Brooklyn's Blood War

A soap-opera congressional race turns into a scandal of campaign-finance abuse

The hottest and most incestuous congressional race in the city is the three-way September 14 primary for the Brooklyn seat of 22-year incumbent Major Owens, who has already announced that this will be his last hurrah.

Both of Owens's opponents are thirtysomething city councilwomen in a rush, Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke. Ironically, neither would be in the council but for Owens—the political patriarch of their family dynasties. Yet they could not wait until he retires in 2006 to run for his seat. While Owens allies see this as a blood war of betrayal, the race against him has also focused attention on a swath of extraordinary Boyland campaign-finance violations and on Clarke's undercover Republican ties.

The 68-year-old Owens said in November that he was running one last time, and he recently told the Voice he did that to "level the playing field" for the passel of candidates angling to replace him in 2006. He hoped the announcement might end speculation he'd withdraw from this year's race at the last minute and substitute his son Chris, a 45-year-old HMO manager, on his nominating petitions. He also hoped his premature lame-duck declaration would lead candidates like Boyland, Clarke, Assemblyman Nick Perry, State Senator Carl Andrews, and State Senator John Sampson to bide their time, giving him a free, final ride. Bizarrely, the two who instead saw the announcement as an opportunity to get ahead of the field and go after Owens now were the ones with whom he'd had the closest ties.

Boyland is the 35-year-old daughter of William "Frank" Boyland, who quit the assembly right after his re-election in 2002 and engineered the installation of his son, known as "Junior," by the district's loyal Democratic county committee. As a maverick state senator in the '70s, challenging the then omnipotent Brooklyn Democratic machine, Owens was pivotal in the election first of Tom Boyland and, when he suddenly died, his brother Frank. One of Tracy Boyland's first jobs was as a congressional aide on Owens's payroll.

Clarke's mother, Una, who held the Flatbush council seat for a decade that Yvette now represents, started out in politics two decades ago as part of the same Owens-led organization. In 1991, Owens broke with his top allies in black politics to back Una Clarke for a newly created council seat drawn—at Owens's insistence—to elect the borough's first Caribbean American. Though recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, Owens was virtually the only Brooklyn elected official campaigning for Una Clarke. Despite their history, she wound up running against him in 2000, a year before she was term-limited out of the council, insisting in debates that she owed Owens nothing. Owens won, but Clarke succeeded in 2001 in electing Yvette to her old seat. Even though Yvette Clarke can run for re-election to the council in 2005—unlike the term-limited Boyland—she is running for Congress after a scant two and a half years of elective service.

While Owens and Una Clarke have not been on speaking terms since the bitter 2000 race, Owens says he was shocked by the Boyland challenge. "Tracy cancelled a meeting with me and then, when I bumped into her at an event, she told me she'd already filed and was running against me," says Owens. He insists he would've made the same offer to Boyland that he made to Carl Andrews, who wound up naming people to Owens's Committee on Vacancies to guarantee that he could not substitute his son. Owens says he agreed to this unusual step because his son Chris had fed the substitution rumors by talking about a potential candidacy at community meetings and creating a website to promote it without making it absolutely clear that he was just preparing for 2006.

Frank Boyland conceded in a Voiceinterview that he helped launch his daughter's candidacy without ever reaching out to Owens to discuss it—a conversation that could've resulted in mutual pledges about offspring ambitions and avoided the bloodletting that is going on now. Even without a Boyland negotiation, Owens is doing precisely the opposite of what Boyland did to stack the deck for his son's assembly ascension: He is setting up an open primary in 2006, when Chris will win or lose on the merits.

This plague of hereditary politics—starting in the White House and multiplying every day at the local level—is now consuming both of Brooklyn's black congressional districts, with longtime incumbent Ed Towns actively maneuvering toward the eventual installation of his son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns. With offspring in half the Bronx council seats, and even former speaker Peter Vallone electing his namesake son in Queens, politicians have taken to regarding their positions as their property, willed to lineal successors by any device. They can't see any difference between using connections to help a son get a job and turning a public trust into a family trust. This heirloom hysteria is producing poisonous primaries, infected by an internecine viciousness far more intense than ordinary politics.


A fraud of a campaign

Tracy Boyland's filings for her 2003 City Council and 2004 congressional committees reveal campaigns so outrageously financed that they are an open invitation to state and federal investigators. The congressional committee, called Citizens for Tracy Boyland, has already earned two stern letters of rebuke from the Federal Election Commission. This committee came into existence on October 1, 2003, when it filed a statement of organization with the FEC. That was two weeks before her council committee, the similarly named Citizens to Re-Elect Tracy Boyland, threw a grandiose fundraiser at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Brooklyn. It seemed strange at the time that Boyland—who faced a Republican opponent she beat 40 to 1—would be hosting a major event.

Her council committee paid $10,227 to cover the costs of the fundraiser but did not report receiving virtually any of the contributions raised at it. Instead, Boyland's congressional committee listed $102,000 in contributions received at the time of the event, an apparent end-run around federal laws, which bar transfers of funds from a city committee to a federal one.

