For MP and congressional candidate Michael Lawler, running for office could have paid off — literally.
Lawler, who is currently running for the Hudson Valley’s 17th congressional district against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, won his seat in the assembly in 2020. He previously worked as a political strategist and campaign advisor at Checkmate Strategies, a company he co-founded with Chris Russell in 2018. Technically, Lawler still works there, with his LinkedIn profile even listing him as a partner in the firm before becoming a member of the congregation. State legislators can maintain a side hustle while in office, and while many quit their jobs once they win their election, some, like Lawler, choose to keep both working.
Lawyers who continue to practice after taking office are perhaps the most common example, but as long as they don’t have government service work or lobby the state, lawmakers simply have to report their perquisites to retain dual employment. Lawler was previously a registered lobbyist and retired from that portion of his work after taking office. But campaign advice was fair game.
A review of Lawler’s campaign disclosures from both his convention campaign and his current congressional campaign shows that he has paid over $200,000 in consulting fees to Checkmate Strategies since 2020. Lawler’s campaign paid his firm $110,000 during his candidacy for the Convention and his subsequent tenure. The disclosures show that the payments were made for fundraising, print ads, and digital ads.
In his most recent federal campaign proposal dated Oct. 15, Lawler also spent $94,000 on checkmate strategies from his congressional campaign account. The money was used for a range of expenses including “public relations consulting”, “printing and postage” and “research consulting”.
In accordance with state ethics laws, Lawler has filed financial disclosures for his two years in office. According to the 2020 document, the year he won his seat on the assembly, Lawler made between $150,000 and $250,000 as a partner at Checkmate Strategies. At the time, he described his work for the company as lobbying. The following year, after taking office, Lawler reported the same earnings from Checkmate Strategies but, according to the filing, stopped lobbying and described the firm as “political consulting, communications (and) governmental affairs.”
A Lawler spokesman dismissed any perception of an ethical dilemma with the apparent proprietary trading, saying he had not profited from the campaigns and checked with attorneys first to make sure everything was in order. “After receiving a positive response, Mr. Lawler went well beyond directing the firm’s accountants to shield him from any profits from his campaign,” campaign spokesman William O’Reilly said in a statement to City & State. “At no time during his previous campaign for the State Assembly or during his campaign for Congress has Mr. Lawler benefited from his campaign.” Both state and federal laws allow candidates to spend campaign funds on companies or interests in which they have an interest as long as they pay the market price and the expenses are for honest campaigning purposes. Lawler’s editions appear to meet this standard.
O’Reilly also accused Maloney of his own campaign finance. “This is a desperate attempt by Sean Patrick Maloney, who is multiple reports being investigated by Congress at the request of Democrats for misusing both taxpayers and campaign funds for his own personal benefit and that of his family,” O’Reilly added. City & State previously reported that Maloney may face an ethics investigation over misappropriation of campaign funds to pay an employee who did personal work for him and his family. A Maloney campaign spokesman called the allegation “another lie by MAGA Mike Lawler.” Maloney has previously denied campaign finance allegations against him.
Lawler’s behavior may not have violated the laws as currently written, but good government attorneys have long pushed for campaign finance reform to clarify the rules and eliminate loopholes. “There should be very strict restrictions on the use of campaign funds to ensure that candidates for office do not enrich themselves with their friends,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s a tortured system, both at the federal and state levels … but as long as the candidates don’t enrich themselves or their friends, the money goes to campaign activities themselves, so that makes sense to us.”