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Pay to Play

Seven possible contribution violations highlight what is broken about campaign finance in New York—and why

Members of four nonprofits gath-ered Monday morning in the Legislative Building in Albany to present to the New York State Board of Elections what appears to be further proof that the system used to oversee campaign funding in the state is broken.

“We join together today to call for an investigation by the New York State Board of Elections into several possible violations of campaign-contribution limits,” said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause New York.

Common Cause has identified seven separate apparent contribution violations, totaling $30,719, committed by six different PACs and three different party committees over the past six years. The largest violation of the $84,400 contribution limit—$15,600—was committed by the Realtors PAC in 2006 when it gave two $50,000 checks to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

The investigation into contribution violations began, said John Stouffer, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter legislative director, simply to find out why the Senate had been reticent to advance certain environmental agenda.

“Particularly on issues that were related to development, like protection of wetlands or providing municipalities with assistance to do planning to protect open space,” he said. “Those issues were buried deep in the Senate, despite the fact that senators were telling us that they were supporting in numbers that were more than enough to pass the legislation.”

The bill Stouffer is referring to would have lowered the size threshold for state regulation of wetlands. Currently, a wetlands area needs to be larger than 12 football fields in size in order to be protected. By reducing the size threshold, the bill would have expanded the state’s ability to protect these environmentally vital lands. Realtors, Stouffer said, didn’t like it. “They seem to want to destroy as many wetlands as they can without any oversight.”

When the bill moved from the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee to the floor, the Realtors PAC, having already donated $50,000 to the Senate Republicans, wrote another $50,000 check to the SRCC, Stouffer said, “and the wetlands bill was consigned to the dustbin in the Senate. Whether or not it was the $50,000 that did it, we can’t say. But certainly, it didn’t hurt the real-estate interest’s cause.”

The timing of the donation definitely looked suspicious, he said. Especially when you consider the Realtors PAC’s donation history.

“Looking back over the years, they [Realtors PAC] were regularly writing $50,000 checks,” Stouffer said. “One $50,000 check a year to the Senate Republicans. One $50,000 check to the Assembly Democrats.” In 2006, however, the PAC broke with that tradition and instead wrote the two checks just for the Senate Republicans.

“This is really, in a way, two different and sordid tales,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for New York Public Interest Research Group. “One is about how sky-high contribution limits allow powerful special interests to funnel money to legislators that they favor. Now that is an old story, but $84,000 campaign-contribution limits are not really limits—they are a kind of goal. That’s the kind of money they are trying to raise.”

“The second story,” he continued, “is one about enforcement of the law. As riddled with loopholes as the current system is, you would hope that the BOE, our public servants that are supposed to enforce the law, are doing that. But it takes, apparently, research by outside groups to find problems with the campaign-finance system,” he said, gesturing to the members of Common Cause.

Liam Arbetman, research associate at Common Cause, did much of the primary investigation that went into Monday’s presentation. He said that he was shocked when he discovered the violations, “primarily because there are so many avenues to give way more than that. I found it hard to believe that they had actually done this.”

“There are a number of different ways they could have given this money to support the Senate Republicans without violating the law,” Arbetman said. In the past, if a political party had received a donation that put them over the limit, they would direct a portion of that check to their hard-money committee and put the remainder of the check into the soft-money committee.

“There are a million things they could do,” Horner agreed. “They could give the money to a county committee and have it get transferred up. It is a giant shell game. The reason this kind of stuff happens is because no one is watching. What would be the speed limit on the highway if there were no speed traps? Since no one is watching, everyone is careless. And these are PACs. They aren’t just run-of-the-mill donors. They know how the rules work.”

“The New York system, for the person who is educated,” he continued, “is you can give as much as you want, and if you get caught, you won’t be punished. That’s a pretty good system, from a donor’s point of view.”

Barbara Bartoletti, Legislative director New York State League of Women Voters, said she wants to see New York’s system overhauled.

“I think this is just one of the latest symptoms of a disease we have ongoing here in New York State called ‘campaign finance lax law syndrome,’ ” she joked. “It has been going on for a number of years. . . .You can look at all of the dysfunction we have here in Albany and find that this is yet one more reason why we need to reform our campaign-finance laws.”

“You don’t have to look at other states, you can look at New York City” to find examples of effective watchdogs, Leon added. “We have a system of public financing and a campaign-finance board that actually enforces the law, that has fined every incumbent mayor until Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, who doesn’t opt in to the system. We have seen what real enforcement can look like.”

Common Cause delivered a letter to BOE, detailing the list of alleged campaign-contribution violations they uncovered. This list is available at www.commoncause.org/ny.

BOE did not comment for this article.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


What a Week

We Have a Right to Know

New York’s top two legislators have to come clean on whose names are attached to member items, a state Supreme Court justice ruled Tuesday. The lawsuit, brought by the Hearst Corp.-owned Times Union, was spurred by the refusal of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to fully comply with the paper’s request for information regarding the commonly used member item. These pork-barrel “items” account for $200 million of discretionary funds, drawn from the state’s budget, that are available to legislators and the governor to spend on practically whatever project they want.

