by Carlos Gonzalez
ALBANY - In November of 2010, fed up voters ushered in a new wave of political candidates in the Senate and Assembly primarily due to a scandalous and dysfunctional legislature marred with felony indictments and convictions, not to mention a flip-flopping coup that shut government down during June of 2009.
The wave of change hasn't stopped certain ousted lawmakers from tapping into campaign accounts to enjoy a few remaining perks, such as meals, novelties, and even $10,000 for a vehicle, campaign records show.
Former Assemblyman David Koon (D-Perinton, Monroe) threw a steakhouse party for his outgoing staffers at a cost of $504 through the campaign.
Former Senator Vincent Leibell (R-Patterson, Putnam), who did not run for re-election and recently pleadguilty to federal corruption charges, had his campaign purchase $267 total on Barnes and Noble, $114 for a car wash, Home Depot, meals, phones, $931 on tires, and shipped $2,374 to Cardmember Services - a WorldPerks Visa account.
Former Senator Antoine Thompson (D-Buffalo) spent $750 for an event at TGI Friday's from his campaign account.
However, the 'Bling-of-the-Year' award goes to former Senator Frank Padavan (R-Queens). His campain-finance records state that it dropped a whopping $10,000 to Major Chrysler Jeep in Long Island City just a couple of weeks after the election. Numerous calls to Major Chrysler Jeep and Padavan went unreturned.
Even deceased Senator Ronald Stafford (R-Plattsburgh), who passed away in June of 2005, has campaign activity. Stafford still has over $42,000 in the account. After his death, $530 was spent at Mainely Lobster, Anthony's Restaurant was paid $1,125, and we shouldn't forget about Sam's Club purchases, and items at Bed, Bath & Beyond.
None of it is illegal according to good government groups, vowing for a major push this year to close down the perk-fest.
Ex-officials are aware that campaign-finance loopholes such as Section 14-130 of the Election Law are critically vague. Technically, cash spending is permitted as long as its related "to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position." That language could reasonably mean just about anything and it's difficult to prove if an official had a personal benefit.
NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group, believes that ex-lawmakers should be required to give campaign donations back to donors or to charity.
"Campaign donations were given to be used in the campaign," said Blair Horner, legislative director for NYPIRG.
Two legislators have authored legislation trying to narrow the broadness of the existing law, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) and Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).
"Specifically, Assembly Bill #321 states that within four years of the election all funds must be disposed of, and within twelve months if a legislator is deceased," said Connor Bambrick, legislative director for Assemblyman Cahill.
Options would include donating funds to 501(c)3, the state university, the state general fund, transfer to a political party committee, or contribute to another candidate as long as contributions do not exceed contribution limits. Also, the legislation would prohibit funds from being used to pay attorney's fees defending against any criminal or civil investigation. It prevents perks like admission to sporting events, concerts, theaters, unless part of a specific campaign. The bill also prohibits automobile purchases or long-term leases, short term car rentals and services not used exclusively for campaign purposes.
Meanwhile, if any suggestion of wrongdoing through campaign expenditures surface, the public has few options.
"There are fact-specific problems to situations that arise," said Todd Valentine, the Republican co-executive director for the state Board of Elections . "We try to ascertain the facts after a complaint is filed with us on any wrongdoing. If it's something that can be corrected or restored after a disclosure is filed, we often would try that first."
With over 10,000 candidates filing disclosures and with very limited amount of staff, the BOE vests its time in ensuring that such disclosures are completed and transparent. The BOE does not have the investigative authority to determine if a campaign expenditure is truly "campaign related." Any other action or enforcement must be taken up by a district attorney.
However, prosecutor review on these types of cases are doubtful, unless the legislature acts. Until such time, anything goes in Albany, even when you're no longer part of it.