Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/636 Fri, 15 Dec 2017 10:19:44 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7035:focused-on-fighting-trump-schneiderman-looks-away-from-albany-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7035:focused-on-fighting-trump-schneiderman-looks-away-from-albany-reform ag schneiderman via schneiderman

AG Eric Schneiderman (photo: @Schneiderman)


New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has quickly become one of President Donald Trump’s leading opponents, using the levers of his office to litigate against Trump’s policies, and has put New York at the forefront of efforts to resist the new Republican administration’s agenda.

Speaking at a Tuesday breakfast event hosted by the Association For A Better New York (ABNY), Schneiderman, a second-term Democrat, discussed his role in the Trump era, which has made his focus much more on Washington, D.C. than Albany, New York, the state capital where Schneiderman has worked as a state senator and sought reforms to the state’s election and government ethics laws.

The focus of the ABNY event Tuesday morning was Schneiderman’s approach to Trump. The attorney general emphasized New York’s fundamental principle of openness and reiterated his pledge to fight President Trump’s travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries. “New York values of mutual respect, pluralism, and common sense are more important than ever,” he said to a room of around 250 people at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “As long as I am your Attorney General, I promise to do everything I can to stand up for those values and defend all the people I represent  in the challenges we face together.”

He also described his approach toward the legislation that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which may soon receive a vote in the U.S. Senate. “If the version of the health care bill proposed last week ever becomes law, I’ve promised to go to court to challenge it – and protect New Yorkers from these wrongheaded and unconstitutional provisions,” he said.

In a lighthearted moment, Schneiderman described the experience of quarreling with Trump over the years, even before Trump ran for President. In 2013, Schneiderman filed suit against the real estate mogul for his fraudulent for-profit college Trump University. The president settled in 2016 for $25 million.

Schneiderman noted he has learned to ignore Twitter, a favored Trump medium that the president has long-used to attack Schneiderman and others, and how Trump consistently pulls out all the stops against people when he feels threatened by them. Schneiderman read aloud a few insulting tweets that Trump has sent about him over the years. The attorney general also recalled when the New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, published a cover depicting Schneiderman as “Clockwork Eric,” likening him to the 1971 movie “A Clockwork Orange” character Alex DeLarge, who is a violent rapist. The paper published an accompanying feature on Schneiderman that accused him of “political opportunism,” “vindictiveness,” and cast doubt on his investigation into Trump.

When he did mention more local state affairs, Schneiderman cited passage of legislation to end the so-called gun show loophole and development of a drug tracking system, along with changing his office’s mentality. “Consistent with my goal of keeping New York competitive, we have shifted the culture of our office by making it clear that lawyers on my team don’t just get credit for catching bad guys; they also get credit for helping good guys,” said Schneiderman, who succeeded Governor Andrew Cuomo as attorney general.

State government was a distant second to national matters as they relate to New York, in keeping with the event’s intended purpose. The media advisory announcing the event stated Schneiderman was expected to “discuss his work fighting Trump Administration policies that he believes threaten New Yorkers and the rule of law. Attorney General Schneiderman will detail his office’s efforts on both fronts and articulate his priorities for the future in the fight to defend New York.”

While it made sense for Schneiderman to omit state government ethics and voting reform from his remarks, the attorney general was holding his first public speaking event since the end of the scheduled legislative session in Albany, which included none of the reforms Schneiderman has proposed. Tuesday’s event was representative of a shift in focus by Schneiderman away from state reforms and toward taking on federal government policies with the aim of fighting for New Yorkers against a new presidential administration and Republican-controlled Congress. 

A spokesperson for Attorney General Schneiderman disputed this observation. “He can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing,” wrote Amy Spitalnick, the Schneiderman spokesperson, in an email to Gotham Gazette. But, while Schneiderman does oversee a large and busy office, the attorney general has been quiet regarding state reforms in recent months as major decisions are made in the state capital. Schneiderman's office explained that representatives from the AG's office have met with legislative leaders, relevant committee chairs, and advocates about Schneiderman's proposals.

A review of Schneiderman’s May and June press releases show that as the legislative year in Albany headed toward underwhelmingly conclusion, the attorney general spoke out against President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords; filed suit against Trump regarding energy efficiency standards; challenged the EPA on toxic pesticides; criticized Secretary of Education Betsy Devos over discontinuing student loan forgiveness policies; announced opposition to potential regulatory rollback in Senate legislation; voiced concern over infringement upon New Yorker’s contraceptive rights by Trump administration policies; and reaffirmed New York’s commitment to protecting so-called sanctuary city statuses; along with other pushbacks against policies originating in Washington.

Schneiderman’s main public efforts have been to, as he sees it, protect New Yorkers from the new president’s policies, many of which he believes threaten New Yorkers rights and needed services. Schneiderman was the subject of profiles in major outlets such as Politico and New York Magazine, both focused on his efforts against Trump. Meanwhile, Schneiderman hired Revolution Messaging, Senator Bernie Sanders’ digital consulting group in April , to work on his political team -- the AG is expected to seek a third term in 2018, but is also regarded as a certain gubernatorial candidate when Cuomo is no longer in the picture.

But the attorney general’s office insists that Schneiderman has been attentive to Albany-related efforts. “Anyone who follows the AG’s work knows he’s been very engaged in the fight for voting and ethics reform, including proposing his own legislative packages on both issues,” the Spitalnick wrote. “That’s in addition to his push to strengthen tenant protections, protect cost-free access to birth control, and more.”

While he has been quiet on both recently, Schneiderman has pushed election and government ethics reforms. In February, he introduced the New York Votes Act, a bill that would institute automatic and same-day voting registration along with early voting. On ethics reform for the scandal-plagued state government, in May 2015 Schneiderman introduced legislation that would give investigatory powers to the attorney general to prosecute corruption by officeholders, ban lawmakers from receiving outside income, and make campaign donation laws more restrictive. None of Schneiderman’s proposals on these two fronts have made it into law, opposed at various turns by the powers that be in Albany, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic majority in the Assembly, and the Republican-led majority in the Senate.

