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Even out of office, New York lawmakers still spending cash

December 1, 2011
Former Senator Vincent Leibell heads into court to find out his sentencing.

Photo Credit Politics on the Hudson, LoHud

In December, former Buffalo Sen. Antoine Thompson spent $750 at a TGI Friday’s from his campaign account.

The Senate committee for disgraced Sen. Vincent Leibell, R-Patterson, Putnam County, spent $931 on tires in November and $267 on two trips to Barnes & Noble in Danbury, Conn., late last year. His Senate committee had just $1,882 left as of last month.

And former Assemblyman David Koon, D-Perinton, Monroe County, treated his outgoing staff to a steak dinner at an upscale Pittsford steakhouse at a cost of $504 through his campaign.

The lawmakers all lost on Election Day last November, but they continued to dip into their campaign accounts for meals, expenses and even $10,000 for a car, a review of campaign-finance records shows.

And it’s legal.

State law allows ex-elected officials to continue to use their campaign funds even if they are out of office, and the law is so vague that there are few limits on how they can spend the money, watchdog groups said.

“Right now it’s to help out a few organizations and contemplate what I’ll do politically in the future,” Thompson, a Democrat who lost to Republican Mark Grisanti, said of his leftover money.

He said he has not yet made contributions to any organization with the nearly $4,000 left in his account, but he has helped fund his weekly radio show on WUFO in Buffalo with $600 of it.

Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said ex-lawmakers should be required to give their campaign donations back to donors or to charity.

“Campaign contributions were given to be used in the campaign,” he said.

“There’s always a chance,” he said about the possibility for reform in the campaign-finance law. “But lawmakers are reluctant to give up their war chest.”

New York has long been criticized for campaign finance loopholes that let lawmakers spend campaign cash as long as it’s related “to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”

That has been interpreted to mean just about anything — from meals and trips to cars and cable bills. And when public officials leave office, there’s nothing that prevents them from continuing to spend the money.

The account for Leibell, who pleaded guilty to felony corruption charges last year, used campaign money recently to pay off some bills for cars and other charges, including $114 at a Brewster car wash and $89 at Home Depot. He also had a campaign account for his successful run for Putnam County executive, but that account was empty as of January. He never took office because of the guilty plea.

Koon had $11,217 left in his account, but said he has no plans with what he’ll do with it yet.

Since his Election Day loss to Republican Mark Johns, Koon has used money from the account to buy his staff a goodbye dinner at Peter Geyer’s Steakhouse in Pittsford. He also gave a few hundred dollars to a few members of his staff to “help them find jobs,” he said.

“Everything I’ve done is above board and ethical,” Koon said. “I can get up in the morning and say I’ve done everything I can to help my constituents.”

In another case, Queens Sen. Frank Padavan, recently ousted by Democratic Sen. Tony Avella, spent $10,000 at Major Chrysler Jeep on Long Island two weeks after Election Day.

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Former Assemblyman Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, Erie County, donated some of his leftover campaign money to charities, but also shipped $5,000 to the campaign account of Erie County Executive Chris Collins. Quinn lost a bid for the Senate last November.

According to John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, the law that governs campaign accounts is extremely broad.

“Contributions received by a candidate can be used for any lawful purpose,” he said.

That includes making payments on a car or giving to a charity, as long as a family member doesn’t sit on the board of that charity, Conklin said.

The law has been specified slowly on a case-by-case basis. It has been ruled in past cases that paying for legal fees is an example of a permissible expenditure. According to Conklin, an example of a disallowed use of campaign money is paying for campaign volunteers’ parking tickets.

Some lawmakers when they leave office have chosen to give their money to other political candidates or charities.

Former Sen. Thomas Morahan, a Republican who died last year after battling leukemia, had about $54,000 in his campaign account. After paying off some residual expenses, nearly all of the money will go to charity, as Morahan had asked for in a list he crafted before his death, said his daughter Joan Silvestri.

“He was a strong proponent of people having the option (to go to private school),” said Silvestri, who serves as one of the commissioners of the Rockland County Board of Elections, said.

Donations from the account have already been made to Morahan’s former high school, Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, she said, and future donations will be made to charities serving those with disabilities.

Former Sen. George Winner, R-Elmira, has over $135,000 left in his campaign account as of January after retiring last year.

“I have no firm plans at all,” Winner said regarding his account. “However, I expect to be active in making contributions to future candidates and charitable contributions.”

The law does not set any timeframe by which an account must be emptied.

There have been bills put forth to try and tighten up the definition of what is legal, but they have failed.

As recently as last year, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, Ulster County, along with Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, put forth such a bill.

The bill set a specific list of items that out-of-office legislators could use their campaign money on. The list included provisions for charitable organizations, state universities, the state general fund and political conferences, according to Conor Bambrick, Cahill’s legislative director.

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