When Erie County Legislature candidate David Dale blitzed the airwaves for the Democratic primary in September, few of the dollars fueling those ads originated from his own campaign fund.
Legislature candidate Jack O'Donnell's radio spots during the same primary campaign also were largely financed with outside money.
And when Legislator William A. Pauly appeared in television ads just before his Sept. 25 GOP primary, the approximately $15,000 bill was covered by another autonomous fund.
All three candidates enjoyed either active or tacit support from Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. And in each case, money flowed from one of two autonomous political committees: the Endorsed Democrats Club helping Dale and O'Donnell, and Advocates for Independence aiding Pauly, who usually votes with Democrats in the Legislature.
Pigeon controls Endorsed Democrats; Charles J. Flynn, one of two people claiming to be head of the Erie County Independence Party, is behind the Advocates organization.
Another common thread links all three primary races. Tony Farina, a former television reporter who is Buffalo Comptroller Anthony R. Nanula's executive assistant and a Pigeon associate, purchased the radio and television spots for the three candidates.
Growing trend noted
The generous support from the two political organizations highlights a growing trend toward financing Pigeon-favored candidates through committees operating outside individual campaigns. Critics contend the committees' methods defeat the purpose of state election laws that strictly limit donations to individual candidates, creating an unlevel playing field.
While Dale and O'Donnell's opponents financed their campaigns with contributions limited to $1,000 (or 5 cents per registered voter), Endorsed Democrats relied primarily on Nanula, Pigeon's friend and closest political ally, and a new Pigeon supporter, Amherst engineer Hormoz Mansouri.
The Endorsed Democrats Club spent around $180,000 from July through September, with most of the money going to Dale and O'Donnell, according to elections documents.
Some even question the legality of how such committees operate.
"The whole essence of campaign finance law is to let the public see who raises money from whom and how it is spent," said Dennis E. Ward, the Amherst Democratic chairman and a longtime critic of Pigeon's fund-raising methods. "What you have now is a system that thwarts that intent.
"Instead of appealing to a broad base of contributors that keeps you in the limits," Ward said, "he's decided to show his power by going to just a few sources for huge sums."
Pigeon contends, though, that the independent committees can spend unlimited amounts on candidates, in the same vein as such Albany-based committees as the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee or the Republican Senate Campaign Committee that supplement the individual efforts of legislative candidates. He likens it to another legal campaign finance method: "soft money" expenditures by national parties.
"This is not unprecedented," he said. "Because it's an independent committee, it does not have any limits in supporting a candidate."
This is what Erie County Board of Elections finance records show:
Dale spent only $7,235 on his successful primary bid against incumbent Legislator Gregory B. Olma.
O'Donnell spent about $52,000 in his unsuccessful bid against incumbent Legislator Albert DeBenedetti.
The records also show that Pigeon's campaign fund tapped an old friend -- Nanula -- and a new friend -- Mansouri -- for large sums. Nanula contributed almost $25,000 to the fund through his state comptroller campaign. Part of that contribution -- $18,000 -- was recorded under a Manhattan CPA firm handling Nanula's campaign accounts. Though corporate donations over $5,000 are illegal, Pigeon said a clerical error credited the firm of Horowitz and Ullmann with the donation and emphasized there was no reason to disguise it. (The error was not amended until Thursday after inquiries from The Buffalo News.)
Mansouri, meanwhile, contributed $10,000 through a legal technicality called a "doing business as." The entity, known as Liberty Services, allowed him to contribute as an individual rather than as a business. Liberty Services also lent Endorsed Democrats $50,000 on Sept. 20, just in time to fund new ads before the rescheduled Sept. 25 primary.
Pigeon also tapped other significant sources, including judicial candidates he endorsed in the primary. Family Court candidate Lisa Bloch Rodwin, for example, contributed $5,000 for printing petitions and other "costs" associated with qualifying for the ballot, according to a bill she received from party headquarters.
The fund's records do not delineate how the money was spent, as it had in previous elections and as Pigeon's critics claim election law requires. But the chairman estimates Endorsed Democrats spent up to $25,000 on O'Donnell's unsuccessful effort against DeBenedetti and $70,000 for Dale against Olma. DeBenedetti said he believes more was involved, and Olma contends as much as $132,000 was spent against him -- a huge amount for a county legislative race.
