Court lifts contribution limit in NYC mayoral race

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Associated Press

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 5:04 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 24 at 5:04 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — With less than two weeks to go before New Yorkers go to the polls to elect a new mayor, a federal appeals court has handed a victory to wealthy backers of the underdog Republican nominee.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that individuals can contribute more than $150,000 to New York Progress and Protection PAC, an independent group supporting Republican mayoral hopeful Joseph Lhota. The decision reversed a lower-court ruling denying the so-called super PAC's effort to bar state election officials from enforcing the cap.

The three-judge panel agreed with the group's argument that the $150,000 per-year cap on donations violated the political action committee's First Amendment right to advocate for Lhota.

"The hardship faced by NYPPP and its donors from the denial of relief is significant," the judges wrote. "Every sum that a donor is forbidden to contribute to NYPPP because of this statute reduces constitutionally protected political speech."

The ruling cited the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, a case that lifted many restrictions on spending in political elections and paved the way for a flood of campaign cash from corporations, unions and wealthy interests. The ruling also noted that other federal courts across the country have struck down state laws limiting contributions to super PACs.

The New York Progress and Protection PAC was founded by Craig Engle, a Washington attorney and lobbyist. It is seeking to level the playing field in a race where de Blasio has raised more than double the amount of money as Lhota for the primary and general elections — $5.8 million compared with $2.7 million.

The ruling clears the way for an expected $200,000 contribution from Sean McCutcheon, a Republican donor from Alabama, a lawyer representing the group, Michael Carvin, said Thursday.

"We're obviously quite pleased that the court found the law is unconstitutional and acted quickly so we can participate in the election," Carvin said.

Damien LaVera, spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling.

Schneiderman "believes that every voter should have an equal voice in our democracy, and that New York's campaign finance laws are essential to protecting the integrity and fairness of our elections," she said in a statement.

Lhota told reporters Thursday that he'd had no dealings with the group.

"It's a violation of law for me to coordinate with them or do anything with them. I don't even know who they are," Lhota said after an unrelated campaign stop in Brooklyn.

Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for Democratic front runner Bill de Blasio, blasted the ruling, saying in a statement that it would "empower the right-wing billionaires ... and tea party groups who support Joe Lhota to drown out the voices of New Yorkers."

Lhota trails de Blasio by more than 40 points in polls.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

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