State does little to rein in corporations that routinely exceed campaign contribution limits

In February 2013, the New York State Board of Elections sent a letter to Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore alerting her that in 2011, a construction company called Morano Brothers Corp. had broken the law.

Morano Brothers, the letter said, had exceeded New York state’s campaign contribution limit and repeatedly ignored the board’s attempts to contact it about the excessive donations.

“The Board considers the over contributions to be knowing and willful,” the letter reads, “and requests that you consider [Morano Brothers Corp.] for prosecution.”

Between 2011 and 2013, the board made 164 such referrals to district attorneys across the state. Not a single prosecution resulted, however, prompting the board to stop sending referrals. Meanwhile, corporations continue to regularly make contributions in excess of the $5,000 annual limit.

Some companies exceed the limit by as little as $50, others by more than $10,000.

A few of the corporations, like Pfizer and California-based Clean Energy Fuels, trade on major stock exchanges, but most are smaller operations, companies like David’s Check Cashing, Inc., Roger & Sons Concrete, Inc., Weatherpanel, Inc.

And it appears that, in at least nine cases, companies that had earlier been referred to a district attorney for potential prosecution have continued to make contributions above the legal limit.

That group includes the Westchester County-based Morano Brothers Corp.

“We didn’t even know about this law,” said a Morano Brothers employee who identified himself as the company’s comptroller but declined to give his name. “This is a very small company.”

The company’s apparent breaches of election law have been relatively minor: an extra $3,500 in 2013, an extra $150 in 2012. But in a campaign finance system so fraught with loopholes as to render the $5,000 corporate contribution limit nearly irrelevant, companies routinely exceed the limit without any meaningful repercussions.

The elections board mailed its last flurry of referrals in February 2013, which highlighted over-contributions that took place in 2011, and has not referred any over-contribution cases since. Board spokesman John Conklin said the decision to cease sending the referral letters was made after the state’s district attorneys failed to pursue the issue.

“Not a single prosecution resulted,” Conklin said, adding that the “corporate over-contribution audit is a major undertaking which required a lot of staff time and effort when we had relatively few investigators and auditors.”

A New York World reporter, however, was able to identify at least $350,000 in apparent excessive contributions that have occurred since 2012 after only a few days of research.

District attorneys, for their part, are loath to prosecute such cases because of the difficulty of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a company knowingly and willfully exceeded the contribution limit.

“That would take a huge criminal investigation,” said Lucien Chalfen, a spokesman for the Westchester County district attorney’s office, which since 2011 has declined to prosecute 17 cases of corporate over-contributions—including that of Morano Brothers—referred by the board.

Distinct attorneys could charge the offending company with a misdemeanor. Instead, some have settled for warning the offending companies about the excessive contributions and demanding they request refunds from the candidates.

“In many instances, the company will go back to the campaign they contributed to and request the money over the limit back so that it is in compliance,” said Kim Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Queens County district attorney’s office.

“We’ve had a pretty good degree of success with this, and thus far have not had to prosecute a corporation or company in relation to exceeding campaign contributions,” Livingston said. She declined to provide an example of a company that had asked for its money back, citing her office’s policy to not comment on past investigations.

In 2011, the board sent Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota a letter informing him that Medford-based Gabrielli Truck Sales Ltd. had exceeded the corporate contribution limit in 2009 and at least one additional time since 2006.

Though the letter recommended prosecuting Gabrielli Truck Sales, no charges were brought. In 2013, the company contributed $12,150, well above the $5,000 limit.

Company president Armando Gabrielli said he was aware of the $5,000 contribution limit but did not know his company had exceeded it in 2013. He hung up before a reporter could ask whether he was aware of the Board of Election’s letter to the Suffolk County DA, and he did not respond to a follow-up email.

Candidates can seldom be blamed for the over-contributions because single contributions rarely exceed the $5,000 limit. When they do, records show, campaigns usually refund the excess to their donors.

Conklin said the Board of Elections plans to reinvigorate its efforts to rein in corporate over-contributors in the future. This year’s budget set aside money to create an enforcement division tasked with enforcing election laws.

“The legislature and the governor agreed that more resources were needed, and they created the new enforcement division and gave them the resources we had been asking for,” Conklin said.

The enforcement division, which began operations in early September, has yet to take action against any corporation for giving more than the $5,000 limit.



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