15 December 2009

HT City Hall- ACORN

All In The Family Part 4

Behind The Working Families Field Operation: Candidates Pay Salaried WFP Employees As Independent Contractors, In Addition To Data & Field Services

By Edward-Isaac Dovere
WFP_Money_Flow.jpgThe great strength of the Working Families Party is its field operation, an unmatched collection of voter files, experienced operatives and organized per-hour canvassers which even its detractors admit is unmatched in New York City, and increasingly, the whole state.
But this prowess and the people and resources to support these efforts do not come cheap.
In recent years, the Party has used Data & Field Services, its for-profit company, to collect $2.9 million in fees listed on campaign finance records from the Party and candidates, according to city and state campaign finance records. The company was founded in February 2007, according to the incorporation records with the New York Department of State, and is owned by the Working Families Party. Though originally incorporated at the old home address of George Short—the accountant for the Working Families Party, the Working Families Organization and the Progressive America Fund—Data & Field Services is now based in the Working Families headquarters at 2-4 Nevins Street. It also has a listed address in Buffalo at 2495 Main Street, with an attached phone number, (716) 837-0191. Payments for rent at this address and for that phone number both appear on state campaign finance records of the Working Families Party through this year. The phone number rings through to no answer.

Only those identified as Working Families Party priority candidates are allowed to use the company, Working Families Party and Working Families Organization executive director Dan Cantor confirmed in an August interview.
“While DFS provides grassroots campaign services at market value, DFS has not distributed any earnings or profits to any individual or organization and no one has or will ever share in any DFS earnings at any time,” explained Levitan. “There are no shareholders nor has stock been distributed. There are no investors.”
Levitan ignored specific questions about the process outlined in the corporate bylaws of Data & Field Services for the allocation of profits, if and when they are made. However, also in an August interview, Cantor said that the company has yet to make a profit.
“We set it up as a for-profit so that it could make money and then donate the money back, but at the rate we’re going, I’m not sure it ever will,” he said then. “We basically want to break even.”
Seasoned election veterans are unable to name any other political consulting company in New York or elsewhere that is owned by a political party.
The largest single traceable source of funding for the company has been the Party itself, which state campaign finance records show has paid $1.1 million—$950,000 during the 2009 election year alone—to DFS. Most of the money was used for “issue canvassing,” according to the party’s disclosure forms. The money also supported Rep. Scott Murphy in his March special election, as well as candidates for Albany mayor, Syracuse mayor, Greece town supervisor and Suffolk County legislature. None is marked as being for candidates who ran in New York City. No expenditures to Data & Field Services appear on these candidates’ own records.
Different city candidates paid widely different sums, with district attorney candidate Richard Aborn paying the company $126,000 for work only in Manhattan, while citywide public advocate candidate Bill de Blasio paid the company just $143,000, including the $50,000 he paid for the run-off alone. For his abbreviated campaign in the February special election to be Brookhaven town supervisor Mark Lesko spent $169,000 with the company.
In total, de Blasio, Aborn and other city candidates reported spending over $750,000 with Data & Field Services over the last year. Taken together with the money from the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee, Yonkers City Council candidate Virginia Perez, Nassau County Legislator Jeff Toback and Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, nearly $940,000 has been paid into Data & Field Services from Party-endorsed candidates in 2009, with the city candidates drawing on money from treasuries backed by taxpayer-supported matching funds.
This is all on top of the nearly $43,000 that four State Senate candidates paid to the company last year, and the separate $162,000 which the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee reported spending.

