ALBANY -- The campaign committees of at least 12 Republican senators statewide, including four from Long Island, pay to lease or purchase automobiles for the legislators while the senators collect state mileage reimbursement under a legally murky practice.
This nexus of campaign-paid vehicles and taxpayer-paid travel reimbursements for trips to and from Albany for legislative work has prompted an investigation within Nassau County by the acting district attorney and drawn criticism from good-government groups and a state corruption commission.
The practice appears largely confined to the State Senate's Republican majority. State records didn't show similar spending by Senate Democrats, and Assembly members aren't allowed to collect reimbursement for vehicles funded by their campaigns.
A review of campaign records of Senate members by Newsday showed spending on auto leases and loans often is described in broad terms such as "office" or "other" that don't mention cars or leases.
The campaign expenditures include $584 monthly loan payments for a car paid by the campaign of Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and $737 monthly payments by Sen. John Bonacic (R-Mount Hope), whose campaign made some of the largest lease or purchase payments.
However, a spokesman for the Senate Republican majority said state reimbursement is for lawmakers traveling to Albany for official state business, regardless of the vehicle used. "Members seek reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses for state business only," spokesman Scott Reif said in a written statement. "They receive mileage reimbursement for official government use of their vehicle. This is perfectly appropriate."
Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said she is investigating lawmakers' travel records and their use of a state mileage reimbursement system that is "porous and prone to abuse." Singas has said she was looking for "anomalies" in public records regarding spending by all state legislators representing Nassau County.
"I will not tolerate the public dime being utilized to pad someone's salary," said Singas, a Democrat who is seeking her party's nomination to challenge Republican Kate Murray for district attorney in November.
Report on Marcellino
Singas wouldn't comment on a recent WNBC-TV report that her office is investigating whether Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) improperly billed taxpayers for travel expenses. State comptroller's office records show Marcellino, the new chairman of the powerful Senate Education Committee, collected $40,679 from the state since 2013 in mileage reimbursement while his campaign leased a car for him.
Marcellino's office acknowledged he had been contacted by law enforcement and said he is "confident that he has followed all laws and appropriate guidelines."
State policy prohibits state employees, including senators and Assembly members, from receiving state travel reimbursement of 56 cents per mile when they use rental cars because the legislator wouldn't incur any of the wear-and-tear costs.
In the case of state legislators, the mileage reimbursement is based on their using their "personal vehicle" for campaign and state business, according to the state policy based on law and union contracts. However, the policy doesn't address leased vehicles.
The state comptroller's office said the law isn't clear on whether a legislator may receive full reimbursement from the state for a car that is owned or leased by his or her campaign.
State Board of Elections rules and opinions allow a legislator to be reimbursed by the state for "personally incurred expenses" such as fuel purchased by the legislator. But it isn't clear if the rules allow a legislator to collect the full state reimbursement -- which includes compensation for wear and tear -- for a vehicle leased or purchased by a campaign.
"The same rules should apply for a leased car," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It should be for their car, not the campaign's car . . . lawmakers who do this are using the system for every imaginable advantage and the laws should be clear: You can't get reimbursed for a rental car even if it's called a lease."
The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics hasn't ruled on the reimbursement issue. But the question prompted an investigation nearly two years ago by the Moreland Commission on public corruption.
"Legislators are entitled to reimbursement for travel expenses related to their official duties; however, in order to claim a reimbursement, a legislator has to actually incur an expense," the commission stated.
The commission's investigation of the issue "suggests that some legislators may be using campaign funds to purchase vehicles, E-ZPasses and fuel while simultaneously claiming full reimbursement from the state for mileage expenses. If substantiated, this 'double-dipping' would allow legislators to pocket the taxpayer-funded reimbursement."
The commission wrote in 2013 that the "investigation of this practice is ongoing; we have not yet drawn conclusions about the propriety of the type of reimbursement."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo disbanded the commission before that and other investigations were complete as part of a political deal with the legislature to adopt some of his ethics reforms. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, however, took over the cases and said he would consider referring some of the cases to county district attorneys for further investigation.
The state Board of Elections allows legislators to use motor vehicles leased or paid for by their campaigns as long as legislators reimburse the committees for personal use. Most campaign records, however, don't break down the official and personal use.
Flanagan used his campaign to lease or purchase vehicles since at least 2002 with monthly payments ranging from $422 to $584 for at least two different cars over that time, records show. From 2013 to the first quarter of this year, Flanagan also collected $45,535 in state-paid expenses for his extensive travel statewide as Senate Education Committee chairman. As majority leader, Flanagan now gets a state-paid car.
Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) leased at least two cars since 2002, according to his campaign records, which identified the spending as "Other-campaign auto rental." He has collected $38,372 in state travel reimbursement since 2013.
The campaign of Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) purchased a $24,689 Subaru from a dealer in 2006, records show. He collected $44,402 in state reimbursements since 2013.
"The idea is to be reasonable about it and make sure you only get reimbursed once for each expense," Hannon said last week. He said he no longer uses his Subaru for commuting to and from Albany and has in recent years personally purchased another car for his few automobile trips to Albany. He said he usually uses the train now.
He also notes any unintended overlap in reimbursement from the state for wear and tear on the car and the campaign's lease payments was "an infinitesimal, minor proportion."
Among other senators, Bonacic's campaign paid Ford Credit monthly payments ranging from $404 to more than $700 since 2010. He collected $37,520 in state travel reimbursement since 2013. The campaign of Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-Seneca Falls) paid about $900 a month in car payments since 2010, although those payments appear to have often covered two months' bills at a time. He collected $36,280 in state travel reimbursement since 2013.