ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Gassing up twice a week in New Jersey? Hiring Turdo the magician? Buying smoked meats for Christmas presents?
A review of campaign finance reports by The Associated Press shows that's all part of the questionable use of campaign donations that can buoy lawmakers' lifestyles and buy support back home.
The New York Public Interest Research Group also said Tuesday it found more than 100,000 violations of state campaign finance laws since 2011, including campaign committee failures to file accurate reports and no recent reports at all from 2,328 committees.
"Some of them are flagrant violations of the state's contribution limits," said NYPIRG researcher Bill Mahoney, citing what the group said were 278 improper corporate donations. "Others are more minor peccadillos that show a complete disregard for the law because they occur in such huge numbers."
Joined by other good government advocacy groups that blame lack of enforcement, NYPIRG also reported many misidentified or unidentified campaign expenditures.
Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, whose group has monitored the state Board of Elections for decades, said then Gov. Eliot Spitzer budgeted $1.5 million for board enforcement of election laws in 2009, but it was never used because the agency is controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties. It has no will for enforcement, she said. "Right now it has no investigators."
While noting its own 2012 report found $31 million in campaign funds had "gone missing," NYPIRG noted that the elections board has claimed success identifying candidates who do not file required reports on time and that its 2011 annual report cited 9,848 letters sent to campaign treasurers about late filings and imposing small fines on 792.
Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School said New York has only 63 state senators and over the last seven years 13 have been charged with or convicted of crimes.
"There really is, as the U.S. attorney said, a show-me-the-money culture in Albany," he said, where 70 percent of donations come from special interests including businesses and unions.
The groups advocated campaign finance measures, similar to New York City's system with matching funds for small donations, and better, more independent enforcement. NYPIRG said the severity of corruption in the state campaign system is "exponentially greater" than in the city system.
The Democrat-controlled Assembly on Tuesday voted 87-49 to pass such a campaign finance measure, while the Senate Elections Committee held a hearing focusing on the city campaign system.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the NYPIRG report was further evidence that the current self-policing system doesn't work and the need for independent enforcement.
Other items marginally related to campaigns, and currently regarded as legal, range from paying for gifts and entertainment to hiring lawyers when charged with corruption. A NYPIRG review of campaign reports from the past three years showed 1,224 expenses on car payments, legal defenses for criminal charges, flowers, golf, clowns, and musicians.
The AP review of finance records found seemingly questionable expenses that included Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn spending campaign funds for regularly gassing up vehicles in Mahwah and Hackensack, N.J.; Sen. Betty Little spending $1,205 in December for legislative gifts from Oscar's Smoke House in her Adirondack district; Sen. Jeff Klein paying $150 per appearance for magician John Turdo; and Sen. Greg Ball spending $436 at Hill Country Outfitters in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Golden, a Republican who called taxpayer financing a joke, said he has no problem with stronger enforcement. He buys gas in New Jersey because it's on his way to Albany, 170 miles each way, and the gas is about 30 cents a gallon cheaper, he said.
Klein, a Bronx Democrat who proposed legislation for public financing and stronger enforcement, said he gets requests from civic associations asking if he can pay for a magician or help fund a street fair. One of his staff members dresses up as the Easter bunny, he said.
Little spokesman Dan MacEntee said the Republican senator is not opposed to stronger enforcement and penalties for violations of campaign finance laws, though she's against forcing taxpayers to help fund campaigns. He said the smokehouse gifts were sent to constituents probably including county party chairmen.
Ball recently proposed legislation for term limits, nonpartisan elections and full public disclosure of campaign finances, including candidates' outside income and personal assets, spokesman Joe Bachmeier said. The Hudson Valley Republican, identified in the NYPIRG report as having a record 995 itemized campaign expenses to payees with incomplete addresses, will provide all the necessary information, the spokesman said.
Bigger recent campaign expenses reported included Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos in 2011 spending $52,351 for a fundraiser at the Woodmere Club on Long Island and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spending $35,000 of campaign funds in December for the law firm Stroock, Stroock & Lavan and $30,000 for political strategy firm Berlin Rosen.
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.
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