Asked for recent examples of how Schneiderman has pushed his electoral and ethics proposals, or for any plans to get them moving, the AG’s office pointed to examples in the more distant past. Schneiderman does not appear to have held a public event, issued a press release, or written an op-ed on either voting or ethics reform since February, when he released his electoral reform package. The state budget was passed in early April and the scheduled legislative session ended last week, both without any of these reforms.

Speaking with reporters following his Tuesday ABNY speech, the attorney general said the legislative session ending without ethics reform was a missed opportunity. “I think that it is essential that the state government show an ability to, and a willingness to, reform,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette. “Otherwise, we're just going to have more scandals and a further erosion of public confidence.”

“The willingness to get it done is there and I think there is an unfortunate tendency to cling to the status quo,” he added, though he did not cite evidence of the existence of any “willingness” and his spokesperson did not explain what he meant when asked in a follow-up email.

Corruption has plagued New York’s capital for years, with legislator after legislator removed from office because of ethical scandal. Recently, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted separately on public corruption charges. Not long after that, charges were announced against nine associates of and donors to Gov. Cuomo in a massive alleged bid-rigging scandal. In September 2016, Schneiderman’s office brought charges against two former Cuomo aides along with state official Alain Kaloyeros as part of that scandal. In March, Schneiderman’s office also charged state Senator Robert Ortt and former state Senator George Maziarz for embezzling funds, though the charges against Ortt were dismissed by a judge on Tuesday.

Despite months of inaction on election and ethics reforms in Albany, Schneiderman said Tuesday he is hopeful. “I do really believe that we are at a point where the public is demanding reform and there are enough legislators who get the need and are willing to get a step towards it,” he said in the gaggle. “So I think that's something which should be coming.”

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Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform? Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it rob ortt

State Sen. Rob Ortt (photo: @SenatorOrtt)


Corruption charges brought against a member of the state Senate Republican majority Wednesday have provided an opportunity for Democrats to jumpstart the seemingly dormant conversation on government ethics as state budget negotiations enter their final week.

Senator Rob Ortt, of Niagara County, pleaded not guilty in Albany County Court Thursday morning, following his indictment on three felony counts of filing a false instrument, according to reports. For state government, this is just the latest scandal in an unrelenting stream of misconduct cases brought against members of both legislative houses on both sides of the political aisle, as well as individuals from and associated with the executive branch.

More than 30 current or former New York state lawmakers have been convicted of crimes or accused of wrongdoing over the last decade, according to a New York Times tally.

The charges against Ortt, who maintains his innocence, come as legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo face an April 1 deadline for a new budget. They also add a new dynamic to the miniscule difference that accounts for party control in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a bare majority and Democrats are divided among themselves.

The Senate’s mainline Democrats, eager to regain control of the house, quickly jumped on this latest scandal as an opportunity to once again push for ethics reform, something that leaders of the majority conferences and the governor have shown reluctance in addressing this year. Cuomo laid out an ambitious reform agenda in January, but has done nothing to promote it publicly since.

“Once again this highlights the need for real ethics reforms, something the Senate Democrats have been calling on for years, and really shows the absurdity that there has been no talk in this budget process of cleaning up Albany and passing the strong ethics reforms,” said Senate Democratic Conference communications director Mike Murphy in a statement.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe of election fraud in Niagara County found that Ortt’s wife held a no-show job, allegedly in order to offset a $5,000 salary reduction in Ortt’s previous capacity as Mayor of North Tonawanda, according to the charges.

A defiant Ortt denied the allegations to reporters after a court appearance Thursday with his lawyer Steve Coffey. “I am not guilty. I am not resigning. I believe I will be exonerated and vindicated,” said Ortt.

Ortt and his attorney both maintain that the indictment brought by the attorney general’s office is politically motivated, a charge denied by Schneiderman.

The Niagara County case was referred to Schneiderman by the state Board of Elections, a bipartisan agency. Schneiderman, a Democrat and former state senator, has prosecuted cases involving Democrats like former Senator Shirley Huntley of Queens, New York City Council Member Ruben Wills, and Democratic political operative Steve Pigeon, as well as Republicans.

Additional charges related to the probe were brought against Ortt’s predecessor, former Senator George Maziarz, also a Republican, who is alleged to have “orchestrated a multilayered pass-through scheme that enabled him to use money from his own campaign committee” as well as the from the Niagara County Republican Committee, “to funnel secret campaign payments to a former senate staffer who had left government service amid charges of sexual harassment,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.

“No-show jobs and secret payments are the lifeblood of public corruption,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve full and honest disclosures by their elected officials — not the graft and shadowy payments uncovered by our investigation. These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust — and we will hold those responsible to account.”

Maziarz, who also pleaded not guilty Thursday, was charged with five felony counts of offering a false instrument for filing. If convicted, both Ortt and Maziarz face maximum sentences of one and a third to four years on each count.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in an appearance with reporters, stood behind Ortt, saying he was confident in the judicial system and that he would not expect his colleague to resign.

“I’m going to continue to work with Rob, I’m sure he’s going to be back here tomorrow. The primary thing that he’s concerned about and I am concerned with is getting the budget done in a timely fashion,” said Flanagan.

Typically, leaders of majority legislative conferences are resistant to increased oversight and transparency measures, as well as limitations on outside income or campaign contributions, while members of the minority conferences are for more reform. In the Legislature’s one-house budget resolutions, voted through last week, the Senate and Assembly presented ethics reform plans that were not particularly aligned. Notably, the Assembly’s resolution included more support for reform, including provisions for early and automatic voting, restrictions on use of campaign housekeeping accounts, and closure of the LLC loophole, which allows lawmakers to benefit from nearly unlimited and opaque campaign contributions.

