A beleaguered Brooklyn ex-councilman was slapped Thursday with a whopping $200,000 bill from the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Kendall Stewart, a Brooklyn Democrat who lost his Council seat in 2009 to Jumaane Williams, must repay all of the $136,940 in public funds he received for the race, plus a $60,888 penalty for violating a dozen different rules.
The Board said that Stewart exceeded his spending limit, engaged in illegal coordination by cutting campaign checks from his local political club and failed to respond to post-election audits and requests for information, in addition to several more minor offenses.
“The candidate had to have really ran afoul of the campaign finance laws for such a Draconian penalty,” said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer. “It’s very rare.”
Stewart did not appear at his hearing Thursday, and he did not respond to a message left for him at the Brooklyn office where he works as a podiatrist. A woman who answered the phone said that he was seeing patients.
The ex-councilman was previously fined $1,250 by the city Conflicts of Interest Board for hiring his chief of staff’s daughter, then letting her father supervise her directly.
The same chief of staff and another Stewart aide also pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $200,000 in a City Council “slush fund” scandal in 2009, though Stewart was not charged in the case.
Stewart can appeal both the fines and the public funds repayment.
Typically, candidates pay penalties out of their campaign accounts; if there’s no money left, then the candidate and treasurer can be held personally liable. The Campaign Finance Board’s database currently shows Stewart’s campaign with a negative balance of roughly $30,000.
In this case, the Board absolved the campaign treasurer, Lennox Daniel, of any responsibility to pay the fine, according to its press secretary, Matt Sollars. Instead, it has placed liability solely on Stewart and his campaign.
The fines and repayments could be a big problem for Stewart if he wants to run for office again, since they must be repaid before he receives any more public funding, according to Laurence Laufer, another election lawyer.
And, Laufer added, the Campaign Finance Board hasn’t been shy about placing liens on personal property when candidates don’t pay their bills.
Laufer — who worked on one of Stewart’s campaigns roughly a decade ago, then worked for Williams’ campaign in 2009 — said that Stewart might have been able to mitigate the fines if he had been more responsive to the Campaign Finance Board audit and requests for information.
“What you’re seeing here is the very raw edge of how the audit process works. Often, the CFB will put forward a series or long list of potentially serious concerns that often get knocked down and explained away,” Laufer said. “But if you just blow off the audit process, you’re just stuck with whatever they alleged…plus you get hit with penalties for failing to cooperate.”
Certainly, Stewart’s absence at the hearing Thursday didn’t appear to help his case, as Daniel, the campaign’s sole representative, revealed what appeared to be damaging evidence.
Asked by board member Richard Davis if he could provide any information contradicting the claim of illegal coordination between the Wesley McDonald Holder Democratic Club and the Stewart campaign, Daniel instead said that the club had been paying him.
“That would support the argument that there was coordination,” Davis said. “As you sit here today, you’re not offering any defense to that charge.”
“No,” Daniel responded.