Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/244 Tue, 19 Feb 2019 15:13:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8261-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-alessandra-biaggi http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8261-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-alessandra-biaggi mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 7, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi

alessandra biaggi 150Alessandra Biaggi shocked the New York political world when she defeated then-State Senator Jeff Klein in last September's primary. After hitting the ground running upon taking office in January, State Senator Biaggi joined the show to discuss the work that has been done so far under unified Democratic governance at the state level and what's coming up next, including her work as the new chair of the Senate's ethics committee and where things may get choppy with regard to negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet parker aoc cm

Senator Parker, left, with Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: @SenatorParker)


The newly-seated Democratic majority in the state Senate does not seem inclined to take any formal action against one of its members, Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, for an inappropriate Twitter outburst last month, directed at a Republican Senate staffer, or his apparent misuse of his official parking placard.

In tweets on December 18, GOP spokesperson Candice Giove had highlighted what seemed to be Parker’s inappropriate use of his parking placard. Parker responded with a shocking tweet, writing “Kill yourself!” to Giove. He later deleted the tweet but not before it was widely shared and memorialized, becoming the subject of a good deal of attention both on social media and in news reports.

The incident sparked a quick backlash against Parker, who has a history of losing his temper and getting in trouble for it. Elected officials, including those within his party, were quick to condemn his flippant remark about suicide. And many also raised the underlying question of whether he was among the public officials, elected and not, that have been abusing the parking privileges they receive as a perk of the job, which has become a broader issue in New York City in recent years.

Parker later expressed some contrition. "I sincerely apologize," he tweeted. "I used a poor choice of words. Suicide is a serious thing and and (sic) should not be made light of." But he continued to criticize Giove on Twitter and elsewhere, calling her “an internet troll” in an interview with the New York Daily News. In a statement at the time, which was between the elections where Democrats flipped the Senate and their official ascent to control of the upper chamber, now-Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “I was disappointed in Senator Parker’s tweet. Suicide is a serious issue and should not be joked about in this manner. I am glad that he has apologized.”

But that may be the end of it. Stewart-Cousins’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether Parker would face any formal action for his behavior. The incident is not being probed by the Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, chaired by Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who has promised to reinvigorate what has been a dormant committee despite constant ethical lapses among state officials. And Parker himself told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview that the matter was “handled internally.”

In response, Senate GOP spokesperson Scott Reif had harsh words for the Senate majority. “Senator Parker tells a young female staffer to go kill herself and the Democrats don’t give him so much as a slap on the wrist?,” Reif said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Punish him for his inappropriate rhetoric. Punish him for violating the parking placard rules. But don’t just bury your head in the sand. Despite their talk, it looks like the new Democratic Majority doesn’t really care about ethics after all.”

Parker, in the phone interview, said he’d learned his lesson. “The rules have been reinforced to me and I will continue to abide by the rules,” he said. “We’ve moved on. We’re passing legislation.”

But he refused to address whether he had improperly used his parking placard. “It’s a tempest in a teacup, I’m not going down that road,” he said. And he would not reveal details of how the matter was resolved. “That’s a private conversation between me and the majority leader,” he said.

There are several avenues for holding state legislators to account for their conduct in office. Besides the ethics committee, there are the oversight and enforcement bodies -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- charged with investigating and penalizing violations of Public Officers Law (though the law is written vaguely and may be hard to apply to Parker’s situation).

Biaggi’s committee is not taking up the issue. “The first priority for the ethics committee is to ensure there are clear standards of behavior and a clear means for dealing with alleged violations in a timely manner,” said David Neustadt, a spokesperson for Biaggi. “The first focus of the ethics committee is dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and ensuring that New York State is a leader in making sure everyone is safe at work.”

On the potential parking placard violation, Neustadt said, "It's up to the issuing authority to make sure that parking placard holders know and follow the rules. It's up to the police to issue parking tickets when placards are used inappropriately.”

It’s unclear if there have been any complaints filed with either JCOPE or the LEC, or if either body is looking into the incident. Such investigations are usually kept confidential under state law. “We can’t comment on anything that is or might be an investigative matter,” said Walter McClure, a JCOPE spokesperson.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a group that advocates for government reform, transparency, and accountability, said Parker’s inappropriate comments and alleged placard misuse “ought to be looked at” by both the Senate and JCOPE.

“They should err on the side of acting formally, even for low-level infractions, because it sets a serious tone,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet Sun, 27 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Session Starts, Legislators and Advocates Push Overhaul of State Ethics Enforcement http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8184-as-session-starts-legislators-and-advocates-push-overhaul-of-state-ethics-enforcement http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8184-as-session-starts-legislators-and-advocates-push-overhaul-of-state-ethics-enforcement comprehensive reform gov

(photo via the Governor's Office)


As the state Legislature returns to session on Wednesday with Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in a decade, State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Assemblymember Robert Carroll from Brooklyn are set to introduce a resolution that would amend the state constitution, adding new provisions to prevent and combat public corruption.

The resolution, first introduced late in last year’s session, would add a new section on state government integrity to the state constitution and would consolidate two agencies that are currently charged with monitoring and tackling corruption -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- into a new New York State Commission on Government Integrity. The effort is aimed at dealing with a long-standing problem in New York state government that recently saw the leaders of both houses of the Legislature convicted of public corruption, along with many other legislators who were removed from or left office due to ethical issues over the course of decades.

“We think this is the way to create a truly independent ethics body,” Assemblymember Carroll said in a phone interview on Tuesday, shortly after a rally outside the State Senate chambers alongside Senator Krueger and a cohort of government reform advocates. One of the central criticisms of JCOPE, which was created in 2011, is that it is too closely tied to the governor and legislators to be effective, making it a limited deterrent and a weak enforcer.

The proposed resolution would have to be passed by the current Legislature and again by the next elected Legislature in the 2021-2022 session, after which it would be presented to voters as a ballot question for their approval. If successful during this session and in 2021, Carroll estimated that the new law could go into effect by January 2022.

It would create the new nine-member commission -- five of whom would be appointed by the judiciary; two appointments jointly by the governor, comptroller, and attorney general; and two by legislative conference leaders whose parties are the top-two voter getters in a previous gubernatorial election. The commission would be empowered to issue civil sanctions and censures against legislators, would be able to suspend, demote, or terminate a non-elected employee, and make referrals for criminal prosecution. It would also serve as an independent counsel to legislators and state employees seeking informal ethics advice that can later be used in their defense. Those who have served as political party officials, state employees or lobbyists within the previous three years would be barred from being appointed.

Though the proposal does not require Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support, Carroll hoped that it would receive it nonetheless. “I hope the governor sees this is a major ingredient in reforming our broken political system in Albany,” he said.

During the only general election debate against his Republican opponent Marc Molinaro, Cuomo had signalled support for reforming JCOPE. “Change begins with the thin edge of a wedge,” Cuomo said, using a phrase he has often employed, in this case to indicate that he was pleased to accomplish something on ethics reform, and can then use it to do more.

He added, “I believe we need more independence on JCOPE, I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses. I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent.” In a statement on Tuesday, Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Cuomo, reiterated that stance, but stopped short of endorsing the Carroll-Krueger plan: “As the Governor has previously said, we are open to changes to the structure of ethics enforcement and we will review any proposals that are introduced.”

Both Carroll and Krueger, Democrats like Cuomo, argue that a constitutional amendment is essential, particularly with renewed attention in this last election cycle to the activities of JCOPE, headed by Seth Agata, a former Cuomo aide nominated by the governor and appointed as executive director by the agency's commissioners in similar fashion to his predecessors. The state agency, which monitors lobbying at the state level besides ethics violations, has been widely criticized as inefficient and overly vulnerable to political interference, while at the same time being entirely opaque to the public and lacking clear jurisdiction.

In particular, Krueger said the agency has failed to investigate incidents and allegations of sexual harassment, even when they are made widely known. For instance, in January 2018, then-State Senator and Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein was accused of forcible kissing a former staffer, Erica Vladimer, but JCOPE has yet to make clear whether it is investigating the claim and has not provided any information to either the public, press, or Vladimer in the year since since she spoke out. JCOPE officials have pushed back against such criticism, noting that divulging information about investigations is against the law. At a March 2018 meeting, Commission Chair Michael Rozen said the agency's silence does not indicate action or inaction. "No conclusions should be inferred by the Commission’s silence," he said.

