Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/985 Tue, 25 Sep 2018 17:08:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7764:pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7764:pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies gov cuomo bill clinton electoral

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The problem of sexual harassment in New York state politics is systemic and plaguing young women beginning their careers, according to a group fighting to change the culture and the laws around the issue. And, they argue that recently adopted state measures to fight the scourge are insufficient, despite being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as “the best in the nation.”

The seven women of The Sexual Harassment Working Group -- all of whom have been personally affected by sexual harassment while working for lawmakers in the New York State Legislature -- have consulted a handful of advocacy and legal groups, and called upon their own experiences and expertise, to put together a detailed report with recommendations for ways to better protect women working in government.

“We wonder why there aren’t women in higher office, we wonder why women are so underrepesented in our legislature and in all levels of our government. And this is a big part of why: It does not feel safe to work in government if you’re a woman,” co-author Eliyanna Kaiser, a one-time chief of staff to former Assemblymember Micah Kellner, said during an event in Manhattan on June 19. Kaiser was not herself directly a victim of sexual harassment, but instead reported to Bill Collins in the Assembly Counsel's office, under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that Kellner had been sending inappropriate messages to one of his staffers, which led to initial inaction, attacks against Kaiser, and, eventually, Kellner’s ouster from the state Legislature.

Also on the panel were working group members and co-authors Danielle Bennett, former administrative assistant to Kellner who reported his harassment to Kaiser; Leah Hebert, former chief of staff to the late, disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez; Tori Burhans Kelly, former legislative aide to Lopez; Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to Lopez; Erica Vladimer, former education policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); and Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative aide in the New York State Assembly who publicly accused Assembly lawyer Michael Boxley of rape in 2003, two years after the alleged incident and when another victim of Boxley’s came forward. The discussion was moderated by political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell, who has helped bring to light victims’ experiences as well as the insufficient responses from government officials.

The stories of these women run together in a horror plot that involves countless obstacles to reporting, near-dismissal, and a reluctance to investigate from those in charge, as well as forcibly implemented nondisclosure agreements that hinder the complainant's chances of reemployment and their ability to warn others.

“I agreed not to file a civil suit in exchange for [him to get] a HIV test,” Crothers said, adding the “loss of anonymity” after going public “follows you.”

“I really didn’t think there was another way out aside from suicide,” said Hebert, who was one of the first women to complain about Lopez groping and harassing female staffers, of her experience.

“These things that are happening are not the product of an individual harasser, they’re not mistakes,” Pasarell, another complainant against Lopez, added. “It’s massive, it’s systemic, and whenever I hear a new person coming out I say, ‘hey remember us, remember this happened to us in 2012?’”

It’s a cycle that exploits women and protects men who behave abhorrently and, as Grenell pointed out, it’s a reality yet unchanged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claims that New York has the “strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation” following the recent budget, wherein the anti-harassment legislation was passed. Grenell compared the governor’s statement to the “mission accomplished sign” former President George W. Bush stood in front of during 2003 remarks about the war in Iraq, only two months after the U.S. first invaded.

The Working Group is calling for Cuomo to hold public hearings to listen to victims of sexual harassment -- as its members demanded before the policies were decided by all-male leadership with little apparent regard for the opinions of victims. The group’s Harassment-Free Albany website states: “New York State has not held a state hearing on sexual harassment since Governor Mario Cuomo [Andrew Cuomo’s father] created a Sexual Harassment Task Force in 1992.”

The reporting system has no transparency for complainants, limited uniformity, and an obvious lack of objectivity, the panel urges. For example, when Vladimer, who this January publicly accused now-Deputy Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of kissing her forcibly and against her will outside a bar in 2015, was asked where her case is at now, she said she has no idea.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vladimer told event attendees on Tuesday. “[It’s with] the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE], which under some very vague executive law somehow has the authority to investigate sexual harassment claims. There are no experts on this commission and the commissioners who vote to decide whether or not there is wrongdoing are all appointed by elected officials.” They are also almost all men, with one woman in 14 commissioners.

“I don’t know where my investigation is and I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is that there is no transparency and I know, and have been told, I don’t have a right to know where my investigation’s going,” Vladimer added.

When Vladimer went public, Klein immediately denied the allegations, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate given no formal complaint had been lodged with its internal staff. Klein himself asked JCOPE to investigate, but other than Klein indicating an investigation had commenced, there is little information to go by.

In the lead-up to the new state budget, Cuomo had called for sweeping anti-sexual harassment policies, including greater resources for and transparency in JCOPE investigations. While Cuomo pushed through some measures, those JCOPE recommendations were not among what was passed into law.

The same Klein accused of sexually harassing Vladimer was one of the three other elected men, and no elected women, who assisted Cuomo in deciding the sexual harassment legislation this March, ahead of the annual budget. According to the budget, there are five measures designed to address sexual harassment in state politics -- as the governor’s office puts it, to “further build upon his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York.”

In a press release announcing highlights of the new budget in March, Cuomo said, "We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation, ending once and for all the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled this unacceptable behavior for far too long.”

Under the new legislation, all employers working with the state, including vendors and contractors, must implement a written policy addressing sexual harassment prevention and provide prevention training to all employees. This is an extension of a previously-existing law to include contracted workers, and means that employers may now be held liable for the sexual harassment of non-employees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take action. It does not, however, address the ambiguity around employees of elected officials.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is recommending the definition of “employee” be changed to clearly include employees of elected and appointed officials, and that the New York State Human Rights Law should stipulate elected officials are also considered “employers.”

“Our recommendation is to specify employees as everybody -- essentially someone for hire -- this is how the labor law defines it and we just want every worker to have the same protection, including staff of elected officials,” Pasarell told Tuesday night’s event.

In the new legislation, New York employers are prohibited from requiring mandatory arbitration of claims of workplace sexual harassment, except where inconsistent with federal law, and this will come into effect in July.

Any officers and employees of the state or any public entity who is subject to a final judgement of personal liability in cases of sexual harassment will have to reimburse the state for the award given to the complainant, however the Sexual Harassment Working Group points out this is only applicable for cases determined by a judge, not necessarily to those settled out of court.

Cuomo’s legislation also states no employer has the authority to include or agree to include in any settlement a nondisclosure agreement, unless the condition of confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. And, notably, a model sexual harassment guidance document and a sexual harassment prevention policy is to be created with the Division of Human Right by October -- meaning a key portion of the new policy is not yet written.

“This year, Governor Cuomo signed the strongest anti-sexual harassment policy in the country,” Dani Lever, press secretary for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette in a statement. “It closed gaping loopholes that entrapped women in toxic workplaces, extended protections to contracted workers, and strengthened rules that prevent companies from shirking their responsibility to root out bad actors—instead of sweeping problems under-the-rug.”

On the surface, all measures included in the enacted budget appear to go a long way towards exactly what the governor is promising but, according to the panel of women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in state politics first-hand, there are some areas of ambiguity that impede the path to reporting and justice for potential victims.

First, the budget hasn’t defined “sexual harassment” and the way the issue is currently treated under state law leaves much room for interpretation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group recommends adding “sex and gender” to the list of classes protected from discrimination in the New York State Constitution, to offer another level of protection for all New Yorkers, including victims. And the authors suggest the current standard for behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in state law -- that it must be “severe or pervasive” -- be changed to mirror the recent changes to New York City law, where the standard for discrimination and harassment reads simply that the person is treated “less well.”

“When you’re talking about standards in law, the ‘litigative itch,’ as they call it, is all in these terms,” Kaiser said. “People are always going to bicker about the actual event that happened. We’d prefer that bickering to be asking, ‘didn’t he treat her less well?’ Rather than, ‘was it severe and pervasive?’”

The working group is also calling for an independent body to oversee all discrimination harassment policy enforcement. At the moment, JCOPE members are appointed by state elected officials. Of the 14 members, three are appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, three are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Assembly, and six are appointed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor.

Many of the stories from the women in The Sexual Harassment Working Group involve some level of disbelief from those charged with investigating their reports of sexual harassment. In Crothers’ case, it wasn’t only disbelief, it was outright protection of her alleged attacker.

“Before it came out in the press and when I met with the speaker [Sheldon Silver], I didn’t feel he didn’t believe me, he just said ‘well I won’t let him go out to bars anymore and my first priority is protecting the institution,’” Crothers said at the panel event. Silver resigned as speaker in 2015 after being arrested on federal corruption charges, and long after being accused of facilitating former Assemblymember Lopez’s harassment of eight women who were on his staff. The panelists believe this culture of cover-up and protection will continue unless there is an independent body appointed to investigate, and determine, reports of sexual misconduct in Albany.

It’s the Lopez example that best shows the need for further restrictions around the use of nondisclosure agreements, beyond what is outlined in the new legislation. Two of the women in the working group, who were on the panel, ultimately signed nondisclosure agreements after accusing the former Assembly member of sexual harassment and groping. They said they didn’t want a nondisclosure agreement -- it wasn’t implemented to protect their privacy -- but it was offered to them as a ‘take it or leave it’ measure.

“We wanted an investigation, we asked multiple times for an investigation,” Hebert said. Hebert’s name went public, despite her having signed a nondisclosure agreement, when reports from other victims were published by the media ahead of Lopez’s resignation in 2013. Instead of an investigation, Hebert said she, along with Pasarell, were made to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told Lopez would go through sexual harassment prevention training.

