ALBANY — New York's rules for campaign funds are so loose that the money can be tapped by people long removed from the campaign trail — even those convicted of corrupt acts, critics say.
Take the case of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, once one of New York's most powerful elected officials. He is barred from holding any public office due to being convicted this month of felony corruption charges.
Still, under New York law, his campaign finance account remains alive in zombie-like fashion, due to legal loopholes that allow politicians to continue to access their war chests even when their careers are politically dead.
Through a state-registered campaign fund called SpeakerPAC, Silver has access to a balance of $428,764, according to state records first noted by Crain's New York, a business news publication. That is more than four times the $92,000 in the campaign account of Silver's replacement as the leader of the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
Despite Silver's conviction and a laundry list of other scandals enmeshing state lawmakers, little has been done to shut ethics loopholes or restrict the personal use of funds whose fundamental purpose is to help candidates with the cost of campaigns.
"Ethics reform is unfortunately one of Albany's blind spots,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), who has authored legislation that would bar office holders from using their campaign funds to pay for legal expenses arising from criminal or civil litigation.
Hoylman lamented that one of the only significant ethics measures to be enacted in recent years was one that stops public pensions to elected officials found guilty of misdeeds while in office. It took New York voters to get that enacted through a ballot question, he pointed out. And the new law does nothing to hold up pension payments to Silver and another former official convicted of corruption, Dean Skelos, who once led the state Senate.
'ONLY GOTTEN WORSE'
Silver, who had been elected by his colleagues as Assembly speaker 11 times, hasn't been in office since November 2015. That's when he was expelled from the Legislature when a jury found him guilty on seven charges. He would later be sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $5.3 million in restitution. But the sentence was never carried out because the convictions were set aside in July 2017. However, Silver was convicted on the same charges again this month.
Good-government watchdogs are urging lawmakers to clamp new restrictions on the use of campaign funds. They argue the intent of donors was to have the money cover expenses related to the cost of running for office — not for the personal use of politicians, and not run like a slush fund for former politicians with no hope of ever returning to public office.
Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, contended that New York should follow the lead of several states that require that campaign funds be liquidated within a specified period after an office holder returns to private life.
He noted that, 30 years ago, a state investigations panel known as the Moreland Commission, set up by then Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, released a report describing New York's campaign finance system as "a disgrace."
"It's only gotten worse since then," Horner said.
One of the more recent payments made by Silver's fund was a sum of $10,000 that went to a New York City law firm, Kantor Davidoff. Crain's reported that one of Kantor Davidoff's lawyers had recently made favorable statements about Silver to a real estate news publication and contended Silver had not engaged in wrongful acts.
Silver, 74, is slated to be sentenced July 13.
PROPOSAL BOTTLED UP
Meanwhile, Hoylman's proposal to clamp restrictions on the use of campaign funds is bottled up in the Senate Elections Committee.
New York does require that campaign funds be dissolved within two years of the death of the elected official or candidate who set up the fund.
The State Board of Elections has determined that campaign funds cannot be used to pay criminal fines or penalties assessed by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics or the Legislative Ethics Commission. However, campaign funds can be used to pay legal defense fees if the criminal matter is connected to seeking or holding public office or a party position.
A national watchdog group, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, is urging the Federal Elections Commission to create new limitations on what former politicians who are no longer involved in campaigns can do with their funds.
The FEC recently announced that it will begin reviewing the campaign committees of federal office seekers who are no longer active on the campaign trail. However, any rules the federal agency crafts would not apply to those seeking state offices. In New York, such efforts would have to stem from state lawmakers in Albany, according to state officials.
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