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State's sole participant in public campaign finance program admits it's a challenge

Ryan Delaney
Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci is running for the state comptroller position against Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli. (file photo)

The only statewide candidate participating in the pilot public campaign finance program says it’s been slow going. But Republican comptroller candidate Bob Antonacci expects to collect enough individual donors to qualify for the state's matching funds.

Antonacci has to convince 2,000 people to donate small amounts of money to his campaign by September 10, and raise $200,000 from them, in order to qualify for a grant that will give him six times the amount of money he raises by that date.

“It has been tedious at times,” Antonacci admits. “It’s been a lot of work.”

Antonacci, who is currently the Onondaga County Comptroller, plans to tour minor league baseball parks across the state in the next several days as one way to meet voters, and more importantly, potential small money donors.

He won’t say how much he’s raised so far, though a required campaign filing on July 15 showed he had just over $30,000. Antonacci says that if he doesn’t collect enough money to qualify for the matching grants, it will be a colossal failure.

“We will make that mark,” Antonacci vowed.

Antonacci says under the rules he can’t accept donations from corporations, and has had to return some checks from businesses.

The pilot program was created as part of a settlement between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders back in March, as part of an ethics reform package. Critics at the time said the pilot program was designed to fail. It’s limited to the state comptroller’s race, and would use money from the comptroller’s own unclaimed funds account.

The incumbent state comptroller, Democrat Tom DiNapoli, a long-time proponent of public campaign financing, is not participating, and government reform groups say he is right to stay away from what they consider to be a deeply flawed program.

DiNapoli explained his reasons several weeks ago.

“They changed the rules on me and on this race three-and-a-half years into a four-year election cycle,” DiNapoli said. “It really wasn’t done in a fair way.”

The incumbent comptroller predicts that his opponent will face obstacles.

“He has many hurdles that he’s got to go through if he’s going to have access to any of that money,” DiNapoli said.

DiNapoli has set his own self-imposed restriction of $10,000 per corporation, a fraction of the legal limit. Despite those limits, the comptroller had $2.7 million in his campaign fund as of mid-July, an amount he says is enough to get him through November.

The ethics package that produced the pilot public campaign finance program for the state comptroller race also included the shuttering of Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission, which was in the midst of probing possible corruption cases. Cuomo has taken heat for closing down the commission, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is looking into whether Cuomo’s staff meddled with some investigations.

Antonacci, a certified public accountant and an attorney, says DiNapoli should have done more to oversee potential conflicts of interest between political donations and state contracts.

“The state comptroller has the checkbook,” Antonacci said. “Every dollar comes through the state comptroller’s office.”

He says the comptroller has the power to investigate why the former executive director of the Moreland Commission has remained on the state payroll for several months, even though the commission is now out of business.  

DiNapoli has been silent so far about the Moreland controversy, but a spokesman for DiNapoli’s campaign says the comptroller has already been fighting corruption.

“His work has led to 50 arrests and restitution to the taxpayers of over $7 million,” said spokesman Doug Forand, in a statement.