The Suffolk Democratic Committee returned a $100,000 union campaign contribution during the 2014 election because the union sought to steer the money to Democratic State Senate candidate Adrienne Esposito in possible violation of state election law, according to documents and Suffolk Democratic officials.
The New York State United Teachers also sent or offered contributions intended for Esposito’s campaign to three town Democratic committees in Suffolk, county Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer and town committee chairs said.
Brookhaven and Smithtown Democrats declined the contributions. The Islip Town Democratic Committee accepted a $40,000 donation from NYSUT and contributed $20,000 to Esposito’s campaign a week later, state campaign finance records show.
Schaffer said he had conversations with the three town leaders at the time about the donations, and all said they understood the union wanted the money to go to Esposito’s race.
Under state law, donors can contribute a maximum of $102,300 per election cycle to a political party committee, compared with $10,300 for individual candidates.
There is no restriction on the amount of money a party committee can transfer to a candidate, but the law prohibits contributions to committees from being earmarked for particular candidates.
The disclosures by Suffolk Democrats about their dealings with NYSUT follow allegations by the state Board of Election’s chief enforcement counsel Risa Sugarman that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his campaign staff funneled large contributions from unions and other donors through county Democratic committees to three Democratic State Senate candidates upstate in 2014.
Sugarman recommended that the matter be sent to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The state Board of Elections unanimously voted to make the criminal referral, a source has told Newsday.
De Blasio has said he did nothing wrong and his attorney has attacked Sugarman for “selectively criminalizing” legal fundraising.
NYSUT was not listed in Sugarman’s memo as among the unions whose contributions were funneled to the upstate candidates.
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn declined to comment for this story.
In the fall of 2014, Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, was in a competitive race for the open senate seat left vacant when Lee Zeldin left to run for congress. Esposito lost in November to Croci, who was then Islip Town supervisor.
Schaffer said Steve Allinger, legislative director for NYSUT, called him around the end September of 2014 and said the union wanted to send a check to support Esposito’s senate campaign.
“I explained to him you can’t make a contribution and then designate how it’s spent on a specific candidate, and told him I wouldn’t accept it,” Schaffer said. “We believed it was illegal.”
Schaffer said that after “two or three” calls from Allinger, a $100,000 check from the union arrived by Federal Express at Democratic Party headquarters in Bohemia. The check, dated Oct. 7, 2014, listed “NYSUT Endorsed Candidates” on the memo line.
On Oct. 10, county Democrats returned the check. In an accompanying letter, county Democratic Committee executive director Matt Jennings told Allinger that, “our attorney advises us that the description ‘NYSUT Endorsed Candidates’ coupled with the conversation about this check over the phone the other day would constitute an earmark.”
Allinger, now a senior adviser to union President Karen Magee, did not respond to requests for comment made through the union.
“Did we need money? We sure did,” Esposito said of Schaffer’s account of NYSUT’s offer. But the campaign never took any of the money. “Once the attorneys advised us against it, that was it,” Esposito said.
Schaffer said Esposito, “would have liked to have that kind of money, but she completely understood and did not want to do anything illegal.”
NYSUT’s political action committee, the Voice of Teachers for Education Committee on Political Education, gave Esposito’s campaign $10,300 in August 2014, state campaign finance disclosures show.
Under state law, a person who “knowingly and willfully contributes, accepts or aids or participates in the acceptance of a contribution” over the limits would be guilty of a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Coordinating or organizing to evade contribution limits is a class E felony under state law, punishable by up to four years in prison.
Schaffer said that after the county Democratic Party returned the union’s contribution, NYSUT approached three other town Democratic committees with large contributions intended for Esposito.
On Oct. 21, 2014, NYSUT donated $40,000 to the Islip Town Democratic Committee, state campaign finance records show. On Oct. 27, the town committee made a $20,000 contribution to Esposito. Islip Democratic Chairman Gerry Pallotta did not respond to requests for comment.
Esposito said she did not know where Islip Democrats got the $20,000 to contribute to her campaign. Islip Democrats “were working very, very hard on the race,” including canvassing voters and holding fundraisers, she said.
Brookhaven Democrats received a check from NYSUT for about $40,000, which was returned, according to Anthony Parlatore, who served as the town party chairman at the time. Parlatore would not say why the party refused the contribution, saying only that the town Democratic Committee made the decision in private.
Smithtown Democratic chairman Ed Maher said he also received a call on behalf of NYSUT, offering to give money to be earmarked for Esposito’s race.
Maher said he declined because the senate seat doesn’t cover Smithtown.
“I didn’t like the idea that a donation was being made to a town committee that wasn’t even in the district where the candidate was running,” said Maher, who declined to disclose the caller’s identity.
In the memo that became public last Friday, Sugarman said de Blasio and his team had worked with the New York Hotel Trades Council union, the United Federation of Teachers, and political consultants to channel at least $971,000 in 2014 to three upstate Democratic senate candidates.
Donors would contribute to party committees that would then transfer the money to each candidate’s campaign account, Sugarman said.
New York State United Teachers was not mentioned in the memo, nor were any Long Island senate races.
Representatives of de Blasio and Campaign for One New York, his campaign effort, declined to comment for this story. But they noted that de Blasio has said he was proud to support Democrats across the state, including on Long Island.
Schaffer has expressed reservations about helping defeat local Republican Senators. He said he was concerned that if Democrats were to take control of the senate, they would put New York City’s interests ahead of those of the suburbs.
Republicans hold 31 of the 63 Senate seats but control the chamber thanks to a governing coalition with six breakaway Democrats, including Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who sits with the Republican conference. Eight of nine State Senate seats in Nassau and Suffolk are held by Republicans.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of State Senate seats held by Republicans.