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Politicking on the public dime

News Staff Reporter

Published:August 01 2010, 7:51 AM

Updated: August 01, 2010, 1:45 PM

Over the past two months, Marion Fabiano of Grand Island and many other constituents of State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson have been inundated with mail from the incumbent.

"Senator Antoine M. Thompson Saved Our Parks," proclaimed one.

"Senator Thompson Bans Toxic Baby Bottles," said another.

"Thompson Honors Solider [sic] Through Higher Learning," reads yet another.

In all, Fabiano, a retired teacher, said she's received at least eight mailings during June and July.

"Every time I get one, I think 'You have to be kidding me,'" she said. "I think if he has a drink of water, he sends a postcard."

What irks her even more is that she and other taxpayers foot the bill -- at a huge cost, a Buffalo News investigation has found.

Thompson sent more than one million pieces of bulk mail -- 1,162,866, to be precise -- since January 2008 at taxpayer expense, The News found.

That averages 1,633 pieces of mail for every day Thompson could send mail during the past 2 1/2 years.


Thompson has made extensive use of taxpayer-paid mailings from January 2008 to July 16, 2010

1,162,866   Pieces of bulk mail sent
$340,040   Cost of postage
1,633   Average mailed per day*
108,901   Pieces of mail sent in a five-day period in July
$27,879   Cost of postage for those 108,901 mailings
$0   Mail spending this year by Thompson's campaign

*Excludes Sundays, holidays and pre-election blackout periods with no mailings.


The cost: $340,040 in postage and up to $140,000 in printing. Plus an undetermined amount of staff time to prepare the literature.

In other words, Thompson's mailings have cost taxpayers close to a half-million dollars.

"I think this money could be better spent. This is wasteful," said Fabiano, a retired member of the Grand Island Town Board, who, like Thompson, is a Democrat.

Thompson's spending blitz comes at a time when the State Legislature has been struggling to close record deficits that topped out at $9.2 billion earlier this year and forced cuts throughout state government, particularly in education and health care.


A breakout of Thompson's Senate mailings

Year   Pieces mailed   Postage cost
2008   359,557   $100,283
2009   435,077   $145,684
2010*   368,250   $94,072

*Through July 16


The News investigation also found:

* Thompson's spending on direct mail is double the average of senators statewide and considerably higher than his colleagues in the local delegation. Records for the last period for which comparative figures are available -- March through September of last year -- show Thompson spent more on bulk mail than Sens. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, and Catharine Young, R-Olean, combined.


Spending on postage by Western New York state senators from April 1-Sept. 30, 2009

Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo   $85,562
William T. Stachowski, D-Lakeview   $61,000
Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Williamsville   $55,521
Dale M. Volker, R-Depew   $31,589
Catharine Young, R-Olean   $22,999
George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane   $17,342

Source: Senate Expenditure Report


* While Thompson makes extensive use of taxpayer-financed mailings, he spends relatively little of his campaign funds for political mailings. In 2008, when he last ran for re-election, he spent $100,284 in state funds for mailings, while his campaign spent $26,711.

* Under Senate rules, mailings are banned during the 30 days prior to the Sept. 14 primary and Nov. 2 general election, and the barrage of Thompson mailings over the past several months appears timed to beat the Aug. 14 deadline. While Thompson is making extensive use of state mailings this year -- he sent out 368,250 through July 15, with postage alone costing $94,072 -- the disclosure report filed the same day with the Board of Elections shows he hadn't spent any money out of his treasury on campaign mailings in 2010.

* Many of Thompson's mailings promote social activities -- including community breakfasts, picnics and dances -- that the senator said he sponsors without the use of state funds. His campaign and disclosure reports show few expenditures for these events, however, raising questions about whether Thompson is soliciting private donations that he is not reporting to cover the cost of these events. In fact, one former staffer said that's exactly what's happening. A failure to report these donations could be a violation of state law.

Thompson refused an interview request from The News. In a prepared statement, he said his mailings are part of "our efforts to stay connected with our constituents" and "critical in keeping our constituents informed about cultural, educational and governmental matters that may impact their lives."

Outspends colleagues

Thompson made extensive use of mailings when he served on the Buffalo Common Council from 2001 to 2006. Back then, the Council paid the cost of printing and mailing newsletters out of a common pool. But Thompson spent more on mail than most of his colleagues put together, said a City Hall source.

"It was totally out of hand," the source said.

To rein in Thompson, then-Majority Leader Nick Bonifacio capped the amount of money individual members were permitted to spend on mailings.

Thompson moved on to the State Senate in 2007, succeeding Byron W. Brown after he was elected mayor. Thompson's 60th Senate District includes most of Buffalo, Grand Island and Niagara Falls, as well as a portion of the City of Tonawanda.

As a senator, Thompson benefits from a costly publicity apparatus that provides members a wide variety of resources to promote themselves under the guise of informing voters.

