For Assembly member and congressional candidate Michael Lawler, it could have paid to run for office – literally.
Lawler, who is currently running for the 17th Congressional District in the Hudson Valley against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, won his seat in the Assembly in 2020. Before then, he had worked as a political strategist and campaign consultant at Checkmate Strategies, a firm he co-founded with Chris Russell in 2018. Technically, Lawler still works there, with his LinkedIn profile even listing him as a partner at the firm ahead of being a member of the Assembly. State lawmakers can maintain outside employment even when in office, and while many leave their job once winning their election, some like Lawler choose to continue working both.
Lawyers who continue their practices after taking office are perhaps the most common example, but so long as they don’t have a job in the public sector or lobby before the state, lawmakers simply need to report their outside income in order to keep the dual employment. Lawler was previously a registered lobbyist and stopped that part of his practice after taking office. But campaign consulting remained fair game.
A review of Lawler’s campaign disclosures from both his Assembly campaign and his current congressional campaign show that he paid Checkmate Strategies over $200,000 in consulting fees since 2020. While running for the Assembly and during his subsequent tenure, Lawler’s campaign paid his firm $110,000. Disclosures show the payments were for fundraising, print ads and digital ads.
In his most recent federal campaign filing from Oct. 15, Lawler also spent $94,000 on Checkmate Strategies out of his congressional campaign account. The money went toward a slew of expenses, including “public relations consulting,” “printing and postage,” and “research consulting.”
In adherence with state ethics laws, Lawler has filed financial disclosures for both his years in office. According to the document for 2020, the year he won his seat in the Assembly, Lawler made between $150,000 and $250,000 as a partner at Checkmate Strategies. At the time, he described his work for the firm as lobbying. The following year, after he took office, Lawler reported the same amount of income from Checkmate Strategies, but no longer undertook lobbying work per the filing, describing the firm as “political consulting, communications (and) gov’t affairs.”
A spokesperson for Lawler dismissed any perception of an ethical dilemma with the apparent self-dealing, saying he did not enrich himself off the campaigns and checked first with lawyers to ensure that everything was above board. “After receiving a favorable response, Mr. Lawler went above and beyond, instructing the firm's accountants to firewall him from any profits resulting from his campaign,” campaign spokesperson William O’Reilly said in a statement to City & State. “At no time, during his prior campaign for state Assembly or during his campaign for Congress, has Mr. Lawler profited off his campaign.” According to both state and federal law, candidates may spend campaign money on businesses or holdings that they have a stake in so long as they pay market rate and the expenses are for bonafide campaign purposes. Lawler’s spending would appear to meet that standard.
O’Reilly also accused Maloney of his own campaign finance improprieties. “This is a desperate attempt by Sean Patrick Maloney who, according to multiple reports, is under congressional investigation at the request of fellow Democrats for abusing both taxpayer and campaign funds for his own personal benefit, and that of his family,” O’Reilly added. City & State previously reported that Maloney may face an ethics inquiry over misuse of campaign funds to pay a staffer who did personal work for him and his family. A spokesperson for the Maloney campaign called the accusation “another lie from MAGA Mike Lawler.” Maloney has previously denied the campaign finance allegations against him.
Lawler’s behavior may not have broken the laws as currently written, but good government advocates have long pushed for campaign finance reform to make the rules clearer and eliminate any loopholes. “There should be very tight restrictions on the use of campaign contributions to ensure that candidates for office are not enriching themselves with their friends,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s a tortured system, at both the federal and state level… but as long as the candidates not enriching themselves, or their friends, the money's being used for campaign campaign activities itself, that makes sense to us.”