In Spite of Executive Order, Cuomo Takes Campaign Money From State Appointees

Gov. Andrew Cuomo renewed an executive order banning most appointees from donating to or soliciting donations for the governor who made the appointment. But Mr. Cuomo has continued to accept his appointees’ donations. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

By Shane GoldmacherBrian M. Rosenthal and Agustin Armendariz
Feb. 24, 2018

In late November, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo flew to Buffalo for a fund-raising trip, a quick two-stop jaunt that brought in more than $200,000 in donations for his re-election campaign.

The events, one at an Embassy Suites hotel and the other a more intimate gathering at a private residence, were hosted by two men familiar to Mr. Cuomo — and to state government.

One host, Steven J. Weiss, had been appointed by Mr. Cuomo to the New York State Housing Finance Agency in 2011 and the state board of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 2016. Government records show that Mr. Weiss has donated $53,000 to the governor’s campaign since being picked for the housing agency.

The other, Kenneth A. Manning, had been named by lawmakers to the same cancer research institute board and had been appointed by Mr. Cuomo to a state judicial screening committee in 2011. Records show that Mr. Manning has donated $50,500 since his 2011 appointment.

That type of arrangement — appointments go out, campaign cash comes back in — has vexed government reformers in Albany for generations. Things were supposed to change in 2007, when Eliot L. Spitzer, then the newly elected governor, issued an executive order barring most appointees from donating to or soliciting donations for the governor who made the appointment. Mr. Cuomo renewed the order on his first day in office.

But a New York Times investigation found that the Cuomo administration has quietly reinterpreted the directive, enabling him to collect about $890,000 from two dozen of his appointees. Some gave within days of being appointed.

The governor also has accepted $1.3 million from the spouses, children, and businesses of appointees, state records show.

In some cases, a husband and wife each won state appointments and then kept contributing. In others, the appointees stopped donating after receiving state posts, but their families continued writing checks. One appointee and his wife donated 11 times while he was serving. Another has given Mr. Cuomo, personally and through companies tied to him, more than $500,000.


The executive order forbidding state board members appointed by the governor to donate or fund-raise for Mr. Cuomo is included in the governor’s campaign website, left, and on a contribution form that accompanied a fund-raiser invitation from 2017.

The executive order explicitly forbids appointees from soliciting donations for the governor. Yet multiple appointees have done so, like Mr. Weiss and Mr. Manning last fall, raising a considerable additional amount for Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. Cuomo’s donor-appointees span the state’s vast network of boards and authorities. They have served as trustees of both the city and state university systems, on the panel overseeing economic development and on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City’s subways and buses. Most positions are unpaid, but they hold great power and prestige: Board members can approve multibillion-dollar contracts and multimillion-dollar grants, oversee the distribution of tax breaks, and have broad influence over everything from the state’s highways to local arts projects.

In response to questions about the donations from appointees, Cuomo administration officials said they believed that the order only applied to appointees who could be fired at any time by the governor, not those serving set terms. Under that interpretation, donations by board members of many of the state’s most powerful authorities would be allowed.

“The purpose of the order is to prohibit employees and board members who serve at the pleasure of the governor from making political contributions,” said Alphonso B. David, Mr. Cuomo’s counsel. “It does not apply to every single person who serves in government, to individuals who volunteer for government, or to individuals who were appointed by the Senate and cannot be removed by the executive. A different reading simply divorces the purpose of the order from its language.”

The Cuomo interpretation differs from what some public authorities say in their own internal ethics rules, from the interpretation of independent government watchdogs and from what Mr. Spitzer himself said he intended when he crafted the order.

“The executive order was intended, and did, in fact, apply to all gubernatorial appointees, regardless of the need for Senate confirmation, or any term applicable to their service,” Mr. Spitzer said in an interview.

The order does not differentiate between types of authority appointees. It simply says that “no member of a public authority appointed by the governor” can donate or solicit donations.

