May 5, 2022
Digest: A judicial candidate may use a de minimis amount of campaign funds for a modest and reasonable “pre-thank you” party for campaign committee members, as a kick-off event for the campaign.
Rules: Election Law § 14-130; 22 NYCRR 100.5(A)(5)-(6); Opinions 19-109; 12-129(A)-(G); 98-06.
The inquiring judicial candidate hosted a campaign kick-off event “as a pre-thank you for all of my campaign committee members.” The event consisted of a buffet dinner and beverages for 45 people, which came to nearly $925 including tax and tip. The candidate initially paid this amount by personal check, but now asks if this is a campaign expense that the campaign committee may ethically reimburse, pre-election.1 At this time, the vast majority of campaign funds consist of the candidate’s personal loan to the campaign, although there are also a few outside contributors.
A candidate for election to judicial office must “not permit the use of campaign contributions or personal funds to pay for campaign-related goods or services for which fair value was not received” (22 NYCRR 100.5[A]) and must “not use or permit the use of campaign funds for the private benefit of the candidate or others” (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]; Election Law § 14-130 [prohibiting campaign expenditures “unrelated to holding of public office”]).
While campaign funds must not be used to purchase “even token gifts” for campaign workers (Opinion 98-06), we have nonetheless recognized that campaign funds may be used to purchase modest and reasonable refreshments to be consumed at otherwise appropriate campaign events. For example, a judicial candidate may hold a free “meet and greet” event during the campaign, at which modest and reasonable refreshments are served (Opinion 12-129[A]-[G], Question 2). We also said a judicial candidate may pay their proportionate share of the actual expenses for a “petition signing party,” at which modest and reasonable refreshments are served, for the purpose of assembling registered voters to sign petitions, provided the candidate concludes the campaign will receive fair value for the expenditure (Opinion 19-109). Likewise, a judicial candidate may use a de minimis amount of campaign funds for an extremely modest social event to thank persons who significantly volunteered on the candidate’s campaign (see Opinion 12-129[A]-[G], Question 5). We reasoned that such “thank you” event is likely to be within the contemplation of campaign contributors, even if the candidate’s bid was unsuccessful (see id.).
Here, too, we conclude that the “pre-thank you” party described is likely within the contemplation of current and/or prospective campaign contributors as a kick-off event for campaign committee members. Therefore, as the expenditure appears to be de minimis and the event itself appears to be modest and reasonable, the candidate may authorize their campaign committee to reimburse them for it.
1 As usual, we do not comment on any legal questions, but instead assume the expenditure here is a lawful use of campaign funds.