A super PAC run by Suffolk County police unions has built a multimillion-dollar campaign operation, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to help elect local candidates and boost its clout on law enforcement issues.
Funded with $1-a-day mandatory fees from approximately 2,500 police department members, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation regularly outspent candidates it targeted for defeat in recent elections, sometimes doubling or quadrupling what the candidates themselves raised, a Newsday analysis of campaign finance records shows.
The rise of the police super PAC, which can spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates, has come as police unions negotiated contracts that made them among the highest paid law enforcement officers in the nation.
The police unions also successfully opposed calls to increase oversight by the Suffolk County Legislature after the former Chief of Department James Burke pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges.
Led by Noel DiGerolamo, president of Suffolk’s largest police union, the foundation has expanded to include detectives, probation officers, district attorney investigators, supervisors and village police department members in Northport, Ocean Beach and Amityville. It collects more than $900,000 a year from members.
The foundation has spent a total of more than $2.8 million on local Suffolk races including for county legislature and Riverhead Town supervisor. Last year, the super PAC spent $802,000, it’s highest annual amount ever. Spending was $547,000 in the super PAC’s first year of operation in 2011; $111,000 in 2012; $747,000 in 2013 and $618,000 in 2014, state records show.
Super PACs, technically known as independent expenditure-only committees, emerged nationwide in 2010 after federal court decisions in the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org cases.
The courts ruled against bans on corporations and labor unions raising unlimited funds to air political messages. Super PACs may raise unlimited amounts and spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against political candidates, according to the bipartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs cannot donate money directly to political candidates, and they cannot coordinate their spending with candidates they benefit.
Contributions by traditional political action committees are capped under state law; for a candidate for county legislature, for instance, the limit is between $1,600 and $2,950 per election cycle, depending on the number of registered voters in the district. The limit on countywide races is $45,805 per cycle.
Union employees can opt out of fees to support such PACs, but the Suffolk police unions say the exemption does not apply to super PACs.
Nassau police unions have a super PAC, but it has been inactive since spending $550,000 on Nassau County legislative races in 2011.
The Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation has used its steady funding stream to create its own campaign organization.
It has hired a Brooklyn-based political consulting firm, Red Horse Strategies, which has clients including labor unions and State Senate Democrats, conducted polling and deployed billboard trucks and glossy attack mailers in Suffolk legislative districts.
Resi Cooper, a former Long Island regional director for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and now head of Clinton’s New York presidential campaign, has served as the chief strategist for the super PAC.
‘A lot of influence’
“The police unions have always had a lot of influence and clout — now they’re on steroids with this,” said former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served from 1988 to 1991.
DiGerolamo, who also is president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, said the super PAC supports “people who are going to be positive for law enforcement. We’re under a constant attack by the media, regardless of what we do. And unlike people who own newspapers and TV stations, we can’t just put out our message for free.”
The PBA website touts the success of the increased political activity by the super PAC and other campaign efforts.
“Virtually overnight, we became a force to be reckoned with in Suffolk County and throughout the State,” the site says. “Unquestionably, the allies we made in the political arena opened the door to negotiate an excellent contract, health insurance agreement and obtain many other advantageous benefits for PBA members.”
Candidates whom the super PAC targeted for defeat said the message it sends is powerful.
In 2014, Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) refused a police union lobbyist’s request to withdraw legislation that would have capped police and firefighter raises in binding arbitration at 2 percent.
“Boom. It was direct mail, billboard trucks riding around my district and then the radio ads,” Fitzpatrick recalled of the police unions’ campaign against him. “It sends a message to anyone else — don’t get near Fitzpatrick’s bill.”
The foundation spent more than $200,000 trying to unseat Fitzpatrick and boost his opponent, Democrat Jason Zove, in the 2014 general election. Fitzpatrick spent $26,000, and won re-election by a 21 percent margin.
The bill failed to get out of the Governmental Employee Committee February last year; Fitzpatrick has reintroduced it this year.
DiGerolamo said the super PAC opposed Fitzpatrick based on the “totality of his record,” and not his stance on one bill.
Last year, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter opposed another Suffolk police union priority — the merger of the county park police with the county police department. The foundation spent a total of $170,000 on behalf of his opponent, town board member Jodi Giglio. Giglio beat Walter in the Republican primary, but Walter, running on the Conservative Party line, defeated her in the general election by 420 votes.
Walter, who spent $73,000 on the race, said the amount the super PAC is able to spend on races, “is a scary thought when you’re running for public office in a small municipality.”
He said the unions’ spending “causes you to wear out more shoes,” by having to campaign harder. But Walter said that in small races, the spending can only win so many votes. “You can’t buy face time with people,” he said.
Walter declined to discuss the origins of the dispute, but said he met with DiGerolamo after the election.
“We sat down and had a pleasant breakfast. As far as I’m concerned we buried the hatchet, hopefully never to be dug up again,” Walter said.
After Burke’s arrest in December, county Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective, sponsored legislation to create a bipartisan legislative committee with subpoena powers to investigate rules and procedures that were inadequate or weren’t followed. The bill, which the police unions opposed, was defeated in the Public Safety Committee in February by a 7-2 vote.
Trotta called the police unions, which tried unsuccessfully to recruit a candidate to run against him last year, “the most influential lobbying group in the county, times 10.” He blamed the bill’s failure in part on lawmakers’ reluctance to anger the police unions.
