Political experts are raising questions about the legality of Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s use of his campaign funds, specifically the tens of thousands of dollars he has donated to an organization managed by his wife. For his part, though, the veteran assemblyman insists he has been in full compliance with the law.
Hikind regularly takes large portions of the money he has accumulated in his campaign coffers – a total of $1.1 million at present – and doles them out to a variety of organizations that he feels are of benefit to his community. In general, Hikind’s actions in this regard are legal under New York State’s loosely defined election laws. Nevertheless, according to knowledgeable observers, the popular politician could be running afoul of the law due to the fact that his wife Shani serves as executive vice-president of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, to which – along with two inter-related groups, Jerusalem Chai and Jerusalem Reclamation Project – Hikind has donated nearly $43,000 since 1999.
John Conklin, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections, said that legislators are not allowed to make donations from their official funds to non-profits “controlled” by their relatives. “Contributions to charities are a clearly approved use of campaign funds – unless that charity is controlled by a relative of the candidate,” Conklin noted. The spokesman cited a 1997 New York State Board of Elections advisory opinion stating that if an elected official directs money to charity, the official would be in violation of the law if a family member on staff at the recipient charity organization exercises “control over the disposition of the funds.”
According to Ateret Cohanim’s tax returns for 2011, Susan (Shani) Hikind is the organization’s highest ranking paid employee, officially serving as one of its two “officers.” But Yehudah Meth, a spokesman for Dov Hikind, clarified that Mrs. Hikind did not actually control the non-profit’s spending, even though she manages its daily operations and is listed as one of its directors.
“The organization employs 13 people,” Meth outlined. “Shani Hikind is one of them. All decisions regarding spending, programming and so forth are directed by the executive board, not Shani Hikind. The presumption that Ateret Cohanim is her organization or that she controls it or its finances is completely erroneous.”
On its website, American Friends of Ateret Cohanim describes its mission as “strengthening our Jewish roots and reestablishing thriving Jewish communities that are centered around educational institutes in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.”
In a direct response, Dov Hikind pointed out that his wife’s fundraising for the organization had no relation to the salary that she earns from her full-time position there. “It should be noted, for the record, that my wife’s salary is fixed and not tied in any way to the amount of contributions that she directly or indirectly brings in,” the Assemblyman said. “Moreover, Shani’s salary has not increased in more than a decade, despite her undying dedication to her work. She is heart-and-soul devoted to the preservation of Jerusalem, which we both regard as crucial to the protection and survival of the Jewish people.”
Hikind further noted that most of the charitable donations he has made from his campaign funds have gone to organizations that are unconnected to his wife. “We contributed a total of $103,000 to nonprofits over the past year,” he explained, “and less than 7 percent of that amount went to charities affiliated with her.”
However, Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, claimed that the Assemblyman’s contributions to his wife’s non-profit bring up legal questions. Experts have raised similar questions about Brooklyn State Senator Marty Golden’s campaign spending on events held at a Bay Ridge catering hall owned by his brother and managed by his wife. However, Golden’s spending in this regard could be labeled campaign-related, Lerner said. Under New York State election law, non-campaign related spending cannot be directed toward “personal use.” The donations from the Assemblyman to his wife’s non-profit could possibly violate that rule. “This is more questionable, because it has nothing to do with politics,” Lerner added.
Some information for this report provided by Chris Bragg and City & State.