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Nassau tax appeal firms donated $94,000 to unusual campaign account

Nassau County overhauled its property-tax appeal process after

Nassau County overhauled its property-tax appeal process after Edward Mangano won the county executive race in 2009. Credit: Newsday / John Keating

Nassau County’s largest residential tax appeal firms donated $94,000 to an unusual campaign account shared by six local Republican candidates in 2011 — around the time they signed an agreement with the county on a tax system overhaul that earned them tens of millions of dollars in profits.

The donations, paid by the firms’ joint political action committee, far exceeded the $39,176 limit the law set for donations from a single contributor for that election.

Republicans in North Valley Stream — led by Joseph Cairo, now the county party's chairman — created the campaign account after Republican then-County Executive Edward Mangano overhauled the property-tax appeal process. Representatives of the tax firms were part of the group that recommended some of the changes.

The donations were made to the campaign account, named NVS Victory Fund 2011, a few months before and after county and tax-firm officials signed a court agreement locking in components of the overhaul, according to campaign finance filings.

The residential tax firms’ PAC, known as the Committee for Fair Property Taxes, was the only donor to that campaign account, which was shared by Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Donald X. Clavin Jr., former Hempstead Town Councilman Edward Ambrosino and four current or former Nassau County legislators: Deputy Presiding Officer Howard Kopel, Legis. Vincent Muscarella and former legislators Joseph Belesi and John Ciotti. Clavin is currently a candidate for Hempstead Town supervisor and Kopel and Muscarella are running for reelection. Ciotti died in 2017.

The tax firms established their PAC in 2009, during Mangano’s successful campaign for county executive. Their industry was being crippled by the tax system in place at the time, which required them to attend tens of thousands of time-consuming court hearings each year for individual clients. Through Mangano’s changes, the majority of challenges would be resolved automatically with no court hearings — and in favor of their clients.

A Republican Party spokesman denied any limits were exceeded and said the contributions had no influence on the candidates’ actions. Tax firm heads have long held that their contributions are not made to curry favor but to support candidates who support taxpayers.

The 2011 contributions are a small part of the $3 million in contributions linked in various ways to the firms since 2009. Eighty-eight percent of the funds have gone to Republican candidates and committees, according to a Newsday analysis.

Mangano won by 386 votes out of more than 250,000 cast in 2009 and overhauled the property tax system with help from an advisory committee to which he appointed the heads of two of the firms. The overhaul, which was intended to reduce county costs, made the industry an estimated $502 million in its first six years as the number of successful grievances soared. That is $167 million more than they stood to bring in under the old system, Newsday found in 2017.

In July 2011, county officials signed the court agreement with the tax firms that supported the new assessment challenge process. More than $112,000 in contributions linked to the firms were made in May 2011, $80,000 of which went to NVS Victory Fund 2011, according to campaign finance filings. Another $20,590 went directly to the main campaign accounts of the shared committee’s six candidates. Only $1,000 went to a Democrat, Legis. Kevan Abrahams.

The other $14,000 paid to NVS Victory Fund 2011 was contributed about five months later as Election Day approached.

The agreement is still in place and has complicated efforts by Mangano’s successor, Laura Curran, to correct widespread inaccuracies caused by his overhaul. Her changes threaten to return the assessment challenge process back to roughly what it was before Mangano.

North Valley Stream Republicans had created a different shared committee in 2009 that did not receive more money than the candidates’ allowable amount. But it, like the NVS Victory Fund 2011, received donations only from the tax firms' PAC and only existed for one election. The candidates who shared them also had standard, single-candidate committees that they mainly used to fund their campaigns.

Campaign finance experts said the shared campaign account activity was unusual. It raises questions about whether it violated campaign finance laws by allowing candidates to receive more money than campaign finance limits permit, which vary depending on the number of voters in a candidate’s district, the experts said.

"This looks like a very complicated structure set up to circumvent contribution limits," said Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser with the good government group Reinvent Albany.

In an emailed statement sent after Newsday requested an interview with Cairo, Nassau County GOP spokesman Mike Deery said the shared campaign accounts were unintentionally established as multicandidate committees rather than party committees.

Candidate committees generally have lower limits on what they can accept from a single contributor, which were exceeded by NVS Victory Fund 2011. A party committee, by contrast, can usually accept much larger sums from a single contributor.

"A clerical error resulted in the committees filing documents as multicandidate committees," Deery said. "Considering that this was a clerical error, it is our position that the committees were in full compliance with all state and local election laws and reporting requirements."

Deery said any necessary amendments to the filings would be made.

