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Albany fundraisers raise eyebrows

With the annual state budget due April 1, the month of March is one of the busiest for Albany lawmakers, but that didn’t stop Flatbush State Sen. Eric Adams from holding a fundraiser.

The event, which was held a stone’s throw from the Capitol building, was advertised via a flier reading, “You are invited to join Senate Majority Leader Malcom A. Smith to a cocktail reception in honor of Senator Eric L. Adams.”

The flier listed Adams as chair of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, and the Veterans, Homeland Security & Military Committee. It also asked sponsors to dole out $500 and benefactors to give $1,000.

“When I do fundraisers, I do mass emails to previous sponsors or to people I get business cards from,” said Adams, adding that his Albany fundraiser netted his campaign between $12,000 and $13,000.

Adams said historically he only does fundraisers in his district, but that there are a lot of upstate groups that don’t traditionally come to Brooklyn for fundraisers.

“I’m not a big fundraiser. Donations basically come from family, friends and people in the district,” said Adams. “Money is a real part of politics. You need money to run a campaign and it doesn’t impact on how they (elected officials) vote.”

But Albany fundraisers are a common occurrence and highlight the need for sweeping campaign finance reforms, according Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“The problem is they (lawmakers) are not expecting people from Brooklyn to drive up, so they (Albany fundraisers) are pretty much only for lobbyists,” said Horner.

“So you have the unsettling spectacles of lobbyists asking for legislative favors during the day and then pledging money at night, and it’s just a bad practice,” he added.

Horner said when he started with NYPIRG some 25 years ago there weren’t as many Albany fundraisers, but now there are about 200 capital fundraisers in the yearly legislative sessions that last 60 days at most.

The lawmakers usually advertise the committees they head or are on so the lobbyists know which ones to attend for their specific needs, he said.

Horner said state lawmakers also have a wide range of opportunities to spend the money they get from the fundraisers with the argument that it’s used for legislative or constituent purposes.

The money can be used for and has been used for such things as leasing luxury cars, going out to dinner, paying for memberships at country clubs and taking lavish trips, Horner said, all under the guise that it is needed for official business purposes.

Additionally, Horner pointed out that while U.S. Representatives and Senators are allowed a maximum donation of $2,400 for the primary and another $2,400 for the general elections, assembly members are allowed $3,800 for the primary and another $3,800 for the general election.

State senators are allowed individual contributions of $6,000 for the primary and $9,500 for the general elections.

Among the reforms Horner said NYPIRG would like to see include placing real limits on lobbyists, lowering contribution limits for everybody and the creation of a public financing system so average people could run for office.

While NYPIRG would like to see these types of reforms, the thinking is split amongst Brooklyn’s state lawmakers.

“I am for significant reforms in Albany and one is prohibiting fundraisers during session, but currently that’s not the case,” said Flatbush State Sen. Kevin Parker, who holds Albany fundraisers.

“You have to take every opportunity to make sure you take care of yourself politically,” he added.

Parker’s argument has some validity as billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg supported City Councilmember Simcha Felder against him in his last Senate race and he was vastly outspent.

However, Williamsburg Assembly member Joe Lentol, whose 36 years in Albany makes him the dean of Brooklyn’s Albany delegation, said while the perception of current state election finance laws looks evil, it’s not as bad as it looks.

“The laws on how money can be spent can always be tightened up, but you do a lot of things with your office that doesn’t jibe (directly) with your campaign,” said Lentol.

Lentol said, for instance, he is asked to attend events either in the community or as a representative of the community that costs money.

Also the money is used for taking ads out in journals, which spreads good will and is a semi-campaign expense, he said.

Lentol said he doesn’t lease a car with money, and that how he spends the money has to pass the muster his own smell test of what he believes is right.

“The answer is probably some kind of matching funds like campaign finance in the city, although there are many people I know who don’t like that either,” he said.

But freshman Brooklyn Heights Sen. Daniel Squadron called the current campaign finance system in the state like something out of the Wild West.

“It doesn’t work for anyone except those who want influence through contributing. I believe we have to change the system,” said Squadron, adding he doesn’t want to go after any individual lawmaker on how they  currently raise money because everybody’s political circumstances are different.

Squadron said personally he doesn’t take contributions from corporations, political action committees and will not do any Albany fundraisers.

“To make this work we need to create a level playing field, which includes spending limits, matching funds, lower contribution limits and restrictions on who can give,” he said.

 

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