All In The Family Part 1
Using The Working Families Organization, The Working Families Draws Uncapped, Unrestricted Money And Lobbies The People It Helps ElectBy Edward-Isaac Dovere
In August, City Hall published an investigative report explaining the operations of the Working Families Party’s for-profit company, Data & Field Services. In early September, after conducting its own review, the New York City Campaign Finance Board officially declared that “DFS exists as an arm of the Working Families Party.” Over the last three months, City Hall has continued the investigation, relying on dozens of interviews with people within and outside the organization, in addition to a review of tax, lobbying and campaign finance records, as well as confidential internal documents.
Following weeks of in-depth inquiries from City Hall, the Working Families Party announced on Nov. 6 that it was hiring the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to conduct a review of its practices, with the effort to be led by Judith Kaye, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
“It has always been our intent to engage in a thorough post-election analysis of our structure,” read an open memo from the Party’s executive director, Dan Cantor, and two of the co-chairs of the executive committee which contained several paragraphs previously provided in answers to City Hall inquiries. “Now that Election Day is behind us, the firm will begin that review and recommend any necessary changes, improvements or modifications that Judge Kaye and her colleagues believe necessary to ensure maximum transparency and continued adherence to the highest legal and ethical standards.”
What follows are the findings of City Hall’s investigation into what few seem to realize: the political party and Data & Field Services are not the only two arms of the Working Families. There are, in fact, four arms: a political party, a for-profit and two different kinds of non-profits, each of which is separate and distinct under the law.
This five-part examination by City Hall into the Working Families Party’s accounting methods and finances has shown that together through these four arms, the Working Families has the benefits of a political party (legitimacy in voters’ minds, ballot line), a non-profit (tax-exemptions, uncapped donation limits and tax deductions) and a for-profit (no disclosure requirements, ability to collect fees backed by taxpayer-supported matching funds from candidates).
Over the last decade, the Working Families Party has become a dominating force in New York politics by using the state’s fusion voting law (one of only a few in the nation) to give candidates a second line to run on and, more importantly, by throwing its weight behind candidates in Democratic primaries all over the state at a time when the state Democratic Party has been suffering.
And never was the Party stronger than in this year’s elections: come inauguration day on Jan. 1, New York City will have a public advocate, city comptroller and almost a fifth of the City Council who owe their seats and their control over city finances and legislation in large part to its efforts.
This has led to a new reality in New York politics: winning the support of the Working Families Party is now arguably the most important step to getting elected, because it has become the key to winning Democratic primaries. The Party offers what many fans call the “progressive Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” a certification in the minds of voters that they are the stand-out candidates, good people who are out to do good.
But in interviews with dozens of politicians, political operatives and seasoned observers of New York politics (most of them Democrats whose political views align largely with the Working Families’), about what has been discovered over the past three months—by way of the City Hall stories, the Campaign Finance Board ruling and the recent lawsuit against Data & Field Services—City Hall has found concerns raised about the Working Families. And, they say, after being presented with the information on tax, lobbying and campaign finance records that were part of this investigation, more concerns were raised.
While standing for ethics in government and campaign finance reform, Working Families has non-profits groups and a for-profit entity that lack donation caps, disclosure requirements (in terms of frequency and detail) and other regulations that political parties face. Leading politicians, political operatives and other experts complain that Party-supported candidates are as a result given an unfair advantage over their rivals. These people, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating the increasingly powerful party and who were wary of speaking on the record about legal issues, believe that what they know of the novel Working Families way of doing business contradicts the reforms the Party and its candidates tend to support.
City Hall has also obtained the organizational rules, a confidential explanatory memo and other materials about the internal Working Families voting process which detail a system of weighting votes based on money for endorsements and nominations. These indicate that the more money a union contributes to the legally separate, non-profit (the Working Families Organization), the more votes the union gets in the Working Families Organization’s New York City Coordinating Council—which multiple interviews, emails from a top party staffer and the Working Families Party’s own press releases identify as the decision making body for the Working Families Party in deciding which candidates to back.
Founded in 1998 by activists and union leaders eager to give labor and left-wing politics a greater voice, the Working Families Party has long advocated for the kind of agenda liberal New Yorkers tend to support: responsible development, worker protections, greening the economy and tax laws that hit the wealthy more than the middle class. Aiming to pull the Democratic Party away from the center, the Party has developed into a political home for many who believe in bettering society and a new kind of politics. Its support has become so desirable that candidates are willing to fill out extensive questionnaires which ask for their stances on nearly every issue, request that the Party gets consultation power on all local development deals and that campaigns pay for mailers promoting the Party.
Then there is the Working Families Organization, founded in 2006 by the top leadership of the Working Families Party. A non-profit with a 501(c)4 designation that gives it tax exemptions usually reserved for social welfare groups, the Working Families Organization is also the lobbyist with the eighth-highest ranking of expenditures last year in the state—and the only one of those that can offer an increasingly powerful ballot line as an incentive for promoting its agenda on specific issues.
Then there is Data & Field Services, the political consulting company founded in 2007 by the Working Families Party. With the results of the 2009 elections, Data & Field Services has one of the best win records in New York among local political consulting companies and, aside from the consulting companies contracted by the Bloomberg campaign, it was also one of the highest billing. The company sells its canvassing, polling, database, voter file and get-out-the-vote services only to the Working Families Party and its favored candidates.
Then there is the Progressive America Fund, a non-profit that has 501(c)3 tax-exempt designation that bars it from any partisan or overtly political activity. The Fund predates the other Working Families entities. One of the Fund’s two main arms is the Center for Working Families, a think tank. The Center provides many of the position papers that are given to candidates looking to get the Working Families Party endorsements. These are also the policy papers which form the foundation of the Working Families Organization’s lobbying efforts. The other main Progressive America Fund project is the National Open Ballot Project, which is geared toward supporting efforts to get cross-endorsement fusion voting legalized elsewhere across the country, and has helped foster nascent Working Families parties in up to 10 other states.
According to tax, campaign finance and other records, all four arms have been based in one office on the third floor of 2-4 Nevins Street in Brooklyn. The three co-chairs of the Working Families Party—Bob Master, Sam Williams and Bertha Lewis—were, along with now-White House political director Patrick Gaspard (a founding board member of the Party), the initial directors of the Working Families Organization, and their ongoing positions give them control over Data & Field Services. They were also, as of 2005, the respective president, secretary and treasurer of the Progressive America Fund. Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Party and of the Organization, oversees Data & Field Services, and is a former board member of the Progressive America Fund. According to records, they are not alone: nearly every person listed as an employee of one of these entities is also listed as an employee of at least one of the others. People who have visited the offices say they see no clear distinctions between desks, resources, staff and leadership.
When asked about this structure, the Working Families Party denies that there is anything wrong with what it is doing, or that its operations are at all unusual.
“It is extremely common that different organizations organized pursuant to different sets of laws co-exist—often in the same space with overlapping staff working closely together in advancing their various missions,” said Party spokesman Dan Levitan.
Among those entities Levitan cited as a prime example of similar overlaps are the environmental groups under the umbrella of the Sierra Club classified as 501 (c)3, 501 (c)4, Political Action Committee and for-profit. But the Sierra Club cannot give anyone a spot on the ballot, as the Working Families Party can. This is what makes the Working Families different from all the other examples Levitan and other Working Families staff presented, which include NARAL and the Brennan Center.
Tax, election law and campaign finance experts in New York, Albany and Washington, though, say the finances and personnel of the Working Families family appear so intertwined as to raise questions about this structure.
Allen Bromberger, a New York City attorney at Perlman Perlman who has spent 20 years specializing in “hybrid” legal structures that incorporate non-profits with other entities, was struck by the details of the Working Families structure.
“I’ve never seen this kind of a set-up before,” he said.
“In order to pass muster at IRS, as far as I’m concerned, all the accounting and the bookkeeping and the allocation of costs would have to be done in a very diligent manner. Even then I think it could still be problematic,” he added. “It may be okay—they may have designed it carefully and put enough safeguards in place—but the primary purpose of the 501(c)4 cannot be to engage in political activities. So if they’re not able to show some substantial non-political activity by the 501(c)4, I think they’ve got a pretty significant problem.”
