Records: Pathfinder regularly exceeded campaign donor limit

Fulton Democrats are accusing Pathfinder Bank of violating state campaign finance laws.

Fulton Dems say political spending ‘suspicious’; Michaels denies wrongdoing

FULTON  — Fulton Democrats are accusing one of Oswego County’s largest financial institutions of widespread campaign finance violations, including allegedly illegal donations to a leading mayoral candidate.

In complaints filed to the New York State Board of Elections Law Enforcement Division, Fulton City Democratic Committee Chair Jim Rice claims Pathfinder Bank has “shown a pattern of violating our state’s campaign finance laws.”

According to publicly available campaign finance records cited in Rice’s complaints and verified by The Palladium-Times, Pathfinder has in five of the last seven years exceeded its state-mandated cap on political donations. Corporations in New York are limited to $5,000 in contributions annually to candidates for offices or political committees. In 2018 alone, Pathfinder spread $20,530 around to more than a dozen candidates and political action committees, financial disclosure documents show.

Rice called the political spending by Pathfinder “suspicious.”

“It appears that Pathfinder Bank made contributions over the aggregate contribution limit for a corporation in calendar year 2019,” Rice wrote in his complaint.

Pathfinder’s financial disclosure filings for 2019 show the bank hit its $5,000 donation limit on Feb. 26 after writing $2,500 checks to both Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s campaign committee and the New York Bankers Political Action Committee.

Any donations after that point, Rice claims, are in violation of state campaign finance law. Records show Pathfinder continued to spend, however, including a total of $900 in donations to Fulton mayoral candidate Deana Michaels.

The Palladium-Times repeatedly requested comment from Pathfinder Bank officials on the discrepancies and, specifically, why Pathfinder continued to donate to political candidates and committees after its $5,000 annual limit was reached.

In response, Pathfinder President and CEO Thomas Schneider issued the following statement:

“Relative to our corporate political contributions, within the last quarter, our Internal Audit team brought forth policy and outcomes from our audit,” Schneider said. “The Audit Committee and the Board are actively looking at our compliance with such policy.”

Michaels, who is employed as a branch manager for Pathfinder Bank and was the early favorite candidate of the Oswego County Republican establishment, denied any wrongdoing.

“My committee and I have followed the law and have made no violations,” Michaels said. “I am not distracted from the important issues facing Fulton such as drugs and crime, failing infrastructure and a need to stimulate the economy. As I continue my campaign I will focus on the issues that matter most to our community. I will always put Fulton first.”

Rice also accused county GOP leadership of financial malfeasance: records show Pathfinder made a $2,500 donation to the Oswego County Republican Committee on May 30, while between April 16 and June 6, the committee transferred a total of $2,600 to Michaels’ campaign account.

“Pathfinder’s involvement in the Fulton mayor’s race is unprecedented, inappropriate and I believe it violates the spirit and letter of campaign finance law,” said Rice. “Deana Michaels and the Oswego County Republican Committee should return those illegal contributions from Pathfinder Bank immediately.”

According to the 2019 New York State Campaign Finance Handbook, “The person or committee making a contribution, as well as the person or committee receiving it, is responsible to ensure that their own applicable limits are not exceeded.”

Since 2005, according to state financial disclosure records, Pathfinder has donated more than $122,000 in total to political candidates and committees.

Michaels in July reported raising more than $28,000 since January in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Ron Woodward Sr. The race also features Democratic Party nominee and County Legislator Dan Farfaglia and two independent candidates, Ethan Parkhurst and Dave Webber. Election Day is Nov. 5.

Chief Enforcement Counsel for the New York State Board of Elections Law Enforcement Division Risa S. Sugarman declined comment on the situation, citing the work of her bureau as “confidential.”

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