How to Dump Dark Money in New York Elections — And Get Away With It

A “ghost entity” linked to Tom Suozzi spent $2 million attacking Kathy Hochul. Then the Board of Elections started an investigation, and it disappeared.

Chris Bragg   ·   January 8, 2024
Under federal law, dark money groups can keep their donors private. New York law is supposed to protect against this opacity. | Joe Shlabotnik via flickr

To anonymously spend millions in New York elections, all you need is some creative paperwork, out-of-state consultants, and a delete button.

Last year, New York’s top election law enforcement official investigated whether the nonprofit Empire Results violated state law by failing to disclose the donors behind $2 million on ads attacking Governor Kathy Hochul during the 2022 primary. The state Board of Elections later closed the investigation — but not because the allegations lacked merit.

Instead, Board of Elections Enforcement Counsel Michael L. Johnson found his office lacked the teeth to tear into the consultants’ sophisticated operation. As the 2024 state elections loom, Empire Results’ methods could provide a roadmap for future entities seeking to keep their donors anonymous.

Empire Results, which publicly surfaced during the 2022 primary and has consultants based in Washington, DC, blanketed the airwaves with television ads questioning Hochul’s ethics and painting her as soft on crime. The attacks mirrored those launched by her Democratic primary competitor, Tom Suozzi, who is now gunning for his former congressional seat, recently vacated by Republican George Santos. Though he was not employed by Suozzi in 2022, Empire Results’ president, Martin Hamburger, had previously worked for Suozzi campaigns dating back decades.

Then, after Hochul ally and state Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs filed a complaint, the group disappeared.

According to Sarah Steiner, a New York City-based election lawyer, Empire Results may have created a “disturbing” blueprint “to form a ghost entity.”

The group never registered with the Board of Elections, and it said at the time that it did not need to: While New York Law requires donors spending to influence state-level campaigns to register as “independent expenditure” committees, the group said its ads were not “explicitly advocating” for or against Hochul’s election, so they did not fall under that mandate.

Former Congressman Tom Suozzi speaks at a special recognition ceremony at Harlem Regiment Armory, N.Y., April 8, 2021. | (Sargeant Sebastian Rothwyn / U.S. Army National Guard)

Enabled by US Supreme Court decisions that allow uncapped spending by outside groups, wealthy individuals and organizations have flooded New York elections with attack ads over the past decade. Under federal law, many groups don’t have to disclose their donors to the public. New York’s independent expenditure law is supposed to protect against this opacity.

Hamburger, the Empire Results president, declined to comment. In the past, Empire Results has maintained that its methods are completely legal.

Jacobs disagreed. He filed an election law complaint against Empire Results in March 2022, arguing that the group’s television ads attacking Hochul, particularly those portraying her as soft on crime, fell squarely within the Board’s definition of an independent expenditure.

When Johnson later issued his letter closing the investigation, he didn’t find anything wrong with Jacobs’s legal interpretation. Instead, he described his office’s failed efforts to learn more about the group, which he attributed to a lack of available evidence and jurisdictional issues. No further action would be taken, he wrote.

It isn’t the first time Johnson has given dark money groups a pass. New York Focus reported in 2022 that his office had taken no action for three years against the thousands of political campaigns and corporate donors that had violated a key disclosure requirement. After a series of New York Focus reports, Johnson began enforcing the law, leading more than 2,500 corporate donors to identify their owners.

When he closed the Empire Results investigation, Johnson noted that after Jacobs filed his complaint, Empire Results erased its internet presence, including its website and Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. Though Johnson’s office did find archived versions of the group’s website, they contained little information beyond a mission statement explaining that the group was dedicated to government “ethics and transparency” and fighting rising crime.

Johnson’s office could not locate any entity called “Empire Results” in the IRS’s online registry of tax-exempt organizations, nor any entity with a similar name. The office did not find any record of the group’s existence within the state attorney general’s charities registry, nor the New York Department of State’s registry for business entities.

Empire Results has said it’s a 501(c)4 social welfare-focused nonprofit. Some elections experts see such nonprofits as a loophole created by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Because they generally don’t have to publicly disclose their donors on the IRS website, they’ve become a popular vehicle for anonymous federal election spending.

The group left even less of a paper trail.

Archived screenshots from the Empire Results website, accessed via Wayback Machine.

For many 501(c)4s, the entity name appears in the IRS’s registry of tax-exempt organizations. Such groups often file annual reports that become public, which contain information about corporate officers and spending. They’re often created as corporations, leaving a public record in the state where they were formed.

No such records appear to exist for Empire Results, which has never filed a publicly available tax return. A spokeswoman for Empire Results told the Albany Times Union in 2022 that was because this 501(c)4 was not a corporate entity, but an “unincorporated non-profit organization,” or a group of people that band together for a specific, non-profit purpose.

“It will probably not ever be ‘listed’ on the IRS’s website because the IRS only lists 501(c)4 organizations that file a form 1024 application for recognition of status as a 501(c)4 on the IRS’s master business list,” the spokeswoman for Empire Results, Lily Goldman, said in 2022. “The 1024 is a voluntary form. Not required at all. Empire Results has filed all necessary paperwork with the IRS. There is a form 8976 that has to be filed by c4s, and it has been, but it isn’t public.”

An IRS spokeswoman said she could not answer specific questions about Empire Results.

Steiner, the New York City-based election lawyer, said she’d never heard of an “unincorporated” 501c(4) spending in an election.

As of 2022, all of Empire Results’ known consultants were based in Washington, DC. Jim Lamb, a DC-based election lawyer, was listed as a mailing address contact for the group in a document filed with the Federal Communications Commission. Lamb in the past has worked for high-profile outside spending groups, including a federal super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy.

Hamburger was listed as Empire Results’ president in paperwork filed with the FCC, and the group’s treasurer was Janica Kyriacopoulos, a federal campaign compliance consultant.

While Hamburger regularly worked for Suozzi campaigns between 2001 and late 2020, he was not paid by Suozzi’s 2022 campaign committee for governor.

In his dismissal letter, Johnson noted the consultants were based in DC and said his investigation was restrained “due to the jurisdictional limitations of the New York State Election Law.” Johnson did not respond to New York Focus’s questions.

Steiner said it’s possible Johnson referred this matter to a federal enforcement entity that might have jurisdiction. One issue for federal investigation, Steiner said, could be Empire Results’ tax status: Under federal rules, a 501(c)4 must spend less than half its funding on political activity and broader “social welfare” interests must be its primary purpose. (For its part, Empire Results has said its television commercials did not legally qualify as “political” ads.)

Steiner said New York lawmakers could explore reforms shedding more light on groups like Empire Results, though it’s far from clear to her that the group operated in a legal manner.

“There’s nothing to convince me this one wasn’t 100 percent political activity,” Steiner said. “There’s no indication that the spending was within the appropriate limits.”

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
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