One common complaint from campaign finance reform advocates is that when state or federal agencies do actually decide to go after offenders of election law, they choose only low-level candidates or parties that play well in the media without ever sending a real message. The New York Board of Elections took that criticism to heart in late 2015.
On Dec. 23, the political action committee of Norma Gonsalves, the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, was charged with failing to file campaign finance reports on numerous occasions between January 2006 and March 2015. The 10 counts leveled against Gonsalves and her committee equate to thousands of dollars in fines.
The price of delinquent reports
Any candidate or Political Action Committee under the delusion that failing to disclose financial expenditures is a victimless crime very quickly finds themselves the target of those responsible for enforcing campaign finance compliance laws. While arrests aren't unheard of, fines are far more common.
Gonsalves faces up to $28,000 in fines, Albany's Times Union reported. In the hearing officer report filed by Risa Sugarman, the Board of Elections' chief enforcement counsel, it is argued that Gonsalves denied voters, in multiple instances, their right to ascertain the ways in which her campaign was financed. Sugarman went on to state that Gonsalves only finally complied after becoming the central focus of an investigative report from Newsday laying bare nearly a decade's worth of non-compliance.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose Sugarman – who had previously led criminal investigations for New York's tax department and worked for Cuomo while he was state attorney general – to head up the Board of Elections' new election law enforcement wing after the Moreland Commission was shut down as part of the budget deal with the state legislature in March, the New York Times reported.
Originally charged with the role of investigating systemic corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections statewide, the dismantling of the commission was deeply controversial – so much so that the Federal government became involved.
Whatever corruption or illegal practices the Moreland Commission may have discovered, however, are unlikely to ever find their way to a courtroom. Instead, the Board of Elections will have to pick up in its stead, and Sugarman's unit has not flinched from that mission.
Though Gonsalves isn't the first politician or candidate the Board of Elections has set its sights on – Michelle Adolphe, a Brooklyn State Assembly candidate, was arrested in November 2015 for allegedly failing to file campaign finance reports – she will be the first to be subjected to the board's hearing process.
"The problems plaguing Gonsalves are similar to those of other troubled PACs."
A narrative quickly becoming all too familiar
Those tuned in to the many instances of campaign finance fines and arrests throughout 2015 will recognize much of Gonsalves' story. Gonsalves' PAC Friends For Norma Gonsalves didn't file timely financial disclosure reports so many times that it could be classified as a chronic condition.
According to the LI Herald, her PAC failed to report on several occasions in both the 2013 and 2015 election cycles. Each of these mistakes may prove costly – potentially to the tune of $10,000 for every one that is proven. By New York's election law, Gonsalves and her committee treasurer share responsibility for the fines.
As always in these confrontations, the candidate or party under fire has claimed to be the victim of political warfare. The Times Union reported that Frank Moroney, Friends of Norma Gonsalves' spokesman, recently released a statement assuring his candidate's compliance with all election laws.
"As such," Moroney said, "this must be perceived as a selective and highly partisan proceeding."
Gonsalves' case will be followed by every New York PAC to see how disastrous delinquent finance reports can prove to be. For now, it is on its way to a hearing officer who will decide on the validity of the complaints and judge the severity of Gonsalves' punishment.