Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/177 Sat, 21 Oct 2017 10:10:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6014:will-silver-conviction-be-tipping-point-for-real-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6014:will-silver-conviction-be-tipping-point-for-real-reform sheldon silver conviction

Sheldon Silver in 2012 (photo via the Governor's Office)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, thought to be the most powerful man in New York state government for decades, was found guilty Monday on seven counts of corruption in multiple schemes to monetize the power of his office. During the trial Silver's own defense attorney insisted that Albany itself was on trial and claimed that Silver's behavior was business as usual in Albany, and that even if it felt unseemly, it was in fact legal.

The jury did not agree. And though Silver left the courthouse saying he plans to continue his legal fight, the big question now is whether this startling development will be the impetus for major reform of the rules of the game for Albany lawmakers. With his conviction, Silver is removed from office and becomes the 32nd state lawmaker forced from office due to criminal or ethical issues since 2000.

Silver never took the stand on his own behalf and the defense called no witnesses. Instead, Silver's defense attorney, Steven Molo, argued that the federal government was trying to make Albany's long tradition of backroom dealing illegal. "It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York state has chosen, and it is not a crime," Molo said on Nov. 3 during opening statements. "The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it's not."

Some advocates and legislators have railed against Silver's influence for years, decrying the concentration of power of the 'three men in a room,' of which Silver was one until he was indicted and resigned his leadership post. Some thought that with Silver all but gone Albany would somehow be redeemed. That redemption has been elusive.

As Silver faces decades of prison sentencing, Albany is still left to write its own rules. The men in charge, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who replaced Silver, have indicated there is currently no appetite for more reform and have rejected calls for special session on ethics.

"We will continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct," Heastie said in a statement responding to Silver's conviction, adding that "accountability and transparency" are of utmost importance to the Assembly Majority. Heastie went on to list previously enacted reforms as evidence of his commitment as well as reform efforts that have been repeatedly stalled in the legislature by Senate Republicans.

"In addition to the enacted measures, the Assembly Majority has independently passed a number of ethics-related bills that were not taken up by the State Senate," reads the statement from Heastie, a Democrat like Silver and Cuomo. "Among these measures is a bill to close the LLC loophole and campaign finance reform measures to limit the influence of big money in politics, including the clarification of housekeeping accounts and independent expenditures, as well as the establishment of a meaningful public financing system."

Advocates hope public reaction to the conviction and the ongoing trial against Silver's former Senate counterpart, Sen. Dean Skelos - which is creating sensational soundbites thanks to wiretaps - will force more systemic change. Charges against Silver and Skelos were brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office.

"A political earthquake has hit Albany," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "This is a stinging rebuke to the 'Albany business as usual' defense and a clarion call to clean up state ethics. Hopefully this will be the tipping point at which New York's political leadership will gets its heads out of the sand. Governor Cuomo must now call a special session devoted to ethics reform."

Good government group Citizens Union, which tracks lawmakers who've left office due to criminal or ethical issues, quickly issued a statement calling for a special session after Silver's conviction. "Citizens Union calls upon the legislature to meet in special session and deal once and for all with the problem of public corruption in state government," the statement reads. "Legislators need to address the problem of using their public posts for private gain."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been calling for a move away from incremental reform and laid out a legislative package to move the needle and prevent conflicts of interest and corruption.

Good government groups including NYPIRG and Citizens Union recently reiterated calls for sweeping reform, including:

  • Increased legislative compensation, but add greater limits on outside income.
  • "Limit the influence of dark money campaign contributions and end government spending that takes place in the shadows' through measures such as closing the infamous LLC loophole."
  • "Reform ethics oversight and enforcement" by making changes to JCOPE's structure, scope, and voting procedures to increase transparency and independence.
  • "Strengthen financial reporting disclosure requirements for public officers to allow the public to more easily spot conflicts of interest."
  • "Streamline and standardize disclosure of lobbying activity for better analysis and easier evaluation by the public."

Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo pointed to prior reforms he oversaw that required disclosure of outside income that enabled the case against Silver. "We've passed disclosure laws that, frankly, would have been unthinkable ten years ago," Cuomo said, adding, "For the first time ever, they have to disclose their clients. That's one of the reasons this case is this case, right?"

But the Reform Albany Act that contained the disclosure requirements also created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a board that has yet to take any major actions and remains paralyzed by infighting between members appointed by legislative leaders (including Skelos and Silver) and Cuomo.

In response to the Silver verdict Monday, Cuomo issued a statement that read, "Today, justice was served. Corruption was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, and the jury has spoken. With the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

There is some indication rank-and-file legislators are looking for larger reforms. Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell issued a statement calling for a full-time legislature to limit the influence of outside income and to raise legislative salaries in conjunction.

"We need to change the way things work in Albany. As today's verdict demonstrates, the ability to earn outside income creates too much potential for impropriety," wrote O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat. "To restore respect for the hard work that the New York State Legislature does, we need to make it more like the federal system."

Schneiderman, a Democrat, has called for the creation of a full-time legislature and a few members of the Senate also support the idea.

Several other members of the Assembly and Senate have called for major changes to campaign finance and other laws.

Paul Newell, a Manhattan Democratic district leader who challenged Silver in 2008 and is raising money to run for Silver's seat, called on voters to take action to reform state government.

"This is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York," Newell said in a statement. "Today's verdict proves it is up to us to reclaim our government. No court will end Albany's culture of corruption and cronyism. If we, as voters and citizens, continue to accept a government that favors those who buy power and influence, then that will be the government we get. But, if we want a government that is fair, transparent, and works for all of us, we must reclaim it ourselves. We can and must do better. The time for us to act is now."