The resolutions are meant to serve as guiding documents during budget negotiations, which occur among the “three men in a room” -- in this case, Governor Cuomo, Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and, this year, a fourth man, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been mostly silent on ethics since introducing his wide-ranging plan for reform during his State of the State, which touched on campaign finance reform, increased contract oversight, and electoral reform. At a press conference earlier this week, Cuomo, who wields significant leverage over priorities addressed in budget talks, said policy matters, such as voting and ethics reforms, would likely be tackled after the budget was delivered.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” Cuomo said in response to a question from a WNYC reporter. “If there’s a policy matter that is related to the finances then I try to include it, because the budget is a good vehicle to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about, we are going to take up after the budget.”

"[I]t’s hard to believe that charges against one senator and one former senator will move the needle when convictions against the former leader of the Senate and the former speaker of the Assembly didn’t,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG about the prospects of the latest indictments leading to reform. "It does remind everybody about how bad things are in Albany, that they have not really solved the problem," Horner said.

Senate Republicans have opposed closure of the LLC loophole, which good government groups argue makes lawmakers particularly susceptible to pay-to-play politics. Earlier this week, when asked about calls from good government to include significant ethics reform in the state budget, Flanagan pointed to the Legislature’s moves to increase transparency.

“I would say that the good government advocates have not been looking at what we’ve done in the past six years,” Flanagan said. “We have more transparency and more disclosure measures for elected officials than any other state in the country.”

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said that the increased transparency measures are good, but only meaningful campaign finance reform will stem the flow of corruption in Albany.

“Transparency is the first step you take in the long road towards clean government,” said Kaehny. “The crucial steps that have to happen are restrictions on unlimited political giving, in particular, closing the LLC loophole and housekeeping accounts. Otherwise there’s just a gusher of money pouring in.”

But will the latest indictment drive the Legislature to overhaul its laws? “I think that’s pretty unlikely,” said Kaehny.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Since State of the State, Cuomo Silent on Ethics Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6814:since-state-of-the-state-cuomo-silent-on-ethics-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6814:since-state-of-the-state-cuomo-silent-on-ethics-reform Cuomo policy book Albany

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office, flickr)


For the second year in a row, in his January State of the State, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out an ambitious ethics reform agenda that touched on a variety of issues and aimed at restoring public trust in New York State’s scandal-plagued government. But, also for a second year in a row, Cuomo has not followed up with any discernible public push to rally support for that agenda or put pressure on members of the state Legislature to pass it.

Acknowledging that corruption and greed had tainted all branches of government, including his executive branch, Cuomo said on January 11 in Albany, “Imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do – and I am not going to stop until I get there.”

Cuomo outlined his ten-point ethics and good government agenda in his Albany State of the State speech, his 2017 policy book, and his executive budget proposal -- which is significant in that the governor is again proposing to push through government ethics policy in the state’s spending plan. The budget process is where Cuomo has the most leverage over the Legislature, but that has not paved the way for pushing through reform measures.

The governor’s agenda -- put forth after major corruption scandals in the Legislature and the governor’s inner circle over the past two years -- includes campaign finance reform and transparency and oversight measures. “This bill contains provisions needed to enact into law major components of legislation relating to Good Government and Ethics Reform,” Cuomo’s budget bill says, under “purpose.”

But while Cuomo outlined the need for new campaign finance and ethics measures and proposed a slate of reforms, as in years past, the governor has made virtually no mention of these reforms since, nor has he indicated how he will persuade a resistant Legislature to pass them. Cuomo has made a variety of public appearances since his early January State of the State tour, but none have focused on government ethics or campaign finance reform.

A spokesperson for the governor said that Cuomo’s priorities have not shifted, and that ethics will factor into budget negotiations this month. Cuomo and legislative leaders must agree to a new state budget by the April 1 start to the next fiscal year.

“The Governor has included comprehensive ethics reform in his Executive Budget proposal just as he has every other year. We will continue to strongly advocate for the passage of these meaningful reforms and we urge the Legislature to join us in this effort,” said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

While Cuomo may pursue ethics measures in closed-door negotiations, his public priorities have been elsewhere. The governor has promoted state infrastructure spending and investments in Central Brooklyn, traveled to Israel to condemn anti-semitism and show solidarity, and made other public appearances, including a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol.

Meanwhile, this week the two legislative houses passed their one-house budget resolutions, and offered little indication that the governor’s ethics agenda or reforms sought by good government advocates are on the precipice. Over the six-plus years Cuomo has been governor, there have been various incremental ethics reform measures passed, but they have proved insufficient in preventing corruption in state government.

In 2016, in the wake of the arrests of then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on public corruption charges, Cuomo proposed similar reforms in his State of the State, but was criticized for neglecting to push for them publicly. Most of the measures were not passed -- particularly because of an obstinate Republican majority in the Senate -- and those that did were again seen as small, mostly symbolic steps, insufficient for fixing Albany’s systemic pattern of corruption.

Then, last year, the spotlight moved from the Legislature to the Cuomo administration and orbit. Nine Cuomo associates, including his longtime friend and advisor Joseph Percoco, were arrested for their roles in a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion and other economic development efforts. This increased scrutiny in his own front yard, coupled with an increasingly fraught relationship with state legislators may diminish some of the governor’s willingness to barter for the reforms, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.

"His moral authority to pummel the Legislature is not very high right now. Because instead of the Legislature being on political trial because of Skelos and Silver, it’s the governor this time,” Kaehny said. “So every time the governor brings up issues like limits on outside income -- which good government groups advocate for -- for legislators, they are just going to say, ‘well, who’s on trial, you or us?’"

In the wake of the scandal, Cuomo renewed his call for ethics reforms and vowed to appoint a procurement officer to review all state contracts “with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.” But, this and other proposals Cuomo has made for new ways in which he will monitor executive branch operations have come up short for critics who note that Cuomo’s solutions keep mechanisms under his purview, instead of empowering independent, outside regulators.

