On one of the few political battlefields where a Republican has a fighter’s chance at winning a seat in City Council, first-time candidate Pasqualino “Pat” Russo seems to have done everything possible to push Dem fixture Vincent Gentile out of his post in Brooklyn’s District 43, spending a whopping $150,000 so far.
But as Election Day nears, Gentile’s camp now charges that a hefty chunk of Russo’s fiscal firepower—just over $20,000 in public matching funds—was raised in violation of the city’s campaign finance laws.
“That money needs to be returned,” said Gentile’s campaign manager, George Fontas. He asserts that Russo, who works as counsel for the state’s Welfare Inspector General, didn’t have an opponent in the primary race and therefore should not have spent the public funds.
The district, which covers Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights, has a strong Democratic base, but has also voted Republicans into office, often in nail-biting match-ups like Russo vs. Gentile.
In an October 22 letter to Russo’s attorney Douglas Dunbar—and conveniently carbon-copied to the Campaign Finance Board (CFB)—Gentile’s attorney, Thomas Garry, who serves as Democratic counsel to the election board, called Russo’s acceptance of funds an “abusive” attempt to “circumvent” the campaign finance code.
Apparently, the CFB is taking the claim seriously. The city’s campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from spending matching funds if an opponent is removed from the ballot. “There is a rule and candidates should know about it,” said spokesperson Greg Bensinger. The issue may boil down to timing. When Russo received his check from the CFB on August 4, a primary with Marcera was still a possibility. The next day, August 5, a judge ruled that Marcera’s petition was incomplete.
Russo campaign chief, Jerry Kassar, who chairs Brooklyn’s Conservative party, says Gentile’s appeal to the CFB is nothing more than a desperate attempt to gain footing in a close race. “This is Hail Mary politics,” he said, pointing out that it was Gentile’s legal team who forced Russo’s primary opponent off the ballot.
The opponent, Stephen Marcera, a financial planner and accountant, was only able to muster 904 petition signatures for the primary—just four above the minimum. In court, Gentile’s camp claimed that Marcera was a patsy, propped by the Republican party to stage a fixed primary to win matching funds for Russo.
The two have known each other since high school, Marcera said, but he denied taking a dive for Russo. Besides, he said, if the party had wanted a primary race, it would have helped him get signatures. “They chose him,” he said. “Not me.”