NY state Dems accused of ‘shakedown’ over fundraiser invite

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ALBANY — State Senate Democrats are making a list and checking it twice — squeezing lobbyists and other donors to commit to a pricey virtual fundraiser amid a final flurry of legislative deal-making before the Legislature adjourns for the summer, The Post has learned..

And the notice has some invitees describing the fund-raising pitch as an “aggressive” pay to play “shakedown” and a “ransom note.”

“I trust all is well with you. I am looking to let leadership know who will be in attendance at the DSCC Summer e-reception/meeting on June 23rd,” Karen Frankfort, chief financial officer of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee said in the blunt June 2 email to invitees.

“Please RSVP at your earliest convenience. Kindly note that I am also finalizing the details of an in person event in early August.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is a co-host of the “e-summer reception.”
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Frankfort also stated in bold: “Please note that the July 2021 Periodic Filing Cut Off for receipt of contributions is 11:59 p.m., July 11, 2021. Contributions after that will not be reported until January 2022. If you need assistance in facilitating your contributions getting into this filing, please call me at the number below.”

Invitees who received the DSCC solicitation for the Zoom fundraiser were shocked because Frankfort said she would provide a list of the of names of committed contributors to Democratic leadership before the event— Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Deputy Majority Leader and DSCC chairman Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) — sparking pay-to-play allegations.

The invitation
State Senate Democrats are having lobbyists and other donors to commit to a pricey virtual fundraiser.

Stewart Cousins and Gianaris have enormous sway over what bills pass the Senate or items that make it into the state budget.

The DSCC asks for donations ranging from 1,000 to $25,000. The attached invitation to the email shows that the “e-summer reception” is hosted by Stewart-Cousins and Gianaris.

“The timing and language in this solicitation is horrible. It’s almost like a shakedown,” said John Kaehny, head of the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany.

“The awful part is they’re putting this out during a frenzy of legislative deal-making. This is the opposite of what government reforms are looking for from the state Senate.”

For good measure, Kaehny noted the strong-arm pitch comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces multiple investigations over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and related book deal, as well as sexual harassment accusations. The Assembly Judiciary Committee opened an impeachment probe of the governor.

Lobbyists with many clients who have issues before the Legislature slammed the solicitation as out of bounds.

“Fundraisers are all part of the game from January to March. But the problem is the wording in the email [saying] ‘I’m going to give a list to leadership.’ That’s really problematic.”

NYS Senator Mike Gianaris
NYS Senator Mike Gianaris has a lot of sway over what bills pass the Senate.
James Messerschmidt

“You’re essentially leaning on people, letting them know if your name doesn’t appear there, the leader is going to know. You don’t want to seem not supportive, but you can’t send me this ransom note. ..You’re sending me a ransom to either contribute or be on the bad list.”

“It’s unethical. This is a quid pro quo, this is a shakedown. They have either become very brazen because they’re a supermajority,” added the lobbyist, noting that the Democrats control more than two-thirds of the seats in the Senate, a veto-proof majority.

John Kaehny
John Kaehny noted this move comes amid the scandals revolving Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Chad Rachman/New York Post

Another lobbyist said, “It’s more in your face to say it that way. It’s edgy in light of the timing of it in the legislative session. I don’t think I’ve seen that particular line used that ‘we’ll be sharing this with the leadership’…really? Some things don’t need to be said and that’s the kind of thing that gets people in trouble.”

The DSCC admitted the “I am looking to let leadership know” language used in the email about compiling a list of donors was inappropriate.

“Our fundraising staff was simply trying to get the list of RSVPs in order to prepare logistics for this event. The wording was unfortunately awkward and should not have been sent in that manner,” said DSCC executive director Alex Elmasri.

Meanwhile, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee is also getting into the act, holding a $500 to $5,000 in-person fundraiser Tuesday night at the Cornerstone on the Plaza.

Republicans are in the minority and lack the clout of the Democratic majority, who control the flow of legislation in the 63-member chamber.

But a Democratic source called the GOP fundraiser in the capital complex during the final days of the legislation session also “outrageous.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (C) is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (L) and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie (R) while speaking to members of New York state's Electoral College
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie while speaking to members of New York state’s Electoral College.
HANS PENNINK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Watchdog groups have long frowned on the practice that allows state lawmakers to hold dozens of fundraisers while the Legislature is in session, creating a pay to play culture and potential for corruption. The fundraisers are often held just blocks from the state Capitol.

Albany fundraisers depend on big checks from people reliant on government actions: public employee unions, insurers, the real estate industry, health care providers, business interests and not-for-profit groups, as well as lobbyists seeking access for their clients.

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