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In many of this year's suburban Erie County campaigns, political parties went out of their way to make sure the identities of contributors remained secret, skirting laws on reporting campaign contributions.

While New York State law requires reporting the name of anyone giving $100 or more, political organizations in some communities -- such as Democrats in Lancaster -- make a point of offering $99 fund-raisers. Others, including the Republicans in the Town of Tonawanda, offer the deal of two $50 tickets for $99.

This $99 phenomenon, combined with the plethora of $25 barbecues and steak roasts, creates a pool of phantom money so prevalent that it is impossible to know who is financing many suburban races.

In fact, a Buffalo News analysis of campaign financial disclosure reports from the recent election found that, on average, this phantom money represented about half of all contributions in suburban Erie County races costing $10,000 or more.

Of the $521,000 raised, some $254,000 was listed without a contributor's name, according to campaign records.

But local candidates and their political organizations said they aren't doing anything illegal by collecting large amounts of money without saying who gave it to them, and they also say they are not circumventing the election law or avoiding the $100 disclosure requirement.

Instead, politicians say $99 fund-raisers are a marketing tool, no different than a department store selling a shirt for $19.99 rather than $20. Or, as one town party chairman put it, the $99 amount is simply tied to the year.

Whatever the motive, the results are dramatic. In Cheektowaga, for example, almost 60 percent of the nearly $50,000 raised by the two supervisor candidates was reported without identifying the contributors.

In the Town of Tonawanda, 68 percent of the nearly $75,000 raised by three Republican committees was anonymously reported.

And in Lancaster, 87 percent of the $33,000 raised by the town Democratic Committee came from unnamed donors.

The Buffalo News reviewed campaign disclosure reports in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Clarence, Grand Island, Lancaster, the Town of Tonawanda, West Seneca and at the state and county levels.

The analysis, which local and state election officials said was the first of its kind, found nearly all the money raised at the state and county level -- as well as by the Amherst Republicans -- identified the giver.

Virtually every other suburban community -- no matter the party -- had large sums of phantom money.

"It's extremely suspicious," said Craig Holman, project director of campaign finance at the Center for Governmental Studies, a private think tank in Los Angeles.

"I could see that happening with a small campaign budget where someone spends $5,000. But when you're talking about a fairly large campaign budget, and the majority of the money comes in those small amounts, that just throws up a red flag. It just says 'please audit me,' " he said.

The examples of staying under the limit are frequent. In the Town of Tonawanda, for example, Republicans hold a yearly champagne cruise that raises about $14,000 in phantom money by selling tickets for $50 per person. Buy two tickets, and you get a deal. It's $99 a couple.

In Lancaster, the town Democratic Committee several years ago established a Chairman's Committee, which sells a season's pass to all party fund-raisers. The cost: $99. The committee raised $12,000 this way in 1999.

The $99 price tag, said Lancaster Democratic Chairman Arthur A. Herdzik, is tied to the year.

In 1998, it cost $98 to join the Chairman's Committee. In 1999, it cost $99. Democrats haven't decided if they will raise the price to $100 in the year 2000, Herdzik said.

The Democratic chairman also said that of the roughly 120 people who joined the committee, no individual or couple ever bought two tickets with one check, which would have made it necessary to itemize their $198 contribution.

But it's not just the $99 tickets that lead to the many anonymous donations.

So do the $25 and $50 steak roasts, cocktail parties and barbecues that many politicians say are the bread-and-butter of their campaigns and show their grass-roots support.

In West Seneca, for example, Supervisor Paul T. Clark said the $25-a-ticket Jamaican jam he holds every year attracts 300 to 400 people and accounts for much of the $40,000 he has raised in the last 18 months.

In Cheektowaga, Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said he holds a lot of $10 picnics and tailgate parties. Of the $30,000 he raised in the last election, 55 percent came from those types of fund-raisers.

That's also the case in Grand Island.

Supervisor Peter A. McMahon holds a steak roast each summer and charges $20 per person -- children get in free and get unlimited hot dogs. He said he keeps the price low to attract a crowd, but it means that 73 percent of the $12,000 he raised didn't include the donor's name.

"The idea was to get popular support to attract more people," McMahon said. "I'm much more concerned that we got 350 people to show up, because people notice the size of the group as opposed to the actual amount of money raised."

Candidates are supposed to track donations during a campaign cycle, which can be as long as four years, and they are supposed to disclose even the name of anyone whose small contributions in total exceed $100. Donations are also expected to be tracked in case a single person purchases several tickets for family members, and the total exceeds $100.

But the candidates say those situations just aren't happening very often.

Still, critics are skeptical.

"If you get these small contributions over and over again, and a large portion of it is in anonymous donations, it does a disservice to the spirit of the law and perhaps should be changed," said Jim Twombly, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo and a member of the Amherst Democratic Party.

Assemblyman James P. Hayes, R-Amherst, agreed. After being told by The News of the large percentage of phantom money in some campaigns, Hayes said he plans to introduce a bill next month requiring candidates to disclose every cent raised.

"In terms of campaign finances as a general rule, there can never be too much disclosure. The public deserves to know where the money is coming from," he said. "People tend to wonder, 'You mean you didn't get anyone over that entire period of time who gave you more than $99?' "

New York's $100 limit on public disclosure is common, but some other states have lower and stricter laws.

Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah all require reporting the name of contributors who give $50 or more. Connecticut has a cutoff of $30, and anyone giving more than $100 must also disclose his employer and occupation.

Arizona, New Hampshire and Washington all require reporting donations of $25 or more. Colorado has a $20 limit.

The Michigan State Legislature recently passed a bill requiring candidates to put a name to every cent they receive.

"This legislation closes a tremendous loophole in our campaign finance laws that has allowed back-room dealers to funnel large sums of cash into campaigns without ever having to face public scrutiny," said Rep. Mike Bishop, a Republican who sponsored the bill.

In New York, elections board officials said the issue of small donations has never come up.

Still, some New York politicians voluntarily disclose more than the law requires.

During the recent county executive race, both Joel A. Giambra and Dennis T. Gorski routinely reported contributions that fell below the $100 limit. In Gorski's case, only 1 percent of the $1.7 million raised didn't give the donor's name. In Giambra's case, it was 3 percent.

"It's not required, but Dennis thinks it's a good policy," said spokesman Michael P. Hughes. "If someone gave $50 or $25, if at all possible, he wants it listed."

Also reporting virtually all contributions, no matter how small, are Amherst Republicans, including Hayes, who disclosed 91 percent of where his money came from when he ran in 1998.

The Amherst Republicans started disclosing the source of most of their money after Democrats attacked them for supposedly hiding contributions from developers.

It didn't require much more work because candidates should already keep an internal list of all donations, said Robert J. Gilmour, chairman of the Amherst Republican Party.

That's partly in case small contributions add up to $100 or more, but also for future fund-raising mailing lists, he said.

"We've got nothing to hide," Gilmour said. "We're talking about honesty and integrity. We like to think we're honest people, and we want the voters to believe."

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