ALBANY—State Senator Ron Stafford has been dead for over four years, but that hasn't stopped his political activities.
Since July 2005, the Committee to Re-Elect Senator Stafford has contributed nearly $60,000 to charities and fellow Republicans including Betty Little, his successor in the North Country-based Senate seat. The committee still has over $50,000 in its coffers available to be spent by Stafford's widow Kay, the president of CMA Consulting Services in Latham, which has been a registered lobbyist in New York since 2007.
Since then, campaign finance filings show the committee gave $12,000 to the Clinton County Republican Committee; $6,800 to Little; $5,000 to support the failed 2006 campaign of Jeanine Pirro; $4,250 to the Republican State Committee; $3,500 to Senator Tom Libous, a Binghamton Republican; $2,509.31 for a "Faso Event" in the fall of 2006; $1,350 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee; $1,000 to Senator Steve Saland, a Hudson Valley Republican; $1,000 to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee; $1,000 to Clinton County Legislator Paul Maroun; $1,000 to Judge Thomas Mercure; $800 to Assemblywoman Janet Duprey; $5,000 to the Empire Leadership Council and $7,750 to various charitable and not-for-profit groups including the American Cancer Society and March of Dimes.
"I've never heard of ghost contributions before, but I guess it applies," said Blair Horner, NYPIRG's chief lobbyist for government reform at the Capitol. "This clearly underscores that there needs to be a law that you have to give the money back."
John Conklin, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said election law says "contributions received by a candidate or committee may be expended for any lawful purpose."
"There's no mention of whether the candidate has to be alive or dead, and the board has never expressed an opinion or policy on the use of the campaign funds post mortem," Conklin said.
It's unclear, once the candidate dies, who controls the fund. Conklin said that "we don't have any specific guidance" on who inherits control of the money, but noted the campaign treasurer is officially liable for and in charge of the actions of a committee.
The listed treasurer for the committee is Bonnie J. Lucas, of Plattsburgh, who was employed by the State Senate in Stafford's office for over 10 years, payroll records show. She is currently a "legislative aid" to Little who, according to the senator, works three days a week doing constituent services in her Plattsburgh office. She said there is no conflict with Lucas serving as treasurer and directing money from Stafford's campaign committee because "Kay Stafford makes those decisions."
"They're not unusual amounts, actually. I had a golf tournament and it was $1,000 for a foursome and I believe she came," Little said. Before his death, Little said that Senator Stafford "had contributed to my campaigns before that, and he had directed those. I believe that Bonnie was the treasurer then."
Both Maroun and Theresa Mercure, the wife of Judge Mercure, are or have been on Little's publicly funded senate staff.
"I've never thought of it as being any kind of a conflict," Little said. "The invitations are not sent to [Lucas]—the invitation went to Kay."
Ms. Stafford has donated herself over the same period, but not nearly as much as the committee. Horner said her control of and use of the committee raised several questions.
"Essentially, a campaign account is being controlled by a lobbying entity," he said. "Normally, the person involved is the retired legislator, not the dead one. In many states, you have to give the money back; New York is not one of them. Not even when you're dead: when you retire. Particularly when you're involved in lobbying."
"CMA is a big recipient of government contracts, and that's what they live for," Horner continued. "They don't make campaign contributions because they're feeling charitable, they do it fatten the bottom line."
CMA deals mostly with information technology contracts from local and state governments, and hired former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno as its CEO after his retirement from the State Senate in 2008. He was indicted by federal prosecutors for depriving the right of the public to "honest services" later that year, but is fighting the charges in court.
Kris Thompson, a spokesman for CMA, said that "the use of the campaign funds is totally appropriate."
"These are the same people Ron supported over the years," he said. "It only stands to reason that he would have continued to do the same."
Chris Keeley, the associate director of Common Cause, said that's a tough case to make four years after Senator Stafford's death.
"If it's four years later, it's arguable that it's being spent for its originally intended purpose. It's that sort of gray area that leads many in the public to be disillusioned by state politics."
He agreed with Horner that campaign accounts should be closed at the departure—by death, resignation or indictment—of a legislator. His group has advocated for similar measures for years, but none have advanced. Albany's power structure rarely rushes to more tightly regulate itself.