Both the council and congressional committees delayed for months before finally making these deceptive filings. The council committee missed four filing deadlines between August 2003 and this January, making retroactive submissions on January 13 that included the Marriott expenses and covered nearly six months. The treasurer of the council committee signed each of these submissions on time, suggesting that the Boylands decided not to file completed forms. Then, on February 9, the congressional committee made its first filing, going back to July and listing the Marriott contributions.

By failing to list contributions raised by a council committee on the city forms, the committee appears to have committed a Class A misdemeanor. Reporting contributions solicited by a council committee as congressional donations may violate the fraudulent misrepresentation sections of federal election law, which carry jail sentences of up to five years.

Beyond timing, the contributions themselves suggest a duplicitous intent. Since Tracy Boyland opted out of the city's campaign finance system, her council committee did not have to comply with the charter-mandated ban on corporate contributions and instead could take business donations of up to $5000. So she collected a half-dozen $5000 contributions at the time of the Marriott fundraiser, as well as 35 other corporate checks, and reported them on her February congressional filing, where they were virtually all illegal. She was raising funds in compliance with one legal standard and then reporting the very same funds in abject violation of another.

In fact, a Voice examination of Boyland contributions reveals that nearly 70 percent of her $200,336 in contributions, or $138,900, are questionable. They either exceed the $2000 federal limits per election, originate with corporations and unions who can only give through political action committees, or come from limited liability companies (LLC's) that were not asked by Boyland if they met the complicated federal requirements that apply to them. The congressional committee claims to have already refunded an astounding $89,965, but Voice calculations indicate that it must refund or redesignate for the general election another $48,935. Incredibly, an FEC letter notes that 17 of the refunds, totaling $9000, were ascribed to entities whose contributions were never reported as received on congressional forms. Since these contributions were also not reported on council forms, it is a mystery where the money wound up.

That is hardly the only missing money. Donald Capoccia, for example, is a Manhattan housing developer close to Frank Boyland since the late '80s. His spokeswoman says he wrote four $2500 business checks to the congressional committee on February 27, but it reported receiving $21,500 from only three of Capoccia's LLCs, making him the campaign's largest donor. Since a partner contributing through an LLC legally eligible to give would be limited to $2000 for the primary and $2000 for the general, even Capoccia's $10,000 would be $6000 over the limit. But, since Frank Boyland agrees with Capoccia's numbers, where did the other $11,500 ascribed to Capoccia on the filings come from? Who donated that?

Similarly, ex-city councilman Ken Fisher, who attended the Marriott fundraiser and says he had no idea it was for a congressional campaign, insists that his law firm, Phillips Nizer, donated $500 on September 30. But the congressional committee lists Fisher personally, Phillips Nizer, and "Nizer Phillips" giving $500 each that day, for a total of $1500. The committee is reporting thousands it did not receive and not reporting other thousands it did receive. It has also not responded on time to many of the issues raised in the two FEC letters.

Capoccia's BFC Partners is one of at least four developers that have stakes in an ongoing major housing development aided by the Boylands—the $90 million Hope VI Prospect Plaza project—and have given to the campaign. He and the three others—Loewen Development, L&M Equities, and Michaels Development—have combined to give $49,500, with $11,000 of it already refunded and much of the rest illegal. Thousands more in donations come from contractors who have or are also doing construction aided by the Boylands, making this kind of transactional contribution by far the single greatest source of their campaign financing.


A Republican underside

Boyland's biggest backer, Capoccia, is usually a gigantic GOP donor—having illegally exceeded city limits by tens of thousands for Rudy Giuliani and bankrolled the state Republican committee in contributions as high as $25,000. A Bush donor as well, he was one of six gay activists appointed by Bush, serving on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts until his recent quiet resignation in protest of Bush's push for an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment.

But the far more potent GOP ties in the race are Yvette Clarke's, whose mother, Una, is a Pataki-patronage employee, serving as a staff director for the Empire State Development Corporation. Una Clarke spearheaded Pataki's re-election campaign in the Caribbean community in 2002, working with her close ally City Councilman Kendall Stewart, even while Yvette Clarke endorsed Carl McCall, the first black ever nominated for governor by a major party. Owens says Una Clarke is "attempting to build a Republican beachhead" in black Brooklyn, having aligned herself in 2002 with the Republican who ran against him. Even though Una Clarke recently paid the largest fine and penalty ever imposed by the city's Campaign Finance Board on a council candidate—$58,943, which the CFB had to pursue in court years later—Yvette Clarke has made her the treasurer of her congressional campaign.

When Una Clarke ran against Owens four years ago, she violated federal deadlines and delayed the disclosure of her major contributors until after she lost the primary. Yvette Clarke's total federal receipts so far are only $87,321—a quarter of it unitemized, just like her mother's filings. If Yvette's disclosures appear late as well, it may be impossible to tell if Pataki donors are fueling her campaign.

The Boyland and Clarke attack themes on Owens depict this Democrat in a Republican Washington as a do-nothing, even though he's sponsored 16 significant bills that have become law. The New York Post reported that Tracy Boyland has never passed a council bill, and she and Clarke both highlight as their top achievement the funding of the same bio-tech medical facility at SUNY Downstate.


Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Caitlin Chandler, Daniel Magliocco, Ben Shestakofsy, and Ned Thimmayya

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