“The NDA, it wasn’t just that...we couldn’t speak to anyone,” Hebert said. “It was, at first, $10,000 in liquidated damages if we broke it for every occurence, and it would happen with a mediator behind closed doors so no one would know they were enforcing the agreement. And it also contained a provision that we could never apply to the Assembly again.” This last measure effectively limiting their opportunities to work in state government, and the fine making it impossible for the complainants to explain their circumstances to future employers, file for unemployment benefits, or warn others or the Human Rights Division of Lopez’s behavior.  

They pushed back on their exclusion from the Assembly and the response was, “we could never apply to Lopez’s office again, which was fine, but they increased our liquidated damages cost to $20,000,” Hebert said.

Pasarell, another of Lopez’s victims, said the anti-sexual harassment legislation in the budget regarding nondisclosure agreements -- that they can only be used in cases where the complainant consents -- can too easily be twisted to benefit the harasser.

“The way they phrased the new law is for the complainant to have a nondisclosure agreement, it’s got to be the complainant’s preference. In our case we saw repeatedly how the Assembly portrayed it as if it was our preference when it absolutely was not,” she said. “The nondisclosure agreement came to us very late in the game and it was ‘take it or leave it.’”

Women reporting sexual harassment will be better assisted, The Sexual Harassment Working Group argues, if the Legislature provides greater protection against victim coercion into signing nondisclosure agreements. The group also recommends the law allow for individual liability, so harassers can be targeted without taking the Legislature or State to arbitration or court. And, in cases where complainants do want a nondisclosure agreement for confidentiality reasons, there should be a “Sunshine in Litigation” law to prevent serial harassers (who’ve offended at least once prior) from re-offending. “Limited information would be shared but a pattern of harassment would be outed,” Pasarell said.

The way to change the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation is through changing the law, The Sexual Harassment Working Group maintains, and the way to do that is through consulting with victims, advocacy groups, and others, including lawmakers -- a process much more extensive than how Cuomo and legislative leaders, all men, went about it.

In response to The Sexual Harassment Working Group’s report, Cuomo’s team said it will review the recommendations but gave no indication of whether or not they will consider holding or pushing for a public hearing on the issue.

“No woman should ever be violated, let alone in the workplace—period. And that’s why Governor Cuomo has championed measures that hold employers accountable for ensuring a hospitable workplace,” Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary, told Gotham Gazette. “The ‘Me Too’ movement has caused an awakening in our society, and while we’ve taken positive concrete steps in New York, we need to continue to see progress in our state and across the country. We look forward to reviewing these recommendations and continuing this important work.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Lopez allegedly harassed eight women on 33 counts, not 33 women; that two, not three, of the women mentioned signed NDAs; and that Kaiser reported Kellner's behavior to the Assembly counsel's office, not Speaker Silver directly.

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Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies Sun, 24 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Molinaro Outlines Initial Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7611:molinaro-outlines-initial-ethics-and-campaign-finance-reform-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7611:molinaro-outlines-initial-ethics-and-campaign-finance-reform-agenda marc molinaro speaking

Marc Molinaro (photo: @marcmolinaro)


When he formally launched his run for governor earlier this month, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said that “all New Yorkers are paying a corruption tax.” It is a tax, Molinaro explained, that is the result of both legal and illegal malfeasance, of wasteful, ineffective, and corrupt government. In his initial remarks that day, at events in Tivoli and Albany, and during multiple exchanges with journalists, Molinaro has outlined elements of a reform agenda that, he says, will help restore faith in government that has been squandered under Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As Cuomo, a Democrat, seeks a third term this year, his former top aide was recently convicted on multiple federal corruption charges and a trial is set to begin in June that includes charges against a former top state economic development official who Cuomo empowered, as well as Cuomo campaign donors. The charges against members of Cuomo’s inner circle came amid a long-running parade of other ethical and legal violations by members of state government, including dozens of state legislators. Critics across the political spectrum attack the governor for not better cleaning up state government, as he promised to do when running for governor in 2010 and every year since.

Molinaro, a Republican, is positioning himself as an expert in clean, effective government who will be more inclusive and accessible, and will work across the aisle, while in some instances not easily falling into typical issue stances based on party. Notably, Molinaro has indicated an interest in government ethics and campaign finance reforms that have not been popular among many Republicans in state government. There is also limited appetite among many Democrats for additional ethics reforms and some elements of campaign finance reform.

Molinaro has said he wants to lead an overhaul of campaign finance laws, including possible closure of the LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited donations from entities that set up multiple limited liability corporations, and indicated he believes that only people should be able to make campaign donations, not companies, unions, or other organizations.

A former member of the state Assembly, Molinaro has said he wants to institute term limits -- there are currently none for statewide officials or members of the state Legislature -- and has pledged to serve no more than two terms if victorious this fall and again in four years. He’s promised to “end four men in a room” decision-making, referring to the secretive closed-door negotiations that take place among the governor and legislative leaders wherein a hodgepodge of compromises are typically worked out twice a year in Albany, followed by legislators voting through major legislation without having read the bills and without any broader public review.

And, Molinaro has said he wants tougher oversight of elected officials and new methods of allowing the public to participate in government. “We must pass tougher ethics law and enforce them by establishing a truly independent oversight ethics commission. We must implement new procurement rules and provide third party auditing.” Along with term limits, he said New York should adopt “initiative and referendum” measures, which allow the public to put items on the ballot. “Together we must redefine democracy in New York,” he said, “and make this government work for the people.”

During an interview before his official campaign launch, Molinaro told Gotham Gazette, “I'd like to engage in a comprehensive reform of campaign finance.” He indicated he wants to look at “limits on contributions, where they can come from, who they can come from, plus you need to look at the reporting requirements and the need for ultimate transparency there. Then what and how campaign dollars can be spent.”

“I m one of the people that only thinks people should be able to contribute money...those are individual rights, those rights extend to individuals.” He added that “unions have a great deal of influence, corporations have a great deal of influence, the state contribution limits are astronomically out of line to other states, independent expenditure opportunities are pretty broad in the state. There are a lot of those reforms that I think should go hand in hand.”

He stopped short of supporting public financing of campaigns, but indicated some openness depending on strict rules for how money can be spent.

During a recent appearance on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, Molinaro talked about accountability and transparency, and “establishing procurement rules that keep elected officials from sending contracts to political donors.” He energetically attempted to convince a skeptical Arbetter, who said she’s heard these types of promises from candidates, including Cuomo, before. Molinaro criticized Cuomo’s closure of The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption and said he agreed with watchdogs calling for a “database of deals” to chronicle economic development spending and its effectiveness and renewed contract-review powers to the state Comptroller.

He went on to say that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, JCOPE, “needs to be independent” and “I would also empower the Committee and Open Government” and its head, Bob Freeman. Saying “I love Bob Freeman,” Molinaro added that “if you don’t have a watchdog to open up the doors of government for taxpayers, then there will continue to be the secrecy that has corrupted and corroded albany.” He said he wants to make Freeman’s non-binding opinions “enforceable.”

Talking with reporters after his launch event in Tivoli, a village where he grew up and was mayor for twelve years, starting at age 19, Molinaro said, “I had great hope, like many people, that when this governor came into office he would sweep in a new day, but what we seen over the course of the past seven years is of course the new normal. With corruption at the highest levels of state government, in fact so high it’s in the office next to his.”

He went on to say that his campaign will include a focus on telling New Yorkers “that they deserve a government that strives to be honest, that works hard to confront the fact that we have a corrosive, invasive culture of corruption that needs to be confronted at all levels, and it starts really by example.”

[Read: In Run for Governor, Marc Molinaro Will Make a Character Argument]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Molinaro Outlines Initial Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform Agenda Thu, 12 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Vance Fallout Echoes Other Controversies that Led to Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7265:vance-fallout-echoes-other-controversies-that-led-to-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7265:vance-fallout-echoes-other-controversies-that-led-to-reforms comptroller dinapoli with check nyscomptroller

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (@NYSComptroller)


As the office and campaign of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance reexamine internal policies regarding the acceptance of campaign contributions, they may want to reference the guidebook of the office of the State Comptroller or Attorney General, both of which have implemented their own donor-vetting systems and guidelines in the wake of controversies involving fundraising practices. These checks far exceed what is required by lax and porous state campaign finance laws.

District Attorney Vance, facing immense pressure over his handling of a sexual misconduct case against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein and of a fraud investigation into Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump, announced Sunday in a New York Daily News op-ed that he had enlisted the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School to review and recommend restrictions on his campaign finance practices, especially with regard to contributions from defense lawyers with business before the district attorney’s office.

In the column, Vance said he hoped that CAPI would “recommend that we go well beyond what is currently required by laws that govern contributions to district attorneys in our state,” adding that “this is one of the first reviews of its kind ever undertaken in the realm of prosecutors’ offices, and the firestorm we have experienced over the past week presents an opportunity for real reform.”

The response to reports that Vance had accepted large campaign contributions from lawyers affiliated with the Trumps and Weinstein, before and after each case was closed, recalls another flare up involving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, during his $40 million lawsuit against Trump University, which started in 2011 and spanned about six years, though the office does abide by internally enforced campaign finance guidelines.

