On Jan. 15 of last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the strictest gun control law in the nation. After national heartbreak over the murder of 26 people at the Sandy Hook elementary school, Cuomo galvanized feeling into action and got the notably ponderous New York Legislature to pass the bill on the very first day of session.
It was Cuomo at his most politically brilliant — followed by Cuomo at his most politically shrewd.
Less than two months later, an ad began appearing on TV screens across the state. With her husband seated beside her in a wheelchair, Sarah Brady spoke directly to the camera.
“Thirty two years ago, my husband Jim Brady was shot standing next to President Ronald Reagan…Thanks to the courage and leadership of Gov. Cuomo, New York state passed the strongest gun law in the country.”
A deft campaign move, mentioning Ronald Reagan and Cuomo inside of 10 seconds. But the ad wasn’t paid for by the Cuomo campaign. Instead, it was funded by the New York State Democratic Committee “housekeeping account,” an obscure but powerful vehicle for the governor, and the linchpin of a network of interlocking campaign accounts that have made meaningful opposition to Cuomo all but impossible.
Even discounting this network, Cuomo has raised a record-breaking $45 million for his re-election, in increments of up to $60,800 — New York's cap and the highest campaign contribution limit in the nation. But the housekeeping account goes one better. It has no contribution limits. Zero.
“You can give an unlimited amount to the housekeeping campaign,” Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the New York State League of Women Voters, said in a telephone interview. "You could write a check to the housekeeping committee for, let’s say, $5 million if you so desire.”
No one has written a check for $5 million. But Cuomo did get $1 million for the housekeeping account from hedge fund magnate James Simons. Developers John Zuccotti and Larry Silverstein gave over $200,000 each.
There’s a trade-off for collecting sums like that. New York election law says housekeeping expenditures are “to maintain party headquarters and staff and carry on ordinary activities that are not for the express purpose of promoting the candidacy of specific candidates.” Party building, not campaigning. For that, there's a party "campaign" account, which is limited to $103,200 per donor.
Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for both the state Democrats and the Cuomo campaign, maintains those Brady ads couldn't be campaign ads because they didn’t run in a campaign year. Instead, they were about “policies of the legislature.”
But records show the consultants who placed those ads were the very same political gurus working for the governor’s campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit called Buying Time. And the records show that a lot of ads were bought last year — $5 million in all.
In May 2013, the housekeeping committee wrote a $900,000 check to Buying Time. A day later, an ad began appearing, featuring Cuomo looking straight into the camera. “I am proposing a clean-up Albany plan to fight corruption," he said. "It empowers our district attorneys, it increases criminal penalties. It decreases the influence of money in politics.”
Yes, that’s right. To pay for an ad about decreasing the influence of money and politics, Cuomo used an account with no contribution limits whatsoever. One of the main goals of ethics reformers has been to curtail housekeeping contributions.
Just a couple of months after that not-a-campaign ad ran, Cuomo’s own campaign committee paid Buying Time another $430,000 to run a virtually identical ad, with the same bright piano music underneath – even using the same font in the “paid for by” message.
“I am appointing a new independent commission led by top law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing," Cuomo said in the ad. "The politicians in Albany won’t like it, but I work for the people.”
But then things started to go off-track for the governor. Because the “new independent commission,” known in Albany shorthand as the “Moreland Commission,” smelled something fishy when it noticed that the housekeeping account was buying ads. So it issued a subpoena for information on – yes –Buying Time.
One of the governor’s closest aides, Larry Schwartz, immediately had it quashed, according to three knowledgeable sources. The circumstances are now under investigation by federal prosecutors. Neither Schwartz nor Buying Time would comment for this story.
To be sure, Cuomo is not the first New York governor to use his party's housekeeping account to bolster his fortunes. It used to cost $100,000 to sit down with Gov. George Pataki at a dinner for the state GOP at the Waldorf Astoria. But Pataki did not use the account to buy television ads.
And Pataki didn’t do what Cuomo has done, which is to rely on a small group of donors to, in effect, run a permanent ad campaign. It began almost as soon as the governor took office, with a shadowy group called The Committee to Save New York, which spent $17 million to run ads that claimed that, unlike the government in Washington, D.C., New York was “getting things done.”
The line became a central Cuomo re-election theme.
The committee’s donors were never disclosed, because the committee was ostensibly independent. But journalists managed to sniff some of them out: bankers, real estate moguls, gambling interests. The ads helped pump up Cuomo’s approval ratings to 72 percent, about as high as they ever get for a sitting governor. As the outcry over disclosure grew, the committee dialed down its activity and closed up shop.
And that’s when spending by the Housekeeping Committee ticked up. The governor’s anti-corruption commission noticed, sources familiar with the investigation say.
But last March, Cuomo abruptly shut the commission down. He declared ‘mission accomplished’ after winning some marginal reforms from the legislature, including a small, public-financing experiment and a new enforcement position at the Board of Elections.
But as soon as the governor got a re-election opponent, money began to fly into yet more accounts to pay for even more ads. All were produced by a single consultant — Cuomo’s consultant – AKPD, a firm founded by President Obama's political advisor, David Axelrod.
Money from the Tishman real estate family went to the Westchester Democratic Committee to run an ad claiming Cuomo’s opponent, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, “broke his word.” Money from a big Buffalo developer went to the Erie County Democratic Committee to tell voters: “This weekend when the Buffalo Bills come to town, we’ll all be rooting for our Buffalo Bills. Well, everyone that is except Rob Astorino. You see, Astorino is a Miami Dolphins fan.”
Cuomo’s spokesman, Peter Kauffmann, insists all of this is within “the letter and the spirit of campaign finance law.” He says Cuomo cannot “unilaterally disarm” – even though Cuomo’s opponent isn’t even in the same league as a fundraiser.
All of this advertising — the Cuomo campaign, the Committee to Save New York, the Housekeeping Committee, Westchester County, Erie County — all of it is actually dwarfed by another pro-Cuomo ad campaign, funded by taxpayers. “The New New York is open,” an announcer exclaims over video of entrepreneurs from tech firms to winery owners. “Open to innovation. Open to ambition. Open to bold ideas. That’s why New York has a new plan.”
The ads are part of a $200 million campaign paid for by the New York State Economic Development Corporation, which is controlled by Cuomo. Nearly $40 million of that was from a pot of federal Sandy recovery money to help lure business back to storm-ravaged areas of the state.
Yes, of course – New York's economy depends on new business and tourism. And the ads don’t say “Andrew Cuomo” anywhere. But consultant Chris Lehane, a top advisor to Al Gore’s presidential bid, said the ads promote an image that the state is well-governed.
“You’re now able to run what I would call Nike-style television campaigns," Lehane said."Nike spends billions of dollars every year with ads that don’t necessarily say 'buy Nike shoes,' right? They’re ads that portray people who use Nikes as athletic or fit, as in shape, and gives you a good feeling, a positive brand feeling about a particular product.”
So that’s what New Yorkers are left with after all of this advertising. A positive brand feeling about their product.
Last spring, after the Moreland Commission was shut down, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, seized its papers and vowed to continue its investigations. But speaking in Manhattan last week, he was rueful. “The scandal is not necessarily what’s illegal but what is legal." he told an audience. "And we have limited powers and we can only go after things that are illegal.”
So far, there’s no evidence Cuomo has done anything illegal. But the evidence does show that he stretched New York’s campaign finance limits so far they’ve become meaningless. And he did it to tell people he is cleaning up Albany.