Staten Island DA McMahon Bought St. Patrick’s Day Breakfasts With Unspent Campaign Money
Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon at an April 2019 protest against tax fraud. (Steven Ferdman / Shutterstock)
If there’s one place you are sure to spot Staten Island district attorney Michael McMahon outside the Richmond County District Attorney’s office, it’s at Jody’s Club Forest the morning of March 17th. The former member of Congress kicks off each St. Patrick’s Day the same way, spending some green at the annual “Top of the Morning Breakfast” at the West Brighton bar and restaurant.
However, a review of McMahon’s federal campaign filings from the four years after he left Congress indicate the Staten Island Democrat paid for several of those green beer and corned beef-filled mornings with donations left over from his failed 2010 re-election bid. That was an apparent violation of federal campaign finance rules, according to multiple experts consulted by Gothamist.
The events were among the dozens McMahon attended between 2011 and 2014 with tickets paid for by his old campaign. That allowed him to subsidize his social calendar—and remain politically relevant—with former donors’ money.
It appears the cell phone in his pocket for some of those events—as well as a separate $304 restaurant tab for Nucci’s in Tottenville in 2014—was also paid for with leftover donations, two more possible violations of federal laws that prohibit personal use of campaign funds.
“He no longer had a campaign, so it’s hard to see how those campaign expenses are justified,” said Brendan Fischer, Director of Federal Reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) gives former members of Congress six months to wind down their campaign affairs after their last day in office. Leftover funds are to be refunded to donors, transferred to other political committees, or donated to charity.
However, the agency doesn’t actually require candidates to close their accounts, and it pays little attention to spending once elections are over.
“The lack of scrutiny from the FEC has apparently signaled to former officeholders they can use leftover campaign funds for personal use and expect to get away with it,” Fischer added.
Much of McMahon’s post-Congressional campaign spending was on events similar to the “Top of the Morning Breakfast,” a can’t-miss gathering for any Staten Island politician, even though he told a reporter in 2012, “We do not talk politics on this day.”
When ticket purchases can be considered “donations” to IRS-recognized nonprofits, they are typically considered in compliance with FEC rules. But it does not appear McMahon’s St. Patrick’s spending was connected to any established nonprofit.
Federal filings show McMahon’s campaign seldom made any contributions without receiving tickets or a prominent sponsorship in return. Other spending included $100 for tickets to the United Progressive Democratic Club’s annual dinner in 2011, and $450 for tickets to Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun’s annual dinner in 2014.
Asked about the continued spending from the 2010 campaign fund, McMahon’s office directed questions to a spokesperson for his current campaign, who told Gothamist the old account was kept open and active because he was debating a 2012 run at his old Congressional seat: “After considering running again in 2012 and ultimately deciding not to, Congressman McMahon’s campaign account was closed following standard operating procedures and in compliance with the FEC’s requirements and received its close-out letter in 2014.”
However, the spokesperson wouldn’t say why the account was kept open for several more years after that, or provide any specifics about the social events, the $5,800 in cell phone bills, or the St. Patrick’s Day expenses.
McMahon, now 61, never ran another Congressional campaign, only closing the account halfway through 2014 when it ran out of money.
McMahon floated his name ahead of the 2015 special election for his old seat after the candidate who beat him, Republican Michael Grimm, pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion and resigned. However, McMahon opted instead to run for the Richmond County district attorney’s job, an election he won that November and will win again this fall, when he is running unopposed.
The FEC’s lack of oversight on former Congressmembers’ campaign spending is glaring. A previous investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and TEGNA-owned television stations identified more than 100 former lawmakers and presidential candidates who kept “zombie campaigns” alive for decades after their careers and campaigns had died out.
That includes some who resigned amid sexual misconduct scandals, like Florida’s Mark Foley, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars on posh West Palm Beach social events since leaving Congress in 2006, and western New York’s Erik Massa, who paid his wife more than $78,000 in campaign funds after he resigned his seat in 2010.
“If they’re done running for office, they need to close their accounts,” said Beth Rotman, director of money in politics for the national watchdog group Common Cause. “It’s time to change the rules to get rid of the problems [with] patterns of noncompliance and extreme cases of campaigns not winding down.”
When it comes to extreme cases of zombie campaigning, look no further than the grave.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Manton’s campaign kept spending for more than two years after the popular Queens official died in 2006, while it took five years for the campaign of New Jersey’s former U.S. Rep. Donald Payne to stop campaigning after he passed away in 2012.
Other former officeholders were caught spending hundreds of thousands of donors’ dollars on travel, country club dues, and high-end restaurants after leaving office. McMahon only had $27,400 left in the bank after his one term in Washington, but still chose not to follow the lead of most members who close down their accounts soon after leaving the capital.
“Everyone would like to have someone else pay for their cell phone, but he needed to donate the funds” when his campaign was over, Rotman said. “He kept running down his account and only shut it down when he ran out of money…it doesn’t take four years to close an account.”
Elected officials, Rotman continued, “have an obligation to follow the letter and spirit of campaign finance laws, whether they think anyone will come after them or not. The American public deserves better.”
Media coverage of zombie campaigns prompted the FEC this year to start reviewing former officeholders’ campaign spending for the first time. The agency also opened more than 50 inquiries into campaigns that have remained spending for years without a campaign to spend on. But watchdogs say it’s not nearly enough.
“There’s definitely a pattern of former officeholders and candidates using campaign funds for an array of personal uses,” Fischer said, calling on the FEC to clarify vague rules. “Allowing campaign funds to sit in an account for years just invites abuse.”
A bipartisan bill that would prohibit campaigns from spending indefinitely is currently awaiting a hearing in the Committee on House Administration.
As for McMahon, he hasn’t had to raise as much money for his unopposed 2019 election as he did for his contested 2010 Congressional race. He has, however, continued to spend campaign cash at the annual Top of the Morning Breakfast, including a $940 expenditure from his New York state campaign account this past March.