Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Mar 2018 21:51:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) GothamTalks: Campaign Finance Reform Now GothamTalks commentary New Leaders Council

Gotham Gazette and New Leaders Council -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership institute -- have partnered with Manhattan Neighborhood Network to create a series of video commentaries by New York City civic activists. GothamTalks is short video essays submitted through the New Leaders Council alumni network, which consists of hundreds of New Yorkers working in advocacy, government, campaigns, nonprofits, business, law, and other aspects of city life.

Like both the reporting we do at Gotham Gazette and the written op-ed columns we publish, the GothamTalks video commentaries range in subject, but are all meant to move the public discussion forward. Please watch, listen, and let us know what you think. Use #GothamTalks on social media, and tag us @GothamGazette and @NLC_NYC.

Note: The views expressed in GothamTalks are entirely those of the commentators, and not of Gotham Gazette or New Leaders Council.


March 12, 2018
Michael Pernick
Campaign Finance Reform

GothamTalks: Campaign Finance Reform Now Wed, 14 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission Mayor de Blasio State of the City

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in his State of the City speech that he would convene a commission to consider changes to the city charter, New York City’s seminal governing document. De Blasio said the charter revision commission would undertake the significant task of reducing the impact of “big money” on local elections and to engage voters in a democracy that has suffered from their apathy. The mayor is hoping the commission members, whom he has yet to name, will prepare recommendations in time for voters to approve or reject the commission’s ideas on Election Day this November through one or more ballot questions.

De Blasio is ready to utilize a power available to him, though some are already questioning why he isn’t pursuing his desired changes through legislation at the City Council, while others are criticizing the mayor for pre-determining the panel’s outcomes. But, de Blasio will do as several predecessors have done and call a commission. How exactly does it work?

The mayor has the power to call a Charter Revision Commission under Section 36 of the state’s municipal home rule law. A commission can be composed of between 9 and 15 members, who would all have to be residents of the city. The mayor simply has to file the names of his chosen members, who can include current public officials, with the City Clerk’s office. There is no public vetting process, but de Blasio has conceded that he is open to input from concerned elected officials about who should serve on the body.

“I’m going to act in the manner stipulated in the City Charter,” the mayor said at an unrelated news conference on Feb 14, when asked by Gotham Gazette if he’d let other elected officials choose members for the commission, as some were calling for even before de Blasio’s announcement. “So, I’ll be naming the commission. I’m happy to talk to my colleagues in government about people they think would be right to serve, but I will name the commission just as previous mayors did.”

De Blasio said in his State of the City speech that he would “give [the Commission] the mandate to propose a plan for deep public financing of local elections.” Despite being elected with maximum contributions from wealthy donors (the limit is $4,950 per person to a mayoral candidate), the mayor has been a frequent critic of the influence of big money in elections. He also established multiple extra-governmental fundraising entities that took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities with city business and led to new city laws restricting such groups.

De Blasio has directly spoken out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to untold amounts of unaccountable election spending, and has repeatedly called for broader campaign finance reforms to be enacted by the state.

“I will also charge the Charter Revision Commission to propose a plan to empower the city government,” de Blasio continued during his State of the City, insisting that the city should be able to take on duties he believes are currently mishandled by the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency.

However, the mayor cannot technically charge the Commission, which is meant to be independent, with exploring any specific agenda item. A commission could take up any issue its members deem appropriate and recommend changes to the charter that even the mayor could not reject. Final recommendations would have to be approved by a voter referendum.

“The mayor I think has made it clear he has certain questions in mind, which seem to be well intended,” said Joseph Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College who served as research director for the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Viteritti also recently wrote a book about de Blasio). “That said, once a commission is appointed, it can go where it chooses.”

The 2010 commission held public hearings in each of the five boroughs and, based on feedback from the public and from elected officials, examined five broad subjects: voter participation, public integrity, government structure, term limits for elected officials, and land use. In its final report, the commission made several recommendations which ultimately formed the basis for two ballot questions that were both approved by 52 percent of voters.

The first question reduced the number of terms that city elected officials can serve from three to two for those elected in 2010 and after, and prohibited the City Council from changing term limits for incumbents. The second question dealt more widely with elections and government administration. Among other things, it required the disclosure of independent expenditures in city elections; reduced the number of ballot petition signatures that candidates need to run for office; tasked the city’s Campaign Finance Board with voter assistance functions; established mandatory conflicts of interest trainings for all public servants, while also increasing fines for violations.

“I would assume they’ll have public hearings and when you do that...people can introduce things that may or may not be on the agenda,” Viteritti said. “Any commission opens up the entire charter to review potentially. There’s no constraints once it’s appointed.”

Notably, the 2010 Commission did not propose a ballot question on nonpartisan primary elections, a change that Bloomberg had made clear in the past that he wanted to see happen and that would allow any registered voter to vote in one party primary of their choosing. The Commission debated the issue extensively -- although Bloomberg did not raise it again that year -- but it did not include it in its final recommendations. “We decided not to propose that because we didn’t think we had enough time to consider the potential consequences of such a major change,” Viteritti said. “What that should tell anybody is that the mayor can express his priorities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be reflected in the final deliberations of the commission.”

The last time the city’s charter was thoroughly reviewed was by the 1989 Commission, on which Viteritti served as a consultant. That commission radically changed the structure of city government by eliminating the Board of Estimate -- a body made up of the citywide electeds and borough-wide officials who together exercised complete control over the city’s budget and land use -- and by assigning its roles to the City Council, which saw its number of seats increase from 35 to 51.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, praised the mayor’s announcement but said his priorities should be broader. “It’s gotta be far more extensive and it’s gotta be funded appropriately,” said Muzzio, who was on an expert panel on government structure that testified before the 2010 Commission.

Muzzio pointed to an alternate proposal put forward in legislation by Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, both second-term Democrats like de Blasio. The proposed bill would create a charter review commission composed of representatives appointed by the mayor, who would get a plurality of appointees, the speaker of the City Council, the borough presidents, the public advocate and the comptroller. “In terms of greater diversity of views on something as important as the charter, I would prefer the Brewer-James proposal,” Muzzio said.

“Charter revision is important and needed,” Brewer tweeted on Tuesday, “but appointments should come from many electeds and the issues to be discussed should come from the group.”

In a New York Daily News editorial in December, Brewer and James called for a revamp of the city’s charter, noting that “the last real overhaul” was in 1989. Citing a new world and new challenges, a charter revision commission, they said, could give communities a stronger voice in the city’s land use processes, provide City Council members with greater say over the city’s budget, and streamline agencies with shared responsibilities. “Our goal is simple: empower a panel of genuine experts to do a top-to-bottom review of how our government could work better, and put their recommendations up for public discussion and a vote,” they said.

Time will likely be a constraint on de Blasio’s commission and if they are to be ready to make recommendations by November, they will have to move quickly. The 2010 commission was convened in March and had issued its final report by August.

Both Muzzio and Viteritti also pointed out that many of the improvements to campaign financing and election laws that the mayor wants to accomplish are held back by inaction by the state Legislature and Citizens United.

