A Cautionary Tale for New York Campaign Finance Reform
The below remarks were delivered on September 10, 2019, at the “New York State Public Campaign Finance Commission” hearing at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) 199 Chambers Street Manhattan, NY.
Former Mayor Richard Thomas advocated for New York campaign finance reforms to also require the New York Office of Attorney General to refer election law complaints to the State Board of Elections first.
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First, in honor of September 11th, I say God Bless America. God Bless the brave Firefighters. God Bless the finest Police Officers. God Bless those paramedics and public works workers who worked tirelessly to save lives on that fateful day. God Bless Jon Stewart for staying the course to advocate for good.
God bless all lives lost and I thank God for keeping me and always ordering my steps. I was one of the lucky ones. I attended NYU at that time. Lived at the dorm on Lafayette, just south of Canal Street. I had an internship at the May Davis Group, a financial investment firm, that was set to start in June but got pushed back to September 15. My job was to be in the building getting the office ready for the work day — warming up the copy machine, opening actual mail because this was a time before e-mail… — and work on any research project assigned.
I will never forget what Barry Jordan said to me on the 86th Floor of Tower 1. He said, “In high school you are cute. Everyone wants to help. In college, less so. After college, you are on your own. You must be street smart. Hustle hard. And always watch your back in this dog eat dog world.”
His advice is my advice to this prestigious body as it seeks to level the playing field in politics, essentially watching the backs of the people.
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My name is Richard Thomas — the former Mayor of Mount Vernon, NY.
In 2015, I was 32. I was finishing an executive MBA at Stern and my wife was pregnant with our second child. In the midst of all this, I left my job to pursue my dream and run for Mayor of my hometown.
Everyone with experience was warned away and stayed away from my grassroots effort. As such, my campaign staff was small and mostly made up of family or friends. I worked multiple roles from driving volunteers to driving strategy on my campaign for public office. My treasurer was my grandmother’s friend who knew bookkeeping. She was also diagnosed with cancer and died during the election.
Naturally, common mistakes were made in reporting. In most cases, common-sense solutions are available to correct administrative errors. Instead, a “parking ticket” became a “death sentence” for me because of the political toes stepped on while reforming Mount Vernon City Hall.
Looking back, if I had a nickel for every-time I was told that, “They are out to get me”, I would be a rich man. I never expected to be a big threat to big power. I did not understand their statewide scope to crush anyone who did not toe their line.
What happened to me, at the hands of the State Attorney General’s Office is more dangerous to democracy than Russia and Facebook.
If mine were a normal case, the process outlined in state election law would have been followed. The State Board of Elections (SBOE) would have opened an investigation. They would have worked with my attorneys to resolve whatever issues, and, at worst, impose a fine or make a referral for prosecution. That’s generally how things go.
Eric Schneiderman, acting at someone’s urging, needed to create a criminal case against me as leverage to force me out of office and undo the results of the election. And that is why the SBOE had to be kept in the dark until it was too late.
I thought I would have a natural ally in the Attorney General and State Comptroller cleaning up corruption in Mount Vernon. That proved to be extremely naïve on my part. It took 11 months to finally get a meeting with them in 2016 regarding real crimes against taxpayers; however, they deny the meeting ever happened.
Rather than investigating matters involving millions of federal grant dollars converted into undocumented loans to cronies, false tax claims, illegal dumping at our public park — Memorial Field, real-estate schemes that was brought to their attention, they sent subpoenas to my campaign committee. Nothing was going to stop their plan. It did not matter that my campaign owed me more money than I was ever paid out.
My legal team wondered if it were possible that the SBOE did not give a criminal referral to the OAG. We asked the OAG about it and they lied. We took our concerns to a Manhattan judge to review the legality of a grand jury and sought a temporary restraining order on the OAG. Instead of preparing papers to argue the intent of the state legislature, the OAG indicted me before I could enter the grand jury room. The judge was so taken aback that he ruled on the merits of that the OAG had violated the law, specifically election law, in its investigation.
The criminal case should have ended there. Instead, the judge decided that because of the indictment, he could not stop the prosecution.
This is where you, the Commissioners, are needed. The OAG played games to sideline both the State Board of Elections and a State Supreme Court Justice. Put an end to their ability to game the system by requiring the OAG to turn over election law complaints to the SBOE, allow due process to take place, and wait for the referral from the SBOE as intended by the State Legislature.
Also, include recommendations to harmonize state rules with federal rules to enable candidates to draw an arms-length salary and reimbursements for expenses. Otherwise, only wealthy people will pursue public office and shut out poor independent people like me.
There is one more issue that must be raised prior to my conclusion, that is, legal fees and who pays. Perhaps, you may want to request a legal opinion on who pays the legal fees in connection with law enforcement investigations into public officials?
I pose these questions because New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, his campaign, his non-profit, his government was investigated by federal and county prosecutors. New York City taxpayers paid for his defense and charges were dropped. Former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman himself quit in disgrace over his violent abuse of women and long but hushed up history of alcohol abuse. He too avoided criminal charges and, even though he is personally wealthy, he did not pay a dime for his defense. His election committee and the OAG paid for it all.
This is an important issue to address because the OAG has taken the opposite position with me. I cannot understand why I am being treated differently and more harshly for $12,900.
Was their tactic to drown me in debt? I already have student loans for that.
I admit responsibility for mistakes made; however, they were not criminal. Yet, the OAG went unchecked and created a situation where they had the upper hand financially and systemically. I had to choose between my young family and possibly appealing the underlying election law issues from jail. I chose to get OFF the road to perdition and get ON to the road of redemption by accepting the plea offer which required me to leave office and not run for any office for one year.
The implications of my case ought to scare you because they broke every rule when they came for me. And now they can come for you.
It is my hope that these shocking truths inspire you to level the playing field. Make fairness a two-way street and empower justice for all.