Corporate PACs Fail to Disclose Cash Behind Attacks in Primary Races

With less than a week left before the primary, two groups boosting moderate Democratic candidates for the state legislature have not submitted disclosures required by campaign finance law.

Sam Mellins   ·   June 22, 2022
A mailer sent by Common Sense New Yorkers attacking State Assembly incumbent candidate Ron Kim | Courtesy of Gabe Tobias

UPDATE: On Wednesday evening, hours after this article was first published, Common Sense New Yorkers and Voters of New York filed disclosure reports with the state Board of Elections detailing their spending and fundraising.

Jeffrey Leb, the treasurer of both PACs, who had not responded to emails, calls and text messages earlier in the day, told New York Focus that the failure to upload the disclosures by the legally mandated deadlines—which in some cases had passed months ago—was an “inadvertent omission.”

An initial review of the disclosures shows the two groups have raised over $1.3 million and spent over $690,000 since January. The three biggest targets of that spending were state Assembly candidates Sarahana Shrestha, Vanessa Agudelo, and Illapa Saritupac, all of whom have been endorsed by the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. The PACs sent four rounds of mailers attacking each of them, at a combined cost of over $180,000.

Much of the groups’ funds comes from corporations and individuals with ties to real estate and finance, including six figure contributions from Joseph Cayre, a real estate developer; Edward Conrad, a former managing director at Bain Capital; and the Extell Development Company, a real estate company.

With less than a week to go before New York’s primary election on June 28, two real estate-backed groups likely spending millions to boost moderate Democrats may be violating campaign finance law by failing to disclose where they’re getting their cash from and how they’re spending it.

The political committees Common Sense New Yorkers and Voters of New York are sponsoring mailers attacking at least seven progressive candidates for state legislature. Both groups are so-called “independent expenditure committees,” a type of political organization that can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, but cannot directly coordinate with the candidates they support.

New York law mandates that independent expenditure committees file reports detailing their spending and fundraising with the state Board of Elections 32 and 11 days before a primary, which neither group has done, according to the Board of Elections’ website as of Wednesday afternoon.

During the month before an election, the committees must also report all expenses over $5,000, and all contributions greater than $1,000, within 24 hours. At other times, that information must be reported on a weekly basis. Despite the recent rash of mailers, Common Sense New Yorkers has not reported any expenditures or contributions since February, and Voters of New York has not disclosed any of its donations or expenditures at all.

That leaves New Yorkers in the dark about enormous sums influencing their elections. The two groups planned to spend a combined $4 million this primary cycle, the New York Post reported in March. And in late February, Common Sense New Yorkers hosted a fundraiser at Casa Cipriani in Lower Manhattan attended by then-Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin and New York City Mayor Eric Adams that raised over $1 million.

Common Sense New Yorkers’ most recent disclosure of donations, filed in January, reflected major support from the real estate and finance industries. Voters of New York’s only filing with the Board of Elections dates from January, when the group said that it had not received any cash or made any expenditures.

In recent weeks, at least seven candidates have been targeted by the mailers, all of whom are running for state Assembly seats in districts in New York City or the surrounding counties. Six of the seven are progressives challenging incumbent Assemblymembers. One is currently an incumbent: Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim. All of the candidates have been endorsed by the progressive Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, or both.

Since the PACs haven’t disclosed their spending, it’s not clear if the mailers violated the $5,000 cap that triggers the disclosure requirement regarding expenditures.

In February, Common Sense New Yorkers disclosed spending $88,000 to boost candidate Nikki Lucas in her successful bid to fill a vacant southeast Brooklyn Assembly seat. The cash paid for four mailers, canvassing, and phone banks, according to disclosures filed with the Board of Elections, helping Lucas to defeat rival candidate Keron Alleyne, who was supported by the Working Families Party.

Each of the rounds of mailers supporting Lucas cost $14,500, according to disclosures from February.

Common Sense New Yorkers has also sent mailers in support of Lucas in recent weeks, who is running for reelection to a full term in the Assembly after winning the special election.

Jeffrey Leb, the treasurer of Common Sense New Yorkers and Voters of New York, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

In 2021, Leb served as treasurer for Common Sense NYC and Voters of NYC, two independent expenditure committees that worked to defeat progressive New York City Council candidates. Much of those groups’ over $3 million combined fundraising haul that year came from the real estate industry, including $1 million from developer Steven Ross, the CEO of Hudson Yards developer Related Companies.

The recent mailers call attention to the candidates’ stated support for reducing police funding, and call the targeted candidates “too extreme” for the areas that they are seeking to represent. Many of the mailers cite tweets by the candidates expressing support for the “defund the police” movement.

Gabe Tobias, a progressive political strategist who is not working for any of the targeted candidates, said that it’s possible that the absence of disclosures reflected a last-minute effort by the groups, during which some required steps fell by the wayside. “The other option is that they intended to break the law because they didn’t want people to know these were coming until the last minute,” he said.

Brooklyn Assembly candidate Samy Nemir Olivares, one of the candidates targeted by the mailers, said that one voter also told him that she received multiple robocalls from Common Sense New Yorkers.

“This just demonstrates that real estate developers and owners are running fear mongering tactics to prevent a candidate that is advocating for housing as a human right to win,” Nemir Olivares said.

Nemir Olivares clarified that he does support reducing police funding and redirecting the cash to increased social services.

The missing disclosures aren’t the first time that a Leb-headed group has played fast and loose with campaign finance laws. In March, the New York City Campaign Finance Board fined two Leb-run PACs a collective $2,750 for failing to disclose donor information.

“If he’s turning around and doing the exact same thing again, it seems that the enforcement mechanism is not enough of a deterrent compared to the value of breaking the laws,” said Robert Galbraith, a researcher at the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative.

The Board of Elections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether failure to disclose the spending behind the mailers violates campaign finance law.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
Also filed in Elections

The recently formed Solidarity PAC has mobilized big finance and real estate to target socialists and the Working Families Party.

New York’s Equal Rights Amendment would enshrine the right to abortion in the state. A judge threw it off the ballot for the fall, but an appeal is expected.

While New York City’s public campaign finance system endures scandals, the state won’t audit the majority of campaigns.

Also filed in New York State

More counties are turning to private corporations to run medical care in jails. The companies have deadly track records.

Rebecca Lamorte was let go by her employer in June, prompting the Assembly Speaker to place an upset call to her boss.

For tenants in the first upstate city to adopt rent stabilization, benefiting from the law’s basic protections is an uphill battle.