Bill De Blasio And Christine Quinn's Questionable Dance With Donors

09/03/2013 09:13 am ET

NEW YORK -- In 2009, the Brooklyn Academy of Music received $45,000 in taxpayer funds through the city's annual budget thanks to Bill de Blasio, who was then a city council member from Brooklyn. That same year, de Blasio collected $5,699 in campaign contributions from BAM board members.

It was a particularly lucrative year for both parties, but the mutual support between BAM and de Blasio has been reliable through the years. In the city’s 2005 budget, de Blasio secured another $25,000 for BAM through what are known as member items, or earmarks for nonprofit organizations. Since 2007, he's pocketed $8,000 from BAM's staff and trustees, including filmmaker Dan Klores.

As the New York City mayoral Democratic primary enters its final stages, the relationships between the leading candidates and the donors funding their campaigns have come under intensified scrutiny. The flow of money between the two has raised questions as to whether institutions with well-heeled board members have a leg up in the annual scramble for earmarks. It has also caused no shortage of political headaches for those aspiring to take over Gracie Mansion.

A Huffington Post review of campaign finance reports and city budget documents found that the campaign war chests of de Blasio and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, another mayoral candidate, have been padded with donations from individuals tied to nonprofits they've funded.

"It can say different things to different folks. Some say the system is corrupt and that money is corrupting [and] the power of money should be reduced," said Doug Muzzio, Baruch College political science professor. "Others say there doesn't necessarily have to be a prior quid pro quo and that what's happening is normal. It depends on what pair of glasses you're looking at the world through."

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake for member items in the city budget every year. Often, a council member is the best way for a nonprofit to grab a piece of that pie. Council members have the power to submit annual applications to the council speaker in solicitation of funds, and the speaker has final say over how much discretionary spending each member obtains.

The relationship between de Blasio and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy is an example of the type of outcome this system produces. De Blasio was in the council from 2002 to 2009 and locked in at least $170,000 in discretionary spending for the park. Board members and officials from the waterfront park have kicked in $28,650 for his campaigns from his first run for office in 2001 through his run for mayor.

The Prospect Park Alliance's budget netted $235,000 in earmarks from de Blasio while he was a councilman. Members of its present board of directors, including Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy, have doled out $15,325 to de Blasio since 2007.

Though de Blasio has participated in the funding for member items, he's recently lashed out, calling for a ban on them.

De Blasio's campaign did not directly address the data presented by HuffPost, and instead criticized Quinn.

"Speaker Quinn has blocked meaningful reform of the member item process because the current system gives her enormous political power over her colleagues," said de Blasio campaign spokesman Dan Levitan in an email to HuffPost.

Quinn, who's also in the running to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has a long list of donors associated with prominent cultural groups she's also funded.

The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum has scored $98,724 in earmarks from Quinn since the 2009 budget. Its roster of high-powered directors and their spouses have sent $22,850 to her since 2007.

Whitney Museum Chairwoman Brooke Garber Neidich and Vice Chairwoman Laurie Tsich have each given $4,950 to Quinn's mayoral campaign. Since passing the 2011 budget, Quinn has allocated $12,000 to the museum, including $3,000 in the budget adopted in July for "free guided tours and classroom programs for K-12 students," according to the City Council's website.

Records show dozens of examples where campaigns for both de Blasio and Quinn have been financed with smaller contributions from groups they funded. The Daily News reported in July that Quinn received $210,000 from individuals tied to groups netting $3.1 million in the 2014 budget alone.

Quinn's campaign downplayed the hefty contributions and instead touted the work done by the charities she's funded.

“Organizations like the Police Athletic League, Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Community Research Initiative on AIDS are worthy and needy recipients of city support," said spokesman Mike Morey. "If progressives affiliated with these organizations support Chris Quinn, it’s because they know she shares their progressive values.”

It's possible that former board members and staff at organizations that benefited from earmarks from de Blasio and Quinn gave even more money to their campaign accounts. HuffPost's analysis is limited to donors currently affiliated with the nonprofits that received member items.

Moreover, de Blasio and Quinn aren't the only candidates for mayor who have had to deal with allegations that they received paybacks from the very institutions they’ve helped while in public office.

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson is not immune from the appearance of similar conflicts of interest. As the city's chief financial officer through 2009, Thompson managed five pension funds for city employees. The New York Times reported Friday that Thompson received donations and other political benefits from money managers hired to invest portions of the huge pension portfolio for retired teachers, cops and other city workers. (The funds are currently worth $145 billion.)

With the Sept. 10 primary a week away, the leading Democratic candidates have been sniping at each other on a host of issues, including member items.

One of those episodes receiving attention is a controversy dubbed the "slush fund" scandal, which was uncovered in 2008 during Quinn's time as speaker. For years, the council pooled millions of dollars to nonexistent groups early in the budgetary process, and then reassigned the money later to real organizations. Investigators didn't hold Quinn responsible for the longstanding scheme, but former Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook was sentenced in January to five years in prison for stealing public money. Former Manhattan Councilman Miguel Martinez pleaded guilty to charges in 2009 that included steering money to a group that had his sister on its board.

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