This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News on February 14, 2023.
Former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin likely sighed with relief when a judge dismissed criminal corruption charges against him in December. But taxpayers aren’t so lucky. They’re still on the hook for funding the money pit encouraging these corrupt politicians, New York City’s matching funds program.
The program shovels $8 in tax dollars for every $1 of eligible campaign contributions to politicians. Proponents claim that such “matching funds” schemes reduce corruption by making small-dollar donors more important and making candidates less reliant on “special interests.” But those funds instead incentivize corruption by making illegal straw donor schemes enticing. A crooked politician with some shady friends can split one $400 contribution into sixteen “different” $25 dollar contributions and pocket $3,200 in “matching funds.”
Federal prosecutors claimed that Benjamin went to criminal lengths to rake in the tax dollars. His alleged co-conspirator was Gerald Migdol, who ran a nonprofit group. Initially, Migdol hesitated to help Benjamin because he worried that his nonprofit supporters wouldn’t donate to both his group and Benjamin’s campaign. Benjamin said, “Let me see what I can do.” Shortly after, Benjamin, a state senator at the time, secured a $50,000 state grant for Migdol’s nonprofit. Migdol then came up with phony small-dollar donations and pled guilty after the feds finished their investigation. The sham donations used names of people who had never heard of Benjamin, including Migdol’s two-year-old grandson.
No one can deny the sleaziness of what happened. And New York City’s matching funds program enabled and encouraged this sleaze. City records show Benjamin raised a little more than $900,000, but earned an extra $2.1 million from the city’s “match.”
This isn’t unique to New York. Everywhere politicians enact tax-funded campaign schemes, slimy candidates across the country exploit them.
Robert Green, a former candidate for the Arizona state Senate, was indicted for submitting false documents to the Arizona Clean Elections Fund seeking to collect more than $21,000 in public matching funds. He pleaded guilty to forgery.
A former Maine state House candidate, Michael Hein, landed in jail for encouraging 15 people to falsely claim they made contributions to his campaign to try to qualify for the state’s “clean elections” program.
In Seattle, City Council candidate Sheley Secrest faced criminal charges after allegedly disguising her money as small-dollar donations to receive up to $150,000 in public money. Secrest’s former campaign manager said he had been with Secrest when she took out an envelope full of $20 bills and submitted them as 56 separate, fraudulent small-dollar donations. The police investigation supported the ex-campaign manager’s claim.
Politicians have shown us time and time again that they are willing to break the law to get their hands on your money. But despite the sleaze incentivized by these schemes, New York State has enacted a new matching funds program. What a great plan for politicians. They can vote to line their campaign pockets with tax dollars and claim it’s to stop corruption!
Meanwhile, New York taxpayers pay the price. The new state Public Campaign Finance Board requested $114.5 million for the fiscal year 2024, $100 million for politicians and $14.5 million for administrative costs. The Executive Budget presented by Gov. Hochul commits $25 million for matching funds and $4 million to hire staff. With the remaining $10.5 million reappropriated from last year, that brings the total funding so far to nearly $40 million.
Funding the partisan campaigns of politicians, who may already be well-known, independently wealthy, or in uncompetitive races isn’t one of them. In 2017, Mayor de Blasio saw a windfall of nearly $3 million in tax dollars for the primary alone, in a race he was heavily favored to win. Letitia James, who is now the state’s attorney general, received more than $750,000 in public matching funds for her 2017 reelection as public advocate against a little-known and poorly funded first-time candidate.
The city’s Campaign Finance Board own report admitted that “the program’s requirements…appear to have contributed to greater disparities between officeholders’ and challengers’ campaign finances…” The board also said that “the Public Fund has helped to finance possibly unnecessary campaign expenses and uncompetitive campaigns.”
Matching funds subsidize detestable speech, too. Thomas Lopez-Pierre, the infamous New York City Council candidate, tweeted that he planned to use his $100,000 in matching funds to share his campaign promise of “protecting tenants from greedy Jewish landlords.” Unfortunately, the Empire State will soon see its own cast of unsavory characters raking in public funds.
If lawmakers in Albany can’t find anything else better to do with heaps of taxpayer money, they should ask their constituents. I’m sure they have a few better ideas.
As long as public money goes to politicians, taxpayers should be furious.