Fake Donations Helped a Candidate Get $162,000 From Taxpayers

Date: 2024-06-11T17:59:36.000Z

Location: www.nytimes.com



In the heart of Flushing, Queens, a second-floor apartment seemed to be a modest hotbed of interest in a local State Assembly race, with three family members donating small amounts of cash to an obscure Democrat, according to campaign records.

A taxi driver, Ahmad Zadran, was listed as a $40 donor to the candidate, Dao Yin. Mr. Zadran’s brother was shown as giving $25; his son, Raheem Zadran, was listed as giving $50.

Under New York State’s new generous system for publicly financing political campaigns, Mr. Yin claimed the Zadrans’ modest donations as eligible for $1,380 in matching funds. Yet in interviews, the Zadrans said they had not given money to Mr. Yin, nor had they even heard of him.

“This is crazy,” Raheem Zadran, 27, said. “I never donated to this guy. I don’t know who the hell he is.”

His father was equally incredulous. “I don’t care about politics,” Ahmad Zadran said. “I never donate a penny to anybody.”

The Zadrans are among scores of New Yorkers who supposedly made small cash donations to Mr. Yin, a businessman who immigrated to New York from Shanghai in the late 1990s. He is the lesser known of two candidates in the Democratic primary who are challenging longtime Assemblyman Ron Kim in a predominantly Asian district east of La Guardia Airport.

Despite his lack of name recognition, Mr. Yin is now one of New York’s top recipients of public matching funds — $162,800 at last count — after reporting the highest percentage of cash, the least traceable form of donation, of any state candidate who received matching funds this year.

But after canvassing many of the homes in Flushing associated with 55 people listed as cash donors to Mr. Yin’s campaign, The Times found at least 19 who said they had not contributed. Eleven others no longer lived at the addresses listed for them. Some had moved to other cities or states years ago, including one who left New York in 2013 and said he had not donated. Only seven of those interviewed said they had donated small sums to Mr. Yin.

One supposed donor after another stood at the doors of their Flushing apartments with the same dumbfounded looks on their faces.

“That’s fake,” Di Fan Shen, 88, said after a reporter showed him campaign filings that listed him and a roommate giving Mr. Yin a combined $130. “We don’t get involved in politics, it’s impossible.” Mr. Yin nevertheless claimed their donations as eligible for a match of $1,320 in public funds.

Six blocks away, three supposed donors were listed at the same Northern Boulevard building. Two had not heard of Dao Yin. One of the two moved away six years ago; the third, Fazia Butt, could not be located.

Four more blocks away, another donor, Faaizah Abdul-Mani, was listed as contributing $25 to Mr. Yin’s campaign. She said she had not lived at that location in five years.

“I never donated money to a political campaign,” Ms. Abdul-Mani said. “I don’t even live in Flushing anymore. I moved to Pennsylvania in 2019.”

Shobha Muhammed, one of the three donors listed at the Northern Boulevard building, denied contributing to Mr. Yin and theorized that the candidate was targeting people with “Muslim names” in the belief that they were from the “third world” and lacked the sophistication and language skills to report him to the authorities.

Mr. Yin said in a brief telephone interview last week that he had personally collected all of the donations to his campaign. He could not explain why so many people said they had never heard of him, much less given him money.

Mr. Yin, who serves as his own campaign treasurer, suggested in an email an hour after the phone call that it could have been his fault.

“The only answer that I can provide you is that 18 (if you said 18 donors) out of 400-500 donors could be a mistake from my campaign,” he wrote. A 19th person falsely listed as a donor came forward after Mr. Yin sent the email.

Mr. Yin has some familiarity with matching-funds programs: He ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2021 and Queens borough president in 2020. In those races, he received a total of $1,098,267 in public matching funds via New York City’s system.

In election records, Mr. Yin has reported that he was an accountant at Hitachi Kokusai Electric America, a company with headquarters in Japan that specializes in broadcasting products, and an employee of Yusen Logistics, a supply chain management business. He is also a member of the Shanghai Association in the USA, which was established in 2012 in Queens to promote the Chinese city, according to its website.

The Times also visited the address of the campaign headquarters listed on Mr. Yin’s website, only to find an arcade game parlor. Mr. Yin said he had no campaign office and blamed the operator of his website for the confusion.

Of Mr. Yin’s reported $70,073 in expenditures, none appeared to be for campaign office space. A quarter of the total went to campaign consultants, including $8,000 to JT Group, a robotic parking and real estate investment firm based in Woodbury, N.Y. It was his largest expense.

The firm’s president, Terence Park, ran for City Council and State Assembly in the early 2000s and was a campaign consultant in 2021 for a Council candidate, Neng Wang. He said in an interview that he had sent Mr. Yin a list of Asian names culled from a voter registration database. Mr. Park said that he had not been involved in Mr. Yin’s fund-raising and declined to comment further.

The second-biggest expense, $5,000, went to pay Mr. Yin’s credit card bills. Although campaign rules require a detailed explanation of all items bought with credit cards, Mr. Yin did not provide such an itemization.

