2009 elections, then-City Council Member (now State Senator) Simcha Felder was a prolific bundler, raising as much as $30,000 for six City Council candidates.

(CFB records show Greenfield has bundled before, when he was head of the Sephardic Community Federation, a few years before joining the City Council in 2010.)

The city’s campaign finance rules don’t cover the scenario of elected officials bundling funds for candidates; it is perfectly permissable. A CFB spokesperson declined comment but said the agency would consider the issue.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, was unsure of where bundling by elected officials would potentially fall in the city’s legal or ethical statutes. “It’s an area we haven’t legislated or really dug into,” he told Gotham Gazette. “Ultimately I think what’s most important is that people are able to see who is bundling, for whom, how much, and are able to see the influence that might come from that.” Legislation related to campaign finance falls under the purview of Kallos’ committee.

There is currently a package of eight such bills under consideration, including one that would prevent contributions bundled by those who do business with the city from being matched with public funds -- though it is unclear if City Council members or other city electeds would be classified as "doing business" entities. “I think that anytime there’s bundling, regardless of who it is, we don’t want to match that with public dollars,” said Kallos, who also indicated that those bills, which have been dormant for some time, might soon be voted upon by the committee, which would pave the way for a full Council vote and movement into law -- perhaps in time for the 2017 election cycle.

When asked if elected official bundling might be an area that needs to be examined from an ethical standpoint, Kallos responded, “I’ve been pretty cautious with my campaign account and I’ve always been concerned with how campaign accounts are used. On the state level they’re used for criminal defense, they’ve been used to pay for personal items, for personal trips, for vehicles. Ultimately I believe that campaign contributions and campaign funds should be used for electoral purposes.” 

From a good government perspective, while the practice is legal, it is questionable. “While I may find it somewhat problematic that they are currying favor with colleagues and/or other elected officials by becoming a bundler, there’s nothing inherently illegal or wrong about it,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “That elected officials are doing this now seems a bit unseemly because it’s really about amassing power in front of another elected official,” he added.

Council members eyeing the speakership of the City Council do use campaign funds to contribute to other candidates, as well as bundle for current or prospective colleagues. The City Council Speaker is elected by his or her fellow Council members. Council Members Levine, Ferreras-Copeland, and Johnson are all being discussed, among others, as candidates to be the next Speaker, which will be decided in January 2018, after the 2017 elections. It is unclear if Greenfield has his eyes on the speakership, though he is already a power broker in the Council as chair of the land use committee.

Dadey said it may be a simple show of support among colleagues in government and politics, and that they shouldn’t necessarily be treated any differently than private citizens. “In regulating this business, we have to be careful not to overregulate and solve a problem that may not necessarily exist,” he said. “This is an example where we’re assuming improper motives when there may not be any.”

But, Dadey does worry about the use of bundling to “curry favor” for a speakership bid. “I would like to think that the Speaker is going to be chosen not on the basis of who has raised the most money but who has the capacity, the talents and the insight to do it.

“No one raises money for a candidate for office without some understanding that they will be there when the fund-raiser needs them,” Dadey said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Note: this article has been updated to clarify some of the language around bundling and to remove reference to Anthony Weiner, whose inclusion was related to a time before his scandals of the past several years, which nonetheless color any mention of the former Congressman.

City Council Members Question BOE Boss Ahead of Election Day


city council chambers city hall

City Council chambers at City Hall (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


The New York City Board of Elections is well prepared for the upcoming general election save for minor hiccups, its executive director testified on Wednesday at the City Council.

At an oversight hearing held by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan laid out the board’s preparations for the November 8 Election Day and fielded a variety of questions from Council members on topics like voter fraud allegations, helping homeless New Yorkers vote if eligible, and modernizing the voting process.

