Friday, June 03, 2005

Whodunit? Queens Democrats Tangle.


By Henry J. Stern
June 3, 2005

Since 2002, City Councilman James Sanders has not filed campaign reports with the Board of Elections, but the Board has been unable or unwilling either to secure his compliance or to punish him for his omission. The Councilman, however, is in good standing with the Campaign Finance Board, to which he has submitted regular reports.

Today's Newsday (pA22) carries a story by political reporter William Murphy with a familiar headline, 'CITY COUNCILMAN UNDER FIRE'. In this case, the story is not about Allan Jennings, but deals with a colleague from a neighboring district. We quote the first two sentences of Murphy's report:

"City Councilman James Sanders of Laurelton [southeast Queens] has failed to file legally mandated reports on his campaign fund-raising and spending for the last three years, the Board of Elections said yesterday. Sanders' failure was first raised publicly yesterday by David Hooks, his opponent in the Democratic primary in the fall."

Hooks is the candidate of the Democraticorganization, which is trying to unseat Sanders on the ground that he has not shown district leaders sufficient respect. Sanders says he is the candidate of the people, not the leaders, which is what people say when they can't get the support of the leaders.

What is unusual about this story is not so much that Sanders, or his campaign committee, failed to file for three years, but that the Board of Elections failed to deal effectively with this significant omission by the Councilman. The Board wrote seven form letters to his campaign committee. None of them mentioned the other letters; all of them were ignored. The Board says it won three judgments against Patrick White, Sanders' treasurer, but they did not collect a nickel on any of the pieces of paper the judge is said to have signed.

One thing the Board of Elections apparently did not do either was to inform the City Council or its Speaker, Gifford Miller; that Councilmember Sanders had, since August 15, 2002, not complied with the law requiring candidates and their committees to disclose their receipts and expenditures. Nor did the Board make any public announcement of the failure to file.

The Board consists of ten commissioners, two from each of the five boroughs, one Democrat and one Republican. The position has been regarded as a political sinecure, a reward for services rendered to the party. The Board has a staff of people of varying ability, some are quite good and some are pathetic. Many of them are related by blood, marriage or political kinship to the organization which recommended them, and protects them from excessive scrutiny of their industry or intelligence.

Concerning Councilmembers who still refuse or fail to file, the Board of Elections should try to secure their compliance by communicating with their presiding officer, the Speaker, who in turn should promptly direct that the Council's Committee on Standards and Ethics investigate the matter and recommend appropriate action.

Most non-filers are people who lose their races for nomination or election, and are not necessarily easy to reach. But if they run for public office again, it would not be unreasonable for the Board to require them to comply with the law with regard to their prior candidacy, before it accepts their petitions for the new race.

We are informed by the Campaign Finance Board that Sanders made his first filing of 2005 this week, presumably in anticipation of the Newsday article. He simply gave the name of his new campaign treasurer, and has not yet reported any receipts or expenditures.

There is no sense having laws requiring the filing of reports if there is no mechanism to enforce them, and no sanctions for candidates who fail to comply with them. The Campaign Finance Board is good on this issue, and has fined candidates hundreds of thousands of dollars for late, erroneous or questionable filings. The Board of Elections must wake up, and impose serious sanctions on those candidates who flout the law.

For those non-filers whom it may not be worthwhile to pursue in court, the least the Board could do is post their names on a list of delinquents, for public display at Board offices and on their website. The Board could also use such modalities as the telephone and the internet to remind candidates of their legal obligations.

In Sanders' case, an incumbent elected in 2001, he failed to file a legally-required report due three years ago. The matter only came to public attention when his opponent, David Hooks, in the 2005 primary election, guided by his handlers, and acting in concert with people who feel, quite possibly accurately, that Sanders has disrespected them, produced documents to raise the issue, and Newsday published the story.

This situation has an element of absurdity to it. What is the point of having a law on the books, if it is not enforced effectively? This is not comparable to Prohibition, when the state tried to regulate the long-standing conduct of millions of Americans; this is simply getting one man to file a few pieces of paper. It should be doable.

When we raised this issue with John Ravitz, executive director of the Board of Elections, he said it appeared to him that there would be merit in referring the matter to the Speaker, or someone else who could take action, but that such a decision, changing existing procedure, would have to be made by the Board itself. The Board did, however, seek to obtain judgments against Parker White, quondam treasurer of the Sanders campaign.

Mr. White says that, some time ago, he resigned, in writing, to the Board of Elections. The Board said that, to be effective, the resignation must be sent in on a prescribed form, which Mr. White did not use. Although the Board's first complaint against White for failure to file was dismissed for improper service, three other judgments, for $545 each, were granted. No money, however, was collected on any of these judgments.

The Board says it lacks the staff to enforce judgments, and that, once granted, they are referred to the city's Finance Department for collection. The enforcement counsel not being at work today (a Friday in June), the Board was unable to determine whether any of these judgments were actually sent to Finance, although we were told that, in the ordinary course of business, they would be. Nor do we know yet what action Finance took if and when it received the judgments.

For those of you who have had the patience to remain with us so far, we tell the story, in its frustrating detail, because we tbelieve that it provides some insight into the city bureaucracy, and informs us as to how many obstacles lie in the way of conducting what one would assume to be ordinary business. There are other strands to this tale, which we will pursue when the actors return to work Monday. In the meanwhile, William Murphy of Newsday, who cut through the brush of obfuscation and denial to write the original story, is following up on this unusual situation.

We look forward to the first weekend after Memorial Day. Enjoy.

Henry J. Stern

New York Civic
520 Eighth Avenue
22nd Floor
New York, NY 10018
(212) 564-4441
(212) 564-5588 (fax)

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