Cuomo says campaign funds for criminal defense lawyer saves taxpayers money

Aug 6, 2014

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is using money from his $35 million campaign war chest to pay for a criminal defense lawyer in a federal probe of his office. Critics say while it’s legal to do so, it’s not an appropriate use of campaign money.

Cuomo has hired prominent criminal defense attorney Elkan Abramowitz to represent his office during a federal investigation of the governor’s ethics commission. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is looking into whether some of the governor’s top aides might have meddled in probes conducted by the commission, when they came too close to Cuomo donors and associates.

It’s not unusual for politicians in New York to use their campaign funds to pay for a criminal defense lawyer, since there are few restrictions on how donor contributions can be spent. What’s different about the arrangement is that Cuomo is using the campaign money to pay for the legal services for the entire office of the governor.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says he hasn’t heard of a politician doing that before, and say it is strange, even by Albany standards.

Horner wants the state’s entire campaign funding system changed. He says there should be strict limits to how donor monies can be spent.

“We have an old fashioned view,” Horner said. “Campaign contributions should be used for campaigns.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan and a sponsor of many campaign finance reform measures, agrees that although the arrangement is unusual, it is legal under what she says are the state’s lax campaign finance laws.

Krueger says there are legitimate reasons to use political donors’ money to pay legal fees -- for instance, if an opponent is challenging your nominating petitions in court. But she says if a politician is using campaign donor money to pay for a legal defense against criminal charges, then it would be better to set up a separate fund for that.

“Then, somebody you’re asking for financial help from knows they’re helping you with a legal defense fund,” said Krueger, “which is different than a campaign fund.”

But Krueger says she would not go so far as to tell the governor that he should not be using donor money to pay for criminal legal defense for his office. She says she is also for a public matching donor campaign system, but does not recommend candidates set up their own systems.

Krueger and several other Senate Democrats are co-sponsoring a bill to make it illegal for a politician to use campaign funds for criminal defense.

The governor is legally entitled to government funding for defense attorneys. But Cuomo says he decided to use his campaign funds to spare the public the expense.

“I actually didn’t want the taxpayers to pay for it, so I said I’d pay for it by the campaign,” Cuomo said.  

Cuomo, after receiving a warning letter from U.S. Attorney Bharara last week, has said he will no longer comment on the specifics of the federal probe. The governor does say he personally has not been asked to speak to federal prosecutors, but he has told his staff to provide Bharara with anything he needs.

“I’ve told all my people that anything he wants to know, everyone should cooperate,” Cuomo said.