Some voters in the 55th State Senate District have received campaign mailers ripping Democratic candidate Ted O'Brien for failing to take ethics training required as a member of the Monroe County Legislature. The mailers are factually wrong. O'Brien did take the training and he's got the documentation to prove it.
But the mailings highlight a bigger issue beyond misstatements and garden-variety campaign mudslinging; they exploit flaws in New York State's campaign finance laws that allow groups and individuals to attack candidates while the attackers remain anonymous.
In this case, the mailings say that they were paid for by an entity called Common Sense. But the Virginia address on the mailings belongs to CT Corporation, a firm that serves as a registered agent for businesses.
The Common Sense website, www.commonsenseprinciples.com, says nothing about who's behind the organization, just that it's a small-government group inspired by Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" pamphlet. The site appears to be devoted to attacking a handful of Democratic candidates for New York State Senate.
"Real organizations tell you who they are," says Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
And Common Sense probably won't have to report its donors because it seems to be sticking to issue ads, which don't directly encourage viewers to vote for or against a specific candidate.
"The unknown organization that is behind this ad doesn't have to tell the public anything," Lerner says.
O'Brien's opponent in the Senate race, Republican Sean Hanna, has repudiated the mailings and said that he and his campaign had nothing to do with them. Neither he nor his campaign have any connection to the Common Sense group, Hanna said.
Common Sense was also active in 2010 when it targeted six Democratic candidates for State Senate. The Watertown Daily Times reported on a flier that Common Sense mailed out and said the flier's targets mirrored those of the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
That piece also took the form of an issue ad, and the state's campaign finance database shows no filings from Common Sense.
State ethics reform legislation enacted in 2011 was supposed to address the issue-ad loophole. It required the Board of Elections to draft new regulations that included reporting requirements for any person or organization funding an issue ad. Those regulations still haven't been finalized and even if they were, they'd be too late to do any good this year, says Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for New York Public Interest Research Group.
And Lerner says that the draft regulations as currently written are still too weak and would continue to exempt issue ads.