News Coverage on Campaign Finance
The Capitol, cash and CuomoBill Hammond
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
When it comes to cleaning up Albany’s fund-raising swamp, Gov. Cuomo’s lips say, “Reform, reform, reform.”
But his political operation continues exploiting the system with gusto — taking advantage of loopholes and end runs that he has repeatedly argued for shutting down.
The latest disconnect between his rhetoric and behavior concerns his use of corporate jets made available by wealthy contributors — some of whom have a direct financial stake in Cuomo’s actions as governor.
As reported Monday by the Daily News’ Kenneth Lovett, Cuomo took freebie flights worth $145,000 in the past six months, jetting to fund-raising events in Puerto Rico, California, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York City and the Hudson Valley.
In at least one case, the governor’s campaign directly requested the use of a plane owned by billionaire John Catsimatidis.
Catsimatidis — a big-time donor to politicians of both parties — owns the Gristedes grocery store chain and a fuel refinery, companies that spent $76,000 lobbying in Albany last year.
They lobbied about collection of cigarette taxes by Cuomo’s Department of Taxation and Finance, and about sulfur emission standards set by Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
So when Cuomo’s fund-raising committee phoned him, Catsimatidis had every reason to take the call.
The campaign specifically requested the use of his plane, Catsimatidis told The News. “What do you say? You say yes.”
Cuomo ended up using Catsimatidis’ jet for two trips to Syracuse worth $20,228.
It’s hard to square that transaction with Cuomo’s promises of campaign finance reform.
“It is only through aggressive reform of the ‘pay to play’ practices in Albany,” Cuomo wrote in his 2010 campaign manifesto, “that we can remove the excessive influence that certain companies and individuals have over our elected representatives through campaign contributions and other payments.”
Another jet donor, real estate mogul Stephen Green, chipped in $59,843 worth of flights in 2011 — just below the $60,800 maximum donation to a statewide elected official. That same year, however, Green donated an additional $10,000 in cash through a separate “limited liability corporation” — taking full advantage of the so-called LLC loophole in New York’s campaign finance statute that Cuomo vowed to shut down.
True enough, all of this is perfectly legal under existing law. And Cuomo is using private jets in part to avoid scandals that embroiled past governors who used state-owned plans for political travel.
The fact remains that Cuomo is accepting enormously valuable favors from individuals who have business with the state, courtesy of a system he has rightly deplored as far too lax.
Also unseemly was his role at last month’s Democratic Governors Association fund-raising event in New York City. Donors who ponied up $50,000 could buy themselves a seat with Cuomo on what was billed as a panel discussion about infrastructure. (A source close to the governor says no such donor sat on the panel.)
Cuomo explained that the group operates under federal laws that he doesn’t control. But it was his name, reputation and clout that was on the auction block.
And then there’s Cuomo’s wink-and-nod arrangement with the Committee to Save New York, a business-oriented group that spent almost $12 million last year on a series of TV and radio ads promoting Cuomo and his reform agenda.
The group is fighting fire with fire — counterbalancing the anti-Cuomo advertising from unions and other deep-pocketed special interests that benefit from Albany’s sick status quo.
But the committee defines itself as a lobbying group instead of a political action committee, meaning it has not yet been forced to reveal its financial backers. In effect, Cuomo’s agenda has been getting millions of dollars worth of advertising support from anonymous donors — something never before seen in New York politics.
That will change later this year, when a Cuomo-backed law will compel all lobbying outfits to disclose where they get their money.
That’s a step in the right direction. And if Cuomo wants to build credibility as a campaign-finance crusader, he’ll do more walking to go with his talking.