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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Skirting ethics order, Hochul seeks donations from Cuomo appointees

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a news conference in Manhattan on June 15, 2022. Hochul’s willingness to raise money from appointees runs counter to her pledge that her administration would represent a clean break from her predecessor’s.

By Jay Root

On the road to building one of the largest campaign war chests the state of New York has ever seen, Gov. Kathy Hochul has been taking money from appointees of the governor — despite an executive order designed to prevent it.

In her first year in office, Hochul has accepted more than $400,000 from appointees on boards from Buffalo to Battery Park City as well as the appointees’ spouses, a New York Times analysis of campaign finance data has found.

The fundraising has occurred despite the long-standing executive order — reissued by Hochul on her first day in office — that prohibits such transactions in order to avoid even the appearance of rewarding donors with jobs in exchange for contributions.

Hochul’s campaign said it was appropriate to accept the contributions because they came from people appointed by her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo. The argument underscored a loophole in the ethics order that would seem to allow one governor to accept money from another governor’s board and commission appointees. In some cases, Hochul received donations from people Cuomo had appointed and then gave them new appointments.

A spokesperson for Hochul’s campaign, Jerrel Harvey, said that Hochul had not accepted money from people she appointed and emphasized that all of her fundraising had been aboveboard.

“We’ve been clear from the beginning of Gov. Hochul’s term that people who are appointed by her are prevented from donating once they are appointed,” Harvey said. “We have followed that straightforward standard consistently and strictly.”

But legal experts and good government advocates have called Hochul’s reasoning into question.

“It’s a silly argument to say if I appointed you then you can’t contribute to me, but if my predecessor appointed you, then I can hit you up for donations,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University Law School and a former member of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board. “Going forward, presumably, they’re both going to want to be reappointed.”

The donations that Hochul accepted from appointees represent just a small portion of her campaign’s huge haul ahead of the election in November. She has already raised some $35 million and set a goal of raising as much as twice that amount, people familiar with her plans said. Doing so would put the 2022 governor’s race at or near the most expensive in state history.

Hochul, a Democrat who was sworn in as governor after Cuomo resigned amid a scandal last year, easily defeated two primary rivals this summer and is heavily favored to win against Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican, in the fall.

Although she has promised a clean break from the ways of her predecessor, Hochul’s willingness to raise money from appointees runs counter to that pledge. Cuomo was known for taking a hawkish approach to soliciting donations from the people he appointed, raising ethics concerns.

Hochul’s campaign has not shrunk from accepting donations from Cuomo’s appointees, receiving more than $250,000 from them, records show.

She got more than $56,000 from real estate developer Don Capoccia, whom Cuomo appointed to the Battery Park City Authority in 2011 and who did not respond to requests for comment.

Hochul also received $45,200 from John Ernst, an heir to the Bloomingdale’s fortune, whom Cuomo appointed to the Adirondack Park Agency board in 2016, and Ernst’s wife. Less than three weeks after receiving those donations, she reappointed John Ernst to the park agency’s board and made him chair.

Ernst said he initially turned down Hochul’s offer of the chair, which comes with a $30,000 annual salary, and emphatically denied any connection between his donating and being appointed to the position.

“If I had thought it was a conflict, I wouldn’t have done it — wouldn’t have made a contribution,” he said. “I did it independently as a citizen because I believed in Kathy Hochul.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office, Julie Wood, said Hochul has applied the ethics order far more “broadly and strictly” than Cuomo did, saying his administration “violated their own rules.”

“Gov. Hochul holds herself to a higher ethical standard,” Wood said.

Hochul has also accepted contributions and then appointed the donors to state boards and commissions. She received $3,000 from Robert Simpson, the CEO of a Syracuse nonprofit that promotes economic development, in two donations and named him to the board of Empire State Development, New York’s economic development agency, less than a month after the second one.

A spokeswoman for Simpson said that after he assumed the post he adopted policies to limit conflicts of interest and pledged to no longer contribute to or raise money for Hochul.

Taken together, records show, Hochul accepted at least 40 donations totaling more than $475,000 from her nominees or Cuomo’s appointees and their family members. Those appointees are sitting on more than 20 boards, commissions and public authorities across New York, including the State University of New York board, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York Power Authority and the United Nations Development Corp.

Hochul’s campaign stressed that she had been careful not to take contributions from any person she appointed to a state position. In at least one case, the Times found, Hochul accepted contributions from a person appointed by Cuomo, appointed that person to a different commission and then declined to accept further contributions from him.

While none of the donations accepted by Hochul’s campaign from her own appointees appeared to violate any rules, they nevertheless might create the appearance of impropriety, legal experts said.

Some might feel pressure to give to an elected official with power over their appointed positions. Others who wish to be appointed might donate in hopes of getting the job, said Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor.

“It may appear that the way to get appointed is to give money or to hold fundraisers,” Clark said, adding: “The scandal is what we allow rather than what we prohibit.”

For her part, Hochul has dismissed any suggestion that her fundraising practices might raise ethical concerns. When a reporter asked at a recent news conference if she worried about the optics of taking campaign money from people who are doing business with the state, she bristled.

“I will say one sentence on this,” she said. “I follow all the rules, always have, always will.”

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