Soft-Money Contributions on the Rise in New York

9:10 AM, May 22, 2013   |    comments
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By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief

ALBANY, NY-- Contributions to New York's limitless campaign accounts soared 24 percent over six years, jumping to a total of $87 million, a report Tuesday found.

New York has a porous campaign-finance system and among the highest contribution limits in the country. It also has something else: Housekeeping accounts set up by political parties that can accept a limitless amount of cash.

And the money has come pouring in, a report from Common Cause/NY found.

"They are making out like bandits under the current system," said Susan Lerner, the group's executive director.

Good-government groups called for a ban on so-called "soft-money" contributions as part of a broader package of campaign-finance laws being proposed at the Capitol.

Housekeeping accounts have long drawn the ire of reform groups because big-money contributors can pump an endless flow of cash into them. The money is supposed to be used only for "party-building activities," but the law is often flouted, the groups said.
Between 1999 and 2005, donors gave nearly $47 million to the soft-money committees of the state parties and the state Legislature.

It grew to $58 million over the next six years, the report said, and $87 million when all committees are included.

At the county level, the Monroe County Republican Committee received the most in the state: $4.4 million, outpacing the New York City parties. The Rochester-based construction firm The Pike Co. ranked 33rd on the list of top soft-money donors.

"That really deserves a study of its own," Brian Paul, the report's author, said of the Monroe County GOP. "They have a set of a few dozen donors that give huge amounts every year."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would like to see a ban on soft-money contributions as part of campaign-finance reform. He's proposing public financing of campaigns.

"There's no doubt that campaign finance should be part of a reform package that's done at the end of this year, in this legislative session," Cuomo said of the session that ends June 20.

Businesses gave 52 percent of the cash, or $45 million of all soft-money contributions between 2006 and 2012.

Hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote the largest single soft money checks.

Mercer gave $1 million in 2010 to the state Conservative Party, and Bloomberg gave $1 million to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in 2012, the report said.

Overall, the billionaire Bloomberg gave the most to housekeeping accounts over the six years, a total of $7.2 million. Senate Republicans, who share control of the chamber, received the most of any political committee.

Good-government groups said ridding the campaign system of big money would help curb the corruption that has pervaded the Legislature.

"This lack of enforcement of campaign financing fosters a culture in Albany that we know says to legislators: Well, with all this money floating around, I want my part of it," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. "And that's what leads them down the path of much of this corruption."

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