Schneiderman’s office came under scrutiny for his campaign’s acceptance and alleged solicitation of funds from members of the Trump family while engaged in litigation against the university, which was widely seen as a scam. Trump has given $12,500 to help get Schneiderman elected as attorney general, and Ivanka Trump reportedly gave $500 to Schneiderman’s campaign in 2012. Trump aides claimed the mogul was told Schneiderman’s campaign solicited contributions from Ivanka offering to make the “very weak” ongoing investigation “go away,” and filed a complaint with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), though the ethics advisory organization decided not pursue the case.

It would not be not the first time Trump was accused of attempting to buy his way out of the legal mess surrounding Trump University. In 2013, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was up for reelection, reportedly solicited Trump for donations while acknowledging that she was considering joining Schneiderman in his Trump University suit, but decided not to pursue the case after the mogul made a $25,000 donation to an organization, called And Justice for All, that was backing her campaign. Trump was fined by the Internal Revenue Service, not for the obvious pay-to-play element -- which is legal -- but for making the political contribution from his foundation rather than his personal bank account.

Trump settled the Trump University suit, including paying $25 million to individuals who had enrolled in the school, and Schneiderman has continued to pursue cases against Trump, a fact that his representatives cite as evidence that the attorney general is not influenced by donors to his campaign.

Even prior to his ongoing battles with Trump, Schneiderman adhered to the policies of his two most recent predecessors by refusing to accept contributions from individuals or entities who have a matter before the office or have had such within the prior 90 days, according to a spokesperson for his office.

Furthermore, “every contributor who is personally solicited is subject to an extensive vetting process, and the office has both returned and refused to accept contributions from individuals and attorneys who have had matters before this office,” said Amy Spitalnick, press secretary for the attorney general, in a statement.

The policy was tweaked after JCOPE put out an advisory opinion last year expanding this ban to one year for matters in which the attorney general was personally and substantially involved or for contributions that were personally solicited.

The ethics advisory commission, which has jurisdiction over state officials and lobbyists, also ruled that directly soliciting and knowingly accepting contributions from the active subject of investigations and enforcement proceedings violates Public Officers Law 74. Other conduct, such as directly soliciting from an attorney that is appearing before the office, would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, according to JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure.

County-level prosecutors like district attorneys, of which there are 62 across the state, are not under the purview of JCOPE. The city’s Conflict of Interest Board does not deal with conflicts related to campaign finance, and neither the city’s Campaign Finance Board nor the state’s Office of Court Administration, which supervises the conduct of judicial candidates, have power over district attorneys, leaving these law enforcement officials a rare level of latitude and impunity.

The massive pay-to-play scandal involving former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi similarly resulted in self-imposed reforms for that office. In 2011, Hevesi -- who had resigned four years earlier as part of a plea bargain for an unrelated scandal -- admitted to accepting $1 million in gifts for himself and friends in exchange for offering "preferential treatment" and $250 million in state pension investments to Markstone Capital, which was owned by Elliott Broidy. Broidy, in turn, gave $500,000 to Hevesi’s reelection campaign.

Following his election in 2007, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli enacted a series of reforms, including an executive order and interim policy that banned pay-to-play practices, which went into effect in 2009.

The order prohibited the state pension fund from doing business with any investment adviser who made a political contribution to the state comptroller or a candidate for state comptroller, and applied for two years from the date of the contribution. The regulations were put in place ahead of 2010 rules issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which they closely parallel.

“The point was to ban the practice without waiting for the SEC rule, which was then in the proposal stage. The SEC rule went into force in 2011, at which point it became the law of the land and superseded or obviated the Comptroller's executive order,” said DiNapoli spokesperson Matthew Sweeney.

Recommendations from the CAPI review of Vance’s practices are due in January. Meanwhile, at least two Democratic Assembly members have proposed bills that would significantly curb contributions to district attorneys.

One bill was sponsored by Assemblymember Tom Abinanti in February and calls for publicly-financed elections of district attorneys and State Supreme Court justices. It has a handful of co-sponsors, but it never went anywhere.

"As an attorney, I've always been troubled by a system where judges are elected on the basis of money of people who appear before them,” said Abinanti, who represents Greenburgh and Mount Pleasant. “It's just unseemly.”

More importantly, Abinanti said, for prosecutors, who are law enforcement officials, publicly-finance elections would enable them to more honestly express their views on issues like drug policy, immigration, and bail reform, at pre-election forums and debates.

The issue arose in the recent Democratic primary for Brooklyn District Attorney, when Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez was criticized for accepting money from the bail bond industry.

Another piece of legislation, expected to be introduced in January by Assemblymember Dan Quart of Manhattan, would compile a statewide database of criminal defense attorneys and firms and steeply reduces the amount these individuals and entities can contribute to a district attorney candidate's campaign (up to $320 per election cycle). It also would prevent the bundling of donations to district attorney candidates.

“It would create greater transparency and limit the influence of criminal defense attorneys,” said Quart, who noted that the system was based on the “NYC Doing Business” database. Entities listed on the database are greatly restricted by the city’s campaign finance system in what campaign donations they can give to candidates for city offices.

Though the New York State Assembly’s Democratic majority conference convened for several hours on Tuesday in Albany, a legislative response to questions raised by the Vance controversy was not discussed, according to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“I understand where people are coming from,” said Heastie of the public outrage. “We didn’t get a chance to talk about that, I don’t want to just make a decision without talking to members of our conference, but we are always open to election reforms that will give the confidence to our constituents that there are no inherent conflicts.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Vance Fallout Echoes Other Controversies that Led to Reforms Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Murky Definitions for Government Entities Undermine Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6909:murky-definitions-for-government-entities-undermine-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6909:murky-definitions-for-government-entities-undermine-transparency 15148467608 52cf785b4f z

Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo: The Governor's Office)


When Rockland County Democratic Party Chair Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky fills out her annual state disclosure forms, she consults her husband for question six, which requires the listing of contracts held with a state or local agency held by the filer, filer’s spouse, or unemancipated child.

Evan Stavisky, a partner in the prominent Albany lobbying firm The Parkside Group, after checking with the firm’s lawyer, has told his wife that his company does not represent any government entities. So, for the past six years, Kristen has entered “none” for the question, according to the disclosure documents obtained from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

At the same time, between 2010 and 2016, Parkside pulled in more than $1 million from representing quasi-public entities, including four foundations affiliated with city and state universities, three New York City-based public library systems, and a local economic development corporation, according to the lobbying firm’s disclosure filings that can be viewed on the JCOPE website.

One of these contracts, on behalf of the Queens Economic Development Corporation -- which is treated by state law as a public authority -- expired in 2010, so according to filing instructions, Kristen Stavisky was not required to declare it on her JCOPE form for that year. But the other clients -- foundations associated with the CUNY Graduate Center, Queensborough Community College, Queens College, CUNY Creative Arts Team, and SUNY’s University at Buffalo, as well as Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library -- fall into an ambiguous zone, defined as local or state agencies in some statutes of New York State law, but not others.

Kristen Stavisky became Rockland County party chair in February 2011, so her first required JCOPE form covered 2010. Political party chairs play a significant role in deciding which candidates run for local and state office, so they are held to the same disclosure standards as elected officials. Meanwhile, Evan Stavisky’s company is paid big money to lobby those same city and state officials on policy and funding matters that impact their clients.

“The reason that party committee chairs are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest because they wield considerable power in relation to elected officials, and they provide the political apparatus to get people elected,” said NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner.

As the Stavisky filings show, there is a multitude of quasi-governmental entities that exist in grey area of New York law, and how to classify these entities has been the subject of some debate. A rudimentary search pulled up at least a dozen different definitions for “state agency” and “local agency” in New York State law.

A lawyer for Parkside pointed to the state’s public officer’s law, which defines a state agency as a “state department, any public benefit corporation, public authority or commission at least one of whose members is appointed by the governor, or the state university of New York or the city university of New York.”

While each of the aforementioned Parkside clients rely to some degree on government funding (Queens Library, for example, draws 94 percent of its revenue from city, state and federal sources), have board members appointed by city or state officials, and may serve a public function, as independent 501(c)(3) nonprofits, one could argue these entities do not qualify as a public authority or public benefit corporation. But like more typical government agencies, they are subject to Freedom of Information Laws, according advisory opinions issued by the New York State Committee on Open Government.

A person who willfully files financial disclosure forms incorrectly could face a penalty of up to $40,000 from JCOPE. A spokesperson for the ethics agency -- who is prohibited by law from discussing the disclosure forms of a particular filer -- declined to offer clarification on whether nonprofits associated with CUNY and SUNY were considered government entities according to the public officer's law, but said JCOPE reviews filings and pursues investigations when there appears to be a discrepancy. In other words, the only person who can request an opinion on how a particular filer should answer question six on the JCOPE disclosure form is the filer.

There is also is a lack of consensus on the definition of a “public benefit corporation” and a “public authority,” terms sometimes used interchangeably.

According to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, public authorities -- which range from transportation agencies like the MTA to bodies created to spur economic development like Empire State Development -- are typically run by boards of directors and are not subject to the same transparency and disclosure as other branches of government. They are also able to borrow money without voter approval, as is constitutionally required of government agencies, a habit that has put the state in fiscal jeopardy.

