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By Sarina Trangle

The state has no business repaying political campaigns in the wake of criminal case acquittals, state Sen. Michael Gianaris said.

The Astoria Democrat said he is drafting legislation to prevent New York from having to repeat its recent move in paying a $2.4 million refund to former Sen. Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s dormant war chest and legal fund following his acquittal on federal corruption charges.

“The law provides a requirement that legal fees be reimbursed for the defendant. That’s all well and good if the defendant is paying out of pocket,” Gianaris said. “In this case, we’re raising $2 million of taxpayer dollars to reimburse a campaign committee that hasn’t had any activity other than paying legal fees for the last two years.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office wrote in a memo to the state comptroller OK’ing the payment that the “sorry state of election law” left the government with no choice.

Gianaris’ bill, which was just drafted and has not yet been introduced or assigned a number, would prevent campaign committees and legal funds from receiving reimbursements should state employees charged with an infraction relating to their official duties wind up acquitted or otherwise vindicated.

The legislation would also require that legal defense funds must be spent down before any state money is directed towards reimbursements.

Although prior legislative efforts to curb campaign committees’ paying legal fees have fumbled, Gianaris said Bruno’s payout was “egregious” enough to merit robust support. Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) will carry it in the lower chamber, Gianaris said.

Blair Horner, legislative director for the good government group New York Lawyers for Public Interest, said it was too premature to predict the bill’s success.

“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “He’s right, the issue’s keyed up… But on reform measures, it’s always hard to get anything done because you’re asking the winners of the game to change the rules.”

Although Gianaris blamed prior bills’ fate on Republicans, several Democrats, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an ongoing probe into his handling of an anti-corruption commission, have tapped their campaign coffers to pay for attorneys.

Between 2004 and 2012 nearly $7 million from campaign committees was collectively spent on legal fees, according to an analysis by NYPIRG.

The analysis noted former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s campaign spent $755,000 unsuccessfully fighting a fraud case and former state Sens. Hiram Monserrate, Malcolm Smith and Shirley Huntley had all dipped into their campaign coffers to lawyer up for corruption cases.

And Cuomo has acknowledged using campaign funds to pay for legal representation amid U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s probe of how the governor oversaw an anti-corruption commission.

“There is a difference between what we think is the right policy and what is allowed, and unfortunately right now that is a permissible use. So I’m not going to fault anybody for doing something permissible,” Gianaris said.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle by e-mail at stran‌gle@c‌ngloc‌al.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.

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