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Mystery surrounds contribution by teachers’ group to Panepinto campaign

Maybe after already dropping $1.14 million on Democrat Marc C. Panepinto’s State Senate campaign last fall, it was easy for his top union supporters to lose track of a mere $100,000.

But campaign finance reports show a Manhattan-based political action committee heavily funded by the state teachers union sent that amount last Oct. 28 to the Erie County Democratic Committee.

Then less than two months later, Erie County Democrats sent about $50,000 to a Brooklyn firm called Red Horse Strategies working for the Panepinto campaign.

The questions now surface because the Erie County Democratic Committee says it never got anything from UFT/COPE (United Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education) Local, a group strongly linked to the New York State United Teachers union.

Indeed, they never reported the income and say they never cashed a check because they never received one.

The UFT union would not consent to an interview about the contribution or why nobody ever accounted for it. A spokesman would address the situation only in an emailed statement.

“Because of campaign reporting requirements, the UFT reported on Oct. 28 that a $100,000 check had been cut for the Erie County Democratic Party as part of our statewide effort to increase the number of Democrats in the State Senate,” the statement said. “Before the check was sent on, the UFT decided to spend that money in other competitive races across the state. The check was thus never given to the Erie County organization. Our next filings will reflect that decision.”

The $100,000 contribution (allowed to a county committee but too much for an individual candidate) demonstrates the extraordinary commitment of the state’s teachers unions to the Panepinto campaign in 2014. His race was deemed a pivotal race in unsuccessful Democratic attempts to achieve a majority in the State Senate. Panepinto’s race was even among those that drew the attention of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political operation, according to media reports last fall.

“UFT was very involved in trying to get a Democratic Senate, and the Panepinto race was one of those,” UFT spokesman Dick Riley said of the 2014 efforts.

The latest campaign finance report shows a continuing financial commitment with a contribution of $10,300 to Panepinto, his largest of the reporting period. It came from Voice of Teachers for Education, also with an address at NYSUT headquarters in Latham.

But questions still surround the New York City-based political action committee’s actions in Western New York. Campaign finance reports show the PAC was heavily funded by NYSUT and by another committee headquartered at the union’s address.

Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said it would be illogical for him to be involved with NYSUT or other teachers unions last year since they were instrumental in a simultaneous challenge to his party leadership.

He also claimed that Senate Democrats sought the party’s help in the Panepinto campaign and that the $50,000 it sent to Red Horse Strategies (complementing significant dollars the campaign spent with the firm) stemmed from the local treasury.

“We had the whole state here (helping the Panepinto campaign) trying to take back the Senate,” he said. “We put lots of time and effort into this race.”

Zellner’s committee did not report the payment to Red Horse Strategies during the next reporting period as required, however, waiting until January 2015. He also said he had no explanation why the expenditure was listed under “office” costs as opposed to the normal notations of “consulting” or “professional.”

Meanwhile, three filing deadlines transpired since the contribution was first listed on the PAC’s campaign finance reports as being sent to Erie County Democrats, but no effort to report its status was ever initiated until The News’ inquiries.

In a similar contribution, a separate $100,000 from the PAC sent just one week earlier to the Monroe Democratic Committee was received and recorded, according to campaign finance records.

Panepinto declined to comment on this story. A NYSUT spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

The mystery surrounding the $100,000 contribution follows other questions connected with Democratic Senate campaigns around the state last year. Mark J. Grisanti, the former Republican senator from the 60th District whom Panepinto defeated last fall, asked during one of the campaign’s televised debates if his opponent’s campaign manager was illegally coordinating because of his former employment with UFT, the New York City branch of NYSUT.

Panepinto at the time denied that Danny Corum, who later joined his staff following the election, was paid by the campaign and insisted the campaign was not involved in illegal coordination.

The New York Daily News also reported toward the end of last fall’s campaign that political operatives with ties to de Blasio were steering hefty campaign contributions to local party committees for State Senate races, circumventing the much smaller limits on individual races.

The Daily News reported at the time that a former official of de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign asked an unnamed developer for a donation, citing an email it obtained. The email listed the Buffalo seat sought by Panepinto as winnable and a priority as it asked the potential donor for $50,000.

Since last fall’s campaign, Panepinto has emerged in his rookie year as an outspoken supporter of the mayor, especially in de Blasio’s deepening political struggles with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. During a June appearance on Time Warner Cable’s “Capital Tonight” program, Panepinto even said the governor had “lined up with the Senate Republicans against the mayor of New York City” during the 2015 session.

“Poor Mayor de Blasio,” Panepinto said. “There wasn’t one thing that the governor agreed with him on, even though they share a party affiliation.”