According to Cantor, he not only came up with the idea for Data & Field Services, but he remains in a supervisory capacity, with, as of August, an up-to-date, in-depth knowledge of its finances and operations. He is not alone, though: many of the people who work under him through his position as executive director of the Working Families Party and Working Families Organization also work for the company, making them employees of all three. They are all accessible out of the same offices, using the same phone numbers and email address, and those with knowledge of operations say there are no firewalls in place.
“I think it’s fine the way it is,” said Kevin Finnegan, the lawyer who set up Data & Field Services, when asked on the WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show in August if there was a need to change operations. “There doesn’t need to be a firewall.”
According to multiple interviews with the campaign staff and the workers themselves, most people who work with the company, and even the paid canvassers it sends out on the street, are unable to tell the difference between the company and the Party, if they are even aware there is a difference.
The relationship is so close, in fact, that checks written to Data & Field Services have on at least two occasions been cashed by the Working Families Party, according to records and public confirmations by the candidates, who have had those checks refunded and subsequently rewritten to the company.
Party spokesman Dan Levitan said that, “careful records are kept to ensure that WFP, WFO and Data & Field Services each pay their own salary and benefit costs.”
Because of the legal structuring that technically makes Data & Field Services a separate, for-profit entity, the Party has been able to place a corporate privacy shield over most of its political activities.
Larry Mandelker, one of the attorneys representing Data & Field Services in the lawsuit being brought against the company by Randy Mastro, summed things up in Richmond County Supreme Court on Oct. 30 this way: “Yes, we’re affiliated with the WFP,” he said, but “nobody’s saying that we’re a political committee or anything like that—that we have to file reports,” referring to campaign finance disclosures.

But even with Data & Field Services in place, through last year, the Party continued having campaigns pay for canvassers directly out of their own campaign treasuries. Though this staff was recruited, trained and managed by the Party, it is the candidates who were given the bills in a manner which avoids responsibility for payroll taxes, health benefits, worker’s compensation or disability.
In the seven recent State Senate campaigns in which the Party played a heavy role—the special election wins of Craig Johnson and Darrel Aubertine, as well as the regular cycle races by Joe Mesi, Daniel Squadron, Kevin Parker, Brian Foley and Joe Addabbo—1,200 workers were paid a combined $268,000 from the various candidates’ accounts, according to state records.
The revised worker’s compensation law, which was the only major legislative accomplishment of Eliot Spitzer (who was heavily backed by the Party) before he resigned in 2008, draws a very firm line in state law between employees and independent contractors. In its wake, the conditions that must be met for someone to be considered an independent contractor in New York, thus freeing the employer from obligations to pay taxes and provide protections, include: filing self-employment tax returns, maintaining a separate business address, performing work other than the primary work of the businesses, obtaining a liability insurance policy, having recurring business liabilities and obligations, having separate notices of being in business, providing all equipment for the contract and controlling how and for how long the work is done.
Of course, few campaigns anywhere hire people who meet these conditions for get-out-the-vote or canvas work—not many unemployed recent college graduates have their own liability insurance policies when they sign up to knock on doors or hand out flyers in front of supermarkets. But few campaigns or canvassing services have a stable of workers who are pre-trained, show up to work from one end of the state to the other, and are given contracts to sign with clauses covering confidentiality, exclusivity and arbitration. The campaigns that get the help of the Working Families Party do. Here as well, the Party has forged what veteran operatives believe is new ground in political involvement.
In the Foley race, canvassers hired by the Working Families Party were given employment contracts from Foley for Senate, with an authorizing signature line for Foley campaign manager Brian Stedge.
 Foley for Senate Contract
The contract for the canvassers gives them “independent consultant” status, declaring them “responsible for payment of all applicable obligations to state, local and federal governmental agencies, including, but not limited to, income tax, unemployment tax, social security tax, business registration fees, etc.” The work, which was outlined as going on between Oct. 31, 2008 and Nov. 4, 2008, consisted of “street leafleting canvassing; disseminating information on FOLEY FOR SENATE, other visibility activities, compiling and submitting time sheets to a field coordinator on a daily basis.”
Workers were handed a packet entitled, “Guidelines for 2008 G.O.T.V. Operations,” outlining the get out the vote approach.
“Time and time again, the WFP has used an outstanding GOTV operation to overcome improbable odds and defeat an extravagantly funded incumbent opponent,” the document declares at its outset.
Workers were provided with three emergency phone numbers. One is for Sen Onishi, a community organizer at the Party who was paid $460 as an independent contractor for Foley (and is marked on the packet as the specific Foley contact), and $440 as an independent contractor for Johnson. The second is for the Party headquarters. The third number is the cell number for Kristina Andreotta, the Party’s canvas director, who is also an employee of Data & Field Services. The people under contract with and being paid by the Foley campaign were reporting not to Foley staff, but to Working Families Party staff.
 WFP Guidelines Packet
Data & Field Services was not contracted by the Foley or Johnson campaigns, and was paid only small amounts by four State Senate candidates in 2008. The company was, however, paid more by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee last year, but in these cases—which were subject to the laxer restrictions of state, rather than city, campaign finance law—the money was paid directly to and from the Working Families Party.
That packet, as with the contract, appears easily repurposed for any campaign by just by substituting the name at the top. The workers themselves seem to have also been easily repurposed, moving from one campaign to another across great leaps of time and distance, with repeated names showing up throughout all of last year’s Working Families Party priority candidates for State Senate, according to records.
These include:

