Brooklyn City Council members battle over illegal donation allegation in New York City’s most competitive election this year

Brooklyn City Council Members Justin Brannan and Ari Kagan
Brooklyn City Council Members Justin Brannan (left) and Ari Kagan (right).
Emil Cohen/ NYC Council Media Unit

A war of words between two Brooklyn elected officials fighting for the same City Council seat escalated this week, with one accusing the other of soliciting illegal donations in an attempt to save a “floundering” campaign.

Democratic Council Member Justin Brannan and Republican Council Member Ari Kagan are in the fight of their political lives to represent the purple Council District 47, which covers southern Brooklyn, in the Nov. 7 general election, and have been exchanging barbs since the seat was reshaped and consolidated through redistricting.

Brannan, who called Kagan “desperate,” blasted his rival for allegedly seeking donations above the legal limit via emails sent by U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis’ (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) campaign. Kagan then fired back, saying that Brannan is drawing attention to a minor error and alleged that it demonstrates his opponent “doesn’t care about what’s going on on the ground.”

The email, a copy of which was shared with amNewYork Metro, was sent by Malliotakis’ campaign and advertises a “Fundraiser in support of Republican Ari Kagan for City Council” that was held Sunday at Delia’s Lounge in Bay Ridge. It was put together by Kagan’s campaign, despite having Malliotakis’ name on it, both campaigns said.

‘Gold’ too rich for campaign law

The email includes three donation levels. The highest of which, the “Gold” tier, solicits contributions of $2,500 — well above the legal $1,050 limit for candidates participating in the city’s generous matching funds program, like both Kagan and Brannan.

Grace Safarik, Brannan’s campaign manager, said in a statement that Kagan’s alleged solicitation of above-the-limit donations undermines the city’s campaign finance system.

“In yet another attempt to further his own political career, Ari has broken the rules of a program literally designed to rebuild public trust. It’s clear Ari Kagan only cares about one thing: Ari Kagan,” Safarik said. “Flouting a landmark law designed to empower average New Yorkers by soliciting illegal over-the-limit donations is simply the rotten cherry on top. Rules for thee but not for me – that’s the Ari Kagan way.”

However, the link for the Gold ($2,500) donation leads to Kagan’s NYCVotes donation page, where suggested contribution amounts are well under the legal limit. The site does have an “other” option on the page where supporters can donate any amount they want.

Regardless, donors could have shown up to the event with physical checks.

A screenshot of an e-mail from U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis campaign seeking funds for the campaign of City Council Member Ari Kagan.

‘A technical mistake’

Kagan fired back against the allegations of impropriety, saying the amount listed in the solicitation was a “technical error” and that no one donated over the legal limit.

“This was like [a] technical mistake,” Kagan said in an interview. “Nobody donated over the legal limit, nobody donated anything even close to it. So, it was a technical error. It’s [a] non-issue … If someone donates over the legal limit, we will refund it.”

Kagan added that it is actually Brannan who is desperate, for flagging the campaign finance violation, rather than focusing on issues that he says constitutes care about.

“It’s really sad that Justin Brannan, instead of talking about public safety, [the] migrant crisis and [the] rising cost of living, is talking about [a] non issue. It shows his state of mind … He is so out of touch I cannot even start.”

Malliotakis, who has been an avid supporter of Kagan’s reelection bid, distanced herself from the solicitation through her campaign. 

“Ari Kagan is an endorsed candidate of Nicole for New York,” Malliotakis’ campaign said in a statement. “As part of this endorsement, we allowed Kagan’s campaign to send a sponsored message to some of our supporters. Ari Kagan’s campaign paid for all sending costs to this group of supporters.”

Kagan agreed, saying “we paid for this email so we take responsibility for this error.”

Ugly from the start

The two incumbent council members have found themselves in a tight race for the same district after portions of both their current districts were drawn together in last year’s redistricting. It is also possibly the most competitive New York City race in an off-year election cycle lacking in top-ticket citywide or statewide contests.

The contest has been ugly from the start, when Kagan switched from the Democratic to Republican party in December and launched a bid to unseat Brannan at the same time.

While Democrats hold an insurmountable majority in the council, Brannan’s ouster would mark a significant loss for the party, as he chairs the chamber’s powerful Committee on Finance.

According to Campaign Finance Board (CFB) spokesperson Tim Hunter, if Kagan did accept donations over the legal limit, his campaign would not be able to get matching funds for the amount over the limit. There are also penalties for campaigns that accept contributions over the legal limit, but those would not be assessed and applied until well after the election is over.

But the solicitation of over-the-limit donations in of itself, without contributions over the legal limit actually being made, would not warrant penalties, he said.

Kagan is hardly strapped for campaign cash. He has raked in $316,481 overall, which breaks down into $55,965 in private contributions and $260,516 in public funds, according to the latest CFB data. And so far, he has spent $217,407, leaving $99,074 in his campaign coffers.

Brannan’s campaign is in a slightly better financial position, as of the latest filing period, with $168,217 at his disposal. He has raked in a total of $317,685 in private and public funds combined, and has spent $149,468.

Even with Brannan’s rosier finances, Kagan expressed confidence he would come out on top in November.

“I feel huge support every day from both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “And I’m actually inspired and I’m very happy about the way my campaign is going.”