New York Governor Kathy Hochul campaign donors seek sway in emails

ALBANY — As Gov. Kathy Hochul smashed campaign fundraising records last year, she held dozens of intimate, high-dollar events that gave affluent donors one-on-one time to speak with her.

Like many other attendees,Wayne Chaplin had business interests before state government. And when Chaplin attended a fundraiser in the Rochester area on Oct. 30, he was not there for small talk.

According to emails Chaplin later wrote, the chief executive officer of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits told Hochul about a contentious bill being pushed by his company, which is the largest wine and spirits distribution company in the United States. If the proposal became state law, it could add to Southern Glazer’s billions in annual revenue and generate substantial state tax receipts — but increase wine prices and crush smaller competitors. 

According to the emails, the governor encouraged Chaplin to follow up on the proposal with her campaign staff — staff that subsequently helped the businessman gain access to a top member of Hochul’s administration. The day of the fundraiser, five limited liability companies based in Miami, all of which share an address with Southern Glazer’s, donated a total of $25,000 to Hochul’s campaign. 

That particular bill has yet to make progress in the Legislature, but the Hochul administration has backed the company’s interests in other ways. During the recent state budget negotiations, according to Democratic state Sen. James Skoufis, Hochul’s office repeatedly shot down Senate proposals to level the playing field within the alcohol industry — ideas strongly opposed by Southern Glazer’s.

In response to a Freedom of Information Law request, Hochul’s office last week provided the Times Union with 161 pages of emails that offer a glimpse of how affluent campaign donors try to leverage that status to land high-level government access. 

A significant chunk of Hochul’s campaign fundraising was facilitated through top Albany lobbying firms, which held high-dollar fundraisers that were exclusive to their lobbying clients. According to the donors’ accounts in the emails, Hochul did not discourage discussion of state business at these events, and directed donors to connect with her campaign staff — which subsequently connected them to top state officials.

In another instance, a board member for a trade group organized a fundraiser in conjunction with Hochul’s campaign, and bluntly stated he’d be able to raise more money for Hochul if she included a $500 million item in the budget. 

Hochul’s government office and campaign declined to comment on the interactions with specific campaign donors.

But Hochul’s campaign spokesman, Jerrel Harvey, said campaign staff has never “encouraged or facilitated donors to engage in conversations about fundraising activities with government officials” nor does “anyone on the campaign advocate on behalf of donors to the administration.”

“It is not unusual or improper for the governor to speak with attendees at her events and it is within ethical guidelines for her staff to redirect people to the proper office,” he said.

Hochul’s governmental press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said that as public servants, Hochul’s government staff receives communications from a “wide range of New Yorkers on a daily basis.”

“We welcome the views of different advocacy groups on policy issues, but every decision is made by the governor and her team based on what is best for New Yorkers,” she said. “No donation has any influence on any government decisions, and we strongly reject any implication otherwise.”

Liquor lobbying

The Rochester-area fundraiser in October was hosted by Rob Sands, chief executive officer of Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits.

A little more than a month after attending the event, Southern Glazer’s chief executive wrote an email to Casey Ryan, Hochul’s director of campaign fundraising.

“Per your request,” Chaplin wrote to Ryan, “attached is an outline of the issue we discussed with the Governor when we visited in Canandaigua.”

Chaplin sent Ryan a two-page memo outlining the benefits of the so-called “at rest” bill that Southern Glazer’s has been pushing, which would require alcohol imported into New York to be warehoused by a licensed state wholesaler for 24 hours. Critics say the law would make the cost of doing business prohibitive for smaller competitors in the distribution industry.

Chaplin then stated that Ryan, the Hochul fundraiser, had agreed to forward the lobbying document to Secretary to the Governor Karen Persichilli Keogh, Hochul’s top governmental aide.

“Let me know if the attached is clear and if [Keogh] has any follow up questions,” Chaplin wrote. “We are looking forward to hosting the Governor on December 17 in Miami. Thanks again for your help.”

In response to Chaplin’s Dec. 1 email, Hochul’s campaign finance director wrote that he worked for Hochul’s campaign and did not deal with governmental issues. Ryan said that requests for state-related action should be made to government staff, and provided the email address for Micah Lasher, Hochul’s director of policy.

In an email to Lasher on Dec, 7, Chaplin forwarded his conversation with Ryan, and wrote to Lasher that he had discussed the “at rest” bill with Hochul at the October fundraiser, again passing along the memo.

“The Governor asked us to follow up with staff and Casey directed us to you,” Chaplin wrote. “Will you be down for the Florida event next week for us to follow up on this discussion?”