The new agency, on the other hand, would have to establish a dedicated unit for sexual harassment investigations and would also have more expansive transparency provisions, being subject to the same Freedom of Information Law that currently applies to the executive branch (there are ongoing negotiations about extending FOIL to the Legislature).

Last year, JCOPE’s lack of transparency was put to the legal test. New York Republican party chair Ed Cox and Molinaro, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, sued the agency to force a vote on an investigation into Joe Percoco, the former top Cuomo aide who was convicted on federal corruption charges last year. During the trial, Percoco was found to have improperly used his executive chamber office while working on Cuomo’s campaign, but he was never investigated by JCOPE. On December 19, a state supreme court judge ruled that the agency must take a vote within 30 days and then inform the judge, though they were not ordered to release the details of the vote to the public.

“I don’t think that current model is working and I think we need to fix that...It’s just not designed to do its job,” Krueger said of JCOPE in a December interview. She and Carroll were joined at the state Capitol building on Tuesday by representatives of groups including Common Cause New York, Reinvent Albany, the League of Women Voters of the State of New York, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the New York City Bar Association, as well as a few legislators, such as Senator Jen Metzger and Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Carrie Woerner.

What remains unclear is whether the leaders of both legislative chambers will support the proposal. Requests for comment to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ offices went unanswered.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Seth Agata was appointed by JCOPE commissioners, not the governor. It has also been updated to include public statements made by JCOPE chair Michael Rosen about why the agency does not comment on investigations. 

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As Session Starts, Legislators and Advocates Push Overhaul of State Ethics Enforcement Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency ethics reform announc

Skelos, Cuomo & Silver in 2011 (photo via the Governor's office)


This year’s elections in New York saw the issues of public corruption and government ethics reform take centerstage in several campaigns. Insurgent Democratic candidates, some who succeeded and others who did not, challenged incumbent elected officials on their parts in the broken system of corruption prevention and ethics enforcement at the state level that has allowed -- some say encouraged -- rampant corruption and self-enrichment.

Much criticism has been levelled at the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, a relatively young agency with a lackluster record of keeping watch on wrongdoing in state government. Since the agency’s inception seven years ago, several sitting lawmakers have been indicted and convicted of public corruption. But in most, if not all, those cases, JCOPE seems to have sat idly by as other enforcement agencies eventually stepped in. JCOPE has brought enforcement actions for ethical violations against only two lawmakers in that time -- one in 2013 against former Assemblymember Vito Lopez and then in 2015 against former Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak. The body does not appear to many as much of a deterrent or enforcer.

Now, with Democrats set to take full control of the state Legislature and legislative leaders signalling a renewed commitment to reform, there’s talk of altering, or even repealing and replacing JCOPE, with some reform-minded legislators eyeing their new opportunity and even some relevant campaign season words from Governor Andrew Cuomo about making the ethics body more independent. Among them are Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, who wants to reform the agency’s membership, and State Senator Liz Krueger, who has proposed eliminating JCOPE and creating an entirely new agency from scratch.

Good government advocates are pushing for a soup-to-nuts reimagining of ethics enforcement. At minimum, they say, there should be changes to how JCOPE commissioners are appointed and that the agency should be given more teeth. The best-case scenario? Do away with JCOPE entirely and replace it with an entity as close to completely independent of political interference as possible.

JCOPE was created in 2011 during Cuomo’s first term, after he came into office promising to wipe clean the rot that had infected state government. Part of a deal with a hesitant Legislature, the agency was charged with overseeing lobbying activities and ethics violations by members of the state Assembly and Senate, the executive branch, dozens of state agencies, and candidates for elected office. It’s composed of 14 commissioners who serve five-year terms -- six appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor, three appointed by the Assembly speaker, three appointed by the Senate majority leader, and one each appointed by the minority leaders in both legislative chambers. The governor also appoints the chair of JCOPE while its executive director is chosen by the commissioners.

To advocates, JCOPE’s structure is plainly at the root of its problems. “The fundamental problem is, if you don’t have independent enforcement of the law, it doesn’t matter how good the laws are,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “While that’s not a bumper sticker issue, it’s not the sexy ethics issue to talk about, it is the critical one. The cornerstone of effective ethics enforcement is the independence of the agency that deals with it.”

Advocates and reform-minded elected officials have argued for years that JCOPE commissioners cannot be expected to conduct robust investigations of the very institutions, entities, and individuals that appoint them. JCOPE’s current executive director Seth Agata, a former aide to Cuomo, was a particular target of that criticism during the election. Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, repeatedly called on Agata to step down over having failed to adequately scrutinize the executive chamber, particularly after the corruption conviction of Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, who was found to have used his executive chamber office while working on Cuomo’s first reelection campaign.

In their only debate of the race, even Cuomo conceded that he would prefer to see a more independent JCOPE. “I believe we need more independence on JCOPE, I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses [of the Legislature],” he said. “I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent. I’d have the attorney general involved; I’d have the chief judge involved in appointing the members.”

As he often has, Cuomo indicated his belief that even getting the Legislature to agree to creating JCOPE was a significant lift, and he added that it provided an opportunity to push further, having cracked the door open.

In the Democratic attorney general primary race as well, Fordham Law professor and anti-corruption crusader Zephyr Teachout led the charge in calling for Agata’s resignation, inflamed in part by JCOPE’s investigation and subsequent clearing of Sam Hoyt, a former state economic development official who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by a woman who said he helped her obtain a job at the state DMV. Hoyt was previously a long-serving member of the Assembly and was also investigated for sexual harassment while in office, and was later disciplined for having an inappropriate relationship with an intern. He was recruited after that by the Cuomo administration.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who went on to win the attorney general seat, initially took a softer position on JCOPE but eventually too joined Teachout in calling for Agata to step down, as did Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was also in the race. Former Verizon executive Leecia Eve, who worked with Agata in Cuomo’s administration, was the only Democratic attorney general candidate not to issue that demand but did say that JCOPE should be scrapped and a new agency created from the ground up.

[Read: Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms]

There have been bills introduced in the state Legislature that would accomplish these goals. Earlier this year, Assembly Member Tom Abinanti, a Democrat representing parts of Westchester County, proposed restrictions to JCOPE’s membership. His bill would prohibit an individual from serving on the commission if they had been a registered lobbyist, elected official, state officer or employee, or a legislative employee within the previous ten years. “We should ensure that no member of JCOPE is inclined to act preferentially for or prejudicially against any subject of a JCOPE inquiry,” Abinanti said in a phone interview.

Abinanti said he was open to the idea of potentially scrapping the agency but said his bill was a necessary half-measure in the absence of broader action. “My bill is a more practical approach that, so long as we have JCOPE, we have to make some reforms and we need to make sure that the members of JCOPE do not have any relationships with the people who might become the subjects of their inquiry,” he said.

The office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment. Senate Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy said, “There was much done by the previous majority in furtherance of Senate Republicans’ partisan agenda and we expect to reform those inequalities to create more fairness,” likely referring to the fact that the Senate Republicans will still maintain control of a majority of the chamber’s appointments to JCOPE even after Democrats take the majority.  

Good government advocates agree that, in the absence of a new independent agency, the Legislature should make fixes to JCOPE’s problems, which are many. Besides the perceived conflicts of interest in appointments, the agency is notoriously opaque to the public. It does not release the details of investigations or even say whether an investigation has been initiated or concluded, for which it was recently sued by New York State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox. Its bizarre rules also effectively allow three Republicans out of the 14 members to block a majority vote for an investigation to proceed into a state elected official, said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany. The law mandates that the majority vote must include “at least two members appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor and enrolled in the individual's major political party, if he or she is enrolled in a major political party.”

“That’s probably the greatest flaw with JCOPE,” Camarda said. And, owing to how the original JCOPE law was written, both parties also retain the number of appointments they can make even if they are not in the majority in a legislative chamber.