Public authorities are increasingly enmeshed with state and local government operations, according to the comptroller. They do most of the state’s borrowing and supply revenue streams for the state budget. Sometimes these entities spawn subsidiary public authorities, which are subject to even fewer restrictions. The state’s first public authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was created in 1921, and more than 1,000 State and local public authorities, and subsidiaries of authorities, have been authorized since.

In 2004 and 2009, in response to a number of investigations into mismanagement, irresponsible borrowing, and questionable financial practices on the part of public authorities and their subsidiaries, attempts were made to streamline the definition and oversight of public authorities.

Then-Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, raising concerns about “backdoor borrowing,” joined with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to introduce the Public Authority Reform Act of 2004 “to capture all of these entities in one place and impose new rules to govern the conduct of public authorities and their representatives.” The proposed legislation compiled a list of “more than 640” entities, classifying them in A,B, C, and D classes. Class A and B public authorities would be required to adopt specific principles of corporate governance and fiscal integrity. They recommended Queensborough Community College Auxiliary Enterprise Association and the CUNY Research Foundation (two organizations that hired Parkside within the past six years) be classified as “Class B” public authorities.

Based on these recommendations, the Legislature and Governor George Pataki enacted the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005, later amended by the Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009, which established the Authorities Budget Office (ABO) and an official definition for “public authority.” The legislation also directed the ABO to maintain a list of state and local authorities, a list that currently does not include CUNY and SUNY foundations, the New York City library systems, or other quasi-governmental nonprofits.

But while the ABO’s office lists 578 authorities, a recent count by the state comptroller’s office found 1,192 state, local, and interstate or international authorities. A footnote in the comptroller’s report addresses this discrepancy: "Due to statutory, regulatory and administrative differences between the Office of the State Comptroller and the ABO, the ABO’s list does not identify certain entities included in this count, such as subsidiaries (which ABO includes with the parent authority), inactive authorities, and college auxiliary corporations."

Government reformers say this ever-morphing patchwork of definitions only serves to confuse the public and obscure conflicts of interests, rather than increase transparency.

“Complexity defeats accountability and complexity defeats democracy. One of the reasons I’m a reformer is to simplify how things work,” said SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin. “The purpose of disclosure is for the person who is letting sunshine in to hold people accountable. If the detail of the law prevents transparency from doing its job, then it’s getting in the way of good government.”

While the Staviskys' situation is somewhat unique, this murky territory around what constitutes a government entity creates pitfalls for elected officials and others filing annual disclosure forms.

Furthermore, lax guidelines surrounding CUNY and SUNY nonprofits have led to wasteful spending and, in worst case, exploitation by bad actors. The state is currently facing a crisis of trust in government, according to public opinion polls. In the last year, both the CUNY and SUNY systems were rocked by allegations of financial impropriety involving related nonprofits. Now, more voices are calling for increased oversight of these nonprofits, which, like public authorities and public benefit corporations, are financially intertwined with government agencies and serve a public function.

Notably, two privately-run, deep-pocketed nonprofits affiliated with SUNY Polytechnic Institute -- Fort Schuyler Management Corporation and Fuller Road Management Corporation -- were at the center of federal and state investigations into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program. Former SUNY Poly president and CEO Alain Kaloyeros and Cuomo’s ex-executive deputy secretary Joe Percoco, along with six others, will face trial later this year on charges of bid-rigging, bribery, and extortion.

Parkside’s business with CUNY Research Foundation factors into another ongoing investigation into widespread misuse of funds by CUNY-tied nonprofits by State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott. An interim report by the inspector general released last year highlights presidential discretionary funds doled out by the research foundation that are frequently tapped for housekeeping costs, and parties, personal drivers, and club memberships. The report also notes that CUNY-affiliated foundations spent a significant amount of money on lobbyists “engaged in questionable and seemingly redundant tasks,” even though the system employs its own centralized and school-based government relations staff.

“These costs are significant to CUNY, and while they may be warranted in certain situations, appear to be duplicative in several cases. Even at this early stage of the Inspector General’s investigation, it seems clear that these activities warrant scrutiny and that centralization of these services should be explored,” wrote Leahy Scott.

Of $842,275 spent on outside lobbying by the CUNY Research Foundation during the report’s 2013-2015 review period, nearly 20 percent went to Parkside Group, and another 50 percent went to two lobbying firms founded by former Parkside executives, according to year-by-year comparison of the report and JCOPE lobbying disclosure forms. The firms were hired to lobby the Legislature and New York City Council on funding as well as policy matters.

When the report was released in November 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had been dealing with blowback for the scandals tied to his economic development programs, seized on the news of the CUNY investigation as an opportunity to push for sweeping reform across the state and city university systems, vowing to expand the jurisdiction of the state inspectors general to cover the university-based nonprofits, and calling for these entities to embrace good government practices. Language in the enacted 2017 budget expands the inspector general’s jurisdiction to include CUNY nonprofits, particularly, the research foundation, but notably it does not restore the state comptroller’s oversight over procurement through SUNY non-profits -- a power that was stripped in 2011 to expedite Cuomo’s economic development programs.

When reached by phone, Evan Stavisky, joined by his lawyer, offered a series of evolving explanations for their determination on whether Kristen Stavisky would disclose Parkside contracts, but noted that it was immediately obvious to them that as nonprofits, these clients were not government entities. He did not seek advice from JCOPE.

“Each year, our firm completes 12 separate filings for every single client for city and state regulators, a total of more than 500 annually. Since Kristen Stavisky became chair of the Rockland Democratic Party, our firm has filed 3,000 lobbying disclosures and not a single one has been for a government agency. It is false to suggest otherwise,” said Dan Katz, executive vice president and a general counsel to The Parkside Group, in a statement.

While political party chairs are not prohibited from lobbying the New York State Legislature themselves, they are barred from offering “goods or services having a value in excess of twenty-five dollars to any state agency” and from working on “the adoption or repeal of any rule or regulation having the force and effect of law,” according to a 1992 advisory opinion from New York State Ethics Commission, the first incarnation of JCOPE. The law does not necessarily extend to household members of the chairperson, but filers must indicate government contracts exceeding $1,000 held by a spouse or unemancipated child.

The decades-old regulation, along with most of the state’s modern government ethics law, sprang from a 1986 corruption probe that rocked Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, which landed a Bronx Democratic Party chair in prison, and was marked by suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who was also implicated in the scheme. The party chair, Stanley Friedman, was a stockholder in a company called Citisource Inc., which benefited from a $22.7 million contract with the city’s Traffic Violations Bureau for traffic agents' handheld computers.

The reforms implemented in the Ethics in Government Act of 1987, which were hailed as a major turning point for government accountability in New York, were intended "to enhance public trust and confidence in our governmental institutions [by strengthening] prohibitions against behavior which may permit or appear to permit undue influence or conflicts of interest,” according to then-Governor Mario Cuomo. Many amendments have been signed into law since.

This question of whether a political party chair can lobby government entities is likely to resurface over Keith Wright, currently the Manhattan Democratic Party chair, who earlier this year accepted a position at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP, a lobbying and government affairs firm which represents The North Shore Board of Education, a government entity, and NYC & Company, a government-funded nonprofit. Wright, who left his seat in the Assembly in an unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid, was not listed in the firm’s January–February JCOPE filings. A spokesperson for the New York County Democratic Committee said Wright does not perform lobbying duties as part of his new role; he advises clients on government affairs.

The Staviskys maintain that Parkside’s business interests are kept separate from Kristen’s duties as Democratic committee leader and that there is no evidence that Evan or his company has benefited monetarily from the arrangement. Critics actually point to other members of the Stavisky family who wield the type of power likely to attract clients like libraries and SUNY and CUNY foundations. Policy and funding matters concerning these institutions fall under the purview of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, where Democratic Senator Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens, the mother of Evan Stavisky, is the ranking member.

Parkside’s government-affiliated nonprofit contracts picked up in 2009-2010, the last time Democrats held a ruling majority in the Senate. Toby Ann, a former social studies teacher, chaired the Senate’s Higher Education Committee that year.

At the time, Toby Ann, seeking an advisory opinion, wrote to JCOPE that though she was not required to, she would prohibit her son, but not his partners, from lobbying members of the Senate. Despite calls for a probe from ethics watchdogs, a 2009 advisory opinion from the state's Legislative Ethics Commission deemed the arrangement “appropriate,” the New York Daily News reported.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentifed the source of a 2009 advisory opinion. In 2009, the ethics advisory agency for state legislators was the Legislative Ethics Commission.The article has also been updated to include a comment from New York County Democratic Committee.

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

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Murky Definitions for Government Entities Undermine Transparency Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, September 26 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6547:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-september-26 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6547:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-september-26 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week starts with all eyes on the Presidential race and the first presidential debate Monday night. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will debate at 9 p.m. Monday from Long Island. Mayor Bill de Blasio made a trip to Wisconsin over the weekend to campaign for Hillary Clinton and he'll attend the debate Monday evening at Hofstra. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will also attend the debate.

De Blasio will first hold a press conference at 11 a.m. Monday at FDR High School in Brooklyn to make "an education announcement." According to his public schedule he will limit press questions to "on-topic" only. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Public Advocate Letitia James will be at the press conference.

