Former Brooklyn Democratic Party chair Clarence Norman was indicted and later convicted for requiring judicial candidates to use party-favored political campaign vendors
By LOUIS FLORES
A requirement that Democratic Party candidates running for the New York State Senate use The Parkside Group for campaign mailers reminds government reform activists of the years-long prosecutorial effort to bust the corrupt Brooklyn party machine.
The New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, or DSCC, headed by State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), required that "DSCC-backed candidates must use Parkside to print their campaign mail, an arrangement some Democrats have long bristled at," according to a report published by in The New York Observer.
The DSCC requirement is similar to requirements demanded of some candidates over a decade go by the Democratic Party of Brooklyn. In 2002, Karen Yellen ran as a candidate for a judgeship for Brooklyn Civil Court. When former Kings County Democratic Party chair Clarence Norman tried to shake down Ms. Yellen’s campaign for costs associated with the printing of campaign literature for a slate of candidates, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, led at that time by Charles Hynes, later brought criminal charges against Mr. Norman, alleging that forcing candidates to pay for the costs of campaign literature designed by Ernest Lendler was a way to funnel money to the party's favored political campaign vendors, one sign, according to the District Attorney's Office, that the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s endorsement in judicial races could be had -- for a price, according to various news reports at the time.
In due course, Mr. Norman was found guilty in a jury trial of "coercion, grand larceny by extortion and attempted grand larceny by extortion" stemming from charges of having "coerced two candidates for civil court judge to pay thousands of dollars to favored campaign consultants, or lose his organization’s support in the 2002 primary," according to a 2007 report published by The New York Times.
For years, former Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes had scrutinised the Brooklyn Democratic Party over persistent allegations of corruption. At the time of the 2007 conviction of Mr. Norman, then District Attorney Hynes said of the Brooklyn political machine : “We have exposed it for the evil that it is,” adding in his comments to The New York Times that, “Any political leader who engages in this kind of rank extortion, and think about it, any political leader who tries this, does so at her or his peril.”
A message left with a principal at The Parkside Group, seeking more information about the nature of the firm's work for the DSCC, was not answered.
Seven years after Mr. Norman's conviction, some government reform activists say that the Democratic Party may be back to its old tricks, this time in Queens, but, activists note, there no longer appears to be any prosecutorial appetite by the city's District Attorneys' offices to investigate political corruption as there was a decade ago by former Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes.
Efforts were unsuccessful to reach the Queens District Attorney's Office about the DSCC's requirement to likewise use party-favored political campaign vendors.
A request for an interview with Senator Gianaris went unanswered.
According to an online records search conducted today on the New York State Board of Elections' Web site, the DSCC paid this year to The Parkside Group $1,655,428.34 for mailings and services, an amount that comprised approximately 40 per cent. of the DSCC's expenditures for this year. Other candidates independently spent on Parkside out of their individual campaign accounts, for example, such as the three Democratic Party Senate candidates, who lost on Long Island, according to a search of online state campaign finance records. Like in the case with Mr. Norman, it's not known how the DSCC could have accommodated slated Senate candidates, who would have opted out of using Parkside for mailers.*
The pressure on candidates for political offices to win elections is immense. After serving many terms in office, former District Attorney Hynes fell into the trappings of the need to get reëlected over and over again, a pitfall of elected officials, who are not subject to term limits, a fate not too dissimilar from the pressures faced by incumbents or candidates backed by the county party boss system, then as now. Earlier this year, a report by the New York City Department of Investigation concluded that former District Attorney Hynes was using funds from drug deals and other crimes gone bad, subsequently seized and controlled by his office, to pay for a campaign consultant, Mortimer Matz. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was reportedly set to empanel a grand jury to conduct a criminal investigation into former District Attorney Hynes' misconduct.
As politics in New York succumbs to corruption, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, has asked the press to step up their investigation work. On the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's most recent state budget stripped valuable resources from Attorney General Schneiderman, leaving him with less funding to fight corruption, amongst other crimes. In another controversial move in the same budget deal that further undercut the state's important prosecutorial work, Gov. Cuomo disbanded the Moreland Commission, a public corruption investigation panel tasked with cleaning up government across New York state.
