Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/corruption 2017-10-22T20:56:51+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com There Will Be Three Big Questions on Your Ballot in November 2017-08-03T04:00:00+00:00 2017-08-03T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7108:there-will-be-three-big-questions-on-your-ballot-in-november Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/32985722296_26b52ab3b7_z_2.jpg" alt="voting election ballot proposals" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Voting (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)</p> <hr /> <p>A state constitutional amendment slightly loosening stringent environmental protections in the Adirondacks and Catskills in certain cases will be on the ballot this fall, the state Board of Elections announced this week.</p> <p>The legislation, which has passed through two consecutive sessions of the Legislature in order to make it onto the ballot, allows for select infrastructure projects deemed necessary for the safety and economic vitality of nearby areas to be installed without a constitutional amendment.</p> <p>It is the <a href="https://www.elections.ny.gov/ProposedAmendments.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">third referendum</a>&nbsp;that will to be presented to voters on Election Day in November. Along with candidates for office, there will be three “yes” or “no” questions on voters’ ballots. The measure related to some building in the Adirondacks and Catskills will be number three, after a question of whether New York should hold a constitutional convention and whether pensions should be stripped from elected officials convicted of public corruption.</p> <p>Currently, the New York State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause, which protects the state forest preserve as wild forest land, prohibits the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land. For counties and townships in the relevant regions, road and bridge repairs and the installation of things like bike paths, broadband internet, or a water well infrastructure that cut into the surrounding forest preserve would require a constitutional amendment -- which takes a minimum of two years, involving double passage by the state Legislature and then approval from voters.</p> <p>The sluggish process of critical projects has created safety concerns and hampered economic growth in New York State’s North Country, according to a spokesperson for state Senator Betty Little, a Republican from Queensbury County who sponsored the bill.</p> <p>"The impetus for doing this amendment is to enable a very, very small category of projects to move forward without, in every instance, amending the constitution," said Daniel MacEntee, Little’s press secretary. “The North Country can't afford to be left behind. If there was better connectivity, it would be very beneficial to the economy, health, and safety of the region,” he added.</p> <p>If the amendment passes, the state will create a “land account,” or up to 250 acres of forest preserve land surrounding county and town highways that can be encroached on for select projects. A town, village, or county can apply to the land account if it believes it has no viable alternative to using forest preserve land for certain limited health and safety purposes on or near major thruways.</p> <p>Projects concerning the safety of bridges; the elimination of dangerous highway curves; relocation and maintenance of roadways; and the construction of water wells within 530 feet of a major highway, in order to meet basic drinking water quality standards, are all covered under the first exception.</p> <p>The proposed amendment, sponsored in the state Assembly by Democratic Assemblymember Dan Stec, would also allow bicycle paths and specified types of public utility lines (including high speed internet), to be located within the widths of state, county, and certain town highways that traverse forest preserve land -- as long as there is minimal removal of trees and vegetation.</p> <p>While the ammendment past during the normal legislative session, state lawmakers passed the enacting language for the amendment in June, when the Legislature reconvened in a special session to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7042-mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">extend mayoral control of New York City schools and pass other measures</a>. If New Yorkers vote in favor of the ballot measure on November 7, it will be enacted immediately.</p> <p>The measure, which has been years in the works, has widespread approval from elected leaders, stakeholders, and environmental agencies, and Senator Little is optimistic that it will be passed on Election Day, according to MacEntee.</p> <p>While environmental groups have historically resisted constitutional scale-backs of the “forever wild” provision, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the governor’s office were heavily involved in drafting the legislation, according to Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.</p> <p>Englebright noted that the legislation is based on a similar constitutional amendment made for state highways, which designated 400 acres of land for such restoration projects. Based on the pace of utilization from that land pool, the 250 acres of land is expected to last at least half a century, according to Englebright.</p> <p>“This is not a short-term project,” said the assemblyman. “It’s meant to be an ongoing mechanism to enable the people who use the roads, need to access part of the road network, make use of communication devices on those roads, or need to drill a well nearby -- they can do that without going back to every voter in the whole state. It will simplify life in the Adirondacks, and it sends a message that we honor and respect the well-being of the people who live there.”</p> <p>Two other questions, one asking voters to decide on whether to hold a convention to amend the constitution, and <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6740-on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an ethics measure to strip pensions</a> from a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties, will also be on the ballot in November. The outcomes of all of these questions will be heavily influenced by New York City voters, given that the city is such a population center and is holding a mayoral election, as well as many others for City Council and other offices. While turnout is expected to again be low, it will account for a significant portion of the total, along with those voting in local elections elsewhere across the state. There are no statewide elections this year, though, other than the ballot questions.</p> <p>The second and third questions, as constitutional amendments, have passed the Legislature twice, and have been rigorously vetted by elected officials, advocates, and other stakeholders.</p> <p>Aside from the convention question, the two pieces of legislation touch on larger reforms proposed by advocates of a constitutional convention: ethics reform and strengthening home rule.</p> <p>The Con Con question, though facing a more uncertain future, poses a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically overhaul the state’s lengthy and outdated constitution. Proponents say it can, among other things, be used to enact term limits for elected officials, improve the state’s courts system, create a strong system for legislative redistricting, and enact significant campaign finance reform.</p> <p>While the referendum on holding a constitutional convention is posed to voters once every 20 years, New Yorkers voted down the measure in 1997, and it faces strong opposition from certain interest groups including environmentalists who are worried about preserving the “forever wild” law in its original form and labor unions who want to protect organizing and pension provisions.</p> <p>It is unclear how sharing the ballot with two other questions will impact the constitutional convention vote, and vice versa. Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz professor and longtime advocate for a constitutional convention, said he believes the other two questions will be overshadowed by the debate over the convention, which is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6967-10-bold-or-bizarre-proposals-for-a-new-york-constitutional-convention" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heating up</a>.</p> <p>“The driver is going to be the Con Con vote,” said Benjamin. “You are getting an elevated attention to referenda, which is uncommon in New York. So you are expanding the electorate for the other two, potentially.” Groups are beginning to spend heavily to raise awareness about the convention questions and push their preferred vote.</p> <p>However, the other two amendments may fuel arguments by opponents of a convention -- including one made by both legislative leaders -- that tweaks to the constitution can be done slowly over time, through amendments.</p> <p>Benjamin said that this argument is specious, because the use of constitutional amendments as a legislative fix has grown less frequent, and when it is used, the matters that do get changed are small.</p> <p>The amendment related to forest preserves expressly does not permit the construction of new intrastate gas or oil pipelines that did not receive necessary state and local permits and approvals by June 1, 2016.</p> <p>

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/32985722296_26b52ab3b7_z_2.jpg" alt="voting election ballot proposals" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Voting (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)</p> <hr /> <p>A state constitutional amendment slightly loosening stringent environmental protections in the Adirondacks and Catskills in certain cases will be on the ballot this fall, the state Board of Elections announced this week.</p> <p>The legislation, which has passed through two consecutive sessions of the Legislature in order to make it onto the ballot, allows for select infrastructure projects deemed necessary for the safety and economic vitality of nearby areas to be installed without a constitutional amendment.</p> <p>It is the <a href="https://www.elections.ny.gov/ProposedAmendments.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">third referendum</a>&nbsp;that will to be presented to voters on Election Day in November. Along with candidates for office, there will be three “yes” or “no” questions on voters’ ballots. The measure related to some building in the Adirondacks and Catskills will be number three, after a question of whether New York should hold a constitutional convention and whether pensions should be stripped from elected officials convicted of public corruption.</p> <p>Currently, the New York State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause, which protects the state forest preserve as wild forest land, prohibits the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land. For counties and townships in the relevant regions, road and bridge repairs and the installation of things like bike paths, broadband internet, or a water well infrastructure that cut into the surrounding forest preserve would require a constitutional amendment -- which takes a minimum of two years, involving double passage by the state Legislature and then approval from voters.</p> <p>The sluggish process of critical projects has created safety concerns and hampered economic growth in New York State’s North Country, according to a spokesperson for state Senator Betty Little, a Republican from Queensbury County who sponsored the bill.</p> <p>"The impetus for doing this amendment is to enable a very, very small category of projects to move forward without, in every instance, amending the constitution," said Daniel MacEntee, Little’s press secretary. “The North Country can't afford to be left behind. If there was better connectivity, it would be very beneficial to the economy, health, and safety of the region,” he added.</p> <p>If the amendment passes, the state will create a “land account,” or up to 250 acres of forest preserve land surrounding county and town highways that can be encroached on for select projects. A town, village, or county can apply to the land account if it believes it has no viable alternative to using forest preserve land for certain limited health and safety purposes on or near major thruways.</p> <p>Projects concerning the safety of bridges; the elimination of dangerous highway curves; relocation and maintenance of roadways; and the construction of water wells within 530 feet of a major highway, in order to meet basic drinking water quality standards, are all covered under the first exception.</p> <p>The proposed amendment, sponsored in the state Assembly by Democratic Assemblymember Dan Stec, would also allow bicycle paths and specified types of public utility lines (including high speed internet), to be located within the widths of state, county, and certain town highways that traverse forest preserve land -- as long as there is minimal removal of trees and vegetation.</p> <p>While the ammendment past during the normal legislative session, state lawmakers passed the enacting language for the amendment in June, when the Legislature reconvened in a special session to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7042-mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">extend mayoral control of New York City schools and pass other measures</a>. If New Yorkers vote in favor of the ballot measure on November 7, it will be enacted immediately.</p> <p>The measure, which has been years in the works, has widespread approval from elected leaders, stakeholders, and environmental agencies, and Senator Little is optimistic that it will be passed on Election Day, according to MacEntee.</p> <p>While environmental groups have historically resisted constitutional scale-backs of the “forever wild” provision, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the governor’s office were heavily involved in drafting the legislation, according to Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.</p> <p>Englebright noted that the legislation is based on a similar constitutional amendment made for state highways, which designated 400 acres of land for such restoration projects. Based on the pace of utilization from that land pool, the 250 acres of land is expected to last at least half a century, according to Englebright.</p> <p>“This is not a short-term project,” said the assemblyman. “It’s meant to be an ongoing mechanism to enable the people who use the roads, need to access part of the road network, make use of communication devices on those roads, or need to drill a well nearby -- they can do that without going back to every voter in the whole state. It will simplify life in the Adirondacks, and it sends a message that we honor and respect the well-being of the people who live there.”</p> <p>Two other questions, one asking voters to decide on whether to hold a convention to amend the constitution, and <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6740-on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an ethics measure to strip pensions</a> from a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties, will also be on the ballot in November. The outcomes of all of these questions will be heavily influenced by New York City voters, given that the city is such a population center and is holding a mayoral election, as well as many others for City Council and other offices. While turnout is expected to again be low, it will account for a significant portion of the total, along with those voting in local elections elsewhere across the state. There are no statewide elections this year, though, other than the ballot questions.</p> <p>The second and third questions, as constitutional amendments, have passed the Legislature twice, and have been rigorously vetted by elected officials, advocates, and other stakeholders.</p> <p>Aside from the convention question, the two pieces of legislation touch on larger reforms proposed by advocates of a constitutional convention: ethics reform and strengthening home rule.</p> <p>The Con Con question, though facing a more uncertain future, poses a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically overhaul the state’s lengthy and outdated constitution. Proponents say it can, among other things, be used to enact term limits for elected officials, improve the state’s courts system, create a strong system for legislative redistricting, and enact significant campaign finance reform.</p> <p>While the referendum on holding a constitutional convention is posed to voters once every 20 years, New Yorkers voted down the measure in 1997, and it faces strong opposition from certain interest groups including environmentalists who are worried about preserving the “forever wild” law in its original form and labor unions who want to protect organizing and pension provisions.</p> <p>It is unclear how sharing the ballot with two other questions will impact the constitutional convention vote, and vice versa. Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz professor and longtime advocate for a constitutional convention, said he believes the other two questions will be overshadowed by the debate over the convention, which is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6967-10-bold-or-bizarre-proposals-for-a-new-york-constitutional-convention" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heating up</a>.</p> <p>“The driver is going to be the Con Con vote,” said Benjamin. “You are getting an elevated attention to referenda, which is uncommon in New York. So you are expanding the electorate for the other two, potentially.” Groups are beginning to spend heavily to raise awareness about the convention questions and push their preferred vote.</p> <p>However, the other two amendments may fuel arguments by opponents of a convention -- including one made by both legislative leaders -- that tweaks to the constitution can be done slowly over time, through amendments.</p> <p>Benjamin said that this argument is specious, because the use of constitutional amendments as a legislative fix has grown less frequent, and when it is used, the matters that do get changed are small.</p> <p>The amendment related to forest preserves expressly does not permit the construction of new intrastate gas or oil pipelines that did not receive necessary state and local permits and approvals by June 1, 2016.</p> <p>

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight 2017-03-05T05:00:00+00:00 2017-03-05T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6788:cuomo-contradicts-bharara-on-prosecutors-government-oversight Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/32330717274_0e2ac592eb_z.jpg" alt="cuomo hochul cabinet" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo at a recent cabinet meeting (Governor's Office on flickr)</p> <hr /> <p>At a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol on February 28, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that prosecutors already provide sufficient independent oversight over the state’s economic development programs.</p> <p>“You do have independent oversight,” said Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, when asked about calls to increase checks from outside his purview on state programs at the center of federal corruption charges. “That’s called 62 district attorneys, an attorney general, U.S. attorneys in the Southern District, Northern District. That is independent oversight. Obviously it’s been effective independent oversight. So you can’t say there isn’t independent oversight.”</p> <p>With these remarks, Cuomo positioned himself in stark opposition to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has said repeatedly that the power of prosecutors is limited and that it’s up to political leadership to do more to police itself. As he’s continued to lock up corrupt politicians and recently brought charges against nine individuals -- Cuomo aides, associates, and donors -- for alleged corruption related to the governor’s Buffalo Billion program, Bharara has insisted that prosecutors can’t do it all; that government culture must change.</p> <p>“At the end of the day, cleaning up public corruption is not up to prosecutors,” Bharara said in Albany last February, during a speech sponsored by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and good government groups. “We certainly have our role, to prosecute the wrongdoers and the bad apples, but we can’t do it alone. It will take leadership from the Legislature itself. And that’s what people crave; they crave leadership.”</p> <p>Bharara -- whose investigations have taken down numerous legislators, including most recently, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- has publicly criticized the concentration of power in the executive branch, Albany’s culture of secrecy, and the “three men in a room” style of government whereby major decisions are made by three top officials, the governor and two legislative majority leaders, behind closed doors.</p> <p>Bharara has called on “good” lawmakers to take meaningful action to change the culture at the Capitol. Citing President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as a young New York Assembly member stood up to the ruling Tammany Hall political machine of the late 19th century. Bharara said at the February 2016 event, “It would be nice to see a little bit of that fight back in some of our legislators today.”</p> <p>While Cuomo has overseen annual passage of new government ethics measures in Albany, they have virtually unanimously been seen as small steps, insufficient to adequately break the pattern of corruption and alter the culture that has made New York state government a national laughing stock. Cuomo continues to call for new measures, including more essential reforms that many say would help prevent corruption, not just punish it, but there is widespread doubt about how much Cuomo really wants to see them passed. The governor has been conspicuously quiet in terms of any effort to put public pressure on legislators to pass measures like public campaign financing, strict limits on electeds’ outside income, pay-to-play restrictions, and more.</p> <p>Last year, Bharara’s crusade against corruption hit home for Cuomo, when the U.S. attorney’s office uncovered a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to the Buffalo Billion and announced charges against nine Cuomo associates, including Joseph Percoco, <a href="http://buffalonews.com/2016/09/22/joseph-percocos-ties-gov-cuomo-run-nearly-deep-blood/" target="_blank">a longtime confidante</a> of the governor’s, whom Cuomo said was “like a brother.” Cuomo, who Bharara made clear was not targeted in the investigation, claimed to have no knowledge of the alleged misconduct, instead placing the blame on bad apples and <a href="http://buffalonews.com/2016/09/24/cuomos-blind-trust-get-done-style-may-set-stage-pay-play-schemes/" target="_blank">opaque purchasing and procurement processes</a>.</p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/bharara_vanity_fair_event_phone.png" alt="bharara vanity fair event phone" width="300" height="191" style="margin-right: 8px; float: left;" />Critics, including Bharara, say the widespread pay-to-play scheme resulted in part from the fact that in 2011, Cuomo and the Legislature stripped the New York State Comptroller of its authority to review billions of dollars worth of economic development contracts related to SUNY not-for-profits, including the Polytechnic Institute. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, government reform advocates, and some legislators have called for restoring those powers, but Cuomo has indicated he has no intention to do so. His cabinet meeting remarks were the latest evidence of that approach.</p> <p>While Cuomo has acknowledged Albany’s pervasive corruption problem, he and Bharara apparently do not see eye to eye on how to fix it. The governor has pushed instead for increased punitive means to handle misconduct and some additional disclosure measures. A former New York State attorney general himself, Cuomo has frequently battled with oversight authorities like the comptroller and attorney general, currently Eric Schneiderman, taking steps to undermine the agencies and concentrate power under the executive branch.</p> <p>During his last of six January 2017 State of the State addresses, Cuomo spoke in Albany, and called for the implementation of <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6711-acknowledging-pervasive-corruption-cuomo-releases-10-point-government-ethics-agenda" target="_blank">an ambitious ethics reform plan</a>, hitting on many of the items pushed for by government reform groups, including transparency measures, restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, term limits, and the closure of the so-called "LLC loophole,” as well as a public campaign finance system.</p> <p>The governor had promised to push some of these very reforms in his 2016 State of the State, but as critics have noted, little effort was made to sell them to the public or the legislative branch, and <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6384-cuomo-launches-end-of-session-addition-to-stagnant-ethics-agenda" target="_blank">the few reforms that did pass</a> meant little to stem the tide of corruption in state government.</p> <p>Cuomo’s ethics plan also recommended an expansion of authority of the State Inspector General -- which answers to Cuomo -- to SUNY not-for-profits, and creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department. In light of the recent bid-rigging scandal, pressure has mounted on Cuomo to reinstate all of DiNapoli’s contract vetting powers. The governor has <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">continued to undermine the comptroller</a>, taking swipes at him over a series of audits that DiNapoli released related to the state’s economic development projects, and refused to support the restoration of those powers.</p> <p>For his part, DiNapoli, who takes a decidedly less confrontational approach than Bharara, has called for restored vetting powers, but has been mostly muted as Cuomo’s office continue to push economic development programs through a system that appears to be easily exploited by bad actors.</p> <p>DiNapoli has become slightly more vocal in recent months, but typically declines to engage in any ongoing, vocal push that conflicts with the governor.</p> <p>Government watchdogs were quick to object to Cuomo's suggestion that prosecutors provide adequate independent oversight over state contracting. “The governor might as well be saying there is no need for police, because there are district attorneys. But everybody knows that the police -- and the Comptroller ---are there to prevent crime and ensure rules are followed. D.A.’s are only called on after crimes are committed. D.A.’s are no substitute for the independent oversight that the state constitution assigns to the Comptroller,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a reform group, in a statement.</p> <p>Government reform groups -- including Reinvent Albany, as well as Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, the Citizen Budget Commission, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG -- called the governor’s oversight plan “stunningly inadequate,” and renewed calls to empower the comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000, among other reforms to the contracting process.</p> <p>Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for further explanation of the governor's remarks in time for publication. A spokesperson for Bharara declined to comment on Cuomo’s comments.</p> <p>

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

&nbsp;</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/32330717274_0e2ac592eb_z.jpg" alt="cuomo hochul cabinet" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo at a recent cabinet meeting (Governor's Office on flickr)</p> <hr /> <p>At a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol on February 28, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that prosecutors already provide sufficient independent oversight over the state’s economic development programs.</p> <p>“You do have independent oversight,” said Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, when asked about calls to increase checks from outside his purview on state programs at the center of federal corruption charges. “That’s called 62 district attorneys, an attorney general, U.S. attorneys in the Southern District, Northern District. That is independent oversight. Obviously it’s been effective independent oversight. So you can’t say there isn’t independent oversight.”</p> <p>With these remarks, Cuomo positioned himself in stark opposition to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has said repeatedly that the power of prosecutors is limited and that it’s up to political leadership to do more to police itself. As he’s continued to lock up corrupt politicians and recently brought charges against nine individuals -- Cuomo aides, associates, and donors -- for alleged corruption related to the governor’s Buffalo Billion program, Bharara has insisted that prosecutors can’t do it all; that government culture must change.</p> <p>“At the end of the day, cleaning up public corruption is not up to prosecutors,” Bharara said in Albany last February, during a speech sponsored by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and good government groups. “We certainly have our role, to prosecute the wrongdoers and the bad apples, but we can’t do it alone. It will take leadership from the Legislature itself. And that’s what people crave; they crave leadership.”</p> <p>Bharara -- whose investigations have taken down numerous legislators, including most recently, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- has publicly criticized the concentration of power in the executive branch, Albany’s culture of secrecy, and the “three men in a room” style of government whereby major decisions are made by three top officials, the governor and two legislative majority leaders, behind closed doors.</p> <p>Bharara has called on “good” lawmakers to take meaningful action to change the culture at the Capitol. Citing President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as a young New York Assembly member stood up to the ruling Tammany Hall political machine of the late 19th century. Bharara said at the February 2016 event, “It would be nice to see a little bit of that fight back in some of our legislators today.”</p> <p>While Cuomo has overseen annual passage of new government ethics measures in Albany, they have virtually unanimously been seen as small steps, insufficient to adequately break the pattern of corruption and alter the culture that has made New York state government a national laughing stock. Cuomo continues to call for new measures, including more essential reforms that many say would help prevent corruption, not just punish it, but there is widespread doubt about how much Cuomo really wants to see them passed. The governor has been conspicuously quiet in terms of any effort to put public pressure on legislators to pass measures like public campaign financing, strict limits on electeds’ outside income, pay-to-play restrictions, and more.</p> <p>Last year, Bharara’s crusade against corruption hit home for Cuomo, when the U.S. attorney’s office uncovered a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to the Buffalo Billion and announced charges against nine Cuomo associates, including Joseph Percoco, <a href="http://buffalonews.com/2016/09/22/joseph-percocos-ties-gov-cuomo-run-nearly-deep-blood/" target="_blank">a longtime confidante</a> of the governor’s, whom Cuomo said was “like a brother.” Cuomo, who Bharara made clear was not targeted in the investigation, claimed to have no knowledge of the alleged misconduct, instead placing the blame on bad apples and <a href="http://buffalonews.com/2016/09/24/cuomos-blind-trust-get-done-style-may-set-stage-pay-play-schemes/" target="_blank">opaque purchasing and procurement processes</a>.</p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/bharara_vanity_fair_event_phone.png" alt="bharara vanity fair event phone" width="300" height="191" style="margin-right: 8px; float: left;" />Critics, including Bharara, say the widespread pay-to-play scheme resulted in part from the fact that in 2011, Cuomo and the Legislature stripped the New York State Comptroller of its authority to review billions of dollars worth of economic development contracts related to SUNY not-for-profits, including the Polytechnic Institute. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, government reform advocates, and some legislators have called for restoring those powers, but Cuomo has indicated he has no intention to do so. His cabinet meeting remarks were the latest evidence of that approach.</p> <p>While Cuomo has acknowledged Albany’s pervasive corruption problem, he and Bharara apparently do not see eye to eye on how to fix it. The governor has pushed instead for increased punitive means to handle misconduct and some additional disclosure measures. A former New York State attorney general himself, Cuomo has frequently battled with oversight authorities like the comptroller and attorney general, currently Eric Schneiderman, taking steps to undermine the agencies and concentrate power under the executive branch.</p> <p>During his last of six January 2017 State of the State addresses, Cuomo spoke in Albany, and called for the implementation of <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6711-acknowledging-pervasive-corruption-cuomo-releases-10-point-government-ethics-agenda" target="_blank">an ambitious ethics reform plan</a>, hitting on many of the items pushed for by government reform groups, including transparency measures, restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, term limits, and the closure of the so-called "LLC loophole,” as well as a public campaign finance system.</p> <p>The governor had promised to push some of these very reforms in his 2016 State of the State, but as critics have noted, little effort was made to sell them to the public or the legislative branch, and <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6384-cuomo-launches-end-of-session-addition-to-stagnant-ethics-agenda" target="_blank">the few reforms that did pass</a> meant little to stem the tide of corruption in state government.</p> <p>Cuomo’s ethics plan also recommended an expansion of authority of the State Inspector General -- which answers to Cuomo -- to SUNY not-for-profits, and creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department. In light of the recent bid-rigging scandal, pressure has mounted on Cuomo to reinstate all of DiNapoli’s contract vetting powers. The governor has <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">continued to undermine the comptroller</a>, taking swipes at him over a series of audits that DiNapoli released related to the state’s economic development projects, and refused to support the restoration of those powers.</p> <p>For his part, DiNapoli, who takes a decidedly less confrontational approach than Bharara, has called for restored vetting powers, but has been mostly muted as Cuomo’s office continue to push economic development programs through a system that appears to be easily exploited by bad actors.</p> <p>DiNapoli has become slightly more vocal in recent months, but typically declines to engage in any ongoing, vocal push that conflicts with the governor.</p> <p>Government watchdogs were quick to object to Cuomo's suggestion that prosecutors provide adequate independent oversight over state contracting. “The governor might as well be saying there is no need for police, because there are district attorneys. But everybody knows that the police -- and the Comptroller ---are there to prevent crime and ensure rules are followed. D.A.’s are only called on after crimes are committed. D.A.’s are no substitute for the independent oversight that the state constitution assigns to the Comptroller,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a reform group, in a statement.</p> <p>Government reform groups -- including Reinvent Albany, as well as Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, the Citizen Budget Commission, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG -- called the governor’s oversight plan “stunningly inadequate,” and renewed calls to empower the comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000, among other reforms to the contracting process.</p> <p>Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for further explanation of the governor's remarks in time for publication. A spokesperson for Bharara declined to comment on Cuomo’s comments.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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&nbsp;</p>
Donald Trump, New York Corruption & A Loss of Faith in Institutions 2016-11-09T05:00:00+00:00 2016-11-09T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6617:donald-trump-new-york-corruption-a-loss-of-faith-in-institutions Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2016/al_smith_dinner_1.png" alt="al smith dinner 1" width="600" height="328" /></p> <p>The 2016 Al Smith Dinner</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Public <a href="http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015/">trust</a> in Washington began diminishing under President Lyndon Johnson over the course of the 1964 presidential election and the escalation of war in Vietnam. Watergate ushered in a new era of distrust in government in the United States as the country’s top elected office was compromised. By 1974, public trust in government dipped below 40 percent for the first time since such records had been kept.&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">As with other political corruption scandals, new ethics laws were introduced in response to Watergate, in part to solve problems, in part to restore public trust. President Richard Nixon resigned in <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/080974-3.htm" target="_blank">1974</a>. That year, federal campaign finance regulations were <a href="http://www.fec.gov/info/appfour.htm" target="_blank">enacted</a> and the Federal Elections Commission was established to ensure compliance, along with several other “good government” amendments throughout the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/legacy.htm" target="_blank">1970s</a>. As side effects, the newly enacted legislation contributed to further erosion of public trust through lengthy investigations and loopholes allowing unlimited amounts of “soft money” to flow into elections through political parties as opposed to particular candidates.</p> <p dir="ltr">Running on the campaign message of “I will not lie to you,” Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, with personal and professional character front and center. Though public trust in government under President Carter would continue shrinking below 30 percent amid rising inflation, rising oil prices due to the energy crisis of 1979, and the Iran hostage crisis which lasted from 1979 until 1981.</p> <p dir="ltr">Like Carter, candidates for public office have run on their integrity, ethical and moral grounds, and promises to “clean up” government for as long as time. Too often, it doesn’t turn out to be that simple. There is perhaps no better example of this than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came into office as Governor in 2011 amid Albany corruption and ethics scandals having been Attorney General, where he helped root out some of that corruption. Nearly six years later, state government has continued to see a stream of corruption arrests and ethics scandals.This year, Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, campaigned for a Democratic takeover of the state Senate, saying that ethics reform is his top priority for next year in Albany.</p> <p dir="ltr">Corruption and ethics in government remain a focal point for candidates at all levels of government as elected officials are accused of and convicted for rewarding their major donors and key allies with political appointments, government contracts, and other payoffs. Politicians are not seen as trustworthy -- in New York and elsewhere. In fact, there is a crisis of confidence in the United States not only in government, but in other institutions: public schools, the criminal justice system, big business, and news media, among others.</p> <p dir="ltr">This year’s presidential election has seen loud and passionate conversation about political and moral corruption, lies, misdeeds, and a system “rigged” in a variety of ways. Polls show the public sick of it all, and disillusioned by key pillars of democratic society. Donald Trump, now President-elect, ran an outsider campaign largely aimed at tearing down corrupt and ineffective government, speaking to populist frustrations to out-of-touch, crooked, and gridlocked elected officials and bodies.</p> <p dir="ltr">Here in New York, the issue of government corruption is especially acute, not only according to the ever-growing rap sheet of the state’s elected officials, but also according to New Yorkers. <a href="https://www.qu.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-york-state/release-detail?ReleaseID=2368" target="_blank">Poll numbers from July</a> show 87 percent of registered voters in New York believe corruption is a serious problem in state government, while only 38 percent believed Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature will take steps to improve ethics in state government this year. Despite all this, many New Yorkers support the same politicians they see as enabling the problem, or at least ignoring it.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In the face of well-publicized incidents of corruption, mostly the people will lose trust in the institutions and withdraw from the political system,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. Voter turnout in New York has been slumping for decades, though it is unclear how much of that trend has to do with political corruption and a lack of faith in government.</p> <p dir="ltr">“New Yorkers have particularly good reason to look down upon their elected officials because they’ve lived in a state of total dysfunction and corruption involving nearly every level of government for the last six or seven years,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">This year alone, New Yorkers have witnessed several cases of corruption affecting state and city officials.</p> <p dir="ltr">The most high-profile were the separate convictions of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, on federal corruption charges. The two abused their public posts for private gain, as dozens of other New York officials have done in recent years.</p> <p dir="ltr">In September, Gov. Cuomo saw nine of his associates and donors arrested on federal corruption charges -- a group that includes two former close aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe; a now-former senior state official, Alain Kaloyeros, who Cuomo often praised; and six others involved in state economic development projects. The charges included bid-rigging for major state contracts involved in those projects, alleged to have been tailored to major Cuomo campaign donors. The governor was not charged and Cuomo maintains that he had no knowledge of the alleged malfeasance.</p> <p dir="ltr">In October, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, Mangano’s wife, and a Long Island town supervisor were arrested and charged with trading favors and contracts for perks. These arrests are the most recent New York corruption news to hit newspapers and airwaves, sending further message to New Yorkers that their public servants are not prioritizing public service.</p> <p dir="ltr">Even short of arrests, news of investigations into potential wrongdoing can erode public trust and expose unethical or questionable behavior by government officials, even if illegality is not found.</p> <p dir="ltr">There are multiple ongoing investigations into the behavior of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and his allies. No charges have been brought against de Blasio or any of his close aides or allies, and the mayor has said they acted legally in their fundraising practices and did not do government favors for donors.</p> <p dir="ltr">Still, a majority of New Yorkers and several government watchdog groups believe there was unethical, if not illegal, behavior. Even as the city’s Campaign Finance Board cleared de Blasio and his affiliated political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, of campaign finance violations, the board said the nonprofit’s fundraising “plainly raises serious policy and perception issues,” in an <a href="http://www.nyccfb.info/media/press-releases/2016-07-06-000000/cfb-statement-determination-regarding-campaign-one-new-york">official statement</a>.</p> <p dir="ltr">At a national level, both major party presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, had ethical and legal questions swirling around them as they competed to lead the country. The details of issues surrounding Clinton’s private email server and her family foundation accepting donations from foreign governments when she was Secretary of State are well-publicized. As are questions about Trump’s foundation and business dealings, and allegations of sexual misconduct.</p> <p dir="ltr">For many good reasons, there is a frightening trend in public polling that shows an erosion of confidence in major institutions among Americans.</p> <p dir="ltr">Confidence in key U.S. institutions -- political, financial, religious, and more -- has remained relatively low over the last decade, according to <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx" target="_blank">Gallup</a> polling data going back to 2006, and most recently recorded in June.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to those survey results, Americans have particularly lost confidence in financial institutions, organized religion, news media, and the U.S. Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Congress has the distinction of being the only institution that currently inspires little or no confidence in a majority of Americans, according to the national poll from June. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and obstruction by the Republican-controlled legislature with Democratic President Barack Obama in office has undoubtedly contributed to this standing, with Congress last on public confidence among the 14 institutions tested, which also included the presidency, the Supreme Court, religious organizations, organized labor, the medical system, and the banks.</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the 14 institutions tested by Gallup, the only ones where more than half of survey participants responded with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence are the military, small businesses, and the police. In New York City, job approval for the police is also high, though approval has diminished in recent years and is divided by racial and generational differences.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives,” <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx" target="_blank">writes</a> Jim Norman, a polling analyst with Gallup. As Norman points out, the lack of confidence in institutions extends into many facets of life: “the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are suppose to protect American earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While each institutional sector has its own reasons for earning a lack of confidence -- the financial meltdown, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, partisan gridlock in D.C., etc. -- Norman says “there are reasons that reach beyond any individual institution.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Professor Muzzio said that, coincidentally, he had recently lectured his undergraduate students on the Gallup poll showing diminishing confidence in institutions. “There’s been a profound decline in trust among major institutions and Americans simply don’t know how government works, creating a crisis for maintaining a civic society,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">While there are a litany of factors contributing to this loss of confidence, political corruption at all levels of government has contributed to this decline in institutional trust, especially at the state and local level in New York. However, a general lack of confidence in institutions and the mounting evidence of corruption by elected officials has not prevented voters in New York from supporting the very politicians that they find to be associated with the problems of corruption as opposed to offering solutions.</p> <p dir="ltr">There does not appear to be New York-focused polling data on confidence in institutions, so it is unclear how New Yorkers fit into Gallup’s results. But some local polling results shows New Yorkers’ views on their state and local governments and the New York City police department.</p> <p dir="ltr">In a statewide <a href="https://www.qu.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-york-state/release-detail?ReleaseID=2368" target="_blank">Quinnipiac poll</a> conducted in July among registered voters, nearly nine out of ten New Yorkers, 87 percent, said that corruption is a serious problem in state government. That includes a majority in all subgroups -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents; young and old; men and women; upstaters, suburbanites, and city dwellers.</p> <p dir="ltr">While ethics reform is widely considered an important issue in New York, only 38 percent of poll respondents said they believed the governor and state Legislature would take steps to improve ethics in state government this year, according to the poll. Democrats and city residents have the most confidence in their state-level officials on this question, with 50 and 46 percent who expect there to be steps taken this year, respectively.</p> <p dir="ltr">Furthermore, nearly half of those polled, 48 percent, said they view Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of the problem with ethics in government, including one-third of Democrats and city dwellers and two-thirds of Republicans and upstate residents. Two-thirds of poll participants said they disapproved of the way the state Legislature is handling its job, including a majority among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite the cross-party consensus among New Yorkers suggesting a lack of confidence in their state lawmakers to address the serious issue of ethics and corruption in government, New Yorkers still show a general willingness to support individual elected officials that make up the system they universally lack confidence in, even when they associate them with the problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">For instance, Gov. Cuomo’s job approval rests at 50 percent in the July Quinnipiac poll, and respondents gave their individual state senators and Assembly members average approval ratings of 52 and 43 percent, respectively. Many state legislators are easily re-elected every two years, facing minimal, if any competition.</p> <p dir="ltr">A <a href="https://www.siena.edu/assets/files/news/SNY_October_2015_Poll_Release_--_FINAL.pdf" target="_blank">Siena College poll</a> released in October also has Cuomo’s favorability rating at 50 percent among likely voters in New York -- virtually unchanged despite the federal corruption charges filed against nine individuals involved in his inner circle or economic development programs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There is a disconnect between knowledge of a problem and action,” said Muzzio. “The voters say that it is corrupt and a significant problem and they don’t believe they’ll do anything to address it; this brings up a question if the voters really think it’s a serious problem.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Further, nearly half of all Quinnipiac poll respondents, 48 percent, said that New York State elected officials are incapable of ending political corruption in Albany and should all be voted out of office so that new officials can start with a clean slate. It is a striking lack of confidence across New York, showing that New Yorkers do not believe their current crop of state government elected officials will take the necessary steps to improve their ethics and root out corruption.</p> <p dir="ltr">In comparison to Democrats, Republicans in New York consistently view corruption as a more serious issue. New York Republicans, who hold much less power at the state level, are more dissatisfied with elected officials, less expecting of their efforts to address ethics reform, and more willing to see all state level elected officials voted out of office.</p> <p dir="ltr">In New York City, there is a similar phenomenon regarding local government. According to an August <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/new-york-city/release-detail?ReleaseID=2370" target="_blank">Quinnipiac poll</a> of registered voters in New York City, only 28 percent of participants approve of the way Mayor Bill de Blasio is handling political corruption. Amid months of negative headlines around investigations into de Blasio’s behavior, 53 percent of participants said that de Blasio does favors for developers who make contributions to campaigns in which he is involved.</p> <p dir="ltr">More than half of respondents find this behavior unethical, if not illegal, and a vast majority of New Yorkers, 84 percent, believe political corruption in New York City is a serious problem. Despite all of this, 42 percent of registered voters in New York City, and 53 percent of Democrats, said de Blasio deserves to be reelected. Nearly half of poll respondents, 49 percent, said de Blasio is honest and trustworthy despite the federal, state, and local investigations into the behavior of the mayor and his allies. Insisting that he and his team acted legally, de Blasio has said that investigations are an unfortunate part of public life these days.</p> <p dir="ltr">The police department is also an area of concern for corruption in New York City, according to New Yorkers.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Quinnipiac poll from August provides more information about views of police corruption among city residents. In line with the national survey data displaying confidence in the police as a trustworthy institution, 60 percent of New York City voters polled said they approve of the way the NYPD is doing its job. Though there is a caveat to this when you divide respondents into subgroups revealing racial and generational divides: 80 percent of survey participants who self-identify as white approve of the NYPD’s job, while only 32 percent of participants who self-identify as black approve, while 58 percent disapprove. As for age, job disapproval for the NYPD is highest among young people, ages 18 to 34, while job approval is highest among those 65 and older.</p> <p dir="ltr">High compared to other institutions, confidence in police in the U.S. -- which in June was at 52 percent -- is nevertheless at its lowest since 1993, according to <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/183704/confidence-police-lowest-years.aspx" target="_blank">Gallup</a>. In New York City, job approval for now-retired Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was at 57 percent in August, the same as it was in March 2014 when Bratton had just taken the position, according to Quinnipiac. Bratton’s job approval dipped to its lowest level, 44 percent, in December 2014 before rebounding to its previous level. The dip coincided with a grand jury deciding not to indict an officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death and weeks of protests that followed, as well as two officers being killed in their patrol car.</p> <p dir="ltr">While Bratton’s job approval increased 6 percentage points among white respondents over his tenure, his approval rating dropped 20 percentage points, from 61 to 41 percent, among black respondents by August 2016.</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite relatively high confidence marks in the NYPD, police corruption is seen as a serious problem by 72 percent of New York City voters polled by Quinnipiac in August. But, a majority of respondents, 54 percent, view police corruption as just a few police commanders doing favors for well-connected people, while 36 percent believe police corruption is more widespread. Skepticism of widespread police corruption is highest among young people and African-Americans, according to polls.</p> <p dir="ltr">Part of the disconnects shown by poll numbers on ethics reform and the popularity of incumbents likely has something to do with the fact that many people don’t have government ethics as one of their most pressing concerns. People are focused on jobs, health, safety, housing, education, and other such issues.</p> <p dir="ltr">Voters also know their local representatives better, can be more forgiving toward people they see producing for their community, and may have a sense of a corrupt or ineffective collective government.</p> <p dir="ltr">The split can be seen, for example, with Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented residents in New York’s 13th Congressional District in northern Manhattan since the 1970s. As a first-term representative and member of the Judiciary Committee, Rangel -- a Harlem-born Democrat -- participated in the investigation that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Throughout his <a href="https://rangel.house.gov/about-charlie/my-accomplishments" target="_blank">tenure</a>, Rangel has become a local legend, and known for bringing funds and other investment into his underprivileged district.</p> <p dir="ltr">Rangel, who is retiring this year, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal investment into his district, including, by way of a few examples: $300 million in federal, state and city-funded loans and grants for business development, jobs, educational and health programs, and social services in Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood as part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; $2.5 million in federal funding for computerizing archives of Harlem's world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and $9 million in federal funding for a major rehabilitation of the 650-unit Taino Towers complex in East Harlem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“When people vote for their local representatives at the state and federal level, they are interested in results: are the schools good? Is the economy improving, or at least not stagnate? The benefits that you gain as a resident outweigh any official’s bad behavior,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">So in November 2010 -- when a House panel found Rangel <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/nyregion/17rangel.html" target="_blank">guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations</a> for violating House rules or federal laws by soliciting donations from people with business before his committee to fund a Harlem university center named in his honor, not paying taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic, improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment in New York as a campaign office, and not properly disclosing more than $600,000 in income and assets; as reported in the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072904083.html" target="_blank">Washington Post</a> -- it’s not surprising that Rangel was simultaneously re-elected to a 21st term in office despite the ethics violations and accompanying censure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Rangel has since won two more elections before he announced his retirement. In a May 2014 <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/22/nyregion/22rangel-poll-document.html" target="_blank">New York Times/NY1/Siena College</a> poll conducted among Democrats in the 13th district during a primary competition with challenger Adriano Espaillat -- who is now set to replace Rangel after a third try at the seat -- Rangel had 52 percent favorability among his constituents. In line with other polling results, respondents in that Siena poll said the candidate attribute “understands needs and problems of people like me” was more important in their decision about who to support than honesty and trustworthiness.</p> <p dir="ltr">“For most voters, ethics is a minor issue; it’s an abstraction,” said Muzzio. “When you have to worry about issues like having jobs, providing a good education, decreasing crime, you could expect ethics to be less important than more immediate issues affecting voters personally.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite the evidence that voters are more concerned with other issues than ethics reform, according to Gov. Cuomo, restoring integrity in government will be a national issue after this year’s elections.</p> <p dir="ltr">“All this cynicism, all this distrust, all these questions about the justice system and this and that is going to linger,” Cuomo said at an October 30 campaign rally on Long Island for Democratic State Senator George Latimer, <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2016/10/cuomo-ethics-reform-will-be-a-national-issue/?utm_source=twitterfeed&amp;utm_medium=twitter" target="_blank">according to State of Politics</a>.</p> <p dir="ltr">Trust in government -- and other institutions -- is something New Yorkers and all Americans, including the new President, will have to reckon with after Election Day and into 2017 and beyond.</p> <p>“Every relationship comes down to trust. There are questions about the integrity of government,” Cuomo said Oct. 30, linking the need for reform to the “overall lack of confidence in government voters have expressed.”</p> <p>

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by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

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<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2016/al_smith_dinner_1.png" alt="al smith dinner 1" width="600" height="328" /></p> <p>The 2016 Al Smith Dinner</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Public <a href="http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015/">trust</a> in Washington began diminishing under President Lyndon Johnson over the course of the 1964 presidential election and the escalation of war in Vietnam. Watergate ushered in a new era of distrust in government in the United States as the country’s top elected office was compromised. By 1974, public trust in government dipped below 40 percent for the first time since such records had been kept.&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">As with other political corruption scandals, new ethics laws were introduced in response to Watergate, in part to solve problems, in part to restore public trust. President Richard Nixon resigned in <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/080974-3.htm" target="_blank">1974</a>. That year, federal campaign finance regulations were <a href="http://www.fec.gov/info/appfour.htm" target="_blank">enacted</a> and the Federal Elections Commission was established to ensure compliance, along with several other “good government” amendments throughout the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/legacy.htm" target="_blank">1970s</a>. As side effects, the newly enacted legislation contributed to further erosion of public trust through lengthy investigations and loopholes allowing unlimited amounts of “soft money” to flow into elections through political parties as opposed to particular candidates.</p> <p dir="ltr">Running on the campaign message of “I will not lie to you,” Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, with personal and professional character front and center. Though public trust in government under President Carter would continue shrinking below 30 percent amid rising inflation, rising oil prices due to the energy crisis of 1979, and the Iran hostage crisis which lasted from 1979 until 1981.</p> <p dir="ltr">Like Carter, candidates for public office have run on their integrity, ethical and moral grounds, and promises to “clean up” government for as long as time. Too often, it doesn’t turn out to be that simple. There is perhaps no better example of this than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came into office as Governor in 2011 amid Albany corruption and ethics scandals having been Attorney General, where he helped root out some of that corruption. Nearly six years later, state government has continued to see a stream of corruption arrests and ethics scandals.This year, Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, campaigned for a Democratic takeover of the state Senate, saying that ethics reform is his top priority for next year in Albany.</p> <p dir="ltr">Corruption and ethics in government remain a focal point for candidates at all levels of government as elected officials are accused of and convicted for rewarding their major donors and key allies with political appointments, government contracts, and other payoffs. Politicians are not seen as trustworthy -- in New York and elsewhere. In fact, there is a crisis of confidence in the United States not only in government, but in other institutions: public schools, the criminal justice system, big business, and news media, among others.</p> <p dir="ltr">This year’s presidential election has seen loud and passionate conversation about political and moral corruption, lies, misdeeds, and a system “rigged” in a variety of ways. Polls show the public sick of it all, and disillusioned by key pillars of democratic society. Donald Trump, now President-elect, ran an outsider campaign largely aimed at tearing down corrupt and ineffective government, speaking to populist frustrations to out-of-touch, crooked, and gridlocked elected officials and bodies.</p> <p dir="ltr">Here in New York, the issue of government corruption is especially acute, not only according to the ever-growing rap sheet of the state’s elected officials, but also according to New Yorkers. <a href="https://www.qu.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-york-state/release-detail?ReleaseID=2368" target="_blank">Poll numbers from July</a> show 87 percent of registered voters in New York believe corruption is a serious problem in state government, while only 38 percent believed Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature will take steps to improve ethics in state government this year. Despite all this, many New Yorkers support the same politicians they see as enabling the problem, or at least ignoring it.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In the face of well-publicized incidents of corruption, mostly the people will lose trust in the institutions and withdraw from the political system,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. Voter turnout in New York has been slumping for decades, though it is unclear how much of that trend has to do with political corruption and a lack of faith in government.</p> <p dir="ltr">“New Yorkers have particularly good reason to look down upon their elected officials because they’ve lived in a state of total dysfunction and corruption involving nearly every level of government for the last six or seven years,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">This year alone, New Yorkers have witnessed several cases of corruption affecting state and city officials.</p> <p dir="ltr">The most high-profile were the separate convictions of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, on federal corruption charges. The two abused their public posts for private gain, as dozens of other New York officials have done in recent years.</p> <p dir="ltr">In September, Gov. Cuomo saw nine of his associates and donors arrested on federal corruption charges -- a group that includes two former close aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe; a now-former senior state official, Alain Kaloyeros, who Cuomo often praised; and six others involved in state economic development projects. The charges included bid-rigging for major state contracts involved in those projects, alleged to have been tailored to major Cuomo campaign donors. The governor was not charged and Cuomo maintains that he had no knowledge of the alleged malfeasance.</p> <p dir="ltr">In October, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, Mangano’s wife, and a Long Island town supervisor were arrested and charged with trading favors and contracts for perks. These arrests are the most recent New York corruption news to hit newspapers and airwaves, sending further message to New Yorkers that their public servants are not prioritizing public service.</p> <p dir="ltr">Even short of arrests, news of investigations into potential wrongdoing can erode public trust and expose unethical or questionable behavior by government officials, even if illegality is not found.</p> <p dir="ltr">There are multiple ongoing investigations into the behavior of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and his allies. No charges have been brought against de Blasio or any of his close aides or allies, and the mayor has said they acted legally in their fundraising practices and did not do government favors for donors.</p> <p dir="ltr">Still, a majority of New Yorkers and several government watchdog groups believe there was unethical, if not illegal, behavior. Even as the city’s Campaign Finance Board cleared de Blasio and his affiliated political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, of campaign finance violations, the board said the nonprofit’s fundraising “plainly raises serious policy and perception issues,” in an <a href="http://www.nyccfb.info/media/press-releases/2016-07-06-000000/cfb-statement-determination-regarding-campaign-one-new-york">official statement</a>.</p> <p dir="ltr">At a national level, both major party presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, had ethical and legal questions swirling around them as they competed to lead the country. The details of issues surrounding Clinton’s private email server and her family foundation accepting donations from foreign governments when she was Secretary of State are well-publicized. As are questions about Trump’s foundation and business dealings, and allegations of sexual misconduct.</p> <p dir="ltr">For many good reasons, there is a frightening trend in public polling that shows an erosion of confidence in major institutions among Americans.</p> <p dir="ltr">Confidence in key U.S. institutions -- political, financial, religious, and more -- has remained relatively low over the last decade, according to <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx" target="_blank">Gallup</a> polling data going back to 2006, and most recently recorded in June.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to those survey results, Americans have particularly lost confidence in financial institutions, organized religion, news media, and the U.S. Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Congress has the distinction of being the only institution that currently inspires little or no confidence in a majority of Americans, according to the national poll from June. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and obstruction by the Republican-controlled legislature with Democratic President Barack Obama in office has undoubtedly contributed to this standing, with Congress last on public confidence among the 14 institutions tested, which also included the presidency, the Supreme Court, religious organizations, organized labor, the medical system, and the banks.</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the 14 institutions tested by Gallup, the only ones where more than half of survey participants responded with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence are the military, small businesses, and the police. In New York City, job approval for the police is also high, though approval has diminished in recent years and is divided by racial and generational differences.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives,” <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx" target="_blank">writes</a> Jim Norman, a polling analyst with Gallup. As Norman points out, the lack of confidence in institutions extends into many facets of life: “the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are suppose to protect American earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While each institutional sector has its own reasons for earning a lack of confidence -- the financial meltdown, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, partisan gridlock in D.C., etc. -- Norman says “there are reasons that reach beyond any individual institution.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Professor Muzzio said that, coincidentally, he had recently lectured his undergraduate students on the Gallup poll showing diminishing confidence in institutions. “There’s been a profound decline in trust among major institutions and Americans simply don’t know how government works, creating a crisis for maintaining a civic society,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">While there are a litany of factors contributing to this loss of confidence, political corruption at all levels of government has contributed to this decline in institutional trust, especially at the state and local level in New York. However, a general lack of confidence in institutions and the mounting evidence of corruption by elected officials has not prevented voters in New York from supporting the very politicians that they find to be associated with the problems of corruption as opposed to offering solutions.</p> <p dir="ltr">There does not appear to be New York-focused polling data on confidence in institutions, so it is unclear how New Yorkers fit into Gallup’s results. But some local polling results shows New Yorkers’ views on their state and local governments and the New York City police department.</p> <p dir="ltr">In a statewide <a href="https://www.qu.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-york-state/release-detail?ReleaseID=2368" target="_blank">Quinnipiac poll</a> conducted in July among registered voters, nearly nine out of ten New Yorkers, 87 percent, said that corruption is a serious problem in state government. That includes a majority in all subgroups -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents; young and old; men and women; upstaters, suburbanites, and city dwellers.</p> <p dir="ltr">While ethics reform is widely considered an important issue in New York, only 38 percent of poll respondents said they believed the governor and state Legislature would take steps to improve ethics in state government this year, according to the poll. Democrats and city residents have the most confidence in their state-level officials on this question, with 50 and 46 percent who expect there to be steps taken this year, respectively.</p> <p dir="ltr">Furthermore, nearly half of those polled, 48 percent, said they view Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of the problem with ethics in government, including one-third of Democrats and city dwellers and two-thirds of Republicans and upstate residents. Two-thirds of poll participants said they disapproved of the way the state Legislature is handling its job, including a majority among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite the cross-party consensus among New Yorkers suggesting a lack of confidence in their state lawmakers to address the serious issue of ethics and corruption in government, New Yorkers still show a general willingness to support individual elected officials that make up the system they universally lack confidence in, even when they associate them with the problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">For instance, Gov. Cuomo’s job approval rests at 50 percent in the July Quinnipiac poll, and respondents gave their individual state senators and Assembly members average approval ratings of 52 and 43 percent, respectively. Many state legislators are easily re-elected every two years, facing minimal, if any competition.</p> <p dir="ltr">A <a href="https://www.siena.edu/assets/files/news/SNY_October_2015_Poll_Release_--_FINAL.pdf" target="_blank">Siena College poll</a> released in October also has Cuomo’s favorability rating at 50 percent among likely voters in New York -- virtually unchanged despite the federal corruption charges filed against nine individuals involved in his inner circle or economic development programs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There is a disconnect between knowledge of a problem and action,” said Muzzio. “The voters say that it is corrupt and a significant problem and they don’t believe they’ll do anything to address it; this brings up a question if the voters really think it’s a serious problem.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Further, nearly half of all Quinnipiac poll respondents, 48 percent, said that New York State elected officials are incapable of ending political corruption in Albany and should all be voted out of office so that new officials can start with a clean slate. It is a striking lack of confidence across New York, showing that New Yorkers do not believe their current crop of state government elected officials will take the necessary steps to improve their ethics and root out corruption.</p> <p dir="ltr">In comparison to Democrats, Republicans in New York consistently view corruption as a more serious issue. New York Republicans, who hold much less power at the state level, are more dissatisfied with elected officials, less expecting of their efforts to address ethics reform, and more willing to see all state level elected officials voted out of office.</p> <p dir="ltr">In New York City, there is a similar phenomenon regarding local government. According to an August <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/new-york-city/release-detail?ReleaseID=2370" target="_blank">Quinnipiac poll</a> of registered voters in New York City, only 28 percent of participants approve of the way Mayor Bill de Blasio is handling political corruption. Amid months of negative headlines around investigations into de Blasio’s behavior, 53 percent of participants said that de Blasio does favors for developers who make contributions to campaigns in which he is involved.</p> <p dir="ltr">More than half of respondents find this behavior unethical, if not illegal, and a vast majority of New Yorkers, 84 percent, believe political corruption in New York City is a serious problem. Despite all of this, 42 percent of registered voters in New York City, and 53 percent of Democrats, said de Blasio deserves to be reelected. Nearly half of poll respondents, 49 percent, said de Blasio is honest and trustworthy despite the federal, state, and local investigations into the behavior of the mayor and his allies. Insisting that he and his team acted legally, de Blasio has said that investigations are an unfortunate part of public life these days.</p> <p dir="ltr">The police department is also an area of concern for corruption in New York City, according to New Yorkers.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Quinnipiac poll from August provides more information about views of police corruption among city residents. In line with the national survey data displaying confidence in the police as a trustworthy institution, 60 percent of New York City voters polled said they approve of the way the NYPD is doing its job. Though there is a caveat to this when you divide respondents into subgroups revealing racial and generational divides: 80 percent of survey participants who self-identify as white approve of the NYPD’s job, while only 32 percent of participants who self-identify as black approve, while 58 percent disapprove. As for age, job disapproval for the NYPD is highest among young people, ages 18 to 34, while job approval is highest among those 65 and older.</p> <p dir="ltr">High compared to other institutions, confidence in police in the U.S. -- which in June was at 52 percent -- is nevertheless at its lowest since 1993, according to <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/183704/confidence-police-lowest-years.aspx" target="_blank">Gallup</a>. In New York City, job approval for now-retired Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was at 57 percent in August, the same as it was in March 2014 when Bratton had just taken the position, according to Quinnipiac. Bratton’s job approval dipped to its lowest level, 44 percent, in December 2014 before rebounding to its previous level. The dip coincided with a grand jury deciding not to indict an officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death and weeks of protests that followed, as well as two officers being killed in their patrol car.</p> <p dir="ltr">While Bratton’s job approval increased 6 percentage points among white respondents over his tenure, his approval rating dropped 20 percentage points, from 61 to 41 percent, among black respondents by August 2016.</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite relatively high confidence marks in the NYPD, police corruption is seen as a serious problem by 72 percent of New York City voters polled by Quinnipiac in August. But, a majority of respondents, 54 percent, view police corruption as just a few police commanders doing favors for well-connected people, while 36 percent believe police corruption is more widespread. Skepticism of widespread police corruption is highest among young people and African-Americans, according to polls.</p> <p dir="ltr">Part of the disconnects shown by poll numbers on ethics reform and the popularity of incumbents likely has something to do with the fact that many people don’t have government ethics as one of their most pressing concerns. People are focused on jobs, health, safety, housing, education, and other such issues.</p> <p dir="ltr">Voters also know their local representatives better, can be more forgiving toward people they see producing for their community, and may have a sense of a corrupt or ineffective collective government.</p> <p dir="ltr">The split can be seen, for example, with Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented residents in New York’s 13th Congressional District in northern Manhattan since the 1970s. As a first-term representative and member of the Judiciary Committee, Rangel -- a Harlem-born Democrat -- participated in the investigation that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Throughout his <a href="https://rangel.house.gov/about-charlie/my-accomplishments" target="_blank">tenure</a>, Rangel has become a local legend, and known for bringing funds and other investment into his underprivileged district.</p> <p dir="ltr">Rangel, who is retiring this year, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal investment into his district, including, by way of a few examples: $300 million in federal, state and city-funded loans and grants for business development, jobs, educational and health programs, and social services in Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood as part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; $2.5 million in federal funding for computerizing archives of Harlem's world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and $9 million in federal funding for a major rehabilitation of the 650-unit Taino Towers complex in East Harlem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“When people vote for their local representatives at the state and federal level, they are interested in results: are the schools good? Is the economy improving, or at least not stagnate? The benefits that you gain as a resident outweigh any official’s bad behavior,” said Muzzio.</p> <p dir="ltr">So in November 2010 -- when a House panel found Rangel <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/nyregion/17rangel.html" target="_blank">guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations</a> for violating House rules or federal laws by soliciting donations from people with business before his committee to fund a Harlem university center named in his honor, not paying taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic, improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment in New York as a campaign office, and not properly disclosing more than $600,000 in income and assets; as reported in the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072904083.html" target="_blank">Washington Post</a> -- it’s not surprising that Rangel was simultaneously re-elected to a 21st term in office despite the ethics violations and accompanying censure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Rangel has since won two more elections before he announced his retirement. In a May 2014 <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/22/nyregion/22rangel-poll-document.html" target="_blank">New York Times/NY1/Siena College</a> poll conducted among Democrats in the 13th district during a primary competition with challenger Adriano Espaillat -- who is now set to replace Rangel after a third try at the seat -- Rangel had 52 percent favorability among his constituents. In line with other polling results, respondents in that Siena poll said the candidate attribute “understands needs and problems of people like me” was more important in their decision about who to support than honesty and trustworthiness.</p> <p dir="ltr">“For most voters, ethics is a minor issue; it’s an abstraction,” said Muzzio. “When you have to worry about issues like having jobs, providing a good education, decreasing crime, you could expect ethics to be less important than more immediate issues affecting voters personally.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Despite the evidence that voters are more concerned with other issues than ethics reform, according to Gov. Cuomo, restoring integrity in government will be a national issue after this year’s elections.</p> <p dir="ltr">“All this cynicism, all this distrust, all these questions about the justice system and this and that is going to linger,” Cuomo said at an October 30 campaign rally on Long Island for Democratic State Senator George Latimer, <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2016/10/cuomo-ethics-reform-will-be-a-national-issue/?utm_source=twitterfeed&amp;utm_medium=twitter" target="_blank">according to State of Politics</a>.</p> <p dir="ltr">Trust in government -- and other institutions -- is something New Yorkers and all Americans, including the new President, will have to reckon with after Election Day and into 2017 and beyond.</p> <p>“Every relationship comes down to trust. There are questions about the integrity of government,” Cuomo said Oct. 30, linking the need for reform to the “overall lack of confidence in government voters have expressed.”</p> <p>

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by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

</p>
It's Time for Wholesale Ethics Reform 2016-10-27T04:00:00+00:00 2016-10-27T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6596:it-s-time-for-wholesale-ethics-reform Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2016/Kaminsky1.jpg" alt="Kaminsky1" width="600" height="539" /></p> <p>Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the author (photo: @toddkaminsky)</p> <hr /> <p>The headline is the same. The names are interchangeable.</p> <p>And yet, the laws and attitudes stay the same.</p> <p>The most recent indictment of Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto should serve as a wakeup call to elected officials and taxpayers alike. The corruption within our governments is pervasive and isn’t going anywhere until we implement comprehensive ethics reform. No one is above the law.</p> <p>Having put away both corrupt Democrats and Republicans as a former federal corruption prosecutor, I’ve seen time and again how politicians abuse the public’s trust for personal gain. Voters feel betrayed, but aren’t surprised at the same time. As the list of convicted elected officials grows, we have come to a decisive moment: continue operating as ‘business as usual,’ or build an ethical and clean government with trustworthy leaders that will fairly represent taxpayers’ interests.</p> <p>We can’t keep putting a band-aid on the problem. In June, my colleagues and I voted to strip convicted politicians of their pensions and will have to vote again on the issue when we return to Albany. That is an important, yet small step forward, and we must do more. Here’s what I propose:</p> <p>First, we must ban lawmakers from receiving outside income. Being a legislator is my only job because I believe that 100% of my attention should be focused on how I can improve my constituents’ lives and the communities that I represent. This is of the utmost priority. Conflicts of interest between legislative duties and an outside job were central to convictions of Sheldon Silver, Pedro Espada, and others. The fact that a company could hire a legislator to conduct business on their behalf and then they could turn around and vote on legislation that directly impacts that business is completely absurd.</p> <p>Second, we need to close the loophole that allows public officials to accept gifts or benefits simply because of that person’s official position. We can easily combat the corruption that has infiltrated Albany by eliminating the influence of money on politicians. The recent McDonnell v. The United States decision dramatically narrowed federal bribery statutes and now effectively allows your public officials to accept a lavish gift as long as it’s not connected to a promise to perform an official act. This is the same decision which has given Dean Skelos the opportunity to appeal his conviction. Let’s be real: this decision allows anyone to have a lawmaker on retainer and it’s simply unacceptable. I’ve introduced legislation to close this ‘free money’ loophole because corrupt special interests have held undue influence on Albany for far too long.</p> <p>We also need to give local District Attorneys more tools to investigate these abuses of power by making it a crime to lie to a DA, ADA or their investigators. Have you ever wondered why big corruption cases aren’t brought by local District Attorneys? It’s because they don’t have enough power to do so. We cannot continue to rely on federal prosecutors and investigators to clean up our governments.</p> <p>Third, we must implement changes to our municipal contracting laws. As an Assembly member, I proposed legislation to mandate municipalities to create a vendor responsibility system to vet even modestly-sized contracts. It’s time to open the windows and let the sun shine on contract awards. Ending the era of ‘pay to play’ politics should be a top priority at all levels of government because it is one of most the egregious violations of the public’s trust.</p> <p>Finally, it’s time to take control over our elections and close campaign finance loopholes that allow dark money to eclipse the voters’ will. This session, I introduced a bill to reduce contribution limits from a party or county campaign committee to a candidate campaign to $15,000, and to decouple the contribution limit from the consumer price index which has allowed it to inflate to $109,600. This bill also requires LLC contributions to be counted toward an individual’s contribution limit. And without a doubt, we must close the LLC loophole.</p> <p>These proposals will go a long way in producing a more ethical government and restoring the public’s confidence in that government. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue –if we continue to sweep real reform under the rug, corrupt politicians will continue to tarnish our democracy and abuse taxpayers’ trust. I look forward to working with anyone - Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike - to clean up our government once and for all.</p> <p>***<br />State Senator Todd Kaminsky represents Long Island's South Shore and is a former federal prosecutor of public corruption cases. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/toddkaminsky" target="_blank">@toddkaminsky</a>.</p> <p>

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</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2016/Kaminsky1.jpg" alt="Kaminsky1" width="600" height="539" /></p> <p>Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the author (photo: @toddkaminsky)</p> <hr /> <p>The headline is the same. The names are interchangeable.</p> <p>And yet, the laws and attitudes stay the same.</p> <p>The most recent indictment of Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto should serve as a wakeup call to elected officials and taxpayers alike. The corruption within our governments is pervasive and isn’t going anywhere until we implement comprehensive ethics reform. No one is above the law.</p> <p>Having put away both corrupt Democrats and Republicans as a former federal corruption prosecutor, I’ve seen time and again how politicians abuse the public’s trust for personal gain. Voters feel betrayed, but aren’t surprised at the same time. As the list of convicted elected officials grows, we have come to a decisive moment: continue operating as ‘business as usual,’ or build an ethical and clean government with trustworthy leaders that will fairly represent taxpayers’ interests.</p> <p>We can’t keep putting a band-aid on the problem. In June, my colleagues and I voted to strip convicted politicians of their pensions and will have to vote again on the issue when we return to Albany. That is an important, yet small step forward, and we must do more. Here’s what I propose:</p> <p>First, we must ban lawmakers from receiving outside income. Being a legislator is my only job because I believe that 100% of my attention should be focused on how I can improve my constituents’ lives and the communities that I represent. This is of the utmost priority. Conflicts of interest between legislative duties and an outside job were central to convictions of Sheldon Silver, Pedro Espada, and others. The fact that a company could hire a legislator to conduct business on their behalf and then they could turn around and vote on legislation that directly impacts that business is completely absurd.</p> <p>Second, we need to close the loophole that allows public officials to accept gifts or benefits simply because of that person’s official position. We can easily combat the corruption that has infiltrated Albany by eliminating the influence of money on politicians. The recent McDonnell v. The United States decision dramatically narrowed federal bribery statutes and now effectively allows your public officials to accept a lavish gift as long as it’s not connected to a promise to perform an official act. This is the same decision which has given Dean Skelos the opportunity to appeal his conviction. Let’s be real: this decision allows anyone to have a lawmaker on retainer and it’s simply unacceptable. I’ve introduced legislation to close this ‘free money’ loophole because corrupt special interests have held undue influence on Albany for far too long.</p> <p>We also need to give local District Attorneys more tools to investigate these abuses of power by making it a crime to lie to a DA, ADA or their investigators. Have you ever wondered why big corruption cases aren’t brought by local District Attorneys? It’s because they don’t have enough power to do so. We cannot continue to rely on federal prosecutors and investigators to clean up our governments.</p> <p>Third, we must implement changes to our municipal contracting laws. As an Assembly member, I proposed legislation to mandate municipalities to create a vendor responsibility system to vet even modestly-sized contracts. It’s time to open the windows and let the sun shine on contract awards. Ending the era of ‘pay to play’ politics should be a top priority at all levels of government because it is one of most the egregious violations of the public’s trust.</p> <p>Finally, it’s time to take control over our elections and close campaign finance loopholes that allow dark money to eclipse the voters’ will. This session, I introduced a bill to reduce contribution limits from a party or county campaign committee to a candidate campaign to $15,000, and to decouple the contribution limit from the consumer price index which has allowed it to inflate to $109,600. This bill also requires LLC contributions to be counted toward an individual’s contribution limit. And without a doubt, we must close the LLC loophole.</p> <p>These proposals will go a long way in producing a more ethical government and restoring the public’s confidence in that government. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue –if we continue to sweep real reform under the rug, corrupt politicians will continue to tarnish our democracy and abuse taxpayers’ trust. I look forward to working with anyone - Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike - to clean up our government once and for all.</p> <p>***<br />State Senator Todd Kaminsky represents Long Island's South Shore and is a former federal prosecutor of public corruption cases. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/toddkaminsky" target="_blank">@toddkaminsky</a>.</p> <p>

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Federal Corruption Charges Confirm Systemic Flaws in State Economic Development System 2016-09-22T04:00:00+00:00 2016-09-22T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6544:federal-corruption-charges-confirm-systemic-flaws-in-state-economic-development-system Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/19673670634_68575a51ab_z.jpg" alt="cuomo topping off buffalo" width="600" height="392" /></p> <p>Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)</p> <hr /> <p>After laying out multiple corruption and bribery charges against nine players involved with Gov. Andrew Cuomo&rsquo;s signature economic development program, including his former aide and close friend Joe Percoco, family friend and confidante Todd Howe, and a number of major developers and Cuomo donors, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara refused to say whether the governor is a target in the probe or if it is reasonable to hold him accountable for the conduct of the people he empowered. The prosecutor noted the case remains open as a &ldquo;general matter.&rdquo;</p> <p>Alluding to things possibly to come, though, Bharara said, "I really do hope that there is a trial in this case, so that all New Yorkers can see, in gory detail, what their state government has been up to.&rdquo;</p> <p>Whether or not Cuomo is indeed being investigated, or will see charges, those brought by Bharara on Thursday are an indictment of a system that the governor has presided over, and one that other leaders in state government have done little to oppose.</p> <p>Cuomo issued a statement lamenting the charges and promising justice will be served: &ldquo;If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed. I hold my administration to the highest level of integrity. I have zero tolerance for abuse of the public trust from anyone. If anything, a friend should be held to an even higher standard. Like my father before me, I believe public integrity is paramount. This sort of breach, if true, should be and will be punished.&rdquo;</p> <p>Cuomo and his administration have continuously responded to reports about corruption in his economic development programs as though they are surprising and have caught them off guard, but the administration has been receiving warnings for years that the system was being abused.</p> <p>Watchdogs have been setting off alarms that the state&rsquo;s economic development system is ripe for corruption, while the press has consistently reported what appeared to be instances of bid-rigging related to the Buffalo Billion and government favors for donors to Cuomo&rsquo;s electoral campaigns.</p> <p>All the while, the Cuomo administration has taken the criticism and spun it as attacks on the effectiveness of the investments and on the needy communities they benefit, especially Buffalo. And while the governor did hire an &ldquo;independent&rdquo; investigator, Bart Schwartz, to examine and oversee the system last Spring, it was only after the administration was rocked by a storm of subpoenas. Schwartz and his firm can earn up to $450,000 for their work examining the system, a job watchdogs say should have been carried out by the state Legislature, Comptroller, and Attorney General.</p> <p>Schwartz&rsquo;s office declined to comment on the charges or what his role will be going forward now that the charges have been unveiled.</p> <p>&ldquo;The real story here is the system is broken. Everything we thought was going on, was going on, and is actually worse than we thought,&rdquo; said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been pushing for major reforms to the state&rsquo;s economic development systems and greater budget transparency.</p> <p>Kaehny noted that the scandals related to bid-rigging in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany involve over $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. &ldquo;These indictments shine a light on a broken and corrupt system -- not a few bad apples,&rdquo; said Kaehny.</p> <p>Hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds flow through opaque non-profits that the state established, a practice that predates Gov. Cuomo but he has expanded. Large sums of cash are approved in the state budget with little debate and the money is given little scrutiny by the Legislature thereafter.</p> <p>The major beneficiary of the alleged malfeasance, besides those charged with unfairly winning contracts and those accused of taking bribes, appears to be the Cuomo campaign. Developers involved in the scandal gave generously to Cuomo around the times they won state economic development contracts.</p> <p><a href="http://reinventalbany.org/2016/09/three-indicted-ceos-are-all-among-gov-cuomos-biggest-upstate-contributors-biggest-state-econ-dev-contractors/" target="_blank">According to Reinvent Albany</a>, three of the executives now charged in bid-rigging schemes are some of Cuomo&rsquo;s biggest donors. Louis Ciminelli of LP Ciminelli has given Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign $143,550 in contributions and received over $600 million worth of contracts through state-controlled non-profits. Joe Nicolla of Columbia Development has given Cuomo $320,000 while receiving $190 million in contracts through state-controlled non-profits and Steven Aiello of COR Development has given $338,500 to the Cuomo campaign while receiving $105 million through state-controlled non-profits.</p> <p>Among those charged is Percoco, a childhood friend of Cuomo&rsquo;s who has followed the governor throughout his various political positions. Percoco was known as the governor&rsquo;s enforcer when he worked under him in the Capitol and later as a high-pressure fundraiser when he worked for Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign. He is accused of using his position to take state action on behalf of contractors in exchange for bribes.</p> <p>Alain Kaloyeros, now the former head of SUNY Polytechnic, which has awarded contracts to Buffalo Billion developers, was also charged Thursday. Kaloyeros is charged with bid-rigging.</p> <p><a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank">Also charged</a> were developers including Aiello, Ciminelli, and Joseph Gerardi.</p> <p>Bharara&rsquo;s office also unsealed a guilty plea by Todd Howe, a lobbyist and Cuomo family friend who has faced financial trouble over the years and was advocating for contractors while also overseeing and working with Kaloyeros.</p> <p>Up until very recently the system allowed the state to funnel money to two non-profit entities overseen by SUNY Polytechnic. Those entities issued requests for proposal that in several instances were written specifically to only fit developers that had donated generously to Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign. Bharara charges that Kaloyeros actually tipped his favorite contractors far in advance of issuing an RFP to give them a leg up.</p> <p>The nonprofits have resisted transparency, only recently opening board meetings to the press. Additionally, the state appears to have been extremely lax in holding recipients of economic development funds to their promises, like how many jobs they plan to deliver or how much a project will cost.</p> <p>Legislative leaders, the comptroller, and attorney general have raised little fuss about an economic development system that appeared to evade standard state contracting procedures by using a complicated system of nonprofits controlled by the State University to award bids and dole out funding.</p> <p>Even with the spectre of Bharara&rsquo;s investigation hanging overhead, the Legislature made no broad attempts to reform the system, instead mostly deferring to the Cuomo administration.</p> <p>Comptroller Tom DiNapoli&rsquo;s office raised concerns this year about its ability to audit economic development projects, but DiNapoli has a reputation as being non-confrontational. When an audit of his challenged the effectiveness and oversight of Cuomo&rsquo;s Excelsior Jobs Program, the administration hit back hard, attacking the competence of DiNapoli&rsquo;s staff. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">Cuomo said</a> DiNapoli should &ldquo;educate&rdquo; himself and called his audits of economic development's &ldquo;opinion.&rdquo; DiNapoli has said he&rsquo;s not intimidated and that he does his mandated job.</p> <p>Cuomo and the Legislature actually <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">stripped DiNapoli</a> of the ability to review contracts issued by SUNY and CUNY ahead of time, part of creating a secretive system without clear checks and accountability.</p> <p>On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled bid-rigging charges of his own, these having to do with the construction of dorms near SUNY Albany, against Kaloyeros and Nicolla, of Columbia Development. Kaloyeros has spearheaded economic development programs under Cuomo and routinely appeared by Cuomo&rsquo;s side for years.</p> <p>According to Schneiderman&rsquo;s office the investigation took a year and was performed in partnership with the probe by federal agents led by Bharara&rsquo;s office. Schneiderman accused Kaloyeros, who was the state&rsquo;s highest paid employee until being suspended without pay on Thursday, of rigging bids to go to developers who in turn directed grants and other benefits to SUNY Polytechnic. Kaloyeros&rsquo; compensation package was directly tied to the activity he oversaw at SUNY Polytechnic, therefore he benefited from the bid-rigging.</p> <p>Last year Kaloyeros contacted this reporter by Facebook messenger after reading and apparently being upset by a story about the role he played in the Buffalo Billion. When asked if he would like to set up an interview to correct any misunderstandings or inaccuracies, he replied that he would like to give a tour of the nano facilities he oversees, but any discussion of federal investigations would be off limits. "The issue we have is confidentiality. We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation,&rdquo; Kaloyeros wrote. &ldquo;So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly. The rest is not a problem.&rdquo;</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5925-buffalo-billion-boss-offers-cancels-interview-claims-threat-of-jail" target="_blank">The article</a> attracted attention to Kaloyeros and he later deleted his Facebook profile.</p> <p>Now with the &ldquo;gory&rdquo; details of the charges out for all to see, Reinvent Albany is calling on the state to take quick action to fix the system. It wants the state to freeze any new economic development activity by SUNY Poly and its subsidiaries; a phase out of using state-controlled non-profits to oversee economic development funds; a uniform contract process by the state, public authorities, and SUNY; new pay-to-play controls limiting contributions from those doing business with state entities; the creation of a database that reports the details of state subsidies and contracts given to businesses; and restoration of the Comptroller&rsquo;s ability to review contracts issued by all state entities before they are signed.</p> <p>Asked for a comment on Reinvent Albany's reform suggestions in light of Thursday's charges brought by Bharara, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo did not respond.</p> <p>Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School and a former prosecutor who served in Bharara&rsquo;s office, said that the charges give proof that the state&rsquo;s economic development system failed.</p> <p>"As shown by the allegations in the indictment, there was a clear failure here in the oversight of the bidding procedures related to these Buffalo Billion projects,&rdquo; Rodgers said in a statement. &ldquo;We need greater transparency in these processes and stronger oversight; hopefully this will prevent recurrences of a situation where public funds made their way into the defendant's' pockets instead of being used for the benefit of the people of New York."</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/19673670634_68575a51ab_z.jpg" alt="cuomo topping off buffalo" width="600" height="392" /></p> <p>Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)</p> <hr /> <p>After laying out multiple corruption and bribery charges against nine players involved with Gov. Andrew Cuomo&rsquo;s signature economic development program, including his former aide and close friend Joe Percoco, family friend and confidante Todd Howe, and a number of major developers and Cuomo donors, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara refused to say whether the governor is a target in the probe or if it is reasonable to hold him accountable for the conduct of the people he empowered. The prosecutor noted the case remains open as a &ldquo;general matter.&rdquo;</p> <p>Alluding to things possibly to come, though, Bharara said, "I really do hope that there is a trial in this case, so that all New Yorkers can see, in gory detail, what their state government has been up to.&rdquo;</p> <p>Whether or not Cuomo is indeed being investigated, or will see charges, those brought by Bharara on Thursday are an indictment of a system that the governor has presided over, and one that other leaders in state government have done little to oppose.</p> <p>Cuomo issued a statement lamenting the charges and promising justice will be served: &ldquo;If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed. I hold my administration to the highest level of integrity. I have zero tolerance for abuse of the public trust from anyone. If anything, a friend should be held to an even higher standard. Like my father before me, I believe public integrity is paramount. This sort of breach, if true, should be and will be punished.&rdquo;</p> <p>Cuomo and his administration have continuously responded to reports about corruption in his economic development programs as though they are surprising and have caught them off guard, but the administration has been receiving warnings for years that the system was being abused.</p> <p>Watchdogs have been setting off alarms that the state&rsquo;s economic development system is ripe for corruption, while the press has consistently reported what appeared to be instances of bid-rigging related to the Buffalo Billion and government favors for donors to Cuomo&rsquo;s electoral campaigns.</p> <p>All the while, the Cuomo administration has taken the criticism and spun it as attacks on the effectiveness of the investments and on the needy communities they benefit, especially Buffalo. And while the governor did hire an &ldquo;independent&rdquo; investigator, Bart Schwartz, to examine and oversee the system last Spring, it was only after the administration was rocked by a storm of subpoenas. Schwartz and his firm can earn up to $450,000 for their work examining the system, a job watchdogs say should have been carried out by the state Legislature, Comptroller, and Attorney General.</p> <p>Schwartz&rsquo;s office declined to comment on the charges or what his role will be going forward now that the charges have been unveiled.</p> <p>&ldquo;The real story here is the system is broken. Everything we thought was going on, was going on, and is actually worse than we thought,&rdquo; said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been pushing for major reforms to the state&rsquo;s economic development systems and greater budget transparency.</p> <p>Kaehny noted that the scandals related to bid-rigging in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany involve over $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. &ldquo;These indictments shine a light on a broken and corrupt system -- not a few bad apples,&rdquo; said Kaehny.</p> <p>Hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds flow through opaque non-profits that the state established, a practice that predates Gov. Cuomo but he has expanded. Large sums of cash are approved in the state budget with little debate and the money is given little scrutiny by the Legislature thereafter.</p> <p>The major beneficiary of the alleged malfeasance, besides those charged with unfairly winning contracts and those accused of taking bribes, appears to be the Cuomo campaign. Developers involved in the scandal gave generously to Cuomo around the times they won state economic development contracts.</p> <p><a href="http://reinventalbany.org/2016/09/three-indicted-ceos-are-all-among-gov-cuomos-biggest-upstate-contributors-biggest-state-econ-dev-contractors/" target="_blank">According to Reinvent Albany</a>, three of the executives now charged in bid-rigging schemes are some of Cuomo&rsquo;s biggest donors. Louis Ciminelli of LP Ciminelli has given Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign $143,550 in contributions and received over $600 million worth of contracts through state-controlled non-profits. Joe Nicolla of Columbia Development has given Cuomo $320,000 while receiving $190 million in contracts through state-controlled non-profits and Steven Aiello of COR Development has given $338,500 to the Cuomo campaign while receiving $105 million through state-controlled non-profits.</p> <p>Among those charged is Percoco, a childhood friend of Cuomo&rsquo;s who has followed the governor throughout his various political positions. Percoco was known as the governor&rsquo;s enforcer when he worked under him in the Capitol and later as a high-pressure fundraiser when he worked for Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign. He is accused of using his position to take state action on behalf of contractors in exchange for bribes.</p> <p>Alain Kaloyeros, now the former head of SUNY Polytechnic, which has awarded contracts to Buffalo Billion developers, was also charged Thursday. Kaloyeros is charged with bid-rigging.</p> <p><a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank">Also charged</a> were developers including Aiello, Ciminelli, and Joseph Gerardi.</p> <p>Bharara&rsquo;s office also unsealed a guilty plea by Todd Howe, a lobbyist and Cuomo family friend who has faced financial trouble over the years and was advocating for contractors while also overseeing and working with Kaloyeros.</p> <p>Up until very recently the system allowed the state to funnel money to two non-profit entities overseen by SUNY Polytechnic. Those entities issued requests for proposal that in several instances were written specifically to only fit developers that had donated generously to Cuomo&rsquo;s campaign. Bharara charges that Kaloyeros actually tipped his favorite contractors far in advance of issuing an RFP to give them a leg up.</p> <p>The nonprofits have resisted transparency, only recently opening board meetings to the press. Additionally, the state appears to have been extremely lax in holding recipients of economic development funds to their promises, like how many jobs they plan to deliver or how much a project will cost.</p> <p>Legislative leaders, the comptroller, and attorney general have raised little fuss about an economic development system that appeared to evade standard state contracting procedures by using a complicated system of nonprofits controlled by the State University to award bids and dole out funding.</p> <p>Even with the spectre of Bharara&rsquo;s investigation hanging overhead, the Legislature made no broad attempts to reform the system, instead mostly deferring to the Cuomo administration.</p> <p>Comptroller Tom DiNapoli&rsquo;s office raised concerns this year about its ability to audit economic development projects, but DiNapoli has a reputation as being non-confrontational. When an audit of his challenged the effectiveness and oversight of Cuomo&rsquo;s Excelsior Jobs Program, the administration hit back hard, attacking the competence of DiNapoli&rsquo;s staff. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">Cuomo said</a> DiNapoli should &ldquo;educate&rdquo; himself and called his audits of economic development's &ldquo;opinion.&rdquo; DiNapoli has said he&rsquo;s not intimidated and that he does his mandated job.</p> <p>Cuomo and the Legislature actually <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6485-cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power" target="_blank">stripped DiNapoli</a> of the ability to review contracts issued by SUNY and CUNY ahead of time, part of creating a secretive system without clear checks and accountability.</p> <p>On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled bid-rigging charges of his own, these having to do with the construction of dorms near SUNY Albany, against Kaloyeros and Nicolla, of Columbia Development. Kaloyeros has spearheaded economic development programs under Cuomo and routinely appeared by Cuomo&rsquo;s side for years.</p> <p>According to Schneiderman&rsquo;s office the investigation took a year and was performed in partnership with the probe by federal agents led by Bharara&rsquo;s office. Schneiderman accused Kaloyeros, who was the state&rsquo;s highest paid employee until being suspended without pay on Thursday, of rigging bids to go to developers who in turn directed grants and other benefits to SUNY Polytechnic. Kaloyeros&rsquo; compensation package was directly tied to the activity he oversaw at SUNY Polytechnic, therefore he benefited from the bid-rigging.</p> <p>Last year Kaloyeros contacted this reporter by Facebook messenger after reading and apparently being upset by a story about the role he played in the Buffalo Billion. When asked if he would like to set up an interview to correct any misunderstandings or inaccuracies, he replied that he would like to give a tour of the nano facilities he oversees, but any discussion of federal investigations would be off limits. "The issue we have is confidentiality. We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation,&rdquo; Kaloyeros wrote. &ldquo;So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly. The rest is not a problem.&rdquo;</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5925-buffalo-billion-boss-offers-cancels-interview-claims-threat-of-jail" target="_blank">The article</a> attracted attention to Kaloyeros and he later deleted his Facebook profile.</p> <p>Now with the &ldquo;gory&rdquo; details of the charges out for all to see, Reinvent Albany is calling on the state to take quick action to fix the system. It wants the state to freeze any new economic development activity by SUNY Poly and its subsidiaries; a phase out of using state-controlled non-profits to oversee economic development funds; a uniform contract process by the state, public authorities, and SUNY; new pay-to-play controls limiting contributions from those doing business with state entities; the creation of a database that reports the details of state subsidies and contracts given to businesses; and restoration of the Comptroller&rsquo;s ability to review contracts issued by all state entities before they are signed.</p> <p>Asked for a comment on Reinvent Albany's reform suggestions in light of Thursday's charges brought by Bharara, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo did not respond.</p> <p>Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School and a former prosecutor who served in Bharara&rsquo;s office, said that the charges give proof that the state&rsquo;s economic development system failed.</p> <p>"As shown by the allegations in the indictment, there was a clear failure here in the oversight of the bidding procedures related to these Buffalo Billion projects,&rdquo; Rodgers said in a statement. &ldquo;We need greater transparency in these processes and stronger oversight; hopefully this will prevent recurrences of a situation where public funds made their way into the defendant's' pockets instead of being used for the benefit of the people of New York."</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Corruption in Albany: Will Anything Really Change? 2016-09-06T04:00:00+00:00 2016-09-06T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6514:corruption-in-albany-will-anything-really-change Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/23992734409_245b4bb33a_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo 2016 State of the State side stage" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Can legal restrictions halt corruption in the state Legislature? History suggests that they are necessary but limited.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>A new ethics law, more of the same</strong><br />Several state legislators have been charged with corrupt practices in recent years and the leaders of both houses of the Legislature found guilty of violating federal laws. Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are headed to prison unless their appeals succeed. The Legislature considered several basic remedies in the 2016 session. It passed a bill championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the very end, introduced so late in the session that many leaders did not have time to read it and speeded through with the help of a "Message of Necessity" from the governor, which enabled the Legislature to dispense with requirements for deliberation that would at least have provided time for news media and other watchdogs to dissect it and legislators to read it.</p> <p dir="ltr">After waiting as long as possible, the governor signed it in late August with no public ceremony and only a brief statement that &ldquo;New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people&rsquo;s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process.&rdquo;</p> <p dir="ltr">"They needed an ethics reform so people knew they could trust Albany and this is a great first step," he added. "If people don't trust the system, the system can't function." That was a tepid endorsement at best. This is the fourth state ethics bill that Cuomo has signed and this one has almost nothing to do with the practices of state lawmakers.</p> <p dir="ltr">The new law places new restrictions on independent expenditure campaign contributions but does not close the so-called "LLC Loophole,"which allows firms that control several limited liability companies to multiply the means of giving to campaigns. It doesn't restrict legislators' outside incomes or create blockades against a pay-to-play culture of campaign contributions and government decision-making. One of the things that it does do is force issue-oriented lobbying groups to disclose more donor information. That may undermine some of the good-government groups that pressed for more sweeping ethics legislation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, is among those who have said that the law is probably unconstitutional. Dadey said that "my organization's board was astonished by this piece of legislation."</p> <p dir="ltr">"Common Cause/NY is deeply disappointed that Governor Andrew Cuomo has chosen to ignore the causes of systematic corruption in Albany, and instead wrongfully punish organizations' proper and lawful collaboration to more effectively advocate for their causes,&rdquo; said its executive director, Susan Lerner.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>Business, money and politics -- an old story in New York</strong><br />As noted, Gov. Cuomo calls this new law a good first step. But is it really that?</p> <p dir="ltr">In his annual message to the Legislature, the governor denounced "political contributions by business corporations" as "morally wrong....Its contributions are influenced by business and not by patriotism and, like other investments, are made in the hope and expectation of financial return or to avert threatened pecuniary injury." The governor recommended making political payments by corporations a criminal offense.</p> <p dir="ltr">Cuomo in 2016? Actually, it was Governor Frank W. Higgins, in 1906.</p> <p dir="ltr">Higgins was reacting to the long history of scandals over corporate funds swaying political elections in New York, &nbsp;allegations of large secret corporate campaign contributions in the 1904 presidential election and the 1905 mayoral election in New York City, and a recent legislative investigation that had revealed insurance companies spending to influence legislation affecting them.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Legislature took up and quickly passed three pieces of legislation. One prohibited corporate campaign contributions. Another required candidates and political committees to make public a record of their campaign receipts and expenditures. A third redefined corrupt practices by defining what campaign expenditures were acceptable. They went into the statute books as chapters 239, 502, and 503 of the Laws of 1906.</p> <p dir="ltr">Since then, the campaign ethics laws have been amended and updated, and impacted by court decisions. But the role of money in politics has continued. There have &nbsp;been lots of legislative scandals, but they have usually led to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/6046-legislative-scandals-often-lead-to-meager-reform" target="_blank">meager ethics reform</a>, as they did this year.</p> <p dir="ltr">Good government groups often call on the Governor to pressure the Legislature to adopt more sweeping measures. That would require the Governor to expend political capital and rally the citizens to pressure the Legislature.</p> <p dir="ltr">"It is easy for an executive to run against the Legislature," said Governor Cuomo. "We want an ethics bill. [But] I cannot get an ethics bill by piling up political victory after political victory on the editorial pages."</p> <p dir="ltr">That sounds like the rationale for Andrew Cuomo's seeming casualness about ethics reform this year. &nbsp;Actually, it was his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1987, explaining yet another stunted reform initiative.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>What might help, beyond the law and the prosecutor?</strong><br />Legal proscriptions, and vigorous prosecution of corruption, such as that carried out by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in recent years, are essential to good government. But history suggests that other factors are also important:</p> <p dir="ltr">* The tone starts at the top. If the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are models of probity, they set the right tone and their example may cascade down through the two houses of the Legislature. One example is Oswald D. Heck, New York's longest-tenured Assembly Speaker (1937-1959): scrupulous, honest, personally modest, but a very effective leader. Assembly scandals were very rare in his 22-year tenure.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Real competition in legislative elections. It keeps incumbents on their toes, discourages ethics lapses that their opponents might use, and forces them to really explain and defend their records at election time. Throughout much of New York's history, most State Assembly and Senate seats were contested. More recently, particularly because of redistricting and gerrymandering, many districts are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. That discourages opposition, advantages incumbents, and may help promote a feeling of complacency.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Giving rank-and-file legislators more power in their respective houses. The prosecution and conviction of Assembly Speaker Silver revealed his power to designate committee chairs and control the flow of legislation. Members of the Assembly's Democratic majority felt inclined, or compelled, to "go along" rather than take principled, independent stands that might have earned them the speaker's enmity. Silver stamped out potential opposition, e.g., from Majority Leader Michael Bragman who lost his position after challenging Silver for the Speaker's post in 2000 and resigned the next year.</p> <p dir="ltr">Speaking in Albany last February, Bharara decried the complacency of legislators, whom he called "enablers" in the "rancid culture" at the Capitol. The current Speaker of the Assembly and Majority Leader of the Senate have both indicated they are giving more leeway to individual legislators. But still more is needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Aggressive news media. Over the course of our history, the Albany press corps has exposed more corruption than any U.S. Attorney. Journalists&rsquo; vigilance and oversight help legislators avoid temptation. The hometown press follows, or should follow, local legislators' committee assignments, bills introduced, position statements, speeches, and to the degree possible, campaign contributions. The advent of 24/7 news, online forums, and social media can shed even more light and promote transparency.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Widespread public frustration with government. Work by the <a href="http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/" target="_blank">Pew Research Center</a> shows the distrust and disappointment. Public officials are seen as needing more integrity, values-based judgment, and application of personal ethics in their service to the public. Those are not easy things to impose by ethics laws or threats of prosecution for unethical or illegal acts. They are more deep-seated, character-based. Perhaps we should require every legislator, or at least every new one, to read Clayton Christensen's 2012 book &ldquo;How Will You Measure Your Life?&rdquo; It's about achieving a fulfilling life through ethically-based service to others, a reminder that pursuing -- or spurning -- corrupt practices is, fundamentally, a personal choice.</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is <a href="http://www.sunypress.edu/p-6054-the-spirit-of-new-york.aspx" target="_blank">The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History</a>, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.</p> <p>

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

</p> <p>Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/23992734409_245b4bb33a_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo 2016 State of the State side stage" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Can legal restrictions halt corruption in the state Legislature? History suggests that they are necessary but limited.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>A new ethics law, more of the same</strong><br />Several state legislators have been charged with corrupt practices in recent years and the leaders of both houses of the Legislature found guilty of violating federal laws. Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are headed to prison unless their appeals succeed. The Legislature considered several basic remedies in the 2016 session. It passed a bill championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the very end, introduced so late in the session that many leaders did not have time to read it and speeded through with the help of a "Message of Necessity" from the governor, which enabled the Legislature to dispense with requirements for deliberation that would at least have provided time for news media and other watchdogs to dissect it and legislators to read it.</p> <p dir="ltr">After waiting as long as possible, the governor signed it in late August with no public ceremony and only a brief statement that &ldquo;New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people&rsquo;s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process.&rdquo;</p> <p dir="ltr">"They needed an ethics reform so people knew they could trust Albany and this is a great first step," he added. "If people don't trust the system, the system can't function." That was a tepid endorsement at best. This is the fourth state ethics bill that Cuomo has signed and this one has almost nothing to do with the practices of state lawmakers.</p> <p dir="ltr">The new law places new restrictions on independent expenditure campaign contributions but does not close the so-called "LLC Loophole,"which allows firms that control several limited liability companies to multiply the means of giving to campaigns. It doesn't restrict legislators' outside incomes or create blockades against a pay-to-play culture of campaign contributions and government decision-making. One of the things that it does do is force issue-oriented lobbying groups to disclose more donor information. That may undermine some of the good-government groups that pressed for more sweeping ethics legislation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, is among those who have said that the law is probably unconstitutional. Dadey said that "my organization's board was astonished by this piece of legislation."</p> <p dir="ltr">"Common Cause/NY is deeply disappointed that Governor Andrew Cuomo has chosen to ignore the causes of systematic corruption in Albany, and instead wrongfully punish organizations' proper and lawful collaboration to more effectively advocate for their causes,&rdquo; said its executive director, Susan Lerner.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>Business, money and politics -- an old story in New York</strong><br />As noted, Gov. Cuomo calls this new law a good first step. But is it really that?</p> <p dir="ltr">In his annual message to the Legislature, the governor denounced "political contributions by business corporations" as "morally wrong....Its contributions are influenced by business and not by patriotism and, like other investments, are made in the hope and expectation of financial return or to avert threatened pecuniary injury." The governor recommended making political payments by corporations a criminal offense.</p> <p dir="ltr">Cuomo in 2016? Actually, it was Governor Frank W. Higgins, in 1906.</p> <p dir="ltr">Higgins was reacting to the long history of scandals over corporate funds swaying political elections in New York, &nbsp;allegations of large secret corporate campaign contributions in the 1904 presidential election and the 1905 mayoral election in New York City, and a recent legislative investigation that had revealed insurance companies spending to influence legislation affecting them.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Legislature took up and quickly passed three pieces of legislation. One prohibited corporate campaign contributions. Another required candidates and political committees to make public a record of their campaign receipts and expenditures. A third redefined corrupt practices by defining what campaign expenditures were acceptable. They went into the statute books as chapters 239, 502, and 503 of the Laws of 1906.</p> <p dir="ltr">Since then, the campaign ethics laws have been amended and updated, and impacted by court decisions. But the role of money in politics has continued. There have &nbsp;been lots of legislative scandals, but they have usually led to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/6046-legislative-scandals-often-lead-to-meager-reform" target="_blank">meager ethics reform</a>, as they did this year.</p> <p dir="ltr">Good government groups often call on the Governor to pressure the Legislature to adopt more sweeping measures. That would require the Governor to expend political capital and rally the citizens to pressure the Legislature.</p> <p dir="ltr">"It is easy for an executive to run against the Legislature," said Governor Cuomo. "We want an ethics bill. [But] I cannot get an ethics bill by piling up political victory after political victory on the editorial pages."</p> <p dir="ltr">That sounds like the rationale for Andrew Cuomo's seeming casualness about ethics reform this year. &nbsp;Actually, it was his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1987, explaining yet another stunted reform initiative.</p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>What might help, beyond the law and the prosecutor?</strong><br />Legal proscriptions, and vigorous prosecution of corruption, such as that carried out by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in recent years, are essential to good government. But history suggests that other factors are also important:</p> <p dir="ltr">* The tone starts at the top. If the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are models of probity, they set the right tone and their example may cascade down through the two houses of the Legislature. One example is Oswald D. Heck, New York's longest-tenured Assembly Speaker (1937-1959): scrupulous, honest, personally modest, but a very effective leader. Assembly scandals were very rare in his 22-year tenure.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Real competition in legislative elections. It keeps incumbents on their toes, discourages ethics lapses that their opponents might use, and forces them to really explain and defend their records at election time. Throughout much of New York's history, most State Assembly and Senate seats were contested. More recently, particularly because of redistricting and gerrymandering, many districts are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. That discourages opposition, advantages incumbents, and may help promote a feeling of complacency.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Giving rank-and-file legislators more power in their respective houses. The prosecution and conviction of Assembly Speaker Silver revealed his power to designate committee chairs and control the flow of legislation. Members of the Assembly's Democratic majority felt inclined, or compelled, to "go along" rather than take principled, independent stands that might have earned them the speaker's enmity. Silver stamped out potential opposition, e.g., from Majority Leader Michael Bragman who lost his position after challenging Silver for the Speaker's post in 2000 and resigned the next year.</p> <p dir="ltr">Speaking in Albany last February, Bharara decried the complacency of legislators, whom he called "enablers" in the "rancid culture" at the Capitol. The current Speaker of the Assembly and Majority Leader of the Senate have both indicated they are giving more leeway to individual legislators. But still more is needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Aggressive news media. Over the course of our history, the Albany press corps has exposed more corruption than any U.S. Attorney. Journalists&rsquo; vigilance and oversight help legislators avoid temptation. The hometown press follows, or should follow, local legislators' committee assignments, bills introduced, position statements, speeches, and to the degree possible, campaign contributions. The advent of 24/7 news, online forums, and social media can shed even more light and promote transparency.</p> <p dir="ltr">*Widespread public frustration with government. Work by the <a href="http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/" target="_blank">Pew Research Center</a> shows the distrust and disappointment. Public officials are seen as needing more integrity, values-based judgment, and application of personal ethics in their service to the public. Those are not easy things to impose by ethics laws or threats of prosecution for unethical or illegal acts. They are more deep-seated, character-based. Perhaps we should require every legislator, or at least every new one, to read Clayton Christensen's 2012 book &ldquo;How Will You Measure Your Life?&rdquo; It's about achieving a fulfilling life through ethically-based service to others, a reminder that pursuing -- or spurning -- corrupt practices is, fundamentally, a personal choice.</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is <a href="http://www.sunypress.edu/p-6054-the-spirit-of-new-york.aspx" target="_blank">The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History</a>, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.</p> <p>

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

</p> <p>Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In 2016-07-13T04:00:00+00:00 2016-07-13T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6436:former-informant-out-candidate-indicted-on-voter-fraud-in Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/Hector_Ramirez_petitioning.jpg" alt="Hector Ramirez petitioning" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Hector Ramirez petitioning in the Bronx (photo <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1156003124439040&amp;set=a.332382103467817.73262.100000880915756&amp;type=3&amp;theater" target="_blank">via Facebook</a>)</p> <hr /> <p>Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo will no longer be facing former Assemblymember Nelson Castro, a onetime federal informant who helped dig up dirt on fellow electeds in an attempt to reduce charges he was facing for election-related perjury, in the upcoming Democratic primary.</p> <p>Instead, Pichardo will again be opposed by Bronx activist Hector Ramirez, who is facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud in relation to his activities in his last race against Pichardo.</p> <p>According to the Bronx District Attorney&rsquo;s office Ramirez has a date in court before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett on September 13, the day of the Democratic primary.</p> <p>While Castro has dropped <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6383-former-government-informant-to-run-for-old-assembly-seat" target="_blank">his plans to run</a>, Ramirez presents a stiffer challenge to the incumbent as the former districts leader&rsquo;s name has appeared on ballots in the Bronx for over 20 years and he recently challenged Pichardo in the special election to replace Castro in 2013 and during the Democratic primary in 2014.</p> <p>Ramirez&rsquo;s entrance into the race is another chapter for the 86th Assembly District, which has been rocked by scandal and infighting <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/city/4521-the-castro-legacy-corruption-haunts-assembly-district-race" target="_blank">for years</a>. Castro served two terms in the Assembly while also working as an informant before abruptly resigning in April 2013. Ramirez announced his candidacy in a press release on Tuesday night touting that he had filed three times the required signatures to get on the ballot.</p> <p>Pichardo&rsquo;s camp is expected to challenge Ramirez&rsquo;s petitions, with the possibility of knocking him off the ballot.</p> <p>Castro told Gotham Gazette that he decided to bow out of the race after collecting 2,300 signatures petitioning because it was difficult to raise money. He said he now expects to back Ramirez. &ldquo;I decided to stay out, but I think I will be endorsing Hector Ramirez,&rdquo; Castro said. Asked if the indictment against Ramirez concerns him at all, Castro replied: &ldquo;I haven&rsquo;t endorsed yet. He&rsquo;s not guilty until proven guilty in a court of law.&rdquo;</p> <p>Ramirez, who has clashed with county Democrats, is positioning himself as a man of the people running against Pichardo, who he has labeled the establishment candidate and an outsider. "[T]he first step in having our voice and concerns heard in Albany is allowing the people of the district to exercise their constitutional right of electing whomever they want fighting for them in Albany, not a poppet [sic] imposed by politicians," Ramirez said in the statement.</p> <p>Pichardo reacted to Ramirez&rsquo;s announcement by requesting the Department of Justice monitor the contest. "This announcement is yet another example of both Hector Ramirez&rsquo;s contempt for the law and his lack of respect for the voters of the 86th Assembly district,&rdquo; Pichardo said in a statement.</p> <p>In 2014, dozens of witnesses <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/bronx-politician-hector-ramirez-busted-fraud-charges-article-1.2229187" target="_blank">told the Bronx DA</a> office that Ramirez and his staffers duped them into handing over their absentee ballots - some of which Ramirez&rsquo;s staff then filed as votes for their candidate. After the first tally Ramirez led Pichardo by 11 votes out of over 3,500 ballots cast. A hand recount put Pichardo ahead by only two votes.</p> <p><a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx/machine-politics-fraud-filled-bronx-race-article-1.1454279" target="_blank">At the time</a>, Ramirez accused Pichardo of election fraud because Pichardo&rsquo;s mother was active as a poll worker in the district. Further, Ramirez and other candidates complained that levers were missing on voting machines making it impossible to cast a ballot for Ramirez. The Board of Elections said that anyone who encountered a problem was offered a paper ballot.</p> <p>Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, chair of the Bronx County Democrats, said he believes Pichardo will defeat any challenge because &ldquo;Victor brings integrity to the job.&rdquo; He said, &ldquo;The Bronx deserves better than this continual parade of candidates with clouds around them.&rdquo;</p> <p>Crespo added that he thinks candidates should wait to run until &ldquo;their legal issues are behind them.&rdquo;</p> <p>Ramirez was not immediately made available for an interview for this story.</p> <p>Castro said he feels Pichardo and Ramirez have something to settle. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a matter of principle. Hector won those elections but apparently after they counted paper ballots Pichardo won by two votes. I decided to stay out to let them duke it out. They have something there to work out.&rdquo;</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/Hector_Ramirez_petitioning.jpg" alt="Hector Ramirez petitioning" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Hector Ramirez petitioning in the Bronx (photo <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1156003124439040&amp;set=a.332382103467817.73262.100000880915756&amp;type=3&amp;theater" target="_blank">via Facebook</a>)</p> <hr /> <p>Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo will no longer be facing former Assemblymember Nelson Castro, a onetime federal informant who helped dig up dirt on fellow electeds in an attempt to reduce charges he was facing for election-related perjury, in the upcoming Democratic primary.</p> <p>Instead, Pichardo will again be opposed by Bronx activist Hector Ramirez, who is facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud in relation to his activities in his last race against Pichardo.</p> <p>According to the Bronx District Attorney&rsquo;s office Ramirez has a date in court before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett on September 13, the day of the Democratic primary.</p> <p>While Castro has dropped <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6383-former-government-informant-to-run-for-old-assembly-seat" target="_blank">his plans to run</a>, Ramirez presents a stiffer challenge to the incumbent as the former districts leader&rsquo;s name has appeared on ballots in the Bronx for over 20 years and he recently challenged Pichardo in the special election to replace Castro in 2013 and during the Democratic primary in 2014.</p> <p>Ramirez&rsquo;s entrance into the race is another chapter for the 86th Assembly District, which has been rocked by scandal and infighting <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/city/4521-the-castro-legacy-corruption-haunts-assembly-district-race" target="_blank">for years</a>. Castro served two terms in the Assembly while also working as an informant before abruptly resigning in April 2013. Ramirez announced his candidacy in a press release on Tuesday night touting that he had filed three times the required signatures to get on the ballot.</p> <p>Pichardo&rsquo;s camp is expected to challenge Ramirez&rsquo;s petitions, with the possibility of knocking him off the ballot.</p> <p>Castro told Gotham Gazette that he decided to bow out of the race after collecting 2,300 signatures petitioning because it was difficult to raise money. He said he now expects to back Ramirez. &ldquo;I decided to stay out, but I think I will be endorsing Hector Ramirez,&rdquo; Castro said. Asked if the indictment against Ramirez concerns him at all, Castro replied: &ldquo;I haven&rsquo;t endorsed yet. He&rsquo;s not guilty until proven guilty in a court of law.&rdquo;</p> <p>Ramirez, who has clashed with county Democrats, is positioning himself as a man of the people running against Pichardo, who he has labeled the establishment candidate and an outsider. "[T]he first step in having our voice and concerns heard in Albany is allowing the people of the district to exercise their constitutional right of electing whomever they want fighting for them in Albany, not a poppet [sic] imposed by politicians," Ramirez said in the statement.</p> <p>Pichardo reacted to Ramirez&rsquo;s announcement by requesting the Department of Justice monitor the contest. "This announcement is yet another example of both Hector Ramirez&rsquo;s contempt for the law and his lack of respect for the voters of the 86th Assembly district,&rdquo; Pichardo said in a statement.</p> <p>In 2014, dozens of witnesses <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/bronx-politician-hector-ramirez-busted-fraud-charges-article-1.2229187" target="_blank">told the Bronx DA</a> office that Ramirez and his staffers duped them into handing over their absentee ballots - some of which Ramirez&rsquo;s staff then filed as votes for their candidate. After the first tally Ramirez led Pichardo by 11 votes out of over 3,500 ballots cast. A hand recount put Pichardo ahead by only two votes.</p> <p><a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx/machine-politics-fraud-filled-bronx-race-article-1.1454279" target="_blank">At the time</a>, Ramirez accused Pichardo of election fraud because Pichardo&rsquo;s mother was active as a poll worker in the district. Further, Ramirez and other candidates complained that levers were missing on voting machines making it impossible to cast a ballot for Ramirez. The Board of Elections said that anyone who encountered a problem was offered a paper ballot.</p> <p>Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, chair of the Bronx County Democrats, said he believes Pichardo will defeat any challenge because &ldquo;Victor brings integrity to the job.&rdquo; He said, &ldquo;The Bronx deserves better than this continual parade of candidates with clouds around them.&rdquo;</p> <p>Crespo added that he thinks candidates should wait to run until &ldquo;their legal issues are behind them.&rdquo;</p> <p>Ramirez was not immediately made available for an interview for this story.</p> <p>Castro said he feels Pichardo and Ramirez have something to settle. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a matter of principle. Hector won those elections but apparently after they counted paper ballots Pichardo won by two votes. I decided to stay out to let them duke it out. They have something there to work out.&rdquo;</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed? 2016-05-16T04:00:00+00:00 2016-05-16T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6339:should-everything-silver-and-skelos-touched-be-reviewed Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/16148623788_5b590ac055_z.jpg" width="600" height="402" alt="skelos cuomo silver" /></p> <p>Skelos, Cuomo, Silver (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office, Jan. 2015)</p> <hr /> <p>Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were each told by their judge during recent prison sentencing that their corrupt actions have increased public cynicism around state government. Their corrupt actions, they were told, make people question what might have been different in the budgets and policy deals they negotiated, government decision-making that impacted millions. Judge Kimba Wood told Skelos we “can’t know” how his budget advocacy would have differed had he not been corrupt.</p> <p>In fact, everything that has come through the state Legislature during Silver’s or Skelos’ tenure is open to questioning based on the facts that we now know they were illegally using their public positions for private gain and that nothing goes through either chamber without its majority leader signing off. In the wake of their convictions, every decision either was involved in could be worth reviewing, not that such an investigation is necessarily warranted or welcome.</p> <p>For years, SIlver and Skelos were two of the “three men in a room” negotiating budget and other deals, approving what legislation came to a vote in their houses and directing policy initiatives. The third man in that equation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, currently faces a vast probe into his administration’s signature economic development program.</p> <p>As Albany grapples with a wave of corruption convictions highlighted by those of Silver and Skelos, it does so with ethics laws negotiated by two men who have now been sentenced in major federal corruption cases and under the watch of an ethics body they not only helped create but appointed members to. The latest convictions also follow the shutdown of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which was ended prematurely in a deal among Cuomo, Skelos, and Silver.</p> <p><a href="https://www.siena.edu/news-events/article/passing-new-laws-to-address-corruption-in-state-government-is-voters-top-en" target="_blank">A Siena poll</a> released on the day of Silver’s early May sentencing found 93 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a major problem for the state and 97 percent want new laws to combat corruption.</p> <p>With 16 lawmakers forced from office due to misconduct in the last six years, the nearly simultaneous downfall of the two legislative leaders, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s continued insistence that everyone “stay tuned,” the questions arise: How tainted were the budget- and law-making processes? Should decisions engineered and shepherded by corrupt officials stand?</p> <p>Those are questions, according to former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, currently a Demos scholar, that are in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the Legislature.</p> <p>“If the governor or Legislature has concerns about the integrity of a law, it can be repealed, re-enacted, etcetera,” said Brodsky. He added, though, “Remember, the motive of a bill's author is what it is. It takes 76 Assembly votes to pass a bill no matter who the sponsor is.”</p> <p>It is nearly impossible to imagine the governor or lawmakers wanted to revisit decisions made during the tenure of Silver or Skelos to investigate whether certain decisions were made in relation to their scandals.</p> <p>Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, concurred that no matter how powerful Skelos or Silver was, laws passed by the Legislature are the action of “an institution,” not “one legislator.”</p> <p>Benjamin said he knows of no case where a law was later “examined due to a general charge of corruption.”</p> <p>Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S assistant attorney and current head of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, said that the Silver and Skelos convictions don’t prove that either of them manipulated legislation. “And the opacity of the proceedings leaves us in the dark as to what they actually did,” she said, referring to Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making culture. Because of that, Rodgers said repealing a law due to corruption does not seem to be “a realistic avenue to pursue -- you couldn't prove that the bribe caused the legislation to pass or fail.”</p> <p>Silver, the long-time Democratic Assembly Speaker known for getting his way in budget deals by holding out longer than anyone else, was convicted of sending government money to a doctor who researched cures for mesothelioma in return for the researcher referring patients to a law firm that in turn paid fees to Silver. Able to tap into opaque pots of discretionary money called State and Municipal Facilities Program funding, Silver quietly funded the doctor’s work.</p> <p>Silver had a similar deal with two real estate firms that moved their business to a law firm that paid Silver in exchange for supporting rent legislation that they backed.</p> <p>At the time of his misdeeds, Silver was considered by some to be tenants’ best hope in negotiations over rent laws as Senate Republicans favored real estate. Tenant advocates now see many of the actions taken by Silver, including renewing controversial tax breaks for developers and his back-room dealings on the extension of rent regulations, as tainted.</p> <p>Skelos, meanwhile was accused of extorting three firms with business before the state to employ his son Adam, who rarely showed up to work and often made problems when he did. Those businesses were real estate firm Glenwood Management; an environmental technologies firm, AbTech Industry, which wanted to earn lucrative state contracts having to do with Hurricane Sandy and hydraulic fracturing; and Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, which gave Adam Skelos a $78,000-a-year job. PRI was hoping for favorable action from Dean Skelos on legislation having to do with medical malpractice.</p> <p>Skelos also benefited from State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, funds. He was <a href="http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2016/04/8595593/despite-outcry-discretionary-funds-grow-state-budget" target="_blank">able to secure</a> hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary funding for projects at universities and colleges all over Long Island.</p> <p>In Albany it is rare for major legislation to move independently. Legislative leaders and the Governor generally have two major sets of negotiations a year: early in the year around the budget, especially in the days leading up to the April 1 deadline, and during the post-budget legislative session, especially the days nearing its June end.</p> <p>Budget negotiations are notorious for being sorted out in intense, closed-door meetings by the three leaders while rank-and-file legislators remain mostly in the dark. Items included in negotiations rarely adhere to generally accepted budget issues and allow the governor to trade spending increases or threaten cuts for other policies.</p> <p>In post-budget session, lawmakers usually jam through a “big ugly” deal at the end, again with much secrecy and little time for many legislators or the public to review.</p> <p>With so much opportunity for behind-the-scenes horse-trading it is impossible to know what exactly was influenced by Silver or Skelos, but it is also impossible to rule out that the corrupt practices they were convicted of didn’t color the major deals they oversaw.</p> <p>Laws have been challenged in court due to what plaintiffs charge were improper procedures. The gun control package Cuomo pushed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting <a href="http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/21575/20130307/are-court-challenges-to-ny-s-tough-gun-law-doa" target="_blank">faced a lawsuit</a> over the use of a message of necessity. State law requires bills to age three days before coming to a vote. Cuomo issued a message of necessity, saying that introducing the bills and allowing them to age would lead to a rush on gun stores. Courts withheld Cuomo’s use of the message and have generally deferred to the governors on such matters. The governor has repeatedly used messages of necessity to move budget deals through, giving legislators minimal time to review thousands of pages of bill language before having to vote.</p> <p>“Concerns of disruption and consequences of undoing laws weigh heavily on all of this,” said Professor Benjamin, indicating how unwieldy a review process could be.</p> <p>Rodgers said that “unwinding legislation is not one of the remedies available in a criminal case.”</p> <p>Even if it were, she said she sees “A huge problem to this notion of trying to undo legislation (even if it is procedurally possible, which I don't know enough to offer an opinion on), which is proving causation."</p> <p>Rodgers said “given the lack of transparency of how things are actually passed in Albany,” even if there was a lawsuit brought seeking an injunction on behalf of an impacted company that wanted to undo legislation, “It seems to me that even in a civil court it would be impossible to prove that a bribe, even if the bribe itself was proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's harm, assuming a plaintiff could even prove harm.”</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/16148623788_5b590ac055_z.jpg" width="600" height="402" alt="skelos cuomo silver" /></p> <p>Skelos, Cuomo, Silver (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office, Jan. 2015)</p> <hr /> <p>Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were each told by their judge during recent prison sentencing that their corrupt actions have increased public cynicism around state government. Their corrupt actions, they were told, make people question what might have been different in the budgets and policy deals they negotiated, government decision-making that impacted millions. Judge Kimba Wood told Skelos we “can’t know” how his budget advocacy would have differed had he not been corrupt.</p> <p>In fact, everything that has come through the state Legislature during Silver’s or Skelos’ tenure is open to questioning based on the facts that we now know they were illegally using their public positions for private gain and that nothing goes through either chamber without its majority leader signing off. In the wake of their convictions, every decision either was involved in could be worth reviewing, not that such an investigation is necessarily warranted or welcome.</p> <p>For years, SIlver and Skelos were two of the “three men in a room” negotiating budget and other deals, approving what legislation came to a vote in their houses and directing policy initiatives. The third man in that equation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, currently faces a vast probe into his administration’s signature economic development program.</p> <p>As Albany grapples with a wave of corruption convictions highlighted by those of Silver and Skelos, it does so with ethics laws negotiated by two men who have now been sentenced in major federal corruption cases and under the watch of an ethics body they not only helped create but appointed members to. The latest convictions also follow the shutdown of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which was ended prematurely in a deal among Cuomo, Skelos, and Silver.</p> <p><a href="https://www.siena.edu/news-events/article/passing-new-laws-to-address-corruption-in-state-government-is-voters-top-en" target="_blank">A Siena poll</a> released on the day of Silver’s early May sentencing found 93 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a major problem for the state and 97 percent want new laws to combat corruption.</p> <p>With 16 lawmakers forced from office due to misconduct in the last six years, the nearly simultaneous downfall of the two legislative leaders, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s continued insistence that everyone “stay tuned,” the questions arise: How tainted were the budget- and law-making processes? Should decisions engineered and shepherded by corrupt officials stand?</p> <p>Those are questions, according to former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, currently a Demos scholar, that are in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the Legislature.</p> <p>“If the governor or Legislature has concerns about the integrity of a law, it can be repealed, re-enacted, etcetera,” said Brodsky. He added, though, “Remember, the motive of a bill's author is what it is. It takes 76 Assembly votes to pass a bill no matter who the sponsor is.”</p> <p>It is nearly impossible to imagine the governor or lawmakers wanted to revisit decisions made during the tenure of Silver or Skelos to investigate whether certain decisions were made in relation to their scandals.</p> <p>Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, concurred that no matter how powerful Skelos or Silver was, laws passed by the Legislature are the action of “an institution,” not “one legislator.”</p> <p>Benjamin said he knows of no case where a law was later “examined due to a general charge of corruption.”</p> <p>Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S assistant attorney and current head of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, said that the Silver and Skelos convictions don’t prove that either of them manipulated legislation. “And the opacity of the proceedings leaves us in the dark as to what they actually did,” she said, referring to Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making culture. Because of that, Rodgers said repealing a law due to corruption does not seem to be “a realistic avenue to pursue -- you couldn't prove that the bribe caused the legislation to pass or fail.”</p> <p>Silver, the long-time Democratic Assembly Speaker known for getting his way in budget deals by holding out longer than anyone else, was convicted of sending government money to a doctor who researched cures for mesothelioma in return for the researcher referring patients to a law firm that in turn paid fees to Silver. Able to tap into opaque pots of discretionary money called State and Municipal Facilities Program funding, Silver quietly funded the doctor’s work.</p> <p>Silver had a similar deal with two real estate firms that moved their business to a law firm that paid Silver in exchange for supporting rent legislation that they backed.</p> <p>At the time of his misdeeds, Silver was considered by some to be tenants’ best hope in negotiations over rent laws as Senate Republicans favored real estate. Tenant advocates now see many of the actions taken by Silver, including renewing controversial tax breaks for developers and his back-room dealings on the extension of rent regulations, as tainted.</p> <p>Skelos, meanwhile was accused of extorting three firms with business before the state to employ his son Adam, who rarely showed up to work and often made problems when he did. Those businesses were real estate firm Glenwood Management; an environmental technologies firm, AbTech Industry, which wanted to earn lucrative state contracts having to do with Hurricane Sandy and hydraulic fracturing; and Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, which gave Adam Skelos a $78,000-a-year job. PRI was hoping for favorable action from Dean Skelos on legislation having to do with medical malpractice.</p> <p>Skelos also benefited from State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, funds. He was <a href="http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2016/04/8595593/despite-outcry-discretionary-funds-grow-state-budget" target="_blank">able to secure</a> hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary funding for projects at universities and colleges all over Long Island.</p> <p>In Albany it is rare for major legislation to move independently. Legislative leaders and the Governor generally have two major sets of negotiations a year: early in the year around the budget, especially in the days leading up to the April 1 deadline, and during the post-budget legislative session, especially the days nearing its June end.</p> <p>Budget negotiations are notorious for being sorted out in intense, closed-door meetings by the three leaders while rank-and-file legislators remain mostly in the dark. Items included in negotiations rarely adhere to generally accepted budget issues and allow the governor to trade spending increases or threaten cuts for other policies.</p> <p>In post-budget session, lawmakers usually jam through a “big ugly” deal at the end, again with much secrecy and little time for many legislators or the public to review.</p> <p>With so much opportunity for behind-the-scenes horse-trading it is impossible to know what exactly was influenced by Silver or Skelos, but it is also impossible to rule out that the corrupt practices they were convicted of didn’t color the major deals they oversaw.</p> <p>Laws have been challenged in court due to what plaintiffs charge were improper procedures. The gun control package Cuomo pushed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting <a href="http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/21575/20130307/are-court-challenges-to-ny-s-tough-gun-law-doa" target="_blank">faced a lawsuit</a> over the use of a message of necessity. State law requires bills to age three days before coming to a vote. Cuomo issued a message of necessity, saying that introducing the bills and allowing them to age would lead to a rush on gun stores. Courts withheld Cuomo’s use of the message and have generally deferred to the governors on such matters. The governor has repeatedly used messages of necessity to move budget deals through, giving legislators minimal time to review thousands of pages of bill language before having to vote.</p> <p>“Concerns of disruption and consequences of undoing laws weigh heavily on all of this,” said Professor Benjamin, indicating how unwieldy a review process could be.</p> <p>Rodgers said that “unwinding legislation is not one of the remedies available in a criminal case.”</p> <p>Even if it were, she said she sees “A huge problem to this notion of trying to undo legislation (even if it is procedurally possible, which I don't know enough to offer an opinion on), which is proving causation."</p> <p>Rodgers said “given the lack of transparency of how things are actually passed in Albany,” even if there was a lawsuit brought seeking an injunction on behalf of an impacted company that wanted to undo legislation, “It seems to me that even in a civil court it would be impossible to prove that a bribe, even if the bribe itself was proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's harm, assuming a plaintiff could even prove harm.”</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most 2016-03-31T23:07:07+00:00 2016-03-31T23:07:07+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most Super User <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/18535307844_847c491fe0_z.jpg" alt="three men at a table" height="399" width="600" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking <a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2016/01/3/cuomo-to-tackle-economic-issues-in-state-of-state-address.html" target="_blank">on NY1</a> on Jan. 3. "We have done a lot in Albany, but we haven't done enough. And I'm going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement, etcetera."</p> <p dir="ltr">While the governor did unveil an aggressive ethics agenda during his State of the State speech a week later, Cuomo’s words ring hollow now, as a state budget containing no government ethics reform passes and any hope for such reform happening this year is pushed to the legislative session, where it is unlikely to occur.</p> <p dir="ltr">Cuomo has done nothing public on ethics reform despite the promises he made during his Jan. 13 State of the State address. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve,” Cuomo said at the time. “And remember the stronger the citizen trust, the stronger the government’s ability.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Just about a month after two of New York’s most powerful legislators were convicted of several federal corruption charges in separate trials, Cuomo laid out a plan to close the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs, limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn, and adopt a publicly funded campaign finance system, among other reforms.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet, as negotiations for the state budget come to a close, the “three men in a room” deciding the state’s roughly $150 billion budget have not moved ethics reforms that could help give the people they serve “the government that they deserve.” In a Siena College <a href="https://www.siena.edu/news-events/article/albany-corruption-is-serious-problem-89-of-nyers-say" target="_blank">poll</a> released Feb. 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers said corruption in state government is a serious problem, with 60 percent calling for outside income to be banned.</p> <p dir="ltr">Although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and one of the “three men in a room” along with Gov. Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has pledged to “increase transparency and accountability” and “restore the public’s trust in government,” the lack of any ethics reform in the state budget calls Heastie’s follow through on that commitment into question.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The Assembly has pledged to enact comprehensive ethics reforms, and we take that commitment very seriously,” said Heastie in a press release detailing the ethics reform component of the Assembly’s budget plan, which was released Friday evening March 11. Like Cuomo, Heastie outlined an ethics reform agenda, but did little else to publicly promote it.</p> <p dir="ltr">On that Friday morning three weeks ago, Heastie <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com:8080/index.php/government/6219-heastie-outlines-assembly-ethics-plan" target="_blank">outlined</a> the Assembly Democrats’ ethics package at an event held by Crain’s New York Business. The plan also includes a proposal to close the LLC loophole, as well as proposals to limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn (though not as strictly as Cuomo’s plan), and to make it so that legislators who also work as attorneys can only earn money for the casework they perform, rather than for simply serving as "of counsel," lending their name to a law firm - a practice at root of the scandal that brought down Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were brought down last year by corruption convictions related to their use of their public offices for private gain.</p> <p dir="ltr">The new head of the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the need for further ethics reform, and he and many other Senate Republicans are opposed to making the Legislature full-time or placing any limits on lawmakers’ outside income.</p> <p dir="ltr">Sen. Flanagan has <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6069-good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform" target="_blank">previously</a> pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill, aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption cannot collect a government pension, in a deal with the Assembly, only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute. Pension forfeiture is notably absent from the Assembly's reform plan.</p> <p dir="ltr">As the New York Times Editorial Board <a href="http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/opinion/dont-let-albany-ethics-reform-slip-away.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&amp;smid=nytcore-iphone-share&amp;_r=2&amp;referer=https://t.co/1rTiCx7yjn" target="_blank">writes</a>, “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both.</p> <p dir="ltr">New Yorkers, legislators, and government reform groups alike say that ethics reform is essential, “especially considering the context of the past year,” as Cuomo himself said during his State of the State. Yet at a time when Cuomo has the most leverage, he has failed to achieve reform. Heastie has decided not to aggressively pursue the Assembly's plan, and Flanagan has appeared totally disinterested in the issue. The minorities in each house - one Democratic, one Republican - have actually been more vocal than the majorities.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We are blowing our Watergate moment,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told <a href="http://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-state-budget-set-to-omit-tighter-rules-on-ethics-1459127730" target="_blank">the Wall Street Journal</a>. “This year’s budget process has been nothing but a series of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Senate Republicans’ resistance to outside income limits and closing the LLC loophole have left room for Cuomo and Heastie to play a blame game. In part because neither did anything beyond one speech to promote ethics reform leading up to the budget, there is room to question their seriousness. But, Senate Republicans have, it seems, let the two Democrats and Assembly Democrats in general off the hook.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures,” Assemblymember David Buchwald <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6069-good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform" target="_blank">said</a> upon signing a <a href="http://ethicspledgeny.squarespace.com/" target="_blank">pledge</a> to fight for good government reform, including closing the LLC loophole. “I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge.</p> <p dir="ltr">"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted both Silver and Skelos, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/#stream/0" target="_blank">said</a> during a talk in Albany in February.</p> <p dir="ltr">A coalition of government reform groups, including Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany, released a statement denouncing the governor and legislative leaders for failing to pass any ethics reform in the three-and-a-half months since former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver were convicted of corruption, despite strong public demand for action to be taken.</p> <p dir="ltr">“With a recent poll showing that nearly 90% of New Yorkers believe that unethical behavior is a serious problem in state government a month before former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are sentenced for public corruption,” the statement reads, “the governor and legislative leaders have an obligation to New Yorkers to reach a significant agreement on ethics reform.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“The collapse of ethics reform during the budget is failure by the governor to mobilize overwhelming public support for change," said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “New York State’s political leaders have chosen to ‘kick the can’ instead of tackling the needed reforms to respond to Albany’s ‘Watergate moment.’”</p> <p dir="ltr">When Cuomo was <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/246460/cuomo-were-going-to-see-if-ethics-reforms-stay-in-budget/" target="_blank">asked</a> in February whether ethics reform were likely to remain in the budget, the governor replied, “As we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it’s going to be at the top of the list.” Not long after, Cuomo conceded that ethics reform would not be included in the budget.</p> <p dir="ltr">

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
<p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/18535307844_847c491fe0_z.jpg" alt="three men at a table" height="399" width="600" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking <a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2016/01/3/cuomo-to-tackle-economic-issues-in-state-of-state-address.html" target="_blank">on NY1</a> on Jan. 3. "We have done a lot in Albany, but we haven't done enough. And I'm going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement, etcetera."</p> <p dir="ltr">While the governor did unveil an aggressive ethics agenda during his State of the State speech a week later, Cuomo’s words ring hollow now, as a state budget containing no government ethics reform passes and any hope for such reform happening this year is pushed to the legislative session, where it is unlikely to occur.</p> <p dir="ltr">Cuomo has done nothing public on ethics reform despite the promises he made during his Jan. 13 State of the State address. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve,” Cuomo said at the time. “And remember the stronger the citizen trust, the stronger the government’s ability.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Just about a month after two of New York’s most powerful legislators were convicted of several federal corruption charges in separate trials, Cuomo laid out a plan to close the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs, limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn, and adopt a publicly funded campaign finance system, among other reforms.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet, as negotiations for the state budget come to a close, the “three men in a room” deciding the state’s roughly $150 billion budget have not moved ethics reforms that could help give the people they serve “the government that they deserve.” In a Siena College <a href="https://www.siena.edu/news-events/article/albany-corruption-is-serious-problem-89-of-nyers-say" target="_blank">poll</a> released Feb. 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers said corruption in state government is a serious problem, with 60 percent calling for outside income to be banned.</p> <p dir="ltr">Although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and one of the “three men in a room” along with Gov. Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has pledged to “increase transparency and accountability” and “restore the public’s trust in government,” the lack of any ethics reform in the state budget calls Heastie’s follow through on that commitment into question.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The Assembly has pledged to enact comprehensive ethics reforms, and we take that commitment very seriously,” said Heastie in a press release detailing the ethics reform component of the Assembly’s budget plan, which was released Friday evening March 11. Like Cuomo, Heastie outlined an ethics reform agenda, but did little else to publicly promote it.</p> <p dir="ltr">On that Friday morning three weeks ago, Heastie <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com:8080/index.php/government/6219-heastie-outlines-assembly-ethics-plan" target="_blank">outlined</a> the Assembly Democrats’ ethics package at an event held by Crain’s New York Business. The plan also includes a proposal to close the LLC loophole, as well as proposals to limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn (though not as strictly as Cuomo’s plan), and to make it so that legislators who also work as attorneys can only earn money for the casework they perform, rather than for simply serving as "of counsel," lending their name to a law firm - a practice at root of the scandal that brought down Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were brought down last year by corruption convictions related to their use of their public offices for private gain.</p> <p dir="ltr">The new head of the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the need for further ethics reform, and he and many other Senate Republicans are opposed to making the Legislature full-time or placing any limits on lawmakers’ outside income.</p> <p dir="ltr">Sen. Flanagan has <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6069-good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform" target="_blank">previously</a> pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill, aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption cannot collect a government pension, in a deal with the Assembly, only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute. Pension forfeiture is notably absent from the Assembly's reform plan.</p> <p dir="ltr">As the New York Times Editorial Board <a href="http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/opinion/dont-let-albany-ethics-reform-slip-away.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&amp;smid=nytcore-iphone-share&amp;_r=2&amp;referer=https://t.co/1rTiCx7yjn" target="_blank">writes</a>, “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both.</p> <p dir="ltr">New Yorkers, legislators, and government reform groups alike say that ethics reform is essential, “especially considering the context of the past year,” as Cuomo himself said during his State of the State. Yet at a time when Cuomo has the most leverage, he has failed to achieve reform. Heastie has decided not to aggressively pursue the Assembly's plan, and Flanagan has appeared totally disinterested in the issue. The minorities in each house - one Democratic, one Republican - have actually been more vocal than the majorities.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We are blowing our Watergate moment,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told <a href="http://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-state-budget-set-to-omit-tighter-rules-on-ethics-1459127730" target="_blank">the Wall Street Journal</a>. “This year’s budget process has been nothing but a series of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Senate Republicans’ resistance to outside income limits and closing the LLC loophole have left room for Cuomo and Heastie to play a blame game. In part because neither did anything beyond one speech to promote ethics reform leading up to the budget, there is room to question their seriousness. But, Senate Republicans have, it seems, let the two Democrats and Assembly Democrats in general off the hook.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures,” Assemblymember David Buchwald <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6069-good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform" target="_blank">said</a> upon signing a <a href="http://ethicspledgeny.squarespace.com/" target="_blank">pledge</a> to fight for good government reform, including closing the LLC loophole. “I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge.</p> <p dir="ltr">"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted both Silver and Skelos, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/#stream/0" target="_blank">said</a> during a talk in Albany in February.</p> <p dir="ltr">A coalition of government reform groups, including Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany, released a statement denouncing the governor and legislative leaders for failing to pass any ethics reform in the three-and-a-half months since former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver were convicted of corruption, despite strong public demand for action to be taken.</p> <p dir="ltr">“With a recent poll showing that nearly 90% of New Yorkers believe that unethical behavior is a serious problem in state government a month before former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are sentenced for public corruption,” the statement reads, “the governor and legislative leaders have an obligation to New Yorkers to reach a significant agreement on ethics reform.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“The collapse of ethics reform during the budget is failure by the governor to mobilize overwhelming public support for change," said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “New York State’s political leaders have chosen to ‘kick the can’ instead of tackling the needed reforms to respond to Albany’s ‘Watergate moment.’”</p> <p dir="ltr">When Cuomo was <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/246460/cuomo-were-going-to-see-if-ethics-reforms-stay-in-budget/" target="_blank">asked</a> in February whether ethics reform were likely to remain in the budget, the governor replied, “As we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it’s going to be at the top of the list.” Not long after, Cuomo conceded that ethics reform would not be included in the budget.</p> <p dir="ltr">

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings 2016-03-28T02:40:25+00:00 2016-03-28T02:40:25+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/van_bramer_alone_hearing.jpg" alt="van bramer alone hearing" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p>Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)</p> <hr /> <p>On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.</p> <p dir="ltr">Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.</p> <p dir="ltr">This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.</p> <p dir="ltr">The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.</p> <p dir="ltr">With all those committees and members sitting on<a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank"> an average of six committees</a> each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank">"delete"</a>&nbsp;the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.</p> <p dir="ltr">While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”</p> <p dir="ltr">For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22882021649_6cd92e7491_z.jpg" alt="matteo hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="186" width="280" />While Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.</p> <p dir="ltr">Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank">letter</a> submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “</p> <p dir="ltr">The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”</p> <p dir="ltr">Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/25875333861_8c05da7bae_z.jpg" alt="lander hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="187" width="280" />Yet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.</p> <p dir="ltr">It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.</p> <p dir="ltr">“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.</p> <p dir="ltr">

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p dir="ltr">Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/van_bramer_alone_hearing.jpg" alt="van bramer alone hearing" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p>Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)</p> <hr /> <p>On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.</p> <p dir="ltr">Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.</p> <p dir="ltr">This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.</p> <p dir="ltr">The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.</p> <p dir="ltr">With all those committees and members sitting on<a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank"> an average of six committees</a> each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank">"delete"</a>&nbsp;the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.</p> <p dir="ltr">While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”</p> <p dir="ltr">For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22882021649_6cd92e7491_z.jpg" alt="matteo hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="186" width="280" />While Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.</p> <p dir="ltr">Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank">letter</a> submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “</p> <p dir="ltr">The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”</p> <p dir="ltr">Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/25875333861_8c05da7bae_z.jpg" alt="lander hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="187" width="280" />Yet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.</p> <p dir="ltr">It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.</p> <p dir="ltr">“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.</p> <p dir="ltr">

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p dir="ltr">Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.</p>