As lawyers for Melinda Katz and Tiffany Cabán sift through the 91,000-odd ballots in the unprecedented, bitter recount for Queens district attorney, Katz has one built-in advantage: She is getting pro bono legal services from two attorneys connected with the Queens Democratic Party, under a loophole in campaign finance law.
Cabán has already forked over a combined $70,000 to two attorneys, with the tab expected to rise as the recount drags on, likely for at least another week. At the same time, Katz has gotten free work challenging ballots from Frank Bolz and Michael Reich, two of the most influential men in Queens politics, though neither lives or works in New York City. Along with Gerald Sweeney, a partner in their law firm, the Nassau County-based attorneys effectively run the day-to-day operations of the Queens Democratic Party.
Thanks to relatively lax state election laws, officially recognized political parties can spend on and coordinate with chosen candidates to a virtually unlimited degree. Ironically, it was a 2006 case involving the Working Families Party—now a backer of Cabán, and performing its own campaign-related pro-bono work on her behalf—that paved the way for political parties to deploy unlimited amounts of resources in primaries. After the WFP spent over $100,000 to successfully help a candidate for district attorney in Albany, party operatives with local Republican, Democratic, Conservative, and Independence parties sued unsuccessfully, leading to the courts striking down a provision that once limited the expenditures of political parties in primaries.
Bolz and Reich, however, are working free of charge for Katz, a service they've provided for decades to any candidates endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, according to longtime Queens political observers. (While in-kind donations typically face the same $35,000 limit as cash donations, political parties can circumvent these limits thanks to the WFP case.) In a typical campaign, the value of this pro bono work is likely closer to $10,000 than $100,000. For endorsed candidates, Bolz and Reich will inspect petitions to ensure they comply with arcane election rules and scrutinize the petition signatures of insurgent campaigns. In 2017, their work led to three candidates in one city council race getting booted from the ballot after signature challenges.
Recounts are far more expensive, since attorneys must dedicate many more hours to scrutinizing ballots. The firm of Jerry Goldfeder, a veteran election lawyer, has already collected $40,000 from the Cabán campaign. Renee Paradis, an attorney affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America—a key Cabán endorser—has been paid $30,000.
Katz has spent $20,000, according to her campaign filings, to hire another longtime election lawyer, Marty Connor, to assist with the recount. It’s unclear how he’s supplementing the work being performed by Bolz and Reich. (Katz did not provide details when asked about Connor's role.)
These two party lawyers can afford to sacrifice income to perform free legal work, especially since their politically connected firm already generates a great deal of income. Sweeney, a law partner, makes millions in Surrogate’s Court each year thanks to machine-connected justice system officials. Reich, who once reaped a bounty on foreclosures, is known for handling lucrative civil litigation suits like medical malpractice. Bolz specializes in probate law and estate litigation, a field in Queens County that is almost entirely dominated by those connected to the Queens Democratic Party.
When Bolz and Reich assumed their positions of power in the late 1980’s, insurgent movements in Queens were almost unheard of. Thirty years later, the Queens Democratic Party is no longer so dominant, especially in the wake of Rep. Joe Crowley’s defeat by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a year ago. Crowley, who took over the reins of the organization from Rep. Thomas Manton, had cemented Bolz and Reich’s places in the party hierarchy.
If Katz wins the recount, this means the next Queens DA will have received a huge free gift from local power brokers, just at the time she will be expected to independently prosecute a dizzying array of cases within the boundaries of the borough.
Asked about the pro bono work performed by Reich and Bolz, the Katz campaign accused the Cabán camp of “acting as though there are special rules that pertain only to them.”
“Their campaign has bragged incessantly about the 165 pro bono lawyers they have brought in for the recount, so it’s ridiculous that they would take exception to two pro bono attorneys working on our behalf,” said Matthew Rey, a campaign spokesperson.
The Cabán campaign declined to comment. While it’s true the leftist public defender has enlisted a volunteer army of attorneys to assist with the recount, they are not involved in litigating ballots with the Board of Elections, a task that she has left to her paid election experts. She is getting free help from the aforementioned Working Families Party—which has paid for a campaign manager, a field organizer, and offered pro bono guidance to Cabán, a novice candidate who initially struggled to raise money and build a campaign infrastructure—but not legal help.
The WFP unapologetically views itself as a counterweight to the Queens Democratic Party and their attorneys with decades of experience in the trenches of municipal political warfare.
"Establishment candidates often receive the benefit of the infrastructure, skills and resources the Democratic Party machine has built up over the years, from campaign expertise to lawyers to voter files,” said Joe Dinkin, the national campaigns director for WFP. “But without the Working Families Party, insurgent progressives running against the machine often have nothing of the kind.”
This story has been updated to reflect the amount of money the Katz campaign is paying Connor.