The Monroe Democratic Committee (MDC) in neighboring Orange County received seven donations from seven individuals from Brooklyn totaling $6,000.00 and one from a Monroe resident for $1,000.00, all reported the same day, October 18, 2013. The MDC then donated $6,800.00 of those funds within a matter of weeks to ‘Doles for Monroe’, the campaign account for Harley Doles, 2013 candidate for Monroe Town Supervisor. Doles would go on to win the election due to the Kiryas Joel bloc vote.
Maria Vazquez-Doles, the wife of Harley Doles, was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, Ninth Judicial District, on the same day her husband won his election. She received ten individual contributions between October 13 and October 31, 2013, eight from Brooklyn totaling $7,500.00 and two from Monsey totaling $1,500.00. Seven of those donors were seven of the same eight that donated to her husband.
Records at the New York State Board of Elections between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2014, reveal that nine of the ten contributors have never donated to any other candidates. Five of those ten also contributed to the 2010 state senate campaign of Mr. Doles. The only individual who made regular donations to other various candidates donated $5,000.00 to that state senate campaign, a gentleman who in early 2014 was being investigated for running a business out of a residential home in Monroe.
Elisa Tutini, who was a 2014 candidate for the New York State Assembly, District 98, which includes a small part of the Town of Ramapo, received three donations totaling $10,000.00 on November 7, 2014 from three individuals from Brooklyn. Two of the donations were for $4,000.00 and one was for $2,000.00. Similar to many of the Doles’ donors, all three had never made any other donations in at least the last 14 years in New York State.
In April of 2013, the Rockland County Times reported that Brega Transportation employees, friends and family made large contributions to 2013 Rockland County Executive candidate, Ilan Schoenberger, almost all for $4,000.00 each. A further inspection of all of Mr. Schoenberger’s campaign finance disclosure showed roughly another 20 individuals all with similar characteristics to the above-mentioned Brega, Doles, and Tutini donations; $4,000.00 being the contribution of choice.
At least six of those contributions totaling $21,000.00 came from individuals either closely associated or in business with the Goldstein Family – the Suffern-based developers who are often the source of controversy in the village with everything from their proposal to build an apartment building on Orange Avenue to their relationship with Chris St. Lawrence and the former Tilcon Quarry. In fact, it was St. Lawrence circumventing the Ramapo Central School District on the Goldstein’s PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) request on the project that infuriated local residents, as the Goldsteins sat in the audience with Andrew Cuomo’s Campaign Treasurer, a man defined as a minor partner in the project.
Three of those six donors, all from the Philadelphia area, donated $4,000.00 each to Schoenberger; one of them also donated $1,000.00 to Chris St. Lawrence in April of 2014. How coincidental that three people from Philadelphia would all donate $4,000.00 apiece to a candidate for the Rockland County Executive race. Odd until you realize they all work together.
The campaign finance disclosures, however, of current Rockland County Family Court Judge, Sherri Eisenpress, Friends of Sherri Eisenpress, and the transactions connected to her 2011 campaign for that office is by far the most intriguing. Between July and December of 2011, Friends of Sherri Eisenpress received two $5,000.00 donations, twenty-five $4,000.00 donations, one for $3,500.00 and one for $3,000.00; a total of $116,500.00. Eighteen of those donations came from seventeen individuals totaling $70,500.00 and eleven came from ten business entities for $46,000.00.
Five of those individual donations totaling $20,000.00 came from five individuals from Brooklyn, all $4,000.00 apiece. Four of those were made by credit card. Research shows that two of the donors have no record of making any donations since at least January 1, 2000. Both donors paid by credit card. Another donor shows a grand total of $1,600.00 donated over the same period, all for local New York City candidates. The remaining two donors show only three additional donations for the same 14 year period, $15,000.00 to Schneiderman for Attorney General.
Of the remaining thirteen donations by the remaining twelve individuals, eleven for $42,500.00 came from Monsey and Spring Valley, one for $4,000.00 came from Airmont and one for $4,000.00 came from New Rochelle. Of the eleven from Monsey and Spring Valley, eight for $31,000.00 were donated via credit card as was the $4,000.00 donation from Airmont. In reviewing the business donations we find that eight for $37,000.00 came from the Monsey and Spring Valley area. One came from Monroe for $5,000.00 with the remaining $4,000.00 coming from Herkimer, New York. Herkimer is located about half-way between Albany and Syracuse. Five of those donations totaling $21,000.00 were made by credit card, four for $4,000.00 and one for $5,000.00.
