Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1022 Sun, 22 Oct 2017 20:48:55 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races ortiz mailer crop

The top of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz's recent constituent mailer


Members of the New York State Legislature have a key resource at their disposal to communicate with their constituents: mass mailers. Both the Senate and Assembly allow lawmakers to send public communications through different media -- chiefly employed in the form of direct printed newsletters and mailers -- to inform residents of their districts about recent legislation or special events, or to alert them of emergencies, and more. While these mailers are subject to certain restrictions in the run up to an election, differences between state rules and city regulations mean that state legislators running for City Council have a distinct advantage over their opponents at the local level.

In at least three City Council races where sitting state Assemblymembers are candidates, separate complaints have been filed with the city Campaign Finance Board alleging that each of them has violated prohibitions against using government-funded mass mailers within a mandated 90-day communication blackout period before the September 12 primary. Copies of the complaints were provided to Gotham Gazette.

The rules governing mass mailers are adopted by each legislative chamber, but they differ from the rules and guidelines established by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees expenditure by campaigns in the city. Each set of rules establishes ‘blackout’ periods ahead of an election, during which communications funded through government resources are prohibited unless they meet certain exceptions.

The New York City Charter states that “public servants” may not use government funds or resources for mass mailers within 90 days of a primary or general election. (The law also prohibits officials from appearing in government-funded advertisements in an election year.)

There are certain exceptions, for instance allowing one mailer to be sent out within 21 days of the passage of the city’s budget, and permitting communications required by law or those necessary for public safety or health emergencies, among others.

For City Council candidates currently working for New York City -- including incumbent Council members and even community board members -- the CFB blackout period began June 15, roughly three months before the September 12 primary.

But since the City Charter only applies to “all officials, officers and employees of the city,” state officials and legislators are out of reach of those provisions and prohibitions. The state Assembly’s blackout period, in comparison, is only 30 days before a local, special or primary election and 60 days before the general. This effectively allows state legislators to use their offices to promote their image and build greater name recognition, enhancing the already-significant power of incumbency and giving them an additional leg up over their opponents who would have to rely on campaign funds to communicate with voters.

“It’s a clear loophole,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform organization. “The problem is that city law is always subordinate to state law. So the CFB cannot tell a state legislator what they can or cannot do.”

ortiz mailer cropIn District 38, incumbent Democratic City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is facing a slew of challengers, including sitting Assemblymember Felix Ortiz. A complaint filed with the CFB earlier this month alleged that Ortiz had violated the CFB’s blackout provisions by sending out four mailers from his government office over the summer. But these mailers, a regular function of state legislative offices, are exempt from the CFB’s purview.

“Part of Felix’s job as an Assemblyman is to inform his constituents, whether he’s running for office or not,” said Robinson Iglesias, Ortiz’s campaign treasurer. “He has been in full compliance with the CFB and he will continue to do so.”

“For sure, it’s unfair. For sure, it’s an advantage,” said Kaehny of the loophole. “It hasn’t been effectively exploited until now. The reality is, an incumbent already has an advantage in name identity. Using their mail privileges helps reinforce that name identity...This is a real unfairness under the law.”

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, the frontrunner for the District 13 seat being vacated by Council Member James Vacca, similarly sent out a legislative update to his constituents at the end of June.

Of Gjonaj’s four opponents in the Democratic primary, John Doyle has been his most vociferous critic and lodged objections with the CFB over potential violations regarding mass mailers and government-sponsored communications. When informed that the communications were largely permitted under the Assembly’s rules, Doyle directed his ire at both the state Legislature and Gjonaj. “We have a culture of corruption in Albany that allows this,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “This is the state Legislature that can’t seem to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

gjonaj mailer cropDoyle also insisted that Gjonaj has ample campaign resources at his disposal to get his message out and should have eschewed the Legislature’s mass mailing resources. “He’s against public funds to augment the voice of ordinary citizens,” Doyle said, referring to Gjonaj’s decision to not participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program, “but he has no problem using public funds when it supports his interests.”

Gjonaj’s campaign spokesperson Jennifer Blatus pushed back against Doyle’s complaint. “Let's be clear, there was no unfair advantage in the District 13 council race,” Blatus said in an email. “This is another ridiculous attempt by John Doyle to distract voters and continue his negative and divisive campaign.” Insisting that the CFB allows elected officials to conduct ordinary communications with constituents, she added, “In the final days of this election, while Mr. Doyle continues to complain over the experience Mark Gjonaj brings to this race, our campaign remains focused on the issues at hand, which is quality of life, public safety, education and transportation.”

In District 21, where Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is stepping down at the end of her current term, two Democrats are facing off in the primary: Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced former state Senator and Council member who is attempting a comeback after a checkered recent past that includes separate criminal convictions on fraud and assault charges.

