New York State

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign contributions draw scrutiny

Recent reports on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fundraising from firms with business before state agencies have illustrated how legal campaign contributions can create a perception of conflict of interest.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The Office of Andrew M. Cuomo

Despite establishing an election finance commission in the state budget, recent reports on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fundraising from firms with business before state agencies have illustrated how the current campaign contribution system in New York state can create a perception of conflict of interest. “The whole system of campaign finance is an inherent conflict of interest, because the people who make the donations, particularly the big ones, are people who have business before the government,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Cuomo is historically a prolific fundraiser, but he has been supportive of restrictions for campaign contributions. This session, in pursuit of that goal, the state Legislature and the governor created a public campaign financing and election commission. The commission will look into creating a small-donor public financing system, to encourage lawmakers to listen to constituent needs and allow for more people to run for office. The members of the commission are required to make their recommendations by December 1, 2019. 

“You can restrict pay-to-play, and the governor recognizes that it’s a problem because he’s had proposals in his budget the last two years,” Horner said. “But nothing has happened.”

Here are a few examples of the appearance of conflict of interest Cuomo has dealt with over the years. 

New donors received an MTA contract

Haugland Group, the contractors chosen to clear subway drains in 2017, were one of Cuomo’s biggest donors during 2018. The New York Times reported on Monday that the firm also hosted the governor at their box in July 2018 with other prominent contractors and donors. Cuomo was adamant in an interview with the Times that he has no idea what firms are MTA contractors and which are not.

Hevesi criticism over financial connections to homeless shelter providers

Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi has criticized the governor for taking contributions from organizations that are paid by the state to run homeless shelters. One of such outfit, HELP USA, was founded by Cuomo and his sister is the non-profit’s current chair. His office has hit back at Hevesi, calling the attack a remnant of a family grudge. Cuomo was the attorney general responsible for sending Hevesi’s father Alan, then state comptroller, to prison after he pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks from a firm to which he directed state pension fund investments.

A high dollar fundraising dinner during budget season

This year, invitation to a fundraising dinner for the governor costing $5,000 to $25,000 per plate was held at the peak of budget season. Budget Director Robert Mujica was invited, and he spent the evening mingling with those in attendance. He received a courtesy invitation, as is customary for important aides, according to the governor’s office. Attendees with specific policy priorities included an organization of Jewish day schools and yeshivas seeking increased public reimbursements, and the New York School Bus Contractors Association, which wanted a tax exemption for purchasing new buses. 

Campaign donations from the Winklevoss twins

Last year, the Winklevoss brothers gave $50,000 apiece to the governor’s re-election campaign, as their cryptocurrency trading firm was awaiting proper licensing with the state. Once they received approval, they each gave an additional $15,000 to Cuomo’s campaign arm. Between donations, they rubbed elbows with Cuomo and his other donors at a fundraiser in Montauk. All parties insist there was nothing untoward – the Department of Financial Services issued the permit and said they are unaware of political contributions.

Real estate developer’s tax breaks

In 2013, three partners of the real estate firm Fisher Brothers gave significant amounts of money to Cuomo’s campaign, shortly before the governor approved tax breaks for a high-rise building they were constructing. All three were long time Cuomo backers and the bill was a New York City priority, but the donation still raised eyebrows.