Meet NYC’s new campaign finance watchdog, arriving amid probe into Mayor Adams’ campaign

The New York City Campaign Finance Board hit a hard reset on its top leadership as attorney Paul S. Ryan took the helm last month facing high-profile challenges from the start following the sudden departure of the previous agency head last year over allegations of mismanagement.

Ryan’s arrival comes at pivotal time for the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which prides itself on being the gold standard for accountability and transparency when it comes to administering money in politics. The agency took a reputational hit last May when Beth Rotman, its executive director at the time, was asked to resign over concerns about her personal expenses and professionalism with agency staff, Gothamist exclusively reported.

As the agency’s new leader, Ryan is now responsible for charting the CFB’s path forward amid mounting concerns over its oversight of campaigns, especially that of Mayor Eric Adams.

“I’ve long considered this to be a model agency administering model laws for the country at a time when democracy in many places is really in crisis,” Ryan said during an interview at his Lower Manhattan office after a week in his new role.

“I like to remind people that this agency is a real asset to democracy here in New York City and most places, most cities, most voters around the United States don’t have an agency like this helping make their elections more open and more transparent,” he said.

Ryan was most recently the deputy executive director of the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, a network of organizations focused on fostering democratic engagement and participation based in Washington, D.C. He’s also held posts with the Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center, which are good government groups focused on election law and campaign finance.

Ryan said he plans to work closely with staff to upgrade technology and improve overall operations.

Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who chairs the Government Operations Committee that oversees the Campaign Finance Board, said he’s hopeful that Ryan can help address recently identified “cracks and loopholes” at the agency.

“It’s been widely reported in the press how Mayor Adams and his campaign operation took advantage of loopholes in the CFB system and we need to fix those areas,” Restler said.

Adams has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has already prosecuted six individuals for a straw donor scheme, where contributors whose donations to Adams’ campaign that were eligible for public matching funds were illegally reimbursed. Three of those individuals have pleaded guilty. The FBI raided the homes of the Adams campaign’s fundraiser and two senior aides, and investigators seized Adams’ phone and iPad last November.

Gothamist reported in January how the CFB flagged hundreds of questionable contributions to the Adams campaign that appeared to be gathered by unidentified intermediaries, and the campaign continued to receive payments from public funds despite outstanding requests for information from the agency.

The agency rules require most intermediaries — also known as bundlers — who help collect and deliver donations to a campaign to be clearly noted in documents filed with the agency so that the public understands who may be trying to influence them.

Ryan would not say what issues Adams’ fundraising raised for him, citing the ongoing investigations.

But when he was asked specifically about the Campaign Finance Board’s rules related to identifying intermediaries, Ryan said the agency was working to assess whether the current requirements are sufficient, leaving the door open to reforms in the future.

“The reason that we care about intermediaries, the reason we care about bundling disclosure here is, in the absence of that transparency, there’s no check on the ability of someone to collect a bunch of checks and then to get access and influence, or at least hope to as a result of that fundraising,” Ryan said.

Restler said he had already spoken with Ryan about how the agency needs to improve its performance. The drawn-out audit process for candidates after their campaigns — which could last months or even years — was high on that list, according to Restler.

Over 600 campaigns filed to run for office in 2021 and around 160 campaigns filed in 2023, according to the agency. But issues at the agency have been compounded by recent changes in the matching program, delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increase in the number of candidates running for office, resulting in delays to complete audits.

At a recent CFB meeting this month, the agency’s board members approved audits for a dozen City Council candidates who ran in 2021, including Restler. But when he and his colleagues ran for re-election in 2023, the CFB had not yet completed any audits of the 2021 Council campaigns due to a backlog of cases.

“That’s not right,” said Restler. “If there was a problem with my 2021 audit, or any candidates 2021 audit, that should inform their eligibility and how the CFB approaches matching funds for that candidate in 2023.”

Unlike other local campaign finance agencies, the CFB audits all campaigns regardless of whether they opt into the public matching funds program, which offers an $8-to-$1 match for eligible contributions.

Ryan’s predecessor pledged to speed up the audit process prior to her departure from the Campaign Finance Board last year. There were 427 outstanding audits of campaigns dating back to 2017 as of last July, according to the agency.

Restler said he is hopeful that Ryan has the management experience to help that agency improve its technology and operations to ensure those audits are done more quickly.

But for some critics of the agency, Ryan faces a nearly insurmountable task of taking over a program that injects more money into politics while also preventing people from abusing the system.

Speaking broadly using the ongoing investigations into the Adams’ campaign as an example, Patrick Jenkins, a Democratic political consultant and frequent critic of the agency, argued that the current matching system incentivizes finding loopholes.

“You have people who feel like in order to keep up with the Joneses, they need to ‘get in on the game’ and they create schemes and plans to get themselves in front of Eric Adams, thinking it would get them influence,” said Jenkins.

He said the matching program amplifies that incentive.

If $1 can turn into $8, Jenkins said, people think that’s eight times the influence. “So I think it puts people in a situation where they are trying to be something they are not,” he added.

“To run it properly, obviously [the agency] needs more staff and resources,” said Jenkins.

Ryan will make his budget request later this spring as part of the executive budget phase and is expected to testify before the City Council in May.

As he looks into the future, Ryan says the agency is bracing for another round of high-volume elections. Many candidates will be eligible to run for re-election in 2025, but term limits kick in and another open season will commence in 2029.

“Every election matters,” said Ryan, noting that 2021, the most recent cycle with high turnover, was a record-breaking year for the number of candidates and amount of public funds distributed. And, he said, “2029 is going to break that record again.”

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