Richard L. Brodsky, a former 14-term member of the State Assembly and longtime watchdog of state authorities, questioned the Cuomo reading. “It doesn’t make any sense to claim somehow the language does not include all his authority appointees. It does,” he said.

Image of a Political Reformer

The prohibition on appointee giving is hidden in plain sight, incorporated in Mr. Cuomo’s own campaign website.

“No state agency officer or employee who serves at the pleasure of the governor or their appointing authority or members of state public authority or other boards appointed by the governor may contribute to and/or fund-raise for Andrew Cuomo 2018,” the website says. Similar language has been included on invitations to fund-raisers for the governor going back to 2011.

The order originated on Mr. Spitzer’s first day in office, part of a set of sweeping mandates under the banner of “eliminating politics from government decision-making.” (Even under Mr. Spitzer, records show that a few appointees still contributed to his campaign.) Gov. David A. Paterson signed a revised version of the order when he took office.

Mr. Cuomo, who fashioned himself as a political reformer from the day he launched his 2010 bid for governor in front of Tweed Courthouse, included his renewal of the order as part of an ethics package adopted on his first day in office.

After seven years, watchdogs say Mr. Cuomo’s ethics record, despite some new measures, has been mostly a disappointment, from his disbanding of the Moreland Commission on public corruption to his aggressive use of campaign-finance loopholes.

To tally the donations that Mr. Cuomo has received from his appointees, The Times compared a New York State Authorities Budget Office database of hundreds of the governor’s nominations and appointments against the state’s campaign finance database. Both databases are public.

Reporters then vetted the matches, searched for others and excluded authorities not covered by the executive order, like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, an interstate agency. Appointees named to their posts by previous governors and not reappointed by Mr. Cuomo also were excluded.

The analysis identified about $890,000 in donations from 26 appointees. An additional roughly $830,000 came from family members, and $490,000 from firms owned or controlled by appointees.

All told, 37 of Mr. Cuomo’s appointees have donated $2.2 million either directly or indirectly to the governor’s campaign since 2011. And those people had donated another $2.2 million before being appointed to their state posts.

Dani Lever, Mr. Cuomo’s press secretary, said donors were only a fraction of his appointees. “Clearly, most board members are not campaign contributors, and most campaign contributors are not board members,” she said.

At the Epicenter of the Arts

Aby J. Rosen, a colorful real estate developer and art collector, is a major donor whom Mr. Cuomo installed as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts less than six months into his governorship. It is an enviable posting at New York’s cultural epicenter, a position responsible for overseeing tens of millions of dollars in arts grants across the state.

Mr. Rosen has a long history as a Cuomo donor. In 2002, when Mr. Cuomo first ran for governor, Mr. Rosen was one of his largest contributors, and also rented Mr. Cuomo campaign space in one of his company’s buildings for one-sixth of the advertised rate. (His opponent complained they were skirting contribution limits.) When Mr. Cuomo ran a second time in 2010, Mr. Rosen again was a major donor. He and his wife gave more than $85,000 between 2007 and his 2011 appointment to the arts council.

The money kept flowing afterward — more than $40,000 since from Mr. Rosen, and $50,000 from his real estate holding company, RFR Holding, according to government records.

While on the arts council, Mr. Rosen also appears to have provided private aircraft for Mr. Cuomo. In December 2011, Mr. Rosen’s firm contributed $3,272.20 in “travel” expenses to Mr. Cuomo on the same day the governor’s schedule shows him taking a private aircraft from Albany to New York City for a fund-raiser. Mr. Rosen made another $2,903.23 in-kind donation to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign in December 2013; that day the schedule again shows the governor taking a private aircraft to a fund-raiser. Mr. Rosen did not return requests for comment.

Mr. Rosen served on the arts council until February 2016. Three months later, he agreed to a $7 million settlement with New York’s attorney general for failing to pay taxes on artwork he had bought or commissioned, in some cases during his tenure on the council.

To replace Mr. Rosen as chair, Mr. Cuomo promoted another major campaign donor already on the arts council, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, an author and longtime arts advocate.

Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel has donated $27,500 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign since he reappointed her to the council in 2013. Her husband, Carl Spielvogel, was reappointed by Mr. Cuomo to the board of the State University of New York in 2015. He has given $20,000 since then.

The Spielvogels could not be reached for comment. But a woman who answered the phone at their home and identified herself as the assistant to Ms. Spielvogel, who is 86, said that Ms. Spielvogel “never contributed unless she was asked,” and that she recently refrained from making a contribution to Mr. Cuomo because she had heard about the executive order for the first time.

“She looked up the law herself,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “She is very particular about obeying whatever the letter and spirit of the law is.”

Other arts council appointees have donated, too. Mr. Cuomo nominatedJonathan Sheffer on May 16, 2011; three days later, records show that he donated $10,000 to the governor’s campaign. He served until 2016. Mr. Sheffer said he has donated to Cuomo for years and that the timing of his May 2011 donation was “coincidental.”

Council member Laura Aswad has contributed $25,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign since he appointed her, and Jaynne Keyes has contributed $10,000 since her appointment.

Ms. Keyes is married to Michael J. Del Giudice, a former top aide to Mr. Cuomo’s father, the former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. Ms. Aswad is married to Joseph W. Belluck, who has served for years on the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and the board of the State University of New York. He was reappointed by Mr. Cuomo to the judicial conduct commission in 2012 and has given $56,000 since then.

Mr. Belluck said he was unaware of the executive order until several months ago, when he was told that he could not donate because he was on the State University of New York board.

Ms. Lever, the governor’s press secretary, said the administration believes that arts council board members are allowed to donate to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign. “The language of the order with respect to agency boards bans contributions from board members who serve at the pleasure of the governor,” she said. The arts council “is an agency board whose members do not serve at the pleasure of the governor, as they are Senate-confirmed and serve in fixed terms of years — therefore are not covered by the order.”

Mr. Cuomo’s counsel called the order “extremely vague” but said that “we believe our interpretation is the most consistent with the purpose of the order.”

Contrary to Mr. Cuomo’s interpretation, ethics handbooks of some state boards still bar donations by board members. “No board member, pursuant to executive order, may make or offer to make any monetary contribution to the campaign of the governor,” according to the ethics code for M.T.A. board members.

Because an executive order does not have the force of law, it is not clear if violating it would prompt any repercussions. The order itself says “penalties” could include “dismissal or other appropriate sanction,” but the person who would enforce that would be Mr. Cuomo.

“All of this shows why you don’t do ethics by executive order,” said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law. “This kind of thing helps to drive cynicism about Albany.”

At the Tip of Manhattan

Perhaps nowhere are the connections of Mr. Cuomo’s appointees more apparent than on the board of the Battery Park City Authority, a public benefit corporation created to own and manage 92 acres of land in Lower Manhattan.

The authority has power over a valuable sliver of New York: Battery Park City includes the Brookfield Place development, the global headquarters of Goldman Sachs and luxury hotels and restaurants, in addition to homes for about 10,000 residents. The authority controls development and maintains the public spaces in the area, and can impose de facto taxes on residents. None of the seven board members live there; some have a history of large political donations.

Take the chairman, Dennis Mehiel, for example. He built a fortune in the shipping container industry and was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2002. He donated $92,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaigns before being appointed to the authority in June 2012, government records show.

Less than a month after he was confirmed to the job, his wife, Karen, gave $20,000 to the governor’s campaign account. She has given $105,000 more in the years since, while Mr. Mehiel himself has contributed $10,000, and companies associated with him have kicked in an additional $35,000.

Another board member, Lester Petracca, the president of a construction firm, has given $85,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaigns since being confirmed in June 2013, records show. His wife, Tracy, contributed $105,000.

In all, four men have been on the Battery Park City board at least a year; three have donated personally or through their companies during their tenures.

A spokesman for the Battery Park City Authority declined to comment. Mr. Mehiel and Mr. Petracca did not return requests for comment.

