New York

Watchdogs: Cuomo skirting campaign finance rules

They say he's using secretive nonprofit to advance his agenda
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at an event in Manhattan on July 20, 2017.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at an event in Manhattan on July 20, 2017.

At the end of a video promoting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s immigration policies, a disclaimer noted the advertisement’s funding source: an obscure anti-discrimination group called New Yorkers United Together.

The fledgling group, which has financed only the one online video, claims it has no ties to any politician. Two of the group’s co-founders said in interviews that the governor had nothing to do with the ad, other than agreeing to appear in it alongside several celebrities.

But a closer examination shows otherwise. All of the group’s co-founders are close friends of Cuomo’s. Three celebrities who spoke in the ad said they were asked to do so by Cuomo’s office, and another person said he was asked by the office to identify others who might be willing to participate.

The man hired to film the ad, Jimmy Siegel, has shot political spots for the governor in previous campaigns. And his website’s gallery of work examples seems to make clear where the idea for the video originated.

“Title: We are New York,” the website says. “Client: Andrew Cuomo.”

To government watchdogs, the connections are evidence that Cuomo is again skirting campaign finance rules by using a secretive nonprofit to advance his agenda.

The rules limit donations to political campaigns and require disclosure, and politicians are not supposed to get around them by using organizations that can accept unlimited secret donations. But New Yorkers United Together is the third nonprofit formed by allies of Cuomo’s to emerge and support his policies.

In the latest instance, the video ad praises the governor’s immigration record at a time when Cuomo, a Democrat, is trying to use that issue to appeal to skeptical liberals as he prepares to seek a third term in 2018 and possibly run for president in 2020.

Cuomo’s office said the governor’s appearance in the New Yorkers United Together video, which circulated online this spring, was aboveboard.

The office pointed to a 2014 ruling by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics that found that politicians could appear in an ad funded by a nonprofit if the message was in the public interest and promoted government services and did not promote any candidate or policy.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, added that the state did not support the ad financially.

“No money was spent to promote an online public service announcement that appeared months ago and was in full compliance with all laws and guidelines,” Azzopardi said. “No amount of false outrage changes these facts.”

New Yorkers United Together was founded in late March by Steven M. Cohen, a former top aide to Cuomo; Christine C. Quinn, the former New York City Council speaker; and the public relations consultant Ken Sunshine.

The goal of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization, according to documents filed with the New York secretary of state, is to fight discrimination, support diversity and raise money for immigrant legal defense.

“It’s an informal group established in reaction to Donald Trump’s travel ban,” Sunshine said, referring to the president’s order blocking people from six mostly Muslim nations from entering the United States. “We were discussing what to do, and we came up with this.”

Sunshine, Quinn and Cohen all said the nonprofit was planning to do much more in the future, but they declined to give any specifics or to say who funded the group’s creation, whether it would ever disclose its donors or how exactly it planned to support immigrant legal defense. Siegel declined to say anything.

The group’s first effort, the digital ad, was a 30-second spot featuring celebrities and regular people cheering the diversity and inclusiveness of New York.

“As a New Yorker, I am black,” Cuomo says in the opening line. “I am white,” Whoopi Goldberg says next, followed by Steve Buscemi, Harvey Fierstein and a dozen other actors and citizens. It ends with a plug for the Liberty Defense Project, a public-private partnership offering free immigrant legal defense.

Cuomo had announced the Liberty Defense Project with fanfare and followed it with op-ed articles and a new line in speeches: “If we’re going to deport immigrants, start with me.” (The governor’s grandparents emigrated from Italy.)

He has been criticized, however, for not funding the effort, instead relying on philanthropists and white-collar lawyers, many of who have business before the state.

The project was unveiled on March 24 — six days before New Yorkers United Together registered with the state, records show.

Quinn called the timing coincidental and insisted that Cuomo was not involved in planning the group. The nonprofit asked the governor to appear in the digital ad only because it wanted to include a diverse group of New Yorkers, she said.

“Our vision was to have a mix of everyday people and some celebrities and boldfaced names, if you will,” Quinn said. “That’s why there’s an addition of the actors and celebrities and the governor. I think it’s powerful to have everyday people, and I think it’s powerful to have faces and voices that you recognize.”

The people who said Cuomo played a much bigger role in the ad said his office called friends directly to ask them to participate. “The request came from Gov. Cuomo’s office in late March, and it was filmed then,” said Molly Barnett, a spokeswoman for Fierstein, echoing answers from Buscemi and others.

The video’s release drew media attention and stirred speculation about Cuomo’s presidential ambitions.

For nearly a month, Cuomo’s office declined to say anything about the ad. Only after others had divulged its involvement to The New York Times did the office provide a statement: “Ken Sunshine and the other members of the group wanted to do something that spoke to the moment re: immigration and what New York stands for. He and Steve (Cohen) came to the governor and the video is what came out of that group discussion.”

Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, a watchdog group, said the video seemed commendable, and so “it’s really surprising that the people involved and the governor are not willing to disclose who they’re raising money from and what they’re planning to spend it on.”

Lerner drew a comparison with the past.

“It’s all too similar to other nonprofits set up by elected officials who want to hide from the public who they’re taking money from and how they’re spending it,” she said. “It’s exactly like the Committee to Save New York and the Campaign for One New York.”

The Committee to Save New York was formed in late 2010 and spent more than $16 million on ads supporting Cuomo’s agenda before closing in 2013 after The Times revealed it was financed by entities with business before the state, including a gambling group seeking the governor’s support for more casinos.

After that controversy, Cuomo supported legislation requiring nonprofits that lobby to disclose their donors. That requirement will not apply to New Yorkers United Together, however, because its co-founders say it will not lobby for any specific policies.

The Campaign for One New York was founded to advance Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda after this 2013 electoral victory. It was widely criticized and eventually became the subject of a criminal investigation in the face of accusations that entities were donating to the group in exchange for more favorable policies. This year, prosecutors announced they would not file charges in the case.

Cuomo also has aligned himself with at least one other nonprofit. Last year, he partnered with a coalition of labor unions to create the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice. That nonprofit fought for a $15 hourly minimum wage, a policy backed by the younger governor, but some said the group’s ads sounded like campaign ads for Cuomo. One ad was composed entirely of clips of him talking about his economic agenda to loud applause.

Still, during the investigation into de Blasio’s relationship with the Campaign for One New York, the governor took the opportunity to harshly criticize nonprofits aligned with politicians.

“They’re just another way to get around the law,” he said in a June 2016 speech at Fordham Law School. “Everybody knows it’s in collusion and cahoots with the candidates.”

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