By Adam Schwartzman
Five prominent New York politicians have dipped into their campaign funds to pay for nearly $3 million in legal expenses associated with investigations of their possible misconduct, a Voice examination of campaign disclosure reports has revealed. While it’s unclear if that level of expenditure is a record, good-government groups are increasingly concerned about the frequency of elected officials using funds from campaign donors to pay instead for costs connected to their alleged abuses of public office.
One of the most notable examples of this campaign fund abuse is Joe Bruno, the ex-state Senate majority leader indicted in 2009 on eight counts of corruption and convicted on two.
Bruno’s campaign-finance disclosure reports reveal an exorbitant amount of spending on legal fees, including $836,828.74 to international law firm McDermott Will and Emery, where Bruno’s lawyer Abbe D. Lowell is a partner. Bruno’s legal expenses total over $1 million, the majority of which was spent after Bruno was out of office and had dropped any bids for reelection.
Bruno can’t be the only one pinned for exploitation of campaign funds. His colleague Hiram Monserrate, recently convicted of a third-degree assault misdemeanor after a vicious fight with his girlfriend, paid nearly $30,000 to Brooklyn law firm Stoll, Glickman and Bellina from July 2006 to May 2009. He spent another $35,000 in 2010 when he hired McLaughlin and Stern, presumably in his lawsuit against the State Senate after his February 9, 2010, expulsion.
Another predictable player in this campaign contribution game is Alan Hevesi, the ex-state comptroller, who pled guilty to using a state employee as a chauffeur for his wife for over three and a half years. Hevesi, who eventually paid the state over $200,000 in restitution and took full responsibility for his actions, apparently found no ethical dilemma in spending $450,000 of campaign money in November 2006 to hire law firm Stroock and Stroock and Lavan. Hevesi was quoted as saying, “I’m human…I’m a good comptroller who did a dumb thing.”
The list continues with Charlie Rangel, the New York member of the House of Representatives recently charged by the House Ethics Committee with 13 counts of violating House rules and federal laws. He has spent over $200,000 this year alone on legal fees.
Finally, the biggest hitter on this laundry list is, unsurprisingly, Governor David Patterson, whose term has been marked with controversy. Paterson, who was recently cleared of any criminal activity in a witness-tampering scandal, has also denied any wrongdoing in relation to a perjury accusation and a quid pro quo scandal regarding the Aqueduct Race Track contracts.
Paterson has spent large amounts of campaign money on legal defense. For starters, Dave spent $24,000 hiring Jay Zeiler, a commercial litigator from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld from June 2009 to January 2010. However, the real irony in Paterson’s case is that the large majority of his spending came after his February 26 announcement that he was dropping his bid for reelection; he spent $700,000 hiring Manhattan law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison in two installments during a 10-day span in May 2010. He spent a further $166,720.42 hiring public relations firm Sard Verbinnen and Co., whose website specifically cites its specialty as “crisis communications counsel,” from March to June 2010 — all after he had established the fact that he would not be running for another term. Both firms were used by Paterson’s predecessor, the now infamous Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer, however, paid out of his own pocket.
According to New York State Board of Elections Director of Public Information John Conklin, candidates can cite paragraph 14-130 of the State of New York 2010 Election Laws to legally justify various expenses unrelated to campaigns. The two-sentence paragraph, vague at best, states that “[contributions] shall not be converted by any person to a personal use which is unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.” As to the ethical implications of spending campaign contributions on fallout from abuses of office, Conklin declined to comment.