There will also continue to be attention this week on the fallout from last week's federal corruption charges brought against nine people involved with Governor Cuomo's economic development programs, including a close former aide and friend to the governor, Joseph Percoco, multiple developers who received major state contracts and have been big donors to Cuomo's campaigns, and the powerful head of many state projects, Alain Kaloyeros. Cuomo said on Friday that he had no idea about any of what was detailed in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's 80-page complaint against those alleged to have committed the crimes involved. While no charges were brought against Cuomo, Bharara said the investigation is ongoing and questions have been raised about how Cuomo could not have known what was alleged to have happened under hs watch.

On Tuesday, Cuomo is set to give a speech in New York City in front of the Association for a Better New York, and he is likely to take questions from members of the media afterward.

Another highlight of the week ahead is that on Thursday the City Council is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on what happened in the lifting of deed restrictions on Rivington House, the Lower East Side property that was a nursing home for AIDS patients and is becoming high-end condos after the city agreed to lift restrictions on the property and it was flipped in a series of now-controversial transactions. The city's Department of Investigations and city Comptroller Scott Stringer have each already released reports on what happened in the Rivington mess (the DOI said after receiving more information from City Hall that its investigation was "ongoing"). While Mayor Bill de Blasio said that things went very poorly with the process and announced a new process for deed restrictions, City Council members andn others are proposing legislation to change how the lifting of deed restrictions are handled, adding them to a City Council-involved process known as ULURP, which includes several checks outside of the mayoral administration.

And, speaking of the presidential election, there are just a couple weeks left to register to vote for those not registered and wishing to cast a ballot November 8 -- in the presidential election and/or others. Brooklyn Boulders and Rock the Vote are hosting two events this week in New York City, Tuesday in Queens and Thursday in Brooklyn, to register voters. Tuesday is also National Voter Registration Day.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Mayor Bill de Blasio starts his week with the aforementioned press conference and, with his wife Chirlane McCray, attending the presidential debate.

  • At the City Council on Monday:
    The Committee on Courts and Legal Services will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss “a Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to providing legal counsel for low-income eligible tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings.”
  • The Committees on Consumer Affairs and Transportation will hold a joint meeting at 1 p.m. for the oversight of and on legislation regulating the Sightseeing Bus Industry.
  • The Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss numerous proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss two local laws which would amend administrative codes.

Regarding and prior to the 10 a.m. hearing, “There will be a press conference and public hearing on Int. 214A-2014, a local law that will provide legal representation for low-income tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings. This bill is sponsored by Council Members Levine and Gibson, and signed by 40 additional City Council Members.” The press conference will include “Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer, Bronx BP Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, several other city and state elected officials, legal services providers, tenant advocacy groups, faith leaders, unions, and the NYC Bar Association.”

At 11 a.m. Monday City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will speak at the Supportive Alternatives to Violent Encounters (SAVE) grand opening in her East Harlem district. At 1 p.m., she'll deliver remarks at the Council Fire and Criminal Justice Committee hearing on her bills related to the Department of Corrections. And at 3:30, Mark-Viverito will speak at the 16th Annual Gladys Ricart and Victims of Domestic Violence Brides March.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, City Council Member Andy King, officials from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), NYCHA tenant presidents, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Sanitation will hold a joint press conference to announce upgrades to NYCHA buildings in King’s City Council District; entrance of the Gun Hill House in The Bronx.

On Monday evening in Manhattan, City Limits News will hold its 40th anniversary gala, at which the news organization will honor journalist Wayne Barrett and union leader Henry Garrido.

The first of three Presidential debates will be held at 9 p.m. on Monday. This debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be hosted by Hofstra University and moderated by NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt. (There is also one Vice Presidential debate scheduled for early October.)

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 1 p.m., the Committees on Economic Development and Civil Service and Labor will hold a joint oversight hearing on the city’s Employees’ Paid Parental Leave Program.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet for oversight of and on legislation regarding idling restrictions.

September 27 is National Voter Registration Day.

The New York State Joint Commission on Ethics will meet on Tuesday morning in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Economic Development Corporation will begin its two-day conference, “REV Future 2016.” This conference “will bring together key stakeholders, technology providers, and utilities and state policy makers to discuss actionable business strategies to operationalize the ongoing initiative for a clean, resilient, and affordable energy system in New York City.”

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Maria Torres-Springer, president and CEO of the city Economic Development Corporation, will be speaking at SoBRO’s South Bronx Leadership Forum.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture will hold a public hearing to discuss “Oversight of the SFY 2016-2017 State Budget for the New York State
Department of Agriculture and Markets.”

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Association for a Better New York will have a luncheon with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"This Tuesday, Sept. 27, from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer will sponsor a public forum on “driverless” vehicles in New York City, featuring a display of of Audi’s prototype piloted vehicle, an adapted A7 named “Jack.” The panel will address the questions facing dense urban areas such as New York City as driverless cars and trucks begin to roll on the nation’s roads, on the heels of this week’s announcement by the Obama Administration of guidelines for automated vehicles, and of Uber’s pilot of driverless vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh this month." Moderated by Recode journalist Johana Bhuiyan, panelists will include: Sarah M. Kaufman, Assistant Director for Technology Programming at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation; Jeff Garber, Director of Technology and Innovation at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission; William Carry, Senior Director for Special Projects at the NYC Department of Transportation; and Brad Stertz, Director of Government Affairs at Audi.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City & State will hold its 10th Anniversary Gala. In conjunction with the gala, City & State will celebrate prominent and influential figures in New York City politics who have made their mark on the city over the last ten years with a special print edition entitled “The Newsmakers of the Decade.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara will be keynote speaker. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and former Governor David Paterson will also be speakers at the event.

At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Day One will hold its 2016 Benefit to End Dating Violence Among Youth. Tamron Hall of NBC News and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will make remarks at the event.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • The Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss two resolutions.
  • A Stated Meeting of the City Council will be held at 1:30 p.m. This will be prefaced, as usual, by a press conference led by Speaker Mark-Viverito.

On Wednesday, Families for Excellent Schools will hold its “Path to Possible March” in Prospect Park. Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries will headline the pro-charter schools march and deliver the keynote speech.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Citizens Budget Commission and Tech:NYC “will co-host a panel discussion on...New York City's Competitiveness in Attracting and Retaining Talent.” CBC will release its “2016 Competitiveness Scorecard,” which evaluates how the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the United States compare “in their capacity to attract the young, highly talented workforce essential to retaining strength in core industries and successfully cultivating emerging ones.” Edward Skyler, chair of the Citizens Budget Commission, and Maria Torres-Springer, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, will be among the participants in this discussion.

On Wednesday at noon, the Manhattan Institute will hold a symposium on whether America’s education-accountability movement has progressed or regressed in recent years. This symposium will feature former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

On Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center, "Paying the Price," an event focused on "College Costs, Financial Aid, & The Betrayal of the American Dream," with Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab as featured speaker and Nicholas Freudenberg (CUNY Public Health) & Mark Zuckerman (The Century Foundation, moderated by Prof. Anna O. Law (Brooklyn College).

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 9:30 a.m, the Committees on Governmental Operations and Oversight and Investigations will hold a joint meeting to discuss the oversight of “The Lifting of the Rivington House Deed Restrictions,” and discuss a law which would change deed restriction protocols.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet to discuss “in relation to regulation of the heating oil supply industry by the business integrity commission.”

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will hold “Wild New York.” At this event, Jarrett Murphy, publisher of City Limits, will talk with “a panel of experts about the effects of the changing urban environment on nature and its creatures, and how the city is working to understand, manage, and mitigate the issues that result.”

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold a joint meeting with the Committee on Small Business to discuss the oversight of “zoning and incentives for promoting retail diversity and preserving neighborhood character.”
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Veterans will meet to discuss “a Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the creation of a veterans resource guide.”

At 8 a.m. Friday, there will be a New York Building Congress Breakfast Forum which will focus on the Midtown East rezoning. City Council Member Dan Garodnick and City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod will speak. 

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Brendan Birth and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, September 26 Sun, 25 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
In Extended Session, Lawmakers Vote Through Variety of Bills with Little Public Review http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6403:in-extended-session-lawmakers-vote-through-variety-of-bills-with-little-public-review http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6403:in-extended-session-lawmakers-vote-through-variety-of-bills-with-little-public-review capitol building rally

The Capitol Building (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders finished protracted and messy end-of-session negotiations on Friday night -- one day after the scheduled end of legislative session -- not with the traditional celebratory press conference, but with a series of press releases. Sent to reporters as bills were still being negotiated, printed, and voted upon Friday night, Cuomo’s public schedule for Saturday put him in the New York City area with no events.

A press release announcing an agreement on a five-point “ethics reform plan” was sent out at about 7 p.m., though actual bill language wasn’t available until about 1:45 a.m., with legislators expected to vote on the varied measures immediately thereafter.

At a few minutes after 8 p.m., the framework of a deal on a wider variety of issues was announced - dealing with issues like mayoral control of New York City schools; funding for housing homeless people; lead testing in schools; funding for CUNY and SUNY schools; and much more.

Legislators from both houses, many somewhat delirious after consecutive late nights of session followed by early mornings -- some of whom had even taken to sleeping at their desks -- learned of outlines of deals second- or third-hand. Negotiations were largely held by Cuomo, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Independent Democratic Conference head Jeff Klein, with the three legislative leaders reporting back to their conferences.