“There’s tweaks and adjustments to the current structure or there’s scrap the whole thing and start over,” said Camarda. “The best practice is to start with a nominating pool from which elected officials choose and the candidates that are put into the nominating pool would be put there by an outside body like the City Bar Association or judges, people who are unaffiliated with the targets of ethics investigations.”

Senator Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, agrees with that sentiment and has proposed a state constitutional amendment to create that independent entity.

Krueger introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session that would add a new article on state government integrity to the constitution. It would establish a New York State Commission on Government Integrity to take over the role currently played by JCOPE. The new commission would be made up of nine members -- two appointed jointly by the governor, attorney general and comptroller; five appointed by the state’s chief judge and the presiding justices of the appellate courts; and one each by legislative conference leaders of political parties that are the top-two vote getters in the previous gubernatorial election.

Pursuing a constitutional amendment would also remove Governor Cuomo from the process. Unlike a bill that he could choose to sign or veto, the amendment would have to be approved by both legislative chambers in two consecutive sessions and then be presented to voters as a ballot measure.

“So do I assume [the governor] wouldn’t like this? Yes, probably he wouldn’t like this,” said Krueger, who will be a powerful member of the incoming Senate majority. “He wrote the existing JCOPE language. I don’t think that current model is working and I think we need to fix that...It’s just not designed to do its job.”

Krueger plans on reintroducing her resolution in the upcoming legislative session in January, with a few changes, which her office shared with Gotham Gazette, after consulting with the state’s chief judge and attorney general’s office. The earlier version allowed the commission to remove a legislator from office but the new version does not give the body that authority. Another revision allows the commission to give informal advice, which can then be used by an individual as defense in any potential future investigation.

The bill hasn’t been discussed yet by Senate Democrats and Krueger said it isn’t on the list of priorities for the conference as it meets this week to prepare for January. But Krueger is particularly optimistic that the Legislature will be under added public pressure after this election to move ahead on ethics reforms, both preventative and in enforcement. “I always have said, never waste a good crisis in government,” she said, “and when people have serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of their government leaders, it is a serious problem for all of us.”

She continued, “We depend on federal prosecutors to come in and play gotcha with us to finally get anything done. I’m not opposed to federal prosecutors playing gotcha, I just think the state of New York ought to have a system in place that can self-police, that can investigate, that can find people innocent when wrongfully accused and direct those, where there are findings of bad behavior and guilt, that those people be referred to the appropriate people in criminal justice.”

Another area where JCOPE is thought to be unequipped is in examining allegations of sexual harassment, an issue brought into recent relief by the allegation of forcible kissing brought against Senator Jeff Klein by a former aide, Erica Vladimer. Not only is it unclear if JCOPE has the expertise to examine sexual harassment claims, but there is little transparency related to any investigation that may or may not be happening, nor clarity around whether an accuser is provided information about the status of an investigation.

JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure declined to comment on the proposals put forward by Krueger and Abinanti. “Any decisions on changes to our enabling legislation or the laws that we have oversight over are up to the Legislature and the Executive,” he said in an email.

It’s unclear whether the governor will back these efforts. On government ethics reform he has a history of promising big but delivering small, something that has left critics wary. As Camarda noted, “The governor told the editorial board of the Daily News that he was going to put into place a database of [economic development] deals, which he could do via executive order or pass legislation. He has not done that.” He also cited Cuomo’s unfulfilled promise to restrict campaign contributions from vendors bidding on state contracts.

The governor also made promises to pursue campaign finance reforms, including closing the so-called LLC loophole, and has repeatedly emphasized banning outside income for legislators as a sweeping ethics solution, even when the corruption has touched his own inner circle, removed from the Legislature. He lauded the recent recommendations of a state panel that would give lawmakers a pay raise while severely curtailing the money they can make from outside sources. Cuomo has been less vocal, however, about the issues within his own administration as highlighted by the scandal-ridden Buffalo Billion economic development program.

The governor’s office also did not provide any concrete proposals for reforming JCOPE when asked for comment. Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email, “Governor Cuomo will continue to lead the fight on ethics reform to restore confidence in government, and we look forward to engaging with the new legislature to update and refine our laws and identify which new reforms will be most effective.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? Wed, 12 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Stephanie Miner Diagnoses What’s Wrong with New York Politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7694-stephanie-miner-diagnoses-what-s-wrong-with-new-york-politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7694-stephanie-miner-diagnoses-what-s-wrong-with-new-york-politics stephanie miner podcast

Stephanie Miner (photo: Ben Max/Gotham Gazette)


She describes herself as a “romantic about government,” but former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner sees a lot wrong with how it is currently being practiced in New York.

“When I think about what motivates me to be in government, it’s making change and impacting public policy,” Miner said on a recent episode of the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, adding her contention that “real people are suffering” because of poor public policy in transit, affordable housing, and infrastructure across the state.

Miner, a Democrat who was term-limited out of office as mayor of the state’s fifth biggest city at the end of last year, has for months explored the possibility of challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in this year’s gubernatorial primary election. She spent the first semester of the year teaching at NYU’s Wagner School and meeting with people about her political future. Her resume also includes the fact that she was the first woman to be elected mayor of Syracuse and her time as the chair of the state Democratic Party, a position she earned in part because of support from Cuomo, who she subsequently had a major falling out with.

Time out of office has allowed her to “take a breath and look at where we are in our state and where we are in our country in terms of politics and government,” she said on the podcast. In the meantime, Miner is not mincing words about Cuomo and his leadership of the state.

“For me backroom dealings and politics as usual is not serving anybody,” she said on the podcast. “We have rampant corruption, everywhere we look in the state there are more and more news stories about trials, guilty pleas, guilty verdicts, more investigations, FBI’s executing search warrants, and yet you have the power establishment just being silent.”

She specifically referenced corruption scandals including the recent conviction of Cuomo’s former top aide Joseph Percoco, who was found guilty on multiple federal corruption charges in March, as well as the “Buffalo Billion” saga in which federal prosecutors allege a handful of people involved in Cuomo’s economic development project are guilty of bid-rigging. Some of those accused, including another former top aide and several major donors to Cuomo, are set to stand trial beginning in June.

She criticized Cuomo for saying he would be interviewing potential attorney general candidates in the aftermath of Eric Schneiderman’s resignation after allegations he physically assaulted four women, in an apparent effort to help decide who would become the Democratic nominee. “When you have Cuomo saying he’s going to quote, “interview candidates” for the attorney general vacancy spot, I think that is wrong and violates a bunch of standards in ethical practice…and that’s where we find ourselves in this state,” she said.

The mentality of officials, Miner said, with clear reference to Cuomo, is too often to “get the quick win, stand up and take credit for it and don’t think about what’s behind it because you’re not going to be around when everything falls apart.”

What’s really at the heart of the issue?

“I think elected officials are more interested in serving the needs and desires of vested special interests who give big campaign contributions,” Miner said. “It becomes very transactional and...as the number of people who actually vote grows smaller and smaller, it becomes this perfect cycle for elected officials: They are much more interested in getting reelected than they are at solving problems and getting reelected is much easier if you can raise a million dollars and you only have 2,000 voters who show up.”

Other problems she said are at the top of the list for the state include transit, income inequality, affordable housing, and failed economic development projects. She is also concerned for the future of jobs with the rise of technology replacing people in industries such as transport and hospitality.

Solving these problems is especially difficult in a “brittle” system that discourages a considered and forward-thinking discussion of issues, Miner said. “It’s not helpful to say there are only two sides…For example, I’m in favor of the $15 minimum wage but the fact that becomes like a buzz question, ‘where are you on minimum wage?’ it ignores this huge public policy challenge about automation and what that’s going to do to our economy. Whether or not you’re earning a $15 wage, it’s not going to matter if you can’t get a job.”

As for solutions, Miner wants to see both campaign finance and election reform, in order to remove the influence of big donors and give more access to the process to all New Yorkers. She wants to see closure of the infamous LLC loophole and changes such as early voting, automatic registration, and vote by mail.

But there’s a fundamental change in leadership need, she said -- New York needs people in power who are collaborative, who listen, who consider alternative viewpoints.