Many state senators, including Thompson, employ a full-time press secretary. This is in addition to central press, communications and print offices that The News reported in 2008 employed 143 and spent $10.7 million. That's an average of $155,000 per senator.

Senators also get to send bulk mail and newsletters to voters, and committee chairmen get an extra allocation.

Thompson, by virtue of being chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, therefore gets an extra $62,479, and in total is allocated $146,279 annually for bulk mail and newsletter postage.

He leaves little of that money on the table, having spent $145,684 last year, according to data obtained from the Senate under the state Freedom of Information Law.

The use of mailings by state legislators "is often an abuse of tax dollars," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, an Albany-based advocacy and watchdog organization.

"The program is designed to benefit the incumbents, the majority party incumbents in particular. It's another element of Albany's incumbent-protection machine," Horner said.

Thompson outspends almost all of his colleagues on bulk mail and newsletters.

The 55 senators who reported spending on bulk mail and newsletters spent an average of $42,446 from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2009, the last period for which comparative data is available. Thompson's spending during those six months was double that, $85,562.

Only six senators spent more, led by Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat who represents portions of Manhattan and the Bronx, who spent $111,910. He is now running for attorney general.

Thompson spent considerably more than his colleagues in the Western New York delegation. Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lakeview, was second in spending among the six in the local delegation at $61,000.

Rising costs 

One former member of Thompson's staff said the senator plays a hands-on role, deciding who receives each mailing and reviewing material before it is sent to the printer.

He's had a lot to do.

In 2008, when Thompson last ran for re-election, he sent 36 mailings involving 359,557 pieces, according to senate records obtained under the FOI Law. The cost of postage was $100,283.

Thompson last year did 44 mailings, which involved 435,077 pieces, at a cost of $145,684 for postage.

Thompson is up for election again this fall, and through the first 6 1/2 months of this year he has sent 26 mailings involving 368,250 pieces. The cost: $94,072.

The pace of the mailings has picked up as the primary approaches. In June and July, he sent 11 mailings. The second week of July alone he sent 108,901 pieces, with postage running $27,879.

That same week, Thompson and his staff distributed thousands of 12-page, color booklets at the Italian Festival in North Buffalo about the history of Italian-Americans in Western New York that were paid for with tax dollars.

Thompson faces two challengers in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, Al Coppola, a former member of the State Senate and Common Council, and Rory Allen, a businessman. Attorney Mark Grisanti has filed petitions to run on the Republican line in November.

There are additional costs related to the mailings that do not show up in Senate records, including printing and staff time to prepare the material. Mailings typically cost eight to 12 cents per piece to print. Thompson gravitates towards more expensive mailings that often involve color and higher quality paper.

When you factor in printing and postage, Thompson's mailings are costing an estimated 42 cents apiece.

What's in mailings

What have been the topics of Thompson's mailings?

Sometimes he takes credit for bills he's gotten passed, such as a measure to ban the use of bisphenol A, a toxic chemical used in the production of baby bottles, pacifiers and other products used by infants.

But there haven't been too many bills to boast about: a News analysis found that Thompson was prime sponsor of seven bills this year and last that were signed into law. Four others await action by the governor.

Then there was an oversized, color postcard Thompson sent two weeks ago, claiming credit for keeping state parks open. Others in the Senate took the lead in restoring funds to head off a shutdown, however.

Thompson is also big on mailing birthday greetings to constituents.

"I'm a taxpayer and I don't need Antoine Thompson to send me a birthday card with my money," said Fabiano, the retired Grand Island resident.

Spelling, punctuation and factual errors are common in the mailings, whose content is drafted by Thompson's staff. One headline misspelled "soldier." A flier reporting on the results of a spelling bee promoted by Thompson misspelled the name of a school attended by one of the winners. A third mailing that urged citizens to vacation in state parks listed some facilities that are not state parks, including the Darwin Martin House.

Senators as a group are not shy about using their mailing privileges, but at least one of them is openly critical over what Thompson is doing.

"Birthday cards, picnic invites -- that's way over the top," said Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican.

Many of Thompson's mailings promote events his office is sponsoring.

Something he terms "community leaders and stakeholders breakfasts" are a popular topic, and his Web site lists 21 such breakfasts over the course of this year. Other mailings have promoted senior citizen cookouts and dances -- "senior balls," as he terms them. These events are always free to the public.

How is Thompson paying for them?

He has insisted in the past that state funds are not involved. But a review of his campaign disclosure reports since January 2008 shows few expenses that appear to be related to these. And his most recent ethics disclosure statement filed with the state does not list any relevant donations.

One former member of Thompson's staff said the senator and members of his staff often solicit businesses for cash or product donations used at the social functions. The News documented one such effort in March, when Thompson's staff solicited food donations from 20 restaurants for his annual St. Joseph's Table celebration.

At the time, Thompson's staff maintained that the senator did not have to disclose the donations because they were intended to benefit constituents. But the ethics law doesn't make such an exception.