Monday, January 13, 2014

Escalating Corruptive Influence of Money in NYC Politics, But No Public Advocacy (Updated)

On the same day when Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was convicted on federal corruption charges of trading his office for money come new reports that public officials flout campaign finance and ethics regulations. The question everybody keeps asking : where are the good government groups and the public advocate ?

Susan-Lerner-Tish-James-Government-Watchogs-Asleep-At-The-Switch photo Susan-Lerner-Tish-James_zps0be2be4d.jpg

Common Cause/NY, a "good government" group dedicated to fighting the "excessive influence of money on government policy and elections" is silent on the campaign finance questions engulfing Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Councilmember Margaret Chin

Susan Lerner, who heads Common Cause/NY, has been missing in action (MIA) as the press increasingly report serious questions about the political fundraising and electioneering payments in the recent past municipal election cycle.

Some of Mayor de Blasio's campaign contributors exploited loopholes, allowing them to make donations that were double or triple the legal limit, The New York Daily News reported. Last week, muckraking reporter Jill Colvin of Politicker reported that many of Mayor de Blasio's transition campaign donors have business before the city, creating a potential conflict of interest.

During her controversial post-election campaigning for the Council speakership, Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito openly flouted campaign finance and city ethics regulations. Indeed, her primary speakership campaign consulting firm, The Advance Group, had triggered its own campaign finance investigation. Further, both the mayor and the Council speaker both benefitted from their relationship to Scott Levenson, the head of The Advance Group, even though he was tied to fundraising controversy when he administered a $1 million Super PAC. Left unexplained is how Speaker Mark-Viverito, a leader of the Council's Progressive Caucus, can reconcile her close association with The Advance Group in spite of its scandalous anti-LGBT campaign work.

Another member of the Progressive Caucus is Councilmember Margaret Chin, who exploited campaign finance laws to pay some campaign workers bonuses in contravention to regulations.

Though all these, and other violations of campaign finance and city ethics regulations are playing out publicly in the press, not once has Ms. Lerner challenged the new city officials.

Public Advocate Tish James, who is a publicly-elected government watchdog, is also eerily silent, even though she promised to hold the de Blasio administration accountable to ethics.

Joining Ms. Lerner in MIA status is the city's public advocate, Tish James. Both share similar motivations to bring transparency and accountability to government, but both are asleep at the switch.

We most recently heard from Ms. Lerner, when she was opposing Speaker Mark-Viverito's challenger, Councilmember Daniel Garodnick. Perhaps Ms. Lerner only plays favorites ?

As for the new public advocate, at a debate last September she said that although she supported Mayor de Blasio, she would remain an independent watchdog. But what explains why Ms. James has been silent on all these campaign finance and ethics violations ?

The problem of the outsized influence of money and lobbyists in politics is, of course, larger than just the corruption it introduces into municipal elections. The corruptive influence of money has been shown to exist on the state level with Assemblyman Stevenson's conviction, and on the federal level, too, with, for example, the arrest of Diana Durand on election fraud charges for "using straw donors to exceed campaign contribution limits" to Rep. Michael Grimm’s 2010 campaign, The New York Post reported.

The questionable role of an Obama administration official, leading to a complaint of ethics violations.

Patrick Gaspard, the United States Ambassador to South Africa, allegedly violated federal law, according to a report in The New York Post. The law forbids government workers from "engaging in partisan activity by promoting pal Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, an ethics complaint claims," The NYPost reported, adding, "The complaint, filed by Republican activist O’Brien Murray, cited media reports that Gaspard, President Obama’s former political director, helped pull strings from South Africa to aid de Blasio’s campaign." The report also includes references to actions taken by Mr. Gaspard to electioneer the successful speakership campaign of Mayor de Blasio's chief Council ally, Ms. Mark-Viverito. See, also, Patrick Gaspard, ambassador to South Africa, helped de Blasio campaign: Joe Lhota aide : Republican operative O’Brien Murray complains that the envoy violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that bans most government officials from partisan political activity (The New York Daily News)

The complaint against Mr. Gaspard will be reviewed by federal authorites. "Complaints about possible violations of the Hatch Act are handled by the federal Office of Special Counsel," The New York Daily News reported. It's uncertain how truly independent the Office of Special Counsel will be in reviewing allegations of wrongdoing against Mr. Gaspard, who is the former White House political director. Locally, the complaints about violations of municipal campaign finance and ethics violations may prove to invoke conflicts of interests. A major concern raised about the illicit campaign finance activities of Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, and Councilmember Chin is that the mayor and the speaker both oversee the Campaign Finance Board, the municipal body responsible for investigating allegations of campaign corruption. Separately, the mayor himself oversees the Department of Investigation, the city agency that would investigate allegations of ethics violations. The Conflicts of Interests Board also answers to the mayor. The way the government is set up, there is no way for city officials to hold the mayor, the Council speaker, and other councilmembers accountable if good government groups and the public advocate abdicate their government watchdog role, which appears to be what they have already decided to do.

That only leaves the press and possibly federal corruption prosecutors to keep City Hall and City Council accountable.

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