New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will spend this weekend discussing infrastructure projects at the Democratic Governors Association's winter policy meeting. The meeting will focus on public-private partnerships, and Cuomo is the big draw, a rising star who just unveiled a massive infrastructure fund for the state.
He's also the event's big fundraising draw, luring the "private" in "public-private." The Wall Street Journal and New York Times obtained a letter from a lobbyist to prospective corporate donors, offering them a spot on the panel with Gov. Cuomo for a $50,000 donation to the DGA. (Cuomo's panel was the top spot; places on other legislators' panels were offered for $25,000.) The event is closed to the media and the public.
There are, of course, countless ways to give money to politicians, but the solicitation seems to put a twist on your typical rubber-chicken fundraiser. The event was billed as a policy discussion.
Cuomo's allure for corporate donors is particularly notable. He campaigned under the slogan "Clean Up Albany" and pledged to rid New York of "pay-to-play" situations in which corporations or their lobbyists offered campaign donations or other gifts in exchange for access to government officials and contracts. During the campaign, Cuomo championed his record as an attorney general who cracked down on pay-to-play and illegal campaign finance contributions from nonprofits.
Campaign finance groups have applauded Cuomo's efforts as well. In his State of the State address in early January, he called for lower limits on campaign contributions, stricter enforcement and voluntary public financing of elections. Of course, that would affect only New York state, not the federal campaign finance laws that allow independent groups to collect unlimited corporate donations.
The fundraising by the governors' association appears to be perfectly legal. Unless there is concrete evidence that a campaign contribution constitutes an actual intent bribe, it is protected as free speech and is not a gift subject to ethics regulations. There's also nothing in campaign finance law that prevents donors from paying to attend events with elected officials nor anything that prevents corporations from making unlimited contributions to independent groups like the DGA. Indeed, even if a corporation that donates to the DGA and attends a panel with Cuomo later lands an infrastructure contract in New York state, there would likely be no legal violation.
New York lobbyists like Tonio Borgos, who sent the letter, are often "bundlers," acting as conduits between politicians and interest groups, bringing in a lot of cash, and potentially amplifying their influence and that of their clients. (Burgos was an aide to Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, during the latter's tenure as governor, and at least one of Burgos' clients, The Wall Street Journal noted, is involved in private-public partnerships.)
A DGA spokesman said there was nothing unusual about this event, and that the association had not coordinated with fundraisers. It declined to name the panel participants. (The DGA does disclose its top donors but not the attendees of specific events). Neither Burgos nor the governor's office returned calls requesting comment. In a statement to the Times, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said that "any funds raised go to the DGA, not the governor's campaign."
Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the perception of a conflict of interest is inherent in campaign finance law. "We have pretty good disclosure laws, so tongues will wag, but a donation doesn't necessarily prove anything," Haven said. "That's the problem with the system — everything's up for suspicion, even if you get something on the merits, even when things work the way they are supposed to."