Although the mayor may not drastically change how New York City’s massive municipal government works, he has nonetheless set the stage for a broader discussion of voting laws, election funding, and the city’s waning democracy, Viteritti insisted.

“To me the most important thing to come out of this is to raise the consciousness of people to how broken and troubled the democratic process is,” he said. “The more public discussion we have about these issues the better...We have to start the conversation somewhere. It’s not starting in Albany. It’s not starting in Washington, D.C., that’s for sure.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article noted earlier that the 2010 Charter Revision Commission did not take up the issue of nonpartisan primary elections. The Commission, in fact, debated the issue but did not include it in their final recommendations. The article has been updated.  

Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle Mayor de Blasio 2017 election voting

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

The New York Campaign Finance Board (CFB) held a hearing Monday morning to field testimony on the 2017 New York City election cycle from candidates, operatives, and advocates. The hearing, part of a quadrennial post-election report that must be submitted before September 1 the year after the election, came on the heels of final campaign finance filing of the 2017 cycle. The CFB post-election process will lead to a report that then informs legislation typically introduced by City Council members to tweak the city’s heralded public-matching system that encourages small-dollar fundraising.

Led by CFB chair Frederick Schaffer, Monday morning’s meeting was attended by roughly 35 people and lasted just under two hours. It featured discussion on increasing voter participation, ins and outs of campaign financing, and CFB protocols in working with candidates. As is typical, several candidates who were unsuccessful in the recently completed elections expressed frustration with the process, though the vast majority of candidates did not testify at the hearing. City Council Member Ben Kallos was the lone elected official to testify -- Kallos has been a campaign finance and government reform advocate prior to joining the Council, and for the last four-year cycle chaired the Council committee with oversight of the CFB.

The board took stock of its initiatives during the last cycle -- which featured elections for citywide, borough-wide, and City Council seats -- including the matching funds program, but also the candidate debates that it sponsored, and its other voter education and outreach efforts.

According to the CFB’s data, during the 2017 cycle 73% of candidates received money from the program; the CFB distributed funds totaling $17,694,046 to 105 different people running for office. This past cycle, 46% of spending came via public funds. And in 25 Council races, matching funds comprised of over half of campaign spending.

The first and only of its kind, the hearing is part of a process that may prove pivotal in the next election cycle, ahead of what will be a far more contentious and busy 2021 elections. After the CFB released its report on the 2013 elections in 2014, the City Council subsequently incorporated many of the proposals in about a dozen pieces of legislation that passed ahead of these past elections, along with about another ten campaign finance-related bills brought forth by Council members to modify the system and related processes to their liking.

According to the CFB, of 14 statutory changes the board recommended in 2014, 10 became law, including measures to make determinations about public matching funds earlier in the cycle, clarify eligibilty for debates in the citywide races, and ban anonymous campaign communications. Those that were not enacted into law include instant runoff voting.

On Monday, advocates and others testifying offered several changes they would like to see ahead of the 2021 election. Further encouraging candidates to raise funds via small-dollar donations topped the list of priorities.

Kallos made the case for a bill he sponsored last term and will soon re-introduce this term, which he said would additionally incentivize candidates to pursue small-dollar donations by increasing the threshold for public matching dollars that candidates can earn.  While he called New York City’s “the model public finance system in the country,” he said it can also be improved upon.

Under current campaign finance law, Kallos explained, the CFB matches the first $175 of eligible donations at a six-to-one ratio. Kallos wants to raise the ceiling for matching funds so that candidates can run for office by raising all donations of $175 or less if they so choose, and still be able to hit the spending cap. If his policy in enacted, Kallos said candidates would be able to finance campaigns on mostly small donations. For example, he said, someone would be able to run for mayor collecting 5,689 contributions of $175, raising about $1 million, to be matched six-to-one, garnering a total of $7 million and able “to run a competitive race.”

“The ability to run a 100 percent grassroots campaign, where a candidate is beholden to no one except the voters, will revolutionize city politics and restore confidence in government [that] has been steadily eroding for decades,” he said.

“If candidates pursue a small-dollars, grassroots campaign, we will have elected officials who earned their positions based on their knowledge of the issues,” he said, rather than candidates’ “ability to convince millionaires and billionaires to open their wallets.”  

Asked what the advantage of his proposal is over lowering the contribution limit with the aim of encouraging low-dollar donations, Kallos responded that candidates would still opt not to seek small donations and prioritize larger donors if the contribution limit was reduced. “Whatever the contribution limit is, is what elected officials will seek. Lowering that threshold just makes it a little bit cheaper for those writing those maximum checks under the law,” Kallos said.

Michael Malbin, campaign finance expert and politics professor at the University of Albany, agreed with the thinking behind Kallos’ bill. “If you raise your money from max’re not going into the neighborhoods to get $50 contributions,” Malbin said during his testimony. “And the goal of this is, or ought to be, to increase participation by a diverse set of people who fully represent the city.”

Caitlin Scherer, of Represent.US, voiced support for Kallos’ legislation. And more broadly, Scherer made the case for increasing the amount of public spending on elections. “Doing so would involve more citizens in the political process and relieve candidates of the pressure to solicit donations from those with the deepest pockets,” she said during testimony.

Reinvent Albany senior policy consultant Alex Camarda also expressed support for Kallos’ legislation. The bill was co-sponsored last term by Council members Brad Lander and Fernando Cabrera, along with 29 others, for a total of 32 sponsors in the 51-seat body, and was discussed at a hearing last April, but did not see a committee vote.

Rachel Bloom, director of public policy at Citizens Union, another government reform group, offered other suggestions on campaign finance reform during her testimony. Before the 2021 elections, Bloom said Citizens Union wants to see “an increase in spending caps to counteract increases in independent expenditures, banning the use of public funds for campaign consulting services from firms that also lobby; and a further reduction in public funds for candidates facing minimal opposition and the enactment of ‘war chest’ restrictions.’”

Bloom also assessed the voter turnout in the 2017 elections, which was exceedingly low. She pointed toward the lack of competitiveness in many elections across the five boroughs, with incumbents receiving 74% of the vote and only about 10 of more than 50 municipal seats open in 2017 as the factors driving low voter participation. The elections last year, she said, were “notably uncompetitive.” Bloom added that “open” city council races, races without incumbents seeking office, were 12% more likely to participate in the matching funds program.

Matt McDermott, director at Whitman Insight Strategies, mentioned the difficulty of getting younger voters to the polls. “These voters aren’t apathetic. They actually have issues they care about and they actually care about those passionately,” McDermott said. “The difficulty is in correlating those care-abouts to voting in local elections.”

“A lot of younger people just don’t know there’s a primary,” said Caileigh Scott of McEvoy & Associates. “It is partially a communication breakdown.”

Malbin said that though getting millennials to vote it a difficult task, it is also crucial.  “The research show that once you get somebody to vote, it’s really a habit. The first couple are the hard ones,” said Malbin.

While the majority of testimony was focused on specific recommended changes to the CFB system, some who testified -- mainly those who either worked on unsuccessful campaigns or had run themselves -- had harsh words for the CFB.

Angela Disto, who served as treasurer for Liam McCabe’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in City Council District 43, complained that some of the CFB’s verification process of donations was “petty” and “unnecessary.”

“I’m a volunteer, as [are] the majority of campaign treasurers. Who needs it?” she said. “Why does the board make this mostly volunteer role so overwhelming?”

Anthony Rivers, who ran unsuccessfully in City Council District 27, does not think the CFB-led training sessions adequately prepared him for the campaign.

“I feel the training does not put enough emphasis on campaign contribution cards and their importance,” he said. “It should be heavily stressed on the importance of not having a single blemish on the contributions card. Our campaign suffered many setbacks due to minor blemishes on the individual cards.”

For his part, Cary Goodman, who ran in Council District 6, had a different experience with the CFB. “I am here as a poster boy for the Campaign Finance Board,” he said. “There is absolutely no way I would have been able to conduct a campaign against the incumbent -- it was not successful, I got rocked -- but I would not have have [had] the opportunity to do what I did without the Campaign Finance Board.”

The CFB will now proceed with months of internal work to complete its post-election report before September 1. The next filing for the 2017 campaign cycle and first filing for the 2021 cycle is July 15.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle Tue, 30 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
The Next Step to Reform District Attorney Campaign Finance Cy Vance District Attorney

Four NYC DAs  (photo: @ManhattanDA)

For the past four months, the people of Manhattan have grappled with accusations of their District Attorney cultivating a pay-to-play culture in which the rich and powerful skate by serious criminal charges -- if their lawyers contribute sizable donations to DA Vance’s campaign. In a public display of penance for allowing the appearance of corruption to permeate, Vance requested The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School to investigate ways to better insulate our elected prosecutors from the influence of donors. The CAPI recommendations make for a good headline after months of bad PR for the DA, but will not change the status quo.

Following the report, Vance said he will adopt the ‘blind’ practice used for judicial candidates who are raising money for their campaigns. Unfortunately the failings of this model are widely known, and are surely no secret to Vance himself. It follows a legal fiction that removing the DA from the fundraising eliminates the potential conflict. That is absurd.

It is pure fantasy to suggest a candidate will have no knowledge of who is donating to their campaign. Full transparency is an ideal all elected officials should be striving for in our electoral system, especially when it comes to the funding of campaigns. That is why the records of who has donated to candidates are fully public, easily obtained by the click of a button. There’s no ‘blind’ approach to raising money when the names, addresses and amount of money donated are so easily accessed by the public, press, campaign, and candidates. Especially for a DA like Cy Vance who has been in office for almost a decade and has built a donor list based on strong relationships with certain criminal defense lawyers and law firms.  

Then we come to the donor cap recommendations -- riddled with far too many loopholes. By restricting the $320 donation cap to only attorneys appearing before the DA office, the policy is extremely limited, allowing many other non-appearing attorneys from the same law firm to donate individually up to $3,850. Undoubtedly, high-profile wins for firms are good for business. Perhaps that’s why Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s personal lawyer, had his coworkers raise over $18,000 for Vance just a few months after the DA chose not to prosecute the Trump children. Under the CAPI recommendations, this could continue to happen. In fact, under Vance’s new self-imposed fundraising rules, he would only have to wait six months after a case is resolved to accept donations from the exact lawyers who appeared before his office.

Even with the cap from partners and some lawyers, there are a multitude of ways that law firms with an attorney or attorneys who appear before the DA office can donate significant amounts of money to the DA. It will just take some creativity. This permits the existence of the conflict that CAPI admits exists -- attorneys donate to create "positive relationships" with the DA's office, "which, could, in theory inspire some of them to become contributors to the DA's campaign." An understatement to say the least.

The CAPI recommendations represent an incomplete addition to the conversation of reforming the way we fund our DA races, something the report acknowledges. This report should not signal the tidy conclusion of how the rich and powerful were seemingly able to curry favorable treatment through campaign donations by their lawyers. We need true comprehensive reform to make our system one New Yorkers can confidently rely on. I have legislation that will bring us one step closer to this by forbidding large donations to DAs from criminal defense lawyers or their law firms. Let’s get this passed and move toward a fairer system for all.

Dan Quart is a member of the New York State Assembly representing Manhattan’s East Side. On Twitter @AMDanQuart.

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The Next Step to Reform District Attorney Campaign Finance Thu, 25 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Requested by Vance Amid Controversy, Report Suggests Campaign Finance Reforms for District Attorneys 12140208 950370915020682 1603350793198330441 o

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (photo: Manhattan DA facebook)

District attorneys should separate themselves from fundraising efforts and implement tighter vetting procedures for donors to reduce the appearance of bias, says a new report by the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School.

The recommendations were requested by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance in October, following public outcry over Vance’s handling of two investigations of wealthy, politically-connected individuals. In both cases -- a 2015 forcible touching charge involving movie producer Harvey Weinstein and a 2012 investigation into business practices of members of the Trump family -- Vance’s office declined to prosecute the cases, and it was later revealed that the potential defendents' lawyers involved in the cases were generous contributors to the Manhattan DA’s re-election campaign. The larger episode spotlighted lax rules around fundraising for New York district attorneys and raised questions about reforms, including whether DAs should accept campaign contributions from defense lawyers at all.

Following the revelations, Vance insisted that in his seven years in office, he had never allowed someone’s “wealth, power, race, or campaign contribution” to influence his decision-making as a prosecutor. But he conceded in an October op-ed in The Daily News that “Over the past few days, I’ve learned that it's not enough for me to have confidence in my independence from donors. The people of New York deserve to be confident about it as well.”

As reported by Gotham Gazette, New York’s top prosecutors rely heavily on campaign contributions from criminal defense lawyers who may have cases before their office, but, as county officials, district attorneys are not subject to New York City’s stringent campaign finance rules. 

CAPI executive director Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, briefed Gotham Gazette on the report, entitled "Raising the Bar: Reducing Conflicts of Interest and Increasing Transparency in District Attorney Campaign Fundraising," before its Monday release. Rodgers said the objective was to minimize the potential for real, perceived, or unconscious bias for district attorneys.

“[Currently] there’s no legal restrictions, or even guidance, on having a procedure in place to vet contributions to make sure you are not taking money from people who have an interest in your decision as district attorney,” said Rodgers, in a phone interview.

Following a 90-day inquiry initiated by Vance's request, CAPI is offering seven recommendations primarily related to the implementation of a blinding process, and limiting contributions from people who have a personal or professional interest in the decisions of the district attorney. The blinding process outlined in the report is similar to that required by judges in New York State; Rodgers said prosecutors should refrain from personally soliciting money and stay ignorant of who the donors are and how much they have donated.

“It’s a pretty clean rule, its not 100 percent airtight…but if in good faith you try not to have access to that information and put controls in place between you and your campaign, that’s one big thing that DAs can do,” she said.

The report recommends district attorney campaigns refuse contributions from a party to a matter before the DA’s office -- something many prosecutors already do, according to Rodgers -- as well as targets of investigation. Since refusal of a donation could tip off the person that they are under investigation, CAPI suggests cashing the check and putting it into a second, separate account until the matter becomes public and the campaign can return the money. If the matter never becomes public, CAPI recommends prosecutors donate the money to New York’s IOLA fund, a trust fund for lawyers that uses accumulated interest to provide legal aid for the poor.

Addressing the specific criticisms of Vance, and fundraising practices of all district attorneys, CAPI recommends capping contributions at $320 from lawyers with a pending matter before the district attorney’s office, and at $3,850 for partners of lawyers with matters before the district attorney. The figures comes from the city’s “doing business” fundraising restrictions for borough presidents, which, as a countywide office, is most analogous to that of district attorneys. There are five counties and therefore five districit attorneys in New York City; Vance represents New York County, otherwise known as Manhattan.

“We thought those were good limits. Those are amounts small enough that it shouldn’t impact anyone’s decision making, and if he is participating in the blinding procedure he wouldn’t know about it anyway,” said Rodgers.

Other recommendations relate to setting up a vetting process for contributions, creating additional measures to separate the government office from the campaign, refusing campaign contributions from DA staff and their spouses, requiring donors to certify their eligibility to give funds, and publishing campaign policies.

The report is broad enough to apply to all 62 top prosecutors, but whether these recommendations will be adopted by district attorneys across the city and state remains to be seen. In a statement Monday morning, Vance said he will voluntarily adopt the CAPI recommendations.

"In its independent report published today, CAPI principally recommends that district attorney candidates (1) apply ‘blind’ fundraising standards, and (2) in the case of incumbent prosecutors, limit contributions from lawyers who represent clients in matters before the office to $320," reads the statement, released by Vance's campaign. "My campaign will meet and exceed these recommendations. Effective today, we have implemented the ‘blinding’ procedure recommended in CAPI's report, which is the same procedure followed by candidates for judicial office in New York State. Also effective today, we will no longer accept contributions – in any amount – from lawyers appearing before our office and will cap contributions from their law partners, consistent with CAPI's recommendation."

Vance thanked CAPI for its review and concluded, "As its report notes, legislative action is the surest way to achieve lasting, mandatory campaign finance reform. I look forward to working with lawmakers and reform advocates to advance such legislation, which should include a full public matching funds program for District Attorney races.”

District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY) President Scott McNamara has invited Rodgers to present her findings at the association’s next board of directors meeting, this Thursday, and said he and his colleagues are looking forward to hearing her thoughts.

“We would like to do whatever we can to be transparent to the public in raising money, but at the same time raise money so that we can campaign for re-election,” said McNamara, who serves as district attorney of Oneida County, in an interview. “It’s a difficult situation but I am looking forward to her insight. Hopefully she has some good recommendations for us.”

McNamara noted that fundraising poses less of a conflict for many Upstate district attorneys, who rarely see challengers, and when they do, run their campaigns on small donations, primarily from family and friends. “Most of my contributions are $100 or less,” he said. “When you get into very small communities, everyone knows each other and it’s not uncommon for attorneys to be related to each other, so it gets more complicated.”

One measure proposed by CAPI that could be relevant to district attorneys statewide is blind fundraising, according to McNamara.“I think that is a terrific idea and it’s something I already do,” he said, noting that he has recently stopped sending thank you notes to contributors.

While he had not yet seen the report when he spoke to Gotham Gazette on Friday, McNamara said DAASNY welcomes the recommendations from the experts at CAPI, which could potentially translate into more permanent legislation.

Government and legal reform groups who were consulted among others during the review process approved the reforms proposed by CAPI in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

"CAPI has provided worthwhile reforms for DA Vance to consider, and we believe the limitations on contributions by lawyers, and the partners of their firms, doing business with the DA are particularly important,” said Alex Camarda, of Reinvent Albany. “We look forward to engaging the DA's Office to determine if these voluntary reforms can serve as a model for permanent change for all District Attorneys."

[Related: Vance Fallout Echoes Other Controversies that Led to Reforms]

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Requested by Vance Amid Controversy, Report Suggests Campaign Finance Reforms for District Attorneys Mon, 22 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Four Years Later, 2014 State Campaign Finance Pilot All But Forgotten Cuomo ethics agenda

Gov. Cuomo unveils an ethics agenda (photo: The Governor's Office)

With the four statewide positions up for election again this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ill-fated 2014 public campaign financing experiment, in which candidates for state comptroller were eligible to test-run a pilot program, appears all but forgotten.

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, like Cuomo a Democrat running for another four-year term, has long been a proponent of a comprehensive program to match certain private campaign donations with public dollars, as a way to curb real or perceived influence of money in government and the possibility of pay-to-play politics. DiNapoli would support a program that only targeted his office, he said, restating his views during a question-and-answer session last week at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center.

In 2014, DiNapoli briefly saw a version come to fruition, when a last-minute budget deal between Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly instructed the State Board of Elections to quickly create a public funding program for the comptroller race in the middle of the election cycle, just eight months before Election Day -- a proposal many immediately saw as cynical and doomed to fail.

Recalling that pilot program nearly four years later, DiNapoli told the Times Union’s Casey Seiler he believes the state is long overdue for publicly financed elections for all state-level offices -- including candidates for the state Legislature -- given the numerous corruption trials involving former lawmakers, former state officials, and others that are looming over this legislative session. DiNapoli marveled at the state’s immensely lax campaign finance laws, including the infamous loophole that allows limited liability corporations (LLCs) to pour virtually unlimited funds into candidate campaign accounts.

"I don’t say it’s a panacea, but I do think public financing of elections will create more access for people to run for office,” said DiNapoli, adding, “Democracy works when there is a competition of ideas.”

In 2013 and 2014, there was a lot of momentum in New York and nationally around campaign finance reform, including a significant push for Cuomo to take the issue up the way he did other progressive initiatives in prior budget negotiations, where Cuomo is known for getting his top priorities passed. Newspaper editorial boards, government reform groups, and others continued to call on Cuomo to usher through a new campaign finance system, something he had repeatedly called a priority. And, it was a gubernatorial election year, and leaders of the left-wing Working Families Party indicated that they would withhold their endorsement of the Democratic governor, then seeking a second term, unless he pushed for comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Notably, the governor’s own Moreland Commission on Public Corruption -- a bipartisan panel primarily made up of district attorneys rather than politicians -- recommended public funding of all elections as the key component in reforming the state’s porous campaign finance system to prevent the type of scandals that had rocked state government in recent years. In addition, the panel recommended lower contribution limits and closure of loopholes, tighter guideline for how campaign account monies can be spent, and increased disclosure on outside spending, such as spending on ads that could be “reasonably considered’ campaign ads.

When at the end of March 2014 a budget deal came together between the governor and legislative leaders, Cuomo squeezed through the pilot program, passed as part of the last-minute horse trades that occur annually during the final hours of budget negotiations.

At the time, Republicans controlled the Senate -- as they do now -- and the compromise was notable given the Republican leadership’s vehement opposition to spending any state funds on public campaign financing, which they typically see as likely to bolster Democrats and a questionable use of state funds for campaign purposes. But then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos agreed to include in the final budget bill the pilot, limited only to the comptroller’s office. While it could open the door to larger campaign finance reforms, the pilot would benefit DiNapoli’s Republican challenger more than the incumbent, who had already raised significant funds. Some saw Cuomo’s use of the comptroller’s race as a way to frustrate DiNapoli, who Cuomo has at times sought to undermine. 

“The pilot program for public financing of the comptroller’s election is a poor excuse to avoid real reforms New Yorkers deserve. At this point, I cannot participate in this pilot,” DiNapoli said in a statement at the time.

As surprising as it was to some that Senate Republicans had agreed to even the pilot, Cuomo had the leverage of the Moreland Commission, which had begun to irk the Legislature (and the governor himself), according to those familiar with budget negotiations. On March 31, 2014 -- about two days after the proposed pilot program had been announced -- Cuomo abruptly shut down the commission, just halfway through its planned 18-month duration, citing inclusion in the new budget of reforms aimed at addressing bribery and corruption and enforcement of election law, which he said would eliminate the need for the panel.

DiNapoli had been surprised to learn of the pilot, having not been informed “even by his friends in Legislature,” the former assemblymember said last week. According to the pilot, statewide candidates would need to raise $200,000 in donations above $5 from at least 2,000 New York State residents. For each eligible donor, every dollar donated up to $175 would be matched with $6 of public money.

"The process was flawed,” DiNapoli said at the time, just after the pilot proposal was announced and before it was voted through as part of the 2014-2015 state budget. “I was excluded from the negotiations, and it appears a historic opportunity was missed for comprehensive campaign finance reform and public financing for all statewide and legislative offices.”

Unlike DiNapoli’s own proposal -- which would create a seven-member board, appointed by a variety of offices, to create guidelines and procedures to ensure that the public funds are appropriately spent -- Cuomo's proposal entrusted the state Board of Elections to administer the program. The Board was instructed to issue payments "as soon as it is practicable," write advisory opinions, and create new regulations as needed. Civic groups opposed the program, writing in a letter to the Cuomo administration that, “the Board is ill-suited to take on such as task, much less set up an entirely new administrative system for an election cycle which has already begun.” They noted that Cuomo’s Moreland Commission had investigated the Board and found a great deal of dysfunction at the agency in its preliminary findings.

Good government groups also raised concerns about the timing of the pilot -- which would launch just months from Election Day and not easily provide candidates with adequate time to organize their campaigns in a way that would allow them to opt in. They noted that the program did not need to be piloted; New York City already has a successful public matching system.

Indeed, DiNapoli, who had already done significant fundraising, chose not to opt in to the pilot, and his severely disadvantaged Republican opponent, Robert Antonacci, the Onondaga County comptroller, did not meet the $200,000 threshold to qualify for public matching funds. DiNapoli wound up winning the election, 60 percent to Antonacci’s 36.6 percent.

Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group, recalled the 2014 push and the budget compromise, and called the program a “kamikaze pilot” that was designed to fail.

“Despite the fact that the governor said it was a pilot project, we never heard about it again,” said Horner. “If it was a serious proposal, [a comprehensive public campaign finance system] would have gone into effect within months.”

Cuomo, in a May 2014 op-ed in the Huffington Post, “Finishing the Job Teddy Roosevelt Started: Public Financing of Elections,” acknowledged that the deal was not sufficient, but said critics should recognize the significance of Republicans conceding “the crucial ideological point they had resisted for decades.”

“We crossed the ideological Rubicon and the world did not stop spinning — now it’s time to finish what we started and pass a full-fledged program of public financing for state campaigns,” Cuomo wrote. “If you can use public funds for a demonstration program then you can use public funds for a full program.”

The Board of Elections did briefly review the failed pilot, recommending that a future version of the program allow two years for implementation and coordinate better with other agencies. “It is important to note that the 2014 program was to be implemented nearly 3 ½ years into the election cycle for this office,” the report’s authors wrote.

Now, four years later, the four statewide offices -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller -- are again up for election, with Democratic incumbents in each position likely to seek another term. As they are every two years, all the seats in the state Legislature will also be on the ballot this year. While Cuomo, who is sitting on a $30 million warchest, including millions in dollars from LLCs, put provisions for a small-donor public matching program and closure of the LLC loophole in his State of the State policy book again this year, the proposals were only briefly mentioned in his 92-minute address on January 3.

"We should increase trust by closing the LLC loophole and open up the electoral process with public financing, but not our current public financing system that has public financing but private loopholes,” Cuomo said. “I mean a true public financing system in which the exception does not swallow the rule. That's what we need to do to regain the trust of the citizens in this state and across this nation."

There’s no indication that Cuomo will prioritize campaign finance reform this year, especially given the difficult budget situation the state is in, with a $4.4 billion deficit to close and a new federal tax code to react to. While the Democratically-led Assembly appears to continue to support campaign finance reform, it is not evident as a top priority in the lower house. Senate Republicans regularly dismiss the idea of campaign finance reform, and when discussing the LLC loophole typically point to the influence of labor unions in donating to Democratic candidates.

The state’s broken campaign finance system will likely be on display during the upcoming corruption trials of eight men, including Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo regularly praised and empowered. The massive bid-rigging scheme associated with the governor’s signature Buffalo Billion program benefited developers who contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. After the scheme came to light, Cuomo vowed to instruct his campaign to turn away donations from those bidding for state projects, but ultimately did not follow through on that promise.

Karen Scharff, executive director of left-leaning advocacy group Citizen Action of New York, who was involved in the negotiations of 2014, said advocates sensed they had hit a wall with the Republican-controlled Senate after their major push to pass comprehensive public financing system failed. Despite this, she said, nothing has changed in Albany and these reforms are needed more than ever.

“We continue to see a donor-driven culture where critical policy is determined based on who the biggest donors are. And who can run for election and who can win is also heavily based on who can raise money from real estate and hedge funds,” she said. “We’re not going to have a real democracy in New York State until we have publicly funded elections.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Four Years Later, 2014 State Campaign Finance Pilot All But Forgotten Wed, 17 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals Cuomo State of the State reforms

Gov. Cuomo at his 2018 State of the State (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)

During his 2018 State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo spent little time on government ethics reform, but did address at somewhat greater length his proposals to increase access to the ballot box and change state campaign finance law.

In sum, the “reform” portion of Cuomo’s remarks were relatively brief, though the governor did expand more on his proposals to change voting, campaign financing, political advertising, and the jobs of legislators in the accompanying 374-page policy book that details his 2018 agenda. Many of these proposals are repeated from prior years. Cuomo has not prioritized things like early voting or a public campaign finance system, so they have not become law in New York.

Known for his ability to bend the Legislature to his will for policy items he puts his weight behind -- like marriage equality or a $15 minimum wage program -- Cuomo has overseen some incremental ethics reforms but little by way of seismic shifts to prevent corruption or increase election participation. He has also been unwilling to go along with contracting reform that is aimed at bringing more oversight and transparency to his own economic development programming.

The governor’s speech came just ahead of a handful of corruption trials that will occur this year, including some of his top aides and donors who are accused of engaging in major bid-rigging and kickback schemes dealing with the governor’s signature economic development programs. Two former legislative leaders will also be retried for public corruption after their recent convictions were overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling.

In an hour-and-a-half speech on Wednesday, government ethics was sandwiched briefly between Cuomo’s discussion of doing more to help mentally ill homeless people and focusing on “new problems” facing the state, like the “rise in terrorism,” climate change, the opioid epidemic, and more. Cuomo devoted just one brief segment to the topic, and in doing so nodded to legislators’ disinterest in further reform.

“With all we have to do as a government, it is more important than ever that we have the public's trust,” Cuomo said. “I know the Legislature feels that we have done much on ethics reform and they are right. I know they feel that whatever we do, it will never be enough in this political atmosphere and they may be right, but we must do more anyway. The single best ethics reform is to ban outside income, remove any possibility for conflict and let legislators say 'I work for the public. Period. And there are no possible conflicts presented.’”

The Democratic governor, now in the final year of his second term and seeking a third, has proposed banning outside income for legislators before, along with other reforms that he did not name Wednesday but are again in his policy book, like term limits. These and campaign finance reforms have mostly gone nowhere in the Legislature, especially the Republican-controlled state Senate, though lawmakers would like their first salary increase since 1999. Cuomo is in favor of a pay raise for legislators, but in exchange for strict limits on outside income and other reforms.

In moving toward “new” challenges, Cuomo referenced previously announced pieces of his larger “Democracy Agenda,” including more transparency for online political advertisements. Action must be taken, he said, to address “the distortion and manipulation of our elections by big donors, foreign money and social media advertising and the alienation of our citizens.”

Noting that “social media has revolutionized our elections,” Cuomo said that the “freedom of the internet” must be respected, but that laws must be followed. “Foreign countries like Russia and big anonymous donors cannot jeopardize our democracy. Social media must disclose who or what pays for political advertising because sunlight is still the best disinfectant.”

“Disclosure must apply to social media the same way that it applies to a newspaper ad or a TV ad or a radio ad,” Cuomo said. “Anything else is a scam and a perversion of the law and an affront to democracy. Let's stop this abuse, and while Washington talks about it and dithers, let New York lead the way and address this challenge and let's do it this session.”

Cuomo also said that in “this time of citizen alienation and outrage, the best thing we can do is let people know that their voice is heard, that they matter and that they can and they should vote. And we should make voting easier, not harder, with same-day registration, no-fault absentee ballots, and early voting.”

He said that New York could “increase trust” through campaign finance reforms like closing the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from people and businesses through multiple limited liability companies (which Cuomo has benefited mightily from), and public financing of electoral campaigns. Both are ideas Cuomo has said he supports for years but has not been able to see passed through the Legislature. A 2014 pilot public campaign financing program that was passed but only applied to the comptroller race fizzled almost immediately.

Cuomo, king of the mega-donors, as The New York Times recently pointed out, says in his policy book that “candidates are incentivized to focus on large donations over small ones.” New York does have excessively high individual donation limits, at more than $65,000 for gubernatorial candidates. Cuomo writes that the only way to fix the situation is to offer matching funds for smaller donations, like the New York City system does.

The governor is also calling for laws mandating financial disclosures by local elected officials, which would institute requirements on officials not in state government, but municipal and county offices around the state, where there are not uniform requirements to create more transparency around potential conflicts of interest.

Cuomo is also again calling for extending the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the Legislature, which is not currently subject. He also calls for FOIL and the open meetings law to apply to state ethics monitors the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The governor is again calling for extending the power of the state Inspector General to nonprofits affiliated with the SUNY and CUNY systems, including their contracting processes. This reform relates to some of the alleged bid-rigging in Cuomo’s economic development programs. While Cuomo is open to the IG having more power, he continues to resist re-establishing the state Comptroller’s pre-clearance of contracts procured through SUNY-affiliated nonprofits.

On that same note, Cuomo is also again proposing the creation of a Chief Procurement Officer in order to “oversee the integrity” of contracting processes. Critics have called this potential position duplicative given the role of the Comptroller. The governor’s policy book notes, “despite existing legal safeguards, conflicts of interest and unlawful conduct may jeopardize the impartiality and objectivity of the current procurement process. This risk is further heightened by the significant amount of dollars spent by state and local public agencies, which exceeds tens of billions of dollars annually.”

Cuomo is also proposing legislation toward eventually creating a uniform contract-tracking system among various state entities that each currently use their own.

There is no indication of a new appetite for the voting, ethics, and campaign finance reforms that Cuomo has proposed before, and it is unclear if there will be support for some of the new proposals, like more transparency around digital political advertisements. Several of the proposals would likely pass if the state Senate flips to Democrats, which could occur at some point later this year. The governor must first call a special election for the 11 vacancies in the Legislature, two of which are in the Senate.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals Wed, 03 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City Ben Kallos campaign finance reform

City Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As he ran for mayor this year, former City Council Member Sal Albanese typically didn’t go more than five minutes without mentioning his call to bring additional campaign finance reform to New York City. Despite the fact that the city already has a heralded public-matching system that encourages small donation fundraising, Albanese pointed to the “democracy voucher” program instituted in Seattle, which is even more radical in its efforts to lower individual donation limits, encourage more voters to engage in politics, and push candidates to pay more attention to residents of all financial means.

The Seattle program, passed by voters in 2015 as part of a larger “honest elections” initiative, not only mandates exceedingly low ceilings for individual donations to candidates and for candidate expenditures, it provides eligible residents with four $25 vouchers that they can donate to participating candidates of their choosing. Using public money garnered from a property tax, it encourages more people to participate by giving them the means to donate to candidates and pushes candidates to reach out more broadly to the electorate. Research has shown that people who donate to campaigns vote in very high numbers.

While Albanese fell short in his bid to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council’s resident campaign finance reformer is planning to explore a democracy voucher program in New York City. City Council Member Ben Kallos told Gotham Gazette that he has submitted a request to the Council’s bill-drafting unit for democracy voucher legislation, likely to be introduced next year, after a new class of Council members is seated and a new speaker selected in January.

"I'm exploring anything and everything a jurisdiction in the country or on the planet is using to increase participation," Kallos told Gotham Gazette on Monday.

"The recent court decision upholding democracy vouchers shows a promising option for the city as we investigate ways for candidates to come from a community with community support without having to rely on big dollars from special interests," Kallos added, referring to a challenge to the Seattle system that was dismissed earlier this month.

Putting in a request for legislation is the first step of many whereby a bill can become law, and many bills never get through the City Council to the mayor’s desk. But, Kallos intends to start a serious discussion about whether the city should take a more drastic step toward campaign finance reform. Next year will also see a report from the city’s Campaign Finance Board about its program, as is mandated by law in the year following each city election. The board will make recommendations for ways in which the city can tweak the program, but democracy vouchers are unlikely to be part of its recommendations.

As for drawbacks to a democracy voucher program, one is that there is very limited data on its effectiveness since the Seattle program just got going. Others include the potential cost in public dollars, which could exceed the money the city currently puts toward its program -- the CFB paid out “$17,694,046 to 103 qualifying candidates for the 2017 election cycle,” according to a recent press release -- and whether an accompanying reduction in maximum individual contributions would push more money into independent expenditures.

Before introducing democracy voucher legislation or the CFB post-election report, however, Kallos is looking to see one of his currently-pending campaign finance reform bills passed in the waning days of this legislative session. Co-sponsored by 29 members in the 51-seat Council, the Kallos bill would increase the public matching threshold for how much candidates can receive relative to the spending limit in their races (there are lower thresholds for City Council races than borough-wide and city-wide races).

The bill had a hearing in April and Kallos said he is pushing to see it passed this term. The Manhattan Democrat saw his online voter registration bill passed on Tuesday by the governmental operations committee he chairs. The full Council is expected to pass it on Thursday and de Blasio has indicated he will sign it into law.

The de Blasio administration has indicated support for Kallos’ bill to increase the public matching threshold, which would allow candidates to run their campaigns based more on smaller, matchable donations (eligible donations up to $175 are matched six-to-one, to a certain percentage of the spending threshold, which Kallos’ bill would increase).

A de Blasio spokesperson also expressed some vague support for exploring the ideas of democracy vouchers and lowering contribution limits, when asked by Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor supports moving towards full public financing of elections and reversing Citizens United,” said spokesperson Seth Stein, in a statement. “We are reviewing other proposals and City Council legislation that will help us end the influence of money in our elections.”

Under the Seattle system, the maximum contribution allowed by each individual to a candidate participating in the democracy voucher program is $250 plus $100 in vouchers. For candidates not participating in the program, the maximum individual contribution is $500. These numbers are far lower than those currently allowed in New York City, where, for example, the maximum individual donation to a mayoral candidate is $4,950.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City Tue, 14 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Politics, Money, and the ‘Spirit of the Law:’ Why New York Needs a Constitutional Convention vote for a constitutional convention

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

The federal corruption trial of Norman Seabrook, former head of the correction officers’ union, has introduced new evidence of the contaminating role money plays in politics throughout the state. Jona Rechnitz, a wealthy real estate developer with a taste for power, became a star witness in the case after he got caught in the middle of an alleged deal that allowed Seabrook to get a kickback for investing the union’s pension funds in a risky hedge fund. Rechnitz had also been associated with allegations concerning the Port Authority and Westchester County, was found to have given expensive gifts to police brass in New York City in exchange for special treatment, and had donated so much money to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign in 2013 that he was appointed to the mayor’s inauguration committee.

In the course of testimony, Rechnitz could not seem to restrain himself in bragging about his easy access to City Hall after raising more than $150,000 for the mayor -- access the mayor partially denies. In March, de Blasio had been relieved of criminal charges in two investigations when the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney issued coordinated statements indicating that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him or his staff.

In a ten-page public letter, however, District Attorney Cyrus Vance declared, “the parties involved cannot be appropriately prosecuted,” but added, “this conclusion is not an endorsement of the conduct at issue.” He elaborated, “the transactions appear contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits,” further explaining that the relevant statutes “are meant to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption in the campaign financing process.”

With all due respect to Mr. Vance, I beg to differ with his conclusion, at least in part.

“Spirit of the law” is a legal concept that commonly refers to higher order values that statutes are designed to fulfill. In this particular case, the laws in question could have been intended to limit contributions, or more generally “prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but practically speaking, they are only half-hearted attempts to do either. When it comes to elections or politics, the real intent of the state law in New York is to create the illusion that legislators intend to limit the role money can play, while they incorporate loopholes to undermine effectiveness. Such a charade is the real “spirit of the law,” and one reason to seize opportunity to change it.

Let me be specific. In New York State, an individual cannot donate more than $10,300 to the campaign of a single candidate. Ostensibly, the objective here is to prevent a donor’s undue influence over an elected official. A person can, however, donate up to a $103,000 to county political committees, which in turn can support a candidate with that money and more.

District Attorney Vance had his own explaining to do last month when it was disclosed around two controversial and high profile cases that he took campaign contributions from lawyers who conduct business with his office. When asked about the practice, Vance’s response was “It’s legal.”

The sad reality is that money is the fuel of American politics. If you want to enter the political arena, the first thing you need to do is fundraise. Unless you are independently wealthy, you need to attract donors. People don’t always contribute to campaigns out of altruism to greater causes or belief in a candidate’s capacity to do good. Donors, especially big donors, expect to be granted influence that may or may not benefit them personally.

Independently wealthy candidates who can afford to spend their own money on an election bring their own problems. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent such unfathomable amounts of money to get himself elected three times (nearly $110 million in 2009 alone) that it distorted the democratic process. (His main opponent, William Thompson, spent $10 million). Under the law, there is no limit to what a candidate can spend on his own campaign, even in New York City, which has significantly more robust campaign finance laws than at the state level.

In fact, Bloomberg had so much money that he famously gave it away. When he was in office, Bloomberg’s top deputy mayor simultaneously served as the CEO of his private philanthropic foundation, which dispersed millions of dollars to applicants for various projects. The city Conflicts of Interest Board approved the arrangement, making it legal. When Bloomberg petitioned the City Council to overturn a term limits law so he could seek a third term, there were press reports that his aides pressured beneficiaries of his philanthropy to testify on his behalf.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have ignored appeals to enact meaningful election reforms to reduce the influence that money has in politics. In 2014, Cuomo abruptly and controversially dismissed his own Moreland Commission investigating corruption in the state. The Legislature in Albany is reputed to be one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional in the country. Over the past ten years, more than two dozen of its members have been convicted or sanctioned for wrongdoing, including the top leaders of both houses, who have been sentenced to jail (their convictions were each recently overturned based on new Supreme Court precedence, but they will be retried in 2018).

The legislative process is invested in the status quo and rigged against reform.

New Yorkers have a legal way to circumvent the legislative process by holding a constitutional convention if they vote to do so on Election Day. It is question one on the back of the ballot, where a “yes” vote would trigger the convention process.

A convention would open discussion on a range of controversial issues, and it cannot fix all that is wrong with a money-driven political process that has been further compromised by the federal judiciary. Yet, given the hidebound thinking that immobilizes Albany, a convention is the only way to get the reform ball rolling on matters that go to the heart of the democratic process and its fundamental integrity.

Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York.

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Politics, Money, and the ‘Spirit of the Law:’ Why New York Needs a Constitutional Convention Sun, 05 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany heastie cuomo flanagan

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

In one-house budgets passed this week, the state Legislature showed little evidence that new government ethics, voting, and campaign finance reform measures will be passed in Albany any time soon. This, despite persistent issues with public corruption, antiquated election laws, and the ongoing ability for wealthy interests to donate virtually unlimited sums to politicians.

Through his January State of the State tour, 2017 policy book, and executive budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out his proposals for such measures -- an ambitious reform agenda, but one that the governor has done little to promote publicly since January.

On Wednesday, the Democrat-led Assembly aligned itself with Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, on measures like voting and campaign finance reform, while separating on other items related to transparency and budget control. The Republican majority in the Senate, on the other hand, rejected virtually all of Cuomo’s “good government and ethics” proposals.

The one-house budgets are statements of priority from the majorities of the two legislative houses, and set the stage for the final weeks of negotiation before a new state budget is agreed upon before the April 1 start to the new fiscal year. Government ethics, voting, and campaign finance reform do not appear to be particularly high on the list of priorities for Cuomo, the Assembly majority, the Senate majority, or the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (a group of eight breakaway Democrats that has a coalition agreement with Senate Republicans but nevertheless put forward its own conference budget resolution on Wednesday).

Both the Senate and Assembly majorities pushed back on Cuomo’s move to secure more control of the budget, specifically a provision Cuomo had outlined that would allow the governor to slash funding mid-year in the event of federal cuts without consulting the Legislature. The legislative majorities also both rejected Cuomo’s call for the creation of new inspectors general appointed by the governor’s office to oversee the Port Authority and the State Education Department. They also indicated that they oppose proposals that expand the powers of the state Inspector General and extend the state’s freedom of information law (FOIL) to the Legislature.

However, a major difference between the two chambers is the status of the infamous “LLC loophole,” which permits politicians to benefit from virtually unlimited corporate campaign contributions -- its closure, good government groups say, is essential to stemming pay-to-play politics and corruption.

An Assembly bill to close the loophole, sponsored by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, has passed multiple times with bipartisan support, and Cuomo has indicated he would sign the legislation if passed by both houses. Yet, the Senate has not brought such legislation to the floor for a vote, despite a companion bill existing for years.

Both Cuomo’s executive budget proposal and the Assembly’s one-house resolution recommend that LLCs be subject to the same campaign contribution limitations as other corporations and require that the owners of each limited liability company be disclosed, but the Senate GOP’s resolution makes no mention of the legislation. It vaguely indicates that the Senate will “consider modifications” to the governor’s ethics and good governance proposals. “Any ethics reform requires balanced and measured actions to ensure New Yorkers are best served by their public officials,” the Senate document states.

Senator Daniel Squadron, who sponsors the Senate bill to close the LLC Loophole, criticized the Senate Majority's removal of a measure from the budget resolution in a statement referencing the recent firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has famously crusaded against corrupt Albany lawmakers, including the former leaders of both legislative houses. "The vacancy in the Southern District of New York is a reminder that the Senate Majority must no longer be vacant on real ethics reform,” Squadron, a New York City Democrat, said in a statement. "There's a clear step to help get big money out of New York politics: closing the LLC Loophole. Taking that step will begin to reduce corruption and restore faith in government.”

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Squadron asked Senator Catharine Young, a Republican from Chautauqua and Allegany Counties who chairs the Senate finance committee, for confirmation that the Senate Majority will not block closure of the LLC loophole in the final budget.

“Under the Article XII bill that we introduced, we did not make any modification to the governor’s proposal, however in the resolution we say we are open to making modifications to the governor’s proposal,” responded Young.

Cuomo's wide-ranging, 10-point ethics reform agenda advocates for a public campaign financing system, early voting, and several additional measures that reform-minded advocates and legislators have been calling for, as well as others of his own.

One of the governor’s proposals would require lawmakers consult the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee regarding any outside income, but stops short of banning such income. Cuomo also wants to significantly cap the outside income legislators can make. Legislators addressed the proposal in February, when the Senate and Assembly passed a joint resolution requiring any legislator earning more than $5,000 in outside income to seek an advisory opinion from the Legislative Ethics Commission as to whether the employment is consistent with the Public Officers Law.

In their budget resolutions, the Assembly and Senate both call for increased disclosure and transparency requirements for the members of Cuomo’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs), which have been accused by lawmakers of self-dealing. The Legislature want to require council members to file annual financial disclosure statements, adhere to the Code of Ethics and FOIL requirements in the Public Officers Law, and abide by the open meetings law.

Cuomo and his allies have pushed back on the idea of these disclosure requirements, saying that the regulations would make it difficult to recruit new members, who are volunteers and typically successful businesspeople.

“Now several members want to derail the REDCs by requiring their members to disclose personal financial information to a degree that is inappropriate for a private citizen volunteer,’’ Virginia Horvath and Jeff Belt, co-chairs of the governor's Western New York regional economic development council, wrote in a Feb. 27 letter to Western New York legislators, according to the Buffalo News.

Meanwhile, in campaign finance reform, the Assembly is proposing new legislation to “prohibit housekeeping monies from being transferred or contributed out of the account to another segregated housekeeping account” or to be used “for political communications referencing a candidate.” An Assembly spokesperson confirmed to Gotham Gazette that this proposal is in response to tactics used by both Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference during recent election cycles.

While both Cuomo and Assembly Democrats favor creating a system of public campaign financing, perhaps similar to New York City’s, the Assembly did not specifically include that in its one-house and Senate Republicans in their one-house budget resolution again expressed opposition to taxpayer-funded campaigns. Senate Republicans also stated that they do not believe a full-time professional Legislature best represents the state -- meaning they do not want to see strict limits placed on legislators’ outside income.

The Senate majority also stated its objection to Cuomo’s proposal that the Legislature and the Legislative Ethics Commission become subject to the same freedom of information law provisions to which executive agencies are subject.

“The legislative process is inherently open to the public for input, scrutiny and review. In contrast, the public is made aware of many Executive agency activities only after they occur. As such, for purposes of freedom of information law, these branches are treated differently,” the Senate’s one-house resolution states.

The resolution notes that confidentiality is necessary with respect to the legislative ethics commission in order to encourage individuals to seek ethics guidance.

As for voting reform, the Assembly voted to agree with Cuomo’s calls for automatic registration and early voting, but recommends a period of early voting commencing eight days before an election rather than the 12-day window proposed by the governor. Like the rest of Cuomo’s reform proposals, the Senate did not give indication of support to voting reforms.

As usual, there was little drama in the Assembly, where Democrats hold a wide majority margin. But, in the Senate proceedings grew contentious Wednesday when mainline Democrats were forced, with little notice, to vote on two one-house resolutions, one for the Senate Majority and one for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). This, while Senate Democrats were blocked from submitting their own resolution for a vote. In a headed session on the Senate floor, Democratic conference members, led by Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, objected to the unprecedented change in procedure, and expressed dismay that most of their policies were not represented in either the majority or IDC budget proposal.

Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy leader of the mainline Democrats, asked for his conference to have a chance to put forth its own resolution, a request that was denied by a chamber vote.

The IDC’s resolution, written in broader strokes than the Republican majority’s, suggests that its members are on board with all of the governor’s proposed ethics reforms, including closure of the LLC loophole. While the IDC has some influence with Senate Republicans given that the breakaway conference helps bolster the GOP’s razor thin majority, it is unlikely that influence will extend to significant ethics, voting, or campaign finance reform this year.

“The Governor has included comprehensive ethics reform in his Executive Budget proposal just as he has every other year," said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer. "We strongly urge the Legislature to join us in this effort and pass these proposals this year.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany Wed, 15 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000