Although district attorneys like to claim that their offices are free from political influence, government reform activists look to the realistic political pressures that district attorneys actually do face. The district attorney for Manhattan, Cyrus Vance, for example, can't keep running for office without the consent of the Manhattan Democratic Party chair ; the same need for respective consent applies to the other county prosecutors in New York City. That need for consent acts as a backdoor check on what kind of corruption cases the county district attorneys can pursue, say some government reform activists, because the district attorneys have to be mindful not to investigate corrupt political operatives and supporters, who are loyal to their respective county chairs.
District Attorney Vance, for example, has not prosecuted anybody for corruption, even though his office has been referred cases, relating to bidding irregularities tied to the Aqueduct Entertainment Group, bidding and billing irregularities tied to the city's troubled Emergency Communications Transformation Program, and the closure of St. Vincent's Hospital.
In Queens, the district attorney, Richard Brown, has not bothered to investigate the unaccounted $500,000 in funding earmarked to the Corona-Elmhurst Center for Economic Development. If the Queens District Attorney's Office's remains mum on the DSCC matter, voters will know not to expect much.
Voters need only to look at all of the corruption cases that federal prosecutors charge and try before the federal court system to see how none of these corruption cases ever get prosecuted by the city's district attorneys' offices anymore, some government reform activists say. Queens elected officials, who have faced criminal charges, include State Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Queens), who was sentenced in 2013 to one year in prison for mismanagement of nonprofit funding ; State Senator Ada Smith (D-Queens), who was found guilty in 2006 by a City Court in Albany of having thrown coffee in the face of one of her aides ; Assemblymember Anthony Seminerio (D-Queens), who pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal charges of trading political favors for estimated payments of $500,000 ; State Senator Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens), who was expelled in 2010 from the State Senate after a 2009 misdemeanor assault conviction and who later pleaded guilty to federal charges, including mail fraud, for having used City Council slush funds to finance his first unsuccessful campaign for the State Senate ; and former Assemblymember Brian McLaughlin (D-Queens), who pleaded guilty in 2008 to federal racketeering charges. Only the misdemeanor assault case against former Senator Monserrate was prosecuted by the Queens District Attorney's Office. Former Senator Huntley and former Assemblymember McLaughlin are now free from jail. Former Assemblymember Seminerio died in prison in 2011.
Furthermore, Queens District Attorney Brown refused to file criminal charges in the case of the New York Police Department's 2009 kidnapping of whistleblower Adrian Schoolcraft.
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is the highest ranking prosecutor covering Queens County politics, but her staff of federal prosecutors has failed to bring any of the charges in the long spate of recent public corruption cases against Queens officials, even though the federal prosecutors with New York's eastern district are believed to be safely removed from the corruptive influence of the county chairs of the Democratic Party, some government reform activists say. In spite of U.S. Attorney Lynch's failure to prosecute public corruption cases, President Barack Obama has nominated her to be the nation's next Attorney General, an office that will oversee the "vast portfolio of cases, including counter-terrorism, voting rights, public corruption and white collar crime, judicial recommendations and policy reviews -- all of which impacts on the lives of every American and shape the life of our nation," according to remarks made by the president on the occasion of his White House press conference to announce U.S. Attorney Lynch's nomination last week-end.
In addition to the requirement that Democratic Party Senate candidates use Parkside, other election irregularities have been reported about the 2014 statewide elections, including the funneling of money through the Putnam County Democratic Committee and how some of that money circuitously made its way back to political consultants with close ties to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, according to a report in Crain's New York Business.
Furthermore, a lingering special prosecutor investigation of Data and Field Services, the former, “for-profit” consulting arm of the Working Families Party, is looking into whether candidates endorsed by the Working Families Party may have been provided with discounted consulting services by Data and Field Services. There's no indication whether the investigation is focusing on a requirement, if any, for candidates to use Data and Field Services as a condition of having received the Working Families Party endorsement.*
This article has been updated (*) with supplemental information about independent campaign spending on Parkside and about the investigation into Data & Field Services.