For all the questions others raise about the Working Families, many candidates who have run on the Working Families Party line remain staunch supporters.
“Let me just say this: I’m a Democrat—I’ve never gotten any help from the state party, ever,” said State Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, who has been endorsed by the Party in each of his races and was a client of Data & Field Services in his contested 2008 primary. “I would not be elected if not for the Working Families Party. They’ve always worked hand-in-hand together. I call the Working Families Party the ‘progressive wing’ of the Democratic Party.”
Were the Working Families just a political party, it would only be able to receive a maximum of $94,200 from each donor under state law. But records show the lobbying entity, the Working Families Organization, gets much more than that each year from a small group of supportive unions, including a $1 million lump sum payment from the United Federation of Teachers in 2008.
The Campaign Finance Board restricts candidates’ donations to political parties ($10,000 for citywide candidates, less for borough-wide and Council candidates) before leveling penalties on the matching funds that are distributed, to make sure city candidates only receive the taxpayer-funded money they need to run. But state and city campaign finance records show that the for-profit entity, Data & Field Services, was able to collect a combined $750,000 from the very candidates the Party endorsed in 2009 alone, the overwhelming majority of it from candidates in the city’s matching funds program.
And by having the Progressive America Fund’s Center for Working Families and a secondary branch called the National Open Ballot Project, the Party is able to promote its policies without the overt tag of partisan politics. It can also 'provide tax deductions for donations that support the research and salaries of the people doing that work.
Each arm taps a different source of money: individual contributions to the Working Families Party, uncapped union donations to the Working Families Organization, candidate treasuries fortified by matching funds to Data & Field Services and foundation grants to the Progressive America Fund.
Without access to the Working Families’ internal financial documents, it is impossible to say to what extent the party may or may not have violated specific rules. And the Party is under no obligation to make its financial documents public, although it may be forced to do so as part of the pending lawsuit brought against Data & Field Services by five Staten Island voters who allege that the company has been providing below market rate services to candidates.
The case, being handled by former Giuliani deputy mayor Randy Mastro, has been dismissed as politically motivated by the Working Families Party.
The lawsuit’s discovery process is aimed at proving that the company is “an audacious scheme to violate the law by using corporate subterfuge to hijack our local election process,” according to the papers filed with the court.
Lawyers are due back in front of the judge on Dec. 2.
Multiple legal experts in New York, Albany and Washington with no formal ties to any political party have been critical as well, citing concerns they believe may involve the IRS, legal authorities and even the State Constitution.
“Money is not supposed to work like this in politics,” said Tom Halper, chair of the Baruch College political science department, when briefed on the Working Families arrangement.
This article outlines five ways in which Working Families operates in distinct and previously little known ways:
- The leadership and almost all of the employees of the Working Families operations are shared between a political party, a 501 (c)3 tax-exempt organization, a 501 (c)4 tax-exempt organization and the for-profit company in an arrangement experts say is unlike anything seen before in the political history of the city, state or country, with employees drawing salaries from several at a time;
- Unions’ voting strength in Working Families candidate endorsements and nominations is directly tied to the amount of money that the unions pay into the Working Families’ legally separate non-profit;
- The Working Families’ lobbying arm, operated by almost entirely the same staff and with the same agenda as the Working Families Party, is officially separate on tax and lobbying filings though even many of the people lobbied by it consistently say they are unaware of the distinction;
- The Party has close connections and does collaborative work with the Progressive America Fund, which both provides the supporting research for Working Families efforts in New York and the organizational help for Working Families parties in at least 10 other states;
- A confederation of Working Families entities across the country are all backed by many of the same unions and ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which also pays some operatives’ salaries. All are assisted and, in some cases, managed by Cantor and other top Party employees in New York, with help and financial assistance from the Working Families Organization and Progressive America Fund back and forth across state lines, as visible on campaign finance and lobbying records.
