Common Sense Principles, which is based at a Virginia post office box, reported the spending to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is charged with overseeing entities who lobby government. Records filed this week show the group paid $100,000 to Chris LaCivita for nine months of work, as well as $953,297 on mail and Internet advertising beginning last August.
While the mailers depicted candidates and appeared as campaign materials, CSP's decision to disclose them as lobbying means no information was released until after the election. Good-government groups say this is an exploitation of a loophole in state law, and Democrats said it points up the need to tighten state law.
"It does not pass the straight-face test to suggest what Common Sense Principles was doing was not campaigning," said Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "Their activity last year mocked the spirit of our campaign finance laws. It's no surprise that Senate Republicans are the biggest obstacles to reform, given that they're the worst abusers of the current system."
The mail advertisements targeted vulnerable Democratic incumbents and challengers, including victorious Sens. Ted O'Brien, George Latimer and Joe Addabbo as well as unsuccessful candidate Ricardo Montano. Because CSP's activities were not coordinated with any candidate, its "independent expenditure" only needs to be treated as election advertising if it specifically urges someone to vote for or against a candidate, according to a definition recently adopted by the State Board of Elections.
CSP's lobbying filing does not list any specific legislation the group focused on, just that it was lobbying about "limited government, lower taxes, less government regulations, free markets, constitutional freedoms, a strong national defense, government ethics and education."
The phone number the group provided on the filing was for the Warrenton, Va., law firm of Holtzman, Vogel & Josefiak. A receptionist there was unaware of Common Sense Principles. LaCivita did not return a call.
It's unclear who, exactly, funds the group. It is registered as a 501(c)-4 non-profit organization, whose donors have hitherto been kept private under New York law. A proposal by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would require any 501(c)-4 with strong New York ties to disclose political spending over $10,000, but the regulation is under review.
A 2011 law requiring 501(c)-4 groups that spend more than $10,000 on lobbying to disclose their donors is just taking effect. JCOPE officials said earlier this week at a meeting that forms have been filed covering the last six months of 2012, and will be soon posted on its website.
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