Ditto, From Iraq

The provocateurs over at the blog Wonkette get letters. This week they got a letter from a Marine stationed in Al Taqaddam, Iraq. Although this guy surely has a lot of other things to worry about, he wrote in to tell Wonkette that the military had banned access to their site, as well as many other left-leaning blogs on the Internet. He wrote: “As I said, it was not only your website, I have gone through lists of liberal sites and most of them are blocked. I’ve also taken the time to go to some conservative sites . . . none of which are blocked. They have sent me to this desert three times . . . each time saying that we are defending freedom. . . . And on top of that they have taken away many of the freedoms that we are supposedly fighting for.”

What We’ve Come to Expect

You can always rely on Rush Limbaugh to take the conversation to a new low, and this week, he set a new record. Limbaugh accused the actor Michael J. Fox, who is stricken with Parkinson’s disease, of being “either off his medication or acting” during Fox’s television spots supporting Democratic candidates who favor stem-cell research. “He’s moving all around and shaking and it’s purely an act,” said Limbaugh. According to experts, Limbaugh simply has no grasp on the effects of long-term Parkinson’s disease.



Not Subject to Debate

Howie Hawkins says the real issues in the race for U.S. Senate are obscured by celebrity and gossip

“What is this gonna be, the Oprah version of the debate?” asked Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, after hearing a clip from the debate between front-runner Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John Spencer, a debate he and a number of third-party candidates were left out of.

“There was no substance!” said Hawkins.

According to him, New York voters were done a disservice this week by the debates between Clinton and Spencer. Not only were the debates held at times that would garner the least viewership, he said, but their content was merely a distraction to disguise exactly how similar Clinton and Spencer are.

“There was a headline on 1010 WINS, ‘Clinton and Spencer Debate,’ ” said Hawkins, “and then there was a sound bite from Hillary Clinton, ‘I love my life,’ and that was it.”

This past Tuesday, Hawkins came together with two other Senate candidates, Libertarian Jeffrey T. Russell and Socialist Equality Party candidate Bill Van Auken, at the Legislative Office Building in Albany to discuss their exclusion from the debates and the issues they thought should have dominated them.

Van Auken offered to answer the questions that were the center of the debate: “I can’t really say whether I’m going to run for president in 2008, and yes,” he joked, “I’m happy with my life.”

“Hillary was asked if she’s going to run for president,” said Hawkins, “and she responds, ‘Voters can take that into account. I’m running on my record.’ Bringing that issue of whether she is running for president into the Senate debate . . . that helps her avoid Iraq and avoids the health-care crisis; it avoids all the issues.”

So what’s the important issue for New York voters? According to all three candidates who gathered on Tuesday, it’s the war in Iraq.

“The war is the issue,” said Hawkins. “People want to get out of Iraq. There was a CNN poll out last week that said 64 percent oppose war in Iraq now, and that’s higher than anything we had in Vietnam.” Hawkins insisted that this is part of the reason he was left out of the debates, because Clinton doesn’t want to talk about Iraq. As he pointed out, she voted for—and still supports—the war.

“Senator Clinton avoided giving a straight answer on the question,” said Russell. “How does she want to solve the problem? Does she want to withdraw troops from Iraq? Maintain troop levels? In her position as senator, she must have some idea what she wants to do about the situation. I say we should withdraw troops from Iraq as quickly as possible without endangering them.”

Hawkins said that thanks to Clinton’s celebrity and her unwillingness to talk about her positions, many New Yorkers may simply assume that because she is a Democrat, she stands where they want her to. Hawkins noted that right-wing pundits have done her a favor by painting her as the face of liberals because it allows her to get away with much more conservative positions.

“I remember hearing Howard Dean being asked by Chris Matthews on Hardball, ‘Are you going to make the war in Iraq an issue?’ Dean replied, ‘No, we’re going to make corruption an issue.’ The words are hardly out of his mouth and this guy [Democratic Rep. William J.] Jefferson gets caught with $100,000 in is his freezer. I said, ‘Wow, you are playing with fire,’ because there are a lot of corrupt Democrats, not just Republicans. So she doesn’t want to make the war an issue because they want those military-complex contributions.”

“What happened,” said Van Auken, “is those who offered a genuine alternative were excluded from the debates. Anyone who looks at what is happening in America today knows there is a hunger for an alternative. Congress has an approval rate of 18 percent. And yet anyone who is not a Democrat or Republican is viewed as, by definition, as not worthy of coverage, not a serious candidate. I would say Democrats and Republicans are not serious candidates. More than half of the public stay away from the polls that are dominated by them.”

One of the most disheartening things for Hawkins is that even if he had been part of the debates, he said, they were designed to make sure they received as small an audience as possible.

“Having been through this many times,” he said, “I know that it is the incumbent, the big personality, that dictates the terms of the debates. The broadcast media won’t show if the big personality does not show. So she was able to dictate the terms, and we end up with the debate Friday night . . . at a time when the only people watching were people who didn’t have a date.”

