|Bill de Blasio|
De Blasio Proves That Some Laws Are Made to Be Unbreakable
Among the gold medals awarded to Bill de Blasio on Thursday was one for limbo-dancing his way past election laws so he and his allies could funnel money into 2014 state legislative campaigns at a rate 10 times the supposed limit.
Money was not given directly to candidates, but to party committees, which can receive bigger piles of cash. Those committees could then legally transfer the inflated donations to candidates.
It makes a sham of the limits, but Mr. de Blasio did not invent these evasive moves. In just about every single competitive legislative race in this century someone, Republican or Democrat, has used precisely the same contortions. Perhaps because the mayor has a talent for annoying people — he would say, the right people — the state Board of Elections sicced the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. on him a year ago.
On Thursday, the prosecutor said the de Blasio operation “enabled an unprecedented amount of money to flow” to individual campaigns, but did so without violating the limits on contributions.
This comes down, then, not to behavior, but to scale. That is why the gold medal goes to the de Blasio team, which was up against a field of strong contenders that included Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and the state committees of both the Republican and Democratic parties. All of them engaged in versions of the de Blasio team’s tactic of washing big pots of money through state or county party committees in support of individual candidates.
Mr. Vance, in a letter to the Board of Elections, suggested that the de Blasio team’s activities contradicted the “spirit and intent” of the campaign laws.
For this to be true, one would have to believe that the legislature really intended there to be actual limits on how much money could be given to candidates. Mr. Vance is correct that the legislature created limits, but it simultaneously built ways around them; its “spirit and intent” is like the public piety of a Mafia hitman who makes the sign of the cross when passing a church on his way to work.
Money washed through a county committee is not subject to the limits, thanks to an exception in Article 12-124 of the state election law. Other exceptions have made it possible for the real estate industry to own an entire chamber of the state legislature, lock, stock and gavel.
Limited liability companies, or L.L.C.s, are essentially paper companies used as proxies to let big companies get around limits by channeling money through them. Common Cause New York, the good government group, has reported that tens of millions have been funneled to the state Republicans through L.L.C.s since 1996, when the Board of Elections ruled that an L.L.C. was no different under the law than a person. Consider this testimony from an executive at a major real estate company, Glenwood, during the 2015 federal corruption trial of Dean Skelos, the former majority leader of the state senate.
Q. Since you’ve been at Glenwood, how much money have the L.L.C.s donated in contributions?
A. In total?
Q. In total, approximately.
A. Ten million.
In another context, Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor, once said, “‘Everybody does it’ is not a defense.’ It’s a confession.”
Mr. de Blasio received news Thursday morning that he and his allies would not be prosecuted by Mr. Vance’s office or by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which was investigating a separate matter, the legality of favors done by Mr. de Blasio for people who made contributions to a nonprofit run by his associates.
Prosecutors carry the responsibility to enforce laws. They are not in charge of good and evil. Nor are they civic hygienists. Nevertheless, Mr. Vance made the useful suggestion that the Board of Elections could issue guidance on the tricks used by Team de Blasio — and prominent others, unnamed by Mr. Vance.
Certain practices deserve our attention not because they are against the law, but precisely because they are legal. Moments after the prosecutors’ announcements, Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio spoke to the mayor on the air.
“Were you looking to get money to the hands of those candidates through the state committees and understanding the spirit of the law but trying to just stay within the letter of the law – not caring about the spirit of the law?” Mr. Lehrer asked.
“Brian, respectfully, I think that’s an outrageous question,” Mr. de Blasio replied.
Mr. de Blasio loves saddling up on the highest horse he can find. It can be a long way down.
No Charges, but Harsh Criticism for de Blasio’s Fund-Raising