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Court clears the way for infusion of funds to Joe Lhota's campaign

Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota arrives for debate

Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota arrives for debate against Democratic nominee Bill deBlasio at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. (Oct. 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

A federal appeals court cleared the way Thursday for supporters of Joe Lhota to contribute unlimited funds to a political action committee backing his mayoral bid, and experts said the decision could change the city and state fundraising landscape.

The Second Circuit reversed a Manhattan federal judge's rejection of a preliminary injunction in suit by the New York Progress and Protection PAC. The group challenged a state law that limits contributions to independent-expenditure groups from any individual to $150,000 annually.

"New York City voters will now get a more democratic mayoral race, one with an even financial playing field," said Terry Pell, a lawyer in the PAC case and president of The Center for Individual Rights.

Martin Connor, a former state senator and an election attorney unaffiliated with the case, said the ruling could encourage wealthy donors to challenge other contribution limits. "The landscape is rapidly changing in terms of what the state of New York can do to control campaign contributions and political spending."

Lhota, a Republican with a 3-1 polling disadvantage against Democratic front-runner Bill de Blasio, needs cash to boost his campaign, but Connor predicted that with 11 days until the election, it's likely too late to make Lhota competitive.

The PAC, composed of out-of-state GOP operatives, sued the state Board of Elections last month, contending that the cap infringed upon its right to buy pro-Lhota television ads.

PAC treasurer Craig Engle wouldn't discuss fundraising.

A separate pro-Lhota PAC,to which conservative oil billionaire David Koch and his wife, Julia, each have given $145,050, also could benefit from the court decision.

"We expect to play by the new rules," said Michael McKeon, president of the New Yorkers for Proven Leadership PAC. Asked whether he expects an infusion of donations, McKeon said, "Time will tell."

De Blasio's campaign slammed the ruling Thursday with an online ad titled "Don't Let the Koch Brothers Buy this Election."

"Today's decision will empower the right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, and tea party groups who support Joe Lhota to drown out the voices of New Yorkers," said de Blasio spokeswoman Lis Smith in a statement.

"Virtually all Americans understand the corrupting impact of moneyed special interests, able to write unlimited checks, on our political discourse and the health of our democracy," another critic, Susan Lerner, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause New York, said in a statement. Lhota said he has had "nothing to do with that case" because it is illegal for a candidate to have any connection with these PACs.

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