A Question of Candor
New City Council speaker Gifford Miller, an East Side liberal with reform credentials, declined to participate in the city's voluntary but celebrated campaign finance system last year and made misleading submissions to the Campaign Finance Board, the Voice has learned.
With Michael Bloomberg also opting out of the CFB system in 2001, the city's two most powerful new public officials, unlike their predecessors Rudy Giuliani and Peter Vallone, sidestepped what is widely regarded as the nation's top regulatory program. Ironically, many of the councilmembers who helped make Miller speaker last weekespecially the 38 new onesbenefited from the CFB's public matching funds and are champions of the system. Miller registered with it himself for his first two campaigns, in 1996 and 1997, receiving $117,000 in matching funds.
Though Miller maintains he didn't register this time because he thought he was running unopposed when the CFB deadline occurred on June 1, he concedes that the board's possible oversight of Council 2001, a political action committee (PAC) tied to him, was also "something I was thinking about." Had Miller joined the finance system as a participating candidate, CFB advisory opinions indicate that Council 2001 might well also have been compelled to abide by its strict contribution limits.
Instead, the PAC raised and spent almost $200,000 between July 2000 and December 2001, distributing most of it to 27 council candidates across the city, ostensibly to gain support for Miller's bid to become speaker. It did not abide by CFB rulescollecting $15,000 in what would have been banned corporate contributions and $30,000 in individual donations that exceeded the CFB's $2500 cap. By not filing with the CFB, Council 2001 also avoided disclosing which lobbyists and other interests might have played a role as intermediaries in raising its war chest. The other major speaker candidates had no similar PACs, though Vallone did. The CFB forced Vallone's to comply with its limits.
In an attempt to obtain CFB approval for Miller to participate in the system without Council 2001 having to join it, Miller and Lawrence Laufer, a Council 2001 consultant, wrote letters to the CFB in April 2001. They claimed that the councilman, who described himself as a PAC member but not on its eight-member executive committee, did not "exercise authority" over the "activities" of what they insisted was an "independent" group.
Miller now freely concedes that he "helped create" the PAC, that its executive board consists almost exclusively of his "friends," that its sole full-time employee was his former and current council aide Jessica Lappin, and that he was "extremely influential" in the endorsement decisions it made.
Laufer, the former CFB counsel, went so far as to contend that Miller's participation in the PAC's decision-making was "exactly the same as any other member without authority or positionan effort of advocacy, not an exercise of authority." Arguing that it would be an "astounding leap" to conclude that Miller ran the organization, Laufer said Miller "may or may not choose to play an active role in helping it meet its objectives."
Miller now freely concedes that he "helped create" the PAC, that its executive board consists almost exclusively of his "friends," that its sole full-time employee was his former and current council aide Jessica Lappin, and that he was "extremely influential" in the endorsement decisions it made. "It supported all the same candidates I supported," Miller told the Voice. "I raised all the money." Robert Hammond, the group's treasurer, is a college friend of Miller's who says he's known him for 12 or 13 years and, like others on the executive board, has no other involvement in politics.
Prompted by the Miller/Laufer letters, the CFB issued an opinion last May that took no definitive position about Council 2001, but suggested that if Miller decided to participate, that might "trigger an inquiry" into "whether activities of the political committee should properly be attributed" to Miller. In a footnote, the CFB revealed that it had learned independently that some of the PAC's executive committee members "are or appear to have been staff members of various elected officials, including Mr. Miller."
The CFB noted that neither Miller's nor Laufer's letter "alluded to this set of circumstances," though an "employer-employee relationship would likely lead to a conclusion that those staff members do operate on behalf of the candidate and that therefore the activities of the committee should properly be attributed" to Miller. The opinion was referring to Lappin, who left Miller's council payroll to go on the PAC's. Less than two weeks after the issuance of this opinion, which was consistent with 1999 and 2000 CFB rulings about Vallone's PAC, Miller opted out of the system.
Miller prefers to attribute his decision not to participate to his belief that he had no opponenta claim his press aide says he made in a New York Times editorial board interview last year. But the Republican-Liberal nominee in his district, James Lesczynski, filed registrations to run with the Board of Elections on February 9 and with the CFB on March 28. Miller insists he was still unaware of both filings by the June deadline. Asked why he wouldn't register with the CFB anywayjust in case an opponent emergedMiller said it "seemed like a stupid idea to opt in when it was unnecessary."
In fact, however, Council 2001 had already raised thousands of dollars outside the CFB limits prior to Miller's request for the agency's advisory opinion, and prior to the opt-in deadline. It would have had to return those donations had Miller joined the program and had the CFB ruled that Council 2001 was also a covered organization. Asked why Council 2001 didn't just voluntarily abide by CFB limits even though he and the PAC weren't participating in the system, Miller said that it instead set a $5000 ceiling on donations. While far less than any PAC maximum permissible under state law, this self-imposed cap is still twice the CFB limit. Miller correctly pointed out that his own individual re-election committee did abide by CFB limits, taking no corporate or over-the-limit donations. But 72 of the 123 donors to Miller's personal committee also gave to Council 2001, suggesting that contributors willing to give more than the max were simply told to give it to the PAC.
Not surprisingly, several council candidates backed by the PAC (13 of whom lost) confirmed Miller's technical separation from it, but conceded in a variety of ways that they thought he was strongly connected to the committee. Gale Brewer, the new West Side councilwoman who got $2000 from Council 2001, said that "it was always my impression that its purpose was to elect Miller speaker," adding that "there was a fuzzy line" drawn between it and Miller to keep it separate.
James Van Bramer, a Queens candidate who lost, described a PAC interview that did not include Miller, but said that he knew the councilman "was an active and influential member." Acknowledging that in addition to the PAC interview he also had a private conversation with Miller, he said he could not remember whether the $2000 he received preceded or followed the Miller talk. PAC treasurer Hammond said he and "everybody" on the executive committee frequently "talked to Gifford" about endorsements, but that he "didn't play an official role."
As speaker, Miller will exercise great influence over the CFB, with two appointees on its five-member board and his consent required on the appointment of the chair. In his last days in office, Giuliani vetoed a council bill that the CFB opposed. The bill, which would allow candidates with outstanding debts to circumvent contribution limits, may come up again in the council. Due to Bloomberg's record-shattering campaign expenditures outside the system, efforts to reform it may also come before Miller's council. His record raises doubts about whether Miller will be as supportive of the system as Vallone, who was presented with the same choice as Miller and decided to bring both his individual re-election committee and his PAC under compliance with CFB rules.
Research assistance by: Peter Bailey, Sam Dolnick, Martine Guerrier, and Jeffrey Herman
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.