TPM PRIMER: How Not To Buy A New York City Republican Party Mayoral Nomination

April 3, 2013 6:22 a.m.

Update: April 3, 2013, 3:10 PM

New York’s local political landscape was rocked yesterday morning when bribery, extortion, and fraud charges were unveiled against a group of local politicians and Republican Party officials. According to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the centerpiece of this “unappetizing smorgasboard of graft and greed” was a “bribery scheme” to secure State Senator Malcolm Smith a spot in the Republican primary in this year’s New York City mayoral election. But the bigger irony, according to Big Apple campaign insiders, is that city’s GOP party line has already been effectively purchased by others — both effectively and legally. And one of those buyers is current Mayor Michael Bloomberg! Smith probably could have accomplished his goals without resorting to such risky measures if he’d just gone by the standard campaign cash playbook.Smith, who, prior to this scandal, was perhaps best known for his penchant for retro-style suits and a brief feud he had with the rapper Lil’ Wayne, is a Democrat. However, New York City is staunchly blue and the Democratic mayoral primary is crowded with powerful, well-funded frontrunners. That makes opportunistic party switches to the GOP a perennial temptation for Dems, especially ones lacking major name recognition. Smith began publicly mulling making a party switch to run for mayor in the middle of last year. At a press conference Tuesday morning, Bharara said Smith believed he had a better chance amid the less competitive GOP field and that he arranged for $80,000 in cash to be given to two local Republican Party officials to make it happen.

Smith would have needed to lock up support from GOP leaders as New York election laws require candidates switching from the Democratic Party to secure signed certificates from chairmen of three of the city’s five county Republican organizations to switch lines ahead of a primary.

Other politicians have used a similar strategy to run for mayor. Both the current occupant of City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and businessman John Catsimatidis, who’s running for mayor this year, were Democrats who made mayoral bids as Republicans. And both Bloomberg and Catsimatidis are also billionaires and have been criticized for using cash from their immense fortunes to solidify support for their GOP switch.

“The Republican Party line has been for sale for a long time in this town,” a consultant working with one of New York’s Democratic mayoral candidates told TPM. “Bloomberg bought it legally, the difference is that Malcolm bought it illegally.”

Bloomberg and Catsimatidis have each given huge sums to state and country GOP organizations that dwarf the $80,000 allegedly offered up by Smith. Though he ran for his first two terms as a Republican, in 2007 Mayor Bloomberg left the party and became an independent. Even though he secured his final third term while unaffiliated, Bloomberg continued to give to local Republican organizations. From 2000 up until last year Mayor Bloomberg gave $3,555,000 to various county and state Republican Party organizations. Since 2007, Catsimatidis has given county and state Republican organizations $254,930.04. In addition to those donations both Bloomberg and Catsimatidis have also donated substantial sums to individual politicians of both parties.

TPM called Catsimatidis to ask about the idea he was legally able to purchase his party line, but, as of this writing have not received a response. For his part, Bloomberg responded to the scandal by arguing it was evidence the city should switch to a non-partisan electoral system, another political goal he has spent his own money to make happen.

Of course, donating through legitimate party structures involves isn’t the same as handing over a bag of cash to individuals. There is some degree of oversight on these payments, they must be specifically earmarked to “aid or promote” the election or defeat of a recognized candidate, party, or ballot proposal. However, this still leaves a lot of leeway. In New York, committee funds can be used to pay staff salaries, buy office space, pay for meals, phones, petty cash and other expenses. This means they can be used to both enrich party loyalists through salaries and by covering campaign costs that keep the recipient and their allies in the political game, all things that clearly could help a legitimate donor curry favor.

Smith isn’t superrich like Catsimatidis or Bloomberg, but a little fundraising could have given him resources to try to make friends with the GOP through more legitimate means. Indeed, records show there’s currently over $30,000 in Smith’s campaign account and he doesn’t seem to have made much of an attempt to raise more money for legitimate spending. His campaign has filed statements indicating they have had no fundraising activity since 2009.

A war chest isn’t the only thing Smith was lacking to go with his mayoral aspirations. In addition to venality, a rich fantasy life also seems to have paved Smith’s path to a federal indictment. He had so little support he wasn’t even included in polls even among a field of Republicans Quinnipiac characterized as “unknowns” earlier this year. Though he had scant resources and little base, Bharara told reporters today Smith did indeed believe he had a “plausible” shot ay City Hall and enlisted several other politicians to facilitate his plan to get on the Republican line.

Bharara said the money Smith allegedly arranged to give to the Republican Party officials came from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen working on a real estate project. In return for the $80,000, $50,000 of which was earmarked for Bronx County Republican Committee Chairman Jay Savino and $30,000 was for Queens County Republican Party Executive Vice Chair Vince Tabone, Smith allegedly agreed to use his influence in the State Senate to direct approximately $500,000 in government funds to a road that would benefit a project the men said they were working on in Spring Valley. The criminal complaint claims the meetings between the businessmen and the party officials were arranged by Dan Halloran, one of the few Republicans in the City Council, who allegedly took over $20,000 in cash for his services.

In a separate deal, Halloran, a hotheaded former police cadet who follows a neo-Pagan religion called Theodism, allegedly agreed to direct discretionary funds he received through the Council to the men for another cash payment and straw donations for the unsuccessful congressional campaign he mounted last year. Bharara said Halloran also discussed potentially serving as deputy police commissioner or a deputy mayor in a Smith administration if the scheme was successful. Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and her deputy, Joseph Desmaret, also allegedly got in on the action by approving the sale of property to the undercover agents in exchange for silent partner status in their supposed business and a cash bribe, respectively.

All of the six officials involved in the alleged scheme; Smith, Halloran, Savino, Tabone, Jasmin, Desmaret, were arrested yesterday morning. Despite the large cast of characters, Bharara insisted Smith was the key player.

“You have all those people circling around and then, of course, you have … Malcolm in the middle,” the prosecutor quipped at his press conference.

Bharara, who has made political misdeeds a main focus of his tenure since he was appointed in 2009, described the alleged scheme as evidence of a “downright pervasive” culture of corruption in New York politics. In that time, five members of the State Senate and one member of the Assembly have faced various criminal charges.

“Every time a politician is arrested in New York it should not feel like a scene from ‘Groundhog Day’ and yet it does,” Bharara said.

Correction: Because of incorrect information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this post originially said Halloran was a former police officer. He was a former cadet. It has been corrected.

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