Miner said her professional relationship with the governor has been marred by conflict, with a key turning point being Miner’s 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, in which she criticized Cuomo for his plan to allow municipalities to reduce their current pension payments and make up for it in the future. She said she wrote the op-ed after being given the “runaround” and pressured by the party to “get onboard” with the Cuomo plan, despite believing the move was fiscally irresponsible, especially given municipal finance is a top issue for her.

“It became clear to me after that, that the governor and I had very different views on public policy and public policy disagreements. You’re always going to know why I disagree with you, and what those grounds are, and that was not something that was tolerated in Andrew Cuomo’s world,” she said.

The former Syracuse mayor will have to decide soon whether or not to enter the gubernatorial race, and she said during the May 15 podcast taping that part of that consideration involves the ideas she has, the team she will be able to put together, and her positioning to deliver positive change to the state.

“There are lots of different things that I find myself in a very good position to talk about,” she said, listing examples such as being mayor of a city facing significant poverty and income inequality and having her area be central to the corruption scandals plaguing the Cuomo administration.

Miner disagreed with the notion that it is basically too late to get into the race given that actor and activist Cynthia Nixon has already declared a challenge to Cuomo from the left and swooped up a number of endorsements.

Nixon’s presence in the raise is “beneficial for everyone,” Miner said, as it contributes to a “vibrant political dialogue.” But with less than four months until the September primaries, the clock is certainly ticking for Miner. Cuomo was just backed with 95 percent of the state committee vote at the party’s convention. In a brief email exchange on Monday, May 28, Miner indicated that nothing had materially changed in her thinking since the podcast discussion.

“The old rules of dates and times an how you put together a campaign no longer apply,” she said. “We are in uncharted waters and it is a tremendously turbulent time. People are hungry for change.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner]

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

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Stephanie Miner Diagnoses What’s Wrong with New York Politics Mon, 28 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7403-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state-reform-agenda-largely-repeats-past-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7403-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state-reform-agenda-largely-repeats-past-proposals Cuomo State of the State reforms

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals Wed, 03 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection Mayor de Blasio Chirlane McCray City Hall Reelection Parade

Mayor Bill de Blasio & First Lady Chirlane McCray (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, seeks reelection this fall, a close examination of his record is essential. De Blasio came into power promising to address inequlality in a variety of forms, including income, educational, policing, racial, and opportunity inequities he identified during his 2013 campaign. In this year's election de Blasio is running in part on his record, which is headlined by the implementation of his campaign promise to provide universal pre-kindergarten for the city's four-year-olds. But, there is much more to the mayor's record than UPK, which has clearly been his biggest success.

In this series, Gotham Gazette, with election coverage partners City Limits and WNYC radio, examines de Blasio's record on a variety of important issues. While this is not completely exhaustive, it should be helpful to voters and others seeking to evaluate de Blasio this fall. With our partners, Gotham Gazette will release articles and audio pieces on the following aspects of de Blasio's record -- those already published are linked below.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.

More to read/view/hear:

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection Wed, 01 Nov 2017 23:26:00 +0000
Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms Carl Heastie Assembly

Carl Heastie (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was first reported by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.

Feldman told the outlet she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.

Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created a working group on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.

But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.

"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"

Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”

But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.

“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”

While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.

It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.

Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.

By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”

John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.

“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”

When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.

In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”

According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements." 

But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”

“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.

In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.

“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”

The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of recommendations. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. There were a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.

“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.

But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.

Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."

Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms Thu, 02 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s Record on Ethics and Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7258-de-blasio-s-record-on-ethics-and-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7258-de-blasio-s-record-on-ethics-and-transparency Mayor de Blasio City Hall

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


This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

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It is a source of great frustration for Mayor Bill de Blasio and hangs over his administration and reelection bid as an albatross. Observers across the political spectrum, including Democratic and Republican opponents in this year’s mayoral race, have attacked de Blasio for blurring or crossing ethical lines, and for lacking transparency.

De Blasio rode into power promising the most transparent administration in the city’s history, but his nearly four years in office have been marked by continuing questions and controversies over both his administration’s opaqueness and ethics, highlighted by twin law enforcement investigations into fundraising practices and government favors for campaign donors. The incumbent Democratic mayor, seeking reelection this fall, has repeatedly argued that he and his associates have carried themselves ethically and that he has done more disclosure than his predecessors and other high-level officials.

Yet, along with his electoral opponents, political observers, government reform advocates, and City Council members also say de Blasio’s rhetoric has not been backed by action and that his record on transparency and ethics has been, at best, a mixed bag.

In endorsing him in the Democratic primary, the New York Times editorial board wrote, “A political operative before he ran for public office, Mr. de Blasio has not shaken free of detractors’ suspicions about his ethical compass. He was subjected to both federal and state investigations into whether he presides over a pay-to-play system that favors well-heeled donors seeking favors from City Hall. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him or his aides. Though the mayor declared he had been vindicated, the Manhattan district attorney concluded that some of his fund-raising appeared to have violated “the intent and spirit” of the law. That’s a far cry from Mr. de Blasio’s claim to have been pronounced “innocent.”

De Blasio was indeed chastised by federal and state prosecutors, who, while they did not bring charges against him or his associates, investigated their actions and outlined problematic practices, some of which led to new city laws limiting certain fundraising activities that the mayor and his team engaged in. De Blasio has claimed that he and his aides have held themselves to the highest standards, but he has regularly raised those standards when pushed.

Part of the mayor’s pushback against criticisms has been that he and his associates have always had good motives, like expanding pre-kindergarten, and that a political nonprofit his allies ran to support his agenda disclosed more than required. Though he has been dogged by questions from members of the media, de Blasio readily points out that regular New Yorkers don’t often ask him about his fundraising practices or release of email records when they have the opportunity to question him at town halls or radio call-in segments.

“People never bring up the issues from the investigations, because I think there was a broad understanding in the public that there was an immense amount of scrutiny that found absolutely nothing wrong,” he said in a recent New York Magazine interview, mischaracterizing the facts given that while no charges were brought, prosecutors did indicate that the mayor and his associates had blurred or crossed ethical lines. “Everyday New Yorkers are much more concerned with kitchen-table issues. Some political insiders, maybe they’ve come to certain conclusions. But for everyday New Yorkers? They didn’t see anything wrong, and they’re right, because there wasn’t anything wrong.”

As de Blasio asks New Yorkers for four more years, ethics and transparency will continue to be a focus of criticism from his general election opponents and others, while the mayor will defend himself and attempt to point to stronger aspects of his record. But the record of how he and his administration have conducted themselves when it comes to playing by the rules, separating political fundraising and governing, and providing the public with both ethical and transparent government is very much worth chronicling and examining as voters evaluate their choices this November.

Mayoral spokespeople Eric Phillips and Austin Finan agreed to speak with Gotham Gazette for this story, but, other than a brief conversation to discuss the premise of the article, no comment was provided.

The most recent Quinnipiac University public opinion poll that included a question about de Blasio's ethics, published at the end of July, showed New York City voters saying 52 to 35 percent that he is honest and trustworthy, down from 59 to 31 percent in May. Still, the 52 was up from the lowest rating de Blasio has received in a Quinnipiac poll over his four years as mayor: amid intense controversy in May 2016, 43 percent said he is honest and trustworthy, while 45 percent said he is not. The highest de Blasio's honesty was rated by voters eight months into his tenure, when the balance was 66 to 22 in his favor.

Selective Transparency
In his former role as public advocate, de Blasio championed transparency and took the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task for its apparent lack thereof. De Blasio disclosed meetings with lobbyists and implemented tools to track Freedom of Information Law requests, while criticizing the Bloomberg administration for its lax FOIL response time.

Fast forward nearly four years and the same official who urged increased disclosure by Bloomberg has been reticent to show the same commitment in his own operations on FOIL responsiveness speed and other things like police discipline records and emails with top non-governmental advisors. For example, as public advocate, de Blasio recommended legislation requiring the mayor to include FOIL response statistics in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, but it is not something de Blasio has done as mayor himself.

Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, de Blasio's second-in-command, recently conceded at a New York Law School breakfast that the administration could improve it's record on FOIL requests. "I don't think we've done as good as job on that as we could have," he said, Politico New York reported. "But I can't tell you we've gotten good enough. ... Our open data initiative has been, I think, one of the stronger ones in the country. ... Fundamentally, the more data that we can put out there so people don't have to say, 'May I,' but can do their own analytics, is the way to do."

On August 23, at the first of two mayoral debates in the Democratic primary, de Blasio was asked by debate panelist and NY1 reporter Grace Rauh about steps he would take to improve transparency in a second term, should he be reelected, or if he considered any improvements unnecessary. As he often does, the mayor disagreed with the premise of the question, and pivoted toward touting his record on transparency. “Anytime a lobbyist lobbied me on behalf of a third party I put that up online so that people know exactly who talked to me when. I did that,” de Blasio said. “No other mayor’s done that before in our history. I’m in favor of the kind of transparency that’s gonna make life different for everyday New Yorkers like body cameras for all of our patrol officers over the next two years. This is one of the ultimate acts of transparency and accountability in government.”

He added, “Past administrations did not disclose all sorts of things. I’ve made it a point to be open about disclosure. Some areas where I disagree specifically I do not think it was appropriate to disclose but compared to previous administrations we’ve gone a long way and a lot farther in terms of openness and disclosure and transparency....No mayor previously had that level of transparency and I’m very proud of the fact that we put that in place in the city. When it comes to tough questions, well it’s a tough job as part of what I’d expect as mayor of New York City.”

It was a far from satisfactory answer for de Blasio’s only opponent on the debate stage, former City Council Member Sal Albanese. “I’m just incredulous,” Albanese responded. “This administration is the least transparent administration in recent history,” he added (it is not an easy comparison to make).

“We should have a higher standard for the mayor than not being indicted,” Albanese said repeatedly during the debates and the primary campaign.

Government watchdog groups have also found that de Blasio reneged on his campaign pledges around core good governance, though there has been acknowledgement that the administration has implemented certain policies that have enhanced transparency, including related to data generated by city government.

For instance, the city has continued and expanded the implementation of the Open Data law, launching a redesigned online portal with thousands of datasets available to the public. The administration has launched OpenRECORDS, a centralized website to file and track FOIL requests with numerous city agencies. These advancements, while notable, do not capture the full picture of mayoral transparency, however.

Early on in his term, the mayor began limiting interactions with the press, eschewing the daily news briefings that previous mayors had traditionally held and restricting occasions when he would take “off-topic” questions. It earned him scorn from detractors in and out of the media, and, almost cyclically, reinforced his derision for reporters who grew frustrated with the dearth of unfettered, unscripted responses to their questions.

“There’s a Trump-like quality in his whining about the media,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. “He’s got the same disease as the President.”

“There’s a lot the citizenry could find praiseworthy in his record,” Muzzio added, “but the two main issues are his transparency and political ethics, and his sense of self-aggrandizement where everything is ‘historic’ and ‘transformative.’ The problem is the distance between rhetoric and reality.”

Muzzio also noted that the administration has released a lot more data than previous mayoralties, which has been useful for analysis of city agencies. “It’s the personal transparency, rather than institutional transparency, that’s lacking,” Muzzio said of de Blasio.

One example of rhetoric versus reality was a promotional video put out in December 2016 by City Hall that touted the administration’s accomplishments, as it was mired in the two investigations that had captured headlines for months. Good government groups criticized the mayor at the time for effectively putting out a campaign ad shortly before the start of an election year during which government-funded advertisements would have been prohibited. The mayor fielded questions about the ad for weeks and grew frustrated by another example of what he has perceived as reporters’ fixation on trivial matters at the expense of spreading all the “good news” that is happening as a result of his policies.

At the August 23 debate, prompted by NY1’s Rauh, de Blasio pledged that he would not set up another issue-advocacy nonprofit like the Campaign for One New York, which was at the center of one of the two investigations into his administration. It was something the mayor had previously said he didn’t plan to do and had in fact signed a new law making virtually impossible. In making the pledge, he reiterated that he faced tough questions about his ethical conduct purely because he was willing to voluntarily disclose who had donated to the nonprofit group and how much.

“If you know you did things right you disclose,” he said. “If you’ve got something to hide, you don’t disclose. That’s what we did over and over again with donations that we did not have a legal obligation to disclose but we went ahead and disclosed anyway and I’m proud of that fact.”

But, the mayor’s approach to disclosure has been highly selective. For the better part of two years, media outlets have pushed, and NY1 and the New York Post even sued, the administration for access to emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and unpaid outside advisors. The mayor’s team has shielded those communications, terming the advisors “agents of the city” who would not be subject to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law that typically apply to correspondence between government officials and non-government entities. Exceptions to FOIL exist for intra-governmental communication that is part of the decision-making process, but de Blasio and his team argued that the advisors were so close to City Hall and the mayor that they were de facto members of the administration.

Eventually, the mayor relented to an extent, and troves of emails, numbering in the thousands and many of them significantly redacted, have been released on numerous occasions, usually in Friday “news dumps.” The administration is still in court appealing the decision to release the emails, but the mayor pledged in March to release all communications going forward. The emails have not shown wrongdoing, but rather painted the administration, and the mayor particularly, in an unflattering light at times. Some showed de Blasio’s harsh treatment of underlings while others revealed his proximity and degree of access afforded to donors, including controversial ones.

Watchdogs have pointed out that with the Campaign for One New York and the “agents of the city,” de Blasio has created his own problems by blurring lines and limiting transparency. By inviting massive donations to the nonprofit from entities with city business, de Blasio opened the door to pay-to-play allegations, and even the federal investigation. Under intense scrutiny, the mayor wound up promising extensive evidence of donors who did not get favorable treatment from city government -- a promise he eventually admitted he regretted -- but after months of delays, he produced a column on the online publishing platform Medium that left many wanting for more detail.

Big Money for the ‘Right’ Causes
As public advocate, de Blasio urged big corporations to adopt policies against funding political action committees and organized elected officials dedicated to that cause. He filed a legal brief in federal court arguing against the removal of limits to donations to PACs and he railed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed untold amounts of money from undisclosed donors to flood electoral campaigns.

“Deep-pocketed donors have turned their sights on New York and our best-in-the-nation campaign finance system,” de Blasio said, in a statement on Oct. 3, 2013, when he filed the amicus brief. “They’re determined to upend protections that have safeguarded our democratic process for decades. This is about more than one election. It’s about defending the voices of everyday New Yorkers. It’s a fight we are going to win.”

While de Blasio has continued to rail against Citizens United and call for full public campaign financing, the mayor has not aggressively pursued such a system in New York and the same politician who has long decried wealthy moneyed interests influencing government relied on them to promote his own political agenda while mayor.

De Blasio came into office with a come-from-behind primary win and a general election landslide. He had the wind at his back and attempted to take on the world, so to speak. This led to the creation of the controversial nonprofit and a 2014 effort to swing the state Senate Democratic that got him in trouble, along with other actions that have hurt his reputation for openness and clean government.

Within a month of the mayor’s election, his allies set up a political nonprofit group called UPKNYC, later branded The Campaign for One New York, to promote the goal of universal pre-kindergarten in the city, which in part depended on state-level approval. After achieving its initial goal -- de Blasio favored a tax on the rich to fund the proposal but settled for direct funding from the state -- the group pivoted to promoting the mayor’s affordable housing plan. All along, the 501(c)4 organization solicited unlimited donations, many from wealthy donors and labor unions that also had business with the city. The group did voluntarily disclose its finances and donors every six months.

Scrutiny of its activities, and the mayor’s fundraising for it and possible exchange of government favors, helped trigger one of the two separate corruption investigations, a federal probe into allegations of pay-to-play at City Hall --- the second was a state-level inquiry into whether the mayor’s attempt to sway state Senate races for Democratic candidates in 2014 had violated election law by funneling big donations to candidate campaigns through local Democratic committees.

The mayor maintained throughout that he and his associates had acted under strict legal guidance and had followed the letter of the law, and both probes eventually concluded with no charges. But the stench of scandal remained as the Manhattan U.S. attorney concluded that the mayor, though not crossing into clear criminal activity, had sought contributions from donors and then had “made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies” on behalf of those donors.

