Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1170 Thu, 15 Nov 2018 16:57:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Created in Budget, State Pay Commission Off to Slow, Rocky Start http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7723-created-in-budget-state-pay-commission-off-to-slow-rocky-start http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7723-created-in-budget-state-pay-commission-off-to-slow-rocky-start Carl McCall Cuomo

Carl McCall (photo: Governor's Office)


The pay commission tasked with proposing salary adjustments of New York State legislators, statewide elected officials, and top executive branch employees, created in this year’s enacted budget, appears to be in a state of disarray.

The appointed chair of the commission, New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, announced in May that she could not serve on the commission, citing what she believed to be the unconstitutionality of a judge determining matters that could end up before her in court. She has not been replaced, and the commission has not held a meeting.

The commission, as laid out in the budget document passed in late March, is to be made up of five individuals: DiFiore, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former State Comptroller Carl McCall, and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson. McCall and Thompson are now chairs of the Boards of Trustees at SUNY and CUNY, respectively.

The commissioners have until December to submit recommendations for whether legislators in the Assembly and Senate, statewide officials (governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general), and certain executive branch officials should receive a pay increase, and if so, by how much. Legislators, who are elected every two years, have not had a base salary increase in nearly 20 years. A different effort at a pay commission went off the rails in 2016 when Cuomo, through his appointees, insisted on ethics reforms in conjunction with salary increases. The governor has said he supports higher salaries for lawmakers but that he also wants to see accompanying changes, and he has insisted that it is essential to raise the pay the state offers agency commissioners and top gubernatorial aides in order to attract top talent.

Along with salary, the new commission can also make other recommendations, such as the prohibition of outside income that Cuomo says is necessary, and its recommendations will automatically go into effect if legislators don’t act to prevent it before January 1, 2019.

The commission, in the midst of the ongoing drama, has not held a meeting in the more than two months since its creation.

A spokesperson for DiNapoli, Jennifer Freeman, said that there are no firm dates yet decided on for the first meeting, but that “dates being discussed are currently in July.” This would give commissioners approximately five months to deliberate and draw up recommendations. It is unclear what will happen with the position intended for DiFiore, and whether legislators may need to pass a bill to name a new commissioner before their session ends later this month.

State legislators receive a base salary of $79,500 per year, unchanged since 1999. Legislators are allowed to earn outside income, opening the door to conflicts of interest. Majority conferences also award stipends, colloquially known as “lulus,” to committees chairs, a practice that has been abused.

The system, as it stands, has been alleged to help foster a culture of corruption and limit the pool of individuals who will consider working in state government.

When the 2016 commission fell apart, good government groups criticized it and state leaders for failing to raise lawmakers’ salaries. Reinvent Albany, one reform group, is among those in favor of a pay raise, saying that the cost of living has risen substantially since the 1999 wage was set, and that the salary not keeping up with the cost of living leads to more lawmakers taking outside income.

“I think most people recognize that, in particular for the New York City members, that it’s awfully hard to make a living off the salary they make if they’re not holding outside jobs,” said Alex Camarda, Reinvent Albany’s senior policy advisor. “And there’s certainly been a desire by the good government community to see elected officials have their outside income curtailed so that they don’t have conflicts of interest when they are considering policy before the state.”

Citizens Union, another government reform group, said the prior commission should recommend pay increases but not tie them to other legislation, including ethics reform, to avoid any exchange of policies that have merit on their own and the typical Albany horse-trading. Though a deal that largely involves aspects of legislators’ jobs would be less transparently questionable than the 1999 trade that saw pay increase tied to legislation establishing charter schools in New York.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Ethan Geringer-Sameth, public policy and program manager at Citizens Union, said that CU’s position remains unchanged: that legislators should get a pay raise, that the pay raise should be decoupled from other legislation, and that the increase should be even higher if outside income is banned. The organization also wants to see a wide range of ethics and campaign finance reform enacted separately.

The U.S. Congress and the New York City Council both pay members substantially more than the State Legislature: members of Congress make $174,000 while members of the City Council make $148,500. The City Council, in 2016, voted to raise salaries substantially, from $112,500 to $148,500, while also banning almost all forms of outside income.

