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Campaign group still spending McLaughlin’s funds

Although disgraced former state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin is serving a prison sentence for stealing from his campaign, campaign finances records show his re-election committee has remained active and has doled out more than $100,000 since his indictment.

The Committee to Elect Brian McLaughlin has met every filing deadline with the state Board of Elections since McLaughlin abruptly left office in 2006 and has spent $114,586.64 since the former Democratic legislator from Flushing and labor leader was indicted six months later in October 2006.

McLaughlin began serving a 10-year prison sentence in federal prison in North Carolina last month after admitting that he stole more than $2 million from his campaign committee, labor groups and the Electchester Little League.

Former state Sen. Martin Connor (D-Brooklyn) and the committee’s treasurer, A. Joshua Ehrlich, have each received tens of thousands of dollars from McLauglin’s re-election committee since October 2006.

According to campaign finance records, Ehrlich has issued himself $50,500 in funds, including a one-time payment of $20,000 in January 2008 since October 2006, while Connor received $27,650 between December 2007 and January 2008.

Asked what the payments to Connor and himself were for, Ehrlich said “they are legal fees and the other expenses are to maintain the committee. No other activity is planned at this time.”

The campaign committee also paid $8,100 for storage space at St. James Mini-Storage in St. James, N.Y., shortly after McLaughlin was indicted. The campaign reported a $12,051.13 loss on an investment in December 2008.

McLaughlin’s campaign committee still had $728,121.05 remaining in it as of July, records show.

The state Elections Board allows campaign contributions to be given to any lawful purpose, so long as it is campaign-related, according to BOE spokesman John Conklin.

“There is no specific nuance that addresses what happens if a candidate is convicted of stealing from a campaign committee,” Conklin said.

Legislation was passed in the 1990s barring current or former candidates for public office from using public funds for personal use after former state Sen. Linda Winikow (D-Rockland County) was found to be doing just that. But neither the Legislature nor the Board of Elections has acted on the issue any further since, leaving little to govern what can be done with campaign war chests when a candidate leaves office even, as in McLaughlin’s case, they are forced to do so.

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said after her husband Leonard’s death in 1999, she dispersed his campaign committee’s funds across a broad spectrum of recipients, including other campaigns and charities, but was careful not to give any to her own campaign.

She said the upkeep of a committee is “fairly simple,” but she conceded that where money can go after a candidate leaves office is largely unregulated.

“The law is murky,” Stavisky said, before pointing to the change prompted by Winikow. “That’s the only thing that exists. We’ve got to tighten those campaign finance laws. I don’t think that people want to break the law. It’s just that people don’t understand what they can and can’t do.”

DeNora Getachew, director of policy and legislative counsel for the government reform group Citizens Union, said the withdrawals from McLaughlin campaign coffers emphasizes the need for campaign finance reform.

“It’s not something that we’ve looked at specifically, but it does cry out for the kind of scrutiny we’ve called for consistently with campaign finance reform,” Getachew said. “It’s something that raises for us the fact that we feel the Board of Elections does need to do a stricter job of regulating under what circumstances campaign finance money can be used and for what purpose.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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