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January 17, 2019

Kill ‘zombie’ political campaign accounts, NYS legislators say

January 10, 2019
Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, speaks to reporters in 2011. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

ALBANY — A new bill would ensure that crime does not continue to pay for corrupt lawmakers convicted of felonies.

The bill to target “zombie” campaign accounts announced Tuesday by state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin would require convicted lawmakers to disperse any remaining donations within two years.

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The legislation was unveiled on the day former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County) and his son, Adam, began their prison sentences after being convicted on federal corruption charges.

Skelos, who was found guilty of using his office to get his son work from those with business before the state, as of his last filing in July still had $43,869 left in his campaign account even though he has been out of office since he was originally convicted in 2015.

That conviction was overturned, but he and his son, Adam, were both found guilty upon retrial in 2018.

Kaminsky ripped the idea of “zombie” campaign accounts that live on long after a corrupt pol leaves office.

In the past 15 years, more than 20 New York elected officials have served time in prison while maintaining their campaign accounts.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted on corruption charges and facing seven years in federal prison, still has $109,000 in his campaign account and another $429,000 in a political action committee he formed while still speaker, records show.

Ex-state Sen. Carl Kruger, who was sentenced to prison in 2012, still has more than $422,000 in his campaign account.

The bill introduced by he and Griffin, both Nassau County Democrats, would add felony convictions to a law passed several years ago that required the campaigns of deceased lawmakers to be shut down within two years.

Once an elected official is convicted of a felony, he or she would have two years to either return the remainder of their campaign money to their contributors or give the money to charities, the state or city universities, or the state general fund.

Kaminsky and Griffin argue the current law allowing open campaign accounts still gives convicted elected officials power as they can continue to dole out the cash to candidates and their political parties.

“If a candidate betrays the public’s trust, he should not be allowed to dole out campaign cash to his cronies from a jail cell,” Kaminsky said.

Often times, politicians in trouble with the law use their campaign accounts to help pay their legal bills. Millions of dollars over the past 15 years have been spent on legal fees.

While the new legislation would not specifically end the practice, it would stop it upon conviction.

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Some have expressed concerns about what happens if a lawmaker has a conviction overturned. Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was ultimately acquitted at a retrial and later transferred about $1 million from his campaign account to the Senate GOP.

Kaminsky said he would consider it if someone wants to suggest he amend his bill to wait until all appeals are exhausted.

“Our greater concern should be the use of convicted felons’ campaign accounts more than the rare case when an appeal is successful,” he said.

The Kaminsky-Griffin bill has support of Common Cause/NY, a government reform group.

“Once an elected official has betrayed the public’s trust, he should be stripped of his power — campaign cash is no exception,” said Common Cause/NY Executive Director Susan Lerner. “In Albany, money equals power, and if someone is behind bars on corruption charges, he shouldn’t be allowed to hold onto donations meant for campaigning. Simple as that.”

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