Under New York election law, candidates who submit false information to the Public Campaign Finance Board, a regulatory body, can face a fine of up to $15,000, forfeiture of any public funds received and referral to law enforcement agencies. Knowingly filing fraudulent information to a public agency can also constitute a felony, legal experts say, with potential charges ranging from grand larceny to offering a false instrument for filing.

Mr. Yin has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The large number of apparently fake donors listed in Mr. Yin’s campaign filings may make him an outlier, but it highlights a central weakness in the new matching-funds system, which state lawmakers endowed with $100 million before its debut this year and which regulators say is the largest in the country.

For years, government watchdogs had urged state leaders to adopt a matching-funds system similar to New York City’s long-established version, contending it would amplify small donors’ voices and reduce the influence of big-money interests. Lawmakers, especially long-tenured ones who tend to benefit from institutional donors, were hesitant to make a change.

But in 2020, the Legislature approved a weaker form of the city’s system, settling for one with incumbent-friendly features, far less oversight and fewer safeguards.

The state system is much more generous than the city’s, which matches small-dollar donations at an eight-to-one rate. State candidates in competitive races can get up to $12 in public money for each dollar donated by residents of their district who give from $5 to $50, and smaller matches for sums above that, up to $250.

Yet unlike the city’s program, the state has no spending limits or mandatory audits for all candidates, and does not publish the identity of bundlers, the influential fund-raisers who bring in money from others.

The state also has far more to oversee and fewer resources to do it: Officials must monitor candidates running for more than three times the number of offices — 217 versus 59 — than their city counterparts, despite having fewer than half of the employees and less than a quarter of the budget. State races are also more frequent: Legislative candidates run every two years, compared with every four for City Council.

Mr. Yin, 60, is one of 57 state legislative candidates who has received public funds under the state program. With over 300 candidates signing up, the board approved matching-fund payments totaling more than $6 million to 48 Assembly and nine Senate candidates in advance of the June 25 primary.

Mr. Yin received almost $163,000 in taxpayer funds after reporting just under $28,000 in contributions, nearly all of it from small-dollar donors. His fund-raising makes Mr. Yin stand out in one key respect: Half of the money he raised directly from individuals came in the form of cash, a much higher proportion than the 5.2 percent average for all other Assembly candidates participating in the matching system.

All told, The Times found that Mr. Yin submitted at least $725 in donations that he claimed qualified for $8,460 in state money from people who said they had not contributed to his campaign. All of the apparently fake donations identified by The Times were described on his campaign finance reports as cash contributions of $20 to $80.

Candidates like Mr. Yin must provide state officials with signed contribution cards from every donor to receive matching funds. The Times asked Mr. Yin and the state Board of Elections to provide copies of the cards for his cash donors. Mr. Yin did not; the state board did, on Tuesday, after this article was published. Mr. Yin and the elections board did not provide a breakdown of which reported donations were deemed eligible for a state match.

An elections board spokeswoman, Kathleen McGrath, confirmed that the Public Campaign Finance Board, was “actively engaged in looking at participating committees with a high percentage of cash contributions.” She added that the board was “seeking out evidence of election violations and will thoroughly investigate any complaints.”

Even if irregularities were to be found, the campaign finance board could be hampered by a legislative restriction: Unlike its city counterpart, the panel has no independent subpoena power. It needs permission from the elections board, its parent, to issue one.

Nicole Gordon, the founding director of New York City’s Campaign Finance Board and now a lecturer at Baruch College, said it was “very troubling” that state regulators had not caught the errors in Mr. Yin’s filings before he was awarded so much state matching money.

“The enforcement agency is not finding it when other people can,” she said. “That’s a weakness. It makes the job harder for the staff to identify things when it doesn’t have much broader authority.”

Candidates running for state office face a mandatory postelection audit if they receive $500,000 in matching funds. But because Assembly candidates can only receive a maximum of $350,000 in public funds, they are exempt from such a review. (A third of the candidates not subject to automatic audits are randomly selected for one.)

In New York City, all candidates are subject to postelection audits. But critics point to long delays in the process. Some of the best-known candidates from 2021 are still awaiting final audits, including Mayor Eric Adams; the comptroller, Brad Lander; the public advocate, Jumaane Williams; and over half of the City Council members.

Also on the list: A failed 2021 Council candidate named Dao Yin.

Susan Campbell Beachy and Mable Chan contributed reporting.

A correction was made on

June 11, 2024

A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from a supposed donor to Mr. Lin. The person quoted was Faaizah Abdul-Mani, not Fazia Butt.

How we handle corrections

is an investigative reporter based in Albany, N.Y., covering the people and events influencing — and influenced by — state and local government. More about Jay Root

Bianca Pallaro is a Times reporter who combines traditional reporting with data analysis skills to investigate wrongdoing and explain complex issues by turning numbers into insightful information. More about Bianca Pallaro