Majority Leader Kara Hahn (D-East Setauket) said the county legislature is working on a more comprehensive bill that would increase legislative oversight of all county departments, including the police. She declined to discuss details of the proposal or when it will be introduced.
Hahn, who received $3,875 from traditional police union PACs for her re-election race last year but nothing from the super PAC, called Trotta’s bill a “knee-jerk” reaction to the Burke scandal.
Unions don’t always win
The unions don’t win every legislative fight.
The legislature on March 22 passed a bill that would provide lawmakers with quarterly statistics on the number of police internal affairs investigations and misconduct complaints. Bill sponsor Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said it would help lawmakers track police discipline problems and trends.
The super PAC spent $47,000 to support Calarco’s re-election last year. Nonetheless, Calarco said he doesn’t let the political contributions influence the legislation he introduces or his votes. “The policy decisions I make are in the best interest of my residents,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that the heavy spending by police unions “at a minimum . . . creates perceptions of influence. It is unfortunately the way it is.”
The police unions created the super PAC after frequent clashes with former Republican County Executive Steve Levy over police pay and other issues. Levy did not run for re-election in 2011, forfeiting his $4 million campaign fund to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office, after prosecutors raised questions about his campaign financing.
The foundation spent $547,000 later that year, primarily to aid Democrat Steve Bellone’s successful campaign for county executive against Republican Angie Carpenter, according to Jeff Frayler, former president of the Suffolk PBA.
In 2012, the Bellone administration and the Suffolk PBA announced a new contract, the first in 23 years to be negotiated without binding arbitration. The agreement awarded raises totaling 27 percent through 2018 and started new officers at lower salaries. The County Legislature approved it on an 18-0 vote. Detectives and the Superior Officers Association subsequently received new contracts, also without binding arbitration.
The police contracts will cost a cumulative $372 million, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Budget Review Office. The office warned that Suffolk will be unable to pay for the contracts without increasing taxes or finding other revenue sources.
The Bellone administration said the contracts represented a better deal for taxpayers than arbitration awards of the past. The administration said the contracts will save money in the long run through lower starting salaries for new police hires, who also will have lower top pay.
The Suffolk PBA on its website has vowed to end the lower pay rate in the next contract.
The Nassau PBA also established a super PAC, Safe Nassau, in 2011. It spent $550,000 the first year but has not spent any money on races since, state records show.
Nassau PBA president James Carver said Safe Nassau “served its purpose” by preventing Republicans from getting a supermajority in the county legislature, and hasn’t been necessary since. “We felt Democrats were supporting us more than Republicans at the time,” Carver said.
The Nassau PBA’s traditional political action committee spent $265,743 last year, primarily to support state and county legislators, statewide elected officials and county political parties.
The Suffolk PBA’s PAC made $95,253 in contributions last year to candidates for state, county and town office, state records show.
The Suffolk police unions’ super PAC spent a total of $800,000 in 2015.
The super PAC for Suffolk cops had the most success last year in the county legislature. All seven incumbents that it backed won their races.
The PAC spent about $100,000 each to help re-elect Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) and Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai). Lindsay and Anker, both supporters of police unions issues, were considered vulnerable because Republicans outnumber Democrats in their districts.
Anker’s opponent, Steve Tricarico, said the super PAC’s mailers attacked him for holding a politically appointed patronage job in the Brookhaven Town highway department.
“There were a half-dozen mailers, dragging me through the mud — with my face bright red, looking devilish,” Tricarico recalled.
‘It’s their decision’
Anker said she had no control over the super PAC’s spending. “It’s their decision, and I appreciate their support,” she said.
Tricarico, a Wading River Republican, raised and spent about $50,000. Anker won the race by 19 votes.
Asked about the effect of the super PAC spending on her race, Anker said, “Let’s just say I was not expected to win. Anyone would appreciate their support.”
Mary Calamia, a clinical social worker from Holbrook, raised $26,512 in her bid against Lindsay.
“I don’t think any group that stands to benefit financially should be that involved,” Calamia, a Republican, said of the police super PAC. “The county legislature decides contracts.”
Lindsay said he was “fortunate” to receive the super PAC’s support, but said he had no control over the foundation’s mailers calling Calamia a tea party member who would cut police services — statements Calamia said were untrue.
Lindsay said the super PAC had little impact on the race. “I don’t think they moved the dial one way or another,” he said, adding that “their spending or their support, for or against me, would have no influence on how I vote.”
The only Republican legislator the super PAC supported last year was Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who also is president of a Nassau Teamsters local. The foundation spent $60,000 supporting McCaffrey against Democrat Tim Sini, an aide to Bellone. Sini was appointed county police commissioner in February, with the backing of the police unions.
DiGerolamo said the super PAC endorsed McCaffrey as part of an effort to support incumbents in the county legislature.
McCaffrey said he believed the super PAC helped his re-election, but pointed to to his support of Trotta’s bill for more oversight of police as evidence of his independence from the police unions.
DiGerolamo said the union, in spending money to boost local lawmakers, is merely playing by the rules established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You have billionaires spending tens of millions of dollars annually to send their message out. When organized labor defends themselves from an onslaught of attack — when we’re just trying to earn a fair living and retire with dignity — we’re vilified,” he said.
With Tom Brune and Ann Choi
A prior version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Resi Cooper's name.