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Syracuse, N.Y. – Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, a co-chair of the panel investigating public corruption in New York, has changed his mind on public financing of campaigns, saying he now supports the idea of using taxpayer money to finance candidates running for office.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” the Republican said Sunday evening on WRVO’s “The Campbell Conversations” with Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “If the money’s not there, I’m inclined not to spend it. But in reality, based on what I’ve learned over the last couple of months, I’m now a proponent of public financing,” Fitzpatrick said.
Public financing of campaigns, Fitzpatrick added, would lessen the pay-to-play atmosphere in Albany that has led to criminal indictments. Comparing the cost of those crimes with the cost of public financing – “The savings ultimately would be astronomical in the long run,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick also said the commission has “discovered criminality” during its investigations of campaign finance, but he did not offer any specifics.
The commission is due to make its first round of findings and recommendations on Dec. 1, and he intimated some wrongdoing would be part of that report. “What will attract people’s attention the most will be the investigative end of the report,” the district attorney said. “And that will be just preliminary.”
Fitzpatrick is one of three co-chairs on the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo under the state Moreland Act. The commission has subpoena powers and is investigating the state’s campaign finance laws, enforcement of those laws and the relationship between some state lawmakers and their private-sector work and clients. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, another Republican, is also a member of the panel.
After the Dec. 1 report, the Moreland Comimssion will continue to work for another year on rooting out problems in the state’s campaign financing laws and enforcements.
Here are some other points Fitzpatrick made during the taped interview:
Illegal use of housekeeping accounts
By law, political parties can raise money for housekeeping accounts to pay for staff or supplies that go to running the party.
“Unfortunately, we are discovering evidence that I’m not going to go into with any great detail of specificity, but will say that the evidence we’ve uncovered so far indicates that that, again, is a sham,” Fitzpatrick said. “The housekeeping accounts are used for partisan political purposes, which is not legal.”
There are no contribution limits to housekeeping accounts, which allows donors to dump thousands of dollars toward party politics, he said.
“I guess they think we can’t follow the money,” Fitzpatrick said. “But we are.”
“Gambling at Ricks? I’m appalled.”
Fitzpatrick has said several times in recent weeks that the more he learns about campaign laws in New York, the more shocked he is that much of the behavior is, currently, legal. In the interview with Reeher, Fitzpatrick was ready with an abbreviated version of the Claude Rains’ lines from “Casablanca,” and some examples of the legal actions.
For example, Fitzpatrick offered the LLC loophole. There are limits for donations from individual donors and corporations. But people can give almost unlimited amounts by setting up multiple limited liability corporations. In 2011 and 2012, Manhattan developer Leonard Litwin gave nearly $2 million through various LLCs under his management, the New York Daily News reported.
“Why is it legal? And why isn’t the legislature putting a stop to it?” Fitzpatrick told Reeher. “It’s become a way of life for them, these massive amounts of money.”
Also, some political candidates don’t list any specific reasons for reimbursements paid from their own campaign accounts, Fitzpatrick said. “There’s no specificity at all,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars on unspecified reimbursements.”
New watchdog needed to enforce campaign laws
Fitzpatrick was not impressed with the answers from New York’s State Board of Elections at a recent public hearing. The board is in charge of enforcing the state’s election and campaign finance laws. On the one hand, the board says it is understaffed. On the other, its sole investigator spends time at work playing solitaire and reading the Bible.
In the last five years, the board has opened less than six investigations, Fitzpatrick said. And, the prosecutor learned, the board refuses to act on anonymous complaints. “That was not a very good evening for the Board of Elections,” Fitzpatrick deadpanned.
He said he believes the commission will recommend that another state agency take over investigations from the Board of Elections.
State lawmakers as lawyers
The commission has subpoenaed some state lawmakers – including Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and a friend of Fitzpatrick – to find out more about how they earn money as lawyers in their private careers as lawyers. Some, like DeFrancisco, Fitzpatrick said, earn money representing clients that is easily checked by referring to court filings. Others, however, earn retainers from law firms without showing up as the attorney of record in any court cases, Fitzpatrick said.
“What we would like to know is, what are you doing to earn that retainer?” Fitzpatrick said. “We don’t know if they have an office, if they file motions, if they argue appeals,” Fitzpatrick said. “We don’t know what they do. Is that a problem? It certainly can be.”
Fitzpatrick said the commission isn’t asking for information that would jeopardize privileged conversations between lawyers and clients. Lawyers with a track record of representing clients, Fitzpatrick said, should have no worries, and he used DeFrancisco as an example.
“John DeFrancisco is a very, very successful lawyer,” Fitzpatrick said. “I know John is going to resist the subpoena. But he could very easily answer that question because he’s a very successful lawyer.”
No influence from Cuomo
Fitzpatrick said he’s never received any direction from Cuomo on pursuing or avoiding any potential targets in the commission’s investigations.
“I have never, in my many conversations with the governor, ever felt the slightest bit of pressure on his part to subpoena somebody, not subpoena another person,” Fitzpatrick said. “I respect his advice. I love talking to the guy.”
Contact Teri Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org, 315-470-2274 or on Twitter at @TeriKWeaver.