“Outside income was severely limited and the Council Members here in New York City got a substantial pay raise,” Camarda said. “And I think it serves as a model for the state as well as the U.S. Congress. And it would be good to put it to bed finally.”

Cuomo, as of two months ago, conditionally supports pay raises for legislators; the governor said in March that he would support pay raises for legislators if the budget was passed on time, which it was. The governor’s office appears to have reverted to a neutral stance on the issue.

“There is now an independent commission that will review legislative pay that has not increased for 18 years. We’ll leave it to the commission to decide – that is what is in the law,” said Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens in an email to Gotham Gazette. Stevens declined to comment about what will happen with the commission post DiFiore has declined.

Through a spokesperson, DiNapoli declined to comment on the commission or his positions on the matters at hand. A representative for Stringer did not respond to requests for comment. McCall also declined to comment; a representative said that the commissioners are refraining from public comment before the meeting takes place. Thompson could not be reached for comment.

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Created in Budget, State Pay Commission Off to Slow, Rocky Start Thu, 07 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Bharara Visits Capital He Upended http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6154-bharara-visits-capital-he-upended http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6154-bharara-visits-capital-he-upended bharara mortgage

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (photo: @SDNYnews)


For the last year a siege mentality has dominated the New York state capitol. And in some respect, Albany, or at least the political denizens who dwell within the capitol, does appear to be very much in the cross hairs of a conquering army headed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The main roads into town feature digital billboards flashing entreaties from the FBI urging New Yorkers to "REPORT CORRUPTION," along with a number for the New York State Public Corruption Task Force.

On Monday, Bharara may drive by those very signs as he makes his way to Albany for a series of events, including two speaking engagements. The crusading prosecutor's presence may be enough to make already-nervous Albany lawmakers break into a cold sweat.

The most powerful people in Albany - lobbyists, legislators, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo - have watched as Bharara has gone from prosecuting rank-and-file legislators to decapitating both houses of the legislature by securing the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple counts of corruption. All the while Bharara has maintained investigations into Cuomo's dealings, with the prosecutor's mantra of "Stay tuned" casting a larger-than-life shadow.

Although he promised major reforms during his recent State of the State address, Cuomo has since avoided the press in Albany, continuing his streak of not holding a press conference at the capitol, now at over 200 days. The current majority leaders have also remained largely mum on ethics since the start of the year. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie voiced support for various reforms early in January, but has said little since. His working group on Assembly rules and transparency continues to delay the release of proposals to make the body more open and democratic.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has pushed back against the very idea that there is any need for reforms, pointing to changes made over the last several years and asserting the need for individuals to act of high moral character.

Bharara has made it clear that he continues watching.

On Monday, Bharara will take something of an up-close look, as he heads to Albany for several events and speaks publicly twice. The first speaking event will take place a short walk from the capitol building when Bharara addresses the New York State Conference of Mayors; the other hosted by good government groups and WAMC public radio--a veritable public radio empire that reaches across upstate New York and into Vermont and Connecticut. The topic for both events will, of course, be fighting public corruption. Bharara is also set to appear, along with Gov. Cuomo, at the swearing in of new Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Bharara will not be addressing the state legislature, even though he recently made the trip to Frankfort, Kentucky to discuss public corruption and the type of culture that allows it to fester in New York. Throughout his examination of New York state government, Bharara has not only found several examples of illegal activity, but he has also decried legally corrupt practices, such as the infamous "three men in a room" method of deciding virtually all important state policy.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, invited Bharara to address his conference, but Bharara's office prefered to address a bipartisan gathering. Kolb, in turn, wrote to the majority leaders of each conference in both houses, asking them to jointly invite Bharara to address the legislature as a whole. "They haven't even bothered to respond to my letter," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "What are they so afraid of?"

Kolb, who will be speaking before Bharara on Monday at the mayors conference, said he hopes to hear more from Bharara on how the "three men in a room" power structure in Albany defeats transparency and allows corruption to fester.

