ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A probe swirling around New York City's mayor has cast a harsh light on some of the nation's most lax campaign finance laws, with contribution limits so easy to get around that even government watchdogs acknowledge a ring of truth to the familiar excuse: Hey, everybody's doing it.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been bedeviled by a criminal probe of an effort he helped organize in 2014 to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic state Senate candidates. He insists that he and his team have done nothing wrong and suggested they have been unfairly singled out for a common practice in New York's famously opaque campaign funding system.
While New York law restricts individual donations to any candidate at just over $10,000 — already among the highest such limits in the nation — party committees can receive individual donations of more than $100,000, and the committee can then transfer an unrestricted amount to the candidate.
The legal restriction at issue in the de Blasio case is that such an arrangement can't be specifically worked out in advance. Money can't be given to a party committee with a direction that it's passed on to a particular candidate.
Even reform advocates acknowledge this restriction has been routinely flouted.
"Everybody knows how it's played so you really don't have to be explicit," Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said about earmarking contributions.
Susan Lerner, of Common Cause, said it's a "systemic problem" and "should be solved systemically."
"We don't know what the facts are (in the de Blasio case)," she said. "What we do know is that this is a problem that did not start or end with Mayor de Blasio."
For his part, de Blasio said he and his allies — a network of committees, consultants, politicians and operatives — have done everything properly and suggested a political motive behind singling him out.
"Everything was done very carefully, meticulously, with legal guidance, and consistent with what so many other people have done," de Blasio told WNYC Radio on Friday.
The case referred by New York's Board of Elections in January to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. involves donations to Senate candidates Justin Wagner, Terry Gipson and Cecilia Tkaczyk. All lost contested 2014 races that kept Republicans in control of the chamber and able to thwart measures backed by left-leaning Democrats.
On Saturday, at an unrelated event, Vance said he couldn't comment on the ongoing investigation.
"We're doing our job and beyond that, at this point, I really can't add more," he said.
Elections board chief enforcement counsel Risa Sugarman, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recommended the criminal referral. In a memo later leaked to the New York Daily News, she said it began with a pair of complaints by Republican officials in Putnam and Ulster counties, where the Senate races took place.
Her office subpoenaed bank records and work by prominent consultants involved.
Sugarman noted large, unusual donations to the two counties' Democratic committees that in turn made large donations to the candidates.
Campaign records show, for example, the Ulster committee got $60,000 that October from the New York State Nurses Association political action committee and $102,300 each from the PACs of Communications Workers of America District One and 32BJ Service Employees International Union United American Dream Fund. Over the next two weeks, the committee transferred $320,000 to Tkaczyk.
"Review of the documents revealed evidence of campaigns that were coordinated at every level and down to minute detail," Sugarman wrote, later calling the violations "willful and flagrant."
Attorney Laurence Laufer, representing de Blasio and others named in the memo, responded to Sugarman last week, saying she showed "profound misunderstanding of election law."
"There is nothing novel about the 2014 Democratic Party campaign to elect Democratic candidates to the state Senate, other than your attempt to selectively criminalize it," Laufer wrote.
In the same few weeks of the 2014 campaign, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee funneled $105,000 to candidates Tom Croci in a contested Long Island race that he won and $80,000 to Sue Serino who beat Gipson for that Hudson Valley seat, while the committee took in almost $500,000 in transfers from the campaigns of incumbent Republican senators with no serious challengers.
Campaign records show some of the same consultants — Metropolitan Public Strategies and AKPD Message and Media — mentioned in the Sugarman memo were being paid in 2014 by the state Democratic Committee, which Cuomo heads and was funding with millions of dollars from his own campaign account during his re-election race. Cuomo also publicly backed the three Senate candidates.
Sugarman's memo recommending a criminal investigation mentions neither the state committee nor the governor himself, who has been at odds politically with de Blasio.
Spokeswoman Dani Lever said neither Cuomo nor anyone on his executive staff authorized Sugarman's investigation of de Blasio and the others.
"The administration was first made aware of the reported investigations by the U.S. attorney, district attorney and Board of Elections when it was reported in the press," she said.
State Party Executive Director Basil Smikle said they routinely support Democratic candidates but neither the state party nor Cuomo campaign used the Putnam and Ulster county committees in the effort.
Associated Press writer David Klepper and Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.