Brookhaven's Tim Mazzei should return the money to donors

A month before getting a Republican County Court A month before getting a Republican County Court nomination in Suffolk, Brookhaven Town board member Tim Mazzei gave $34,500 to the town GOP -- and Democrats say he should return the money to donors of past campaigns. Photo Credit: Newsday/David Pokress

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

There's not much incentive for Brookhaven Town board member Tim Mazzei to pull back a $34,500 donation he made to the town GOP -- one month before Republicans nominated him for a County Court judgeship.

For one, Mazzei -- as happens far too much on Long Island these days because of cross endorsements -- has no opponent in his race.

He's running as a Republican. And a Democrat.

And Mazzei has the support of Suffolk Republican chairman Jesse Garcia, who points out, correctly, that Mazzei broke no law in giving the money to fellow town Republicans.

But here's the rub.

Mazzei's contribution from his unspent campaign fund to the town GOP seems to be unusually large.

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And the timing of the gift seems to be unusually fortuitous.

Because if Mazzei had waited until the nomination, moving the money to the town GOP would have been a violation of state judicial rules.

Rich Schaffer, Suffolk's Democratic chairman, said Monday that he intended to talk to Mazzei about the gift.

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And that he, as he said in a Newsday report Monday, intended to ask Mazzei to honor the spirit of the state judicial rules by returning that money to donors who had contributed to Mazzei's run for nonjudicial offices.

"You just don't see large contributions like that," Schaffer said. "It was odd."

He said he wanted to give Mazzei the benefit of the doubt, saying that Mazzei perhaps was not familiar with the spirit of the state's judicial rules.

In opinions dating back to 1992, according to the Newsday report by Rick Brand, the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics has said that unspent campaign funds "may not be used in present campaigns for judicial office, for general party use or for the campaigns of candidates sharing the ballot, but must be returned to donors on a pro rata basis."

Mazzei managed to squeeze past the rules by giving the donation -- which likely will go for "general party use" and for "the campaigns of candidates sharing the ballot" -- weeks before he would, as a judicial candidate, be subject to them.

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It was only two years ago, that a Democrat, former Brookhaven Highway Superintendent John Rouse, was barred from gifting any of his $300,000 in unspent campaign funds after he was nominated for County Court judge. Rouse was cross endorsed by Republicans and Democrats, with Garcia and Schaffer as party leaders -- which makes county leadership in both parties well aware of judicial ethics rules.

Mazzei did not return a call for comment yesterday.

But he would do well to take Schaffer's advice and return the money to donors.

There's no way, at this point, for Schaffer to remove Mazzei from the Democratic line in November's election.

But he could recommend that Democrats not vote for Mazzei on that line.

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"I haven't really thought much about what could be done because I want to have a conversation with him," Schaffer said. "I think he's a good guy who probably wasn't aware."

So what comes next will be determined by Mazzei's decision.

Again, he's done nothing wrong. But the large amount, and close timing, of the gift at best looks bad -- and at worst further solidifies the notion that money matters most in elections.

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