In multiple responses to questions posed, Working Families staff consistently refuted point-by-point that there is any problematic lack of distinctions.
“Careful records are kept to ensure that WFP, WFO and Data and Field Services each pay their own salary and benefit costs,” Levitan said. “WFO and WFP resources are used only in advance of purposes that comply with the relevant election, tax and non-for-profit corporation law.”
Using The Working Families Organization, The Working Families Draws Uncapped, Unrestricted Money And Lobbies The People It Helps Elect
The Working Families Organization, a tax-exempt 501(c)4, was legally created with a certificate of incorporation filed with the New York Department of State on July 12, 2006. Despite the similarities in the names, this paperwork established the Working Families Organization as a legally separate entity.
That certificate lists four initial directors, starting with now-White House political director Patrick Gaspard, who was then a board member of the Working Families Party. The other three were ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis, Robert Master of the Communications Workers of America and Sam Williams of the United Auto Workers. These three also were and remain the three co-chairs of the Working Families Party.
Kevin Finnegan, who is now the political director for the 1199 Service Employees International Union, but who was then an attorney at Levy Ratner PC, signed the document as the incorporator. Finnegan is also the notary on the official Party rules filed with the Board of Elections and the lawyer who set up Data & Field Services.
The incorporation forms and other documents, like the Organization’s paperwork filed with the IRS, must be made public as a condition of its tax-exempt status. However, the process takes years, meaning that the most recent forms that are completed and available are from 2007.WFO Certificate of Incorporation
Donations began arriving quickly, as can be seen on a “Donations By Deposit” form filed with the New York attorney general’s office. Several went far past the $94,200 annual cap for individual and union donations to which the Party is subject under state campaign finance laws.
Among them was a $150,000 check from George Soros, though the majority of the money came from union donations, including $100,00 from the labor conglomerate UNITE HERE, $190,000 combined from two 1199 Service Employees International Union affiliates and $108,000 combined from three Communications Workers of America affiliates. At the time, Gaspard was the local 1199 Service Employees International Union political director. Master was and still is the local Communications Workers of America legislative and political director.
Meanwhile, in May 2006, Dan Cantor filed paperwork with the New York State Commission on Public Integrity as the Working Families Organization’s executive director authorizing lobbyists to focus on “health care, wage and labor issues.” This was two months before the Organization was incorporated.
Cantor also serves as the executive director of the Party and one of its two “non-voting assistant secretaries” on the rules filed with the state Board of Elections.WFO 2006 Lobbying Letter
Cantor authorized four other people to lobby on behalf of the Organization, including Party deputy director Bill Lipton. Neither Cantor, Lipton, nor any of the others are listed as Organization employees on the tax returns. (The tax returns for 2006 and 2007—the most recent available—list no employees.)
For 2007, the Organization lists a total of roughly $21,000 in compensation and an additional unspecified $200 in expenses on state lobbying forms. New York City lobbying records for 2007 reveal a separate Organization lobbying expense, with the records listing the “targets” as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and the subject of the WFO lobbying listed as “decision making process.”
Bloomberg administration press secretary Stu Loeser said he believed that this was in relation to Department of Education restructuring, but he said he could not point to any specific meetings or contact between Organization staff and the administration.
State records show that the Organization’s 2008 lobbying charges rose to more than $1 million in reported spending to lobby “affordable housing, campaign finance reform, green jobs, clean energy, IDA reform, paid family leave and property tax relief.” This put it as No. 8 on the State Commission on Public Integrity’s list of Clients and Public Corporations Ranked by Total Lobbying Expenses, just behind Goldman Sachs, outpacing the Organization by only about $7,000.
The New York City lobbying database also shows Organization activity throughout 2008, with records listing just Bloomberg as a target. For the work, which is listed as having taken place over the course of the whole year, the lobbyists are listed as receiving a total of $14,000 in compensation for a subject described simply as “resolution.”
Loeser confirmed that there had been some conversations between Working Families employees and senior and legislative staff about the administration’s environmental agenda, but said he believed the lobbying charges in the later periods of the year were related to the term limits extension, which the Party actively opposed.