According to New York State campaign finance disclosure records, using the same January 1, 2000 baseline as referenced above, twelve of the individual donors and six of the business donors to Eisenpress had never made a donation before this election, nor have they made one at any time since, through December 31, 2014. So as not to be misleading, some of the businesses that donated were established after January 1, 2000, but the possibility does exist that they could have been operating under a different legal capacity. The remaining donors have very limited activity, virtually none, especially when you exclude the large contributions they made to the 2010 and 2014 campaigns of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and recently convicted State Senator Malcolm Smith of Corridor of Corruption fame. So just who is making these donations?
On April 4, 2013, the Daily News ran a story reporting that Attorney General Schneiderman would be donating $103,852.00 to charity which he received from two donors during his 2010 campaign, both of whom were mixed up with the aforementioned Malcolm Smith. The donors are Joseph and Esther Markowitz of Monsey, who did in fact donate large sums to Schneiderman, although it is not clear how much was included in the above amount. The Daily News reported that the Markowitzs were straw-donors for Moses Stern, the Monsey developer turned alleged protagonist in the scheme. What information the Daily News relied on to make its claim I do not know. Moses Stern is probably not the most reliable source for information and anything he says must be weighed against his own chicanery, but one’s opinion of him is irrelevant if he can provide proof or a roadmap to expose conduit contributions. In fact, law enforcement doesn’t even need Stern to verify contributions funneled to campaigns through others. There are many red-flags that draw attention to such practices and bank records can easily be subpoenaed. Banks may have even filed ‘Suspicious Activity Reports’ on some of the activity which are readily accessible to law enforcement.
The Daily News further pointed out that the couple also donated $11,000.00 to Friends of Sherri Eisenpress. Those donations were all made via credit card on July 10 and October 17 of 2011. Aside from donating to Schneiderman and Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Markowitz had made zero political contributions in the preceding decade and have made none since. On that same July day another $4,000.00 credit card donation was made to the Eisenpress campaign by a Comp Holding LLC, their address being the same as the Markowitzs. On the same October day another campaign contribution for $5,000.00 was made by credit card under the name of 5001 14th Avenue Corp, a domestic corporation established in 1993. The CEO of the corporation is Mr. Joseph Markowitz; the address for the business is the same address as the Markowitzs. That brings the total to $20,000.00 all by credit card.
Who else donated to Friends of Sherri Eisenpress? Well there is Mordechai Walter of Airmont. He donated $4,000.00 by credit card reported on October 4, 2011, his only donation for the past decade or so except for $2,000.00 donated to Malcolm Smith in August of 2012. The New York Department of State lists Walter as Chief Executive Officer of Fabulous Wood Floors. The address given is 27 Ohio Avenue in Spring Valley, which is the same address as Supreme Wood Floors, which made two $4,000.00 credit card donations to the campaign, one in July and one in October of 2011, its only donations since their formation in 2004 except for a $500.00 contribution in September of that year to Sheriff Louis Falco. Mordechai Fischer of Spring Valley donated $4,000.00 as did Mordechai Mendlowitz of Monsey. It seems that the only Mordechai that has not made a donation is the one bearing a similar name played by Johnny Depp is his most recent big screen failure.
Then there is that $4,000.00 contribution from Forever Young DCB LLC at 121 – 131 N. Main Street, Herkimer, New York. The property appears to be a small mixed commercial unit of two storefronts with several apartments above. Not surprisingly, the registered owner is another LLC, Herkimer Suites LLC, 25 Francis Place, Monsey. Simcha Day Care, located at 23 Francis Place, also made a $4,000.00 donation recorded by the campaign on July 10, 2011.
