Sen. Malcolm Smith spent donor dollars at restaurants, hotels

Sen. Malcolm Smith spent donor dollars at restaurants, hotels
Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) received more than 86,000 votes in November, which was more than enough to secure him another term in office considering the fact he ran unopposed in 2012.

But the lack of competition did not stop the senator from spending more than $100,000 worth of donor’s dollars last year on miscellaneous campaign expenses, including travel, meals and hotel stays, according to state finance records.

Lodging in cities such as Philadelphia and West Palm Beach, Fla., meals at swanky Manhattan restaurants and tens of thousands of dollars spent on airfare are just some of the items that showed up on the political heavyweight’s financial disclosure forms.

In all the categories specified by the state Campaign Finance Board, Smith spent a total of $270,000 throughout the year, with a little more than $6,000 as listed going to printing costs and another $105,000 for professional services.

In the “other” category, the southeast Queens politician spent $110,088 on expenses such as $1,270 billed to the Hilton Hotel in West Palm beach, $175 for a meeting at an Italian restaurant in Tampa and thousands in payments to American Airlines and Jet Blue.

Smith also documented nearly $30,000 in fund-raising expenses, including $23,378 for an annual golf outing at the Cold Springs Country Club in Huntington, L.I.

A spokeswoman for Smith declined to comment on his expenditures beyond the golf outing and a car expense.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens Union, said the state’s campaign-finance program gives candidates a vast amount of leeway when it comes to defining a campaign-related expense.

“Technically, they cannot be used for personal uses. You can use these funds to assist you in the role as an elected official,” he said. “It kind of leaves it up to the discretion of the elected official on what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

The state Board of Elections, Dadey added, spends more time running elections and voting than it does watching over political campaigns, and the whole program is essentially run on the honor system.

“If you take a friend out to dinner, you can claim it as a campaign expense as long as you talk politics, even if it’s really more of a personal nature,” he said.

Bills have been introduced previously to place more restrictions on the use of funds, but Dadey said it would ultimately be up to the lawmakers who may benefit from the lax oversight to approve such measures.

“The state Legislature would have to give the state Board of Elections more teeth,” he said. “This is the problem. The state Legislature is not going to entrust a body that oversees it with more power.”

Smith joined a group of Democrats late last year who entered into a power-sharing agreement with state Senate Republicans, effectively shutting the Democratic Party’s leadership of out Albany’s new coalition government.

The senator was named chairman of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference and has said the calculated move paid off with appointments to highly sought-after committees, such as Banking, Labor and Transportation. He also is the co-chairman of the state’s task force on Superstorm Sandy and had a major hand in New York’s recently enacted firearm-reform laws.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.