Spin Cycle

News, views and commentary on Long Island, state and national politics.

As word spread Wednesday that the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan subpoenaed documents from the state Working Families Party, Charles Pohanka of North Babylon said, “You know something? I’m very happy.”

Pohanka, 52, was ousted as Suffolk chairman after a long, bitter battle. But he’s still a state committeeman, and said he will contact others in the party in a bid to replace the current leadership with whom he’s been at war. “After eight years of me telling people the party is corrupt,” he said, “I’ll say I told you so, and now it’s time for a change.”

WFP officials, denying any wrongdoing, long accused Pohanka, a member of Teamsters Local 237, essentially of trying to cut endorsement deals in conflict with the party’s political agenda.

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Working Families, based in Brooklyn, began in 1998, backed by several labor unions. New York’s unusual practice of allowing candidates to run on multiple ballot lines gives smaller parties a brokering power, like that of the more GOP-compatible Independence and Conservative parties.

The federal probe involves how the party’s operations meshed with its non-profit and for-profit affiliates. Detractors claim WFP practices allow it to sidestep tax and campaign-finance laws. Dan Cantor, WFP executive director, said in a statement that the party is “cooperating fully” and “has complied with both the spirit and the letter” of the relevant laws.

But suspicions persist. The party’s treasurer resigned after a short time on the job, and the publication “City Hall” described the party’s unorthodox structure in an in-depth series of stories that has made the rounds.

Like the activist group ACORN, to which it has ties, Working Families — said to pull the Democrats leftward, at least in the city — is targeted from the right. With the party promoting such measures as mandatory sick-leave and higher taxes on the rich some business advocates discuss offsetting its influence. Real estate executive Jay Kriegel, a Democratic fundraiser, drew recent attention as an adviser on building a counter-WFP coalition.

Nearly a year ago, GOP lawyer John Ciampoli, soon to become Nassau County Attorney, delivered a critical dissection of the WFP structure before a meeting of the state Conservative Party. Ciampoli said then of Pohanka: “He wasn't up to their radical standards, and they chose to wipe him out.”

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WFP partisans mostly have expressed satisfaction that they've had enough impact to alarm rivals. The party took a high-profile role in the election campaign last year of State Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point), and in first election of Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) in 2007.

Now the party plays defense. Last month its co-chairs Bob Masters and Sam Williams announced the hiring of former chief state judge Judith Kaye to review the WFP’s links with the non-profit Working Families Organization and the for-profit Data Field Services Inc.

Data Field Services, which charges party-endorsed candidates for campaign work, is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by lawyer Randy Mastro, a longtime aide to Republican ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The plaintiffs say Staten Island Councilwoman-elect Debi Rose, a Democrat, paid lower than fair-market value for Data Field Services work. Under the city’s strict public campaign-financing program, a hidden discount on campaign costs can mean an illegal evasion of the spending ceilings, or of disclosure laws, or both.
The key public question: Whether this adds up to just another politically-charged regulatory dispute — or, as Mastro has claimed, an illegal scheme.