De Blasio defended this as typical practice and even good government -- that any constituent, whether a donor or not, who brings a concern to him is directed to someone in the administration who may be able to help, but that the relevant powers make decisions based on the merits, not relationships. What has been abundantly clear, however, is that de Blasio donors have enjoyed special access to and attention from the mayor and his administration.

De Blasio also regularly made the case that the ends justified the means, that because he was fighting for universal pre-kindergarten and affordable housing, his skirting of campaign finance rules and blurring of lines was acceptable. The contradiction became especially evident when de Blasio agreed to sign legislation pushed by the City Council, notably Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a close de Blasio ally, to drastically limit political nonprofits with ties to elected officials. De Blasio would explain that it was “the right thing to do” but did lament that he felt it might hamstring progressive politicians with good intentions like himself in the ongoing fight against opposing big-money interests.

At the second Democratic mayoral primary debate on September 6, debate moderator Maurice DuBois of CBS-2 put the mayor on his heels with the first question, about his apparent ethical failings. “Mr. de Blasio, here’s a true story,” DuBois began. “A political leader and his associates used pay-for-play tactics...but were not charged with a crime. However, state and federal prosecutors insist those people did violate the intent and spirit of the law. While there were no criminal charges, would you want people like that working for you?”

A defensive de Blasio again stood by his administration’s efforts and the policy goals that they achieved, and insisted that he and his associates had been vindicated by the intense scrutiny by prosecutors that nevertheless found no wrongdoing. “I look at everything that we’ve done and I’m very convinced that high standards were kept to and the results speak for themselves in terms of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we’ve improved,” he said. “That’s what I came here to do, make people’s lives better.”

Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, said she is “torn” over the mayor’s first-term scandals. “Part of me is just wondering, ‘is this the cost of doing business as a politician in the 21st century if you’re not a billionaire?’” she said, drawing a contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who did not have to depend on donors for his own campaigns. “Part of me thinks, ‘Well if you don’t have billions to contribute on your own, do you possibly have to get that from unsavory characters and make alliances and depend on people who have resources?’ But the other part of me wonders, ‘Wow, it seems like we’re always asking about some sort of potential wrongdoing.’”

Greer’s conflict seems to be indicative of that of at least several prominent Democrats, including officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer, who criticized the Campaign for One New York as a “slush fund” but wound up endorsing the mayor for reelection, citing his progressivism in fighting inequality. For some time, Stringer was considering a mayoral run, either against de Blasio or in the event de Blasio did not seek reelection due to results from the investigations that did not materialize.

Greer emphasized that de Blasio’s ethics record should not be conflated with his transparency, even though the two are sometimes drawn in “concentric circles.” She noted that de Blasio’s refusal to take questions from the press simply raises more concerns about what else he isn’t being transparent about. “I genuinely do not understand why there are times that de Blasio makes life much harder for himself than he has to...He brought that on himself,” she said. She did agree that perhaps everyday New Yorkers don’t care about issues of transparency that “get into the weeds,” but said he couldn’t dismiss the concerns of those who do. “By you not wanting to answer it, you can’t wish it away by saying nobody’s interested,” she said. “Yes, we are interested.”

De Blasio’s criticism of and condescension towards the media was on full display in the column he wrote on Medium, where he attempted to defend himself against pay-to-play allegations and special access for donors. The column, promised by de Blasio more than a year prior, was meant to illustrate instances of donors who sought favors from the administration but were denied. In the face of allegations and investigations, de Blasio had promised “a whole lot of evidence” of donors not getting the action they desired from the city. De Blasio provided little evidence in his Medium column, but went after the media with gusto.

“Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City,” de Blasio wrote of the coverage of his contact with donors. “Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”

The column contained few examples and no names, and largely blamed the media for over-inflating the scandals that have plagued de Blasio’s tenure. “It was a non-explanation, he gave a few examples of dubious quality,” Muzzio said with an exasperated sigh, noting how the mayor looked down his nose at the press.

Some top Democratic elected officials have been hesitant to criticize the mayor openly, save for Stringer and a few others. Public Advocate Letitia James, de Blasio’s successor and whose office is meant to serve as a watchdog over city government, declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson. James has largely stayed away from questions about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency issues, explaining her approach as more focused on the substance of agency work and using litigation and legislation to make policy change.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, ostensibly the second-most powerful elected official in the city, deflected when asked about the mayor’s defense of the Campaign for One New York and his transparency, at a news conference on Sept. 7, when the mayor’s ethics record was being argued over both on the primary election debate stage and throughout the ongoing race for mayor.

“We continue to have conversations in this Council and we continue to look at legislation to figure out how we can be more transparent,” she said. “That doesn’t just fall on the mayor, that falls on all of us to be more transparent in government.”

Mark-Viverito emphasized the Council’s measures to improve the Campaign Finance Board’s functioning and the laws governing campaign fundraising and spending. “Being a candidate and being an elected official is not easy,” she said. “The CFB rules are extremely complicated to follow and sometimes to keep track of and so sometimes you can get a little bit lost in them.”

When Gotham Gazette pointed out that the mayor’s Campaign for One New York operated outside of the CFB’s purview and asked if looking back on it she felt it was still ethical for the mayor to have created the group, Mark-Viverito said, “I’m not gonna respond to that at this moment. I haven’t really focused on it as of late. Again, what we strive to do is to be accountable to our constituents and that’s what I have been doing as an elected official, that’s what we do each and everyday and I’m gonna continue to strive down that path.”

Though she was quite reticent to weigh in on the issue when it was most relevant, Mark-Viverito did eventually spearhead the writing and passage of the legislation to rein in groups like Campaign for One New York, forcing the mayor’s hand on a measure that ensures few like it will ever exist in the future, given several new restrictions, like severe limits on what entities with city business can donate to nonprofits closely associated with an elected official. Even during that legislative process, Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally, took pains not to criticize the mayor directly, while tacitly and legislatively showing her disapproval. In signing the legislation, de Blasio refused to acknowledge that he had made any mistakes, but touted it as good legislation further reigning in money in politics.

Council Member Mark Levine, who is among a number of members running to be the next speaker of the Council, also gave a quasi-defense of the mayor. “I think he has to be judged by the fact that there was extensive scrutiny with considerable resources at multiple levels of government, local and federal, that left no stone unturned and determined there was not ground to charge,” he told Gotham Gazette, “and that at the end of the day is the most important standard and one that he justifiably touts, particularly in light of the months of leaks which gave him bad press for issues which ultimately were not deemed sufficient to charge on.”

But multiple City Council members, who did not wish to be named, felt differently. Separately, they gave similar opinions to one another, criticizing the mayor’s hypocrisy on transparency, his handling of the “agents of the city” emails, and his continued arrogance over escaping an indictment.

One Council member said the mayor was “vulnerable” on issues of transparency and that he faced “justifiable criticism” over his shielding of his emails, which did not seem at all legally defensible. The months of bad headlines, said the Council member, led to a “bunker mentality” and the mayor and his associates dug in their heels deeper. (Indeed, de Blasio has reopened himself to many more press questions since the investigations ended.)

Two Council members said the mayor’s shielding of his emails was largely an exercise in protecting his image rather than hiding instances of corruption. “It’s clear they are well aware of who their friends are,” said one member, of the mayor’s relationship with donors. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the contents of some of the “agents of the city” emails are especially gossipy and embarrassing.

Another Council member commended the press as the institution, more so than the City Council, that has most held the mayor accountable, and criticized the mayor for attacking the media’s reportage. The member noted that the Council did not use its subpoena power and did not act on the Campaign for One New York until after Common Cause NY, a good government group, filed an official complaint with the Campaign Finance Board.

That Council member also critiqued the mayor for not revealing who administration officials hold meetings with, an issue on which de Blasio had campaigned, and for not fully implementing the online FOIL portal. On the mayor’s Medium post, the Council member said, “It’s a little too cute to tell folks exactly who did what without using their names.”