Cuomo sought to levy some of his proposed ethics reforms at the Legislature, including term limits for lawmakers and restrictions on outside income, in exchange for a pay raise, a move that enraged state lawmakers who have not seen a salary increase since 1999. A pay raise commission imploded and talks went nowhere, though they could be resurrected when the “three men in a room” start to hash things out.

"I think any hope in big progress this session was wrecked by the whole fight over the pay raise, which was perceived as incredibly bad faith by the governor by the Legislature,” said Kaehny.

Also quieter this year are editorial boards and good government groups, who last March called on those “three men in a room” -- Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie -- to have an open and transparent meeting on proposed ethics reforms.

This budget season, advocates and reformers in and out of government have turned their attention to a clean contracting campaign as a result of the bid-rigging scandal. Many have called for reinstating Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s power to review contracts that go through government-created nonprofits, like those at the center of the economic development scandal. Cuomo and the Legislature voted to strip DiNapoli of this authority in 2011.

Little has seemed to grab the attention of legislators, other than many Democrats in both chambers who are pushing for campaign finance reform, starting with closure of the LLC loophole. And Cuomo, defiant in the face of calls for reforms that bring outside oversight to his administration, does not seem particularly animated by his desire to push through ethics and campaign finance reform.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Since State of the State, Cuomo Silent on Ethics Reform Thu, 16 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6811:one-house-budgets-show-little-indication-ethics-voting-campaign-finance-reforms-will-advance-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6811:one-house-budgets-show-little-indication-ethics-voting-campaign-finance-reforms-will-advance-in-albany heastie cuomo flanagan

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany Wed, 15 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians silver skelos cuomo sampson

Sheldon Silver & others in 2011 (photo: The Governor's Office)


This November, New York voters will get to decide whether state officials who are convicted of public corruption can be stripped of their pensions.

A government ethics reform bill, jointly passed by the state Legislature Monday for a second time, amends the state constitution and allows the state to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties.

Under the measure, a public officer convicted of a crime would be subject to a court hearing, which would determine the fate of of the officer’s pension. Current law only allows pensions to be stripped from lawmakers convicted of a crime who joined the retirement system after August 15, 2011, but this constitutional amendment would make the forfeiture apply retroactively to all currently in government.

Because it is a constitutional change, it must pass two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, which this legislation has now done, and then be approved by the voters via ballot referendum.

A public push for the legislation came after it was revealed that disgraced ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as other corrupt public officials, were granted pensions despite convictions on public corruption charges. As they face prison sentences, Skelos is to receive $95,832 annually and Silver, $79,224 a year, according to The Daily News.

While many state legislators’ initially appeared content to keep the pension (forfeiture) system as is, a public outcry following news reports on the Skelos and Silver pension packages appears to have changed their minds. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters supported pension forfeiture for corrupt officials 76 percent to 18 percent.

The new pension forfeiture measure will appear on the ballot November 7 of this year, as voters go to the polls for the general elections in a variety of local offices. In New York City, elections will include those for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, all of the City Council, and others.

On the flip side of the ballot from candidate choices, alongside the pension forfeiture “yes” or “no” question, will be another somewhat related referendum: whether New York State should call a constitutional convention. That question is required to appear on the ballot every 20 years, but New Yorkers have not called for a Con Con, as it is often referred, in several decades.

A chance to rewrite the state constitution, a constitutional convention could result in the enactment of numerous government ethics reforms, from different pension forfeiture rules to the closure of the infamous “LLC loophole,” term limits for elected officials, and more.

The last time a constitutional convention was on the ballot, in 1997, it did not pass, in part due opposition from labor groups and other special interests, which factor into this year’s vote as well. However, not only is there currently a “take back the government” political moment occurring, but the fact that the constitutional convention question will be accompanied by the popular pension forfeiture referendum could potentially have a “coattail effect,” according to Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“From an advocate’s perspective, I think this makes it easier to get it passed,” Horner said of Con Con. “Any sort of political campaign is difficult to run, when you are telling people vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other, because people forget which is which.”

According to the new measure, a court’s decision to reduce or revoke pension benefits would consider factors such as the severity of the crime and whether a reduction might be proportionate to the offense. Public officers include elected officials, direct gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers, and policy-makers.

“There must be zero tolerance for public corruption, and these ethics reforms are crucial to holding officials accountable and making sure they don’t profit from abusing their positions,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement. “Now the measure will go to the voters so that they can have the opportunity to join with us in taking a strong stand against corruption.” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican like his predecessor, replaced Skelos as majority leader when Skelos stepped down amid federal charges.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a New York City Democrat who replaced Silver when Silver stepped down from his long-time speaker post, said similarly. “The Assembly Majority believes that public officials who violate the public’s trust and engage in corruption should face the consequences of their actions including the forfeiture of taxpayer funded pensions,” said Heastie in a statement.

The proposal, sponsored by Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, and Senator Thomas Croci, a Republican from Long Island, would also allow the court to order pension benefits to be paid to an innocent spouse, minor dependents, or other dependent family members after consideration of their financial needs and resources.

Good government groups were quick to commend the Legislature’s reform efforts as a step in the right direction. Still, the potential loss or reduction of pension benefits -- a punitive measure -- is less likely to deter corruption than more preventative measures that reformers have called for, like a public campaign finance system and stricter limits on campaign donations. Jail time and other penalties faced by corrupt politicians have appeared to show little effect as state lawmaker after state lawmaker is put behind bars.

“Public officials who break the law shouldnʼt get a taxpayer pension, period. Thanks to Assemblymember Buchwaldʼs and Senator Crociʼs persistent efforts to pass this needed response to our state’s on-going ethics crisis, New York is one step closer to restoring the public’s trust in government,ˮ said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, in a statement.

The Legislature also passed a joint resolution Monday that requires any member of the Legislature earning at least $5,000 in income through outside employment to get advisory permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, to ensure the employment is consistent with the New York State Public Officers Law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a ten-point government ethics plan earlier this year as part of his State of the State tour and policy plan. Cuomo said he will be pushing reform measures, including campaign finance reform, in budget negotiations with the Legislature. The governor is supportive of the pension forfeiture amendment and has said he is supportive of a constitutional convention, but he did not include it in his 149-plank 2017 policy agenda.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians Tue, 31 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Acknowledging Pervasive Corruption, Cuomo Releases 10-Point Government Ethics Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6711:acknowledging-pervasive-corruption-cuomo-releases-10-point-government-ethics-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6711:acknowledging-pervasive-corruption-cuomo-releases-10-point-government-ethics-agenda Cuomo State of the State Excelsior booklet

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


Governor Andrew Cuomo concluded his three-day, six-stop State of the State tour in Albany Wednesday, though not at the State Capitol, where he and previous governors have typically held a single event. In contrast to previous addresses, most state legislators were not in attendance to hear the governor lay out his agenda for the year.

Throughout the week, Cuomo released 35 proposals, many of them aimed at lifting the middle class, including tuition-free city and state college for students under a $125,000 income threshold, jobs and infrastructure investment, and an expanded child care tax credit. The governor outlined voting reforms to encourage more New Yorkers to cast ballots, and, as he toured the state, made a wide variety of region and city-specific proposals.

The governor culminated his junket with the capital region speech, at SUNY Albany, during which he outlined his 2017 government ethics agenda. An ambitious ten-point plan that comes in response to “a series of breaches of the trust” in Albany, Cuomo said. “It has happened in the legislature, both houses, it’s happened in the state comptroller’s office, it’s happened in my own office,” the governor acknowledged. He said the measures, if enacted, would “restore the public trust.”

Last year saw the two former legislative majority leaders convicted on public corruption charges, followed by the arrest of eight people -- aides of and donors to Cuomo -- in an alleged corruption scheme of bribery, kickbacks, and bid-rigging.

Cuomo spent the first three-quarters of his Albany address rehashing themes from his previous speeches, such as the need to address “middle class anger” and his focus on correcting inequities between Upstate and New York City through major government investment. He also outlined capital region-related proposals like an expanded nature trail, legalizing ride-hailing apps, and water infrastructure investment.

The governor then explained the need for a more ethical and trustworthy government by saying, “We have been doing historic work at the state level – the government is doing more than ever before – but imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do – and I am not going to stop until I get there.”

After noting that there have been ethics measures passed four years in a row and acknowledging their insufficiency, Cuomo repeated many of his proposed reforms from 2016, including closing the LLC loophole, enacting term limits, and instituting restrictions on outside income for state lawmakers -- all of which have been bucked by the Legislature, especially Senate Republicans. Cuomo proposals for term limits, outside income restrictions, and making the job of state legislator full-time would require state constitutional amendments.

The governor and state legislators start the year on bad terms after a commission to enact pay raises for legislators fell apart when the governor’s appointees refused to back raises without corresponding reforms like outside-income limits.

On Wednesday, Cuomo also proposed adding the Legislature to Freedom of Information Law transparency, increased oversight of the state's procurement process, requiring local elected officials to file financial disclosures, and expanding the State Inspector General's authority to SUNY and CUNY not-for-profits, and creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department.

“As public servants, we earn the trust of the people we serve, and we can only do as much as that trust allows us to do. Unfortunately, in Albany there has been a series of breaches in the trust,” he said. “We have to say to the people of this state, we get it, people will do bad things — that is the nature of humanity — but we are going to have as many precautions as possible.”

Government reform advocates, some legislators, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have been focused on changes to help prevent corruption, not just punish it or add disclosure, as a number recently passed ethics reforms have done. Cuomo’s ten-point plan hits many notes that reform groups and reform-minded elected officials have been calling for. Whether there is a path to enactment is unclear.

"It's nice to see the governor articulate his continued commitment to ethics reform, but he has to change his approach if he really wants to get this done," said Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform organization Citizens Union. "We've grown weary of his words and need to see more forceful action in trying new strategies to get this done," Dadey added. "If he really wants to clean up Albany, then he needs to do something else like hold up the budget or play hardball in a way he hasn't before."

Blair Horner of NYPIRG, another reform leader, has been calling on Cuomo to take his ethics message to the people, like Cuomo did in travelling the state and holding rallies to promote a minimum wage increase that passed last year. The governor’s office did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked what Cuomo planned to do to ensure his reform proposals are passed.

"It's not hard to come up with good proposals, it's hard to come up with good laws," Horner told Gotham Gazette in response to the governor's speech and ethics agenda. "Whether or not there is a good ethics hinges almost entirely on what the governor does -- he has to engage the public. Good ethics deals are not the result of secret negotiations at the Capitol. What comes out of that are half measures with loopholes and it's not clear to me what the governor wants to do. He's never taken the fight into the public domain."

The relationship between Cuomo and state legislators frayed in recent weeks as talks over a special session and a potential pay raise for lawmakers fell through toward at the end of last year, when lawmakers balked at the governor’s attempt to trade the pay bump for his reform package. Some have of speculated that this falling out, along with Cuomo’s interest in running for president in 2020, are reasons Cuomo took his address on the road this year.

At his Albany speech, Cuomo said the tailored State of the State addresses were intended to speak directly “to the people” in every region of New York.

Last year, in the wake of the corruption scandals by which Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were found guilty of violating federal laws, Cuomo also focused part of his State of the State address on restoring the public’s trust in government, emphasizing numerous ethics reforms he hoped to pass in the coming year. His 2016 agenda included setting limits on campaign expenditures, the closure the LLC Loophole, increased funding for a state ethics regulator, JCOPE, and term and income limits for lawmakers.

The governor also vowed to convene a commission to create a blueprint for a Constitutional Convention -- an opportunity to make significant changes to the state constitution, including enacting ethics reforms -- in the event that in November of this year, New Yorkers vote in favor of holding one. It was another plan that failed to materialize as the money Cuomo proposed to fund the commission did not make it into the budget. The governor has said the only way to close the LLC loophole, which allows for virtually unlimited corporate campaign donations, appears to be through a constitutional convention.

