Dark horse Republican gubernatorial hopeful Harry Wilson is suing rival Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk) and the state Board of Elections ahead of the June 28 GOP primary for governor over what Wilson claims is a litany of campaign finance violations.
“The Zeldin campaign has employed a number of unlawful finance schemes which utilize wealthy donors to evade clearly established contribution limits and illegally funnel excess money to his primary election campaign,” reads the 40-page lawsuit filed late Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Albany County.
A court date had yet to be set in the matter as of Thursday afternoon.
Wilson alleges that Zeldin is improperly using general election funds, money given to his running mate Alison Esposito, a former NYPD deputy inspector, and donations to his congressional campaign account given after Zeldin announced his campaign for governor last year.
“This Court should act now to halt Lee Zeldin’s attempt to stack the deck by virtue of his campaign finance schemes,” reads the lawsuit, which requests an injunction against the putative frontrunner for the GOP nomination on the use of such funds.
A spokeswoman for Zeldin swiftly fired back.
“This is a frivolous, dishonest, political stunt by Wilson, that is totally without merit. Wilson just desperately wants a hit piece written to turn around for a campaign ad. That’s what this is about. Wilson has to know that he’s deliberately lying about the law on so many different levels,” spokeswoman Katie Vincentz said in an email.
The Long Island congressman is running against Wilson – a millionaire businessman who is self-funding his campaign – former White House aide Andrew Giuliani, and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino in a year when the GOP hopes to win its first statewide election in two decades.
Zeldin has received backing from dozens of party leaders like state Chair Nick Langworthy, but Wilson is pushing for an upset in the primary by arguing that he would perform better in the general election against the eventual Democratic nominee, who will likely be Governor Kathy Hochul.
Wilson, a former Obama economic advisor and the only pro-choice Republican in the race, narrowly lost a 2010 election against Democratic state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli after making his fortune in the private sector.
While Zeldin has raised millions more than Giuliani and Astorino, he has also spent heavily on TV ads and other outreach to voters – so much so that Wilson says Zeldon would be effectively out of campaign cash if it were not for the disputed campaign funds.
“Lee Zeldin’s flailing campaign is so mismanaged it is out of primary cash and now breaking the law in a desperate bid to stay afloat,” Wilson said in a statement Thursday.
Zeldin reported $3.11 million on hand in a late-May campaign filing, but the Wilson campaign notes that includes about $2.4 million in donations that exceed the $13,724 contribution limit in the Republican primary this year.
Money transfers from a joint account created for Zeldin and Esposito total an additional $721,621, which the suit argues are illegal because the money is primarily benefitting Zeldin in the primary.
Zeldin told the Post at an Albany press conference last week that he did his homework on state campaign finance law and rules on using general election donations ahead of a primary.
“I dot all of my I’s and cross all my T’s … We went to [our] treasurer, attorney and BOE all to confirm that the interpretation was accurate that all this money – we have over $3 million right now as of today – can be spent between now and June 28,” Zeldin said.
Campaign treasurer Nancy Marks is named alongside Zeldin and the BOE as a respondent in the lawsuit filed by Wilson.
The BOE does allow for general election contributions to be spent before a primary date because they effectively benefit a candidate in the general election, according to a spokeswoman.
Some legal experts, however, dispute the BOE interpretation of state election law
“General election contributions cannot be used in primary campaigns,” attorney Jerry Goldfeder, who is supporting Hochul, said in an email in response to the Wilson suit.
Gubernatorial and LG candidates of the same party appear on the general election ballot together and are effectively a single person as far as state campaign finance rules are concerned.
That means any donor who gave the maximum amount to both Zeldin and Esposito, who is running unopposed for the GOP nomination, for the general election would get a refund equal to the max donation to one of them if Zeldin wins the primary, according to the BOE.
But that money would not have to be refunded if Wilson, Astorino or Giuliani win the primary.
A BOE spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.