Former North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman and ex-Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who are vying to succeed retiring Rep. Steve Israel, each spent tens of thousands of dollars from their local campaign accounts during periods they were not actively seeking office, state campaign filings show.
The spending often went beyond contributions to charities, universities and other political committees, which are the most common types of activity from the campaign accounts of former officials, according to a Newsday review.
State election law prohibits current and former candidates from tapping campaign funds for “personal” expenses that are unrelated to political campaigns or holding public office, though both men say their spending was political in nature. Government watchdogs have criticized the statute as too lax and open to abuse.
Kaiman, a Democrat who resigned as supervisor in late 2013, spent a total of $118,000 in 2014 and 2015, including $8,400 on office supplies, $1,700 on meals, $1,500 at liquor and wine stores and nearly $4,000 at Costco and grocery stores. He also spent $64,000 in charitable and political donations.
Suozzi, a Democrat who lost re-election in 2009, had $553,231 in campaign expenses in 2010 and 2011, including more than $7,000 in cellphone bills, $6,700 for storage and $1,400 for travel reimbursements, state Board of Elections records show. His campaign also paid more than $135,000 to charities and political committees.
Kaiman and Suozzi, who are running in the June 28 Democratic primary against three other candidates — and cannot use their state campaign accounts for congressional bids — said their purchases were legal and meant to keep their political operations active in case they ran for office again.
“The campaign account, as I understand it, can be used to promote and preserve my political brand, which is why it funded what it did,” Kaiman said.
Suozzi, who lost an effort in 2013 to reclaim the county executive post from Republican Edward Mangano, was often asked to consider various political races after his 2009 loss to Mangano, spokesman Michael Florio said.
“Tom Suozzi has been out of office for six years, yet he has remained a public figure,” Florio said. “He is asked to, and does, attend and lend support to many events and causes.”
Candidates’ spending after leaving office is governed by a section of state campaign finance law that for years has generated controversy.
Blair Horner, executive director of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany, said one of the few successful efforts to tighten the state campaign finance law occurred in 2014. The State Legislature approved a proposal in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s ethics package that called for creation of a new inspector general’s office at the board of elections.
In 2015, lawmakers approved a Cuomo proposal to codify earlier board opinions that bar campaign spending for “personal use” such as rent, clothing, tuition payments, tickets to sporting events and dues for health clubs.
Horner called them significant improvements but said the law otherwise does not define what types of spending are related to political campaigns.
“If you know what you are doing, you can use campaign funds for practically anything you want, including things that people on the outside would view as benefiting your personal lifestyle,” Horner said.
James Campbell, a University at Buffalo professor who teaches about money in politics, said frequent food, phone and travel expenditures by politicians not engaged in active races may be legal but could be viewed as “inappropriate, unless the spending is tied clearly to campaigning.”
“When someone contributes to a candidate, it’s not a personal gift,” Campbell said. “It should be used for the purpose of communicating to voters.”
Risa Sugarman, the state Board of Election’s chief enforcement counsel, declined to comment on Kaiman’s and Suozzi’s campaign spending.
Kaiman spent 10 years as North Hempstead supervisor before leaving office in September 2013 to become Cuomo’s superstorm Sandy redevelopment czar. Kaiman also served as unpaid chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, also appointed by Cuomo.
Kaiman’s campaign account contained nearly $250,000 at the end of 2013 and disbursed $117,610 over the next two years.
The campaign spent $5,500 at grocery stores, Costco and liquor stores, and $8,300 for home office equipment and a storage locker to maintain his campaign files, records show.
Shortly after leaving office, Kaiman spent $1,100 on food and wine for a party for his political staff.
The campaign also spent $1,700 for meals at local restaurants, including $573 at Bryant & Cooper Steak House in Roslyn. Most of the meals occurred in the first half of 2014, when Kaiman was mulling a run for Nassau district attorney, in the event Cuomo called a special election to replace Democrat Kathleen Rice. There was no special election and Kaiman never ran for the seat.
“I would bring people together to brainstorm on issues of a political nature and charge the cost of those meetings to the campaign,” Kaiman said.
In October 2015, the campaign spent $2,400 on wine, cameras, cigars and supplies for a party and golf outing hosted by Temple Israel of Great Neck, where Kaiman was the honoree.
Also that month, Kaiman hosted a party at his Great Neck home for North Hempstead Democratic officials who were up for re-election, billing the campaign more than $2,000 for liquor, food and party supplies.
Manhattan election law attorney Daniel Bright said it was unclear whether such spending was personal or political, but “it’s certainly pushing the limits of what’s allowed.”
However, “it’s impossible to know if it crosses the line,” Bright said.
Kaiman said he has “always tried to do that in the most appropriate way possible. And we’ve always done it within the rules.”
Suozzi, who served as Nassau County executive from 2002 to 2009, incurred $553,231 in campaign expenses during 2010 and 2011, records show. More than $288,000 came in the first seven months after he left office and largely covered outstanding bills from his losing re-election bid, including wages and office expenses.
From Aug. 1, 2010, through the end of 2011 — more than a year before Suozzi announced his 2013 county executive bid — his campaign continued to spend money, including more than $7,000 for cellphones and about $6,700 for storage.
In mid-2011 the campaign also paid $1,400 in travel expenses, largely to cover Suozzi’s costs to attend a conference in Washington, D.C., Florio said.
The cellphones, wages, storage and office items, Florio said, were “to keep up the political organization . . . in case he decided to do something in the future.”
In 2014 and 2015, after Suozzi’s 2013 loss to Mangano, Suozzi’s campaign spent nearly $59,000, including $1,608 at the Apple Store and $400 at Stango’s at the Orchard, a Glen Cove restaurant in which Suozzi and his wife, Helene, were the primary investors before it closed last year.
The Apple Store expense covered a computer to centralize campaign information gathered over the years by various staffers. The Stango’s dinner served as a “thank you” for Suozzi’s 2013 fundraising committee, Florio said.
The other three Democratic candidates for Israel’s 3rd Congressional District seat are Suffolk County Legis. Steve Stern of Dix Hills, North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Anna Kaplan and former Nassau legislative candidate Jonathan Clarke, an attorney from Jericho.