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Paterson campaign funds to pay for Caribbean trip Despite state savings, critic raises questions

ALBANY -- While asking lawmakers to go along with a multibillion-dollar package of spending cuts to deal with the state's financial crisis, Gov. David A. Paterson plans a five-day business trip to two Caribbean islands.

Paterson notes that he is financing the trip with his campaign money instead of taxpayer dollars -- even though it is billed as mostly government-related, with some politics tossed in.

But the use of campaign funds also has raised eyebrows.

In June, Paterson proposed limiting campaign funds to expenditures "directly related to promoting the nomination or election of a candidate," said Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The measure, introduced late in the State Legislature's session, was not approved.

"Call us crazy, but we think campaign contributions were raised for elections, not to subsidize lifestyles of elected officials," Horner said. "It may be a working vacation. But it's not an election swing. I know of no enclave of [New York expatriates on] St. Maarten."

The trip is scheduled to begin next Thursday at the Caribbean Multi-National Business Conference on St. Maarten.

Paterson then would leave the following Saturday for San Juan, Puerto Rico, and return home the following Monday night. On Puerto Rico, Paterson plans to attend Somos El Futuro at the Intercontinental San Juan Resort and Casino in San Juan.

The annual gathering attracts Puerto Rican and other Latino politicians from New York, as well as lobbyists and others with business before the state government.

While Paterson aides say campaign funds will pay for both Caribbean stops, who is picking up the costs for the governor's State Police security detail remained unclear.

The trip, aides insist, is not a vacation.

But Horner argued that if the events are government-related and not political, Paterson should not finance the trip with campaign funds.

"We're amazed he's chosen to violate the spirit of his own proposal," Horner said.

Paterson aides defended the timing of the trip and its funding source.

"Gov. Paterson plans to save taxpayers money by using campaign funds to pay expenses for the trip," Errol Cockfield, a Paterson spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Cockfield called NYPIRG's criticism unfounded. "Since portions of the trip will clearly be for political purposes, and to save taxpayers money, the governor has directed that campaign funds be used," he said.

Aides say the governor will meet with heads of state and other dignitaries "about improving economic ties with New York."

Cockfield said Paterson had agreed while he was lieutenant governor to attend the conference on St. Maarten to "engage in a dialogue with Caribbean leaders about ways to improve trade between New York and the Caribbean region."

The San Juan leg of the trip, Cockfield said, will allow the governor to join Latino leaders and other elected officials at an annual meeting that "underscores the important economic relationship between New York and Puerto Rico."

Paterson aides confirmed the St. Maarten leg of the trip Wednesday; the following day, they said he also would visit Puerto Rico.

The governor and State Legislature have been wrestling over how to trim up to $2 billion that Paterson wants eliminated from this year's state budget to close a worsening deficit.

Lawmakers are due back to Albany for an emergency special session a week after Paterson returns.

Earlier this week, the governor warned of "painful" cuts this year and next year -- when the state faces a potential deficit of $12.5 billion -- that will affect every segment of the budget, from education to health care.

The timing of the Caribbean trek also could produce some interesting political dynamics. Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican, serves as acting governor when Paterson is out of state.

The two have been feuding in recent weeks over Democratic attempts to take control of the State Senate, where Republicans now hold a slim majority.

Tuesday's election will determine whether Skelos will retain his position when the new Legislature convenes in January.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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