ICYMI: Times-Union Highlights Overlap and Potential Coordination Between Zeldin Campaign and Pro-Zeldin Outside Groups

Government and Politics

October 17, 2022

New York, NY- New bombshell reporting from the Times Union revealed the Zeldin campaign’s illegal coordination with right-wing super PACs, billionaire conservative Ronald Lauder, conservative consultant John McLaughlin, and Republican operatives across the state who worked together to boost Zeldin’s candidacy ahead of election day.

Conservative billionaire Ronald Lauder “is the biggest funder of both Safe Together and Save Our State… [He] has injected $6.45 million into defeating Hochul.” Conveniently, “a co-chair of Zeldin’s campaign, New York City Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli, is the spokesman for Save Our State NY.”

Additionally, Zeldin’s pollster, John McLaughlin, “was paid $100,000 by Safe Together for work on a newly created radio ad criticizing Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.” Allen Roth, a known Republican operative and longtime “close adviser to Lauder,” jointly penned an op-ed with McLaughlin that echoed the very same contents of the radio ad.  

Election lawyer Sarah Steiner said, “Borelli's dual role — Zeldin campaign co-chair and spokesman for an outside group — may be problematic because ‘it's the same guy in ‘two different places.’”

“Lee Zeldin isn’t just relying on dark outside groups, it appears he’s illegally coordinating with them,” said New York State Democratic Chairman Jay S. Jacobs. “This report raises serious questions about a possible illegal coordination scandal between Lee Zeldin, his campaign, and the pro-Zeldin outside groups that are backing him, and these links must be immediately investigated. Zeldin owes answers to New Yorkers.”

In December, conservative billionaire Ronald Lauder donated $100,000 to his outside elections spending group, Safe Together New York. A day later, the firm of a longtime Lauder political consultant, John McLaughlin, was paid $100,000 by Safe Together for work on a newly created radio ad criticizing Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.

While these transactions were only the beginning of Lauder's huge political spending over the past year, they stand out — because McLaughlin is also the campaign pollster for U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, Hochul’s Republican opponent.

In another instance, a co-chair of Zeldin’s campaign, New York City Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli, is the spokesman for Save Our State NY, another independent spending group supporting the Republican.

Lauder is the biggest funder of both Safe Together and Save Our State: Between Sept. 8 and this week, Lauder has injected $6.45 million into defeating Hochul, leveling the field in a TV-radio ad war that Hochul had previously dominated.

Election lawyer Sarah Steiner — who in her legal practice generally represents Democratic candidates — said the fact pattern involving McLaughlin and Borelli bears scrutiny. At least in title, both hold prominent positions with Zeldin’s campaign while each have worked with an outside group supporting the candidate.

“If the same person is involved with both sides, that's really pretty clearly coordination,” Steiner said. “You can't do a firewall in your own brain.”

In recent public comments, Zeldin has embraced both groups, referring to his campaign and the independent expenditure committees as “we” and “our side.” Zeldin went further Oct. 7, stating the belief his campaign and the outside groups would collectively outspend Hochul during the election's final month.

"At the time McLaughlin Media provided services for Safe Together, it was for the purpose of media placements on the ballot measures, not Zeldin for New York, and McLaughlin Media has not provided services for Safe Together since last year… Both firms are listed at the same address in Blauvelt, Rockland County.

Meanwhile, John McLaughlin for a decade has worked as Zeldin's pollster, including his congressional campaigns between 2014 and 2020. He was most recently paid by Zeldin's congressional campaign in October 2020.

Steiner, the election lawyer, told the Times Union that McLaughlin’s work as a pollster for Zeldin would be difficult to separate from his firm’s efforts on behalf of Safe Together. "What you're describing sounds improper, because it's one person," she said. 

Another top official in the state Conservative Party, Allen Roth, has been president of the Secure America Now Foundation, a charity that was paid $45,000 by Safe Together in September 2021. Roth has been a close adviser to Lauder dating back to the billionaire's unsuccessful 1989 bid for New York City mayor.

On Dec. 22, 2021, McLaughlin and Roth jointly penned an op-ed in the New York Post that was critical of the redistricting law Hochul had signed.

Seven days later, McLaughlin’s firm received the $100,000 payment to place the anti-Hochul radio ad, which echoed the arguments in the op-ed: Hochul "decided she knows better than the 1.6 million voters who said 'no' to playing games on voting and redistricting," it stated.  

Save Our State was formed in late August by former state Republican Party chairman Ed Cox and U.S. Rep. John Faso, who was defeated in 2018 by Democrat Antonio Delgado, now Hochul's lieutenant governor. Borelli, the New York City councilman, has served as the group's spokesman since mid-September.

Borelli emceed a Zeldin campaign event on Staten Island on Aug. 29 — an event attended by the candidate — and was first quoted as Save Our State’s spokesman by the New York Post two weeks later.

“It's really in some ways more than coordination: It's an identical involvement if you have people involved in both your independent expenditure and your campaign, especially titled people,” Steiner said. “You may say that (the campaign co-chair title) is honorary, it might be unpaid — but it doesn't mean uninvolved.”