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NY Times Has Exclusive Story About Zeldin Being Investigated

October 28, 2022

From The NY Times And The New York State Democrats:

Zeldin Campaign Investigated Over Charge of Coordinating With Super PACs
By Nicholas Fandos and Dana Rubinstein, 10/27/22

A State Board of Elections investigation was stalled when two Republican board members were absent from a vote to request subpoena power

New York’s top elections watchdog is investigating whether the campaign of Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor, violated state law by coordinating with a pair of super PACs supporting his candidacy, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

Michael L. Johnson, the chief enforcement counsel at the State Board of Elections, initiated the preliminary investigation following reporting by The Times Union of Albany and a formal complaint by the New York Democratic Party documenting individuals who may be working for both the super PACs and Mr. Zeldin’s campaign in a prohibited manner.

In recent days, Mr. Johnson asked the Board of Elections to grant him broad subpoena authority to compel cooperation from the campaign and the groups, Save Our State Inc. and Safe Together New York.

But before the board could vote on Mr. Johnson’s request as a part of a long-scheduled regular business meeting on Tuesday, two Republican board members — a co-chairman and a commissioner — both unexpectedly said they could not attend, denying the body a quorum to vote on the subpoena, according to the people familiar with the events, who were not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Under the election board’s current rules, Mr. Johnson cannot immediately issue a subpoena on his own — meaning the matter will be likely to wait until after Election Day.

The investigation comes as Mr. Zeldin, a conservative four-term congressman from Long Island, appears to be surging in polls against Gov. Kathy Hochul, the Democratic incumbent. An inquiry could complicate his path in the final campaign stretch and undercut attacks he has leveled at Ms. Hochul for her own fund-raising practices.

The super PACs have played a significant role in Mr. Zeldin’s political success, raising more than $12 million dollars to spend on TV ads amplifying his campaign message and attacking Ms. Hochul this fall in terms that mirror those of his campaign. Without the groups’ efforts, the governor would be outspending Republicans five-to-one on advertising.

Jennifer Wilson, a spokeswoman for the state elections board, declined to comment on the investigation. Calls to the Republican board members, Peter S. Kosinski and Anthony J. Casale, were not returned. The two men were said not to have given fellow election officials a specific reason for their absences this week.

Katie Vincentz, a spokeswoman for Ms. Zeldin’s campaign, characterized the investigation as Ms. Hochul’s “latest desperate attempt to try and deflect from her abysmal record on the issues most important to New York.”

“It’s absolutely zero coincidence that the person pushing this agenda at the Board of Elections is a political appointee of the Cuomo-Hochul administration,” she said, referring to Mr. Johnson. “The Democratic Party is embarrassing itself with baseless tinfoil hat conspiracy theories.”

Mr. Johnson was nominated by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and confirmed by the Senate in 2021. He was previously a longtime Assembly aide.

The position of chief enforcement counsel is supposed to be apolitical and independent from the broader elections board in many respects, though Mr. Johnson is dependent on the commissioners for certain powers, like issuing subpoenas. Under the rules, if the commissioners fail to vote on one of Mr. Johnson’s requests, he can issue the subpoena anyway after 20 days, which in this case would be after Election Day.

Unlike a traditional campaign, which can only raise up to $47,100 in the general election from a given donor, super PACs like Save Our State or Safe Together can legally raise and spend unlimited amounts of money influencing political races. In this case, much of the funding for both groups has come from Ronald S. Lauder, a billionaire cosmetics heir, and a few other wealthy donors.

But New York law strictly prohibits any coordination between a candidate’s campaign committee and a so-called independent expenditure committee, or super PAC, that supports it.

The Times Union first reported apparent ties between the Zeldin campaign and the super PACs earlier this month.

Illegal coordination can be difficult to tease out, particularly in a state like New York where political figures often have overlapping titles and roles that can grow more and more tangled over time.

One such figure is Joseph Borelli, the minority leader of the New York City Council, who serves as both the co-chairman of Mr. Zeldin’s campaign committee and the spokesman for Save Our State. Mr. Borelli has denied any wrongdoing, stressing that his role on the Zeldin campaign was merely ceremonial and that he served as an unpaid volunteer for the super PAC. He said in a brief interview that he was not aware of the inquiry but that there had been no coordination between the group and the campaign.

Another is John McLaughlin, Mr. Zeldin’s longtime pollster, who was paid $100,000 by Safe Together to cut a radio advertisement attacking Ms. Hochul late last year. A spokesman for Safe Together declined to comment.

A third is Allen H. Roth, whose connection to Mr. Zeldin is more opaque. Mr. Roth is a vice chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, which is directly working with Mr. Zeldin’s campaign. He is also a longtime adviser to Mr. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, who is the top donor to both super PACs.

The New York State Democratic Party formally filed a complaint against the Zeldin campaign a few days after the Times Union report was published.

Other potential areas for legal scrutiny have emerged since then.

Mr. Zeldin himself has openly welcomed the outside support, describing his own campaign efforts and that of the groups as one shared mission. But on Monday, he went further, directly urging donors on a call hosted by the Republican Governors Association to contribute large sums to the super PACs, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Times Union.
On Tuesday, Democrats filed a separate complaint to Mr. Johnson about the Republican governors group itself, arguing that the $1.2 million it had directed to Save Our State in recent weeks ran afoul of New York law. The group appears to have made the donations without registering a political entity in the state or disclosing its donors, as required under New York law.