Analysis | Close Friends in City Government: Money and Politics

A trusted editor of mine would always intone, "You cannot take the politics out of politics," especially when money is involved, which it usually is. Hence the corollary: you cannot take the money out of politics.

New York City has some of the country's most stringent laws and rules to limit the influence of money in politics. But they do only so much, as we were reminded yet again recently by revelations about questionable practices by Comptroller John Liu and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who finances his own campaigns, cuts corners — different corners, but corners nonetheless.

In Liu's case, some people listed as his donors said they had not in fact  contributed to him, while others said someone else donated to Liu using their names, according to the New York Times report. In its story about Liu, the Times found many donor cards filled out in the same handwriting — a sure sign of irregularities.

The comptroller denies wrongdoing, and now the Campaign Finance Board is investigating, as is a former State Comptroller, who is looking into the matter at Liu’s behest.

Markowitz's alleged tactic is more creative, but just as ethically dubious. He has reportedly stitched together an effective system to support his self-appointed role as Brooklyn booster and power broker by creating four charities and supposedly encouraging (often demanding) wealthy donors to contribute to them.

The Times, which broke this story, too, said that these donors "usually have one thing in common: They have a stake in city legislation, real estate projects, zoning disputes and other Brooklyn issues.’’

Markowitz defended his actions, arguing that his non-profits benefit the public and his policy positions are unrelated to the donations.

Nothing Markowitz has done seems to violate the law – just its spirit.  Liu, or people working for him, might well have broken the law if indeed “straw donors” made contributions.

The law was broken during the Bloomberg re-election campaign two years ago by a political operative who stole from the mayor. Bloomberg was the victim – but he inadvertently enabled the crime, by taking advantage of a loophole in the law. How? The mayor wrote a $1.1 million contribution to the Independence Party for a poll-watching operation.

By making the donation himself instead of having his campaign do the honors, the mayor did not have to report the contribution until after Election Day. That way, the public would not know about the poll watching operation, a questionable tactic which critics call voter suppression.

The $1.1 million contribution (a small fraction of the $105 million the mayor spent on his 2009 campaign) was never spent on a political operation anyway, whether you call it poll watching or voter suppression.  The Independence Party turned over the mayor's money to a campaign worker — John Haggerty — who instead of manning the polls with troops the day of the election used nearly all of the money to buy a house.

Haggerty was just convicted of  second-degree grand larceny and second-degree money laundering.  Now the Campaign Finance Board is investigating the matter, first reported by the New York Post’s David Seifman, including whether the $1.1 million should have been reported as a campaign expense — and therefore made public before the election — in the first place. 

Maybe the city will strengthen its laws and oversight because of these cases. Maybe Brooklyn voters will look askance as Markowitz’s claims and non-profits.  Maybe. But New Yorkers need have no doubt that there will be future violations of the political spending laws, rules and the ethics. A my old editor would say, it comes with the territory.