Cymbrowitz gobbling up campaign money with trips to Turkey

Lots of pols hand out turkeys to their constituents — but Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz gives Turkey to himself.

Cymbrowitz (D–Sheepshead Bay) charged three pricey trips to Asia Minor to his campaign account — raising eyebrows at watchdog groups.

The seven-term state legislator dropped $604 of his donors’ dough on a trip to Turkey in 2009, another $800 on a second trip in 2011, and $1,273 on a third jaunt in 2012.

State law bars the use of campaign money for personal purposes, and requires that politicians only spend money from their election accounts on goods and services directly related to the race or the office they hold — so good-government advocates called Cymbrowitz’s travel expenditures strange in the extreme.

“Spending campaign funds on trips to Turkey is certainly very questionable activity for a state lawmaker,” said Alex Camarda, a director at watchdog group Citizens Union. “It is incumbent upon Assemblymember Cymbrowitz to therefore justify this trip as consistent with the holding of his office.”

But the state Board of Elections said it gives pols a great deal of leeway when it comes to spending campaign cash.

“The law on this is pretty broad, and it’s been interpreted pretty broadly,” said spokesman John Conklin. “He would have to explain how a trip to Turkey assists him in his work as a member of the Assembly.”

Cymbrowitz argued that paying $2,677 for his Anatolian travels out of his campaign warchest was justified because of the Turkish enclaves in his Midwood-to-Brighton Beach-spanning district. He also said he took the trips along with other lawmakers — but he would not say who.

“Representing the largest constituency of Turkish-Americans in New York State, I participated on these trips with other Jewish and Christian state legislators along with Turkish Muslims as a vehicle toward understanding all of our cultures and faith traditions through education and dialogue,” said Cymbrowitz.

State Board of Elections records show just one other politician who expensed such a journey to his campaign — Assemblyman Kevin Cahill of upstate Ulster County — but Cahill’s August 2013 Turkish trip did not coincide with any of Cymbrowitz’s, and he charged just $391 to his election coffers for it. Cahill’s district includes New Paltz campus of the State University of New York, which hosts one of the largest Turkish exchange programs in the nation.

There are 2,072 Turkish-Americans in all of Brooklyn, according to census data. This columnist was unable to determine how many of them are among Cymbrowitz’s approximately 129,000 constituents. His district does include the largest concentration of Russians in the city, but he has never expensed a trip to their motherland.

Cymbrowitz faces a primary challenge this fall from Ben Akselrod, a local activist and former aide to state Sen. Seymour Lachman. Akselrod came within 250 votes of unseating the incumbent in 2012.

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One of Cymbrowitz’s allies also faces a challenge — longtime district leader Pearl Siegelman.

Lara Vugman, a Russian-speaking occupational therapist from Manhattan Beach, will take on the 14-year incumbent for her unpaid position representing Cymbrowitz’s district in the Democratic Party. Vugman, like Akselrod, comes out of the insurgent Bay Democrats club — as does Ari Kagan, who in 2012 crushed Siegelman’s co-district leader Michael Geller, even though Geller had held the job for nearly 25 years. There is a male and a female district leader for every Assembly district in Kings County.

Siegelman vowed to retaliate against Vugman’s challenge by fielding a candidate against Kagan, though she said she has yet to decide who that contender will be.

District leaders elect the county party’s operations chairman and select its candidates for the Supreme Court. A hot contest for district leader could also impact the Cymbrowitz-Akselrod race. One observer argued that Akselrod received a major boost from Kagan’s candidacy in 2012, and stands to benefit again.

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A controversial Brooklyn judge has filed to run for re-election — despite a spate of criticism from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, several councilmembers, and our own Shavana Abruzzo after she released an ex-con who went on to shoot a police officer in 2011.

Judge Evelyn LaPorte, whose first term on the bench expires at the end of this year, has registered to run again. LaPorte drew fire from pols and columnists alike for releasing Lamont Pride without bail after cops busted him for pot and crack in Coney Island — even though Pride had an outstanding warrant in North Carolina for aggravated assault.

Weeks later, Pride fatally shot Officer Peter Figoski in East New York. Pride is now serving a term of 45 years to life for the crime.

LaPorte could not be reached for comment by our deadline.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.