Comptroller John Liu may not be leading his Democratic rivals in the polls, but his mayoral campaign is far ahead of the field in legal fees.
Mr. Liu spent nearly $100,000 on lawyers over the past two months, according to disclosures filed with the city’s Campaign Finance Board this week. That’s as much as triple what other leading Democrats funneled into legal services, the records show.
For months, Mr. Liu has been racking up legal bills resulting from a federal investigation into his fund-raising that found his campaign treasurer and fund-raiser guilty of participating in a straw donor scheme. But even after the trial’s close, Mr. Liu has continued paying lawyers far more than his rivals.
“That’s just weird,” said Doug Forand, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. “It’s not like he has a lot of money to waste.”
But while in his past filings, legal fees for criminal defense attorneys ate into Mr. Liu’s coffers, it is now elections lawyers– often employed to fight off petition challenges–who are draining his funds.
“Maybe he had all sorts of crazy permutations of different petitions of different subgroups, a council candidate here, a borough president candidate there, it just took him a long long time to sort it through,” Mr. Forand speculated of Mr. Liu’s petitions. “He could’ve asked his attorneys to go over them line by line to make sure they’re absolutely pristine.”
But, as it turned out, Mr. Liu did not need any help fending off challenges to his petitions. The 64,000 signatures he turned in were well above the number needed. (And all of the leading Democrats have election lawyers on retainer and paid them more money during the petitioning process to ensure their petitions were clear of mistakes.)
Instead, some suggested that that Mr. Liu may be paying far above the normal rate to ensure he is absolutely in compliance with the city’s campaign finance laws because he is concerned about potentially losing the millions of dollars in matching funds his campaign is relying on. Because of his campaign’s legal troubles, Mr. Liu is not guaranteed to receive the funds from the stringent Campaign Finance Board.
Marty Connor, one of Mr. Liu’s two election lawyers, who received a whopping $60,112 during the latest filing period, declined to comment on the payments. He was helping Mr. Liu refund tainted campaign contributions in May.
“I’m not going to comment on the legal work I do. That’s confidential and privileged,” Mr. Connor told Politicker before hanging up the phone.
Mr. Connor and the Liu campaign’s other election lawyer, Sarah Steiner, specialize in fighting off challengers who want to scrutinize their candidates’ petitions and even launching challenges of their own. Mr. Steiner, who received about $27,000 from the Liu campaign in July, also practices criminal defense law, but confirmed to Politicker the work she did for Mr. Liu only pertained to election law. Like Mr. Connor, she would not comment on specifics.
Democratic sources, however, noted that Mr. Connor and Ms. Steiner do not specialize in ensuring candidates are in compliance with finance laws. According to Mr. Forand, most campaigns hire a separate “compliance” person for that job.
Some speculated that Mr. Liu may be paying far above the normal rate to ensure he is absolutely in compliance with campaign finance law or simply paying off past legal fees.
“My hunch is, without any knowledge, it’s probably for stuff that occurred a year ago,” said one election lawyer speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to the trial of Mr. Liu’s former staffers. “I think there is probably more than meets the eye.”
Update (12:30 AM): Mr. Liu’s campaign responded, calling the explanations in this story “baseless” and claiming the legal expenses were paying off trial invoices and standard retainer rates.
“Should you be at all interested in the facts, be advised that the campaign’s “legal” expenditures over the past two months were either for paying off invoices upon the conclusion of the trial or for Mr. Martin Connor’s standard retainer rates contracted long ago,” a spokesperson said.