Government watchdog groups filed a complaint with the New York State Board of Elections on Thursday against former Governor Andrew Cuomo, demanding an investigation into whether he is paying a former top aide with campaign funds, a move they argue is a clear violation of state election law.
The concerns center around reporting in Politico New York regarding Rich Azzopardi, who reportedly was hired with campaign funds to attack critics and defend Cuomo after he resigned from office under threat of impeachment.
Azzopardi—whose Twitter bio until recently read: Cuomo’s “bulldog spokesman”—penned an op-ed in defense of his boss three days before Cuomo’s departure in August and later responded to press inquiries from Cuomo’s campaign account, calling himself a “spokesman for the 56th Governor of the State of New York.”
“The election law is very clear that campaign funds can’t be converted to personal use,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, the organization that initiated and invited others to sign on to the complaint.
Election law states that “personal use” includes paying salaries for any purpose other than for a campaign or fulfilling the responsibilities of elected office. Since Cuomo has said he has no interest in running for office again, Lerner said paying Azzopardi with campaign funds is a “violation of the black letter of the law.”
The groups want the state BOE to open an investigation to determine how Azzopardi is being paid and, if it is with campaign funds, to stop it and impose other enforcement measures like a fine. A spokesperson for Cuomo didn’t return a request for comment nor did the New York State Board of Elections.
Cuomo had more than $18 million in his coffers through July, nearly five times more than anyone declared or rumored to be running for governor next year and there have been questions and speculation around what the embattled former governor will do with all the cash. He resigned in disgrace in early August following allegations of sexual harassment from 11 women corroborated by a State Attorney General investigation, and an array of other ethical concerns.
There are relatively few restrictions on what state campaign finance funds can be spent on, according to New York state election law, and efforts to tighten the law in the state legislature have stalled.
Experts point to instances where state lawmakers have spent campaign funds for car repairs or lavish parties. Many disgraced state legislators before Cuomo used campaign funds to pay off legal debts including former State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the late Assemblymember and Brooklyn Democratic party boss Vito Lopez, without repercussions.
Records show Cuomo has already begun to do the same, dipping into campaign coffers to pay off his personal attorney Rita Glavin’s firm more than $284,000. Glavin started fielding some requests from reporters in March and by early August she was on the offensive, making television appearances and holding press conferences, defending Cuomo and questioning the integrity of his accusers and the AG investigators.
Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board of Elections, said any decision to investigate the complaint is based solely on the discretion of the Board of Elections enforcement counsel, Michael Johnson, who was tapped in June by Cuomo and confirmed by the members of the state legislature, to take over a vacant seat. Kellner also stressed the advocates didn’t have a clear-cut case because of how the state laws are written.
“The election law governing these funds has a large gray area in it,” he said.
Another legal expert said she was skeptical the latest complaint against Cuomo from government accountability groups would gain much traction.
“It’s not really the kind of complaint that has enough meat on it that you’d expect it to result in an investigation,” said Sarah Steiner, an attorney who specializes in New York State election law.
Any enforcement action typically occurs in the most egregious of cases such as paying off a candidate’s mortgage using campaign funds. Cuomo could still run for office again despite public statements to the contrary, Steiner pointed out, and paying a spokesperson to help rehabilitate his image beforehand could easily be defended as a political purpose under the existing law.
“There’s a lot of leeway with what you can do [with campaign funds],” Steiner said.
It’s not the first concern raised about Cuomo’s campaign finances. In April, a D.C.-based group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with New York’s Board of Elections, alleging Cuomo had violated campaign-finance laws when he used his campaign’s social media accounts and mass emails to promote his memoir American Crisis, the profits of which Cuomo pocketed.
A spokesman for the Board of Elections didn’t return a request about that investigation either.
John Kaehney, head of Reinvent Albany, one of the other organizations to sign on to the latest complaint, said they’re hopeful that Johnson will draw clearer lines about how campaign funds can and cannot be used.
“It’s not every day that you have an $18 million-dollar campaign war chest that’s being used to pay for the ex-governor’s political hitman,” he said. “If he’s using the money to pay Rich Azzopardi to fulfill whatever his ego whim is of the day, then what the hell are these funds for?”