By Rockland County Legislator Charles Falciglia – October 8, 2021
On Monday night, October 4th, the Airmont Village Board repealed a local village law; the Citizens Protection Act, along with five other laws that spoke more specifically to quality of life issues in the village. The Citizens Protection Act was written and introduced by me in April of 2018, which included reviews by several attorneys including the Airmont village attorney at the time. It was signed into law the following month.
Over the years, dating back to 2011, and probably before, Rockland County had seen its share of political donations that appeared to have all the characteristics of straw donations. In simple terms the donation is not the personal funds of the individual donating. It is against the law and a crime in New York State, as well as most states, to donate in the name of another person; the legal speak way of avoiding the term straw donor. It is also a crime on the federal level.
Straw donations generally have several combined red flags, the most obvious being a maximum or near maximum donation from individuals who never donated in their life or have relatively few small contributions spread out over a decade or so. Other red flags include out of state donors and an easily discernible pattern of six degrees of separation among the donors. Further investigation may reveal individuals whose socio-economic status would make you cast a wary eye of why they would wake up one morning and donate several thousand dollars to a candidate; funds that would best be served for more important needs.
In February of 2015 I wrote an article that was published in the former Rockland Voice entitled, Four Thousand Shades of Gray. The article homed in on the 2011 donations to the candidacy of current Rockland County Judge, Sherri Eisenpress, who was running for family court judge at the time. The article came several weeks on the heels of the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, the number 4,000 coinciding with the predominant amount of each donation to the Eisenpress campaign; with a title almost guaranteed to have the public at least start reading. The article also touched on donations to the campaign account of Friends of Ilan Schoenberger, who had run for county executive in 2013.
I have had multiple upon multiple interactions with numerous law enforcement agencies over several straw donation scenarios over the years and discovered that while they were aware in most instances of some of the donations they were not fully aware of how many straw donors and donations there actually were, which I always provided; although one and done is sufficient to convict. Many of the scenarios are not as noticeable as the above two and difficult to determine.
Ultimately, Richard Brega, the contractor who ran bus transportation for the county was convicted of being the money man behind the donations to Friends of Ilan Schoenberger and sent to jail. That has been the disappointing extent of these investigations. The good news is since that time there have not been any blatant attempts at conduit contributions, another term often substituted, although I do not look at the filings like I once did. I believe the District Attorney’s Office should be monitoring that.
As an anecdote, in September of 2019 I received a call from someone who was assisting a candidate in a local race. The caller was referred to me because of my familiarity with these types of shenanigans. My conclusion after the conversation was that he was naive about the process, but had the good judgment to check as opposed to blindly moving forward.
The caller was inquiring about an individual, he did not name, who wanted to donate to the candidate in question but did not want to contribute directly so his name would not be attached to the candidate. Donations are part of a public record and can be accessed on the New York State Board of Elections web-site.
The interesting part about people who are the true donors are they often not only want to donate more than allowed by law but often do not want their name attached to the candidate of their choice for a variety of reasons. In many cases they will not even make their own donation. Some donors may be so disliked within a community and/or have an unsavory interlocking relationship with the candidate that it would raise embarrassing questions and cost votes.
After discussing several scenarios the caller perfectly understood that there was only one option – the lawful one.
One of the issues I have continually raised about this is the fact that the straw donors and candidates often seem to skirt justice. The law is clear that the person making the donation is the one liable and by extension, in my opinion, the architect of the scheme. The architect of the scheme could range from the candidate, true donor or a close circle of politically astute supporters and confidants.
Often, the straw donors are cajoled, fooled or coerced into participating. Some, of course, are also willing participants. Coercing someone does not mean spelling out that there may be some form of retaliation for failing to cooperate. We can all read between the lines. In my opinion the majority of straw donors may not be enthusiastic willing participants and can be given some benefit of the doubt.
I cannot say the same for candidates, incumbent or otherwise. They have often been around the political block and/or are surrounded or being advised by people who are experienced in the political arena. Ask yourself, you are running for office and a group of people you have no previous interactions or relationships with make large monetary donations to your campaign. Wouldn’t you want to investigate further and find out why?
The Citizens Protection Act was born out of the above reasons. The act requires anyone donating over a certain amount, in the case of Airmont $500.00, to sign a form, the Truth in Donating Form, acknowledging that the donation is your legitimate personal funds. It also clearly advises that if those funds are not the donor’s personally earned funds you have violated the law. The form must be provided to each donor by the candidate/campaign and must be filed with the village clerk.
By executing the form no one can feign ignorance of the law. The donor(s) has been duly notified and would be perjuring him or herself. The candidate is also protected from unscrupulous and/or overzealous campaign workers and can avoid a false claim leveled against them that they were involved in the scheme.