It’ll be a herculean task for the board as it installs 68,001 individual pieces of equipment at 1,205 poll sites across the city, manned by more than 36,000 poll workers armed with 2,952 tablets to quickly and effectively communicate issues as they come up as well as results at the end of the day. The tablet pilot program, Ryan said, is now a full-fledged unit that has been integrated into election management.

It’s been a busy year for the BOE, which has been dogged for years by issues related to staffing, cronyism, and incompetence. There have been multiple elections this year already -- the presidential primary in April, the congressional primary in June, and the September state level primary. It also managed a special election for a City Council seat in February. Taking lessons from those elections, the board has stepped up efforts to ensure the November 8 general runs smoothly. It has focused on making poll sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, hiring ADA coordinators for the election. The board has also increased its outreach and recruitment efforts, according to Ryan. Nearly 5,000 poll workers were recruited just through ads on the city’s mass transit system.

So far, across the five boroughs, between 79 and 93 percent of poll worker positions have been filled, Ryan said. The BOE has also taken steps to make certain that polling sites do not run short on ballots, printing more ballots than the number of voters registered and also providing ballot-on-demand printing machines at certain sites in case of emergencies. The board also distributed 34,145 absentee ballots for federal and military personnel, of which 11,432 have already been returned.

Ryan did point out one setback, and made a public plea for help, as the board has a shortage of Korean and Chinese interpreters.

Although the hearing was primarily intended as a briefing on the upcoming election, it was inevitable that Council members would bring up a recently surfaced video in which a Manhattan Democratic BOE Commissioner said there was voter fraud in the city, in part, through the use of IDNYC municipal identification cards (which have no relationship with voting). The commissioner, Alan Schulkin, called for some form of voter identification and also made unsubstantiated claims of fraud against certain communities of color.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee, posed questions aimed at debunking Schulkin’s claims about voter identification requirements. Ryan, in response, reiterated that New York State does not require any identification for voting, only a signature. Only in rare instances, first-time voters may be required to produce identification if their voter registration is incomplete.

When Kallos asked if Schulkin’s claims about voters being bussed to multiple polling sites held any water, Ryan said, “Those issues have never come to my attention, not during my time as a commissioner going back to 2010 or in the three-plus years that I’ve been the executive director.” The state attorney general’s office also told Gotham Gazette earlier this month that the AG’s office has not received complaints of widespread voter impersonation fraud that Schulkin mentioned.

Schulkin’s comments, however, triggered a larger discussion at the hearing on how the BOE holds its employees and commissioners accountable for their words and actions. Ryan told the chair that Schulkin’s personal views as expressed in the video have not had an impact on the execution of elections. “We have been proceeding with business as usual,” he said. But he also could not confirm whether any action had been initiated against Schulkin by either the board or outside authorities. The New York Post reported on Tuesday that Schulkin had been subpoenaed by the state Board of Elections’ investigative unit. Under questioning, Ryan told Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, that it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

“With respect to issues related to any of my superiors,” Ryan said, “I would prefer not to engage in that discourse back and forth because at the end of the day I still answer to the ten commissioners...I’m not trying to be evasive, but I don’t think it’s my place to answer those questions.” (The BOE has one Republican and one Democratic commissioner from each borough, named by county party heads, per a state law that many want to see changed.)

Asked directly by Borelli if the board stood by Schulkin’s comments, Ryan said, “The Board of Elections is a quasi-legislative body. It takes official positions when six commissioners vote on official positions. So I’m not going to comment on the musings of any one individual.” He cited two studies, though, one by a Loyola Law School professor and another by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, that have shown that instances of in-person voter fraud are almost nonexistent.

Council members also questioned Ryan on the board’s actions taken against two Brooklyn BOE clerks involved in the massive voter purge before the presidential primary. Ryan said the two remain on suspension without pay, but the board had yet to file a formal report. He promised to share the report once the board’s commissioners have concluded the process. The board attempted, however, to at least partially rectify the mistakes the clerks made by restoring 117,656 voters back to the rolls in Brooklyn ahead of the June congressional primary.

