Hold IDC ac­count­able for cam­paign fi­nance law vi­o­la­tions

Albany Times Union - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ravi Gupta ▶

Eight state sen­a­tors were just caught with a po­ten­tially six-fig­ure vi­o­la­tion of New York cam­paign fi­nance laws. Now they want to slip away with­out penalty.

Our cam­paign fi­nance laws are mean­ing­less un­less there are real con­se­quences for egre­gious vi­o­la­tions like this one. At is­sue is an agree­ment the In­de­pen­dent Demo­cratic Con­fer­ence (IDC), the New York Se­nate’s

Ravi Gupta, a grad­u­ate of Yale Law School, is man­ag­ing part­ner of The Arena PAC, which is sup­port­ing four can­di­dates chal­leng­ing mem­bers of the IDC. now-de­funct group of Demo­cratic de­fec­tors, struck with the In­de­pen­dence Party in 2016. Un­der that agree­ment, IDC lead­er­ship took the helm of the Se­nate In­de­pen­dence Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (SICC) ac­counts and used that com­mit­tee to raise and dis­burse over $800,000 of cor­po­rate money they would have oth­er­wise been pro­hib­ited from ac­cess­ing. The state Supreme Court re­cently con­cluded that this ar­range­ment vi­o­lated cam­paign fi­nance law. Now it’s time for the state Board of Elec­tions’ chief en­force­ment coun­sel, Risa Su­gar­man, to en­sure this scheme doesn’t hap­pen again.

First, Su­gar­man should force the SICC to re­fund all the cor­po­rate money it took into its house­keep­ing ac­count while the IDC con­trolled it. In New York, only po­lit­i­cal par­ties may es­tab­lish a house­keep­ing ac­count and ac­cept cor­po­rate funds in ex­cess of the stan­dard $5,000 an­nual limit. Groups of leg­is­la­tors, such as the IDC, clearly may not. How­ever, the Idc-con­trolled ac­count took in over $1.6 mil­lion — half of

which was cor­po­rate money they would have oth­er­wise been pro­hib­ited from raising ab­sent this ar­range­ment. They then dis­bursed $380,938 to the Hamilton Cam­paign Net­work, which, in ad­di­tion to be­ing run by IDC leader Jeff Klein’s for­mer chief of staff, has been the lead con­sul­tant for IDC can­di­dates on polling, di­rect mail, and me­dia con­sult­ing.

At the fed­eral level, there is prece­dent for forc­ing groups like the IDC to re­turn these funds. Fed­eral multi-can­di­date com­mit­tees pos­ing as party com­mit­tees are forced to re­fund il­le­gally raised money; groups in New York should be held to the same stan­dard. For ex­am­ple, in 2015 the Vir­gin Is­lands Repub­li­can Party failed to achieve recog­ni­tion as a party com­mit­tee in or­der to take ad­van­tage of higher con­tri­bu­tion lim­its. When the party ac­cepted con­tri­bu­tions within the lim­its for a party com­mit­tee — but be­yond the lim­its for a multi-can­di­date com­mit­tee — the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion forced it to re­fund the ex­ces­sive amounts. That’s just com­mon sense.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Su­gar­man should require IDC can­di­dates to re­fund any ex­cess do­na­tions re­sult­ing from this ar­range­ment. A po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee con­trolled by a group of leg­is­la­tors, like the IDC, is legally al­lowed to con­trib­ute a max­i­mum of $18,000 to can­di­dates. How­ever, af­ter tak­ing con­trol of SICC, the IDC di­rected $539,558 in spend­ing to sup­port Id­caligned state Sen. Marisol Al­can­tara’s 2016 elec­tion cam­paign — far more than the $18,000 limit.

Fi­nally, Su­gar­man should is­sue a penalty above and be­yond the re­funds, given the IDC’S his­tory of play­ing fast and loose with cam­paign fi­nance laws and reg­u­la­tions. It hap­pened as re­cently as 2014, when the IDC at­tempted to cir­cum­vent stan­dard cam­paign fi­nanc­ing lim­its by us­ing their PAC as an In­de­pen­dent Ex­pen­di­ture Com­mit­tee — spend­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in a ma­neu­ver that would later be­come il­le­gal un­der state law in 2016. They paid a five-fig­ure fine in a nom­i­nally un­re­lated mat­ter, but came out ahead in the process. Now, they find them­selves back in front of the same reg­u­la­tor for a sim­i­lar scheme. They need to be held ac­count­able.

The IDC clearly didn’t learn to color in­side the lines af­ter their first vi­o­la­tion. The Board of Elec­tions should send a stronger mes­sage this time. If it doesn’t, what mes­sage is it send­ing to other leg­is­la­tors look­ing to skirt cam­paign fi­nance laws?

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