It took a Federal investigation into the role of money in local politics to unexpectedly keep the Citizens United effect in check

After the November 2013 mayoral election in New York City, Michael Powell, a metropolitan columnist for The New York Times at the time, revealed that the New York City Campaign Finance Board was investigating the role of a campaign consulting firm, The Advance Group, over allegations that it had coördinated the work of an outside expenditure group with the campaign committees of individual candidates, actions that are forbidden by the Municipal campaign finance regulatory authority.

At the time, The Advance Group was providing campaign consulting services to NY-CLASS, a group that acted, at times, as a pass-through entity for donations to another client of The Advance Group, NYC Is Not For Sale. The president of The Advance Group, Scott Levenson, predicted that spending by outside expenditure groups would open up a new front in influencing the outcome of local elections, much in the same way that very large Super PAC's have been able to exert influence on national elections ever since the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the floodgates to money in politics.  "2013 will go down as a Rubicon in the introduction of independent spending and the effect it could have," Mr. Levenson said in a video interview for a report published by The New York World.

Although it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation probed the flow of campaign donations into at least one of The Advance Group's clients, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the law enforcement agency to which the FBI typically reports the findings of its investigations, did not press any charges against The Advance Group or its clients.

It was later revealed that the New York State Attorney General's Office fined The Advance Group $10,800 to discontinue an investigation into allegations that The Advance Group coördinated electioneering work on behalf of independent campaign committees with the work of an independent expenditure group, and the Campaign Finance Board assessed The Advance Group a fine of $15,000 to end a parallel investigation. One of the independent expenditure groups advised by The Advance Group was later reportedly hit with fines and subpoenas from authorities in connection with violations and a reported, wide-ranging corruption investigation, respectively.

In the time since regulators fined the outside expenditure actors, Mr. Levenson's apparent hope that the role of money in local politics would increase has not panned out.

In a recent report published by The New York Times, it was noted that two factors have apparently hindered the use of independent expenditure groups in the 2017 mayoral race : A new Municipal campaign finance regulation that requires that the names of top independent expenditure group funders must appear on mailings alongst with the name of the independent expenditure group, and The effect of the reported, wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation that looked, in part, into Mayor Bill de Blasio's fundraising during the 2013 election. Although the wide-ranging Federal Corruption investigation into Mayor de Blasio's campaign finance activities was closed without any charges being filed, the wheels of justice managed to turn the tide, at least temporarily, against the flood of money into independent expenditure groups that were threatening to influence the outcome of local political elections. In acknowledging the decreased use of independent expenditure groups in the face of greater scrutiny, Mr. Levenson told The New York Times for its recent report that, "They’ve been dissuaded, or chilled, by some of the reaction to 2013 spending," invoking free speech rights language that is typically reserved for individuals, but which, is now, misappropriated by Super PAC's to defend the role of money in politics.

At the same time, the concentration of money flooding into Municipal campaign committees from New York City's top 10 zip codes has been plunging. The top 10 zip codes that are the origin of donations can vary slightly from one election cycle to the other. Usually, most of the top 10 zip codes can be found on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. According to analysis of 2005 Campaign Finance Board data, the top 10 zip codes in New York City that were the origin of reported campaign donations represented 74 per cent. of all campaign finance donations in that election cycle, with the top zip code being in the Upper East Side. That compared with 2009 data, which showed that the top 10 zip codes accounted for 78 per cent. of all reported campaign donations, with the top zip code for that election cycle again being in the Upper East Side, and with 2013 data, which showed that the top 10 zip codes accounted for 37 per cent. of all reported campaign donations, with the top zip code for that election cycle yet again being in the Upper East Side. According to the most recent Campaign Finance Board data for the 2017 election cycle, the top 10 zip codes have accounted for just 34 per cent. of all reported campaign finance donations, representing only a slight dip from the last election cycle. The current figures were skewed by the fact that self-financed mayoral candidate Michael Tolkin has donated approximately $8 million to his own campaign, making, as a result, a zip code in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the location of the largest concentration of campaign donations in the current election cycle. If we disregarded Mr. Tolkin's three largest donations to his campaign, the top 10 zip codes would have only accounted for 14 per cent. of all reported campaign donations in this election cycle, a very sharp drop in the concentration of campaign contributions from New York City's wealthiest zip codes.

Except for the anomaly caused by Mr. Tolkin's self-financed candidacy, one explanation of the reported drop in the concentration of Big Money donations, at least in respect of this year's Mayoral election, was that real estate developers have been hesitant to make large campaign donations in the wake of the wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation into Mayor de Blasio's campaign finance activities, according to a report published by The New York Times.

Whilst independent expenditure groups are free to once again escalate their participation in future Mayoral elections should Federal prosecutors decrease their scrutiny of campaign finance activities and whilst wealthy self-financed politicians, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City) and Mr. Tolkin, can open up their wallets at any time to skew donations by zip codes, the relative absence of money in this year's mayor's race may just prove to be a historical footnote, caused by the heightened period of Federal scrutiny during the lead-up to the 2017 Municipal election cycle, a time that was notably marked by Preet Bharara heading the Federal prosecutors' office in Manhattan. During Mr. Bharara's tenure as U.S. Attorney for New York's southern district, his office conducted many notable public corruption investigations, including the reported, wide-ranging investigation into Mayor de Blasio's campaign finance activities. Although this altered landscape is not a permanent reform, the actions of independent expenditure groups, unscrupulous campaign consultants, and Big Money donors can continue to be kept in check if Acting U.S. Attorneys Joon Kim and Bridget Rohde, the current top Federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, keep a watchful eye on the money flowing into campaign committees.

  -- Progress Queens