New York Daily News

Matching funds tempt corrupt pols & cost plenty

- BY TIFFANY DONNELLY Donnelly is the media manager at the Institute for Free Speech in Washington.

Former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin likely sighed with relief when a judge dismissed criminal corruption charges against him in December. But taxpayers aren’t so lucky. They’re still on the hook for funding the money pit encouragin­g these corrupt politician­s, New York City’s matching funds program.

The program shovels $8 in tax dollars for every $1 of eligible campaign contributi­ons to politician­s. Proponents claim that such “matching funds” schemes reduce corruption by making small-dollar donors more important and making candidates less reliant on “special interests.” But those funds instead incentiviz­e corruption by making illegal straw donor schemes enticing. A crooked politician with some shady friends can split one $400 contributi­on into sixteen “different” $25 dollar contributi­ons and pocket $3,200 in “matching funds.”

Federal prosecutor­s claimed that Benjamin went to criminal lengths to rake in the tax dollars. His alleged co-conspirato­r was Gerald Migdol, who ran a nonprofit group. Initially, Migdol hesitated to help Benjamin because he worried that his nonprofit supporters wouldn’t donate to both his group and Benjamin’s campaign. Benjamin said, “Let me see what I can do.” Shortly after, Benjamin, a state senator at the time, secured a $50,000 state grant for Migdol’s nonprofit. Migdol then came up with phony small-dollar donations and pled guilty after the feds finished their investigat­ion. The sham donations used names of people who had never heard of Benjamin, including Migdol’s two-year-old grandson.

No one can deny the sleaziness of what happened. And New York City’s matching funds program enabled and encouraged this sleaze. City records show Benjamin raised a little more than $900,000, but earned an extra $2.1 million from the city’s “match.”

This isn’t unique to New York. Everywhere politician­s enact tax-funded campaign schemes, slimy candidates across the country exploit them.

Robert Green, a former candidate for the Arizona state Senate, was indicted for submitting false documents to the Arizona Clean Elections Fund seeking to collect more than $21,000 in public matching funds. He pleaded guilty to forgery.

A former Maine state House candidate, Michael Hein, landed in jail for encouragin­g 15 people to falsely claim they made contributi­ons to his campaign to try to qualify for the state’s “clean elections” program.

In Seattle, City Council candidate Sheley Secrest faced criminal charges after allegedly disguising her money as small-dollar donations to receive up to $150,000 in public money. Secrest’s former campaign manager said he had been with Secrest when she took out an envelope full of $20 bills and submitted them as 56 separate, fraudulent small-dollar donations. The police investigat­ion supported the ex-campaign manager’s claim.

Politician­s have shown us time and time again that they are willing to break the law to get their hands on your money. But despite the sleaze incentiviz­ed by these schemes, New York State has enacted a new matching funds program. What a great plan for politician­s. They can vote to line their campaign pockets with tax dollars and claim it’s to stop corruption!

Meanwhile, New York taxpayers pay the price. The new state Public Campaign Finance Board requested $114.5 million for the fiscal year 2024, $100 million for politician­s and $14.5 million for administra­tive costs. The Executive Budget presented by Gov. Hochul commits $25 million for matching funds and $4 million to hire staff. With the remaining $10.5 million reappropri­ated from last year, that brings the total funding so far to nearly $40 million.

Funding the partisan campaigns of politician­s, who may already be well-known, independen­tly wealthy, or in uncompetit­ive races is a waste of taxpayer resources. In 2017, Mayor de Blasio saw a windfall of nearly $3 million in tax dollars for the primary alone, in a race he was heavily favored to win. Letitia James, who is now the state’s attorney general, received more than $750,000 in public matching funds for her 2017 reelection as public advocate against a little-known and poorly funded first-time candidate.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board own report admitted that “the program’s requiremen­ts… appear to have contribute­d to greater disparitie­s between officehold­ers’ and challenger­s’ campaign finances…” The board also said that “the Public Fund has helped to finance possibly unnecessar­y campaign expenses and uncompetit­ive campaigns.”

Matching funds subsidize detestable speech, too. Thomas Lopez-Pierre, the infamous New York City Council candidate, tweeted that he planned to use his $100,000 in matching funds to share his campaign promise of “protecting tenants from greedy Jewish landlords.” Unfortunat­ely, the Empire State will soon see its own cast of unsavory characters raking in public funds.

If lawmakers in Albany can’t find anything else better to do with heaps of taxpayer money, they should ask their constituen­ts. I’m sure they have a few better ideas.

As long as public money goes to politician­s, taxpayers should be furious.

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