[Read: Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? Tue, 01 Dec 2015 00:09:23 +0000
Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5648:sunshine-week-in-albany-looked-like-an-eclipse-to-advocates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5648:sunshine-week-in-albany-looked-like-an-eclipse-to-advocates Cuomo Heastie ethics

Cuomo and Heastie embrace over ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The Cuomo administration and the state Legislature are doing battle on a variety of fronts, perhaps none more intense than that over ethics reform. Last week, the administration launched a two-pronged attack in response to criticism of its 90-day email deletion policy and over a push for increased financial disclosure by administration employees and their significant others.

The pushback came during Sunshine Week, when state government is supposed to be focused on transparency and accountability. And while there were several announcements related to efforts to let more sunshine into government, the week was dominated by bickering. Cuomo's office was often focused on deflecting attention back onto the Legislature with surprisingly ugly attacks, even by Albany standards, rather than promoting transparency.

"Instead of sunshine we have an eclipse," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "This is a Sunshine Week where the major players aren't even acknowledging the week with major initiatives. Instead we are fighting about whether the governor should automatically delete email after 90 days and disclosure for girlfriends."

Past Sunshine Weeks have seen the announcement of major open-data portals and other transparency initiatives. To be sure, the governor is pushing his ethics reform package, and even announced a two-way deal with the state Assembly on measures to require lawmakers disclose their outside income, verify their presence in the capital to collect per diems, and more. But, controversy over the email purge and the limited nature of the ethics reform plans have often kept the governor and other legislators on the defensive.

Cuomo responded to criticism of his email policy and new bills to require longer retention of government emails by insisting the Legislature must agree to be subject to FOIL for him to consider making changes. When pushed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Cuomo did declare that he is ready to revisit the policy and said he will be convening a summit around email retention.

In response to the push for more financial disclosure from his administration and, specifically, his wealthy live-in girlfriend Sandra Lee - who Capital New York reported has business with a company that has business before the State - Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi tweeted, "The administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends," in a thinly-veiled insinuation that legislators have extra-marital relationships.

"This is not anything that is personal," Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told reporters of his push for Lee to disclose her income. He went on to declare interest in more disclosure from Cuomo's "minions," of which Azzopardi clearly qualifies. "You can find out where any of our council staff people went, how much they paid for lodging, their gas expenses, whatever they chit," Skelos said. "The governor, his staff, when they move their minions for a press conference, other than for security purposes, they don't have to disclose."

"It is getting really nasty," Horner said of the debate over increased disclosure from legislators and the administration. "It is sort of embarrassing."

Bills have been introduced that would do away with the executive's controversial policy that sees all state emails deleted after 90 days unless they are specifically saved. Advocates say the policy interferes with transparency and the freedom of information law, and state employees say it complicates their work.

A bill introduced by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell would both drastically reform the email retention policy and make the Legislature subject to FOIL. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ended his office's 90-day email deletion policy and said it would be formulating a new one, provoking Cuomo to act.

On March 12 Cuomo called for a state government summit on email and transparency, but a date has not yet been set. "We believe the policy should honor transparency while maintaining efficiency," Cuomo's head spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement. "To that end, as the Attorney General and the legislature appear open to revising their policies, the governor's office will convene a meeting with representatives from the Legislature, the attorney general and the comptroller to come up with one uniform email retention and [Freedom of Information Law] policy that applies to all state officials and agencies."

With no sign of a conference in sight Krueger and O'Donnell issued a statement on the 18th calling on Cuomo to end his policy regardless of a conference. "We don't need to hold a summit before we halt the current indefensible email deletion policy," said O'Donnell. "An immediate suspension and then a summit as soon as possible will enable us to have the intelligent conversation we need regarding a unified state policy." Krueger noted that Schneiderman did not wait for a summit to end his policy.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany said that it is "unfortunate" that Sunshine Week was dominated by the email deletion policy, and calls the policy a "big step backwards" that could be adjusted quickly, thereby ending the public outcry against it.

Last Tuesday, perhaps looking to break up a newscycle dominated by his email policy, Cuomo made an impromptu announcement of an ethics package that he had agreed to with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie but not Skelos, who heads the Senate. The agreement would require tighter disclosure of legislators' outside income, take pensions away from officials convicted of corruption offenses, force lawmakers to check in with a swipe card to collect per diem reimbursements, and tighten rules pertaining to the personal use of campaign funds.

Skelos rejected the package for not holding the Executive to the same disclosure standards as the Legislature and good government groups criticized it for not going far enough, especially considering the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The announcement also came on the heels of Schneiderman's unveiling of a drastic reform package that would create a full-time Legislature, among other sweeping reforms. Schneiderman explicitly stated that he was pushing the conversation further than the governor and that incremental steps at ethics reform would no longer suffice. His proposals are likely to go nowhere any time soon.

Sunshine Week did have its moments in the advancement of government transparency. Schneiderman's office announced that it will release an application programming interface, or API, that will allow app developers to use data from the Attorney General's NYopengovernment.com database. Kaehny and Schneiderman's office believe the API will make it easier for programmers to provide real-time data analysis of things like campaign finance, lobbying, and state contracts. "Giving the public direct access to this data will help shine a much-needed light on our state government," Schneiderman said in a statement.

The Senate passed a bill that would codify its practice of livecasting its proceedings and posting votes to the internet - the catch is that the Assembly would also have to pass the same bill. The Senate has passed the bill for years while the Assembly has refused to consider it.

The Assembly, meanwhile, passed a slew of one-house bills that work at strengthening response to freedom of information requests.

"This Sunshine Week was all about passing the buck," said Horner.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates Tue, 24 Mar 2015 02:46:58 +0000