A long evening at the Capitol building did not end until after 3 a.m., with a strong sense of disorganization and confusion throughout. Even without knowing much about what they were voting on, state Senators voted through the ethics package 60-2 and the "big ugly" mash-up of other bills 61-1.

For the public, many legislators and watchdog groups, this year was defined by the corruption convictions of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as the broad federal investigation into Cuomo’s economic development programs across the state. However, legislators resisted any major reforms that would directly address the issues involved in those cases.

Instead, the Friday deal agreed to by Cuomo and legislative leaders addressed the use of independent expenditure committees; tightened rules on what would be improper coordination between candidate campaigns and committees; did away with a rule from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics that forced lobbyists to disclose their interactions with newspaper editorial boards; and will begin the process of amending the state constitution to strip lawmakers convicted of corruption of their pensions - this measure is an amendment to the state constitution and will therefore have to be passed by a second consecutive state legislature (following this fall’s elections), placed on the ballot, and approved by voters, likely in November, 2017.

Also included is a measure to increase disclosure by 501(c)(4) organizations that take money from 501(c)(3) organizations, a move seen by many as an attack on good government groups that use the latter for funding their advocacy work. Cuomo administration officials have repeatedly referred to good government groups as “shadow lobbyists” while the governor has regularly worked with them on ethics and campaign finance reform measures.

The five-point plan falls significantly short of what Cuomo outlined in his January State of the State speech and of what good government groups and reform-minded legislators have been calling for. In a twist of irony, the ethics related bills were given almost virtually no public review before being moved through.

“For the first time, independent expenditure groups and PACs will be required to adhere to unprecedented disclosure requirements, and New York will have the nation’s strongest rules defining and governing coordination and independence,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Missing from the ethics deal are many of Cuomo’s major proposals he made in January - proposals that include limiting outside income for legislators; closing a loophole that allows corporations to subvert campaign contribution limits by creating multiple LLCs; and measures to prevent campaign accounts controlled by political parties from taking in unlimited donations.

Meanwhile, New York City issues remained major sticking points as leaders hashed out their final deal. It appeared that a breakthrough was reached after Mayor Bill de Blasio told Heastie, de Blasio’s main Albany ally, that he could live with another one-year renewal of mayoral control that mandates the city spell out exactly how much money it is spending on each school.

That renewal is a blow to de Blasio even though the administration calls it as a victory - de Blasio was looking for mayoral control to be made permanent, or at least extended for three years. “This extension is a recognition of the unprecedented progress and achievements mayoral control has delivered for our school system,” Austin Finan, a spokesperson for de Blasio, told The Wall Street Journal.

The deal clearly weakens the city’s independent control of schools and sets de Blasio up for another renewal fight next year when he will be up for reelection. It also empowers charter schools, which de Blasio has often been at odds with to the chagrin of Cuomo and Flanagan, to seek authorizations from SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which is seen as very pro-charter.

One positive for de Blasio was that the Senate approved some of his CUNY nominees and approved two of his MTA nominees, Veronica Vanterpool and David R. Jones, who had been waiting for over a year for confirmation. City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, the third of three de Blasio nominees to the MTA awaiting confirmation, had not been confirmed at the time this article was published.

Another major city issue came to something of a resolution on Friday night as Cuomo and legislative leaders announced they would make available $570 million in capital funding for supportive housing for homeless people. On Thursday a figure of $150 million was floated out of the $2 billion in funds set aside for supportive and affordable housing construction and maintenance in the budget, but not yet allocated. “The Governor's pathetic offer to provide a tiny fraction of what he promised underscores the shallowness of his commitment to housing our homeless neighbors,” said Shelly Nortz, executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, in reaction to the offer. Groups were not much happier with the $570 figure released on Friday, they want to see the full $1.9 billion allocated by Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan.

Deals announced leading up to and on Friday also included moves to improve safety at railroad crossings; fight heroin and opioid addiction; provide $50 million in additional capital funds to CUNY and SUNY; accelerate construction at the Javits Convention Center, and more. Legislation legalizing and regulating daily fantasy sports was passed through the Assembly Friday afternoon and made its way, somewhat surprisingly, to the Senate floor after 2 a.m., where it was passed. It will now go to the governor's desk.

This end-of-session “big ugly” package of legislation appears to have occurred in similar fashion to this year’s budget, with an agreement reached because the parties walked away from the negotiating table. In both cases, as is the tradition, bills were passed with such little review by legislators, advocates, and journalists alike that days of unpacking are ahead.

Not dealt with before the end of session was renewal of the 421-a real estate property tax break meant to spur afforable housing development in New York City and expansion of car-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft to Albany and other parts of the state.

Legislators will now return to their districts to run for reelection facing polls that show voters around the state want sweeping government ethics reform. Cuomo will likely look to bounce back from what has been an up-and-down year that saw him celebrate the political high of winning passage of a $15 minimum wage plan and paid family leave that earned him national attention and accolades from the left yet have members of his inner circle and his administration subpoenaed in a corruption probe. Much of the focus of the months ahead will be on that federal investigation and how the fall elections affect which party controls the state Senate.

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

Read more by this writer.

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In Extended Session, Lawmakers Vote Through Variety of Bills with Little Public Review Sat, 18 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director cuomo nyu ethics speech

Gov. Cuomo gives an ethics reform speech in 2015 (Governor's Office via flickr)


The state's independent ethics commission took the first official ethics-related action in Albany since the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Tuesday when it appointed a man with ties to both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders as its new executive director.

Seth Agata, who JCOPE - the Joint Commission on Public Ethics - says it hired after a nine-month, nationwide search, currently serves as the head of the state's Public Employment Relations Board. He is seen by many as an ultimate Albany insider, and to some that bolsters his prospects for the job, while to others it should have been a disqualifying trait. Agata becomes the third former Cuomo aide of three people to hold the position over a five-year period.

The 14-member board includes appointees by the Governor (six), the two legislative leaders (three each), and the minority leaders of each house (one each). The JCOPE chairperson is selected by the Governor, the Executive Director is chosen by board members themselves.

"A better choice [for executive director] is someone who is clearly independent from both the Governor and the Legislature," John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. "In the entire United States there must be at least one, well-qualified person, who didn't used to work for the governor."

Agata has also worked in Cuomo's counsel's office, as a counsel for program and policy for the Assembly Majority, and as counsel in the investigations office of the State Comptroller.

The body, which has been maligned as rudderless and ruled by infighting, is charged with ethics monitoring, "ensuring transparency," and "providing accountability through enforcement actions to address ethical misconduct." Critics also say JCOPE, which was created through a 2011 law, is designed so that slight dissension can block investigations into public officials and candidates.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, praised Agata, calling him a good choice, but also expressed reservations about his connections to Cuomo and the Legislature. "Seth Agata has the kind of trained eye we need to suss out what is really going on in Albany," said Dadey. "I wouldn't say it about anyone else [with such ties to the governor], but Seth has the kind of character we need to lead JCOPE in an independent fashion toward the reforms it so badly needs."

However, Dadey added: "It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Albany when the only action the Legislature and governor take on ethics following the conviction of both legislative leaders is the appointment of a JCOPE chair who has ties to both the governor and Legislature."

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group was also torn about the appointment. He called on JCOPE to make the details of its search for a new director public. Horner described Agata as "thoughtful" and "straightforward," but said the big question comes down to "the hiring process."

"The public deserves to hear from JCOPE about the process that led them to pick Agata," said Horner. "Independence is clearly a major factor in running an ethics commission, we need to hear from JCOPE why they thought he was the right choice."

The press release announcing Agata's hiring said it followed a search that included advertisements in "top legal publications and newspapers" and resulted in 200 resume submissions.

"Seth Agata is a tremendous choice for Executive Director of the Commission," Commission Chair Daniel Horwitz said in a statement announcing Agata's hiring. "He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and integrity to the position."

Previous JCOPE heads include Letizia Tagliafierro, who worked for Cuomo during his time as attorney general and later as his director of governmental operations. She left JCOPE and took a position as deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Taxation and Finance in 2015. Her appointment in 2013 drew the ire of legislative members of JCOPE, including one who quit in protest.

Tagliafierro replaced Ellen Biben, who worked as the governor's inspector general and in the attorney general's office when Cuomo held that position. Biben now is now a Court of Claims Judge - she was nominated for the position by Cuomo.

Agata's appointment comes as Cuomo has admitted that talk of ethics reforms have been jettisoned from budget discussions and legislative leaders, especially Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, appear loathe to take any major action. Good government groups have pushed Cuomo to lead on reform in the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions but the Governor has remained quiet on the issue since January.

Horner and other members of the good government community say JCOPE is designed in such a way that does not foster transparency or faith that its process is not political. JCOPE has 45 days from receiving a complaint to decide whether to investigate an ethics violation but it has no obligation to reveal its investigations.

An investigation can be stopped by three votes out of the 14 commissioners and most of their business is conducted behind closed doors. If a violation is found against a sitting member of the Legislature, JCOPE then has to refer the case to the Legislative Ethics Committee, which is controlled by the legislative leaders. JCOPE can disperse punishment to regular government employees.