Olma sees unfair advantage
Olma says Endorsed Democrats provided an unfair advantage for his opponent, claiming all he wanted was the chance for a "fair fight."
"We're allowing a rogue party chairman desperate to remain in power to raise money any way he can to beat people he's obsessed with," Olma said. "If it's me today, it's going to be somebody else tomorrow."
Pigeon said his methods are no different from past legislative races, when similar questions were not raised. The expenditures also provided him with a significant victory with Dale's primary win over Olma. "It's clear that Greg Olma has been devastating as a Democratic legislator; he even organizes with the Republicans," Pigeon said. "Every nickel of it was worth spending."
Pigeon contends the limit for contributions to a committee such as the Endorsed Democrats Club stands at $72,000 for a person or partnership. In addition, Pigeon says he did not list any allocation of expenditures to individual candidates because it is a "multicandidate committee."
In Pauly's case, Flynn's last-minute cash infusion funding his television ads stemmed from a committee established Sept. 19, just two days before the commercials began airing. Flynn first explained the money for the ads came from "a lot of people" -- "people who wanted Pauly to win" and who didn't want to be known, for the moment. Then he said it stemmed from a "doing business as" entity he registered as Flynn Public Relations. Documents filed to start the fund, meanwhile, listed "various" candidates when he established it as a political action committee.
Because Pauly is the Independence candidate in the 14th District, Flynn said, he sponsored the ads when "word leaked out" from those with access to voting machines during the suspended Sept. 11 election that Pauly was losing his GOP primary against eventual winner Elise Swiantek Cusack.
In addition, he claimed to operate within all guidelines, especially because the expenditure benefited Pauly's candidacy on the Independence line. Flynn said it was only coincidence that Farina placed the Pauly, Dale and O'Donnell ads.
"I asked him to help me," he said. "I've known Tony for years. Doesn't everybody?"
Farina said he did the work as a consultant on his own time, adding that Flynn retained his services most likely because "he heard I did work for the other guys."
Ward, who last year challenged many of Pigeon's financing methods in a suit still pending in State Supreme Court, says Pigeon's analogy to the state legislative committees is off base because they are "party committees" spending in general elections. He also says Endorsed Democrats defeats the purpose of contribution limits by establishing a mechanism for soliciting large contributions and making large expenditures.
"The only way to go around these limits in New York law is through party committees," Ward said. "But this can't be a party committee, because the law prohibits party committees from spending in a primary. So if you're spending within your own party, you've got a problem."
Records show that Endorsed Democrats contributed nominal sums to other candidates, but nowhere near the amounts given Dale and O'Donnell. And Ward said its managers never completed paperwork asking how the money would be allocated. The result, he said, is a pool of money that its handlers believe is unbound by the $1,000 or 5 cents per registered voter limit on contributions to individual candidates.
"You have a committee set up to violate the law because it doesn't state the allocation," Ward continued. "If 45 percent is allocated to David Dale, then every contribution has got to be charged 45 percent to David Dale."
Pigeon gets some support
Pigeon finds some backing among state Board of Elections officials. Carl Montanino, who oversees campaign finance reports for the board, said the fact Endorsed Democrats spends money on a variety of candidates could "imply" that it's a multicandidate committee, though he said his opinion constituted no final ruling.
Still, such complaints about potential election law violations are rarely investigated. Laurence F. Adamczyk, Erie County Democratic elections commissioner, said complaints are forwarded to the state Board of Elections. Adamczyk's signature, meanwhile, appears on checks submitted to the broadcast outlets for some of the ads.
"If that isn't the height of conflict of interest," Ward said. "For a Board of Elections commissioner to be signing checks of any committee is wrong. What kind of joke do they think they're playing on the public?"
Adamczyk said those signatures are also a mistake, because he did not sign them and believes a headquarters staffer mistakenly signed his name.
If any criminal violations took place, they would be investigated by the Erie County district attorney's office. The campaign fund of District Attorney Frank J. Clark, a Democrat, also donated $1,000 to the Endorsed Democrats Club.
Olma, who is still competing in the general election as a Conservative, says he will sue to determine the answers to the controversy over this year's election financing.