An anti-corruption panel grilled state Board of Elections leaders Monday night over lax enforcement of campaign-finance laws, which some blamed on partisan political dysfunction.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who co-chairs Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, began a four-hour public hearing at the Javits Center in Manhattan by calling the state's campaign-finance system "deeply broken," and "rarely transparent."
In a precursor of what would be an evening of tense exchanges, Rice introduced testimony by the BOE's Republican and Democratic co-directors by noting the board hadn't been fully cooperative with commission requests. One board employee, after receiving a subpoena, retired, left the state and said she "will not be returning to give testimony," Rice recounted.
Much of the hearing went on to focus on the BOE's enforcement unit, which agency leaders called "woefully under-resourced," but which commission members accused of all but ignoring scores of potential campaign-finance violations it could have been investigating, including any complaints brought forward anonymously.
"You are representing to us that you're up to your eyes in work, yet you have an investigator sitting at his computer playing solitaire?" a commission member, Warren County District Attorney Kathleen B. Hogan, asked of a board leader, referencing the previous testimony of an investigator who had acknowledged playing computer games while in the office.
Moreland Commission members said at one point that top state BOE staff voted to issue subpoenas and open a formal investigation based on a complaint just four times since 2008 -- and only once since 2009 -- yet has had backlogs of roughly 300 cases.
But BOE leaders insisted they're doing the best they can with limited resources, saying its campaign-finance unit of 17 employees must ensure compliance from 14,099 filers. That workload, they said, is far beyond New York City's elections board, which has a 89-member enforcement unit to monitor only 560 filers.
In written testimony, BOE officials recommended the state could improve campaign-finance disclosure efforts by investing in improved technology, mandating training for treasurers of individual committees and requiring better coordination between the BOE and county elections boards.
"There's a painting of the Board of Elections . . . in an unfair light," said William McCann, the state elections board's deputy enforcement counsel.
The board, with a $5.3 million budget and 58 employees, is run by both Democratic and GOP appointees. Good-government groups have long said the structure leads to gridlock that slows campaign-finance investigations. On Monday night, some protested by silently holding dollar bills over their mouths during board officials' testimony.
Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group disputed the board's workload characterization, saying that only 39 percent of filing groups in the state were active and that the agency's 14,100 calculation is inflated.
"There are plenty of enforcement actions that would be relatively simple to execute with their current staff," Mahoney said. "Clearly, they're simply not interested in beefing up their enforcement operations."