Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz is backtracking on details of an overseas trip in which he spent more than $1,300 in campaign funds at a hotel, three restaurants and a gift shop in Barcelona and Germany, bringing guffaws from good government advocates.
The local pol’s European spending, first reported by the New York Observer, covered a three-day spree in February. Cymbrowitz’s campaign finance disclosures show he spent $189 at a souvenir shop in Munich, which he filed away as “office expenses.” In Barcelona, the assemblyman spent $819 at the five-star Hotel Majestic, and nearly $300 over four visits to three restaurants, including the top-rated tapas bar Cerveceria Catalana.
Asked about the spending by Sheepshead Bites following the Observer article, Cymbrowitz spokesperson Adrienne Knoll forward the following statement which was also sent to the Observer:
As the child of Holocaust survivors, I promised my parents I would do everything in my power to help Holocaust survivors and to not let our world fall into the destructive grips of fascism ever again. In keeping that pledge I made more than 50 years ago, I visited Munich, Germany, and had an opportunity to visit the Dachau memorial site, where more than 32,000 Jews and non-Jews were killed. During my visit I was reminded of the fact that one in four of the approximately 140,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States – 38,000 of whom live in Brooklyn, the majority of them in my district – are living at or below the poverty line.
After a number of Russian-speaking survivors in my district were denied benefits from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany due to bureaucratic snafus, my office intervened. To advocate on behalf of these Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, I met with a board member from the Claims Conference during my trip to Munich, as well as with a number of board members back here in the U.S., in order to rectify the situation and to ensure that some small measure of justice is achieved.
I also met with city officials in Munich to discuss the issue of Neo-Nazism and how the German government works on putting together programs for the Jewish community to help Jewish seniors and children. As the state legislator with the largest Sephardic Jewish population in the state, I was invited to Barcelona to meet with city officials and members of local, prominent Jewish organizations.
The spokesperson added the following, “[Cymbrowitz] went with other legislators. [The Observer] made it sound like a solo excursion and that wasn’t the case.”
However, after follow-up questions asking Cymbrowitz’s office to specify legislators were also on the trip, the spokesperson reversed course on that assertion.
“One correction….he didn’t go with other legislators. Sorry,” Knoll said, via e-mail.
In response to our request for details on his being “invited” to Barcelona, we received another e-mail stating, “He was not invited to Barcelona. That was an error. As the assemblyman who represents a large Sephardic community with roots in Spain, he went to Barcelona to meet with the remaining members of the Sephardic community to talk about the rise in anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism.”
Cymbrowitz’s office did not respond to additional questions about the “city officials and members of local, prominent Jewish organizations” he met with while in Barcelona, and declined to provide an itinerary or appointment calendar.
His office also declined to explain why $189 was spent at a souvenir shop and listed as “office expenses” for the campaign.
The expenses did not involve taxpayer money, and campaign finance regulations allow funds to be spent at the candidate’s discretion, so long as they can explain how it relates to their office they’re running for.
Cymbrowitz’s spending, though, has brought criticism from Common Cause, a good government group that advocates for tighter controls of campaign spending as well as publicly financed campaigns.
“This kind of conduct, using campaign dollars to stay at five-star hotels, to buy expensive souvenirs in exotic places, simply fuels the public cynicism about elected officials and campaigns,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause. “There should be clear delineation between what is and isn’t a campaign expense, especially since so many public officials don’t seem to have their own guidance system about what’s appropriate.”
Lerner said Cymbrowitz’s explanations – and back-tracking – doesn’t pass the sniff test, and reflects poorly on Albany culture.
“It’s kind of amazing. He’s trying to come up with justifications [for travel spending] after the fact. It just seems to be egregious to justify the spending at five-star hotels and restaurants in the interest of Holocaust survivors. It’s really kind of unbelievable,” she said.
She added that she doubted his claim of visiting Barcelona’s small Jewish community to discuss antisemitism, since most contemporary incidents are in central Europe.
“There seems to be tenuous connection [between visiting Spain and his duties as an office-holder] and there should be a full accounting of the facts and a precise record of his activities. Then voters can decide for themselves,” she said.