The line of questioning also got to details of how employees are disciplined. Ryan explained to Council members that the BOE, much like any other agency, has internal processes in place for termination. A commissioner, he said, could only be removed by the governor with good cause. An employee, depending on whether they are part of a union or not, would go through a disciplinary hearing and then the ten commissioners would vote on a final determination. Ryan said he himself holds no executive authority to fire an employee.

“Right now it seems to me that the lines of accountability...are totally unclear,” said Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, “and that’s not a good system for having people do the job.”

The hearing was collaborative, however. Ryan promised to work with Council Member Ruben Wills on helping homeless residents in his district vote and told Lander that the board would look at improvements to it’s voter notification processes.

“Our staff has been running ragged basically from February, March,” Ryan said. “We’re gonna lift our heads up after November 8, we’ll get through certification. I’m hopeful that there won’t be any specials between January and September. That’ll give us a window of opportunity to look at all of these additional improvements.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ahead of Election Year, De Blasio Must Name New Campaign Finance Board Chair


de blasio podium

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


With the impending departure of the head of the city’s campaign finance regulatory body, good government advocates say Mayor Bill de Blasio must be careful about who he chooses to fill the position as the city heads into an election year.

“The chair of the campaign finance board is probably the single most important player in government ethics,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rose Gill Hearn, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, will be stepping down at the end of the year. Hearn is resigning, she indicated, due to an increasing burden from her position as a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a consulting firm. “My increasingly heavy work schedule no longer permits me to devote the time warranted for the important activities of the board,” Gill Hearn said in a public statement.

Gill Hearn informed the mayor of her resignation in a letter on September 23, to give him “ample time to find a replacement and ensure a smooth transition.” According to the City Charter, the mayor is to appoint the CFB chair with the advice of the City Council Speaker. There are four other members of the board, and about 100 CFB employees who make the agency run. The board makes determinations on public funds payments and campaign violations, considers changes to the campaign finance rules, and otherwise oversees the work of the agency, which includes monitoring and auditing electoral campaigns.

“I believe that the Campaign Finance Board and staff will continue in the long tradition of nonpartisanship and independence that has always been a part of the institution,” Gill Hearn said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Her resignation comes at a crucial time for both the mayor and for the city at large as every city elected official is on the ballot in municipal elections set for Fall 2017.

For de Blasio, appointing a new chair is delicate and potentially fraught territory as he is embroiled in multiple investigations at the state and federal level into fundraising activities -- though mostly ones that don’t concern the CFB system. Neither de Blasio nor his allies have been charged with any crime, and the mayor insists that they will be vindicated.

While it’s not yet clear if the mayor or his associates broke any laws, de Blasio’s own re-election campaign will continue to be the subject of CFB scrutiny -- in fact, the mayor’s campaign recently had a matter before the CFB related to the funds raised by a political nonprofit, The Campaign for One New York, that is affiliated with de Blasio, formed to promote his agenda, and a key piece of multiple law enforcement investigations.

In July, the board chastised de Blasio for exploiting loopholes in the city’s campaign finance law and undermining a system that is held up as a national model. The mayor and his nonprofit were let off with a slap on the wrist, but the board insisted that they did not consider the matter closed. The next CFB chair will be responsible for overseeing any further investigations should they arise. The Campaign for One New York is in the process of shutting down, something announced in advance of the CFB hearing.

Such a case is one example, albeit an especially high-profile one, of the type of issues brought before the campaign finance board. Meanwhile, employees at the CFB help educate candidates and campaigns about the city’s public matching system, vet campaign donations, and disburse public matching funds.

The CFB is a nonpartisan five-member body, with two members appointed by the speaker of the City Council, two appointed by the mayor, and a chair chosen by the mayor in consultation with the speaker. The two members appointed by each the mayor and speaker cannot be from the same political party. The chair serves a five-year term and Gill Hearn’s replacement will serve through the remainder of hers, which expires November 30, 2018.

