Yes, you can take it with you. You can, that is, if you are a retiring or – more rarely – a defeated elected official in our ethics-lite state.
George Maziarz is the latest to be leaving with not just a cushy pension, but what amounts to a $1.1 million campaign slush fund.
The longtime State Senate power from Newfane surprised many with this week’s announcement that he won’t run for re-election in November. He says it’s for family reasons. Others suspect he’s jumping before getting pushed by a U.S. Attorney’s Office probe into his use of campaign funds.
Either way, at the end of his officeholder rainbow is a pot of gold. Although Maziarz barely broke a sweat against feeble opposition during numerous campaigns, he nonetheless raised a boatload of bucks – including $268,000 since January.
In a saner world, the unspent campaign cash would be returned to donors – since it wasn’t used for a TV ad or campaign flier – or given to Maziarz’s favorite charity. That’s the way it works in some other states.
In New York, the land of political excess, politicians pocket their campaign stash. Maziarz is merely the latest in a long line of elected officials – Republican and Democrat – who left office with not just a commemorative lapel pin, but a sizable fortune.
Ex-Mayor Anthony Masiello exited City Hall with $782,000 in unspent campaign cash. Ex-County Executive Joel Giambra pocketed $708,000 on his way out of the Rath Building. Former Congressman Jack Quinn Jr. left Washington with a cool $483,000. Ex-Assemblyman Paul Tokasz departed Albany with $442,000 in campaign pocket change. And on and on.
All of the above, like hordes of other ex-politicians across the state, use the money to extend their political shelf life. They morph from officeholders to lobbyists, funneling the leftover campaign stash to favored political parties, politicians and causes. In return – in the typical political quid pro quo – they get political access, favors, contracts or consideration for their clients. It’s all legal.
Is this a great state or what?
“Elected officials shouldn’t be able to use campaign money to set themselves up in the lobbying business,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG, a good-government group.
“Give the money back or donate it to charity.”
If only it were so simple.
If the federal investigation goes somewhere, Maziarz could even use his campaign money for legal bills. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what donors had in mind when they reached into their wallets.
Funders who think all their dollars buy ads and leaflets should know better by now. Politicians have to spend campaign funds on “politically related” expenses. But the rule is so loose that the cash has been used for everything from baby sitters (ex-Assemblyman Sam Hoyt) to Bills’ season tickets (former State Sen. William Stachowski) to funding overseas trips (Tokasz).
For many politicians, campaign dollars pad their lifestyle. Invite a dozen friends to dinner, talk politics for 10 seconds, and you can pay the check out of your campaign slush fund. No fuss, no muss.
There oughtta be a law.
“We’ve tried,” NYPIRG’s Horner said of a history of failed ethics-tightening efforts. “There’s certainly no groundswell of support among the legislators for it. … But hope springs eternal.”
So, unfortunately, does greed.