By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY New York's campaign housekeeping accounts can take in a unlimited amount of cash for alleged "party-building activities," state law says.
And the accounts have become the most exploited part of New York's porous campaign-finance system, with $98 million being dumped into the housekeeping coffers of political parties since 2006, a recent report found.
Late Tuesday, the state's Moreland Commission said it will investigate the housekeeping accounts and the money that flows in and out of them. The corruption-busting panel was formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July, and it will focus its review on both Democratic and Republican housekeeping funds.
"In addition to the investigation into the legislature, the Moreland Commission has moved to look across the board at all housekeeping accounts. Everything is on the table. We are looking at everything," said the commission's spokeswoman Michelle Duffy.
For good-government groups, housekeeping accounts are the poster child for New York's weak campaign finance system.
A report by Common Cause/NY in July found that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pumped more than $7 million into housekeeping funds since 2006, mainly to Senate Republicans.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, collected $20 million during that time period to its housekeeping account.
State law says the money needs to be used for party-building administrative expenses and "not for the express purpose of promoting the candidacy of specific candidates."
But the law is so loosely written that campaigns often skirt the intention of the law, said Bill Mahoney, a researcher for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Also, it's a way to avoid the state's campaign-finance limits, which are already among the highest in the nation. An individual can give $150,000 a year to various campaigns.
"Housekeeping accounts completely undermine contribution limits in New York," Mahoney said. "If somebody wants to give more than they are allowed to give to a candidate, they can write a seven-figure check to a housekeeping account and have them spend it on their behalf."
A year ago, for example, the Senate Republicans' housekeeping account transferred $211,000 to the state Independence Party Housekeeping Account. The money was ultimately sent to a media company to run attack ads against Democratic candidates, Common Cause found.
The Moreland Commission is investigating a variety of housekeeping accounts, including ones controlled by the state parties and the Legislature.
It's not just state committees that have vast housekeeping accounts.
The Common Cause report showed that the Monroe County Republican Committee ranked seventh in the state in contributions since 2006, raking in $4.7 million. The county's Democratic Committee brought in $1.4 million.
"It's obvious to Common Cause/NY that housekeeping accounts are a back door for big dollar special interests to give unlimited sums of cash for campaign purposes: a direct violation of the campaign finance law," said the group's executive director, Susan Lerner, in August.
The commission also says that it will subpoena state lawmakers to get financial information, as it continues to investigate the outside income of legislators and try to find out if there's any misconduct lawmakers have in their side jobs.
In a statement, the commission said: "On Aug. 27, we requested information to be submitted by certain legislators. Leaders of the legislature for both the Assembly and Senate refused to cooperate."
The commission believes it's within its authority under an executive order by the Governor to issue the subpoenas. The commission could subpoena lawmakers who make at least $20,000 a year in outside income. Lawmakers, who have part time jobs such as, an attorney or a real estate agent and could be influenced by who they work for.
2 On Your Side hasn't learned of any local lawmakers being asked to testify before the Moreland Commission.