Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Brookhaven's Democratic highway superintendent, John Rouse, may be running on the Republican line for Suffolk County Court this fall, but he cannot use his campaign war chest of nearly $300,000 in the judicial campaign or turn the money over to his newfound GOP backers.
The use of that money is restricted by a series of rulings from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics dating to 1992.
The panel said, "unexpended campaign funds from prior nonjudicial campaigns may not be used for a present campaign for judicial office, for general party use nor for the campaigns of candidates sharing the ballot, but must be returned to donors on a pro-rata basis."
In a highly unusual move, Rouse was nominated by Republicans late last month for Suffolk County Court judge, a post with a 10-year term. Rouse, who long has sought the judgeship, also has the backing of the Independence and Conservative parties.
But if Republicans had thoughts of getting access to Rouse's leftover campaign funds, they will have to think again. As of January, the town GOP had just more than $20,000 in its coffers.
"If a candidate ignores ethics opinion, they do so at their own peril," said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration. Court experts say ignoring the rules could make lawyers subject to disciplinary action, while judges could be subject to scrutiny by the commission on judicial ethics.
Rouse, Brookhaven highway superintendent since 2001, had $289,951 in his campaign coffers as of January. He is in charge of a $71 million-a-year department that oversees 2,100 miles of roads and doles out contracts for roadwork, snowplowing, paving supplies and heavy equipment, including trucks and backhoes.
Brookhaven GOP chairman Jesse Garcia, Rouse and his campaign treasurer Terry Karl did not return calls for comment Friday about what Rouse plans to do with his war chest.
But Republican officials have made no secret about their reason for backing Rouse for judge: They want the chance to win back the town's top highway job and the patronage it can bestow. Before Rouse, Brookhaven Republicans held the post for 34 years under former Superintendent Harold Malkmes, who won election 17 times.
Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said he met Thursday with Rouse, town Democratic leader Marc Alessi and Democratic Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko. Alessi and Lesko want Democrats to back Rouse for judge.
Schaffer said he would consult party officials over the weekend and give Rouse a decision by Monday.
Lesko said he would raise with other town board members the prospect of seeking a referendum to create an appointed public works commissioner to replace the elected highway superintendent.
Schaffer said he also plans to reach out to past Rouse donors once the highway superintendent empties his coffers by making refunds.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to solicit all these donors to give to Brookhaven Democrats," Schaffer said.