Niagara Gazette

May 7, 2013

Shut out of the process|Protesters blocked from NY campaign funds hearing

The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — ALBANY — Protesters and good-government advocates were barred from a public hearing Tuesday in which Republican senators bolstered their opposition to using public money to fund campaigns.

Federal corruption cases against four Democratic state lawmakers in the last four weeks among 32 over the last seven years intensified both sides of the issue as lawmakers face the final seven weeks of their legislative session.

"What began as a few bad apples has become a bushel and maybe even a barrel," Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group, among the speakers at the hearing, testified at the end of the proceeding.

Senate Republicans have long opposed using what they estimate would be $200 million to create a voluntary statewide system of publicly financed campaigns when schools, programs for the disabled and other needs are seeing cuts or flat spending in hard fiscal times. Republicans also note one of the recent corruption cases involves a Democrat accused of trying to bribe his way into the New York City mayor's race, where his campaign contributions could be matched 6-to-1 with public money under the city's public financing system.

After senators, staff, speakers and news media were allowed in Tuesday's hearing, others were told there was no more room, a move that may have run afoul of the state Open Meetings Law.

Robert Freeman of the state Committee on Open Government said in an interview that a public body must have a room of reasonable size for an event and must let people in on a first-come, first-serve basis. He said attendance could be reasonably restricted to limit disruptions.

If a big crowd is expected, the event should be moved to a larger room if one is available, Freeman said.

The hearing, run by Republicans, focused on what several speakers said are flaws in New York City's campaign financing system.

Meanwhile, protesters from New York City who are associated with unions, liberal Democrats and advocacy groups shouted that public financing of campaigns would reduce corporate and corrupting influences in politics.

"Let the people in!" chanted about two dozen protesters, many with dollar bills taped to their mouths to symbolize the power of money in politics.

"I'm disturbed the public can't be here," said Democratic Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk inside the hearing, where seven seats at the table reserved for senators were empty. The Senate room is most often used for press conferences and smaller meetings, although Republicans said seven other hearings were held there this year.

Tkaczyk made an issue of supporting public financing of campaigns in her 2012 election, which was funded to a large extent by a super political action committee seeking the measure. She said public financing of campaigns accompanied by lower limits on donations and far greater disclosure and enforcement would reduce the corrupting influence of corporations and Super PACs.

She sought to move Tuesday's hearing to one of the three unused public hearing rooms that allow hundreds, but Republicans rejected the request.

Republican Sen. Thomas O'Mara said the intent of the hearing was to provide information to legislators from invited speakers. He said the protesters would create an "unnecessary delay."

Republicans who share majority control of the Senate face strong Democratic opposition. Public financing of campaigns priority of the Independent Democratic Conference, which shares Senate control with Republicans; the traditional Democratic conference, the Assembly's Democratic majority, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Tuesday's hearing provided testimony Republicans could use to defend their decision to keep the issue from reaching the Senate floor for a vote, which would kill a measure calling for a statewide campaign financing system similar to New York City's.

Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco argued against requiring all taxpayers to fund a system that could benefit candidates they oppose.

"You should be allowed to be a non-participant ... isn't that what a free country is about?" DeFrancisco said.

The business group Unshackle Upstate testified that taxpayers can't afford public financing of politicians' campaigns.

"We should also not be fooled or distracted by recent political scandals as a justification for a taxpayer funded campaign system," stated Brian Sampson of Unshackle Upstate.

He said New York state at times is seen as "a cesspool of corruption, scandal and cases of bribery." Sampson said Albany must clean up and remove corrupt officials, "but let's not disguise this under the veil of taxpayer funded campaigns."

Many protesters hoisted pictures of state lawmakers snared in several recent corruption cases, including former Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. In 2009, the Bronx Democrat orchestrated a Senate coup and managed to get Democrats and Republicans to vote him leadership positions to lure him to their side.

Among those denied entry Tuesday were established good-government advocates who hadn't been invited to speak.

"They wouldn't even let the public testify, and now they aren't letting them attend the public hearing," said Bill Mahoney of New York Public Interest Research Group, who analyzes campaign spending. "By holding this hearing, they are saying they are comfortable with more Pedro Espadas."

"They certainly don't want to" change the status quo, said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. "This is how they get elected. This is how they hope to stay elected." She said the League of Women Voters hadn't been asked to submit testimony on the election law change and the hearing noted stated testimony was by invitation only.

During the hearing, O'Mara said the groups were free to submit testimony.