Residents called the donations problematic. Anthony Notaro Jr., the chairman of Manhattan Community Board 1, said the authority board was too powerful to be filled with “the governor’s close friends and fund-raisers.”

Others Around the State

Similar stories are scattered across state government.

At the New York Thruway Authority, Mr. Cuomo has placed his longtime Republican ally Joanne M. Mahoney, the Onondaga County executive. Since her 2015 appointment, she has given $10,000 to his campaign through her political committee, finance records show. Ms. Mahoney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At the City University of New York, Mr. Cuomo installed as trustees the prominent lawyer Brian D. Obergfell in 2012 and the construction firm founder Sandra Wilkin and the public relations executive Ken Sunshine in 2016. Since their appointments, they have contributed $45,000, $37,500 and $5,000, respectively, records show. A university spokesman said, “The order does not apply to the CUNY board of trustees.”

At the M.T.A., Mr. Cuomo in June appointed one of his biggest donors, the real estate developer Scott Rechler; a company tied to Mr. Rechler donated $65,000 to the governor in December. Including donations before the appointment, Mr. Rechler, his family and his companies have given Mr. Cuomo more than $500,000. Mr. Rechler declined to comment.

At the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, which oversees the Javits Center, there are a half-dozen major Cuomo donors.

Among them is George J. Tsunis, a hotel magnate who, along with his wife, Olga, has contributed more than $180,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign, who named him to the board in June 2016. Within a month of being appointed, Ms. Tsunis donated $15,000 and made a $5,100 in-kind donation for “event costs,” presumably for a fund-raiser, government records show. In June 2017, George and Olga Tsunis hosted a Cuomo “summer barbecue” fund-raiser at their Long Island home, according to an invitation obtained by The Times.

Mr. Tsunis’s name was in boldface type at the top. The small print included the disclaimer that state appointees were not allowed to “contribute to and/or fund-raise for Andrew Cuomo 2018.”

Within two weeks of the barbecue, Mr. Tsunis got a second posting — to the Battery Park City Authority.

Mr. Tsunis did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At the Empire State Development Corporation, the powerful authority that runs the state’s economic development programs, Mr. Cuomo nominated Howard Zemsky as president and chief executive in 2015. About three years earlier, Mr. Cuomo had made Mr. Zemsky chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Mr. Zemsky and his wife, Leslie, have combined to donate $125,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign. All of Mr. Zemsky’s donations came before he was appointed in 2012; all $95,000 of his wife’s donations came afterward.

In July 2015, Ms. Zemsky donated $25,000 on the same day that the governor’s calendar shows he was meeting with Mr. Zemsky, along with officials from Uber.

Mr. Zemsky said in a statement: “I have not contributed to the governor since my appointment. My wife contributed in 2015 because she strongly supports the governor’s vision for New York State.”

A Political Relationship

In Buffalo last November, Mr. Weiss, a lawyer with a specialty in affordable housing who had spent five years as one of Mr. Cuomo’s appointees on the New York State Housing Finance Agency, served as host for the governor.

The arc of their political relationship is not uncommon.

Mr. Weiss gave his first $25,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign three weeks after joining Mr. Cuomo’s transition team in 2010. By May 2011, Mr. Cuomo had forwarded Mr. Weiss’s name to the State Senate as his nominee for a spot on the state’s housing finance agency, according to emails obtained by The Times. (Mr. Cuomo did not immediately publicly announce Mr. Weiss’s nomination at the time.)

On June 1, 2011, Mr. Weiss contributed another $25,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign, according to government records. Six days later, Mr. Weiss was confirmed to the housing agency, where he served until the summer of 2017. He has been on the Roswell Park Cancer Institute board since 2016. Mr. Weiss did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Mr. Manning, the other appointee who hosted a fund-raiser that night.

Last month, Mr. Cuomo reported having $30.5 million in his campaign war chest. It is the largest pile of contributions of any Democratic politician in the country.

Original article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/nyregion/cuomo-fund-raising-ethics-appointees.html

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