The state and federal political action committees Mayor Bill de Blasio launched last year to help elect progressives across New York and the country have also aided his favorite Democrat: Him.
New filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission late Wednesday night show de Blasio’s federal Fairness PAC and NY Fairness PAC have allocated just $200,000 of their $1.2 million in combined spending over the past year toward Democratic candidates or committees.
Much of the remaining $1 million was spent after the November elections and before de Blasio’s May 16 declaration that he would run for president. That includes at least $200,000 used for polling, travel and staff in the run-up to his big announcement.
An additional $123,000 tab for polling and research, which was initially picked up by de Blasio’s federal PAC, was only recently reimbursed by his 2020 presidential campaign committee.
A big chunk of the rest of the PAC money went to legal, fundraising and consulting firms that also worked on his pre-announcement exploratory committee, records show. A number of those firms are now also working on his presidential run.
The de Blasio campaign says it’s following fundraising and reporting guidelines.
Still, the most recent filings underscore what some federal election experts have called an unusual approach that taps a state and federal PAC for presidential exploratory expenses. This has allowed the mayor to spend more on his underdog campaign — and bring in more contributions from donors amid strictly regulated federal fundraising rules, the experts say.
One Complaint Filed, Another Mulled
Meanwhile, a conservative non-profit group said it filed a complaint Thursday with the FEC alleging that de Blasio’s approach isn’t just unusual — it’s also illegal.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust contends that de Blasio’s campaign improperly benefitted from funds raised by his federal and state PACs — violating campaign contribution limits and using non-federal funds for his presidential campaign.
The group — which gained attention for filing complaints against Hillary Clinton — pointed to a $52,851 debt owed by de Blasio’s campaign to the state PAC for expenditures that went toward his presidential run.
“There is no gray area here. You simply can’t use a state PAC as a slush fund for a presidential campaign,” said Kendra Arnold, director of the nonprofit.
“De Blasio has improperly called this a loan, but it is clearly a contribution,” she added. “The most his state PAC could have contributed is $2,800, yet it gave at least $52,000. The FEC needs to take this on immediately.”
Another complaint may be on the way.
The Washington-based nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center told THE CITY Thursday it’s ”very likely” to file a complaint with federal regulators over de Blasio’s arrangement with his PACs, which allowed contributors who gave the maximum amount to the 2020 campaign to donate more money through the Fairness and NY Fairness PACs.
Money Sent to Early Primary States
Presidential candidates have long used political action committees to “help build relationships with state-level politicians in critical early-voting states,” noted Michael Beckel of the campaign finance watchdog group Issue One.
“For instance, aspiring presidential candidates can raise money for their leadership PACs and then dole it out to state parties in early-voting states and/or state-level politicians whose endorsements may be desired,” said Beckel, whose group is based in Washington.
Of the $200,850 dispensed by de Blasio’s two PACs to other Dems, $50,000 went to Democratic committees in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, where he has spent considerable time stumping for president.
Another $50,000 went to the NYS Democratic State Campaign Committee, while an additional $50,000 was allocated to the left-leaning New York Working Families Party ahead of the November elections.
The federal Fairness PAC wrote out 12 checks to individual candidates or party committees — largely outside of New York. But two of the checks got lost in the mail, according to FEC records.
The federal PAC this year voided $7,700 in contributions given to two candidates in September 2018: Ben Jealous in the governor’s race in Maryland and Dana Balter in a congressional race in upstate New York.
This week’s filings, which were submitted shortly after de Blasio exited the stage in Detroit following Round 2 of the Democratic presidential primary debates on Wednesday night, say those checks were “lost” and not re-issued.
Reps for Balter and Jealous, who both lost their races, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
An online fundraising page for the de Blasio’s federal Fairness PAC pitches the committee as an “opportunity to harness the amazing energy in the Democratic Party and help change the direction of our politics, on both a local and national level.”
The PAC’s mission statement, retrieved from a web page that’s no longer active, was “to support progressive candidates and political organizations across the country, and to strengthen the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”
Some Donors Gave Three Times
The latest federal filings also paint a clearer picture of the overlap of donations, expenses and staffers among the two PACs and de Blasio’s 2020 campaign committee for president.
Two dozen individuals who gave the maximum contribution to de Blasio’s 2020 campaign also maxed out their donations to his political action committees, an analysis by THE CITY found.
Brendan Fischer, the director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, said that de Blasio’s three-pronged money-raising operation could allow, in effect, “a small handful of donors to exceed contribution limits.”
Some examples of the interplay among the three committees:
• On March 8, the federal Fairness PAC and NY Fairness PAC each wrote a $1,500 check to South Carolina consultant Kendall Corley. In the de Blasio 2020 campaign filings, however, only $1,500 was reported on March 8 and identified as a presidential exploratory expense. Attempts to reach Corley for comment were unsuccessful.
• On April 12, the two PACs spent a combined $92,000 on “digital media buys” through the firm Trilogy Interactive. The 2020 campaign committee didn’t report the expenditures, a sign that the campaign doesn’t consider the media buys to be a campaign expense. The media buys came five months after the November 2018 elections, and about a month before his presidential announcement. Officials at Trilogy Interactive said that the work was for de Blasio’s Fairness PAC.
• On April 26, the fundraising consulting firm Bedford Grove LLC — which is currently raising money for de Blasio’s presidential campaign — received $10,000 from the federal Fairness PAC and $5,000 from NY Fairness PAC. The payments came three weeks shy of de Blasio’s presidential campaign launch. His 2020 campaign committee determined that just $2,000 of the $15,000 counted toward de Blasio’s exploratory efforts, while the balance of $13,000 was attributed to fundraising on behalf of the two PACs. The pace of fundraising by the two committees slowed considerably after his May 16 announcement. Bedford Grove representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Officials with de Blasio’s campaign wouldn’t address questions about specific expenses. They said spending used for the run-up to de Blasio’s presidential announcement was reported in the 2020 campaign disclosure filings.
“We are committed to disclosing all information that is required by the FEC and New York State Board of Elections, including all exploratory expenses we’ve incurred,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a de Blasio 2020 campaign spokesperson.
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