Rabbi Martin Wolmark of Monsey also made a $4,000.00 credit card donation. Nary a donation from him in the last decade and a half and he probably will not be making a donation to other candidates anytime soon. While we acknowledge that this is after the fact, in what may be the quintessential example of gallows humor, Rabbi Wolmark’s own peculiar view of Family Court justice led him to plead guilty on January 15, 2015 in Trenton, New Jersey to “Conspiracy To Travel In Interstate Commerce To Commit Extortion“. The charges stemmed from his participation with a group of men, including another Rabbi, who appear to have specialized in assisting women in obtaining a divorce from husbands who refused to grant permission under Jewish Law. For a fee, the husband would be persuaded via physical intimidation, or worse, with the option of a cattle prod being applied to certain body parts as one of the many methods of persuasion that were considered.
So why such interest and unparalleled excitement for a Family Court Judge race, a position that unless you have personal experience with it leaves most people tongue tied about who may even be the judge? The contest is generally ignored and further it is far removed from day to day political rancor and discourse. We also like to take a Pollyanna view that races for judge transcend the usual political gamesmanship. So it is somewhat amazing that so many people who have never donated in their lives would wake up one morning and cough up $4,000.00 for this kind of contest.
So why so many donations by credit card? Several reasons come to mind. Many people pay by credit card even when they have available funds and quickly pay off the charge so they can earn reward points for whatever their credit card provider is offering. I am taking the position that these credit card contributions are being made through their own credit card. Others may be such ardent supporters that they were willing to go into a very expensive form of debt to help Ms. Eisenpress get elected. On the other hand, one may also note that this method of payment can provide some logistical hurdles and obfuscation to following any money trail keeping a checking account out of the picture, generally the vehicle of choice for campaign contributions.
Now here’s the rub – donations in the name of another have a little caveat that allows candidates to wriggle off the hook; it is the word ‘knowingly’. Eric Schneiderman claims he did not know anything about the contributions described above and so when ‘aware’ of their problematic nature he donated them to charity. It is reasonable to believe that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had no idea who was donating to their presidential campaigns. It is also reasonable to believe that Governor Cuomo and maybe Attorney General Schneiderman would also not know every contributor. Taking it a step further, it is also reasonable to believe that candidates for Senate and the House of Representatives fall into the same category. However, I refuse to believe that any candidate from State Senator on down has no idea who is donating, why they are donating and if it is that donor’s personal funds. In fact, most candidates and elected officials I know would probably be trying to make immediate contact with an unfamiliar donor hoping they had found a new political cash cow. If someone I knew offered me $4,000.00 for my campaign, my first question would be a resounding “Why?”. Why would you donate that kind of money and can you really afford to do so?
What about campaign treasurers? Take the case of Jia “Jenny” Hou, the campaign treasurer of former New York City Comptroller and 2013 New York City Mayoral Candidate John Liu. Hou was convicted and sentenced to ten months in prison in October of 2013 for her role in a straw-donor scheme. While you may want to debate a candidate’s knowledge of a donation there is no dispute that the treasurer will see every donation and is a candidate’s first line of defense. Of course, on the local level, treasurers are often the candidate themselves or a close supporter and may be not remotely familiar with some of the technicalities of campaign finance law; ignorance of common sense notwithstanding.
How about elected officials policing each other? Are there any elected officials in Rockland County who have direct knowledge, or a strong suspicion, that any other elected official has accepted donations funneled through another person? Have any of them applied their intellectual curiosity to the appearance of same or heard the ‘whispers’? Is it the obligation of elected officials to police each other? Have any gone to the authorities to report their suspicions instead of waiting for local activist citizens to do it? To me the bigger crime is often not reporting that there may be a crime, and while no one wants to make false accusations most people have the good sense to recognize an unusual set of circumstances.
Now we come back full circle to Monroe Town Supervisor, Harley Doles, who this past January filed his January and July 2014 Campaign Finance Disclosures over a year late. Mr. Doles was the subject of an article by me in the Rockland Voice on December 15th of last year entitled Abbott and Costello Math in the Town of Monroe. On Doles’ January 2014 disclosure he reported two campaign donations; $4,500.00 on October 22, 2013 from an OCFSC, 198 Greenwich Avenue, Goshen New York and $350.00 on November 20, 2013 from himself.
No mention of the $6,800.00 from the Monroe Democratic Committee, which was tendered in three separate checks of $300.00, $2,000.00 and $4,500.00. Obviously, one of the reported contributions is exact and one is similar to the three checks from the MDC. In fact, October 22, 2013 is the same date as the $4,500 check recorded from the Monroe Democratic Committee.
