More than three thousand campaigns have violated the campaign finance law. The National Board of Elections has taken enforcement action against Zero.

Thousands of political campaigns have violated the campaign finance law but suffered no consequences, according to the head of the state Board of Elections’ enforcement branch.

“I can’t water it down: it’s zero,” Michael Johnson, chief law enforcement attorney, said in januarywhen asked how many enforcement actions his office has taken against campaigns that have failed to file required financial disclosure reports.

Johnson, who was appointed to the post by former Governor Andrew Cuomo and took office in July 2021, blamed the lack of enforcement on difficulty hiring staff and a backlog left by his predecessor in the role.

The position of enforcement attorney was created in 2014 to promote greater compliance with New York law. frequently violated electoral laws. In the years since, however, he has had little success enforcing disclosure requirements, according to annual reports and election committee meeting minutes reviewed by New York Focus.

In the absence of any enforcement, campaigns across the state have addressed campaign finance disclosure requirements with impunity. The biggest culprit was Governor Kathy Hochul’s campaign, which failed to make required disclosures about people who made more than $400,000 in corporate contributions, as New York Focus first reported earlier this month.

A total of 3,451 campaigns violated the disclosure law, Johnson said at an October 2021 meeting of the SBOE.

“The way the office is set up has been problematic from the start, because there’s really no accountability,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said of the attorney-in-charge position. law enforcement. “The real question is what enforcement, if any, takes place.”

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

“A waste of time”

The Office of the Law Enforcement Advocate, which works under the aegis of the State Board of Elections but is legally independent from it, was established in response to a scathing 2013 report of the Moreland Anti-Corruption Commission which found that when it came to enforcing election law, the state Board of Elections had entered into a “bipartisan agreement to do nothing”.

State lawmakers gave the new office control of its own staff and the freedom to investigate potential violations of election law. This independence was intended to isolate it from the inherent partisanship of the State Board of Elections, which by law must have an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners.

Risa Sugarman, who served as an enforcement attorney from 2014 to 2021, has filed a handful of successful enforcement challenges against high profile campaigns and donors of both major parties.

But Sugarman has faced internal and external criticism for failing to take action against the large number of statewide campaigns that have either filed flawed financial reports or failed to file such reports entirely.

“She thought that prosecuting and fining people for not filing was a waste of time and only did so selectively,” said John Conklin, director of public information for the Board of Elections. , at New York Focus.

Sugarman could not be reached for comment.

Boards annual report 2019obtained by New York Focus through a Freedom of Information request, reveals how many campaigns Sugarman’s office has refused to take enforcement action.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the council’s compliance unit referred 5,537 non-reporting campaigns to enforcement counsel. At the time the 2019 year in review report was prepared, 4,248 of these cases were still pending, or 77%.

When the enforcement lawyer receives a referral, he has the option of taking the case to a hearing officer, requesting referral from an outside prosecutor, or ignoring it. In 2019, the enforcement attorney referred only two cases to one of his hearing officers for further investigation and reported no campaign finance law violations. to prosecutors.

Data for 2020 is not available as the council has not yet prepared its annual report for that year. (Conklin attributed the one-year lag to the pandemic.)

“This unit is supposed to be independent”

Government watchdog groups argue that the process of prosecution of non-filers by law enforcement counsel effectively makes meaningful enforcement impossible. In order for the law enforcement attorney to impose monetary penalties against a campaign, he must ffirst hold an administrative hearing, chaired by one of its hearing officers, to determine whetheriolation has occurred. Only then can he file a civil suit against the campaign in state court. For an office whose staff barely a dozenthis process severely limits the number of sanctions he can pursue.

Douglas Kellner, the co-chairman of the state Board of Elections, said these burdensome requirements are directly responsible for the office’s lack of enforcement of the campaign finance law.

“Even more constraining than the staff is the current statutory structure where they have to first initiate proceedings before the hearing officer and then after the rules of the hearing desk they have to start afresh before the Supreme Court,” a- he told New York Focus.

At a recent meeting of election commission commissioners, Johnson, the chief law enforcement attorney, explained that his office lacks the resources to pursue the thousands of cases against campaigns that did not complete the required disclosure forms.

At the Oct. 4 meeting, Johnson said he was aware of 3,451 campaigns that violated disclosure requirements. He said his office was working out how to handle the scale of the violations, but expressed doubts it would ever be possible to address them all.

Even triaging the cases and focusing just on the 550 serial non-filers would likely be beyond the capabilities of the attorney’s enforcement staff, Johnson said: “To split this among five hearing officers, I don’t see how it’s going to work.”

At the January meeting, Johnson blamed the Budget Division, the agency responsible for managing state funds, for blocking his attempts to bolster the office’s staff. Johnson said he was “still waiting for the DOB to approve the hiring” of additional investigators.

“This unit is supposed to be independent,” he said. “I guess I’m a bit confused as to why DOB has to weigh in?”

Shams Tarek, a spokesperson for the DOB, told New York Focus that “applications are being approved in a timely manner and the DOB recently approved several that they sent out quickly.”

“People feel like they can get away with it”

Disclosure laws play an important role in preserving the health of state democracy, said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, a government watchdog.

“The public has a right to know who funds elections, so they can have an informed opinion on who to vote for,” he said. “That’s the whole point of reporting campaign donations.”

But because of the lack of enforcement, campaigns feel little pressure to obey the law’s disclosure requirements, Horner said: “People feel like they can get away with it. Filers do not believe they are being punished for not following the law.

A possible solution, put forward by the good governance group Reinvent Albany, is to streamline the system by allowing either the election commission or the sanctions attorney to issue fines to campaigns without first requiring an administrative hearing or civil court action. This would place the burden of proof on the campaigns to challenge violations, rather than on the board to prove them.

“A motorist who receives a ticket must pay a fine or contest that ticket at a hearing – but it is the motorist’s responsibility to contest the ticket. Similarly, election enforcement personnel should be able to issue fines for routine violations, just as police do,” said Reinvent Albany political analyst Tom Speaker in 2019 testimony before the Commission. public campaign finance.

In the meantime, council leadership is pushing the enforcement attorney to begin enforcing at least some campaign finance violations as soon as possible.

“How are we going to get to a position where in a few years we’ll be initiating enforcement proceedings against every committee that doesn’t file?” Kellner asked Johnson at the October board meeting.

Kellner told New York Focus that Johnson told him that the enforcement attorney’s office would begin filing lawsuits against the delinquent campaigns in the coming months. “Late March, early April would probably be when he does,” Kellner said.

But many campaigns can still be dropped, as Kellner acknowledged at the October meeting: “Right now, you might have to triage the cases and cancel 2,000.”