Incumbency has its privileges for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, if recent calls were any indication. Campaign-related press inquiries made to the Betsy 2005 offices in late May and early June were repeatedly referred to Gotbaum’s city office, despite rules prohibiting city staff from conducting campaign activity at work. Her press secretary, Anat Jacobson, coordinated a campaign interview, held during business hours on a city phone line.
Such conduct would seem to violate the city’s Conflict of Interest rules, which prohibit city employees from handling campaign business on city time or with city resources. A request for comment from the public advocate was referred to the campaign. According to Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesperson for Betsy 2005, Jacobson is not part of the campaign. “She is the public advocate’s public spokesperson,” said Sheinkopf. “She doesn’t work for the campaign.”
In the scheme of things, the Gotbaum campaign’s slip is fairly minor. A Wisconsin scandal in 2002, for example, saw the state legislature’s top five officials criminally charged for corruption, including use of staff for campaign purposes. Nonetheless, minor transgressions underscore the difficulty of keeping reelection tasks separate from regular city business, said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government advocacy group. “It can be tough. There needs to be a clear line between the two,” said Leon. Yet clearly separating campaign and public business is important, she explained, because it counters “the huge edge [incumbents] have from the starting point.”
The distinction between candidate and official inevitably blurs during election season, said Sheinkopf. “It is always a question of when matters go to the campaign, and when they go to the public office,” said Sheinkopf. “The public advocate has been very careful about not mixing the two,” he said, adding that generally campaign inquiries are directed to him, while questions concerning “governmental issues” are handled by Jacobson. As for the earlier mix-up, he said, “maybe I was away.”
Still, most candidates seeking upper-level city offices keep the line firm. Spurred by the Gotbaum scenario, City Limits called the city offices of the 15 other candidates registered with the Campaign Finance Board for borough- or citywide offices who already hold public office, seeking comment on campaign matters. Of those, 10 immediately referred reelection inquiries to their respective campaigns. Another five took initial calls before either directing inquiries to the campaign or asking reporters to call after hours or to staffers’ cell phones.
“It can be a gray area,” said Leon. “There’s a lot of interaction between these two sides, but…you want to make sure that taxpayer dollars that are intended for the elected to serve their constituents are not used for campaigns.”