At least seven businesses with Orange County government contracts have given more than $4,000 to County Executive Steve Neuhaus’ campaign account since he took office in 2014, exceeding a four-year limit county lawmakers set with the so-called Pay-to-Play Law.
The contractors include SecureWatch24, a Manhattan-based company that is installing surveillance cameras and other security equipment in the Government Center as part of a $74 million overhaul and expansion of the complex. Campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections through last week indicate the business has donated $9,000 to Neuhaus’ campaign account in the past 28 months, including $2,500 it gave two weeks ago.
In addition to those donations, Security Design Professionals LLC — a new company that advertises services similar to those of SecureWatch24 and occupies the same office suite in Midtown Manhattan — gave the Neuhaus campaign $3,500 in November.
County officials say none of the companies that donated more than $4,000 had violated the county’s 2013 campaign-finance law.
County lawmakers passed the Pay-to-Play Law to curb the flow of campaign cash from companies pursuing or protecting county contracts, which were among the largest benefactors of Neuhaus’ predecessor, Ed Diana. The law originally allowed such businesses to give the county executive no more than $1,000 a year, but lawmakers changed that after Neuhaus took office to allow up to $4,000 over a four-year term. The restriction applied only to companies that get their contracts without competitive bidding.
County Attorney Langdon Chapman said Monday that SecureWatch24 and other donors classified as “limited liability companies” were exempt from the donation limit because that business form isn’t specifically mentioned in the law. As written, the restriction applies to “an individual, person, firm, corporation, professional corporation, partnership, organization, union or association” that holds a discretionary county contract. The term “limited liability company” was left out of that list.
Under that strict reading of the law, Triad Group LLC, which manages the county’s worker compensation claims, and its president, Victoria Manes, didn’t violate the law by giving Neuhaus $6,900. Nor did Crawford Manor House LLC, which rents the county its Department of Motor Vehicles office space in Middletown and contributed $5,050 to the Neuhaus campaign.
Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany, called the omission of LLCs from the law “a gigantic loophole” that county lawmakers should close, given the prevalence of LLCs. NYPIRG and other good-government groups have been fighting a notorious “LLC loophole” at the state level that has enabled real estate companies and other businesses to funnel virtually unlimited sums into political campaigns through multiple LLCs.
“Often businesses are set up that way,” Haven said of LLCs on Tuesday. “It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s inexpensive. It’s the fastest-growing form of business organization in the state.”
In addition to the LLC argument, Chapman said SecureWatch24 was exempt from the donation limit because the county hired it from a list of companies with state contracts.
Two contractors that have given Neuhaus more than $4,000 avoided violating the law by writing checks in the name of an executive’s spouse.
Atlas Security Services, the Goshen company that provides security guards in county buildings, and company Vice President Scott Perry had made $3,725 in contributions through June 2015, state records show. After that, Perry’s wife, Holly Decker, wrote five checks totaling $4,100 to the Neuhaus campaign over 18 months. The combined total from all three sources is $7,825.
M&R Energy Resources Corp., which helps the county procure natural gas, fuel oil and electricity, wrote five checks totaling $3,150 in 2015 and 2016, but none since April 2016. Earlier this month, Paul Cobuzzi, husband of M&R’s president and CEO, Melissa Cobuzzi, contributed $2,500 to the Neuhaus campaign, bringing the combined total to $5,650.
Another two contractors whose contributions surpassed $4,000 — Argenio Brothers and Armistead Mechanical — were exempt because they got their contracts through a competitive bid.
Not included in the seven businesses that made more than $4,000 in donations was Boyce Excavating, a contractor the Times Herald-Record reported on in 2015. Boyce, a Slate Hill company hired to rebuild the runway at the county airport, is exempt from the county law because it bid for its contract. It has now given Neuhaus $17,450 under three business names.
Legislator Mike Anagnostakis, a Town of Newburgh Republican, proposed the Pay-to-Play Law in 2013 in response to Diana’s heavy contributions from contractors. Neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut both restrict campaign giving by contract holders, but New York and most of its counties haven’t done so. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein proposed campaign finance reforms in May that included limits on contractors’ cash.