  • Joe Kenton, a Party employee who this year served as the Data & Field Services contact for Jimmy Van Bramer’s Council campaign in Queens, and who received $460 from the Foley campaign and $550 from the Aubertine campaign;
  • Gregory Walker, an organizer for the Working Families Party in the Staten Island region and the North and South Brooklyn clubs and an authorized Working Families Organization lobbyist, who received $460 as an independent contractor for Foley and $440 working for Johnson;
  • and Renee Murdock, a former New York Working Families employee who went on to be the canvas director for the Connecticut Working Families Party, and received $50 as an independent contractor for Addabbo, $450 from Aubertine and $360 from Johnson.
In the Johnson special election at the outset of 2007, the Party had the benefit of a mid-January $60,000 contribution from the campaign committee of Eliot Spitzer, whose appointment of Michael Balboni to an administration position created the Senate vacancy, and who was deeply involved in the Johnson operation. Spitzer’s check arrived to the Working Families Party at the height of the special election campaign, along with a total of $220,000 in four $55,000 consulting payments to the Party from Johnson’s campaign. The Party answered with $197,000 donated back to Johnson, apparently the product of fundraising that had been earmarked for the candidate.
Nonetheless, the Johnson campaign also racked up bills for $55,000 in wages paid to individual independent contractor workers and to people like Lindsay Farrell, who received $2,600 in one wages payment. Farrell, a former canvas director for the New York Working Families Party, is now the organizing and political director of the Connecticut Working Families Party.

WFP Deputy Director Bill Lipton’s 2004 Assessment Of Campaign Costs

In June 2004, Working Families Party deputy director Bill Lipton filed a declaration of support of the plaintiffs suing over the alleged “virtually insurmountable” burdens faced by Brooklyn Surrogate Court candidate Margarita Lopez Torres.
Lipton, then the political director of the Party, cited what was a tthe time his 14 years of professional experience working on campaigns in New York—including running Tish James’ successful 2003 Brooklyn Council campaign—as the basis for providing expert testimoney to the court about the cost of running a Surrogate Court race.
As explanation for the $1.3 million price tag he put on election enough outsider judicial convention delegates to put someone on the bench who lacked the support of the Brooklyn county organization, Lipton provided a detailed rundown of estimated costs in two exhibits provided to the court with his testimony.
Those costs were: professionals & consultants at $200,000; core staff at $261,000; overhead at $28,300; petitioning operation staff at $165,000; campaign field staff at $300,000; mailing & printed materials at $257,000; and a total primary day/GOTV operation at $109,000.
 Lipton 2004 Testimony “It is important to note,” Lipton wrote then, “that my analysis assumes a rather lean campaign budget in a number of ways.
Though no company in 2009 fully relied on Data & Field Services for it campaign operations, many of the services Lipton outlined in the 2004 document, at 2004 prices, are precisely the ones which the company now provides to candidates. Candidates running borough-wide—as Lopez Torres did—citywide or in Council districts do not appear to have paid Data & Field Services at the same rate for the services they received, such as petitioning. However, they may not have received the same extent of services from Data & Field Services as Lipton had envisioned when projecting the costs.

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