Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
The Suffolk Police Benevolent Association has become the $1.3 million gorilla of county politics.
That's the amount the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation -- funded by the police union -- has spent over the past three years.
The union traditionally has had substantial clout with its endorsements, police mailing lists and its political action committee, which gives directly to candidates. But donors, including PACs, can only give between $1,665 and $2,950 in races for county legislature and $45,800 in county executive elections.
But the foundation has no spending limits under the law as long as it does its own mailings, billboard and radio spots and doesn't coordinate with candidates' campaigns.
In the 2013 elections, when six of 18 legislative seats were hotly contested, the foundation spent nearly $690,000, dwarfing the $178,713 the PBA PAC also spent. When the foundation was organized in 2011, it spent $546,900 for items including huge signs on flatbed trucks touting Steve Bellone for county executive.
The foundation's campaign reports disclose its source of funding as the "Suffolk County PBA Education Program," and also lists the consultants it pays. It does not detail its spending on behalf of candidates, however, and reports the bulk of its expenditures after Election Day.
"The days of buying a table at a fundraiser or helping with a phone bank have morphed into an era of huge bankrolls," said Gregory Blass, a former Suffolk legislative presiding officer, judge and county social services commissioner. "It's a discouraging sign . . . but the bipartisan money grab makes reform almost impossible."
Noel DeGerolamo, Suffolk PBA president, says foundation spending goes for "education and issue advocacy." He said some of its activities, such as anti-DWI holiday public service announcements done with local lawmakers, are not really political, although the filings list them.
"It's a good thing and necessary to have a voice of the working person heard," DeGerolamo said. "It's no different than Randy Altschuler spending as much as he wants or Donald Trump or the Dolan family. It only draws attention because it's being done by the PBA."
The foundation also spent heavily in key Suffolk legislative races. It backed Democratic Legis. Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai, helping her survive a challenge by Republican Jennifer Juengst. The foundation opposed GOP challenger John Halverson in his unsuccessful race against Democratic Legis. Rob Calarco of Patchogue -- even though Halverson is the son of a former top Suffolk homicide detective, Edward Halverson.
Halverson said of the 18 mailings in the race, about half came from the foundation, and most of them were negative. Juengst said the foundation's spending "was like a tidal wave over which there was no control."
Critics say such spending can skew elections and pressure lawmakers who fear retribution.
"The PBA throws around this kind of money so they can thwart any kind of reform that would put any limit on their salary and perks," said former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who fought frequently with the PBA.
Said DeGerolamo: "If we believe a person . . . is good for Suffolk County we will help educate the public why we believe that."
Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, who was on the losing side of all but one of the key legislative races, spoke cautiously, emphasizing he has no dispute with the union. "They mainly back incumbents, and right now it's mostly Democrats," LaValle said. "It's America -- they are free to do so as long as they are within the bounds of the campaign finance law."
Campaign finance experts say the Suffolk PBA simply has adopted the tactics of other unions and organizations, including 1199 SEIU, which represents health workers, the real estate lobby and environmentalists.
They also note that the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, which struck down limits on how much money corporations and unions can spend in federal elections, makes any bid to tighten rules vulnerable to legal challenge, based on free-speech issues.
DeGerolamo concedes the creation of the foundation was in part a reaction to Levy's battles with the PBA.
"Like anything new, you start slow and build until . . . your message is being heard," DeGerolamo said. "I don't know where the end point is, but I don't think we've reached it yet."