Public financing needs strong board of elections

New York City's campaign finance system has been New York City's campaign finance system has been proposed as a model for the state, but it has its flaws. Photo Credit: Istock

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Last week, in response to Albany legislators ending their 2013 session without reforming campaign laws, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo impaneled a Moreland Act Commission. It will conduct an intensive inquiry and suggest meaningful reforms, long sought by good government groups, as a run-up to adopting a system of publicly financed state campaigns.

The governor specifically directed the commission to focus on the "adequacy and enforcement of the State's election laws . . . the structure and composition of the State and County Boards of Elections [and] the Board of Elections' enforcement, and the effectiveness of . . . existing election laws." It's about time.

The Legislature must first overhaul the existing infrastructure to ensure current laws are enforced, before publicly financed campaigns are considered.

The Richmond County special prosecutor was appointed by the court to investigate allegations that Debi Rose (D-Staten Island), in her 2009 primary for New York City Council, conspired to exceed campaign spending limits and file inaccurate campaign reports. While investigating, we reviewed the state Board of Elections and the city's campaign finance laws.

Our ongoing investigation suggests the agencies charged with overseeing campaigns -- the Board of Elections and the city's Campaign Finance Board -- either have limited enforcement powers or inadequate resources.

The city's campaign finance system has been proposed as a model for the state, but it is not without flaws. Just weeks before the 2013 City Council primaries, 10 council campaign audits from 2009 are still pending. To have so many major 2009 campaigns still unresolved undermines public confidence in the oversight of the public financing process. By underfunding the Board of Elections, the Legislature abdicated its responsibility to ensure fair and lawful elections. Until the problems created -- and continued -- by elected and appointed officials are resolved, the prospect for effective operation of publicly financed state campaigns is uncertain at best.

The board is now merely a repository of campaign financial statements. A recent New York Public Interest Research Group report alleges over 100,000 state election law violations in the past two years, most of which the board did not investigate. Another civic organization, Citizens Union, estimated the Board of Elections could generate $2.5 million through appropriate penalties, enough to pay for the enforcement unit the board requested that was inexplicably left out of the final state budget.

The appointment of a new investigative commission raises the question: If funds for the commission can be found in a tight state budget, why couldn't funds be located to empower the board to carry out its responsibilities? The Board of Elections must be adequately funded.

Current oversight systems are confused. Candidates for New York City office receive public funds from the Campaign Finance Board, which then conducts extensive audits to ensure compliance with rules for filing financial statements and limits on contributions and spending. But the campaigns -- not the candidates -- can be fined for violations. And they can go out of business, beyond the reach of law, to avoid or evade responsibility.

Instead, candidates should be personally liable for election law violations, just as federal law requires CEOs to certify their corporate financial statements. Penalties for willful and persistent campaign violations could include fines and, where appropriate, a "nuclear option" -- forfeiting office, as some states do. The attorney general should have concurrent criminal jurisdiction, with local DAs, to prosecute election law violations, to avoid having to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct investigations.

The Board of Elections, consisting of two Democrats and two Republicans is functionally inefficient, doomed to tie votes. The governor should be empowered to appoint a chairman, with Senate confirmation, who would preside over meetings and break ties.

If we're serious about reducing the corrupting influence of money in politics, we have to build the right traps to catch the rats and campaign finance fraudsters.

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