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Battle lines drawn over public financing legislation

Protesters wear dollar bills and tape over their

Protesters wear dollar bills and tape over their mouths to symbolize the power of money in politics outside a Senate hearing highlighting abuses in the public financing of campaigns in Albany. (May 7, 2013) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- A day after a prominent senator was indicted, the battle over public financing of campaigns intensified Tuesday at the State Capitol.

Democrats advanced a bill to use taxpayers' dollars for campaigns, Republicans blasted the idea as a waste and protesters heckled lawmakers through a window after being blocked from a campaign-finance hearing.

Meanwhile, a watchdog group unveiled a report that said it found more than 100,000 violations of state campaign-finance laws in the last two years, including 278 corporations that used subsidiaries to get around contribution limits.

The tumult came after a flurry of indictments of elected officials in the last five weeks, culminating with the arrest of state Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) on embezzlement charges Monday. Sampson, 47, who until a few months ago led the Senate Democratic conference, has been accused of embezzling $440,000 to finance a run for Brooklyn district attorney and recruiting a mole in the U.S. attorney's office to try to thwart a federal probe.

Five other current or former state legislators have been charged in separate cases since the beginning of April.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, legislative Democrats and good-government groups have tried to capitalize on the indictments to push for a range of changes, especially public financing of campaigns. They said it would remove "money from politics" and reduce corruption.

But Republicans fired back, saying it wouldn't deter criminal behavior. "This whole thing has been billed as something that's going to root out corruption," said Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse). "But if you're a crook, you're a crook."

His remarks came at a GOP-sponsored hearing on what it called "abuses" of New York City's public-financing system that gives candidates $6 in taxpayer funds for every $1 they raise.

About two dozen public financing supporters were blocked from the hearing room on the first floor of the Capitol; Republican officials cited capacity issues. When a staffer cracked open a window to vent the cramped room, protesters flocked outside the building, stuck their heads through the window and chanted: "Let the people in!"

The window was quickly closed again.

On the other side of the building, the Democrat-led Assembly passed a bill that would enact public financing and limit how the money is used. (The bill has little chance of approval in the politically split Senate.)

The New York Public Interest Research Group released a report saying it found 103,805 apparent violations of state campaign-finance laws. Many of the violations appeared to be technical in nature, such as not listing addresses on expenditures. They said that lax disclosure makes it difficult if not possible for the state to perform proper audits.

For more than a decade, watchdog groups have criticized politicians for regularly using campaign funds to pay for cars, catering and gifts, among other things. But New York's election board has routinely said the state's broad election laws allow lawmakers to use money on pretty much anything that's deemed campaign-related.

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