Reform advocates and Gov. Andrew Cuomo tout New York City's public campaign finance system as a model for the state to follow. But some political figures who insist they support the city Campaign Finance Board's mission are questioning its stewardship.
On Dec. 30, 2013, the day before he left office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who in three elections opted out of any limits and set spending records -- appointed his departing investigation commissioner, Rose Gill Hearn, to a five-year term as the board's chairwoman. Two weeks earlier, Bloomberg, in a speech, decried a "labor-electoral complex that has traditionally stymied reform." Hearn, meanwhile, works for the ex-mayor's Bloomberg Associates.
This has union-allied activists privately expressing concern that the board of three mayoral and two City Council appointees may follow an agenda specifically targeting labor. Hearn's selection was hailed in other quarters: Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union, has called Hearn "well-equipped to bring her skills and talents to an agency whose past success and future results depend upon principled independence and thoughtful oversight." And Mayor Bill de Blasio's spokesman Phil Walzak signaled no objection, saying de Blasio "looks forward to working with Rose Gill Hearn."
Then last week, John Liu, the ex-city comptroller, and lawyer Richard Emery sued Hearn, the board and the city in federal court. While running for mayor last year, Liu saw a campaign aide convicted, along with a former campaign contributor, on criminal charges related to a "straw donor" scheme to fund his campaign. The city's finance board denied Liu millions in matching funds. Liu now says that the board crushed his candidacy by applying rules with "wild inconsistency." In a news conference, he said two board members who donated to rival City Council Speaker Christine Quinn should have at least recused themselves in his case. The suit also charges that Hearn's appointment flouted a city charter provision by which Bloomberg was to consult with Quinn.
"Sadly the system once hailed as a nationwide model has devolved into a nitpicking, imperious bureaucracy," Emery said, adding he believes this has been true for years. Replied board spokesman Matt Sollars: "Over 25 years and seven mayoral elections, the board's oversight has always been tough but fair . . ."
Could this kind of clash affect the push for statewide public financing? Tough to say -- given the long odds it faces anyway in Albany, particularly in the state Senate.
Dan Janison is a Newsday columnist.