The body is charged with maintaining income disclosures from the legislature, lobbyist registrations, and fielding complaints about ethics violations across state government. Legislators' outside income has been the source of much discussion as Cuomo and others have proposed strict limits, while Republicans (and some Democrats) in both legislative houses have balked. Silver's non-government income was at the source of his federal corruption conviction.

JCOPE's most recent actions mostly focus on enforcing compliance with financial disclosure statements, lobbyist registration, and smaller violations of the public officers law by state employees. The commission has only revealed investigations of two lawmakers over the last few years, both sexual harassment cases. They involved former Assembly Members Vito Lopez and Dennis Gabryszak.

The commission announced the launch of two new investigations from its meeting on Tuesday. It is suspected that at least one of those investigations relates to Sen. Marc Panepinto, who announced last week he will not seek reelection. Rumors have swirled about misbehavior in his office.

"I am very disappointed when a person who runs for office and holds themselves out to be trusted by their community winds up involved in a sordid affair," Cuomo told reporters this week when asked about Panepinto. "So, I don't know the details. I don't want to know the details. But let somebody else run who will respect the position."

When asked about the phrasing "sordid affair" by The Buffalo News, a Cuomo spokesperson said the governor was referring to things he had read in the press.

JCOPE members appointed by legislative leaders have openly complained of interference from the executive branch and pushed for JCOPE to look for an executive director without ties to the administration.

Critics say JCOPE has picked around the edges while federal investigators have tackled serious investigations that get to the root of corruption in state government. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, good government leaders, and others have called on Albany to strengthen both preventative measures and enforcement mechanisms.

Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that he feels Agata's resume should have immediately disqualified him from the job. "Even if Seth Agata is as wise as Solomon and pure as the driven snow, he used to be one of Governor Cuomo's top people, and there are inherent questions about whether he can be impartial and completely non-political, rather than a potential political weapon for the governor."

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

Read more by this writer.

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Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director Wed, 23 Mar 2016 17:40:27 +0000
Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6014:will-silver-conviction-be-tipping-point-for-real-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6014:will-silver-conviction-be-tipping-point-for-real-reform sheldon silver conviction

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? Tue, 01 Dec 2015 00:09:23 +0000
Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform cuomo silver skelos 2011

L-R: Silver, Cuomo & Skelos in 2011 (photo via the governor's office) 


New York's leading good government groups gathered at Manhattan's Foley Square Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. The press conference, held in the shadows of a federal courthouse where one of New York’s most powerful politicians is being tried on corruption charges, came as other recent developments also shine a bright light on the state's insufficient handling of ethics and corruption.

Not only has the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver begun, but the trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to begin next week; and, there was the recent release of a report by a state ethics review commission calling for changes as well as a national study assessing state government accountability and transparency giving New York a "D-" grade.

So on Wednesday, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the two new legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, urging them to come together to enact comprehensive and significant reforms in five ethics categories. To bring further attention to their calls for reform, the groups held a press conference.

“This news conference is the first of many actions our groups are going to be taking in the months to come to really push this front and center, because we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We want to urge immediate action and if possible even a special session.”

“New Yorkers are so disgusted, they’ve just come to accept that this is part and parcel of how state government operates, and it should not be,” Dadey said. “With the convergence of all these events, there is no better time than now to enact these reforms.”

The reforms the groups are calling to be enacted either in a special end-of-year session or in early 2016 include:

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

While the Silver and Skelos trials come just two months after the Senate's second-highest-ranking Republican, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying under oath to FBI agents during an investigation into his son's hiring at a politically connected law firm. New York City just elected two new state legislators to fill vacant seats vacated due to corruption charges.

Silver, charged with five federal counts of theft of honest services, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion for improperly using his public position to obtain nearly $4 million in illicit payments, and Skelos, charged with six federal counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and soliciting bribes in connection with exploiting his public position in order to secure a lucrative no-show job for his son, have both declared their innocence, with Silver’s legal team attempting to paint its client’s dealing as par for the course in Albany.

It is the pervasive culture of corruption - both legal and illegal - in state government that has undermined public trust and yet failed to spur truly meaningful reform, good government advocates and many legislators and other stakeholders say.

“For far too long, state legislators in particular have used their public posts for private gain, and have lined their pockets,” Dadey said Wednesday. “Much of what is happening here in the Silver trial and in the Skelos trial shows how one hand washes another, and we want to see that practice end.”

Decrying a system that is akin to “a perfect storm that would encourage corruption by state lawmakers,” Dadey said “Citizens Union believes we should raise the pay significantly, limit outside income, eliminate stipends, and overhaul the way in which [legislators’] daily expense reimbursements are handled.”

In the past decade, 27 legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues. “So far, there is no sign that the arrests of the legislative leaders has changed how Albany does business,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said in a statement. At the press conference, Kaehny added, “One big step toward changing that is to see where the money is going. No more secret spending. No more spending in the shadows. Let’s see transparency for state spending, and let’s end the pay-to-play and legal bribery that are on trial here.”

On the same day that Silver's trial began, the New York Ethics Review Commission released an evaluation the current ethics oversight system and recommended reforms to improve the functioning of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).

The recommendations include eliminating the veto power JCOPE commissioners have over investigations, among several others.

Citizens Union has advocated for all of the aforementioned reforms, and while the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Commission are certainly seen as a welcome first step by good government groups, the recommendations failed to include other reforms advocates have called for, such as making commissioners more independent.

“We want to ramp up the capability and the independence of ethics oversight,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Reform JCOPE, give it more independence, give it more teeth, give it the ability to investigate, and reform the actual number of commissioners so that they don’t deadlock and are not beholden to the people who appoint them.”

Saying that he believes JCOPE can be essential in improving public ethics and integrity, Dadey added, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were two of the three architects that created JCOPE. And they created some of the protections that JCOPE is hindered by right now in terms of the voting procedures. With the two of them on trial, and both of them having been authors of this Public Integrity Reform Act that created JCOPE, we have an opportunity to strengthen JCOPE in the coming months.”

dick dadey good govt groups nov 11 presser(Dick Dadey, center; photo by Zack Fink of NY1)

On Monday, the Center for Public Integrity and open-governance group Global Integrity released the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, and gave New York a D- grade, a drop from the previous 2012 State Integrity Investigation, when New York received a D.

Ranking 30th among 49 states, New York failed miserably in several categories, receiving an F on public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability, state budget processes, procurement, and ethics enforcement agencies.

The reforms proposed by good government groups would go a long way in preventing a repeat of New York’s dismal performance on those measures.

“We need absolutely clarity in terms of who [legislators] are getting paid by and what they are getting paid for,” Lerner said Wednesday. “So that someone can’t say ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent ordinary people,’ and then it turns out that his law partners say he doesn’t do any legal work and is solely gaining money from referrals” (as was the case with Silver and is the case with other lawyer-legislators who are “of counsel” at law firms).

“There is something wrong with our disclosure system if that kind of misstatement can exist for years and years and years and it takes a criminal trial to really show what the true situation is,” Lerner added.

New York’s failing grade on state budget processes - for which New York ranked dead last in the nation - comes as no surprise, given New York’s reputation for“three men in a room” (the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding on the details of the state’s $142 billion budget behind closed doors.

“The governor can’t reform the legislature by himself,” Kaehny said, “but the governor can lead by example. And right now, we have billions of dollars in spending that are secret, that the public cannot see.”

“Is it corrupt?” Kaehny asked. “We don’t know. But we should know. So can the governor do something about that by taking a lead? Absolutely, yes. The governor could have complete transparency on budget matters - he proposes the budget, he can reveal the budget, that’s up to him.”

The recent release of these two reports and the ongoing corruption trials of two legislative leaders have put the spotlight on New York's dire need for state action on ethics reform, yet as Bob Hardt wrote in a recent NY1 column on the issue, “Never aggressively pushing campaign finance reform or transparency, Governor Cuomo seems content to play the master of Albany's current political game rather than rewriting its rules. A government of one is naturally threatened by an open door.”

When pressed as to whether Cuomo has done enough to fix Albany’s corruption problems, Dadey said, “The governor has been a leader on many of these ethics reforms,” but added, “I wish that he was a more vocal leader on some of these issues that are still left on the table, like legislative compensation, like restructuring JCOPE so that it has a greater authority and stronger voting structures to pursue corruption.”

In 2013, Governor Cuomo established the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to combat the systemic corruption in Albany. Yet less than a year later, in a deal involving Silver and Skelos, Cuomo disbanded the commission - reportedly just as the commission was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaign committees.

Governor Cuomo could, as good government groups have suggested, compel the legislature to return for a special session to overhaul ethics laws, though the governor has made it clear in the past that he has no intention of doing so. “A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom in July.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has previously advocated for a convening a special session on ethics reform, in addition to pushing his “End New York Corruption Now Act,” a sweeping ethics reform package which seeks to drastically reform how business is done in Albany.

“One of the requests that Citizens Union has made for a long time is to give the Attorney General the power to pursue corruption,” Dadey said of one of the elements in Schneiderman’s plan. “He can only pursue corruption right now if the governor consents to granting him that authority.”

“It’s a strange thing that when the current governor was Attorney General, he asked for that same authority when Governor Spitzer was in office, and when he became governor, he was not willing to give that authority to Attorney General Schneiderman,” Dadey pointed out.

