Soliciting Isn’t Nice, Even for Politicians

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, August 26, 1986

Let’s go over this soliciting-for-campaign-funds-with-or-without-a-pimp mess one more time.

Item One: Last Friday, Mayor Edward Koch proffered a plan for city legislation that would deny certain city contracts to any developers, lobbyists, attorneys and other petitioners who contributed more than certain amounts in campaign gifts to particular candidates. It’s a good idea, but all the details are still to come — such as which elected offices would be covered and what the gifts limits would be. Also, there are awesome loopholes to be closed, such as how to prevent contract-seekers from using relatives bearings gifts as a ploy to get around the prohibitions.

Item Two: Two days earlier, the city’s investigative commissioner, Kenneth Conboy, produced a report, four months in the making, concluding that the mayor’s re-election campaign had violated state election laws by failing to report to election officials the fact that key campaign aides had solicited $45,000 in free services — taxi rides for voters and campaign volunteers — from taxi and car-service companies. However, Conboy found, conveniently, that the failure-to-report was unintentional and that no coercion was used to get the taxi industry to provide free rides. Therefore, he said, the violations were not criminal.

What Item Two proves is that Item One won’t work unless the mayor and other elected officials decide to get rid of not just the appearance of impropriety in campaign fund-raising but the actual hanky-panky itself. 

One of the officials who solicited the taxi rides was Jay Turoff, then head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. (He has since resigned and been indicted for fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion on a separate matter involving new meters for the taxi industry.) The mayor said last week that he had known that Turoff was working in the campaign, but not that he was soliciting contributions from the taxi industry — which Koch said was inappropriate. Had he known about the solicitations, the mayor said, Turoff “would not have been in this administration.”

Isn’t this a tad disingenuous on the mayor’s part? If a taxi commissioner works in your campaign, what do you think he’s likely to be doing — bending the arm of the taxi industry for assistance or licking envelopes?

In addition to the $45,000 worth of services non-coercively donated, the taxi industry also gave $30,000 in cash to the Koch campaign. Who does the mayor think solicited that money? Jay Turoff or the tooth elf?

And one more pestering question. Since the mayor knew that Turoff was working on his campaign last year, did he ask him at the time to take a temporary leave from his job or at least to take a cut in his $71,000 salary commensurate with the time he was no longer spending at his desk? Heaven forfend.

This mayor (not to mention a lot of mayors before him) has had a lot of time to do something about city officials soliciting campaign money from people who do business with the city. Is there anything so naive as to believe that taxi companies would turn down a request for campaign lucre from the man in charge of regulating them?

Twenty-five years ago, in 1961, the city’s tame Board of Ethics — in a case involving operative of Mayor Robert Wagner who solicited campaign funds from real estate men at a Brooklyn luncheon — said that although the Ethics Code bars city employees from accepting “any valuable gift” from any person or company seeking or doing business with the city, the legislative history of the code showed that the word “gift” had not been intended to include campaign contributions.

However, the board went on to urge in strong language that this gaping loophole be plugged. It said that “the solicitation of funds for political purposed by a public official from those whose matters come before him…is offensive to proper ethical standards…[and] is against the public interest and should be prohibited.”

That was a quarter of a century in the past. Nothing’s been done about this obvious invitation to graft. What is a campaign contribution if it is not a “gift”? Is it a loss, a punishment?

Ruth Messinger and several other City Council members have sponsored a bill that would include — in the Ethics Code section on accepting gifts — any “political contribution in excess of $1,000 every two years.”

Why not enact this anticorruption measure or some version of it? And why not, while the mayor is in search of reforms, suggest that he also make solicitation of campaign funds by city officials a violation, too — or even a crime?

One of the more candid comments heard during the current debate about campaign fund-raising was made the other day by William Zeckendorf, the real estate developer, who said: “I don’t think that anyone gives contributions on a totally volunteer basis.”

The mayor’s campaign, for example, solicited $7.5 million for his re-election effort last year. If solicitation is considered prostitution when hookers do it, why isn’t it a form of prostitution when the campaign money men do it?

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes