National News

Former IDC Senators Are Ordered to Return Campaign Money

Posted July 24, 2018 8:49 p.m. EDT

New York’s top election enforcement officer has demanded that the former members of a group of rogue Democratic state senators return hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations, less than two months before they face stiff primary challenges.

The eight senators had belonged to the Independent Democratic Conference, which disbanded in April after more than seven years of working with the Republican Party; the IDC’s cooperation with the Republicans helped that party retain control of the state Senate — earning its members the enmity of many fellow Democrats.

The request to return the money came in a July 20 letter from the enforcement division of the New York state Board of Elections.

The money had come from a campaign fundraising committee set up by the state’s Independence Party on behalf of IDC members. In June, a state Supreme Court justice ruled that the fundraising arrangement was legally improper.

The enforcement division, led by Risa Sugarman, its chief enforcement counsel, determined that the committee, the Senate Independence Campaign Committee, raised and spent funds “far in excess of statutory contribution limits” for nearly two years, ending in late April. As such, the Board of Elections asked that beneficiaries of such funds refund all excess contributions and transfers from the disputed campaign committee.

“To date, no apparent effort has been made to refund contributions received by this illegally created committee,” a lawyer for the enforcement division wrote in the letter, as reported by the Times Union of Albany, “or to properly allocate its expenditures.”

The committee’s chairman was Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the former leader of the IDC, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Klein has been a major beneficiary of such funds, receiving $200,000 this year. Other former IDC members have also received large transfers, including Sen. Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan, who got more than $160,000; Sen. Jose Peralta of Queens, who received $113,500; and Sen. Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn, who received $109,700.

All four are facing challengers in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13. Tuesday, those opponents seized the opportunity to press the senators to return the funds.

“Jose Peralta has tried to scam our community for the last time,” said Jessica Ramos, who is challenging Peralta. “Enough is enough.”

If the decision holds, the impact could be significant on the IDC-tied incumbents, who were given 20 days to respond to the request from Sugarman. An analysis by the Working Families Party — which opposes the IDC — found that the bulk of money supporting the likes of Klein and his cohorts has come from the disputed campaign fund, with far less support from small donors who have flocked to their challengers.

Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for Klein and other former IDC members, faulted the interpretation of the June ruling and said they would ask the court to punish Sugarman “if she persists in distorting the judgment of the court.”

“Her release of this letter to the press in the middle of a heated political campaign is an abuse of her powers,” Brancaccio said.

The arguments surrounding the disputed committee have a labyrinthine legal history. It was created in July 2016 by the Independence Party, a 481,000-member group which has had a curious and sometimes bizarre role in state politics. It proved potent, with $1.2 million in it by early this year. But because its leaders were Democrats, and not members of the Independence Party, the judge in June ruled it improper. In expectation of that ruling, the Independence Party had transferred leadership of the committee to its own members.