While most of the campaign finance reforms proposed by Cuomo last year did not pass both legislative chambers, nor did he push aggressively for them, Albany lawmakers did pass a series of disclosure requirements aimed at increasing transparency for Super PACs and nonprofits. The measures, rushed through at the end of the legislative session, were criticized for doing little to address the actual sources of corruption in state government.

This year begins with Cuomo weathering a new scandal, even closer to home, as three of his former top aides and several major donors have been indicted for alleged behavior related to the governor’s economic development programs.

What Cuomo does next, if anything, to push his ethics reform plan is anybody’s guess. The governor will soon release his Executive Budget proposal and then, as the Legislature holds a series of budget hearings, he will negotiate with legislative leaders before a budget is passed. The new state fiscal year begins April 1.

For the capital region, Cuomo proposed on Wednesday to complete the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile pathway for biking and hiking that would connect the Erie Canalway and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, by 2020; a brand new airport for Plattsburgh, New York, which he suggested would transform the city into a “transportation hub,” and vowed to address the region’s failing pipes and invest $2 billion into clean water infrastructure across the state. Finally, he pledged to protect New Yorkers from out-of-controls drug costs and repeated earlier calls to enable ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft, in Upstate New York.

In reaction to Cuomo’s ethics agenda, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins noted that Senate Democrats have been fruitlessly pushing for similar reforms for some time. “There have been no stauncher advocates for ethics reform than the Senate Democrats,” she said in a statement. “Clearly, ethics reforms will only take place if all Democratic Senators unite to form a functional majority. New York voters supported a Democratic Senate Majority and deserve an ethical and trustworthy state government.”

Other top Albany officials, including Attorney General Schneiderman -- who pushed last year for a wide ranging ethics reform package to address Albany corruption -- Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie withheld comment on the governor’s proposed reforms saying they are still under review. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan's office did not respond to a request for comment. As NYPIRG's Horner pointed out about Cuomo's 2017 ethics agenda, it does not include restoring audit powers previously stripped from the Comptroller or additional corruption-investigating powers for the Attorney General, two items many have been calling for, but Cuomo continues to resist.

[Read: A Cheat Sheet to Governor Cuomo's 2017 State of the State Proposals]

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

Read more by this writer.

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

Note: this article has been updated with comment from Blair Horner of NYPIRG.

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Acknowledging Pervasive Corruption, Cuomo Releases 10-Point Government Ethics Agenda Wed, 11 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Donald Trump, New York Corruption & A Loss of Faith in Institutions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6617:donald-trump-new-york-corruption-a-loss-of-faith-in-institutions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6617:donald-trump-new-york-corruption-a-loss-of-faith-in-institutions al smith dinner 1

The 2016 Al Smith Dinner


Public trust 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. 

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 1974. That year, federal campaign finance regulations were enacted and the Federal Elections Commission was established to ensure compliance, along with several other “good government” amendments throughout the 1970s. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Poll numbers from July 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.

“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.

“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.

This year alone, New Yorkers have witnessed several cases of corruption affecting state and city officials.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 official statement.

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.

For many good reasons, there is a frightening trend in public polling that shows an erosion of confidence in major institutions among Americans.

Confidence in key U.S. institutions -- political, financial, religious, and more -- has remained relatively low over the last decade, according to Gallup polling data going back to 2006, and most recently recorded in June.

According to those survey results, Americans have particularly lost confidence in financial institutions, organized religion, news media, and the U.S. Congress. 

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.

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.

“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives,” writes 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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

In a statewide Quinnipiac poll 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Siena College poll 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.

“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.”

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.

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.

In New York City, there is a similar phenomenon regarding local government. According to an August Quinnipiac poll 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.

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.

The police department is also an area of concern for corruption in New York City, according to New Yorkers.

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.

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 Gallup. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 tenure, Rangel has become a local legend, and known for bringing funds and other investment into his underprivileged district.

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.

“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.

So in November 2010 -- when a House panel found Rangel guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations 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 Washington Post -- it’s not surprising that Rangel was simultaneously re-elected to a 21st term in office despite the ethics violations and accompanying censure.

Rangel has since won two more elections before he announced his retirement. In a May 2014 New York Times/NY1/Siena College 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.

“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.”

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.

“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, according to State of Politics.

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.

“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.”

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by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

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Donald Trump, New York Corruption & A Loss of Faith in Institutions Wed, 09 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
It's Time for Wholesale Ethics Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6596:it-s-time-for-wholesale-ethics-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6596:it-s-time-for-wholesale-ethics-reform Kaminsky1

Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the author (photo: @toddkaminsky)


The headline is the same. The names are interchangeable.

And yet, the laws and attitudes stay the same.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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State Senator Todd Kaminsky represents Long Island's South Shore and is a former federal prosecutor of public corruption cases. On Twitter @toddkaminsky.

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

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It's Time for Wholesale Ethics Reform Thu, 27 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Crowded Assembly Field Looks to Quickly Unseat Silver Replacement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6513:crowded-assembly-field-looks-to-quickly-unseat-silver-replacement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6513:crowded-assembly-field-looks-to-quickly-unseat-silver-replacement AD65 panel Li mic

AD65 candidates at a debate (photo: @FilAmDems)


In a world where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hadn’t turned his eye toward public corruption in state government, Sheldon Silver would likely be running for his 21st term in the Assembly and easily extending by another two years his 40-year reign over Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District.

In the real world, Silver, who had already resigned the powerful Assembly speakership he held for almost 20 years, was automatically stripped of his seat in November 2015 when he was convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.

Silver’s Assembly seat was filled during an April 19 special election - a process notorious for being easily controlled by local political parties - by Alice Cancel, the preferred choice of Silver’s still-active and -influential network.

