Emails reveal how major Hochul campaign donors seek sway

Communications show campaign aides serving as links to top government staff

Publication: Times Union
By: Chris Bragg

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.