The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association Inc. has become one of Long Island’s most powerful political forces, contributing millions of dollars to campaigns in direct spending or through a related group the union controls despite restrictions on campaign spending, according to records and political financing experts.
State law limits incorporated unions such as the PBA to contributions of $5,000 a year in direct spending and $5,000 annually to its political action committee. But state Board of Elections records show the PBA has directly contributed more than $437,500 to candidates and political parties since 2010. That averages $39,700 a year to Long Island and upstate candidates, and county and state political parties.
In addition, the union contributed $108,699 to its own Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association Political Action Committee in 2019 and 2020, the only two full years the union has listed as contributing to its PAC, according to state Board of Elections records. The latest campaign finance filing also showed additional contributions from other sources to the PAC of $146,132 from Oct. 22, 2020, to Jan. 11, although the report includes no name or address of the contributor.
The Suffolk Police Benevolent Association PAC contributed more than $271,039 in the last two years to candidates and political parties, including $50,000 to the Suffolk County Democratic Committee and $30,000 to the campaign of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat. It also contributed to Republicans, including $4,000 to county Legis. Leslie Kennedy of Nesconset in 2019 and $3,000 to the county Republican Committee in 2019, according to state Board of Elections records.
The campaign spending limits are intended to curb outsized influence and political corruption among deep-pocketed special interests. The Suffolk PBA wields financial power to support officials who negotiate police contracts in Suffolk County. The union's influence extends to Albany as well by supporting candidates who opposed efforts, for example, to disclose disciplinary files of officers.
"If a union is incorporated, then it would be subject to the $5,000 aggregate contribution limit applicable to corporations," said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters in New York State.
The state Division of Election Law Enforcement, part of the state Board of Elections, said it was unable to respond to specific legal questions such as those posed by Newsday about the PBA, the PBA Education Program, the PBA PAC and the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation.
The unit directed Newsday to the Board of Elections' legal opinions. A 1979 legal opinion addressed whether a $5,000 annual limit on corporate campaign contributions applied: "If a union was incorporated … it would be subject to this limit."
The enforcement division's associate counsel, Carla DiMarco, referred to a provision of election law that provides an exception to the $5,000 contribution limit only for "a corporation or association organized or maintained for political purposes only." The PBA states on its IRS tax returns that its mission is to "promote fraternal brotherhood amongst Suffolk County police officers, to represent them in labor negotiations, grievance proceedings, public relations and all committee functions, and to administer their medical and life insurance."
Noel DiGerolamo, president of the PBA, the PBA's political action committee and the super PAC called the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, didn't respond to numerous requests for comment.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said the system designed by lawmakers to regulate political contributions is ineffective, poorly designed and most of the time ineffectively enforced.
"Generally speaking, the campaign finance system is a Wild West system, and if you know what you’re doing, anything goes," said Horner, whose organization has lobbied for stricter campaign finance laws. "People sort of feel like they can do whatever they want, unless they get caught. And if they get caught, they sometimes don’t get punished."
"It’s political and it’s designed to be weak," Horner said.
"Campaign contributions have no influence whatsoever on how we govern or make public policy decisions," said Bellone spokesman Jason Elan. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Another key issue is whether union members have approved using part of their dues — as little as $1 every two weeks each, or more than $55,000 a year in total from members — for political activities, as required by state law, and whether members authorized through a vote or some other means the far greater annual spending on campaigns listed in state Board of Elections records.
Neither the state or federal labor departments nor the state Public Employment Relations Board that monitors public worker unions requires unions to show that members have authorized campaign spending or how much can be spent on politics, spokesmen for those agencies said.
County Legis. Rob Trotta, a retired 25-year Suffolk police officer, argues that the PBA is compelling police officers to contribute and oppose candidates using union dues well beyond the $55,000-a-year that the members approve in a $1 checkoff per paycheck for political use. Trotta said he paid the $26 a year in his membership dues checkoff that was supposed to go the PBA Political Action Committee. But he said he never authorized any additional union funding to go to campaign contributions when he was a member.
On its 2018 federal tax return, the most recent available, the PBA lists its revenue as $2.78 million from membership dues and another $977,102 from what it identifies as an "assessment." There is no specific description of the source of that funding or how it was spent.
Gerald McCarthy, a recently retired three-star chief in the department, said he believes that is a political assessment charged to members by the PBA board without members’ approval. He contends that the members have no choice but to pay the assessment if they wish to remain in the union.
Trotta has publicly called for politicians to reject campaign contributions from the PBA to reduce the union’s influence in public spending and policy. "It scares the hell out of politicians to go against the union," Trotta said. "They are bullies."
An incorporated union that benefits from tax-exempt status must either not contribute to campaigns or must pay tax on those contributions, according to the Internal Revenue Service. On its 2018 federal income tax return, the most recent publicly available, the Suffolk PBA said it doesn’t "engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office."
But state records show that in the 2017 tax year covered by that IRS return, the PBA directly contributed $64,075 to candidates and campaigns. That included $50,000 to the New Yorkers Against Corruption coalition of more than 100 organizations from labor and other areas opposing a constitutional convention that could have changed the way the state operates.
Austin Graham, counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., said, "The fact that they said they didn’t engage in political activity while the Board of Elections said they did make substantial contributions — that seems to be a potential significant discrepancy."
Bierman said most unions are unincorporated associations. She said unincorporated unions may make direct contributions as well as through their political action committees. Unincorporated unions can make contributions "without any aggregate limit."
