March of this year Congressman Brian Higgins (D-South Buffalo) advanced a self-drafted plan to reform campaign finance laws pertaining to Congressional elections, titled “Restoring Confidence Through Smarter Campaigns Act,” (HR 1495).
On its face, the bill would seem to advance sensible spending limits on Congressional contests. Higgins proposed a $250,000 limit for a primary; $250,000 for a general; and $125,000 for a runoff.
But critics say that the plan is all for show and built around one glaring loophole: There is no spending limit on legal fees.
“Campaign staffs are full of lawyers. Higgins will still be able to spend tens of millions on reelection. As long as he bills it through a law firm, it’s ok,” explains an attorney close to the Buffalo businessman Eddie Egriu, a major Democratic opposition figure.
“This legislation is for political cover and pretending that he supports campaign finance reform — all the while taking big money from defense contractors and DC lobbyists,” he said. “It’s the hypocrisy that has become so typical of our politicians.”
Experts say that the loophole for legal expenses would render the whole plan useless, because ad buys and other spending can be conducted through a law firm acting as an agent of the campaign.
It’s been rumored that Egriu is considering challenging Higgins in the Democratic Party primary. Last year he was unjustly removed from the ballot by State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Glownia on strained legal reasoning, seemingly for politically nefarious motivations.
If he does challenge Higgins, Egriu is likely to make campaign finance a major point of political contention. During the 2014 election cycle alone, Higgins has taken $10,000 from Honeywell International, and another $10,000 from Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s most influential defense contractors.
The American Council of Engineering Companies, an advocacy group closely aligned with the defense industry, donated $4,000; while the Aerospace Workers’ Union donated $5,000. Higgins raised a total of $851,432 in 2014, of which $324,700 was contributed by PACs and $100,000 from the Democratic Party.
Higgins has so much support from the defense industry that on May 22, 2014 in Washington, DC, Honeywell International PAC hosted a major fundraising breakfast for Higgins, with tickets at $2,500.
Higgins sits at a powerful crux of international politics. He simultaneously sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee. Higgins is the Ranking Member of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee.
Higgins’ legislation was introduced in March but does not have co-sponsors.
Egriu is a popular figure with a deep base of support in the city of Buffalo — both in the African American community where his businesses have been successful, and on the Westside where his activism helped scale up the non-profit known as People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH.
He did not return a call for comment.