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Editorial: Zellner's conflict at Democratic Committee, Board of Elections

We don’t know if the finances of the Erie County Democratic Committee bear the kind of criminal investigation pushed by one of the party’s internal critics, but this much is obvious: By occupying two positions – one intra-party, the other public – Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner is harming the cause of transparency and inviting suspicion.

The solutions are for Zellner to leave at least one of his positions and for the state to have a look at the party’s financial practices.

James J. Eagan has a wide independent streak, but he is no gadfly. The former secretary of the Democratic State Committee knows his party and he doesn’t like what he sees in Erie County. Indeed, he believes the local committee has violated state campaign finance laws and that Zellner has misrepresented party finances since 2012. For those reasons, he is calling for the State Board of Elections to investigate, sensibly believing that Zellner the elections commissioner won’t investigate Zellner the party boss. His opinion should carry weight.

Zellner denies any wrongdoing, but by functioning both as local party chairman and as Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner, he has at a minimum left himself open to allegations of impropriety. It’s foolish for the party to so unnecessarily subject itself to such doubts, but by occupying both positions, Zellner has opened the door to them.

Zellner defends his dual position on the grounds that a change in election law vests investigative authority with the state. Lacking any oversight obligations, he argues that there is no conflict of interest.

That’s wrong. While the law has vested the state with new authority to investigate irregularities, it did not simultaneously eliminate the authority of county elections officials. County elections commissioners have an investigative role, but Zellner can’t investigate himself. That’s conflict in the first degree.

Zellner says that any financial irregularities, which Eagan tallies to about $106,000, are merely the result of “clerical errors” that he says are the inevitable result of data input into software programs. That’s possible, of course, but we don’t know of many local businesses that would placidly dismiss consistent, long-term errors that climb past $100,000. That’s money worth tracking, whatever your business, and Zellner’s casual tolerance of those losses doesn’t inspire confidence.

Neither does the fact that New Yorkers have heard the “clerical errors” explanation before – from men now convicted of crimes. Former political operative G. Steven Pigeon and at least one associate used the phrase to downplay money questions attached to their positions. Both have since pleaded guilty to crimes relating to campaign finance.

Zellner has another option, since he refuses to acknowledge the inherent conflict in his dual roles. If he wants to get ahead of this, he should recognize that the internal audit he says is underway to track down those “clerical errors” won’t cut it. That’s just another self-investigation. It will have no credibility.

Instead, he should commit to an independent, public audit of the Democrats’ finances. Any political party that doesn’t embrace financial transparency cripples its essential ability to monitor its opponents for the same failing. And, anyway, what would be the objection to a public audit beyond a fishy commitment to secrecy?

And speaking of fishy: The Erie County Legislature unanimously named Zellner to the $117,000-a-year elections post in 2017. Why would Republicans go along with that? For the same reason they – and Democrats – tolerated the unprofessional management of the Erie County Water Authority for so many years: Each side scratches the other’s back when it comes to gaming the system.

And guess who pays?

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