Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan's campaign committee has spent more than $1.6 million over the last 10 years on image consultants, TV ads and other typical campaign costs, but the committee also spent thousands of dollars on car repair, charity golf outings and dinners, gifts, awards and flowers for constituents, records show.
Flanagan's campaign spending is typical of expenditures by Albany lawmakers under a broadly interpreted campaign law that requires the services and items bought to simply be related to campaigning or holding office.
Flanagan (R-East Northport) hasn't been sanctioned or criticized individually for this spending in his 20 years in the Legislature. But this year he rose to powerful Senate majority leader position; the last three men in those positions have been targets of federal corruption probes, and Newsday has taken a closer at Flanagan's spending.
The vast majority of Flanagan's spending was attributed to traditional campaign costs. It included more than $500,000 in consulting and TV ads from Max Communications in New York City, most of it during a tough 2006 election campaign when he faced Democrat Brooke Ellison. Ellison had been paralyzed from the neck down in a childhood car accident and went on to graduate with honors from Harvard, all of which was featured in a major movie about her struggle.
Flanagan's campaign also spent $110,000 in 2008 to Whalen Media Strategies in Saratoga Springs for political consulting, a firm that has handled several Republican candidates. That was a big year for Democrats, when they won enough seats to wrest control of the majority from Republicans.
Flanagan's campaign records also show some of the kind of expenditures that good-government advocates have criticized as spending on personal items such as car repairs and buying good will of voters with flowers and awards. Nonetheless, such spending is common under broad campaign practices long considered legal in New York.
Flanagan's campaign spending doesn't include the kind of excessive campaign spending on high-priced personal items that appear to pad a politician's lifestyle more than help his or her campaign. Questionable campaign spending that was targeted by the Moreland Commission on public corruption and government reformers have included worldwide travel junkets by several lawmakers -- often called fact-finding missions -- the purchase of a swimming pool cover, automobiles, tanning booths and cigars.
While campaign law prohibits spending on anything "unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position," the watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group says the state Board of Elections has in practice imposed few restraints.
"We don't feel campaign funds should be used to enhance a candidate's lifestyle or buy constituent good will unrelated to a campaign," said NYPIRG's Blair Horner.
But the small amount of campaign spending by Flanagan that they consider questionable -- including awards and plaques for constituents and their children, bouquets of flowers and promotional jackets -- is mild by Albany standards, Horner said.
"We've looked at this stuff for 25 years and this seems to be more run-of-the-mill, common use. Nothing jumps out," he said. "We don't think it should be allowed, but there are no pool covers or extensive car repairs."
"Senator Flanagan goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that spending by the campaign is for campaign-related purposes only," said Flanagan spokesman Scott Reif.
There are gray areas.
For example, Flanagan's campaign for more than a decade has paid about $500 a month for a car for him to use for campaigning and extensive state government use as Education Committee chairman. The campaign also has paid for minor repairs at two auto repair shops in Smithtown. While legal under state elections law, the Moreland Commission raised concerns about how to distinguish what is campaign related and what is personal.
Records show the campaign, with a current balance of about $266,000, spent thousands of dollars on items that good government groups don't consider direct campaign expenses. For example, it has paid about $3,000 for small gifts, awards, plaques and donations for Eagle Scouts and others since 2008. That included nearly $1,500 last year, an election year.
On Long Island, the campaign contributed to local charity golf outings, Boy Scout events, $67 to attend an annual prayer breakfast and nearly $6,000 over three years for promotional jackets. In 1996, the campaign spent $100 for Halloween bags for the Greater Smithtown Chamber of Commerce.
The campaign contributes about $100 a year to the annual Father John Papallo Memorial Golf Outing and the Papallo Sons of Italy Lodge in Smithtown. It also gave $400 to the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick organization in 2008.
Flanagan's campaign also pays about $100 each year to the Senate Club and the Legislative Pilots Association, which are organizations of current and former legislators. The clubs hold private, annual alumni dinners often in May at Albany restaurants.
Spending on traditional campaign costs included nearly $45,000 on campaign ads in 2008 from the RWD Group of Spring Valley and $45,000 in 2006 to the Bolton-St. Johns lobbying and campaign consulting firm in New York.
The campaign spent $6,300 on polling from Strategic Planning Systems in Bohemia in 2010, and nearly $10,000 to a Rochester advertising agency from 2006-09. The campaign also supported other political campaigns, contributing nearly $20,000 to Smithtown Republican events since 2005; $4,000 to the Independence Party; $30,000 to Huntington's Republican committee and thousands of dollars more to the state Republican and Senate Republican committees.
Last year, the campaign spent $1,411 for a fundraiser on a Hudson River cruise and a February fundraiser at The University Club in Albany, an exclusive banquet facility in an ornate mansion built in 1901. Since 2005, the campaign spent $20,000 for functions at the club.
The campaign also spent $35,000 for 10 fundraisers since 2008 at the Flowerfield event and catering business in St. James.
Last year, Flanagan's campaign paid Campaigns Unlimited of Shirley $5,500 for political consulting as he won his latest election to the Senate.