‘Backwards on Police Transparency’
In April 2013, then-Public Advocate de Blasio released a “Transparency Report Card” that evaluated 18 city agencies on their response to FOIL requests. The two agencies that received a failing grade were the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYPD. A Village Voice analysis from April of the de Blasio administration’s handling of FOIL records showed that little had changed in more than three years. “A review of thousands of pages of FOIL records shows the city’s system for handling public information requests remains haphazard, under-resourced, and often excruciatingly slow. And the mayor’s own office is the slowest of all,” the report reads.

The mayor’s earlier criticism of the NYPD’s opaqueness perhaps most smacks of hypocrisy to police reform advocates who say his administration has not only not made progress, but actually backtracked on transparency at the police department. The NYPD, and then de Blasio, last year contended that successive administrations had for decades misinterpreted Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code, which protects the personnel records of police officers from public disclosure. As the department saw it, the law prevents them from releasing “personnel orders” that summarize disciplinary actions taken against officers. These orders had routinely been released until the revised policy was put in place, and the city has fought tooth and nail to uphold its reinterpretation of the law, even appealing an unfavorable judicial ruling, and has pointed to the need for the state to change the law.  

“The de Blasio administration has taken the city backwards on police transparency and accountability with its misuse of state law 50-a to conceal information,” said Lumumba Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups. Bandele noted that, though the mayor released a proposal to change the law in Albany, there was little evidence that the administration made it a priority in this year’s legislative session. “On policing, this administration is misusing the law as an excuse for being less transparent than those of Bloomberg and Giuliani,” she added, “allowing the NYPD to shield police abuse and corruption from public scrutiny, and failing to provide leadership to improve police accountability and transparency.”

The notion -- that the de Blasio administration has been worse about NYPD transparency and accountability -- is one that was also echoed this year by City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is a de Blasio supporter overall.

Scrutiny and Change
Undoubtedly, scrutiny of the mayor’s actions led to change in his behavior. He stopped communicating with top lobbyists who were close to him and began to limit government-related interaction with outside consultants, particularly Jonathan Rosen, a confidante who was involved in the mayor’s 2013 campaign and the Campaign for One New York, and whose firm is again working on the mayor’s 2017 reelection bid. The scandals also prompted the legislation by the City Council -- which the mayor signed into law -- regulating donations to nonprofit groups affiliated with elected officials and requiring disclosure by these groups under the oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board. And, de Blasio changed his “agency of the city” email transparency policy as he continues to battle in court to keep past emails secret.

But it’s unclear if the mayor, who won his primary handily and is expected to coast to reelection through the general, will take substantive steps to be more transparent. “[If] he gets a second term, I can’t see him as a lame duck being more transparent, so I think that’s a concern,” said Greer.

There’s no doubt that de Blasio’s general election opponents, chiefly Republican Nicole Malliotakis, a state Assembly member from Staten Island, will continue to make de Blasio’s ethics a focus of the campaign. The question remains, though, how much voters care. Political analysts note that most voters do not vote based on transparency and ethics issues unless there is a major scandal that has led someone to jail. Voters often vote based on “pocket book” and “kitchen table” issues like jobs, schools, and crime -- a point de Blasio himself regularly acknowledges at least tacitly.

Council Member Brad Lander, who was one of the co-sponsors of the legislation regulating political nonprofits, said it was more constructive to focus on the political system that allows, and in some way encourages, reliance on wealthy donors. “If we want elected officials in New York City to live up to a higher standard of good government, then the best approach is to strengthen our own rules,” he said. “That’s more valuable than focusing on individuals.”

This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

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A TIMELINE of MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS RELATED to MAYOR DE BLASIO'S RECORD on ETHICS and TRANSPARENCY

November 2013: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gets elected mayor of New York City after running a campaign in which he promised an unprecedented level of transparency in government. As Public Advocate, de Blasio issued a “Transparency Report Card” evaluating city agencies on their response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. He chiefly criticized the NYPD for their lax FOIL response times, giving them a failing grade in his report.

December 2013: De Blasio’s allies set up UPKNYC, also known as the Campaign for One New York, an issue-advocacy nonprofit -- classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4)s -- that could solicit unlimited contributions and spend unlimited funds to promote the mayor’s agenda, namely promoting universal pre-kindergarten. Under law, the nonprofit was not required to disclose its donors. The mayor’s associates later set up another nonprofit called United For Affordable NYC, to promote his affordable housing plan. The Campaign for One New York eventually became the locus of two parallel investigations by federal and state prosecutors into the mayor’s fundraising practices and his effort to sway state Senate races in 2014.

July 2014: The Campaign for One New York voluntarily discloses its fundraising and donors to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and to the public, despite not being required to do so, showing $1.76 million in donations, a lot of which came from labor unions that have been big supporters of the mayor and from groups that do business with the city. The mayor faced scrutiny for allowing doing business donors to give unlimited amounts, whereas those same donors would’ve been limited in how much they could contribute to a campaign committee. The Campaign for One New York later shifted its focus towards the mayor’s larger progressive agenda, particularly affordable housing, after having already achieved the goal of funding universal pre-kindergarten in the city.

May 2015: De Blasio heads to Washington D.C. to launch “The Progressive Agenda,” a platform of progressive policies that he attempted to advocate for at the national level to try to influence issues in the presidential race. Another nonprofit, the Progressive Agenda Committee, is set up by October 2015 to helm the project. The group would have little to no impact before shutting down within less than a year, only making headlines for an aborted attempt at holding a presidential candidate forum in Iowa in December 2015.

The same day de Blasio was in Washington, the New York Times reports that the Campaign for One New York has come under scrutiny by JCOPE for not registering as a lobbying entity. In 2014, UPKNYC had registered as a lobbyist to promote universal pre-k.

July 2015: Yet again, the Campaign for One New York discloses its fundraising, showing another $1.7 million in fundraising over a six-month period. The donations came from unions, lobbyists, wealthy donors and real estate executives. A Politico New York analysis in September shows that 46 of 74 donors “either had business or labor contracts with City Hall or were trying to secure approval for a project when they contributed, public records show.” Over the next few months, de Blasio faces constant questioning about potential conflicts of interest and the perception of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall. The nonprofit groups also seem to slow down their operations and fundraising amid increased criticism.

Feb 2016: Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, files a complaint with the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the Campaign Finance Board, requesting investigations of the Campaign for One New York and United for Affordable NYC. “The Mayor's unprecedented use of 501(c)(4) fundraising has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process,” Common Cause NY said in a statement at the time. “It has created a perpetual campaign, confusing the role of government and politics, to the detriment of the public interest.”

March 2016: The Campaign for One New York announces plans to close down as the spectre of pay-to-play allegations begins to hound the administration. United for Affordable NYC ends operations in conjunction, but the Progressive Agenda Committee continues to exist with minimal staff.

April 2016: Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara reportedly begins looking into two de Blasio donors, in connection with a separate corruption case involving the NYPD. Both donors contributed to the mayor’s campaign as well and were part of his inauguration committee. CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reports that Bharara’s office had started focusing on the mayor’s fundraising practices. Mayor de Blasio, saying he was unaware of any federal investigation, says on April 11, “I’m not going to be speaking about this after today.”

On April 22, the New York Daily News reports on a leaked memo from the state Board of Elections regarding the mayor’s 2014 efforts to help Democrats win the state Senate. The memo alleges that de Blasio and his team circumvented campaign contribution limits to benefit three Democratic campaigns, thereby warranting criminal prosecution. (It would later emerge that the memo was released by a Republican BOE spokesperson.)

On April 28, after de Blasio’s counsel confirms having received subpoenas in parallel state and federal investigations into the mayor’s fundraising, de Blasio maintains his innocence. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning is legal and appropriate,” he said. “There’s an investigation going on, we’re going to fully cooperate with that investigation.”

May 2016: A lawyer for the Campaign for One New York tells JCOPE that the nonprofit would stop complying with subpoenas, suggesting that the probe into CONY has become politically motivated.

On May 18, Mayor de Blasio promises to produce a list of donors who contributed to the Campaign for One New York but did not receive favors from City Hall, insisting that his administration makes decision based on merit and not on favoritism.

The same month, de Blasio comes under fire for shielding his email exchanges with five unpaid outside advisers, some of whom have business with the city. The administration terms them “agents of the city” and argues that they are exempt from disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law.

