Money trail goes cold in 'loophole'

Justice W. Gerard Asher in Riverhead ruled that

Justice W. Gerard Asher in Riverhead ruled that Oyster Bay had not acted capriciously in selling its public works complex to Oyster Bay Realty LLC for $32.5 million rather than to Taubman Centers Inc., which has tried to build the mall on the adjacent former Cerro Wire site for 18 years. (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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An oddball twist in New York's election law has hidden from public view all the private campaign financing behind last week's high-stakes land-sale referendum in the Town of Oyster Bay.

According to state election board spokesman Thomas Connolly, those who spend money to support or oppose a ballot proposition in a town or village -- other than in November elections -- aren't required to disclose their activities.

"This is yet another loophole that obfuscates the influence of well-funded interest groups," remarked Bill Mahoney, research coordinator of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

One operative guessed that the electoral fight over sale of the town's public works property to Oyster Bay Realty LLC may have cost the competing sides in seven figures. But there's no way to independently verify the costs incurred before voters approved the sale, 2-1, on Tuesday, with a turnout around 12 percent.

What seems especially out-of-whack is that Oyster Bay has more than 293,000 residents -- more than 43 of the state's 62 counties, where disclosure would have been required.

In August 2011, supporters and opponents of a Nassau Coliseum deal, rejected in a countywide ballot, created political committees as required and disclosed close to $600,000 in expenses.

In the Oyster Bay battle, neither side was willing to voluntarily reveal expenses for broadcast ads, mailings or canvassing.

Disclosure issues aside, Mercury Public Affairs, which represented Oyster Bay Realty and the allied Simon Property Group, came out a clear winner among political consultants.

Mercury's Michael McKeon is a one-time aide to ex-Gov. George Pataki and director of Republicans for [Andrew] Cuomo. He worked the final stretch with the firm's Tom Doherty, also an ex-Pataki aide, who's been involved before in Westchester politics.

On the losing side was a firm headed by Bradley Tusk -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2009 campaign manager -- and his associate Menashe Shapiro, who was senior adviser to Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan's 2010 campaign for attorney general.

Mall developer Taubman Centers, seeking to block the sale, also hired Marathon Strategies, whose Kyle Sklerov works with Phil Singer, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. Other New York City-based firms were said to be involved in the Taubman effort as well.