Parties Charge Political Motives for Mailings on Rent Positions

New York Times, June 9, 1997

NEW YORK -- Ratcheting up their public relations efforts on rent control, the state's top Republicans and Democrats attacked one another on Sunday over the use of taxpayer money to mail millions of fliers touting their positions on the issue.

Each side angrily charged that the other's mailing -- one sent recently by Gov. George Pataki and the other from several Democratic legislators last month -- was politically motivated and an inappropriate use of public funds. And both sides claimed that their mailings were purely informational and designed to quiet voters' fears over the rent-law standoff. But citing a variety of reasons, neither side on Sunday would disclose how much was spent to mail the fliers.

Meanwhile, in a day full of invective and calls for action, there seemed to be no public movement toward a compromise on the state's rent regulations, which will expire on Sunday unless a bill is passed to replace them.

Standing with an array of Democratic officials on Sunday, the state comptroller, H. Carl McCall, said Pataki's mailing late last week to most of New York City's more than one million rent-regulated apartments was designed to bolster his image with voters who might blame him if the laws expire.

As such, McCall said, the mailing should be considered a campaign advertisement and should have been paid for with campaign funds.

"I understand this was done at the taxpayer's expense," McCall said. "And if that's the case, I'm going to make every effort to get our money back. Taxpayers should not be paying for propaganda."

Zenia Mucha, the governor's communications director, angrily denied that the flier was an early message to voters before next years' gubernatorial election. "If they so much as whisper that this was a campaign document then these people are the ultimate hypocrites," said Ms. Mucha of Assembly Democrats.

She said Pataki's flier -- headlined "Governor Pataki's Plan Will Protect New York Renters -- was part of his "obligation to let the people know where he stands," especially after a mailing by Democratic Assembly members from the New York area last month, which she said was designed solely to "embarrass the Governor." That mailing was also paid for with public funds, from the Assembly's so-called printing and mailing allocation, which allows each Assembly member a certain amount of money for communications with constituents.

Pat Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, argued that the mailing, by 14 legislators to about 120,000 households, was much more limited than the Governor's and was in keeping with the intentions of the Assembly's franking privileges.

"It was within their districts," she said. "It becomes a different story when you're going outside your district and doing something this large."

Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said that the party's lawyers were examining the governor's flier, but had not formulated a legal opinion by Sunday. He said the party considered the flier "at a minimum, incredibly inappropriate and possibly illegal."

There are no laws that prevent state officials from sending mailings at public expense to promote one side of an issue, as long as the mailings are not overtly partisan.

For her part, Ms. Mucha said that the fliers sent by different Assembly members were all the same, except for the names of the senders and their district numbers. She called assertions that they were the initiatives of individual Assembly members "an outright lie."

"This was a concerted mailing," she said.

Throughout the day, both sides sidestepped questions about exactly how many taxpayer dollars were used.

Ms. Mucha claimed that the governor's mailing cost one-eighth of the Assembly's, but she declined to say how much that was.

Asked how she knew what the Assembly spent for its mailing, she said simply, "Because I know."

Ms. Lynch said the Assembly would release the amount spent but was unable to do so on a Sunday. "I just can't locate the appropriate personnel."