Ulster County is finally on the political map. But not in a good way.
Last week it was revealed that upwards of $350,000 was transferred a few weeks prior to the 2014 elections from New York City-based big donors via “Team de Blasio” to the Ulster County Democratic Committee, providing funding for the failed state Senate campaign of then-incumbent Cecilia Tkaczyk.
Around these parts, stacks of c-notes for CeCe was not exactly news. Four years ago, post-campaign financial reports showed an infusion in late October of some $500,000 into Tkaczyk’s coffers, identified as coming from the liberal multi-billionaire spending Soros family of New York City. In 2012, the Duanesburg school board member had surged to defeat GOP assemblyman George Amedore by 18 votes.
No stranger himself to campaign finance, Amedore, the three-term assemblyman, was meanwhile raking in huge donations from New York City real-estate interests later associated with the demise of Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. Former Dutchess County state senator Terry Gipson has also been listed as a six-figure recipient. Former Kingston alderman and mayoral candidate Hayes Clement, recently appointed county committee treasurer, got a mention for transferring a $60,000 check to Tkaczyk’s account.
Major news outlets in New York City reported Gotham Mayor Bill de Blasio organized the campaign-transfer operation with the intent of electing a Democratic majority in the state Senate. In one respect it worked. Democrats got their majority, and then some, but five breakaway Dems joined Republicans to form a GOP majority. Republicans had elected 31 of 62 senators.
In order to raise and transfer the millions necessary to carry out his plan, the mayor is accused of willingly skirting state campaign spending laws which place strict limitations on individual donations. No such limits apply to county party committees, which are free to collect and or transfer whatever falls into their hands. Hello.
Why Ulster was chosen among 57 upstate counties hasn’t been explained. Maybe it was the scenery. More likely it was because the money was more likely to yield the desired electoral results,
Only a few looked askance at this avalanche of funny money, upwards of 10 times more than the county committee had ever collected in a single year from local donors, chicken dinners and raffle tickets. Former legislature chairman John Parete called it “money laundering” last April, but was told it was all perfectly legal under current campaign finance law.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” Parete said this week. “It was very evident they gave the money to the county party committee with instructions to transfer it be immediately. That is improper, but those who raised questions were shouted down.”
New York City Board of Elections enforcement chief investigator Risa Sugarman, in an eight-page report issued Jan. 4, accused de Blasio, his campaign team and his upstate allies of willful and flagrant violations of state elections law. The mayor responded that his actions had been in accordance with the law at all times, according to published reports. In a kill-the-messenger counterattack, a lawyer for the mayor accused Sugarman of “a shocking lack of understanding or a complete disregard of the most fundamental aspects of state elections laws,” according to The New York Times report.
The city’s board of elections — two Republicans and two Democrats — voted unanimously to refer the complaint to the Manhattan district attorney for criminal investigation. The fact that Sugarman was a gubernatorial appointee fuels conjecture. Why would Andrew Cuomo, himself under serious scrutiny for questionable campaign finance practices, open this particular Pandora’s box? Is the famously conniving governor merely plotting to get out ahead of the curve? He does so at some peril. The Times also reports the Manhattan DA is still investigating, with assistance from the FBI, and that numerous subpoenas have been issued. Can the dogged federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York be far behind?
Locally, the hush is on. Democratic party Chairman Frank Cardinale had nothing to say when the first round of outside-funding stories landed at his doorstep four years ago, and he says he’s been advised by counsel not to say anything now. Clement, who co-hosts a gabfest on local community radio, was not available for comment.
Democratic Party members will have some questions when the executive committee meets in regular session on Thursday. Did any of this foreign aid stick to local fingers? Might party leaders have skimmed at least a dime’s worth (10 percent) for hometown consumption as a finder’s fee?
The chief concern for locals could be found in a section of election law (cited in the city investigation) that states anyone (or any entity) convicted of illegally transferring funds from one candidate to another, a class E felony, could be required to pay it back.
As Stan Laurel might have said, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Ollie.”
Some, now long in the tooth, pine for the good old days when Ellenville millionaire Lou Resnick was party chairman. “We wouldn’t need $350,000 from de Blasio,” former Ellenville mayor and present County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach lamented. “Lou would have written a check.”
Local Democrats will have much to chew on when they gather at Wiltwyck Golf Club outside Kingston for their annual spring brunch this Sunday. Should Cardinale show up in an orange jumpsuit, they might start a collection. The least de Blasio and company could do is pick up the tab.
In the interest of equal coverage, I asked Republican Chairman Roger Rascoe whether his party had acted as a transfer agent for his state candidates. “No,” he replied, “but we always wondered where all that money was coming from to use against our people.”
The Ulster GOP did get one unusually large donation from an out-of-town party. Last fall, congressional candidate Andrew Heaney of Millbrook gave $10,000, said Rascoe, $2,500 of which went to the annual dinner program book (in-house), and the rest was divided among Republican legislative candidates in viable districts. Heaney’s generous seed grant didn’t stop the county GOP committee from endorsing Heaney rival John Faso for Congress. Heaney, going the direct primary route, didn’t seek the endorsement.
Rascoe, who confers regularly with Cardinale on such matters as cross-endorsements (the better to deprive voters of choice) wasn’t particularly critical of his opposite number’s present unpleasantness.
On Tuesday, County Executive Mike Hein and Kingston Mayor Steve Noble announced a five-year sales tax deal that only lawyers, bean counters and maybe a wizard or two could craft. A two-year freeze on the status quo leads to complicated formulas over the next three years which depend in part on the economy, the state legislature and how the political winds blow. Hein and Noble issued separate expressions of mutual affection. Notably, Hein did not demand an apology from the mayor for holding up the agreement almost two months, nor did Noble express rancor over the executive’s previous proposal to claw some $1.6 million from city coffers.
The rail-trail “linear park” in Kingston between Kingston Plaza and Cornell Street will remain firmly in county hands, but the city has agreed to maintenance. A county take-over of city bus lines “at no cost to the county” is also in the proposed agreement.