State Sen. Tim Kennedy
State Sen. Tim Kennedy’s campaign committee spent nearly $1.5 million in 2023, a year in which the Buffalo Democrat wasn’t up for re-election.
He spent more last year than he did on his two previous re-election campaigns combined.
He spent nearly four times as much as he did in 2021, the last off-year for state legislators.
And he spent two-thirds of that money — more than $1 million — after word began circulating in July that Kennedy’s political mentor, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, would step down mid-term, opening up a seat that Kennedy would like to fill.
If all that spending was intended to advance Kennedy’s congressional ambitions, then his campaign could run afoul of federal election law, which places far more stringent restrictions on fundraising than New York State does, especially in regard to corporate donors.
Adam Fogel, the senator’s chief of staff, told Investigative Post that none of Kennedy for Senate’s expenditures “were made in service to the congressional campaign.”
“Senator Kennedy’s campaigns for State Senate and Congress have and will continue to operate in strict compliance with state and federal law,” Fogel said.
New York State election law allows a candidate to raise money from corporations and labor unions; federal law does not. Federal law also forbids raising campaign money from federal contractors.
That’s why a candidate can’t simply transfer money from a state-registered campaign account to a federal campaign account. And that’s why a candidate can’t use money from a state-registered campaign account to pay expenses incurred during a campaign for federal office.
Money raised under New York’s campaign finance law just isn’t “clean” enough for the Federal Election Commission, a local Democratic political operative told Investigative Post in 2019, when then Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, a Republican, appeared to be using money from his state campaign committee in a bid for Congress.
Enforcement is stricter at the federal level, too. Running a federal campaign account is “like having the IRS come to your house and examine your books every day,” the operative told Investigative Post. Running a state campaign is like operating with “a desk drawer full of cash,” he said.
Kennedy declared his candidacy for the 26th Congressional District seat in mid-November. The Erie County Democratic Committee endorsed Kennedy for the job earlier this month. Gov. Kathy Hochul will set a date for a special election, most likely in April, once Higgins officially leaves office next week.
The winner of the special election in the heavily Democratic district will finish the remainder of Higgins’s term, which expires Dec. 31. There will be primary elections in June and a general election in November for a full, two-year term.
A fundraising machine
Since first running for state senate in 2010, Kennedy has been a prolific fundraiser. Over 13 years and seven election cycles, he’s raised $8.9 million. He’s spent $7.3 million. As of his last filing with the New York State Board of Elections, his Kennedy for Senate committee had $1.3 million in the bank.
That committee has never spent as much as he did last year, though Kennedy’s name wasn’t on any ballot.
About a third of the money Kennedy for Senate spent last year went toward political donations, mostly to state Democratic political committees. Another third paid for political consultants and polls.
Kennedy’s committee in 2023 gave $133,000 in donations to charities and community groups throughout his state Senate district, which overlaps with the 26th Congressional District.
That’s more than half the total nonpolitical donations Kennedy has made since he first ran for state Senate in 2010, according to state campaign finance records.
Similarly, his spending on campaign consultants last year far outstripped his spending over the previous 13 years. In all previous years, he spent $546,000 on consultants — an average of $42,000 annually. He spent $334,000 on campaign consultants in 2023.
Kennedy for Senate also donated to a host of smaller party committees: $20,259 to the Erie County Democratic Committee, $13,500 to the Niagara County Democratic Party Committee, and $5,250 to the Town of Amherst Democratic Committee. He gave $1,000 apiece to Cheektowaga and Tonawanda Democrats.
Kennedy sent $10,000 to the Democratic Party in Nassau County. Kennedy is engaged in a joint fundraising effort with former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, of Nassau County, who is seeking to return to Congress this year.
Kennedy’s committee donated more than $150,000 to individual candidates for office in Western New York and across the state, ranging in stature from Gov. Kathy Hochul ($5,000) to Orchard Park Town Board candidate Florina Altshiler ($50). He also gave $50 to Erie County Sheriff John Garcia, a Republican.
He gave $10,000 to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. He gave $11,000 to the campaign committee of Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jeremy Zellner, who oversaw Kennedy’s endorsement for the congressional seat earlier this month.
All told, Kennedy for Senate’s political donations in 2023 added up to about $491,000. The committee made $416,000 in such donations over the previous 13 years combined.
On top of that, a new political action committee controlled by Kennedy — Build Back New York, funded primarily by real estate developers — distributed about $85,000 to Democrats running for offices in Western New York and across the state.
The cost of compliance
When Mychajliw, the Republican former county comptroller, appeared to be using state campaign money to fund an undeclared candidacy for Congress in 2019, Investigative Post asked an expert on federal election law about the risks Mychajliw was incurring.
Brian Svoboda, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm Perkins Coie, said Mychajliw could face fines and sanctions if FEC investigators concluded he’d been using state campaign funds to “test the waters” for a Congressional run.
Further, the FEC could compel Mychajliw to reimburse his state campaign account for those expenditures, with money raised by his congressional campaign committee.
Investigative Post asked Svoboda for his take on Kennedy’s recent expenditures. Svoboda declined to comment because he is representing both Kennedy’s state Senate and congressional campaigns “on compliance matters.”
Indeed, Kennedy for Senate paid Perkins Coie $20,000 in 2023 in two installments — one in January, one in November. The second payment is dated two weeks after Kennedy had announced he was running for Congress.
Kennedy paid Hart Research Associates, a Washington, D.C. firm, for polls in February and October. The second payment was made a couple weeks before Kennedy declared his candidacy.
But those polls had nothing to do with the congressional campaign, according to Fogel, Kennedy's chief of staff.
“All 2023 expenditures related to polling were in support of the Senator’s reelection to the State Senate,” Fogel said when asked the subject of the polls.
“Should the congressional campaign choose to purchase assets owned by the Senate campaign, we will do so in consultation with our legal and compliance team.”
Kennedy’s first campaign finance report to the FEC is next Wednesday, Jan. 31.
Attorney Nate McMurray, a former Grand Island town supervisor and three-time candidate for Congress, has said he will join the race to succeed Higgins. Two other aspirants, James Paul Speaker and Mohammed Jahangir Alam, have registered campaign committees with the FEC. Absent a party designation, those candidates need to collect 3,500 valid signatures from registered voters to appear on the special election ballot.
Erie County Republicans have not yet designated their candidate for the April special election, nor endorsed a candidate for the June primary and November general elections.