Charities Give to State Campaigns, Despite Law
ALBANY, March 17, 2009, The New York Times — For more than half a century, charities have been barred by federal law from making contributions to political campaigns.
But the news does not seem to have reached Albany.
A review of campaign-finance and federal tax records shows that at least 81 tax-exempt charities have given contributions to legislative candidates since 2005, with some organizations giving more than once to multiple candidates. While the amounts were not eye-popping, the contributions often flowed to lawmakers who helped the charities secure state money.
The donations — by museums, churches, hospitals, even Little Leagues and soccer clubs — underscore the lack of oversight of lawmakers’ fund-raising practices in the state.
The State Board of Elections said it did not have the jurisdiction to screen contributions by nonprofit groups, calling it a matter for the Internal Revenue Service. “There’s nothing we can say or do about it,” said Robert Brehm, a spokesman for the board.
The I.R.S. would not comment on the activities of specific charities. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s office oversees charities on the state level, and a spokesman said the office can take action when there is evidence of systemic abuse of charitable money.
Federal law prohibits nonprofits classified as 501 (c) 3 organizations from making political donations or participating in campaigns. Those that do risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Asked about the contributions last week, legislators and charity officials offered several responses, including apologies, suggestions of clerical errors and defiance. Some of the contributions were given as the cost of admission to political fund-raisers, which some donors said they did not realize counted as campaign contributions.
Some politicians insisted it was legal to accept the money even if the charities were barred from giving it.
“This clearly documents a system that’s out of control,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Since 2005, 55 legislative candidates — a vast majority of them incumbents — received at least one contribution from charities.
Legislators insist there is no connection between their acceptance of these donations and any actions they might take to support the charities’ interests. The charities say they are supporting legislators who do good work, without regard to any assistance they may have provided.
“He’s been a friend for years,” said Michael Crinnin, the executive director of AIDS Community Resources in Syracuse, of Assemblyman William B. Magnarelli, to whom Mr. Crinnin’s group gave $250. “He’s really good on health issues and AIDS issues.”
Mr. Horner said that the Board of Elections should be required to monitor such contributions and that state law should be changed to make it explicitly illegal for politicians to accept them. Currently, the responsibility of avoiding such donations appears to fall solely on the nonprofit organizations.
“All I can say is, ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,’ “ said Fred W. McPhilliamy, president of Helen Keller Services for the Blind, which donated $2,000 in February 2008 to State Senator Carl L. Marcellino, a Long Island Republican who helped win $55,000 in state aid for the group last year. “We goofed.”
He said that representatives of his group bought tickets to a campaign fund-raiser for Senator Marcellino in Albany at the urging of a lobbyist but “never thought of it as a political contribution.”
Senator Marcellino, who the records showed also accepted money from other nonprofit groups, said, “It was a dumb mistake on our part, and they shouldn’t have done it either.”
The campaign of Senator John J. Flanagan, another Long Island Republican, received $500 in April 2007 from Helen Keller Services, which is based in Brooklyn. He said he was returning the money.
“You try and be diligent,” he said, “but we are by no means perfect.”
Assemblywoman Rhoda S. Jacobs, a Queens Democrat, received contributions from several nonprofits, according to the records, including Maimonides Medical Center, which gave her campaign $2,500 in 2006.
That summer, Ms. Jacobs secured state financing to help Maimonides buy a CT scanner.
“I don’t think we did anything wrong,” said Mary Jo Ehrlich, chief of staff for Ms. Jacobs. “The onus isn’t on us to find out what their tax status is.”
Asked if the campaign did any vetting of donors, she said, “I don’t know that we go through and say, ‘We can’t take this,’ or ‘We can’t take that.’ “
A spokeswoman for Maimonides, a nonprofit hospital, said she believed the contribution was made in error when hospital officials attended a brunch at which Ms. Jacobs was the host.
Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat, accepted a total of $900 from 2005 to 2008 from the Italian Board of Guardians, a Brooklyn nonprofit that provides social services like marital counseling, tutoring and housekeeping for the elderly and the disabled.
Mr. Abbate said in an interview that he was not aware the organization had given him money.
“They gave how much?” he asked when told that the group had given him donations going back to at least 2005. “They shouldn’t have,” he said. “And if they have, I will return the money.”
He later said that some of the donations may have been recorded improperly and may have come from people who work for the board.
Maria Patalano, the executive director of the Italian Board of Guardians, said she believed the contributions reflected her purchases of tickets to fund-raising dinners, but did not consider them political donations.
“That’s P.R. work,” she said. “You need to be out there. But as far as I see, that’s not really a donation.”
Mr. Crinnin called his group’s contribution to Mr. Magnarelli “an honest mistake.” After the assemblyman sponsored a $10,000 member item, or earmark, for the group in 2007, Mr. Crinnin received an invitation to a fund-raiser for Mr. Magnarelli, a Democrat. Mr. Crinnin said he now realized he should have paid for his ticket himself.
There have been periodic efforts to overhaul Albany’s campaign finance system, which is considered among the nation’s weakest, including a push by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007.
But little momentum has been generated, despite the pleas of government watchdog groups, and the issue of charities giving to lawmakers’ campaign accounts has not received broad attention.
At least one national campaign finance watchdog said the situation in New York appeared unique. “I’m not aware of any situation where 501 (c) 3 groups have made contributions because it so obviously does not comply with campaign finance laws,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21, a government watchdog group.
Asked on Friday about the practice, a spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, said he was “concerned” about the donations, but declined to comment further.
The office of the Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith, had no immediate comment.