A leading government reform group has some advice for Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission investigations. They say there's a major loophole that has allowed $98 million dollars in unlimited donations to flow into what’s known as party housekeeping accounts.
Common Cause, along with a coalition that has been pressing for campaign finance reform, says the party housekeeping accounts were originally intended to buy office supplies, pay for voter outreach and other non partisan activities. The group’s Susan Lerner says they’ve morphed into a multi-million dollar loophole. It has led to nearly $100 million dollars funneled through New York’s Democratic and Republican Party housekeeping accounts in the past seven years, according to an analysis by Common Cause.
“When you look at the donors, they cover the political spectrum,” said Lerner.
The largest single housekeeping account donor was New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who gave over $7 million dollars, followed by Greater New York Hospitals and the Teacher’s Union. Also top on the list, Big Pharma, Walmart, Verizon and Phillip Morris. Half of the money was contributed by just 59 donors.
But Lerner says her group’s analysis can only go so far. The Moreland Act Commission has the power to probe further to see if there is any criminal activity involved.
“The Moreland Commission can issue subpoenas. They can track the money,” Lerner said.
Lerner says the commission can trace transfers of money from the housekeeping accounts that might coincide with campaign promotions for a particular candidate.
“They can see if there was advertising or other activities supporting or opposing a particular candidate in close proximity to, surprise, the same amount of money for that original check,” Lerner said.
Even Governor Cuomo has taken advantage of the loophole to fund TV ads promoting his policy agenda, and touting his achievements, including the passage of the third on time budget in a row.
The Democratic State Committee spent $5.3 million of its housekeeping account on the ads, out of the $5.9 million it raised, according to an analysis by Common Cause. Lerner says the use of the housekeeping account money to fund the ads is not technically wrong. Under the few rules that do exist, party housekeeping money is not supposed to be used to promote any specific political candidate. Though Cuomo has said he intends to seek re election in 2014, an official announcement is still months away.
“We’re not saying it’s a violation of the law,” Lerner said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon that shows why housekeeping needs to be controlled.”
Common Cause hopes that ultimately, the Moreland Commission will adopt new rules that will close the party housekeeping loophole.
The Moreland Act Commission has held several private meetings, and co-chair, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, has said subpoenas have already gone out.
"We are in fact issuing subpoenas,” Rice said. “The subject matter of them will be made public at a certain point, as long as it doesn’t affect the integrity of the investigations.”
Rice says the State Ethics Commission and Board of Elections are on notice to keep all of their paper and electronic communications.
Public hearings will be held next month.