CHATHAM–Several dozen Columbia County residents gathered at the Chatham Firehouse on Sunday, October 8, to hear the views of three speakers on the ballot initiative Proposal 1 (whether to call for a state constitutional convention) and the organization known as Reclaim New York. The speakers were Courtney Brunelle, political action representative for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees; attorney Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong for All Coalition; and Joyce St. George, leadership trainer and former anticorruption investigator for the state Attorney General’s Office of Criminal Justice. The meeting was sponsored by the SpeakOut Committee of Indivisible Chatham NY.
The speakers were unanimous in their opposition to Proposal 1, arguing that the wealthiest New Yorkers would control the convention and use it to abdicate their responsibilities to the vast majority of citizens.
All three also painted a picture of Reclaim New York as an organization funded by secretive billionaires seeking to gain detailed information on individual New York households and to sow distrust among citizens for their elected representatives, with the goal of significantly decreasing the tax and regulatory burden borne by those billionaires. “We have an insidious problem” with Reclaim New York, said Ms. St. George. “It divides the community and the government.”
According to the Reclaim New York website, the group is a “non-partisan, non-profit organization that empowers citizens, through education and civic engagement, to make New York a better place to live, work and raise a family.” The website emphasizes two initiatives that the group has undertaken: an “affordability project” and a “transparency project.”
The affordability project asks New York citizens if they have “ever wondered just how much government takes from your pocket each year” and provides a calculator, ostensibly to show, “in less than five minutes … just how much New York costs you.”
Using Reclaim’s online affordability calculator involves providing an email address plus more than 25 indicators of demographic profile, income, home value and personal spending.
Reclaim’s transparency project asserts that New York citizens “can’t rely on public officials in Albany to solve New York’s corruption problem,” and that citizens need “to fight corruption with transparency in every school district, village, town, city and county across the state.” Ostensibly to that end, it provides instructions on how to obtain government records through New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). To date, many if not most of these requests have been for copies of the checkbooks of local governments and school boards. The transparency effort also provides a checklist that claims to show “how transparent your city, county, town, village or school district is,” a list of Reclaim New York’s “ethics recommendations,” and the opportunity to request a “Reclaim training.”
Ms. St. George spoke of attending Reclaim training sessions in Albany and other communities around the state, noting that Reclaim presented surveys and statistics that appeared to support the organization’s assertions of New York’s unaffordability, but that the data came without attribution. She also recalled that questions from the audience challenging Reclaim’s uncritical opposition to taxes received hostile and evasive answers.
Reclaim’s transparency project has received much more attention than the affordability effort. It has filed some 2,500 FOIL requests since it was established in 2013. According to Ms. St. George, the fundamental reason why Reclaim filed these requests is to degrade the ability of local governments and school boards to function properly.
“We talked to town clerks. It takes about two and a quarter hours to respond to a simple FOIL request,” she said, noting that Reclaim asserts that only five minutes are required.
Reclaim has sued at least two towns or villages and three school districts in the region, including the Peekskill school district in Putnam County, alleging they failed to comply with FOIL requests seeking expenditure information. In the Peekskill suit, Reclaim alleged the district unlawfully withheld check numbers from checkbook data it provided to Reclaim. The school district argued back that requesting the check numbers was an unwarranted invasion of privacy, citing incidents of another organization using FOIL-obtained check numbers to commit fraud upon vendors and school districts.
In an interview for this article, Reclaim Communications Director Doug Kellogg said that Reclaim has not been particularly active in Columbia County. Asked whether any evidence of governmental waste or malfeasance has been uncovered by any of its FOIL requests, he responded by saying that Reclaim only assists citizens in making the requests. Acting on whatever information they disclose is up to the citizens, he said.
Asked for contact information for a person not affiliated with Reclaim who has benefitted from either the affordability or transparency initiatives, Mr. Kellogg referred this reporter to Paul Cirba of Johnson City in Broome County. Mr. Cirba is a strong advocate for returning more tax dollars and power to local and county governments, and characterized Reclaim’s efforts as “noble but superficial.” He would not say that he has seen any benefit coming from Reclaim’s efforts.
Attorney Kink said that Reclaim New York was established by billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer and former advisor to President Donald Trump, Steven Bannon. Mr. Bannon left the organization in August 2016, but two of Mr. Mercer’s daughters, Rebekah and Jennifer, sit on the organization’s board of directors. The organization has federal tax-exempt status, which allows it to shield from public view the individuals who are responsible for its financial support.
Reclaim’s headquarters in Manhattan are on the same floor as Cambridge Analytica, an information technology company in which Mr. Mercer has invested at least $5 million. According to numerous reports, Cambridge Analytica sweeps up online data and uses that data to target and influence voters in support of causes that benefit Mr. Mercer.
Last fall Mr. Mercer donated $500,000 to a super PAC that supported the candidacy of Congressman John Faso (R-19th). Mr. Kink also noted that John Lange, Rep. Faso’s press secretary, was formerly the Hudson Valley regional director for Reclaim.