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NY heavyweights control campaign funds even after leaving office

ALBANY — A month after resigning as state Senate Republican leader, newly minted lobbyist John Flanagan is holding on to his state campaign war chest bulging with $376,018, according to state records examined by CNHI.

Meanwhile, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, heading into a crucial election cycle, has just $598,766 available to help its candidates across the entire state.

In relative terms, that is a drop in the bucket when juxtaposed with the $4.5 million the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee had amassed as of July 15, the latest filing date for campaign finance reports for state elections.

Active funds

Flanagan’s individual campaign, though substantial, is dwarfed by the $1.3 million held in the campaign fund of former state Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, who retired from the Legislature at the end of 2018, the state records show.

While neither Flanagan or DeFrancisco has plans to again seek office, New York allows former office holders to keep their campaign funds active, though good government groups have pushed for years for a requirement that they be dissolved anywhere from six to 18 months after they leave office.

As things stand now, the law only requires that the fund be dissolved when the person who held or is holding office dies, John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections said.

Flanagan, a lawmaker for 34 years, announced he was retiring from the Legislature on June 16. On July 11, his campaign fund transferred less than 10% of its balance, $25,000, to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. On June 30, Flanagan, the records show, gave $5,000 to the campaign of Angi Renna, a Republican running for a vacant Senate seat in Central New York.

Small contributions

Contacted by CNHI Monday, Flanagan said he has been generous with Republican campaign efforts and will be reviewing his options as to how he will deal with the balance in his campaign fund. He said he will not seek public office again.

“I am just getting ensconced in my new position,” said Flanagan. “I will be helping, but I have no other details to offer you right now.”

DeFrancisco, in a telephone interview, was noncommittal on what he will do with the $1.3 million remaining in his campaign account, though he noted he plans to donate some of it to charitable causes.

“I have given some small contribution so far, but we’ll see what happens as we get closer” to the coming election season, he said.

“Like a PAC”

Good government groups contend the campaign funds should be sent back to the donors or distributed to a bona fide nonprofit organization if the money was sent to an office holder who ends up resigning or losing an election.

“I’ve seen some former lawmakers use their campaign funds essentially as a PAC (political campaign committee) so they can make campaign contributions from it, even if they are working as a lobbyist,” Horner said.

The remaining GOP senators last month coalesced behind state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, as the conference’s new leader. Ortt could be challenged later this year for the leadership post, and Republican officials said one criteria by which he will be evaluated will be how successful he is in replenishing the coffers of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

Asked about the active account maintained by Flanagan, a spokeswoman for the committee, Candice Giove, said in a written reply: “Leader Ortt is committed to advancing the message of all of our candidates and has put his own campaign funds into that effort. Like other former Senators, John Flanagan has donated $25,000 and we expect that he, and others, will donate their campaign funds to SRCC to advance a Republican state Senate as donors intended.”

Little funds

Two veteran Republican senators who plan to retire at year’s end have donated from their campaign funds recently to candidates they are backing this year.

Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, transferred $11,800 to Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, on June 29. Stec and Clinton County Treasurer Kimberly Davis, a Democrat, are in a contest to determine who will replace Little in the Senate come January.

That same day, Little gave $5,000 to incumbent state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Saratoga County. The following day, Little gave $4,700 to the campaign of Horicon Town Supervisor Matthew Simpson, a Republican seeking Stec’s Assembly seat.

In Otsego County, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, has opened his campaign wallet to dish out $11,800 to the campaign of Peter Oberacker, a GOP county lawmaker seeking the retiring Seward’s Senate seat. Oberacker faces Democrat Jim Barber of Schoharie County.

Seward, who closed the filing period with a campaign balance of $134,630 as of July 15, kicked in $50,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee on July 9.

Little showed a balance of $48,782 in her account as of July 15.

Her spokesman, Dan Mac Entee, said, “Now that she is getting out of politics and the campaign season goes on, she is going to support candidates she believes in and need her financial support.”

Change in law

Ortt, who became a state senator in January 2015, reported a balance in his account of $43,378 July 15. On July 7, records show, Ortt transferred what had been the bulk of his account — $85,000 — to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. On June 19, Ortt was tapped by his fellow GOP senators to succeed Flanagan as the conference leader.

With Flanagan’s departure, the Republican conference in Albany’s upper chamber has dwindled to just 21 members. The Democrats hold a total of 40 Senate seats. All legislative seats in the Senate and the Assembly are up for election this year, including two vacancies in the Senate.

Tom Doherty, a political strategist who had been a member of former Gov. George Pataki’s cabinet, said a number of New York lawmakers have left office over the years with a substantial balance in their campaign accounts. How they decide to spend it amounts to a “personal decision,” he said.

“I think the only way to rectify that is to change the campaign finance law in a way that doesn’t allow the individuals to leave office and take that money and use it for whatever they see fit,” Doherty said.

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