Now, fewer than five months later, a Democratic primary contest between Cancel, the short-term incumbent, and five other local political and community activists will be far less malleable for the disgraced former speaker’s allies. In the heavily-Democratic district, the primary winner is all-but-certain to win November’s general election. Republican candidate Lester Chang is running again; Chang earned just under 19 percent of the vote in the April special election.

While Silver’s pall will hang over the district for decades to come, this election is its first chance at a fresh start, an argument being made by Cancel’s challengers.

The change from Silver has already come at a price for the district, given the immense power held by an Assembly Speaker. Cancel took Silver’s place as a rank-and-file legislator with little sway in the Assembly majority. Whoever wins this year, Cancel or another candidate, will head to Albany as a rookie legislator without major committee assignments; with little leverage to push for major initiatives’ and unable to deliver the millions of dollars in community funding Silver was so revered for in his district and derided for from outside it.

Cancel, a former district leader, won the seat with the backing of the Manhattan Democratic Party, Silver’s wife, and a number of his allies. Since winning the seat Cancel has made a number of gaffes and appeared to many as unprepared to hold the seat.

Normally, incumbency is seen as a major advantage, bringing with it name recognition, powerful endorsements, and a dedicated fundraising apparatus. But Cancel hasn’t demonstrated that to be the case. She drastically trails other candidates in fundraising and hasn’t had much time to establish constituent services that would allow her to ingratiate herself with her voter base. She has also underperformed in her few public appearances and primary debates. Cancel has been media shy and reluctant to campaign, though during the special election she explained that her public scarcity had to do with health concerns.

The incumbent’s perceived weakness appears to be part of why five challengers hope they can marshall a dedicated base of support in what is expected to be a low turnout affair. The September 13 vote is the third primary day in New York this year.

Challenging Cancel are Paul Newell, Yuh-Line Niou, Jenifer Rajkumar, Gigi Li, and Don Lee.

Newell is a community activist and district leader who was the first Democrat to challenge Silver in nearly two decades, when he ran against him in 2008. Newell, who was endorsed by The New York Times editorial board, won about 22 percent of the vote with Silver at 69 percent. The effort gained Newell experience and notoriety that he hopes to capitalize on during this year’s primary.

Niou also has experience running for office in the district - she challenged Cancel in the special election with the backing of the Working Families Party (WFP). Niou lost by 700 votes in an effort that won her the support of The Times’ editorial board and major elected officials. (While saying that any of the challengers would be better than Cancel, The Times is again supporting Niou this month.)

Rajkumar is a human rights lawyer and district leader who has been involved in advocacy initiatives on tenant rights, labor protections, and women in politics. She challenged City Council Member Margaret Chin in a 2013 primary and, like others running now, sought the Democratic nomination for the April special election.

Li is chair of Manhattan Community Board 3 and made history in 2012 when she became the first Asian-American to be elected to chair a city community board. Li has been involved in advocating for services for families and children.

Lee is a technology executive with a long history of community activism. He got his start in politics in the Koch Administration and is now running as an outsider candidate.

The void left by Silver is immense as he brought billions worth of pork to the district over the decades, used his power to micromanage almost all changes in the district, and stood as a champion for many liberal causes. At the same time, many in Albany saw Silver as a long-term impediment to state government ethics reform and to policy reforms that could have positively impacted his district, especially on affordable housing.

The federal corruption charges against Silver revealed his close financial ties to the real estate lobby that he swore he was fighting during Albany negotiations over rent control and other major housing issues.

While many expected Silver’s conviction to bring real change to Albany the special election to replace him was a sign to many across the state that there were still plenty of roadblocks in place. When Manhattan Democrats gathered to back a candidate for the empty seat, Silver’s allies maneuvered to ensure that Cancel got the nod. Special elections in New York remain largely controlled by local party committees.

Niou and her supporters protested the selection process and campaigned against Cancel with the backing of the WFP, which is supporting her again. Other candidates plotted for their current runs.

This crop of candidates for the 65th will be looking to tap into voting bases across a district that includes Chinatown, the Lower East Side. and most of Lower Manhattan. Political consultants expect that the district’s powerful Asian vote, which could have been tapped as a bloc by one candidate, to be splintered, making the race less easy to predict.

According to the state Board of Elections, as of April 1, 2016, there were 65,766 active registered voters in the 65th Assembly District, 43,094 of them Democrats. (There were 6,320 active registered Republicans and 14,100 active registered voters unaffiliated with a party.)

Top issues facing the district include affordability, especially in housing, as well as education, including school space, climate resiliency, senior services, and health care infrastructure. There is also, of course, a lot of discussion of government ethics and state government reform.

Gotham Gazette spoke to all of the challengers about the race, but attempts to secure an interview with Cancel were unsuccessful.

Candidates painted a picture of a district where elderly residents are finding it harder to afford to stay, where immigrant families can’t afford more than one bedroom, and where properties owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are in constant disrepair. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature managed to put aside $2 billion for affordable housing and supportive housing, but have yet to actually allocate spending for most of that sum.

Niou said it must be a priority to get the money out of the state’s coffers and into districts. Asked about Cuomo’s plan to revive the expired 421-a tax break for developers who agree to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, Niou was skeptical. “Affordability is a huge issue for our district and the thing is you can't lose money building apartments in Manhattan,” she said, noting the escalating cost of rent. Niou said that if 421-a is necessary checks must be in place.

“We need to make sure developers pay workers the proper wage and make sure we are actually getting affordable units,” Niou said. She also advocated reopening discussions over rent regulation laws to end practices that incentivize landlords to push tenants out.

Meanwhile, Li said the state needs a multi-pronged approach to affordable housing. “We can't just throw money at new development to solve the affordability issue,” she said. “We need preservation. Repairing NYCHA properties and dealing with sustainability must be a priority, but it is important we build new apartments.” She added that she believes it is time to alter the Urstadt Law that gives the State say over major city issues in order to give the City more power.

Rajkumar advocated for quickly funding supportive housing projects and reforming 421-a to “hold developers accountable.”

