Skirting Ethics Order, Hochul Seeks Donations From Cuomo Appointees
ALBANY, N.Y. — On the road to building one of the largest campaign war chests the state of New York has ever seen, Gov. Kathy Hochul has been taking money from appointees of the governor — despite an executive order designed to prevent it.
In her first year in office, Ms. Hochul has accepted more than $400,000 from appointees on boards from Buffalo to Battery Park City as well as the appointees’ spouses, a New York Times analysis of campaign finance data has found.
The fund-raising has occurred despite the longstanding executive order — reissued by Ms. Hochul on her first day in office — that prohibits such transactions in order to avoid even the appearance of rewarding donors with jobs in exchange for contributions.
Ms. Hochul’s campaign said it was appropriate to accept the contributions because they came from people appointed by her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo. The argument underscored a loophole in the ethics order that would seem to allow one governor to accept money from another governor’s board and commission appointees. In some cases, Ms. Hochul received donations from people Mr. Cuomo had appointed and then gave them new appointments.
A spokesman for Ms. Hochul’s campaign, Jerrel Harvey, said that Ms. Hochul had not accepted money from people she appointed and emphasized that all of her fund-raising had been aboveboard.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning of Governor Hochul’s term that people who are appointed by her are prevented from donating once they are appointed,” Mr. Harvey said. “We have followed that straightforward standard consistently and strictly.”
Butlegal expertsand good government advocates have called Ms. Hochul’s reasoning into question.
“It’s a silly argument to say if I appointed you then you can’t contribute to me, but if my predecessor appointed you, then I can hit you up for donations,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University Law School and a former member of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board. “Going forward, presumably, they’re both going to want to be reappointed.”
The donations that Ms. Hochul accepted from appointees represent just a small portion of her campaign’s huge haul ahead of the election in November. She has already raised some $35 million and set a goal of raising as much as twice that amount, people familiar with her plans said. Doing so would put the 2022 governor’s race at or near the most expensive in state history.
Ms. Hochul, a Democrat who was sworn in as governor after Mr. Cuomo resigned amid a scandal last year, easily defeated two primary rivals this summer and is heavily favored to win against Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican, in the fall.
Although she has promised a clean break from the ways of her predecessor, Ms. Hochul’s willingness to raise money from appointees runs counter to that pledge. Mr. Cuomo was known for taking a hawkish approach to soliciting donations from the people he appointed, raising ethics concerns.
Ms. Hochul’s campaign has not shrunk from accepting donations from Mr. Cuomo’s appointees, receiving more than $250,000 from them, records show.
She got more than $56,000 from the real estate developer Don Capoccia, whom Mr. Cuomo appointed to the Battery Park City Authority in 2011 and who did not respond to requests for comment.
She accepted more than $90,000 between October and May from a trial lawyer, Joe Belluck, who was chosen by Mr. Cuomo for two statewide panels, and his wife. Ms. Hochul appointed Mr. Belluck to the state’s new Cannabis Advisory Board in June.
Mr. Belluck scoffed at the notion of any impropriety in his donation.
“I receive no remuneration and do no business with the state, period,” he said. “I have no private interests related to these positions. I donate to Governor Hochul because I support her policies and admire her leadership, and I am honored to serve.”
Ms. Hochul also received $45,200 from John Ernst, an heir to the Bloomingdale’s fortune, whom Mr. Cuomo appointed to the Adirondack Park Agency board in 2016, and Mr. Ernst’s wife. Less than three weeks after receiving those donations, she reappointed Mr. Ernst to the park agency’s board and made him chairman.
Mr. Ernst said he initially turned down Ms. Hochul’s offer of the chairmanship, which comes with a $30,000 annual salary, and emphatically denied any connection between his donating and being appointed to the position.
“If I had thought it was a conflict, I wouldn’t have done it — wouldn’t have made a contribution,” he said. “I did it independently as a citizen because I believed in Kathy Hochul.”
A spokeswoman for the governor’s office, Julie Wood, said Ms. Hochul has applied the ethics order far more “broadly and strictly” than Mr. Cuomo did, saying his administration “violated their own rules.”
“Governor Hochul holds herself to a higher ethical standard,” Ms. Wood said.
Ms. Hochul has also accepted contributions and then appointed the donors to state boards and commissions. She received $3,000 from Robert Simpson, the chief executive of a Syracuse nonprofit that promotes economic development, in two donations and named him to the board of Empire State Development, New York’s economic development agency, less than a month after the second one.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Simpson said that after he assumed the post he adopted policies to limit conflicts of interest and pledged to no longer contribute to or raise money for Ms. Hochul.
Ms. Hochul accepted more than $7,800 from Janice Shorenstein, the mother of Ms. Hochul’s former transition director, Marissa Shorenstein, and Janice Shorenstein threw a fund-raiser for the governor in May. Marissa Shorenstein, who attended the event, was confirmed to the New York State Gaming Commission about two weeks later. Ms. Shorenstein and her mother did not respond to requests for comment left at their offices.
And Ms. Hochul accepted another $5,000 in April from Sammy Chu, a Long Island businessman whose company also paid more than $2,100 for a Hochul fund-raiser in Plainview two days later. In late May, she tapped him for a spot on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Mr. Chu said he learned of the rules against governors’ accepting money from appointees only when The Times informed him of them in August.
“There was certainly no quid pro quo,” Mr. Chu said. “Now that I’m appointed to the board, you know, I’ll be hypervigilant about it. But at that time, I was not a nominee or a board member.”
Taken together, records show, Ms. Hochul accepted at least 40 donations totaling more than $475,000 from her nominees or Mr. Cuomo’s appointees and their family members. Those appointees are sitting on more than 20 boards, commissions and public authorities across New York, including the State University of New York board, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York Power Authority and the United Nations Development Corporation.
Ms. Hochul’s campaign stressed that she had been careful not to take contributions from any person she appointed to a state position. In at least one case, The Times found, Ms. Hochul accepted contributions from a person appointed by Mr. Cuomo, appointed that person to a different commission and then declined to accept further contributions from him.
While none of the donations accepted by Ms. Hochul’s campaign from her own appointees appeared to violate any rules, they nevertheless might create the appearance of impropriety, legal experts said.
Some might feel pressure to give to an elected official with power over their appointed positions. Others who wish to be appointed might donate in hopes of getting the job, said Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor.
“It may appear that the way to get appointed is to give money or to hold fund-raisers,” Professor Clark said, adding: “The scandal is what we allow rather than what we prohibit.”
For her part, Ms. Hochul has dismissed any suggestion that her fund-raising practices might raise ethical concerns. When a reporter asked at a recent news conference if she worried about the optics of taking campaign money from people who are doing business with the state, she bristled.
“I will say one sentence on this,” she said. “I follow all the rules, always have, always will.”
Nicholas Fandos and Asmaa Elkeurti contributed reporting.