June 2016: The administration releases selected emails from outside consultants to Politico New York, in response to long-pending FOIL requests.

July 2016: The New York City Campaign Finance Board rules that the Campaign for One New York did not violate campaign finance law and that donations and spending by the group do not count towards the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign. But, the board criticized the mayor’s fundraising practices, which they saw as circumventing the city’s strict campaign finance restrictions, and called on the City Council to pass legislation to close the loophole.  

“New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” said then-CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”

August 2016: A battle brewing in the background for months over NYPD officers’ disciplinary records came front and center as the New York Daily News reported that the department would no longer release “personnel orders” summarizing disciplinary actions against officers. Then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the city had long misinterpreted a decades-old state law -- Section 50-A of the New York State civil rights code-- that had led to the release of officer records. The law has been a particular sticking point for police reform advocates incensed over the administration’s efforts to protect the disciplinary record of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a banned chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Mayor de Blasio, whose administration has been fighting for well over two years to shield Pantaleo’s record, insisted his hands were tied on 50-A unless the state Legislature took action to change the provision.

At an unrelated news conference in late August, de Blasio said he had stopped meeting with lobbyists, chiefly James Capalino, a top lobbyist and advisor to the mayor. “He, going into the mayoralty, was someone I respected as a friend and who I talked to a lot over the years,” de Blasio said. “But I do not have contact with him anymore.”

September 2016: Two media outlets -- NY1 and the New York Post -- sue the mayor for the release of emails exchanged with Jonathan Rosen, of the consulting firm Berlin Rosen, who is one of the mayor’s “agents of the city.”

That month, the City Council begins drafting legislation to regulate political nonprofits like the Campaign for One New York. Multiple bills were formulated to implement additional disclosure rules for these groups and to bring them under the purview of the Conflicts of Interest Board.

October 2016: After weeks of criticizing the New York Post for their coverage of his administration, de Blasio repeatedly ignores Post reporter Yoav Gonen’s questions at an October 6 news conference. Gonen presses on with questions, leading to heated words from the mayor, who calls the Post a “right-wing rag” before moving on to other reporters. The incident earns the mayor widespread condemnation from local media.

That same month, amid increasing criticism over the administration’s stance on Section 50-A, de Blasio releases a legislative proposal calling on Albany to amend the law to remove confidentiality provisions and make the full disciplinary records of officer available to the public. “Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing New Yorkers with the transparency we deserve," the mayor said.

November 2016: The Council introduces legislation to curb political nonprofits, particularly limiting contributions from entities and individuals with business before the city. Nonprofit groups would also have to disclose their donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

On November 23, the administration releases thousands of pages of emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and Jonathan Rosen, who was among those classified as “agents of the city” to prevent disclosure.

At a November 29 news conference, de Blasio indicated to the press that he had reduced contact with Rosen. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rare I’m talking to people, but each situation is individual,” he said at the time.

December 2016: On his weekly appearance on NY1 on December 5, de Blasio tells anchor Errol Louis that his communications with outside advisors and consultants will no longer be shielded from disclosure.  

On December 15, the New York Times reports that two grand juries have been convened to hear testimony on the state and federal investigations into the mayor’s administration and fundraising. De Blasio continues to maintain that he and his associates acted legally and appropriately, following guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board and from campaign lawyers.

March 2017: Federal and state prosecutors jointly announced on March 17 that de Blasio and his aides would not face charges in the dual year-long investigations into the administration. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance criticized the mayor in a statement, saying that de Blasio and his associates violated the spirit and intent of the campaign finance law. Joon H. Kim, acting-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted that the investigation looked into “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.”

De Blasio, at a news conference that day, said the conclusion of the investigations “simply confirms what I’ve said all along. My staff and my colleagues and I have acted in a manner that was legal and appropriate and ethical throughout. This is something I feel very strongly about in public service – that we have to comport ourselves in the proper manner and we have done that, and that has been confirmed by the results of this investigation.”

Also in March, a Manhattan appeals court rules in favor of the de Blasio administration in the case of Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, superseding two earlier lower court decisions that had allowed the release of some information.

April 2017: After months of delaying his promise to provide a list of donors who did not receive favored treatment from City Hall, de Blasio partly backtracks and insists that he will pen an op-ed by the end of April that would mention certain relevant instances. (He had been hesitant to release the list earlier, citing the ongoing investigations.)

August 2017: The de Blasio administration releases more emails that show two donors who were embroiled in a police corruption scandal had relatively easy access to the mayor.  

At the first Democratic mayoral primary debate on August 23, de Blasio concedes that the op-ed on donors is forthcoming and would be released before the September 12 primary. On September 1, de Blasio delivers in the form of a post on Medium, an online publishing website. The post reads more as a screed against the media and contains only four instances involving unnamed donors to illustrate the mayor’s point. Some of those had emerged from emails released by the administration earlier in the month.

“Media reports on these contacts fixated on their access to me and ignored the fair and transparent outcomes that followed,” the mayor writes. “Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City. Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”

September 6: The second mayoral primary debate begins with a heavy focus on de Blasio’s ethics.

September 12: De Blasio handily wins the Democratic primary for mayor.

November 7: Election Day

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This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio’s Record on Ethics and Transparency Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Reform Will Only Happen Through a State Constitutional Convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7025-reform-will-only-happen-through-a-state-constitutional-convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7025-reform-will-only-happen-through-a-state-constitutional-convention Cuomo Silver Skelos ethics reform

(photo: The Governor's Office)


Albany ended the legislative session without any government ethics reform and without any voting reform. Although there have been fewer arrests for corruption this session than last, no legislator should take this as a sign of improvement. And New York State voters should accept the truth that the Legislature itself will never seriously vote against its members’ self-interest to make progress on ethics or electoral reform.

The only opportunity for New Yorkers for real reform is on the ballot on November 7, 2017, where we will be able to vote “yes” for a State Constitutional Convention.

This year, some state legislators talked about passing voting reforms in our archaic, closed system, such as early voting, reducing the time required to switch parties, and same-day registration, but none happened. This legislative session we heard calls for closing the LLC loophole, fixing pay-to-play allowances, and eliminating “lulus” -- stipends that go to legislators, sometimes for work they don’t actually do.

The response to the news that almost all State Senators receive these lulus, or extra committee or conference leadership stipends, regardless of whether they are actually leading any committee, has been lackluster. The State Senate, for the first time in eight years, convened its ethics committee on June 15, less than a week before the end of the legislative session. It decided to table the lulu issue, who knows until when.

There will be a chance to make constitutional reform on the ballot this year aside from the Con Con. The one reform voters have the opportunity to enact is to revoke the pensions of legislators convicted of a crime, and that’s only because it was the singular outcome of legislators responding to the anger of voters over the corruption scandals that took down two legislative leaders in one year and have plagued the capital for decades.

One worthwhile result with a slew of problems brewing should not be taken as sufficient for voters in the state. Voters should enact the pension-stripping measure and also vote for a Constitutional Convention.

To be sure, a Constitutional Convention should not be a second way to legislate. Many different interest groups will try to use the Constitutional Convention to effect their legislative goals, such as the legalization of recreational marijuana, banning abortion, or creating a road to upstate secession. However, the one problem that a majority of constitutional delegates and eventually New York voters can agree on is that the years of legislative sclerosis are a systemic problem that the State Constitution could fix. Moreover, legislators themselves will not legislate their way into solving those problems, even if there is a switch in partisan power.

Saying yes to a Constitutional Convention is worth the fight. The delegates could draft a new and improved version of the state’s democratic system, which would then be put to the voters. New York voters are smart enough to reject changes that merely reinforce the status quo or do damage to our civil rights. The opportunity to vote yes for a Constitutional Convention every 20 years is a deliberate acknowledgment from the state Constitutional framers that politics will sometimes overwhelm the legislative process. The lawmakers will not fix the problems on their own, the people must do it.

On November 7, vote “yes” for a Constitutional Convention.

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Richard Semegram is tenant lawyer based in Brooklyn. On Twitter at @richagram.

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

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Reform Will Only Happen Through a State Constitutional Convention Mon, 26 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000