Newell said his district faces an “acute capital need” as far as housing goes, citing the disrepair of NYCHA properties. “We obviously need to continue building to meet our housing demands, but not I’m sure we need 421-a, with or without a wage subsidy.” He said that he would favor increased checks on the subsidy program to ensure developers are actually delivering the affordable units they receive breaks for.

Lee said that “special interests” must be removed from housing policy and that the State is “playing with funny money.”

Asked how she would preserve affordable housing at a recent debate, Cancel responded: “To be very honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question, in terms of how do we stop what’s going on,” before suggesting rezoning might help, according to The New York Times. Rezoning is under purview of the City Council.

With education funding a major issue in the district and a proposed tax credit for donations to education institutions likely to be a major factor during the next legislative session in Albany, Gotham Gazette asked the candidates about their position on the controversial measure that is aimed at helping private and charter schools. The five challengers all appeared opposed to the measure, to varying degrees. Li said that while she generally supports “compromise,” she is “focused on funding public education first and foremost.”

Newell said flatly that he opposes the tax credit. Niou, who noted that Cuomo supports the credit said, “The Governor wants lots of things but he hasn't paid us for the CFE case yet,” referring to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that resulted in a judge saying the state chronically underfunds the poorest schools. “So he owes public schools, so it is ridiculous to give breaks to people who support private schools when public schools are suffering,” Niou said.

Rajkumar said CFE funding is critical to make sure city schools can serve students from all districts equally. She also decried how legislators use funding for city schools as a political “football.”

Lee said he was concerned that people who make donations not be allowed to dictate how the money is spent.

The candidates also all came together on the need to save local health care providers given the closing of Beth-Israel Hospital. They were also concerned about resiliency issues the city was forced to confront during Superstorm Sandy.

Li said she discovered while campaigning that many residents of the district don’t realize they are eligible for health care and other benefits under the Federal Zagroda Act. Li and Niou said that they saw a desperate need in the district for constituent service efforts to connect residents with government programs.

All of the challengers to Cancel professed to support a list of government ethics reforms that include limiting or banning outside income for legislators, implementing a statewide system of public campaign financing similar to that employed in New York City; ending the LLC loophole; and adjusting the budget process to make it more open and inclusive.

They differed less on what they wanted done and more on how they would achieve it.

“I think we have a window of opportunity for real change that hasn’t existed for generations,” said Newell, who added that he expected Democrats to take control of the state Senate thereby ending a Republican blockade on most of the aforementioned reforms. “On the Assembly side, Carl Heastie did not expect to be Speaker, and he filled out last session without putting dramatic changes into action,” said Newell. “Next session I think we will see who Carl Heastie really is when he brings the Assembly into the 21st Century.”

Rajkumar said she believes individual Assembly members and committee chairs need more individual power. She also wants lobbying on legislation to be revealed in a database in real time.

Lee said voters are tired of waiting for the system to change. “These guys see problems and they say ‘let's kick it to the next election cycle.’ They have no sense of urgency. They are so out of touch and expectations have gotten to be so low. The bigger issue is that we need true reform - not fresh blood but a blood transfusion,” Lee said.

Asked about the differences between challenging Silver and 2008 and running in a crowded field in 2016, Newell first said the difference is “we are going to win,” but added having a crowded field of deeply invested community members means that the district will have the first “healthy debate process” it has had in decades.

As for campaign funds to support stretch-run efforts, Cancel reported having $11,581 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing.

Other candidates have significantly more money for final flyering and other advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Endorsements from unions, elected officials, and other groups have also been divided, mostly among Cancel’s challengers.

Rajkumar reported having $182,826 on hand in her 32-day pre-primary filing; her 11-day pre-primary filing has not been posted by the BOE. Rajkumar has been endorsed by The Public Employees Federation and Citizens Union of New York, a government reform group.

Newell reported having $92,347 on hand as of his 32-day pre-primary filing. He has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Citizen Action of New York, and City Council Members Rosie Mendez, Mark Levine, and Ben Kallos.

Niou reported having $76,635 on hand in her 11-day pre-primary filing. Along with her endorsements from The New York Times and The Working Families Party, Niou is supported by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, state Senator Daniel Squadron, and others.

Li reported having $36,404 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing. She has been endorsed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Members Margaret Chin and Helen Rosenthal, and state Senator Jesse Hamilton.

Lee reported having $31,856 on hand of his 11-day pre-primary filing.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Crowded Assembly Field Looks to Quickly Unseat Silver Replacement Wed, 07 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Corruption in Albany: Will Anything Really Change? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6514:corruption-in-albany-will-anything-really-change http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6514:corruption-in-albany-will-anything-really-change Cuomo 2016 State of the State side stage

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


Can legal restrictions halt corruption in the state Legislature? History suggests that they are necessary but limited.

A new ethics law, more of the same
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.

After waiting as long as possible, the governor signed it in late August with no public ceremony and only a brief statement that “New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people’s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process.”

"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.

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.

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."

"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,” said its executive director, Susan Lerner.

Business, money and politics -- an old story in New York
As noted, Gov. Cuomo calls this new law a good first step. But is it really that?

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.

Cuomo in 2016? Actually, it was Governor Frank W. Higgins, in 1906.

Higgins was reacting to the long history of scandals over corporate funds swaying political elections in New York,  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.

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.

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  been lots of legislative scandals, but they have usually led to meager ethics reform, as they did this year.

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.

"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."

That sounds like the rationale for Andrew Cuomo's seeming casualness about ethics reform this year.  Actually, it was his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1987, explaining yet another stunted reform initiative.

What might help, beyond the law and the prosecutor?
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:

* 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.

*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.

*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.

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.

*Aggressive news media. Over the course of our history, the Albany press corps has exposed more corruption than any U.S. Attorney. Journalists’ 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.

*Widespread public frustration with government. Work by the Pew Research Center 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 “How Will You Measure Your Life?” 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.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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

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

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Corruption in Albany: Will Anything Really Change? Tue, 06 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000