Liu says voluntary limits caused him ‘grief,’ sees softening in Times‘ portrayal of ’nonexistent' donors

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Liu with the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. (Dan Rosenblum)
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In the colorfully decorated basement of the Park Slope United Methodist Church last night, there were children’s names written on paper owls, colorful shoeboxes tucked away in cubbies and the results from a recent contest in which children guessed the number of seeds in a pumpkin. Comptroller John Liu knows this room, and rooms like it, well.

“I remember this room very, very fondly,” the comptroller told 30 members of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. “It was just a little more than about two and a half years ago at this point, where we were all sitting here. Lots of people were standing, watching it rain cats and dogs outside, and trying to get out there without soaking our ankles.”

Liu is currently dealing with a federal investigation into whether he used “straw donors” to get around campaign finance laws. He hasn’t been directly accused of misconduct, but last month’s arrest of campaign bundler Xing Wu Pan has made a media punchline of his status as the city’s financial watchdog, and has done perhaps irreparable damage to his aspiration to run for mayor in 2013.

Over the past two months, Liu has been in quasi-campaign mode, visiting community centers and party functions across the city to shore up support among his base. That’s why Liu, who presumably would have sought the CBID’s endorsement for his 2013 mayoral run, asked to make his first post-scandal return to the club’s December meeting, a holiday potluck, to explain some of the recent controversy.

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“Now, it’s been quite an interesting month for me personally: My name-recognition is through the roof,” Liu said, lightly. “There have been so many different stories and it’s honestly been difficult for me or my folks to keep up with. But in any event, they’re quite challenging. Some of the stories are embarrassing, absolutely embarrassing, but nonetheless they’re not going to distract me from upholding the responsibilities of the comptroller’s office that I have been sworn in to do.”

Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats is a progressive club that began in 1968, born of Democratic opposition to the Vietnam War. Today, their key issues are opposition to corruption throughout the county, hydrofracking upstate and the recent opening of the Success Charter Academy in Carroll Gardens.

Liu is no stranger to the CBID: the club endorsed his candidacy for comptroller in 2009 and he’s attended several of their fund-raisers and functions since then. (In fact, Liu’s appearance at a fundraiser last year is still featured prominently on CBID’s website.

“I know this is a very thoughtful club,” Liu said. “I was put through the ringer when I asked for your endorsement a couple of years ago.”

Lucy Koteen, president of the CBID when it endorsed Liu two years ago, asked Liu how he reconciled the need to have a grip on his fund-raising and the recent details like Pan’s arrest.

“It’s very easy,” Liu said. “I’ve said to the New York Times and I’ll say to anybody who asks me that people suggest, well maybe I’m not involved, I should fire people, I should change the staff. I’ve made it very clear, I always make it clear, that at the end of the day, I’m responsible. I’m not going to throw anybody out the window here. So I’m responsible.

“Does that mean that I’m hands-on, looking at every single thing? No, that doesn’t mean that, and I think one of those reports tries to suggest that I’m there looking at everything. No, I’m not looking at everything, I rely on great staff and I’m very proud of the work that my staff does. But at the end of the day, I am responsible and I remain responsible.”

Liu said Pan thought was trying to help his campaign but instead misled them.

“I feel bad about what happened to Mr. Pan, but as the federal complaint very clearly said he asked the agent, the undercover agent, to lie to my folks, and so it’s something that really certainly didn’t help me and I’ve said this is very embarrassing,” Liu said.

“But did I know anything about it? Absolutely not. And do I know every little thing every one of the 2,200 contributors I have to date? No. But on the other hand, I’m very proud of the work. I stand by the work that my staff does. They work very hard and I don’t believe that they made any mistakes.”

Responding to a question about when the results of an investigation would be released, Liu said the federal investigation forced an end to his internal probe and slowed the release of any information. He also tried to explain why he was taking so long to release the names of his bundlers—the fund-raisers who collect donations on behalf of the campaign and who have been the source of some of his recent headaches.

“There is one area that I have fallen short—and I said that from the get-go—that we have not filled out intermediary information,” said Liu. “We are going to do that. It’s taken longer than I thought. Honestly, I said that we’re going to file an intermediary report shortly but then the federal investigation happened. And just responding and cooperating with all the requests they made from us, that takes precedent over preparing the intermediary report, which we will prepare and which we will submit, but there’s a federal investigation going on.”

Liu then questioned some of the original allegations of campaign irregularities broken by the New York Times.

“As far as some of the other allegations first made in the Times story where they said nonexistent donors [or] donors who didn’t give. In every one of the cases the Times asked me about, we have a copy of a personal check. We have a donor form signed by the donor. I don’t know how nonexistent people get checking accounts nowadays. So these people exist.”

He said he noticed the paper stopped calling the donors “nonexistent” in favor of a term more favorable to Liu.

“Their words are now donors that deny giving, which is quite possible,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how the questions are being put to donors. It’s entirely possible that my donors who I have a copy of a personal check from, who gave me the donation, their checks cleared the banks, but they may have told the person interviewing them from the Times that they didn’t give. That’s entirely possible, but the bottom line is we are careful with our donations and our records.”

John Keefe, a 28-year veteran of the club and former campaign manager for Assemblyman James Brennan, asked Liu about whether the allegations would harm the “fragile flower of public financing,” an issue the group has fought for.

Liu referred to his self-imposed campaign finance limit.

“I’ve always had the spending limit,” Liu said. “In 2013, my goal is to raise enough funds to hit the spending limit. Now unlike in 2009 where I solicited contributions up to the legal maximum, I decided early on for the 2013 cycle that, you know what, I know what I can raise because of my experience in 2009.”

Liu said at the time he was confident he could reach the limit even by voluntarily restricting his contributions to $800 instead of the legal limit of $4,950. But, he seemed to say, the practice caused more problems than it was worth.

“I was looking to do the right thing to reduce the influence of big donors and also to try to get more donors and get more people involved in this process. We tried to get some credit for my decision to do that. We got no credit. In fact the Times took a poke at me last July by saying something like we wouldn’t tell them how much we raised unless they had a story focused on me, which is certainly not the way that had happened.

“And now the $800 limit on campaign contributions that I voluntarily self-imposed is being portrayed by the media as some kind of freaky Chinese thing, which I don’t know exactly how that happened. My contributors are calling me saying, ‘Why did you do the $800? We were perfectly willing to give you much more than that.’ So at this point it’s gotten absolutely nothing but grief for my setting the contribution much lower than the maximum.”

As he thanked the crowd, Chris Owens, a local district leader and former congressional candidate handed Liu an envelope and joked to the audience.

“I just want to give John a question,” he said. “So to save people time, there’s no money in this envelope.”

After Liu left, the CBID got back to business: they voted to support the “living wage” legislation currently being held up the City Council by Speaker Christie Quinn, and and State Senate candidate Andrew Gounardes appealed for help to unseat Marty Golden, the Republican incumbent from Bay Ridge.

At the end of the meeting, Owens reminded the other members of their role in determining Liu’s political fate.

“We are a club that means a lot to this man’s future politically,” Owens said. “And if you have questions, comments, opinions that you didn’t get to share to the comptroller, please email them to me and I will share them to him. I think he needs to hear in raw and unvarnished terms all of our concerns. Because we are the folks who help decide whether or not he gets an opportunity to run for re-election or run for a higher office.”