Campaign Finance Board fires back at City Council

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a mayoral candidate, supports a measure to loosen disclosure requirements for groups supporting campaigns. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

On Thursday the New York City Campaign Finance Board clarified how it defines “coordination” between groups like labor unions and political campaigns, as the City Council presses on with an effort to loosen the board’s disclosure rules for independent expenditures in elections.

In an advisory opinion, issued in response to a request from good-government organizations, the board indicated that third parties that request biographical information from a candidate will not be considered to be coordinating with that candidate’s campaign.

Also permitted are discussions regarding the logistics of non-fundraising events and communication related to a group’s endorsement process.

“I think that their opinion clarified certain innocuous activities that were confusing such as discussing scheduling details,” said Councilmember Gale Brewer, adding that before the opinion was issued she was concerned small, third-party organizations without lawyers could accidently violate the rules. “I want these organizations to feel like they can endorse a candidate without running afoul of CFB guidelines.”

Good government groups also say they believe that the board’s clarification will be useful for candidates and outside groups in the upcoming elections. “It’s helpful in creating safe harbors to know where they can communicate,” said Alex Camarda, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at Citizens Union, one of the two groups that requested the advisory opinion.

Independent spenders found to be coordinating with a campaign can cause problems for the candidate they are trying to support, because expenses they incur could count against a candidate’s spending limit. The city imposes strict spending limits on candidates who opt into its public financing system.

Last month, City Council members charged that the board’s enforcement practices were ill-defined, even precluding third parties from requesting biographical information from a candidate.

The council considered two measures to open more avenues for outside support. One would have allowed membership groups like unions and corporations to promote candidates without disclosing their expenditures, as long as communications were sent only to their members. The other would have allowed membership groups to coordinate with candidates when sending communications to their members; expenses related to those materials would have to be disclosed, but they would not count as a candidate’s campaign expenses.

The council ultimately delayed voting on the bill, after it drew criticism from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some good government groups.

Speaker Christine Quinn, who is a mayoral candidate, supported the bill.

The Council has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday on a revised version of the proposal to allow undisclosed communications to members. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from Quinn’s office said the Speaker plans to support the revised bill, because she remains “concerned that the CFB’s rules regarding independent expenditure reporting does not exempt the internal communications of membership organizations.”

Camarda says that Citizens Union is prepared to support the amended version of the council’s bill as well.

Gene Russianoff, Senior Attorney New York Public Interest Research Group, says he will also be supporting the amended legislation. “It doesn’t seem to serve a strong purpose to have them disclose what they’re communicating to their members,” he said.

The Campaign Finance Board, however, still opposes the legislation. “We do not support this bill,” said Campaign Finance Board spokesman Matthew Sollars. “It eliminates disclosure for mass mailings and other member communications.”

Sollars notes that the board’s current rules do not prohibit groups from communicating with members. “It’s disclosure. It’s not a limitation. It’s simply disclosure,” he said.

It is unknown how much money third parties spend on New York City elections.  Only one race has been subject to the board’s new disclosure rules, which was the special election held in November to replace disgraced City Councilmember Larry Seabrook.

In that four-way contest, only the health care union 1199 SEIU reported independent expenditures.  The organization spent around $10,000 on sending glossy mailers to its member promoting the eventual winner of the race, Andy King. Those expenditures constituted around 7 percent of all political money spent in that race. If the council’s amended legislation is passed, expenditures like the 1199’s will not be reported to the Campaign Finance Board.

“It is hard to come up with a medium,” said Brewer, who says she plans to support next the legislation in during next week’s hearing.  “It’s going to be a situation where it’s not perfect.”

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