"Mr. Bharara has asked 'Since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything?,' And I expect he will focus on that again. It's not about getting our way, but about asking questions about how things are structured, about payments, pots of money. Making sure our constituents are represented. I mean there was even that Skelos quote where he said, 'I control everything.' These guys have too much power," Kolb said.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany is also interested in hearing Bharara attack the culture in Albany that might not necessarily be prosecutable.

"Hopefully he says: 'The real scandal is what's legal.'" said Kaehny, referring to what many, including Bharara, have said about Albany's usual ways of doing business.

"In Albany," Kaehny said, "the governor can give a bag full of taxpayer money to a big business and that business can give him a bag of money back, or a bag full via unlimited LLC contributions. All legal. Yet in New York City, it is a crime for people doing business with the city to contribute more than $400" to a campaign.

Among Kaehny's concerns are that law firms that represent state agencies and authorities can also lobby on behalf of private clients.

"It goes on and on," said Kaehny. "The conflict of interest is so baked into how Albany works that Silver tried to use it as a defense."

Bharara has addressed how Albany's culture has played into many of the cases he prosecuted.

"If you're one of the three men in a room, and you have all the power and you always have and everyone knows it," Bharara told an audience at New York Law School last January following Silver's arrest. "You don't tolerate dissent because you don't have to. You don't allow debate because you don't have to, and because the status quo always benefits you."

The three men in the room are the governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate president. For several years running, those men were Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver, and Dean Skelos. Thanks to Bharara, both Silver and Skelos are awaiting sentencing on federal charges.

In his New York Law School speech, Bharara mocked "three men in a room," joking about what happens behind closed doors, asking whether women are allowed and wondering if perhaps it gets "a little gamey in that room."

But he quickly returned to the serious, saying that the elected officials end up getting "swept up in the power and the trappings, because you were never challenged, and because you can easily forget who put you there in the first place. And so I ask again, what kind of a system is that?"

Bharara also took the time to recognize the legislators in attendance--he didn't exactly honor them. "I see there are a number of elected officials here. And after yesterday I guess I have two theories as to why that might be. One might be that you knew I was taking attendance. And the other is that there are a lot of folks now looking for immunity," he said, in his typical wry manner.

That fear that Bharara is watching, that he is still working on unearthing new misdeeds, has paralyzed legislative leaders on a number of issues over the last year. Some have confided to aides and others that they aren't sure what Bharara is after, or who he has flipped to his side. Many note that there are clear connections between legislative action and campaign donations that are ripe for investigation. Legislators have also been put on notice regarding their abuse of per diem reimbursements, use of campaign cash for personal expenses, and other misdeeds.

It appears to many that Bharara started this year by giving Cuomo and legislators an opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the Silver and Skelos convictions and actually get to work on real reforms. A number of insiders see Bharara's announcement in January that he did not have enough evidence to indict anyone on the untimely end of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption as a way to take some pressure off of Cuomo to allow him to take the initiative on ethics in his State of the State address. Those same insiders see Bharara's visit as a nudge to Cuomo and legislative leaders to actually deliver on reforms this year.

In his State of the State platform, Cuomo announced his intentions to see the LLC loophole closed, strict limits set on legislators' outside income, a public campaign finance system established, and other changes made to prevent corruption. Whether Bharara wades into any of those specifics is to be seen.

[Related: Cuomo Announces Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through]

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

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Bharara Visits Capital He Upended Sun, 07 Feb 2016 21:57:03 +0000
The Week That Was in New York Politics, Nov 30-Dec 4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/6019-the-week-that-was-in-new-york-politics-nov-30-dec-4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/6019-the-week-that-was-in-new-york-politics-nov-30-dec-4 week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday December 4, 2015

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Sheldon Silver outside the courthouse, via Zack Fink of NY1

silver via zack fink

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Sheldon Silver Guilty: On Monday, former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was found guilty on all seven counts in his federal corruption trial and now faces prison for abusing his position to obtain $4 million in illegal payments. At the center of Silver's trial was the culture of corruption in Albany, sparking a renewed push by good government advocates for ethics reform. [Read: Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform?]

