The New York City Campaign Finance Board harshly criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s use of an outside fundraising group yesterday, suggesting that though the Campaign for One New York hadn’t technically broken the law, they essentially flouted the city’s campaign-spending regulations.
Staffed by personnel closely linked to the mayor, the group essentially functioned as a de Blasio surrogate — backing the mayor’s push for universal pre-K after his election in 2013, airing ads supporting his proposal, and raising huge sums from donors — all while operating outside the traditional campaign-finance regulatory system.
“The fundraising conducted by the Campaign for One New York plainly raises serious policy and perception issues,” the board said in a statement. “More than 95 percent of the funds it received would have been prohibited under the laws that apply to candidates for office — including contributions from corporations, limited liability companies, and people doing business with the city. Most contributions exceeded the limit applicable to candidates, and at least a dozen were as large as $100,000.”
As the New York Times points out, among others, the group pulled in $100,000 from Two Trees Management, a real estate developer that won the right to redevelop the Domino Sugar Factory. Unions like the SEIU also kicked in in excess of a million dollars.
Donations like this would normally be strictly curtailed or even, in the case of Two Trees, a business with a financial relationship with the city, outright prohibited under normal fundraising rules. The organization was hastily shuttered earlier this year as scrutiny of its behavior mounted. Mayor de Blasio never acknowledged its questionable methods, but maintained that the group had simply reached the end of its natural life cycle. “The work is done,” he told reporters in March, according to the Times. “That’s the bottom line.”
The probe of Campaign for One New York has been one thread in the multiple, parallel investigations parsing de Blasio’s fundraising habits, and roiling his first term. Federal investigators are scrutinizing his practice of funneling large sums of money through obscure upstate finance committees, state regulators are reportedly looking into the sale of a hospice center to a real estate developer, and his NYPD has seen several high-profile resignations and related criminal charges connected to alleged bribery.
The Board’s probe of the Campaign for One New York began when Common Cause New York, a good-government organization that advocates for stricter fundraising laws, filed a complaint charging that their activities amounted to an end run around donor limits.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, told the Voice she was pleased that the board’s recent actions made clear just how problematic the nonprofit’s activities had been.
“The campaign-finance board took a conservative interpretation of the law, which is not surprising or unusual for a regulatory and enforcement agency,” Lerner told the Voice. “We would have preferred a more expansive interpretation. But I think the important thing is that the board pointed out the real problems with the Campaign for one New York.”
The CFB’s decision turned on the narrow question of whether the Campaign for One New York’s activities were directly related to de Blasio’s reelection. Because the group’s main expenditures came in 2014, after de Blasio took office, but well in advance of the 2017 election, the board decided that its activities didn’t quite amount to campaign spending. In an advisory opinion also issued yesterday, however, the board said that their decision would have been different if the expenditures had come after January 1 of an election year. That opinion signaled that the January 1 deadline would be the new benchmark going forward.
Lerner said the January 1 test is one valid interpretation of the law, if a conservative one, but that there were other ways to determine when a campaign had begun. Her organization would prefer to see the board — or the city council — adopt a more stringent standard, for example, prohibiting expenditures from candidate linked nonprofits after that candidate had opened a campaign committee, which, in an era of permanent campaigning, could happen far more than a year before voters cast their ballots.
“The Campaign for One New York was formed to advocate for New York City’s progressive policy agenda,” Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for the organization, said in a statement to the Times. “It never engaged in any election campaign activity for any candidate and shut down more than a year and a half before next year’s election.”