The state Senate is refusing to release information about taxpayer-funded mailings sent this summer by Sen. Roy McDonald’s office, even though the state’s highest court and highest open government official say it should be public information.
Freedom of Information requests were made for McDonald’s mailing records after two pieces of mail surfaced that were sent to a town of Wilton voter. That voter was eligible to participate in the primary and general elections for the 43rd Senate District because of redistricting, but isn’t currently represented by the senator. It is against Senate rules for senators to send constituent mail outside their district.
Good government groups regard these mailings, which tout a legislator’s achievements, as taxpayer-funded campaign literature. Defenders of the mailings say they provide a valuable service, educating residents about state issues.
“Many legislative mailings straddle the line between legitimate constituent education and taxpayer-funded pro-incumbent propaganda,” said Bill Mahoney, legislative operations and research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, If mailings were purposefully sent to a voter outside of the current district, but eligible to vote, Mahoney said it shouldn’t be considered consitutent education.
In a 12-month period ending in September 2011, McDonald’s office spent more than $50,000 on mail, which is comparable to other senators in the Capital Region.
Senate spokesman Scott Reif said that occasionally mailings are sent outside the district, although these instances represent just a handful of cases and are never intentional. He acknowledged that mistakes can happen, but stressed, “We take this very seriously, especially in a redistricting year.”
In the case of the voter in Wilton, who has a Saratoga Springs mailing address, Reif said the voter was added to the mailing list for the 43rd Senate District after requesting information from then-Sen. Joseph Bruno, who preceded McDonald in the district.
“Government mailers were never used for political purposes, mistakes certainly happen but political considerations are not involved in decisions about government mailings,” said McDonald spokesman Michael Veitch.
Neither Veitch nor Reif would voluntarily release information relating to the addresses of McDonald’s mailings.
On Sept. 11, The Daily Gazette submitted two freedom of information requests for information relating to McDonald’s mailings in the window after his new district was drawn and both were denied, for different reasons.
Reif verbally denied a request for records relating to mailings sent to areas outside the current district on the basis that no such records existed. He had previously acknowledged at least one piece of mail was sent outside the district. He maintained that a database worker went through the records and didn’t find any mailings sent outside the district.
A second request, for the list of all the mailing addresses that received mail from McDonald this spring and summer was denied in writing by Francis W. Patience, secretary of the Senate, on the basis that the information isn’t subject to FOI requests.
Robert Freeman, executive director for the state’s Committee on Open Government, said there are limits to what the Senate must disclose but that mailing information should be released.
“The state’s highest court found that records concerning mailings by a state senator were accessible,” Freeman said, referring to the 1994 state Court of Appeals ruling in Weston versus Sloan. “Based on that decision, it appears that the records sought [by the Gazette] should be disclosed to comply with law.”
In the Weston ruling, the courts found that information relating to mailings was generally disclosable. In that case, the request for information included when mail was sent out, how much was spent on the mail and what neighborhoods were targeted with mail.
Freeman added that the Gazette should appeal the Senate’s FOI request denial.
“If mailings in the nature of campaign literature were sent to members of the public, there is simply nothing secret about them,” he said.
NYPIRG’s Mahoney stressed that taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. “If these mailings were actually sent solely to current consituents,” he said, “it would be surprising that the Senate would stonewall the release of details and unnecessarily raise doubts about their financial propriety.”
The Gazette has appealed both rulings and has offered to reword its initial requests to rectify any potential concerns the Senate might have about releasing this information. Reif has indicated the administrative process of securing this information could take years.