The few unions that do incorporate as nonprofit organizations enjoy tax breaks for their services directly to members but not for campaign contributions and activity, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The Nassau County PBA hasn't chosen to incorporate and so is not held to the same restrictions in making campaign contributions as the Suffolk County PBA Inc. State records show the Nassau County PBA contributes only through its political action committee, which spends far less than its Suffolk County counterpart to fund political activities.
For example, the Nassau County PBA PAC's biggest contribution in the 2017 county executive's race was $25,000 to Democrat Laura Curran, who was elected. State Board of Elections records show most of its contributions are $10,000 or less. The Nassau County PBA PAC also is more detailed in recording how it received it funds, regularly noting receipts are from "member dues under $99 each."
While there are limits on direct campaign spending by the union and through its political action committee, there is another way the Suffolk County PBA funds efforts for and against candidates that isn't restricted by limits. A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as Citizens United, paved the way for corporations and unions — the Suffolk PBA is both — to contribute almost unlimited funds to entities called independent expenditure committees. The court voted 5-4 to lift restrictions on independent expenditures from corporations, ruling that the limits violated the First Amendment.
Independent expenditure committees can't directly fund candidates but may spend freely to work for or against candidates, often through advertising and mailing, as long as the committee doesn't coordinate the spending with a candidate or political party.
The year after the Citizens United ruling, Suffolk PBA officers created in July 2011 an independent expenditure committee called the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, which is run by officers employed by the PBA from a PBA office address. Since then, the PBA has used its education program to contribute more than $5 million to the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation. The foundation, with some limited funding from other police department benevolent associations in the county, has spent millions to support and defeat candidates, state records show.
In 2017, the year the PBA collected $977,102 in the unspecified assessment, the PBA education program contributed $805,000 to the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation to support and oppose political candidates and to engage in "Back the Blue" rallies, according to state Board of Elections records.
Spending by both the PAC and the foundation are controlled by top PBA officers working out of PBA addresses, according to state Board of Elections records and the entities’ tax returns.
"Even if all this activity is completely legal, it certainly creates the appearance that it’s really easy to get around campaign finance limits in the state of New York," said Graham, citing state law and a 2006 analysis of state campaign finance laws by the Brennan Center. "In this case, the police labor union has outsized influence over the political process."
The state Division of Election Law Enforcement, the enforcement arm of the Board of Elections, has taken action against other Super PACs over the issue of whether they have "common operation control" from their sources of funding.
"Common operational control occurs when the same individual or individuals exercise actual and strategic control over the day-to-day affairs of both committees, or the employees of both committees engage in communications related to the strategic operations of either committee," stated the state Division of Election Law Enforcement in its annual report. "The Division is seeking to ensure that the contribution limits imposed by the Legislature to prevent corruption are not evaded by coordinated movement of monies between PACs and IECs with common operational control."
In a 2018 case, the state Division of Election Law Enforcement cracked down on Super PACs to make sure campaign contribution limits weren't evaded.
"In order to prevent evasion of contribution limits, Election Law … permits a PAC (which may closely coordinate its operations with candidates) to make contributions to an IEC (which can make unlimited expenditures supporting candidates) only if there is no common operational control between the PAC and the IEC," states the report by the state Division of Election Law Enforcement.
Suffolk PBA President DiGerolamo is the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation’s president, and the only other officer is Miguel Vias, according to the foundation’s 2018 federal tax return. Vias is a paid trustee of the PBA, according to the PBA’s tax return.
The ways the PBA funds campaigns raise questions for some campaign finance experts.
"The public needs to know who is providing money for the various candidates and causes," said Richard Benedetto, an adjunct professional lecturer of government at American University in Washington, D.C. "That’s part of the transparency the election laws are designed to enforce. The public has a right to know this and they should know it. It may even educate people who make contributions that don’t know where the money is going."
"What they are hoping to do is to influence those people who are negotiating those contracts," Benedetto said. "Most large political contributions aren’t made because they like a candidate, but because they will do something for them."
Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the Suffolk PBA has a "suffocating influence" on policy in the county and in the state.
"They are extremely influential," said a Long Island politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern of political retribution by the union. "If you are not supportive of their agenda, your career could be over."
In December 2019, the power of unions to influence politics and governing through massive campaign contributions was a concern of some members of the state Campaign Finance Reform Commission, but ultimately little changed.
"The law as it exists today limits corporate and LLC (limited liability corporation) contributions to a total of $5,000," said Commissioner David C. Previte, a private sector attorney who had worked for the state Republican Committee and Senate Republicans. In his dissenting opinion in the commission’s final report, he was critical that the panel appointed by political leaders didn’t address the "loopholes and inconsistencies" in law that allow unions to wield great influence.
"Refusing to deal with PAC and union money, the commission decided to keep the money it wanted in the system, rather than adhere to its purpose," Previte wrote. "Unions are in a league of their own."
Previte didn't respond to a request for comment on the Suffolk PBA.
"I have grave concerns over the over-politicization of law enforcement in general," said Assembly Elections Committee Chairman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove). He said he's particularly concerned about the political clout of law enforcement at a critical time in which trust must be built with Black and Latino communities and the Black Lives Matter movement.
"In the past I’m sure I received some campaign contributions from law enforcement," Lavine said. "But small contributions to individual legislators are never the same as massive contributions to promote or attack public officials."