“[Mayor de Blasio] has to pick somebody of impeccable ethical credentials,” said Russianoff of NYPIRG about replacing Gill Hearn. “There’s no reason to believe he won’t do it.” Russianoff added that the scandals the mayor is currently facing “are putting extra pressure on the administration to do the right thing.”

Only three people other than Gill Hearn have served as chair since the board was created in 1988. The first chair was Father Joseph O’Hare, a Jesuit priest and former editor in chief of America magazine. O’Hare became president of Fordham University in 1984 and later served on Mayor Ed Koch’s Committee on Appointments and the Charter Revision Commission. O’Hare was reappointed twice and led the CFB until 2003.

O’Hare was followed by Frederick A.O Schwarz, Jr., who was corporation counsel for Mayor Koch between 1982 and 1986. In 1989, he chaired the Charter Revision Commission. He was CFB chair for one term. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Joseph Parkes, who was already a member of the CFB, to succeed Schwarz, Jr. as chair. Parkes has been president of Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem since 2004 and also previously served as president of Fordham Preparatory School.

The search for the next chair has not yet begun. Mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in a statement, “As is standard practice mandated by the Campaign Finance Board, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito will work together to review potential candidates and appoint the person best suited for the job.”

Eric Koch, spokesperson for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, said in an email on Monday that the speaker was awaiting a consultation with the mayor.

After Gill Hearn’s resignation is effective, the mayor will have 90 days to appoint a new chair. (The deadline, usually 180 days, is shorter because of the proximity to the next election.) If he should fail to do so, the remaining members of the board can choose someone to replace Gill Hearn.

“In spite of Chairperson Hearn’s solid leadership over the last three years, this could not come at a worse time,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, “because it is the fourth quarter of the four-year city election cycle, with the major officeholders up for reelection.”

Dadey said the mayor should pick someone who will be “applauded uniformly” for their integrity. “We cannot afford to have someone in this position who is seen as a political or partisan figure because the integrity of the campaign finance program going forward really depends on the kind of people who run this program,” he said.  

Although Dadey said he did not doubt the mayor would choose the right person for the job, he said the appointment would regardless be closely scrutinized because of the investigations the mayor faces. “[The mayor] has a higher bar now to select the kind of person that will be beyond dispute,” he said.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which oversees the CFB, said in a statement last week that he hoped to see a “a thorough and open search for a new chair who will be independent, non-partisan, and non-political” in their role.

“It is of supreme importance that the next chair be someone who has the stature and integrity to not only stand up to candidates and any elected officials but guide the board through election years independently,” Kallos said.

Notably, de Blasio was faced with a somewhat similar choice when selecting a chair for a mandated commission to study and reccomend compensation levels for the city's elected officials. De Blasio chose Schwarz, Jr. in what was a universally applauded decision.

Beyond just choosing a new chair, NYPIRG’s Russianoff said this was an apt time for the mayor to commit wholeheartedly to campaign finance reform by pushing for crucial legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance laws. There are six campaign finance reform bills before the City Council, languishing in committee and awaiting a vote.

The bills have been heard once since they were introduced in November 2015 and incorporate many of the recommendations made by the CFB in it’s 2013 post-election report. (Some of those recommendations have already been codified into law.) “De Blasio’s people should do what they can to get those immediate reforms through,” said Russianoff, warning that time is running out before the 2017 elections. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing happens.”

The most significant of the bills would limit the impact that can be made by people who have business before the city and bundle donations for a candidate. Mark-Viverito recently told Gotham Gazette that the bills are going through the normal legislative process but did not explain why they have not moved.

Additionally, the CFB itself is currently mulling over a raft of rules proposals that would tighten and clarify provisions of the campaign finance law to make it easier for candidates to run their campaigns and harder for outside groups to coordinate expenditures with candidates, among other changes.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


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