The East Hampton Conservators, the political action committee founded by Alec Baldwin to back candidates who are strong on environmental protection, was accused by Republicans this week of violating campaign finance rules by placing ads in direct support of individual candidates.
According to the New York State Board of Elections Web site, political action committees, while “not specifically defined in the New York State Election Law,” can raise money to support candidates or political committees, but are not supposed to make “direct expenditures on behalf of candidates.”
The Conservators are “acting as an arm of the Democratic Party,” Thomas Knobel, the vice chairman of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee, said Tuesday. “They completely disown that, but that’s what they do. They’re pretending they’re not a political committee with a partisan agenda.”
“If some Republican candidate jumped up tomorrow and outdid the Democrats in terms of environmental protection, I have no doubt that they [the Conservators] would hand money to a Republican candidate,” Mr. Baldwin said yesterday. “They’re not anti-Republican.”
The group’s mission, according to its Web site, is “to control development, protect the environment and pure drinking water, and preserve open space and the quality of life through vigilance, public education, and the election of people dedicated to good government.”
“That happens to be a belief typically supported overwhelmingly by Democratic candidates,” Mr. Baldwin said.
“The attempt by the Democratic Party to seize control of the East Hampton Town Board at all costs is being tainted by big money,” the G.O.P. said in a release issued Monday on the heels of a complaint filed with the Board of Elections by Stuart Jones of Springs, a Republican committeeman. In an Oct. 16 letter to that board Mr. Jones charged that the Conservators made “blatant and public expenditures on behalf of candidates,” not only in this election cycle but in 2011.
He pointed to advertisements paid for by the Conservators that champion the Democratic candidates for town supervisor and town board, the most recent published two weeks ago in local papers. The ads proclaimed the Conservators’ backing of Larry Cantwell for supervisor and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Job Potter for the town board, and urged people to “join us in supporting the entire Democratic slate.” The Conservators paid for similar ads two years ago supporting the 2011 Democratic ticket.
Under the apparent rules for PACs, a contribution to a candidate’s campaign committee, Friends of Larry Cantwell for instance, or to a constituted political committee, such as East Hampton Democrats Campaign 2013, would be acceptable, as would an issue-oriented ad not naming a candidate. But an ad that directly states support for particular candidates would not, unless a form is filed stating the specific candidates the PAC is backing.
“It seems bizarre that you could give that same amount of money to the campaign committee and the campaign could run that ad,” Chris Kelley, the chairman of Campaign 2013, said Tuesday.
“Maybe the Board of Elections will make it clearer, because it is a bit cloudy,” Mr. Jones said yesterday of the rules.
Mr. Jones has asked the New York State Board of Elections to investigate the matter “to prevent repetition of the improper actions of this ‘PAC’ that are at best duplicitous, and, at worst, criminal.”
“It may be,” he wrote, “that this group called the East Hampton Conservators is simply a political committee cloaking itself as a PAC. . . .”
Asked why the distinction mattered, Mr. Knobel said a PAC “can receive almost unlimited moneys,” while the contribution limits are considerably less for a political committee and far less for a candidate’s committee. A political action committee is “more innocuous than a political committee,” Mr. Knobel said, and has “more lenient reporting requirements.”
In each election cycle, for example, a political committee must explicitly state which candidates it is supporting. If the Conservators are indeed a political committee, Mr. Knobel said, then the group should operate as such and face the same contribution limits as, say, the East Hampton Town Republican Committee or the East Hampton Democrats. The Republicans want a level playing field, Mr. Knobel said.
The Conservators’ Web site explains that the group engages in education and activism, advocacy, and fund-raising “to support candidates for election to public office who support protecting the environment and quality of life in East Hampton.”
It does so thanks to some deep-pocketed contributors, including a “founders’ circle” of backers who have donated $10,000 or more. In financial disclosure reports to the Board of Elections through early July, Mr. Baldwin was the listed as the Conservators’ largest donor of the year, giving $5,000 in January. The Conservators had not filed a disclosure statement for the period ending in late September.
David Doty, the treasurer for the Conservators, said the Republicans were making much ado about nothing, and that he has “been scrupulous” in filing financial disclosures accurately, stating all receipts and expenditures, while “one candidate for re-election to town board on the Republican line didn’t file for years, and even filed what seem like false statements.”
He was referring to Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who in July at first filed a no-activity report for the first half of the year, but admitted his mistake and filed a detailed disclosure report after it was pointed out that he had run ads in various local papers during that period.
“This is really a hysterical smokescreen covering the lack of willingness of a small group of political operatives to engage in constructive dialogue about the future of the town,” Mr. Doty wrote. It is “the kind of small-minded insider politicking that has led the Republicans of good will in this town to have no candidate for supervisor, even though they have the incumbent majority advantage. It’s a tempest in a teaspoon.”
“This election is about who will reasonably control the ear-splitting airport noise that disturbs not only our town but our neighbors, who will think long and hard about the long-term smart solutions for our beaches, who will get a handle on the out-of-control nightclubs that destroy our quality of life, and who will commit to keeping our water clean,” Mr. Doty wrote.
“I don’t consider it a big issue,” Mr. Jones said yesterday. “It’s either a mistake or an oversight, or they just disregarded the rule or the regulation. I don’t want to get into any kind of a contest with them. I agree with their position on water conservation and saving the harbors.
The Conservators did not file a disclosure statement for the period ending in late September, presumably because they did not raise or spend money between July and the end of September. The next filing deadline for campaign disclosure statements is Friday, and Mr. Doty said he plans to file a form indicating support of specific candidates.
“We are committed to being transparent and doing the right thing. If we need to file a form,” Mr. Doty said, “we will do that of course.”