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Accusations traded over alleged improper campaign spending practices in governor's race

Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin
Left: Bebeto Matthews/AP
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Right: Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock
Gov. Kathy Hochul (right) and her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin (left).

The state’s Democratic Party is stepping up its complaints about the Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, and allegations that his campaign might have coordinated with two political action committees that have run television ads and are advocating for the candidate.

Zeldin has been more of a presence on TV airwaves in recent weeks. That’s due to increased fundraising over the summer and two PACs, Save Our State NY and Safe Together New York. The PACs have raised over $4 million, a significant portion from billionaire cosmetics heir and conservative activist Ron Lauder.

Under the law, the PACs can raise and spend as much money as they want, but they can’t coordinate with the candidate or their campaign.

State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs said there are some indications that there might have been improper coordination, and the party has filed a complaint with the state’s Board of Elections.

“We’re asking for an investigation into this possible coordination,” Jacobs said. “Our complaint alleges that the Zeldin campaign coordinated with one or more independent expenditure committees, based upon ‘common leadership with knowing and intentional sharing of strategic consultants and information.’”

The “common leadership” accusation comes from reporting in the Albany Times Union, which found that one of the PACs paid Zeldin’s pollster, John McLaughlin, to craft a radio ad critical of Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, who is seeking election to a full term to the post.

The paper also found that New York City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli, who is an unpaid co-chair of Zeldin’s campaign, is also the spokesman for the Save Our State PAC.

Borelli has said his co-chair role with the campaign was purely ceremonial, and he never acted on behalf of it.

But Jacobs said he finds it hard to believe that the two men’s dual roles did not overlap.

“It’s not possible, it’s not feasible,” Jacobs said. “It’s not credible.”

Zeldin, in comments made earlier this month, said he believed that his campaign and the two PACs would outspend Hochul in the final weeks of the campaign.

“I believe that that will continue straight through Election Day,” Zeldin said Oct. 7. “And together, for the last week and a half, our side has been outspending her.”

Zeldin’s campaign said the congressman’s remarks do not mean that he’s been directly talking to anyone at the PACs, saying the groups have publicly reported the amount that they are spending.

Zeldin said investigations should instead focus on pay-to-play allegations that have been made against Hochul. The governor accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the owner of a company, Digital Gadgets, and his relatives. The company then served as a middleman to purchase COVID tests for the state. New York was found to have spent twice as much per test than California did in a similar bulk purchase.

“She had to sell out access,” Zeldin said.

Hochul denies that there’s any link between campaign donations and policy decisions.

“No contribution has ever had an effect on any decision we make,” Hochul said on Sept. 28. “We follow the rules.”

The two campaigns on Thursday also squabbled over debates.

Hochul has accepted just one debate, to be held Oct. 25 by Spectrum News in Manhattan. Zeldin has not yet accepted the invitation to participate in that debate, saying he wants the governor to agree to at least two more debates first, and accusing her of running a Rose Garden campaign.

The Zeldin campaign wrote a letter to Hochul, asking that she agree to another debate in New York City, and one in an upstate location like Buffalo. He said the candidates “owe it to the voters” to have multiple debates.

Hochul’s campaign shot back that it is Zeldin who is “hiding” by not agreeing to the Oct. 25 debate. As a result, there is not yet a debate scheduled where both candidates will participate.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.