It appears that Mr. Doles has now taken a page from Houdini magically transforming three donations from one source into two donations from other sources. It should be noted that whatever is reported by a candidate remains subject to verification and only bank statements and cancelled checks, from the bank and not the candidate, can ultimately bear out the veracity of the reports. Mr. Doles seemingly had one other trick up his sleeve, reporting the contributions as “Other” in the column that is designated for either a check number or a more detailed explanation of the donation, such as cash, credit card, or money order.
The only donation made by OCFSC on New York State Board of Election records is the one referenced. You can guess since when. Now there is an OCFSC with a Monroe Post Office box and what the connection is to the one in Goshen, if any, is not clear, but basically immaterial to the question at hand.
Mr. Doles goes on to report on the same January 2014 filing that he expensed $2,500.00 for printing and $1,380.00 for postage, along with smaller expenditures for literature and office supplies, etc., the total almost equal to the two contributions. The July 2014 report shows no activity except for a bank charge.
And finally, there is Rockland County Legislator Aron Wieder who received a donation of $2,000.00 on August 31, 2014 and one of $1,000.00 on September 20, 2014 from Albert D’Agostino, 107 South Central Avenue, Valley Stream New York; the attorney for the East Ramapo School District.
What is clear from the above is that the entire campaign finance process – which ironically is based on an honor system involving people the public trusts the least – needs a top to bottom overhaul. One could begin by requiring independent licensed campaign treasures for amounts raised above a certain threshold with their fee paid for by the campaign. Professionals such as Certified Public Accountants trained by the Board of Elections should be considered; a group that would not be willing to risk their livelihood and/or reputation for some unscrupulous candidate. This proposal would certainly reduce late filings and have all records for a candidate centralized for easy review by the State Board of Elections, or other agencies. Personally, I would like to see the entire process administered by the Internal Revenue Service where all financial transactions can be cross-checked.
The Law surrounding business donations, particularly Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), which can be here today and gone tomorrow, should be changed. Quite frankly, donations through LLCs should be disallowed. Many LLCs are controlled by one individual who has often made his or her own personal donation. In the interim, the law should at a minimum be modified to reflect the name(s) of the principals so that the public can see who may be trying to stay out of the limelight and simultaneously exposing any interlocking relationships. The public should not have to navigate the Internet to determine who is the man or woman behind the curtain, often throwing in the towel out of frustration. Candidates loathe being connected with some donors for fear of public ridicule and scorn. Post Office boxes whould also be disallowed as an address with only the donor’s permanent residence applying.
The entire dynamics of employees donating to and working for the campaign of their candidate/elected official boss needs to be given some thought. An elected official who takes donations from those under them immediately tells you something about that person to begin with. How many people over the years have donated out of fear of retaliation or self preservation?
Every donor should be required to sign an affidavit acknowledging that their contribution is their own personal legitimate funds and advising them of the ramifications thereof. Often straw-donors may be duped or coerced into participating and having to sign an affidavit will certainly alert them to any improper scheme along with making those who are willing participants think twice. Stiffer penalties for the entire practice and for everyone involved need to be implemented.
‘Wheeling’, the practice of a candidate or committee contributing to another candidate or committee, needs to be severely curtailed in conjunction with a more defined interpretation of what is and is not a campaign expense. Most people never give a second thought to the fact that part of their donation may not go for the purpose they intended – for their candidate to win. As it stands now if one donates to candidate A, who in turn makes a contribution to candidate B, then that contribution includes a pro-rata share of your original contribution. The ‘wheeled’ donation may often have nothing to do with representing the donor’s best interest, ending up in the coffers of someone the donor might never support and maybe even despise.
What is also clear is that straw-donors are a by-product of the heart of the issue. In the Lower Hudson Valley the tentacles of potential influence are casting a much wider and deeper local net with each passing election cycle. With so many offices up for election in 2015 it once again will be interesting to see where the money is coming from and if candidates become more concerned about the source of these funds or just become more creative.
Whether it’s Fifty Shades of Christian ‘Grey’ or Four Thousand Shades of Political ‘Gray’, the public is getting what Anastasia Steele got behind closed doors. In the public’s case it is not consensual.