A July 15 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 90 percent of New York voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. An October 26 Siena poll found 74 percent of those surveyed believed Governor Cuomo was doing a poor to fair job reducing corruption in state government.

“New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state,” the good government groups said in a statement. “In light of this storm of two trials and two reports, the groups call for immediate action on these widely-supported reforms, and in a special session if possible.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

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

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Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform Thu, 12 Nov 2015 04:12:57 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 26 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5949:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-october-26-2015 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5949:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-october-26-2015 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be dominated by the World Series, we know that. The New York Mets begin their quest for the title against the Royals in Kansas City on Tuesday night, followed by another game in KC on Wednesday and then games in Queens on Friday, Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday. If the series continues, games six and seven would be the following Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 3 and 4) back in Kansas City. On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced a wager over the series, with the loser having to wear the jersey of the winning team to work for a day. There are other aspects of the bet, too, with significant home-state items to be sent from loser to winner.

Now, on to politics sans sport.

It was a quiet political weekend. Mayor de Blasio, City Council Member Dan Garodnick, and others touted the new Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village sales deal to the complex's tenant association on Saturday afternoon. [Read CM Garodnick's thoughts on the sale in this Gotham Gazette op-ed]

On Monday, de Blasio has no public events scheduled. Governor Cuomo is in New York City Monday, though, to make an announcement at 1:30 p.m. at Chelsea Piers.

There is a lot happening Monday and beyond. Services will occur this week to honor Police Officer Randolph Holder, who was killed on October 20. As has been the case since Holder was shot and killed, criminal justice reform and policing are sure to be sources of significant attention this week.

Thursday is the three-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting New York; there are sure to be both rememberances of the people and property lost, as well as assessments of progress made in recovering from Sandy and preparing for the next big storm.

See our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet to discuss a bill that would ban the sale of personal care products or over the counter drugs that contain microbeads, as well as pass a resolution on the Microbeads-free Waters Acts.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to discuss bills related to the use of biodiesel.

On Monday morning, current and former elected officials and others will honor recently-retired former Assemblymember Joan Millman. Comptroller Scott Stringer is among those who will speak.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit the High School of Fashion Industries to kick off College Application Week and make an announcement.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at City Hall, Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez will announce new legislation aimed at reducing the number of guns in New York and nationwide. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries; Public Advocate Letitia James; Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams; Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson; Leah Gunn Barrett, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; and NYC families impacted by gun violence will also participate.

At 3 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Hometown Rally to cheer on the Mets as they start Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night in Kansas City. Other elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James are set to participate.

Later, Mark-Viverito will speak at the 2015 Roy & Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government, where she and the City Council are receiving an award for their Participatory Budgeting program. [Read more about the award and the participatory budgeting program in our new in-depth report: Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn't Every Council Member Doing It?]

Then, Mark-Viverito "speaks at 2015 Shine Event for LGBT Immigration Equality."

At 7 p.m. Monday the Bronx Young Democrats will discuss the achievements and current initiatives of young female Bronx leaders. The event will feature Darcel Clark, Democratic candidate for Bronx District Attorney; City Council Member Vanessa Gibson; State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner; and Marsha Michael, Attorney & Law Clerk.

At 7:15 p.m. the Immigration Equality event “SHINE”, celebrating women’s leadership in in the LGBT community, will honor City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and  Denise Chambers, Immigration Equality client and asylum winner from Trinidad.

On Monday evening, several uptown Manhattan Democratic clubs are hosting Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer for a discussion of relevant issues. City Council Member Mark Levine will also participate in the dialogue.

Monday evening is the Riders Alliance gala. Public Advocate Letitia James is among those set to attend.

Monday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event: CM Mark Treyger (District 47, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.

Tuesday
On Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., Stroock, the public affairs law firm, will host a Government Leadership forum  “What is the Future of Organized Labor?” Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; and Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association will be on the panel. Robert Abrams, former New York State Attorney General and Chair of Stroock's Government Relations Practice Group, and Alan M. Klinger, Co-Managing Partner and Co-Chair of Stroock's Litigation Practice Group, will moderate.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is in Westchester County meeting with elected officials and touring different areas.

At 10:30 a.m. the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) will meet on a number of matters including its ongoing search for a new Executive Director.

At 11 a.m. Vocal-NY, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and others will hold the Fair Chance Rally. The purpose of the rally is to raise awareness about the Fair Chance Act, which makes it illegal for New York City employers to ask about one’s criminal record until after a job offer is made, and is going into effect.

At the New York State Legislature on Tuesday: the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation and Assembly Climate Change Work Group will have a roundtable discussion on Climate Change.

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 11 a.m. the Committee on Women’s Issues; the Committee on Health; and the Committee on Education will meet for a joint oversight hearing on sex education in NYC schools. They will discuss three bills that would: require the Department of Education to provide a report on student health services to the Council; require the DOE to report annually on information about health education and HIV/AIDS education for students in grades six through twelve; require the DOE to submit an annual report on the sexual health education received by instructors in public middle and high schools.

Prior to that City Council hearing, at 10 a.m., there will be a "press conference to call for comprehensive sex education in NYC schools" led by Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Chair of the Committee on Women's Issues; Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Committee on Education; and Corey Johnson, Chair of the Committee on Health; as well as representatives from Planned Parenthood of New York City; NARAL Pro-Choice New York; New York Civil Liberties Union; and Reproductive Healthcare Advocates.

On Tuesday at 2 p.m. at 250 Broadway, "State Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), together with Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Member Annabel Palma and Make the Road New York, will release a bombshell investigative report "The American Scheme: Herbalife's Pyramid 'Shake'down.""

At 4 p.m. Safe Passage Project will hold an event composed of two parts. The first will be discussing the unmet needs of recent migrant children and young parent from Central America. City Council Member Rory Lancman will make opening remarks. There will be multiple related panel discussions thereafter.

Tuesday evening, Governor Cuomo is set to deliver remarks at the Business Council of Westchester’s Annual Dinner.

At 6 p.m. the city Panel for Educational Policy will have a public meeting in Manhattan. At the event the Chancellor will give an update on current policies and the panel will discuss a number of important topics including: Race and Diversity in School Admission, Aggregation of Community District Budgets Together with a Proposed Budget for Administrative Expenditures of the City Board and the Chancellor, and more; while also taking public comment.

At 6:30 p.m. during The Hispanic Leadership Awards, City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will lead a celebration honoring several people for their outstanding leadership in the Latino community, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who will receive a Distinguished Public Service Award.  

At 7 p.m. City Council Members Donovan Richards and I. Daneek Miller will hold a Southeast Queens Transportation Town Hall. Representatives from DOT, MTA, TLC, and NYPD will attend.

Tuesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Wednesday
At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday: The Assembly Standing Committee on Aging along with the Assembly Task Force on People with Disabilities, the Assembly Subcommittee on Community Integration, and the Assembly Subcommittee on Outreach and Oversight of Senior Citizen Programs, will hold a joint public hearing regarding the “New York State Office for the Aging’s study on the benefits of creating an office of community living”

At 6:30 p.m. several groups host “Why She Ran: A Conversation With Women in Politics” discussing the challenges women face in New York politics and encouraging women to run for office. Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal will speak at the event. Sponsors of the event include the Working Families Party, Eleanor's Legacy, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Higher Heights for America, Ladies of Labor, Shirley Chisholm Institute, NOW-NYS, Women's Organizing Network, and WIN NYC.

Also at 6:30 p.m., school district 3 will host a Town Hall meeting with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Wednesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 6 p.m.
  • CM Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8, Manhattan/Bronx) 6 p.m.
  • CM Helen Rosenthal (District 6, Manhattan) 6 p.m.
  • CM Ritchie Torres (District 15, Bronx) time TBA
  • CM Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens) 8 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.
  • CM Jumaane D. Williams (District 45, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.

Thursday
On Thursday beginning at 8:30 a.m. the Urban Land Institute will hold a conference about the best new practices to help fund public transportation infrastructure in the New York metro area in the face of withering public funding, including solutions through partnerships with the private sector.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10:30 a.m. the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to hear communication from Orlando Marin of the City Planning Commission
  • At 1:30 p.m. will be a City Council Stated Meeting; prefaced, as always, by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m. United States Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates will discuss the administration’s top goals and priorities at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School; following the speech will be a Q&A session.

At 5:30 p.m. The Hopkins-Hunter Forum for Education Policy, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and The Hunter College Gifted and Talented Program will host “The Excellence Gap: The State of Gifted and Talented Education,” an event that will discuss the income based education gap among students, and talk about suggestions on how to address the issue in the future.

At 6 p.m. Mayor Bill de Blasio will be hosting a fundraiser for his 2017 campaign, as reported by Politico New York.

Thursday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Corey Johnson (District 3, Manhattan) 4:30 p.m.
  • CM Donovan Richards (District 31, Queens) time TBA
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
On Saturday and Sunday, Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will hold two Spooky Parties at Gracie Mansion, inviting families with children 5-10 years old to come tour their haunted house. Families must have tickets through the ticket giveaway being held prior to the event.

On Sunday at 2 p.m. a large group of Democratic political clubs and progressive organizations will hold a Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Forum. Representatives from the Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Lessing campaigns will participate.. The forum will be moderated by Ronnie Eldridge.

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 26 Sun, 25 Oct 2015 05:00:00 +0000