But experts said even if NVS Victory Fund 2011 were set up as a party committee, it would still raise questions of whether laws were violated.

Party committees can give unlimited funds to candidates but cannot explicitly funnel money to them from others, particularly with the intention of exceeding campaign finance limits. Intent can be hard to prove, but when contributions made by NVS Victory Fund 2011 are added to what four candidates received directly from the tax firms’ PAC, the total is higher than their contribution limits.

The tax firms’ committee made large contributions to the main accounts of the six NVS Victory Fund 2011 candidates on the same day it contributed $80,000 to the Victory Fund itself. About five months later, as the election approached, NVS Victory Fund 2011 sent $22,064 of that $80,000 to four of the candidates’ main accounts.

  • Belesi, whose election limit based on the number of voters in his district was $2,328, ended up with $4,328 from the tax firms’ committee and NVS Victory Fund 2011.
  • Ciotti, whose limit was $2,213, ended up with $4,403.
  • Ambrosino, whose limit was $4,173, ended up with $6,173.
  • Kopel received $15,750, which was more than six times his limit of $2,540.

Deery said, though, that serving as a pass-through was not the purpose of the North Valley Stream committees in 2009 and 2011.

"The committees made their own decisions regarding expenditures and contributions,” Deery said. “Candidates who received contributions from these committees would likely have no knowledge of the source of contributions to the committees."

The rest of the NVS committees’ funds were paid to party committees and longtime Nassau Republican consultant McLaughlin and Associates. It is unknown how much of those expenditures aided each of the candidates because the committees never filed a required form specifying who benefited. McLaughlin and Associates did not respond to a request for comment.

Setting up the two multicandidate committees — NVS Victory Fund 2011 and the 2009 fund — required obtaining 14 notarized candidate authorization forms over two years. The forms, which are identical to the ones candidates sign for their main campaign account, authorized the shared committees to take part in the candidates’ campaigns. The treasurer of both committees, Cairo’s secretary, Diane Alleyn, did not respond to requests for comment.

“When a multicandidate committee is established, the people doing it either know or should know that it will have a direct impact on the contribution limits of the specific candidates,” said veteran election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder, who represents mostly Democratic candidates and is the author of a widely referenced book on New York election law.

Newsday contacted the shared committee candidates. Those who responded either did not remember signing the authorization forms — twice, in some cases — or provided statements defending their campaign finance practices.

In a joint statement, Kopel and Muscarella, who authorized both shared committees, said they adhered to the highest campaign contribution standards.

"What's more," the statement said, "any suggestion that these contributions would influence any of our governmental decisions is baseless and false as we had no knowledge of the identity or source of those who donated."

Kopel also said in a brief interview that he did not remember signing the authorization forms. His main campaign accounts, which date to 2007, have received $41,750 from the residential tax firms’ committee and the firms’ owners, employees, immediate family members or other businesses. That is 11% of what he has raised. Muscarella’s campaigns have received $3,800.

In an emailed statement, Clavin, who only signed an authorization form for NVS Victory Fund 2011, said contributions he accepted complied with the law.

"With regard to my relationship with tax certiorari firms," Clavin said, "I have held hundreds of taxpayer seminars, instructing homeowners how they can file their own grievances without the assistance of professional tax assessment appeal companies."

Clavin, who has been an outspoken critic of Curran’s assessment revamp, has raised $59,770 linked to the tax firms since 2006, according to campaign finance records. That is 12% of what he has raised.

Civil fines or misdemeanor or felony charges can result from involvement in exceeding campaign finance limits, but such charges are rare and experts said the statutes of limitation have passed for any 2011 violations.

Newsday first reported on the North Valley Stream committees in 2012, after which no more were established. The fact that the committees were shared by multiple candidates was only discovered when Newsday recently requested from state elections officials the forms creating the committees. Among the documents provided were the authorization forms. The state’s campaign finance database website gave no indication candidates shared the accounts.

Residential tax firm heads who have contributed to the Committee for Fair Property Taxes have vigorously denied contributing in exchange for any official action.

The treasurer of the tax firms' committee, Paola Orsini of Re-Assessment and Evaluation Services, and firm heads Sean Acosta of Property Tax Reduction Consultants, Shalom Maidenbaum of Maidenbaum Property Tax Reduction Group and Lance Geller and Peter Norberto of Tax Correction Agency, did not return calls, emails or text messages seeking comment. Fred Perry of Fred Perry Property Tax Reduction Group said he was not directly involved in the disbursement of funds from the Committee for Fair Property Taxes.

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