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Bill would force convicted pols to close campaign accounts

New York State Sen. Todd Kaminsky in Mineola

New York State Sen. Todd Kaminsky in Mineola on April 30, 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — Elected officials convicted of corruption would be required to close their campaign funds within two years and no longer be able to use them to curry favor with other politicians or pay lawyers’ bills from prison, according to one of the first anti-corruption bills introduced this year.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said the measure he introduced Tuesday would end a longtime practice of convicted politicians continuing to use their campaign funds to keep a hand in politics and to help set up careers after prison.

“If a candidate betrays the public’s trust, he should not be allowed to dole out campaign cash to his cronies from a jail cell,” said Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s time we kill these zombie accounts.”

Common Cause-NY, a good-government group, endorsed the bill Tuesday.

“Once an elected official has betrayed the public’s trust, he should be stripped of his power — campaign cash is no exception,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. “In Albany, money equals power, and if someone is behind bars on corruption charges, he shouldn’t be allowed to hold onto donations meant for campaigning. Simple as that."

In July, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) had $43,868 left in his campaign account more than three years after he left his elected post and was charged with corruption. He spent $400,000 last year in campaign funds to pay his defense attorneys. He began serving a four-year sentence in federal prison on Tuesday.

In 2016, the last time former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver reported any activity in his campaign account, he still had $141,144 left after using the account to pay his defense attorneys.

The bill also has a majority conference co-sponsor in the Assembly in Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre).  “No one should benefit after the fact that they are sentenced to jail, ” Griffin said. “Their campaign funds should be better spent.”

Under the bill, candidates convicted of felonies would have to return campaign contributions, donate them to charity, donate them to the State University of New York or the City University of New York, or donate the funds to the state general fund.

The bill would add to an existing law. Currently, the law addresses accounts for politicians who die and requires that their campaign accounts be closed within two years of their death. That could bolster the new bill’s chances.

However, the Kaminsky bill also would prohibit donating the campaign funds to another politician for either dead or convicted politicians. Currently, the campaign account of a dead politician can be used to fund a candidate or political party. That could complicate the debate.

The bill wouldn’t be retroactive.

“This bill, along with other much needed electoral reforms, will go a long way towards making the system work for the people, not politicians,” said Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Huntington) at a news conference on Tuesday.

Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said the bill is a “firm and necessary step toward a more honest and transparent New York State government” after the Skelos corruption case tarnished the reputation of the state and Nassau County government.

The idea was recommended by the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in its 2013 report.

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