The politicians and their defenders can slice this any way they want, but there is an uncomfortable fact they cannot escape: It is inappropriate and unethical for an employer running for office to squeeze staff members for donations to the campaign.
That’s what is happening in the Erie County prosecutor’s office, as Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. hits up his staff to support his quest to win the job in November’s election. It ought to be illegal.
In Washington, it is. According to the House Committee on Ethics, federal law prohibits “Members of Congress and staff, (as well as candidates for Congress and other federal employees) from knowingly soliciting any contribution from any other federal officer or employee.”
That carries no weight in the office of Erie County’s top law enforcer, though. Staff members there are complaining about coercion to donate to Flaherty’s campaign. At least one, speaking anonymously to The News, protested about an invitation to buy tickets costing a minimum of $250 to a fundraiser next week, after having already donated to the campaign more than once.
It’s abusive. How do you turn down your boss for a donation when your career may hang in the balance? What if you’d prefer to give that money to cancer research or you child’s college education or a different candidate? Yet Flaherty, according to two employees, told staff earlier this year that because he had hired most of them, he expected their loyalty. It’s hard to misunderstand that.
Defenders of the practice say there are no good solutions to the undeniable need to raise money for a campaign. The other alternative, they say, is to take money from defense lawyers who may well become courtroom adversaries. It’s a similar problem in judicial elections, where candidates often take money from the lawyers who will later be pleading their cases in front of them.
It is, admittedly, a poor set of choices, but that fact doesn’t in any way excuse Flaherty or any other candidate for office for pressuring staff members to fork over dollars to the campaign. That’s not what campaign donations are supposed to be.
If those employees wanted, on their own and without any pressure, to donate to the boss, nothing should stop them, though anonymous gifts would be preferable, since they would protect the identities of those who choose not to give. One way or another, though, some rules need to be established to prevent this kind of coercion by an employer who holds great sway over the kind of life staff members may be able to lead or even what kind of education might be open to their children.
There is a lot of debate and disagreement over the idea of publicly funded campaigns, but elections for judges and district attorneys may be an area where enough people from all sides of the issue can agree. Certainly, abusing a position of power is not tolerable and neither is the conflict of interest posed by accepting money from lawyers who may benefit from considerations that are otherwise unwarranted. A public funding mechanism is at least worth examining.