The reason I chose the Village of Airmont to initiate and test this law is two-fold. The village has its own election law as opposed to operating specifically under New York State Election Law, even though I believe this law has nothing to do with election law but rather protecting citizens at large. Secondly, the Airmont Village Board at the time was composed of five individuals, Mayor Phil Gigante, Trustees Kevin Warbrick, Anthony Valvo, Peter Blunnie and Paul Marchesani, who combined were one of the most financially astute boards in Rockland. They also understood one of the most important concepts that I drove home during the process. Just because you are a mayor or trustee of a small village does not mean you have to ignore the bigger societal picture. An idea can come from anywhere, but getting it validated, in this case through a law, creates a template for the idea/law to be expanded.
The Airmont Village Board did not rubber stamp this and it took a healthy discussion, which there should be, to eventually bring it to fruition.
In March of 2019, the ticket of Nathan Bubel, Brian Downey and Migdalia Pesante won election replacing Gigante, Valvo and Marchesani. During the campaign that ticket received at least nine donations in excess of $500.00 per New York State Board of Elections filings. Whether they, or any other candidates during that election or the 2021 March elections, complied with the Citizens Protection Act is still unknown.
Subsequently, I visited the Airmont Village Attorney, Amy Mele, at her New City office and by letter asked her to investigate compliance with the Citizens Protection Act for the 2019 campaign. We spoke for 90 minutes about the law and a variety of other issues germane to Rockland, Ramapo and Airmont. Ms. Mele appeared to fully understand the concept and indicated she would review the law and had no problem raising the issue with her clients. Remember, however, a municipal attorney is hired by the board, is generally a mayoral appointment and reports to the board. The board is the client. It can be a precarious situation, something I would like to see changed to eliminate this conflict of interest. An attorney, however, also has a responsibility to counsel their clients about potentially being in violation of a law.
Maybe it was something I said but the next day Ms. Mele resigned her position as Airmont Village Attorney. Enter Scott Ugell as her replacement, known to most as a Clarkstown Judge. I than met with Mr. Ugell and by the same letter asked him to address the issue. Mr. Ugell became a bit animated stating he couldn’t investigate his client, a conflict of interest, which is exactly the inherent problem stated above. At least he stayed awake during the meeting. It was suggested that there was nothing preventing him from asking and advising and he agreed. Several weeks later he contacted me and advised he spoke with the campaign treasurer for Bubel, Downey and Pesante and that he advised him to clear this up. That’s the last I heard from him until he introduced himself to me twice in a three minute span at a recent event, finally realizing who I was.
Violation of the Citizens Protection Act in itself is not even a crime in its current form, and as I stated earlier it was designed to be a roadmap to a potential expanded initiative. Most people have trouble understanding that its purpose is to prevent someone from committing a crime. Perjury becomes the deterrent to becoming involved. It is not even necessary for pursuing the crime of donating in the name of another. It does underscore a bushel of negatives surrounding government and elected officials. While we see the problems of our own local government front and center suffice to say we are not alone.
You have to ask why elected officials, rather than embrace this law and be part of the solution; sending a message that they reject corruption, would rather not. The law is fairly simple to execute and is the inconvenience so overwhelming that you can’t be bothered? Repealing a law doesn’t grandfather elimination of a previous violation and you can additionally raise the question why a law that could protect a candidate/elected official would not be welcomed, unless there is some knowledge that a donation was not the personal funds of a donor?
It also goes to the heart of another issue, which we see with the presidency. The Airmont Village Board has the absolute right to repeal a law just as we have seen in Washington whenever a new administration comes in. A law is only as effective as the elected officials overseeing it. It’s the same concept as prosecutorial privilege. Why it was repealed is a moot point because no explanation would suffice.
But this is not just about the Airmont Village Board. I have broached this law with other elected officials and the reception has been lukewarm at best. The feeling I get is no one wants to be bothered with the extra paperwork. Isn’t that a small price to pay? There is just something odoriferous about not wanting to be a participant in the fight against political corruption.
This is also not just about a local law. It’s about home rule, which elected officials at the state level are reticent about modifying; monitors who can’t monitor; bad and incompetent elected officials; term limits; appointees with a myriad of interlocking relationships with those that appointed them; municipal attorneys with inherent conflicts, political cowardice, code enforcement or more like code ignorance and law enforcement’s reluctance and trepidation about pursuing white collar crimes. It’s about a total breakdown in the system and government from the smallest village to the presidency.
I am currently continuing discussions with some of our state representatives about enacting this on the state level in some form, which has been my intent all along and where this belongs. Many of the previous incumbents were not very helpful.