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Long IslandPolitics

Some politicians out of office, not out of cash

Hempstead Supervisor Tom Gulotta and Councilman Joseph Mondello

Hempstead Supervisor Tom Gulotta and Councilman Joseph Mondello join hands in victory. (Nov. 8, 1983) Credit: Ari Mintz

Campaigns may end and political candidates might fade from memory, but the money they collect on Long Island seems to live on forever.

Take, for instance, former Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, a three-term Republican until he did not seek re-election in 2001. Records show some of the $1.4 million left in Gulotta's campaign coffers has gone to a number of causes - including supporting Democrats Gov. David A. Paterson, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.

In another example, more than $50,000 from the still-active campaign committee of former Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney, a Republican who left office in 2003, has gone to Dowling College, where Gaffney became president in 2006.

And in the case of former Islip Supervisor Peter McGowan, convicted and sent to jail in 2006 for accepting bribes and misusing campaign funds, some of his $1.1-million war chest wound up going to the dogs, literally. After some $728,000 was returned to donors, remaining funds went to the district attorney's forfeiture account to pay for security cameras at Long Island MacArthur Airport, crime-fighting equipment and the purchase of K-9 police dogs.

With little oversight from state election officials, millions in contributions remain in campaign coffers of local politicians who lost or retired, have no plans to run again soon, or, in some cases, went to jail. The subject of leftover campaign funds is being raised again as Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi leaves office Friday with about $2.3 million in his campaign committee. A Suozzi spokeswoman said he has not decided what to do with the funds.

'A perk of the job'

Though state law bars politicians from spending political donations for personal use, experts say they can use the money for just about any other purpose. "They [politicians] consider it a perk of the job," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State. "Ideology - be they Republican, Democrats or even socialists - is not a factor. "

Unlike federal campaigns, local campaign finances generally receive little outside scrutiny, Bartoletti said. State Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin said political contributions are by law "not for personal use," yet he acknowledged that the legal language on this ban is "implicit but not spelled out."

Gulotta said he's used "my best judgment" in spending $2 million in campaign cash when he left office in 2001. By last January, his account still had $1.6 million. This year he spent about $100,000, including gifts to the American Kidney Foundation and Boy Scouts. While he has donated to Republicans, Gulotta has been generous to some big-name Democrats.

Rewarding performance, not party

This year, the committee gave $10,000 to Paterson, $5,000 to Cuomo, and $5,000 to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. In 2007, he gave $1,000 to Levy. Gulotta acknowledged that some GOP donors might be surprised to see his campaign cash go to Democrats, but said he supports good government regardless of party. "Anybody who I thought was doing a good job, that's been my standard," he said, even if "I may not agree with every decision."

Records show Gaffney, who served 12 years as Suffolk executive until he retired in 2003, has contributed in recent years to Democrats such as Suozzi, state Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point) and Islip Supervisor Philip Nolan. Since 2006, Gaffney's campaign funds have gone from $736,000 to the current $327,000, records show. By far, the biggest chunk of his contributions, $58,000, has gone to Dowling. Gaffney could not be reached for comment.

Nassau GOP leader Joseph N. Mondello, who left as Hempstead presiding supervisor in 1993, has a campaign committee that reported $107,374 this year. Mondello declined to comment.

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer - a Democrat who resigned in March 2008 during a sex scandal - has transformed his old campaign fund to the forward-looking Spitzer 2010 Inc., with $268,914.

On Long Island, the most complex disbursal of campaign funds in recent years involved Islip's McGowan. Despite his 2006 conviction for misusing campaign funds, state records showed an "active" campaign committee for McGowan until Newsday recently inquired about it. McGowan's last campaign treasurer, George Stanton of West Islip, said all records were seized in 2006 by the Suffolk district attorney and he considered the Friends of Pete McGowan committee closed. "All that money went to the DA - I don't know of anyone who got their money back," Stanton said.

But Robert Clifford, spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota, said several hundred McGowan contributors got $728,000 back. As part of the DA's court-approved forfeiture of McGowan's coffers, another $200,000 paid for security cameras at MacArthur, with the rest used for crime-fighting, including the K-9 dogs.

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