2. NY vs. AIDS: At an event on World AIDS Day Dec. 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced the city will spend $23 million a year on a new plan to fight AIDS. The city has seen a 35 percent decrease in the number of HIV diagnoses in the past decade, though nearly one tenth of people living with HIV in the U.S. reside in the city, prompting the mayor to call for increased efforts to “end the AIDS epidemic here in New York City by 2020.” At the same event, Governor Cuomo said he plans to seek $200 million in new AIDS funding in the state budget.

3. Cuomo and de Blasio’s Dinner Detente: On Tuesday, Cuomo and de Blasio met in midtown for a secret sit-down dinner in an attempt to put aside their differences and potentially resolve their longstanding feud, which intensified last week after a Cuomo spokesperson said de Blasio couldn’t manage the city’s homelessness crisis. Apparently, the meeting "didn't go well," though aides who were with Cuomo and de Blasio at the time said the “conversation was constructive." [Read: Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio]

4. Mayor’s Rezoning Plans Face Pushback: Discussions on the mayor's rezoning policies continued this week, with some significant criticism from community and borough boards. On Monday, the Manhattan Borough Board voted against de Blasio’s zoning changes, with conditions they’d like to see used for amendments, and on Tuesday, the Brooklyn Borough Board did the same, with its own set of suggestions. The mayor has acknowledged the pushback, saying it was not unexpected and that tweaks will be made to the plans before they head to the City Council early in 2016. [Read: Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote]

5. Cuomo on Gun Control and Hypocrisy: In the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left at least 14 dead and 17 injured, Gov. Cuomo once again reiterated the need for Congress to take action on federal gun control. Speaking on Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, Cuomo pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans wanting to close the border to Syrian refugees following the attacks in Paris, while repeatedly blocking the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act since 2007. On Friday on WNYC radio, Mayor de Blasio announced he would be moving to push New York City’s pension funds to divest from gun manufacturers.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

$90,700 a year is the estimated legislative pension former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is entitled to, despite being convicted on federal corruption charges, the Daily News reports.

3,000-plus New York City police officers have been trained so far in so-called active shooter situations, learning how to move through buildings, with just one partner if need be, as part of a new approach, the New York Times reports.

8 school districts are suing New York State over funding inequities, asking that the court declare current school funding levels “so inadequate” they violate students’ rights, Times Union reports.

$90 million in bonds were allotted to the city through the state for funding affordable housing this week, Politico New York reports.

12 communities with limited access to health food have been selected to be part of the new initiative which will build more urban farms, expand school gardens, and establish community-center culinary programs and farmers markets, the Wall Street Journal reports.

2,000 city-owned sedans used by local agencies like the Transportation Department will be replaced with electric vehicles by 2025, in an effort to cut municipal vehicle emissions in half by that time, the de Blasio administration announced Tuesday.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for Westchester County district attorney Janet DiFiore, who was nominated by Governor Cuomo to replace Jonathan Lippman as chief judge of the State Court of Appeals after Lippman retires at the end of this year.

It was a bad week for former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who faces decades in prison after being found guilty on all seven counts of federal corruption charges against him.

THE FLASH:

Around this time two years ago, on December 1, 2013, four people were killed and 61 were injured when a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx after the engineer fell asleep at the controls.

Around this time 60 years ago, on December 1, 1955, commuting became a little easier for straphangers in Queens when the 60th Street Tunnel Connection opened in Queens, which is used today by the R train.

Around this time last year, on December 3, 2014, protests erupted in New York City after a grand jury decided not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Protests calling for Pantaleo, who is currently on modified duty, to be fired took place once again this Thursday, though NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said his department is waiting for the federal investigation to be complete before proceeding with any administrative departmental action.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

City Council Submits Testimony to Pay Commission, by Ben Max

Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? by David Howard King

Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio, by David Howard King

Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials, by David Howard King

City's Rezoning Plans Won't Improve Quality or Affordability, Andrew Berman (opinion)

Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors, by  Anne Klaeysen (opinion)

After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform, by Thomas Stebbins (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Friday to discuss a variety of issues.

On Inside City Hall, Errol Louis discussed the controversy over Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan with Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development and Carl Weisbrod, chairman of the City Planning Commission.

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

]]>
The Week That Was in New York Politics, Nov 30-Dec 4 Fri, 04 Dec 2015 14:57:28 +0000