Yet Hawkins said he still sees hope. Hope in Gallup poll numbers that over the years have shown an increasing number of Americans want an established alternative to the two main parties. “I want our troops out of Iraq, I stand for universal health care,” said Hawkins. “If the election was held today and we voted on the issues, I would be the next senator from New York state.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


A Symbol in Limbo

ACLU lawsuit highlights nearly a decade of First Amendment violations against Wiccan veterans

The Correllian Nativist Church, which is headquartered in Albany, is among two churches and three individuals hoping that a federal lawsuit filed last month in their names finally will answer a question that was first posed to the Department of Veterans Affairs more than nine years ago.

By refusing to act upon—neither approving nor denying—several requests for the pentacle (five-pointed star) to be included on the VA’s pre-approved list of emblems that can be engraved on government-issued gravestones, the petition alleges that the federal government continues to unconstitutionally violate the rights of Wiccan veterans.

“I think this is an issue that, whether one is Wiccan or not, is very important because it demonstrates that such forms of discrimination can and do exist within our federal government—in direct contradiction to our Bill of Rights,” said Davron Michaels, archpriest of the Correllian Nativist Church, which has members throughout the world. “We’re fairly outraged that such things occur in this day and age.”

The VA, through its National Cemetery Administration, provides free-of-charge government headstones or grave markers to eligible veterans. Applicants have several options for personalizing the stone. They may opt to include information about the veteran’s rank, war service, awards, and more. The applicant also may request an engraving of the veteran’s emblem of belief, but only if it is one of the VA’s 38 approved symbols, of which the Wiccan pentacle is not included.

“The VA does seem to be alone on this one,” said Daniel Mach, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on behalf of the five petitioning parties. “Wiccan service members are permitted to put their religion on their dog tags, the military chaplains’ handbooks have sections devoted to Wicca, and Wiccans practice on U.S. military bases worldwide.”

Although the VA has refused, since 1997, to answer requests for the pentacle to be included on the list of approved symbols, the VA okayed nine other emblems since 2002.

Included on the 38-item-long list are symbols representing the five major religions—there are 18 representing different denominations of Christianity alone—as well as emblems for less-popular traditions such as the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, the Konko-Kyo Faith and the Christian Scientist church. Even a symbol for atheism is permitted.

“This seems to be a clear constitutional and statutory violation,” Mach said. “The VA has pursued a course of selectively honoring the faiths of some veterans to the exclusion of others, and there’s no conceivable legal justification for it.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on Sept. 29, identified violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act became federal law in 1993. It was designed as an extension of the First Amendment and a means by which to “foster religious liberty,” Mach said. The law specifies that the government can “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion only if it can demonstrate a “compelling government interest.”

The ACLU didn’t become involved with the controversy until several of the petitioners approached the organization for legal assistance.

According to the lawsuit, the circumstances of the case date back to at least August 1997, when Pete Davis, archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church based in Index, Wash., first requested that the pentacle be included on the VA’s emblem list.

Correllian Nativist Church didn’t become involved until late 2004 after some of its members requested that the church explore the issue on their behalf, Michaels said. In January 2005, Michaels submitted a separate request that the VA adopt the Wiccan symbol, even though he said he was aware of the fact that other churches sent similar petitions.

“My naïve impression was that some of these groups, not being well-organized, perhaps didn’t necessarily follow all the rules to a T or something,” he said, “because I found it utterly inconceivable that in this day and age the federal government would discriminate against any group on the basis of religion.”

Michaels said it took nine months, and repeated phone calls, before the VA responded to his request. He was told that his request was pending until the VA finished reviewing its rules for admitting new symbols.

“We currently are going through a rule-making process,” explained Don Murphy, chief of operations for memorial programs service, a division of the National Cemetery Administration. “Once that rule-making process is complete, then we’ll have our regulations in place, and we’ll be able to furnish them to the public.”

According to the lawsuit, the VA is beginning to sound like a broken record, issuing that response to several petitioners over the years.

Murphy said he didn’t know how long the rule-making process has been going on or when to expect it to be completed. In the meantime, he said requests for additional emblems cannot be processed and must be placed on the back burner until the formal procedures are decided.

“One could blame this on really bad bureaucracy,” Michaels said, “had there not been other symbols approved in the meantime.”

As for those other nine symbols that were approved since 2002, Murphy said they were approved using the criteria of an informal procedure that had previously been in place but has since been suspended.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, the policy Murphy referred to is Directive 3310. It was adopted by the VA in May 2001, unbeknownst to Davis. Murphy said this informal policy was later suspended when the VA was advised to establish a formal procedure.

The ACLU petition requests that the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims order the VA to process the petitioners’ applications within a specified period of time. As an alternative remedy, the petition also suggests that the court could rule that the VA must approve these requests.

The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ordered Oct. 18 that the VA must respond to the petitioner’s allegations within 30 days, before any further action will be taken.

“The VA has been stonewalling for nine years now,” Mach said. “By sitting on these applications for almost a decade, the VA has indirectly accomplished what it couldn’t lawfully achieve directly, namely the unjustified denial of the applications.”

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net




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