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Haller accuses Dinowitz, Ben Franklin Club, of violating campaign finance laws

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Is Eric Dinowitz's seemingly cozy relationship with the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club politics as usual? Or is it, as one of his opponents in Tuesday's city council special election race claim, a violation of campaign finance law?

Jessica Haller thinks it's wrong, and she has filed a complaint with the New York City Campaign Finance Board charging that both Dinowitz and the longstanding political club are not fully disclosing in-kind contributions and expenditures related to the race to fill Andrew Cohen's former council seat.

"Any political organization in New York City may endorse and financially support a candidate so long as it follows the campaign finance laws and rules," Haller wrote in a March 10 letter to the board.  "Unfortunately, the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club has refused to publicly disclose its finances. This lack of transparency creates a real risk that the organization's bank account — partly financed by the father of its endorsed candidate — is being used illegally as a slush fund to provide tens of thousands of dollars' worth of free services in the form of office space, mass mailings, posters, leaflets, phones, etc., to the Eric Dinowitz for Council campaign in the shadows, and without the knowledge of regulators, voters, or the media."

Haller is attempting to shine some more light on what has been an ongoing discussion for years on the role political groups like the Ben Franklin Club plays in elections, and how much it should be disclosing through public campaign finance filings.

Dinowitz, who received the Ben Franklin Club's endorsement earlier this year, has contributed just under $1,400 to the club last month from his campaign funds of "office rent" and "space usage." The contribution was reported as part of Dinowitz's February campaign filings, and joins a long chorus of campaign contributions made to the Ben Franklin Club over the years. 

In fact, The Riverdale Press has reviewed these publicly disclosed contributions to the Ben Franklin Club, finding that it has received just under $280,000 from political candidates since 2010. A quarter of that has come from Eric Dinowitz's father, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has paid out nearly $65,000 to the club from his campaign coffers over the past decade.

Not far behind is former U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, contributing just over $60,000 since 2010. Former state Sen. Jeff Klein has donated nearly $45,000, while Cohen himself has kicked in nearly $20,000 since he first ran for office in 2013.

Candidate contributions have fallen in recent years, especially after some of the biggest payers were voted out of office and replaced with lawmakers who aren't as friendly with the Ben Franklin Club. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated Klein in 2018, has publicly withdrawn from the club, while U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman — who upset Engel last year — has never had a formal relationship with the club.

Haller claims the Ben Franklin Club has provided far more services to back the younger Dinowitz's city council campaign than the $1,400 cash payment his campaign has reported.

Dinowitz, however, took to social media calling Haller's complaint "another day and another lie."

"Jessica, the CFB rejected this because it's not true," Dinowitz tweeted.

A spokesman for the campaign finance board says the agency doesn't comment on complaints, instead referring a reporter to its procedures on how complaints are handled. The agency "reviews and responds to all complaints," according to that procedure, and if the campaign finance board "determines that the complaint does not merit investigation or is not in substantial compliance' with complaint filing requirements, the board will notify the party complaining its rejection.

A request for comment to Dinowitz's campaign on what he is basing his claims the agency rejected the complaint also is pending return late Thursday.

Haller later told The Press that there were no lies in her complaint.

"The letter is an investigation into possible violations," she said. "That the (Ben Franklin Club) has not disclosed its finances is true. That there is great risk of impropriety is also true. That the relationships are intertwined is well-documented. And true."

Michael Heller, president of the Ben Franklin Club, said he was not aware of the complaint until a reporter shared it with him on Thursday evening.

"Claiming we are a slush fund of tens of thousands of dollars is idiotic and ridiculous," Heller said. "A rental payment has been made to the club, for a specific time frame, for campaign purposes, and that's it. This sounds to me like a move of a failing campaign struggling for an issue."

If the campaign finance board were to investigate, it would give any of the targeted parties 20 days to submit a notarized response — or an even faster response if such a complaint is filed close to an election.

After it completes such an investigation, the board can either require a campaign to "take corrective action," resolve the matter through an audit or "enforcement process," or simply dismiss it.

Although the campaign finance board can't comment on complaints, a move today may indicate where the agency stands on it. The final special election funds were released to four of the six candidates who qualified for them today, totaling nearly $37,000. This last payment is typically held in reserve until near the end of the election cycle, typically to ensure participating campaigns are generally in compliance with campaign laws, one election official told The Press. If there were compliance concerns, those final funds might be withheld.

 Dan Padernacht received the biggest chunk of those dollars, more than $10,000, but Dinowitz also received his full payment due of just over $7,000.

The other candidates in the race haven't had a solid track record with the Ben Franklin Club in recent months. All but Dinowitz pulled out of consideration for the club's endorsement earlier this year when its members decided to indefinitely suspend its own leadership elections while still pushing through with an endorsement. Some of the candidates also took sides during a power struggle in early 2020 that challenged Heller and his Bronx Democrats-backed leadership for control of the club.

Early voting is under way now, with election day itself set for March 23. For more on the special election, click here.

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