Hammond in the Daily News: Our Toothless Watchdogs [Op-Ed]

Our toothless watchdogs

The state Board of Elections is run by the political parties, for the political parties

The Daily News

Bill Hammond

October 29, 2013

The toughest jobs in New York politics on Monday belonged to three state Board of Elections honchos called to testify before Gov. Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission.

Their impossible mission was to defend an enforcement agency that’s widely and deservedly regarded as a doormat — making it one of the chief enablers of Albany’s pay-to-play culture.

The case presented by coexecutive directors Robert Brehm and Todd Valentine and deputy enforcement counsel William McCann boiled down to two points:

(1) We’re doing a fantastic job.

(2) We can’t do our job properly because we don’t have enough money.

Not only are those claims contradictory, but neither holds up to much scrutiny.

First, it’s laughable for the board to declare — as it did in prepared testimony — that it “stands behind its demonstrated record of facilitating a high rate of disclosure, where non-compliance with the law is the exception and not the rule.”

In fact — as anyone passingly familiar with the state’s campaign finance laws could tell you — the system is riddled with violations big and small

In fact, the wealthy interests that pump millions into political warchests routinely and easily evade the laws that the Board of Elections is supposed to be enforcing.

A New York Public Interest Research Group summarized the situation in a 2012 report:

“Every year, hundreds of donors give more money than is allowed by state law . . . scores of candidates fail to disclose large contributions received in the run-up to Election Day; thousands of filings obfuscate the identity of donors or the purpose of expenditures . . . and dozens of incumbent lawmakers spend campaign funds for what reasonable people would unanimously agree are non-campaign reasons.”

The same report found that 2,328 fund-raising committees with $31 million in the bank failed to disclose any activity at all.

That’s hardly a record to crow about.

As for resources, there’s no question the board is stretched with a staff of 53 and a budget of $6.5 million. By comparison, the election agency for Illinois, with 7 million fewer citizens, has a staff of 77 and a $13.4 million budget.

Yet the board makes questionable use of what money it does have. It spins its wheels going after hundreds of companies that exceed the corporate donation limit of $5,000 a year. Yet it does nothing to stop the millions flowing through the so-called LLC loophole, which allows limited liability corporations to donate almost any amount.

Example: In the 2011-12 election cycle, Manhattan developer Leonard Litwin managed to donate almost $2 million through various LLCs in his control.

Nor has the board lifted a finger to stop rampant abuse of so-called housekeeping accounts, which allow political parties to collect literally unlimited contributions from all comers — and hide their identities until after the election. Parties are supposed to use these funds for administrative costs, yet they routinely spend them on full-fledged campaigning — with impunity.

What really stymies the board from being an effective political cop is its hyperpolitical structure: The Democrats pick two commissioners, the Republicans pick the other two — and they split the staff down the middle.

This empowers each party to veto decisions it regards as disadvantaging its side — while allowing both parties to team up for the mutual benefit of insiders.

The board itself, naturally, defends this setup — claiming in its testimony that it’s “a cohesive agency working under bipartisan leadership.”

The LLC loophole was one byproduct of that bipartisan cooperation. It was born when the Democrats and Republicans agreed that these newfangled business entities were neither corporations nor partnerships, and were therefore unbound by the legal limits on either group.

“The board is an effective and cohesive unit when it comes to increasing the role of special interest money in politics,” says NYPIRG’s Bill Mahoney.

The theory behind dividing up power this way is that the parties will keep each other honest. That ignores the reality that noninsiders are increasingly alienated from both of the major parties. Unaligned independents are the fastest-growing voter bloc and, when combined with third party members, collectively outnumber registered Republicans in New York.

The parties are losing the people. And the Board of Elections is government by the parties, of the parties and for the parties. No wonder it’s such a mess.

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