running bill

Complaint Hits de Blasio on Campaign Finance ‘Shell Game’

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at City Hall about an NYPD judge’s recommendation that Officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired in the death of Eric Garner, Aug. 2, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at City Hall about an NYPD judge’s recommendation that Officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired in the death of Eric Garner, Aug. 2, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign broke federal campaign finance rules by failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in donations and expenses to the Federal Election Commission, a complaint filed Wednesday charges.

De Blasio’s presidential campaign and his two political action committees essentially accepted contributions beyond the $2,800 federal individual limit — and didn’t disclose some donors and expenses, the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center said in the complaint filed with the FEC.

The mayor’s 2020 campaign “appears to have concocted a shell game to arrange for a small number of wealthy donors to support de Blasio’s presidential run above and beyond contribution limits,” the complaint by the Washington-based campaign-finance watchdog group alleges.

Citing THE CITY’s reporting, the filing contends de Blasio and his campaign violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by “accepting unreported and excessive contributions” by using the pair of political action committees to pay for expenses in the run-up to his mid-May presidential announcement.

De Blasio’s NY Fairness PAC and federal Fairness PAC ostensibly were created by the mayor last year to help elect progressive Democrats in New York and nationwide.

Two-PAC de Blasio

Campaign finance experts called the intermingling between de Blasio’s two PACs and his presidential campaign an unusual setup that allowed the mayor to spend more on his longshot bid and rake in more contributions from donors.

While the mayor’s presidential campaign reported some pre-announcement expenditures as “exploratory” in its first report to the FEC on July 19, the campaign didn’t list additional payments made by the PACs that benefited de Blasio’s presidential run, the complaint claims.

A de Blasio spokesperson said the campaign was reviewing the complaint.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray speak to reporters in Battery Park after announcing his presidential run, May 16, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray speak to reporters in Battery Park after announcing his presidential run, May 16, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg

The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint marked the second filed against de Blasio in recent days.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust — a conservative nonprofit group that gained attention for filing complaints against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — filed a complaint with the FEC last week alleging the de Blaiso campaign improperly benefitted from funds raised by his federal and state PACs.

The group said he violated campaign contribution limits and used non-federal funds for his presidential campaign.

Unexplained ‘Digital’ Expenses

In its filing, the Campaign Legal Center said de Blasio’s campaign committee failed to disclose at least $192,000 in pre-presidential announcement spending by the two PACs.

The De Blasio 2020 committee failed to reimburse at least $168,000 in pre-campaign expenditures paid by the two PACs, or count that spending as debt, the complaint says.

Government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio's presidential campaign.
Government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Among the examples, cited in the complaint, of unreported spending that benefited the de Blasio campaign:

• A combined $92,000 purchase by the state and federal PACs for a “digital media buy” a month before the mayor’s May 16 presidential announcement that “appeared to fund Bill de Blasio Facebook ads building a list for his presidential run.”

• A $40,000 payment by the state PAC made the day before de Blasio’s presidential announcement for “digital services” that appears to have funded the first wave of de Blasio 2020 digital ads.

• A $68,000 payment by the federal PAC on pre-campaign polling. The de Blasio campaign amended its financial disclosure after THE CITY raised questions about the expenditure.

The de Blasio campaign also did not report to the FEC the identity of the donors who contributed to the two PACs, which helped fund the mayor’s run-up expenses, the complaint says.

Some 25 people who contributed $2,500 apiece to the Fairness PAC and NY Fairness PAC made the maximum $2,800 donation to de Blasio 2020, the complaint contends.

Three-Time Donors

Of those people, 18 donors contributed during the two-month period before the presidential announcement, when de Blasio was making exploratory expenditures, campaign finance records filed with the New York State Board of Elections and FEC show.

“Put another way, NY Fairness PAC and Fairness PAC could only afford to fund de Blasio’s exploratory activities using funds raised from donors who gave during the period de Blasio was testing the waters for candidacy,” the complaint says.

Under the FEC’s testing-the-waters regulations, the donations made to the two PACs “became contributions to de Blasio 2020 once de Blasio became a candidate” — effectively allowing dozens of contributions in excess of the $2,800 limit to be accepted by the mayor’s campaign, the complaint says.

The mayor accepted roughly $234,000 in additional contributions from 37 donors who had already given the maximum amount to his campaign, according to a Politico New York analysis. 

The Campaign Legal Center called for an “immediate investigation.” When the FEC finds a candidate violated campaign finance laws, it can impose civil penalties as high as $60,000 depending on the severity of the offense.

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