For most of the past three decades, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, one of the state’s most powerful Jewish lawmakers, has run for re-election without serious opposition, accumulating a $1.1 million campaign war chest. Absent the need to pay political consultants, Hikind has instead used the money for a very different purpose, showering hundreds of thousands of dollars on a slew of non-profits stretching from his Borough Park district to Israel – a generally entirely legal practice under the state’s permissive election laws.
But even in the context of those broad rules, donations to at least one of the charitable groups raise questions about potential violations of state election law, several campaign finances experts said.
Going at least as far back as 1999, and with increasingly frequency in recent years, Hikind has given a total of nearly $43,000 in donations to a Manhattan-based non-profit and two heavily overlapping organizations. Hikind’s wife, Susan, has for years run the daily operations for at least one of the organizations, earning $80,000 a year at American Friends of Ateret Cohanim as its executive vice-president.
John Conklin, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections, said that donations from lawmakers cannot go to non-profits “controlled” by their relatives.
“Contributions to charities are a clearly approved use of campaign funds – unless that charity is controlled by a relative of the candidate,” Conklin said.
Conklin pointed to a 1997 New York State Board of Elections advisory opinion stating that if a politician gives money to charity, the lawmaker would be in violation of the law if a family member at the charity exercises “control over the disposition of the funds.”
According to Ateret Cohanim’s 2011 tax returns, Susan Hikind is the non-profit’s highest ranking paid employee, serving as one of its two “officers.” The other is Joseph Frager, the unpaid chairman of the board. But a spokesman for Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Yehudah Meth, wrote in an email that Susan Hikind did not control the non-profit’s spending, despite running its day-to-day operations and being one of the two directors. Susan Hikind, also known as Shani Hikind, is one of the organization’s more than 20 board members overseeing the nonprofit, according to 2011 tax returns.
“The organization employs 13 people,” Meth wrote. “Shani Hikind is one of them. All decisions regarding spending, programming and so forth are directed by the executive board, not Shani Hikind. The presumption that Ateret Cohanim is her organization or that she controls it or its finances is completely erroneous.”
Only one other person, Dan Matityahu, is listed on the group’s most recent 990 form as receiving payments – as a $120,000 outside consultant and fundraiser. Meth said the non-profit has three New York City-based employees, and 10 located in Israel.
City & State identified nearly $43,000 in donations Hikind has made to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim and two other groups, Jerusalem Chai and Jerusalem Reclamation Project, since 1999. At least publicly, there doesn’t seem to be much distinction between them: Ateret Cohanim’s website suggests that the names are essentially pseudonyms, and says the non-profit is simply “also known as ‘Jerusalem Chai’ and Jerusalem Reclamation Project.” The other groups do not have publicly available tax returns.
American Friends of Ateret Cohanim’s mission, according to its website, is “strengthening our Jewish roots and reestablishing thriving Jewish communities that are centered around educational institutes in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.”
In his own lengthy statement, Hikind noted that his wife’s fundraising for the non-profit had no bearing on the salary that she earns.
“It should be noted, for the record, that my wife’s salary is fixed and not tied in any way to the amount of contributions that she directly or indirectly brings in,” Hikind said. “Moreover, Shani’s salary has not increased in more than a decade, despite her undying dedication to her work. She is heart-and-soul devoted to the preservation of Jerusalem, which we both regard as crucial to the protection and survival of the Jewish people.”
The group listed annual receipts of grants and contributions ranging from $900,000 to $2.1 million in recent years – so Hikind’s campaign donations comprise only a small part of the non-profit’s overall revenue.
Hikind also noted that only a small portion of his overall charitable giving went to groups affiliated with his wife, noting that his campaign contributed a total of $103,000 over the past year, with less than 7 percent going to the charities affiliated with her.
Still, Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, said Hikind’s spending on his wife’s non-profit raises legal questions, though the election law remains vague and its enforcement has often been weak.
Similar questions have been raised about Brooklyn State Sen. Marty Golden’s campaign spending at a catering hall in Bay Ridge owned by his brother and run by his wife – but at least that spending could be construed as campaign-related, Lerner said. Under state election law, non-campaign related spending cannot go to “personal use.” The donations to Susan Hikind’s non-profit could violate that rule.
“This is more questionable, because it has nothing to do with politics,” Lerner added.
Hikind has also given campaign cash to two non-profits closely tied to his son, Yoni, who helps run the Yeshiva Simchas Chaim, a school that serves at-risk teenagers. Hikind gave that organization $10,500, according to campaign finance records, and another $22,500 to Our Place NY, its parent organization. But Dov Hikind said in a statement that Yoni Hikind did not draw a salary from his work at the yeshiva, and more specific information about individual employee salaries was not available in tax returns.
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