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NY law has long let officials use campaign funds for defense

July 27, 2021 Marina Villeneuve, Associated Press
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Some legislators want to change New York’s campaign finance rules after Gov. Andrew Cuomo used $285,000 in political donations to pay lawyers representing him in sexual harassment and misconduct investigations.

New York politicians have used millions of dollars in campaign funds in recent years to pay lawyers defending them against allegations of wrongdoing, according to tallies kept by the New York Public Interest Research Group. The list includes former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former state Senate leader Dean Skelos, former state Senate leader Joseph Bruno and former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

That kind of campaign spending is allowed under certain conditions but many still find it distasteful.

“It’s completely bizarre and it makes no sense because campaign contributions are supposed to be for campaigns, not for other things,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the ethics watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “Defending yourself in a criminal matter is not the same as running a campaign and it’s fairly obvious.”

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So far, sentiments like that haven’t led to changes. Proposals to ban campaign committees from covering legal expenses related to alleged misconduct have failed to advance since 2013.

Many taxpayers recoil at one alternative, which is to have the government pick up the legal bills of officeholders being investigated.

“Using campaign funds instead of taxpayer dollars for this purpose has been well established for decades,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said in a statement defending the use of campaign cash for legal bills.

New York’s attorney general is investigating allegations that Cuomo sexually harassed several state employees. An Assembly committee is investigating whether there are grounds for impeachment. Federal authorities are examining whether the administration manipulated data about COVID-19 deaths of nursing home patients.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.

The idea that political candidates should be allowed to use campaign money to pay for a legal defense is grounded in the reality that elected officials do occasionally face spurious lawsuits and politically motivated investigations.

But state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring one bill calling for changes, said politicians facing serious allegations related to personal misconduct should pay legal costs out-of-pocket.

“I think it’s a bait-and-switch when you solicit campaign support and then use it for your defense in a large investigation or a trial,” Hoylman said, adding that he doesn’t think the state should be paying Cuomo’s legal bills, either. “When it involves malfeasance and serious charges, that’s where I think a taxpayer is right to take umbrage that they shouldn’t be paying for those legal fees.”

Cuomo could afford to pay for lawyers himself. He is set to be paid more than $5 million for a book he wrote about leadership through the coronavirus pandemic.

Former President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee spent unprecedented millions of dollars on legal fees related to a long list of investigations, including former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election meddling.

Trump’s campaign also paid the legal fees of associates caught up in lawsuits and investigations, as did the RNC, which also picked up the tab for several of Trump’s second impeachment lawyers. Several legal defense funds, including one called the Patriot Legal Expense Fund were also established allowing donors to foot former Trump aides’ legal bills.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, chiefly relied on a legal defense fund, set up separately from his campaign but still funded by political supporters, to pay legal bills related to investigations into his conduct with women and alleged perjury.

Some say such funds promote transparency, though others say they are just another way for donors to buy influence.

New York does limit what legal expenses a campaign can cover. Political contributions can’t be used for purely personal things unrelated to a campaign or public office.

“You can’t pay a lawyer for a house closing. That’s a good example of what you can’t do,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a longtime New York election lawyer who worked in the state attorney general’s office when Cuomo was attorney general. He declined to comment on the specifics of Cuomo’s spending.

Years ago, Cuomo used $400,000 in campaign funds for lawyers representing him in a federal investigation of his shutdown of a state anti-corruption commission. That inquiry was closed without anyone being charged.

On the federal level, the Federal Elections Commission allows candidates to pay legal expenses with campaign funds, but not in matters where the expense wouldn’t exist if the person wasn’t a candidate or officeholder.

Sometimes what counts as a prohibited personal use can be ambiguous.

“Frankly, I think in the case of Cuomo, clearly if it’s allegations of sexual harassment, it would seem to me that the New York law is a little too expansive,” former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel said in an interview. “Because that is a purely personal act, despite the fact that he was able to engage in it because of his position.”

In the private sector, a company might pay for lawyers for an executive accused of sexual harassment. Or, it might refuse to do so, depending on the circumstances.

The state has also picked up some legal costs related to Cuomo investigations, paying out $760,000 so far to a Manhattan law firm in the federal probe related to nursing homes.

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