On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the Public Integrity Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office indicted Richard Thomas. Thomas, the mayor of Mount Vernon, New York, faced felony charges of grand larceny and filing false statements resulting from the alleged theft of thousands of dollars from his mayoral campaign committee, Friends of Richard Thomas, for meals, automobile payments, and other personal expenses. While Thomas eventually pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and resigned from office, the prosecutors’ choice to use fraud and theft statutes rather than election law violations as the foundation for their theory of the case calls into question the relevant election law’s usefulness as a tool to mitigate harm at all. As discussed at length in this paper, election law prohibits the use of campaign funds for any personal use except for specifically enumerated exceptions, and such a law seems to speak more directly to Thomas’ actions than general theft. Yet, the pertinent election law statutes are often too vague to conduct effective prosecutions.
This paper will analyze the relevant election law statute in New York governing the personal use of campaign funds. Using the facts of the Thomas prosecution as a case study, this analysis will highlight the vagueness inherent in the statute’s overarching language, multiple exceptions, and rule promulgation mechanism, both in the statute’s original form and after its revision in 2015. After noting the reasons why a more concrete standard may be desirable, the paper will identify multiple possible solutions to the statute’s vagueness issue, including borrowing from other state laws, conforming to a more stringent federal standard, or the institution of a series of new criminal penalties for legislators and political candidates. The paper concludes that the latter option, combined with changes to the existing statute based on federal standards and those of the state of Rhode Island, would be the best method of solving the problems of New York’s law. While facing policy drawbacks and implementation obstacles of its own, this solution seems the most likely to prevent personal use from multiple angles while creating a rigid standard for prosecutors to engage in more effective prosecutions of violators.
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Greenberg, Jeffrey, "Re-Examining the Line Between Personal and Political Campaign Expenditures: Possible Solutions for a Hazy Statutory Framework" (2019). Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (Inactive). 6.