September 27, 2021

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Cuomo Has $18 Million in Campaign Cash. What Can He Do With It? – The New York Times

6 min read

Even after his resignation takes effect in less than two weeks, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will still control the largest pot of campaign cash in New York politics, an $18 million war chest amassed in apparent preparation for a run at a fourth term next year.

That prospect now seems remote: Mr. Cuomo, accused of sexually harassing nearly a dozen women, announced Tuesday that he would step down as he faced the threat of impeachment and a chorus of calls for his resignation.

But his huge stock of campaign funds — the most money retained by a departing New York politician in recent memory — affords him a range of possibilities, including the chance to attempt an eventual comeback or to play a role in the state’s political life by donating to other candidates.

Mr. Cuomo is far from the first top New York elected official to abruptly leave office. What is remarkable, and has drawn attention in Albany political circles, is the magnitude of money still at his disposal. It is more than 10 times as much as Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is poised to take his place, has in her campaign account.

When Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in 2008 in a prostitution scandal, he had most recently reported $2.9 million in the bank. Eric Schneiderman, the former attorney general, had about $8.5 million in his campaign account when he stepped down in 2018 after several women accused him of assaulting them.

After each official left office, their campaigns reached out to donors and offered to refund contributions. The Schneiderman campaign did so in emails to major donors who contributed large sums in the months before his resignation, according to a person who worked on the effort, and eventually gave back nearly $1.7 million.

The Spitzer campaign did so more broadly, emailing every donor and offering to refund as much of their contributions as possible, a top official on the campaign said. Supporters felt betrayed, the person said, and the refunds were a means of trying to make it up to those who had believed in Mr. Spitzer. By the next filing period, his campaign had returned roughly half its remaining campaign funds.

Mr. Cuomo raised more than $2 million this year, including during a $10,000-a-plate event in late June — while the state attorney general’s investigation was underway — that drew longtime supporters and union leaders.

A person familiar with the governor’s campaign said that so far, there had not been many requests for refunds. The campaign finance director did not respond to requests for comment on refunds or on how Mr. Cuomo intended to use his remaining funds.

State campaign finance rules limit how Mr. Cuomo can spend the money, campaign finance experts said. He cannot use the money, for example, to pay himself or purchase a new car or rent a house once he leaves the governor’s mansion later this month.

Nor can he use the funds to run for federal office or in New York City, where the campaign finance rules are more stringent. When Mr. Spitzer attempted a political comeback in 2013, running for New York City comptroller, he relied on family money. (He lost.)

Mr. Cuomo is permitted to give to nonprofits, provided the groups are registered in New York and he does not have connections to them.

He can also make political donations to candidates or to state and local party organizations and has the means to do so in many races. Such contributions can be a way to buttress like-minded candidates and are usually welcomed, particularly in tight races. But candidates may be wary of accepting money from Mr. Cuomo.

And he is free to spend the money on anything that would be construed as campaign-related. In that, there can be some room for interpretation, campaign finance lawyers said. He could spend it on an effort at rehabilitating his image or even on travel, so long as the activities could be pegged in some way to his past government service or a future campaign for state office.

“The law is not precise when it comes to the use of excess campaign funds,” said Kenneth A. Gross, an expert in campaign finance law. “How they can be used depends on the facts.”

What is clear is that Mr. Cuomo could use the campaign funds to conduct polling or create political ads and test the waters for a comeback.

People driven out of Albany amid scandal or criminal investigation have often turned to their campaign coffers to cover legal fees, though campaign finance attorneys said there were limits to the practice.

Mr. Schneiderman, for example, has had continuing legal issues and has kept paying law firms out of his campaign account, including $200,000 paid in the most recent filing. He has also made large contributions to nonprofit groups from his campaign account, including those focused on gender equity and immigrant rights.

Mr. Cuomo has already used his campaign money to defend himself against legal threats and in the court of public opinion: Rita Glavin, his personal lawyer who spoke before his resignation speech and has regularly appeared on television defending him, received $285,000 for her firm, according to the Cuomo campaign’s most recent filing, which covers a period through early July. She most likely received further payments; new filings are not due until early next year.

More of an open question is whether Mr. Cuomo could use that money to pay for lawyers representing other members of his administration, or to reach settlements with the women who have accused him of harassment — and, in one case, groping — or to defend himself against any possible criminal charges in connection with his personal conduct, campaign finance experts said.

“The law is very complicated on issues that should not be so complicated,” said Laurence D. Laufer, a campaign finance lawyer. “The statute really allows for a broad use of campaign funds for legal expenses that relate to the campaign or to public office or party position.”

Even if he were barred from future office after an impeachment — an unsettled question in Albany — he would not lose access to the funds: He would still be able to make political or charitable donations, campaign finance lawyers said.

And nothing requires Mr. Cuomo, who is 63, to spend the campaign money quickly. He is free to bide his time for as long as he would like. The only time limit is death: After a candidate dies, his or her campaign funds must be distributed within a certain period, campaign finance lawyers said.

“They can make contributions to candidates, they can give to charities or political parties,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a campaign finance attorney. “But mostly they hold on to it.”

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