May 03, 2006
To Clean Up County Campaigns
Some say upIsland Democratic victories last fall owed much to the citizenry's desire to "Clean Up Suffolk County" as campaign slogans promised. Because none of the corruption probes and arrests that have cast a shadow over county and town governments up west have made their way to the East End, the need for a cleaning didn't seem to resonate with East End voters.
Still, Legislator Jay Schneiderman is making an effort to ensure that he and fellow lawmakers have rules in place to keep them more than an arm's distance from even the appearance of impropriety. Next week in committee, colleagues will review a bill that, if adopted, would cap the amount of money candidates can accept from companies that do business with Suffolk County.
While Schneiderman allowed that it's perfectly legal to accept campaign donations from the companies, his bill establishes lower limits for contributions to government policy makers. According to the legislator, right now candidates for a seat on the horseshoe can accept up to $3000. For the county executive, he said, the range is up to $50,000. "I'm seeking to do away with the 'pay to play' culture," Schneiderman explained. "It's not illegal, but it's not the type of government the public is looking for. I believe it's important we restore confidence."
The concept is timely, coming out just as the bribery trial of Wayne Prospect, a former legislator and consultant appointed by County Executive Steve Levy to his transition team gets underway. Just last week according to published transcripts, Prospects and Stephen Baranello, who pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy and was a Levy confidant, shook down an undercover detective posing as a contractor looking to garner county work. According to transcripts of tapes played in court, the detective forked over a $1500 contribution to a Levy campaign fundraiser at the pair's suggestion.
Additionally, a review of board of elections filings from the Friends of Steve Levy committee reveals several of the companies currently under indictment as part of an alleged "asphalt cartel" made contributions to the county executive's campaign fund in 2004. While The Independent did not undertake a meticulous dot-connecting cross referencing of possible subsidiaries and family members of principals indicted in the scam, a cursory glance shows contributions from the companies tally some $5500.
Exemplifying the volume of contributions companies can make, the BOE listing also depicts donations from a handful of engineering firms tallying over $16,000.
Schneiderman suggested that, in some cases, figures ratchet skyward once a reviewer considers different names and titles a business could use when making a contribution. His bill takes that into account and also places a limit on what family members and subsidiaries of one specific company can donate.
According to his chief of staff Eric Brown, the county attorney and legislative counsel have both opined that the bill is pre-empted by existing state law. That means the state holds the authority to regulate campaign contributions. Pre-emption doesn't preclude lawmakers from pledging to abide by Schneiderman's guidelines less formally, however, "People could do it voluntarily," the lawmaker said, "But I don't think anybody's going to play by those rules unless everybody plays by those rules."
Levy spokesman Ed Dumas disparaged Schneiderman's bill as "a pretend reform" this week. The CE proposed a much more sweeping bill last year that the Republican dominated legislature sabotaged, he said.
Schneiderman's bill falls to include coverage of municipal unions, the spokesman pointed out. "Not only do they give a pile of money, they are far more influential," Dumas said. "These are the people whose salaries are voted on by the legislature and who come out in force to oppose any cost-cutting measure."
Rather than rely on a "flawed" reform measure, Dumas said, later this year the county executive will look to reintroduce his reform bill as part of a public financing bill. Publicly financed campaigns eliminate the need to take donations that could come with strings attached.
Although Schneiderman's recent filings with the BOE don't immediately show contributions over $1000 from companies that do business with the county, political foes have noted that while he was East Hampton Town Supervisor, the lawmaker accepted donations from companies that did work for the town.