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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Ex-GOP powerhouse John Dunne suing to change election law

Former New York State Sen. John Dunne appears

Former New York State Sen. John Dunne appears in this portrait photo from June 5, 2013.

When Republican John R. Dunne was a state senator, the Nassau GOP machine was at its zenith and the party had an ironclad grip on Albany's upper house.

In 24 years as an Albany lawmaker, Dunne, who came from Garden City, rose to second in command as top deputy to powerful Majority Leader Warren Anderson. "John was the portal through which Long Island could get to Anderson," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran GOP business lobbyist.

"He was a product of the Republican machine, but he's an individual of impeccable integrity; straightforward, honest and the epitome of what an elected official should be," Ryan said. His reputation later helped him land a stint as assistant attorney general for civil rights for President George H.W. Bush that lasted four years.

Last week, Dunne, now 85 and a practicing lawyer who lives outside Albany, took an unusual step, crossing his former colleagues.

He became a plaintiff in the Brennan Center for Justice's lawsuit to throw out what is known as the "LLC loophole," which lets limited liability companies, unchecked, give millions of dollars to state candidates.

The lawsuit seeks to set aside a 1996 state Board of Elections ruling that determined that LLCs should be treated as individual donors, allowing each to give candidates up to $150,000. Corporations, by comparison, can contribute up to only $5,000. Because corporations can create numerous LLCs, there is effectively no limit to their political largesse.

Dunne says the elections board's stand is a "clear misinterpretation of the law." In a scathing affidavit, he wrote that money "dominates the political climate in New York more than it did when I ran for office." He said "contributions permitted by the LLC loophole . . . have an inordinate influence on decisions made by elected officials across the political spectrum."

Before filing the suit, the Brennan Center in April had sought to get the elections board to change its stand. The board deadlocked 2-2, with GOP appointees opposing a change and Democrats supporting it.

Senate Republicans have blocked bills to restrict LLC donations, a major source of funding for the GOP Senate campaign committee. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who backs LLC reform, last week reported almost $1.4 million in contributions from LLCs, of $5.2 million raised in the first half of the year.

The issue is important to the aging Senate Republican caucus because LLC money helps them offset a statewide 5-to-3 Democratic edge in voter enrollment. Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, declined to comment on Dunne's role in the lawsuit.

"When Dunne was a senator, Republicans were in firm control," said Ryan. "Now, they are a heart attack from oblivion."

Dunne, in his affidavit, said that since candidates now need so much money, "there is some degree of quid pro quo through which their donations are rewarded." That "has diminished my confidence" in government, "weakened our democracy" and given "excessive influence" to big donors, he wrote.

Dunne, a senior partner in the Albany firm of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, said he's had no backlash from former Senate colleagues or his law firm, which has a separate unit for government relations work. Dunne himself stopped lobbying work three years ago.

That Dunne should go his own way is not unusual. At the height of the Attica state prison riots in 1971, Dunne, then chairman of the Senate correction committee, entered the prison with Assemb. Arthur Eve to negotiate with inmates. Dunne later criticized fellow Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for failing to come himself, saying the dispute could have ended without bloodshed.

Dunne also was a sponsor of the tough 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, but in 2003 he called them "a well-documented failure" and advocated changes.

Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz assistant vice president and former Ulster County GOP chairman and county legislator, said Dunne adds bipartisan gravitas to the case.

"It's very important to have John involved," said Benjamin, also a plaintiff. "He's one of the most respected emeritus senators we have, and he's saying something is wrong."

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