The Organization records, do not, however, list any Working Families Organization lobbying of the City Council. This is despite the city administrative code that requires disclosures of all efforts costing more than $2,000 aimed at “any attempt to influence … the passage or defeat of any local law or resolution.” Nonetheless, many Council members saw targeted mailings and phone calls come from the Party opposing the extension or had conversations with Cantor about the extension which also included talk of 2009 Working Families Party endorsements. The effort also included two television advertisements—all part of the “It’s Our Decision” effort, (the website now redirects to the Party’s). Though the 60-second spot did not include a notice of who paid for it, the 30-second spot did: the Working Families Party, not the Working Families Organization.However, Working Families Party state campaign finance records list no payments for television commercials at that time.
The Working Families portrayed what they were doing as a “grassroots campaign” of community organizing. But that was not how the Council members involved appear to have understood what was happening. And according to them, they were not even aware of the existence of the Working Families Organization at all.
“The WFO? Never heard of it ‘til you asked,” said Queens Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., who was for weeks undecided about his vote on the term limits extension. “My only dealings with the WFP were during the term limits debate.' They were outside my office constantly, and illegally placed giant posters on my street with some message about calling me up. I may be going out on a limb here, but that sounds like lobbying a Council member to me.”
The 2008 tax returns for the Working Families Organization have just been completed, since it is entitled to a long extension by virtue of its non-profit status. But state campaign finance records already reveal some of the sources of funding: $25,000 from UNITE HERE TIP State and Local Fund and a total of $43,050 split between four donations from the Local 32BJ SEIU NY/NJ American Dream Fund. Federal campaign finance records show an additional $20,000 coming from the Plumbers/Pipefitters Union and $10,000 from the Teamsters. All these unions also funded the party.
The United States Department of Labor database shows several more payments to the Working Families Organization from federal union accounts: $410,000 in total from the Service Employees International Union and $1 million from the United Federation of Teachers. The UFT itself seemed unclear about the distinction between the Party and the Organization—its check was made out to “The Working Families Party Organization.”
These contributions are much more than the Working Families Party would be able to collect under campaign finance law, but this money goes into paying the salaries of the shared staff, funding the operations that serve the same general ends and paying for rent in the shared offices, records show. None of this money, however, is reported as in-kind donations to the Working Families Party.
Campaign finance disclosures also reveal that on Oct. 14, 2008, at the height of the term limits extension debate, the Organization received its only ever reported contribution from an elected official: $50,000 from Queens Assembly Member Michael Gianaris, who before the extension was planning to run for Vallone’s Council seat, with his eye on a bid for Council speaker.
Asked why he had given money specifically to the WFO lobbying operations, Gianaris issued a statement that said: “The Working Families Party has done important work advancing initiatives such as green job creation and environmental protections. I’m happy to support their efforts to promote a progressive agenda in this regard.”
Gianaris declined to address questions of whether he was asked by the Party to write a check to the Organization, why he was the only politician ever to do so, or whether he had been given a sense of how the money would be used.
Of the 24 people in the WFO’s 2009 roster of lobbyists filed with the state, 23 are listed on the Working Families Party website or elsewhere as employees of the Party or the Progressive America Fund’s Center for Working Families. Among the 2009 legislation which involved collaboration between the Working Families entities was the widely-praised Green Jobs/Green Homes bill, which wended its way through the Legislature even amid all the other turmoil. Policy papers produced by the Center for Working Families provided the foundation for the arguments in favor of passage.WFO Lobbying Letter
According to those who were involved in the process, the Working Families Party helped provide the pressure on legislators. And the Working Families Organization was registered as the official lobbyist, listing both the Assembly and Senate bills as specific targets for the Organization. On this bill, as on legislation like the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” there was a 501 (c)3, a political party and a 501 (c)4 working hand in hand, with the same employees, and multiple people unable to tell where one ended and the other began.
And there seems to have been confusion in Albany as well that the Working Families Organization—which is the only Working Families entity legally authorized to lobby state officials—even existed.
