Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Commission recommends public financing of campaigns; can't crack dark money group's shell

Posted by on Tue, Dec 3, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Last night, Governor Andrew Cuomo's public corruption commission — the Moreland Commission as it's often called — released its preliminary report, and its findings ought to surprise no one. In short, the report says that New York has lax campaign contribution rules, that enforcement of those rules sucks, and that the state has a pay-to-play political culture.

The report recommends a few fixes. Public financing of campaigns is one of the big ones — though it wasn't supported by all 25 members of the commission. Seven members, several being Republican elected officials, argued that public financing wouldn't be effective in an environment where outside groups are free to spend unlimited sums of money.

The report recommends that the state government set up an election law enforcement agency separate and independent from the state Board of Elections. And it also says legislators should:
• Lower campaign contribution limits;
• Fix the loopholes in existing laws that allow certain companies to donate to campaigns or that allow for unlimited contributions to party housekeeping accounts;
• Implement stricter rules for the use of campaign funds;
• Expand the legal definition of an "outside expenditure" to include the funding of "ads that reasonable people would think are campaign ads."

To illustrate the problem of undisclosed spending in New York campaigns, the Moreland Commission drew on a group that ought to be familiar to some Rochester-area voters, particularly those in state Senator Ted O'Brien's district: Common Sense Principles.

The group sent out mailers and aired television ads in several races across the state, including O'Brien's contest with then-Assembly member Sean Hanna. A few reporters (me included) tried to track down who was behind the group and who was funding it, but the efforts were futile. (Jimmy Vielkind, at the time a reporter with the Albany Times Union, had a pretty amusing take on his attempt to unmask the group.)

Anyway, the commission had legal powers that journalists don't and even it wasn't able to figure out who was behind Common Sense Principles. That's not an encouraging sign for campaign finance accountability in New York. From the commission's report:
"So who pays for Common Sense’s political spending in New York? Despite issuing a number of subpoenas and conducting several interviews, the Commission still cannot say. A New York-based direct mail company that sent the 2012 attack mailers has informed the Commission that the Common Sense mailer had been ordered by a Florida-based intermediary company. Common Sense, according to the direct mail company, is a “ghost company.” Service of the Commission’s subpoenas cannot be perfected on either the Virginia-based 501(c)(4) entity or the Florida companies. This daisy chain of out-of-state corporations and 'ghost companies' appears to exist for one reason: to hide the source of money used to fund negative advertising and influence our local elections. Even this Commission, armed with subpoena power, still has been unable to track down the sources of the torrent of money flowing into and within our state. Perhaps most alarming is that this is the story of just one group. Outside spending groups are growing in numbers and power with each election. Common Sense is only one of many entities spending big money to influence New York State politics."

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