August 29, 2013

Why We Need Campaign Finance Reform

Earlier this week I talked about ways to get the money out of politics.  To be sure, many will think they were ridiculous or extreme, but I have to say it sure was good to get them off my chest.  The fact that they will likely never become law, well, that’s just something I’m going to have to fight to change, I guess. 

When you talk about money and term limits in politics, you don’t have to go far in my neck of the woods to find examples where you have to just scratch your head. 
For example: we limit the mayor of Syracuse to two terms; Common Councilors can serve no more than eight years in the same seat – so if you represent a specific seat for two terms, you can then go and serve an additional two terms in an ‘at-large’ seat.  If you move to a different district, you could theoretically serve another two terms there. Does that make sense?

At the Onondaga County level, term limits are anathema. For example, we’ve had only three elected County Executives since the inception of the position.  John Mulroy served as the first Exec, from January 1962 through December 1987; Nick Pirro took over in January 1988 and served through December 2007, and Joanie Mahoney has been in office since then.  
Kevin ‘St Patrick’ Walsh, the County Sheriff, is now in his fifth term, and is already the longest serving sheriff in county history (Walsh portrays the Irish saint every March for the parade). Walsh is collecting a pension as a retired law enforcement officer (some $78K per year) as well as his salary as the elected sheriff, another $110K or so.  He failed to tell voters that he was going to retire until after the election was over – because no one asked him, according to published reports. 

And of course, we have our District Attorney for Life, William J Fitzpatrick, who was sworn in way
Dick Blume/The Post-Standard
back in January 1992 and is now in his sixth four-year term.  Fitz is, to be fair, a man of many accomplishments. He’s also wonderful with a turn of the phrase (sort of).

Not only is he a Big Man on Campus here in Onondaga County, he’s now a BMOC on a bigger campus, having been named co-chair of Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. 

So, now that Fitz is a key player on a commission working on campaign finance reform (as well as public corruption), the irony of the article that appeared in my local newspaper recently is not lost on me. Sara Patterson, a reporter for The Post-Standard, talked about Fitzpatrick's campaign contributions and expenses, and it was an eye-opener.
I was interested less in where the money comes from, but where the money goes. Here’s how Fitz spent lots of his contributions, according to the article, which pulled information from official campaign committee filings:
  • Restaurants and bars: at least $63,000
  • Golf courses, golf clubs, golf tournaments: at least $57,000
  • Donations to other political campaigns or political parties: at least $53,000
  • Polls, political consultants: at least $10,000
  • Ads: at least $64,000
What else was noted in the database The Post-Standard created, which covered financial reports from 2005 -2013?
  • Over $93,000 of the expenses were paid outside of Onondaga County; of that, close to $37,000 was spent outside New York State, in places like New Mexico and Idaho and Hawaii, Virginia and Tennessee and Florida (and, oddly, in Canada).
  • One restaurant  - Peter Lugar's Steakhouse in Brooklyn - received over $29,000 of Fitz's campaign funds.
  • Fitz reimbursed himself over $61,000 out of campaign funds.
Let that last one sink in for a bit -- and then let this sink in. 

Fitzpatrick, so far this year, has reimbursed himself over $12,000 out of campaign funds. During that same time period, he's also paid campaign expenses of almost $26,500 in and outside Onondaga County. And note that this is not an election year for him; he's next on the ballot for DA in 2015, having just been re-elected in 2011 to a four-year term in which he ran unopposed (for the fourth time).

Listen, I have no problem with expenses for advertising, polling, signs and the materials to make them, postage, website design, and so on -- all of which are noted in Fitzpatrick's filings.  Those are what I would expect campaign contributions to be used for.

And I'm not suggesting that our DA is doing anything unethical or illegal with how he spends campaign contributions. An election law expert would be able to tell us if these expenses are legal within the confines of campaign finance laws in New York, but I suspect they are. And that's a problem.

It's also a problem if people who donate money to local political campaign committees are not aware that their donations may be used for golf, steak dinners, travel expenses to meetings out of state, television appearances, contributions to political housekeeping accounts and other candidates, or what I loosely bucketed as 'charitable contributions', which include retirement dinners for judges, benefits to help raise funds for various causes, recreation leagues, unions, fraternal organizations and the like. 

That's not a comment on the value of the organizations or causes Fitz spends donor money on; heck, I think I've probably donated to some of the same ones he did. The difference is, when I do it, it's with my own money, not money given to me by other people in support of my election campaign.

Folks, the system is broken, and it needs to be fixed. The people selected to investigate and recommend changes are currently benefiting from the laws they'll be investigating. 

Are they the right people to fix it?  Want to talk about it over a steak dinner?


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