One legislative staffer who has worked with the group thought that “Working Families Organization” referred not to the lobbying entity but in general to the group of people functioning under the Working Families banner.
“Lower case ‘o,’ yes,” the staffer said. “Capital ‘O’—not really.”
In mid-October, Gov. David Paterson signed the environmental bill, which provides state money for green retrofits to be performed by community-based groups. As some Senate Republicans pointed out during the floor debate on the bill, those groups might include affiliates of ACORN—of which Bertha Lewis is CEO.Center for Working Families Green Jobs-Green Homes Paper
The Organization reported spending almost twice as much on expenses in 2009 as it did on ”lobbyist compensation.” Of the $154,000 listed with the Commission on Public Integrity, the lion’s share—$133,000—went to Data & Field Services, the for-profit company owned by the Working Families Party.
Another $3,850 was paid in web consulting fees to Bryan Collinsworth, a communications staffer for the Party. Collinsworth also handled press for Party-backed candidates, including losing Queens Council candidate S.J. Jung. Cantor said in an August interview that this work for Jung was part of the candidate’s sizable Data & Field Services contract.
According to its tax returns, the Working Families Organization had $741,000 in the bank during 2006, yet only reported about $19,000 in spending on state lobbying compensation and expenses with the Commission on Public Integrity. The Organization had $658,000 in the bank in 2007, yet only reported a little more than $26,000 on state and city lobbying for that year. The rest of the money is tagged only as “program services.”
The 2006 IRS filings, though, shed some light on how the remaining money was used, listing $248,000 for expenses of payroll and personnel, despite reporting no employees in an earlier question on the form.
There are no listed payments for rent.
Rent expenses do appear on the 2007 filing, with the Organization reporting $89,000 in occupancy costs for that year.
That year, working out of the same offices, the Party’s state account shows just $40,000 in 2007 irregularly timed rent payments to NYOSCI, an unspecified company which has also received rent payments from several ACORN affiliates at the same 2-4 Nevins Street address. NYOSCI is listed on multiple documents as having an address in New Orleans identical to one used by many ACORN entities on incorporation documents.[See sidebar: Among Sporadic WFP Rent Payments, An ACORN-Tied Company And Political Consulting Firm]
Through a spokesman, the owner of the property at 2-4 Nevins Street, ISJ Management, stated that it has no knowledge of, nor has ever received rent payments from, the Working Families Party, the Working Families Organization, Data & Field Services or the Progressive America Fund, explaining that the groups must be subtenants if based in that space. (The owner would not reveal other information about tenants except to confirm that ACORN, based on the second floor and run by Party co-chair Bertha Lewis, is a paying tenant in the building. Lewis said in an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Sept. 18 that ACORN pays money into the Working Families Organization.)
Also new to the expense list for the 2007 Organization returns: $199,000 in “co-employee expenses,” or salary costs split with other organizations.
Dan Levitan, the Party spokesman, said that these costs represent money paid to a payroll company that handles benefits and salaries for the Organization.
While Levitan acknowledged that there are shared employees between the Party, Organization and Data & Field Services, he did not address specific questions about how many people worked for more than one of these, or what percentage of the total number of Working Families employees this represented.
With overlapping staff and offices, very detailed, down-to-the-minute records need to be kept to track the time and resources which go to each entity to make sure there are no funds being intermingled, said Eliot Green, a lawyer who specializes in non-profits and who also chairs the New York City Bar Association’s non-profits committee.
“It should be very clear whenever someone is speaking on behalf of the political party—and this includes any materials or published information—the individual has to be very clear that they’re speaking on behalf of the party,” Green said.
Levitan, the Party spokesman, said that “careful records” do exist to verify the division of everything from salary and benefits costs to rent, based on square footage, though these are not public.
“The allocation method for distributing rent and overhead expenses follows Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and is fully in compliance with all relevant tax laws,” he said.
As for the relationship between the Party and the Organization, Levitan said, “the two organizations work closely together—one focused on electing progressives to office, and the other focused on winning progressive policy reforms.”
With reporting by Sal Gentile. Photo of 2-4 Nevins Street by Andrew Schwartz.