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Campaign Contributions

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If there is but one positive to come out of the contentious primary season for both the Democratic and Republican nominations for U.S. president, it has been a spotlight on the issue of money in politics.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made “political contributions from the millionaire and billionaire class” a cornerstone target of his campaign, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been forced to respond to her clocking in millions of dollars in compensation for speeches she had given to Wall Street bankers and others while not holding public office. On the Republican side, presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump made it a public point of pride that he was not accepting money from other corporate bigwigs, but instead was self-funded or relying on small grassroots contributions.

Clearly, the electorate is sensitive to big money’s influence on politics. Ask anybody on the street if they feel that gigantic chunks of money are perverting American democracy and, chances are, they will agree with you. And here we are.

New York State watchdogs stood in front of the Smithtown office of state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) on Tuesday to make some noise over his stance on the Senate Republican Campaign and Housekeeping committees accepting some $16 million in contributions, thanks to a loophole in campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies to use a much higher contribution limit than corporations do. With the clock ticking before the legislative session comes to a close on June 16, groups like MoveOn.org and Common Cause New York called on Flanagan and his Republican colleagues who control the Senate to bring a bill to a vote that would close that loophole.

Flanagan did not speak at the press conference, but he did say in a statement that the legislation to close the loophole was a “red herring,” and instead said the state had bigger fish to fry if it was serious about addressing campaign finance reform, like addressing straw donors, for example.

We agree that this LLC loophole is not the end-all solution to campaign finance reform, but it is certainly a piece of it.

There is no doubt about the influence money has on elections and, later on, the votes of those who are elected. Perhaps the problem is so deeply rooted that holding press conferences like the one on Tuesday ends up being more like preaching to the choir than anything else. Some may go into office wanting to remain completely independent, but find that difficult under the pressure of the way our campaign contribution system works.

Whatever it may be, though, We the People have to find ways to unite with bigger numbers behind a common cause if we expect our elected leaders to rehabilitate their addiction to political money.

Olivia Santoro of the Long Island Progressive Coalition speaks beside Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY outside state Sen. John Flanagan's office in Smithtown on Tuesday. The group advocated for the passage of legislation that would close a loophole allowing limited liability companies to funnel large sums of money to political campaigns. Photo by Phil Corso

Time is running out for the state Legislature to change the way it allows money to influence politics, and Long Island activists took to the Senate majority leader’s Smithtown office on Tuesday to make some noise.

A loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws has become a political talking point for the better part of the past year, allowing limited liability companies to contribute large sums of cash to political campaigns and committees in amounts far greater than the average corporation can. On Tuesday, groups including Common Cause/NY and Moveon.org took to state Sen. John Flanagan’s (R-East Northport) office to draw attention to legislation that was written to change that, with hopes of swaying a vote on the Senate floor before session ends June 16.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY said her group, which investigates public officials and political contributions, found the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee was one of the largest benefactors of what has been dubbed the LLC loophole, bringing in about $5.6 million in campaign contributions from LLCs over the past 10 years — with 68 percent of which coming from the real estate industry. The Senate Housekeeping Committee also netted more than $11 million over the past 10 years in the same fashion.

Lerner argued that as long as elected leaders are receiving such lump sums of money from politically motivated groups, they will never allow for legislation to come to a full vote enacting any kind of change.

“It’s time for the Senate Republicans to stop blocking the necessary reforms,” she said. “The LLC loophole has a warping affect on public policy.”

Flanagan, who the Long Island advocates singled out on Tuesday as one of the benefactors of LLC contributions to the tune of $159,000 over the past 10 years, referred to the legislation as a “red herring that fails to fundamentally address the root cause” of the campaign finance flaws. He said the state needed to be more aggressive in beefing up money laundering laws and targeting straw donors to keep groups from contributing in the shadows.

“If we are going to achieve real campaign finance reform and target corruption, you can’t close one loophole and declare the job done. In fact, one needs to look no further than New York City for evidence of multiple campaign finance transgressions that must be addressed,” Flanagan said. “We need to take additional steps to prevent the funneling of big money through county organizations and directing where that money will be spent, which is already illegal under state law.”

Senate bill S60B has been sitting in the Senate’s Codes Committee since May 9. The bill, which state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D- Brooklyn) introduced, saw success in the Democrat-controlled Assembly in the past before previous versions died in the Senate. In the legislation, Squadron argued that the Legislature must avoid such loopholes that allow “unlimited sums of anonymous dollars to undermine the entire political process.”

Lisa Oldendorp, of Moveon.org’s Long Island chapter, said the political loophole was a threat to democracy in the United States.

“We are sick and tired of the role that money plays in campaigns,” she said. “It’s way beyond time to pass this law. We want the voice of the people to be heard.”

Alejandra Sorta, organizer of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, which works with working class communities of color to turn the tide of anti-immigrant and anti-worker politics, said the timing was right for such legislation to pass, citing various corruption scandals sprouting up across various local and state governments, which has taken down some major political players.

“In light of persistent corruption charges, indictments and/or convictions stemming from unethical and illegal activity at the hands of some of our most powerful and influential leaders in Albany, communities of color are raising their voices and speaking out against big money in politics,” she said. “We demand concrete electoral reforms that will assure transparency and accountability at every level of government.”

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo

At least one Suffolk County legislator believes that money in politics can be linked to corruption in local government, though he said he’s yet to gain any support from other lawmakers.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) introduced a bill in March that would limit donations to $2,000 per election cycle to elected officials running for office from contractors and public employee unions that do business with the county. The bill would limit the hundreds of businesses and unions that have contracts for services with the county. A full list of contracts can be found on Suffolk County’s website.

“It is not uncommon for people and organizations doing business with Suffolk County to make donations to the political campaigns of county officials and candidates seeking county office,” Trotta said in press release on March 23. “Such contributions can be interpreted by the public as a ‘pay to play’ that results in government contracts being awarded on the basis of connections and contributions.”

Trotta said in a phone interview Monday that he hoped to gain support from other legislators, though so far he hasn’t gotten any.

“This bill is the first step in trying to clean up the cesspool that is county government,” Trotta said. “Anybody who says the money doesn’t affect them, they’re lying.”

Trotta said the indictment and guilty plea of former Suffolk County Chief of Police James Burke is an example that a lack of oversight on county government has allowed corruption to run rampant. Trotta was a member of the Suffolk County Police Department for 25 years, according to his page on the county’s website.

Trotta also referenced Edward Walsh, the Suffolk County Conservative Party Chairman, who was found guilty of defrauding the Sheriff’s Office on March 31. Walsh could be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail, according to a release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.

“I’m trying to take the money out of politics,” Trotta said. “Clearly, there’s a conflict there. This is why you’re seeing all of this corruption.”

Trotta said the unanimous county Legislature vote to approve the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association contract in October 2012 was another example of potential corruption. He said he introduced a bill shortly thereafter that would shine more light on county organizations like the police department, though it didn’t gain any traction.

“It makes no logical sense that there is no oversight,” Trotta said.

The Suffolk County PBA and a media representative for County Executive Steve Bellone (D) did not respond to requests for comment.

Trotta said he did not pour money into his own campaign to get elected to represent the 13th legislative district in 2013. He said he does not accept donations from unions, and the largest donation that he has received was about $2,500 from a friend.

“I have to thank my constituents for giving me the ability to do this,” Trotta said. He added that he is fortunate to be from a strong, well-versed community who elected him despite his modest campaign spending.