Monserrate claims that Moya misused government resources to send mass email blasts within the 90-day period, including references to events Moya attended outside his district. Moya’s Assembly district overlaps with parts of Council District 21 but excludes large sections. “Moya is a liar and a fraud,” Monserrate said in a statement. “He lies about where he lives. And now we know he's committing fraud by using tax-dollars illegally to campaign.”

moya mailer cropIn a written response to the CFB on Monserrate’s complaint, Moya noted, correctly, that “as an Assemblymember my mail cut off deadline is different than sitting City electeds.” In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Moya had harsher words for his opponent. “My opponent is a convicted felon who has zero credibility on this or any other issue in the campaign,” he said. “He is using these baseless claims to attack my record of public service, and direct attention away from his corrupt, violent history. These charges have been easily refuted by my campaign, and simply bear no resemblance to the facts.”

Moya went on to criticize Monserrate for his own misuse of taxpayer funds. “The questions voters are asking are, ‘Hiram, where is our money that you stole and how can we ever trust you again?’”

The CFB and the City are mostly powerless to bridge the gap in the law. “Obviously we provide extensive guidance on how candidates should handle constituent communications in the days leading up to an election, It’s certainly something we monitor,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson.

Reinvent Albany’s Kaehny says closing the loophole would require the state Legislature to take action, “which it seems very unlikely to do.” In the absence of legislation, he said, “The best thing CFB could do is keep track and include as much information in their post-election report to note how much of a problem it is and bring attention to that.”

The CFB issues a comprehensive report after each city election that includes numerous recommendations on improving the campaign finance and election system. Many of the recommendations from their 2013 report were passed into law by the City Council.

Two other state Legislators are also running for “open” City Council seats, though no apparent complaints have been lodged against either. Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has also sent out mass mailers from his office, is running for the District 8 seat currently held by term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; and in District 18, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., famous for his constituent e-blasts, which have continued apace, is vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, another good government group, conceded that the CFB has no authority over the state and insisted that the Legislature should increase its own communication blackout periods to undo the advantage that accrues to lawmakers.

“Legislators wouldn’t send [mailers] out if they didn’t think it will bolster public good will,” Horner said, adding that perhaps it will fall to voters to ensure a level standard. “I think it’s fair for the public to urge state elected officials running for City Council to follow the same rules,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races Tue, 29 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint new queens democrats

The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)


When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics. But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.

“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.

During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.

As part of their platform, the New Queens Democrats called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage. “Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.

Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”

“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”

Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched a website in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which went online in 2013.

Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.

There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.

While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.

New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote effectively decides the winner of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.

The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.

The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “open seat project” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.

Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.

“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”

When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.

How the organizations choose to engage with the public is  “a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.

Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee explainers on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.

Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.

“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.

While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.

“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”

Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.

While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.

“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.

Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.

Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, like Westchester County, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.

Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP is willing send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.

In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.

While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller).  

Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.

“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”

The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.

"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.

However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.

Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for backroom deals when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent reporting in the news media about patronage.

The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.

Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.

While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s Councilmatic, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.

“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “Council 2.0” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.

While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.

If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.

The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.

“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”

One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.

Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, which allows people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.

"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.

Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.

“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”

When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post amid a sexual harassment scandal, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and the website was part of that, according to Rizzo.

The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.

“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”

One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint Sun, 27 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6927:government-watchdogs-push-clean-contracting-reform-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6927:government-watchdogs-push-clean-contracting-reform-in-albany Kaloyeros infrastructure

Alain Kaloyeros in 2016 (photo: The Governor's Office)


A coalition of budget and transparency watchdog groups are calling on the Legislature to pass, and for Governor Cuomo to sign, comprehensive “clean contracting” legislation in response to the bid-rigging scandal that rocked the state Capitol last year and continues to reverberate.

Specifically, at a Wednesday press conference the groups called for restoration of reviewing powers to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for all state contracts exceeding $250,000, an end to non-academic contracting by state-controlled non-profit organizations, the creation of a comprehensive “database of deals,” and a prohibition against state authorities, corporations, and affiliated non-profits doing business with their board members.

The organizations -- including Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, Fiscal Policy Institute, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- are also urging state leaders to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest by exploring options to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract. Nineteen states and New York City -- but not the state -- already have these anti-pay-to-play laws in place.

“The moment of truth has arrived. State and federal prosecutors say $800 million in state economic development contracts were rigged, but so far, the Legislature and governor have yet to act,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, standing in the state Capitol. “It’s time they pass common sense legislation that includes independent oversight over state contracts, uniform contracting rules, and transparency that will prevent corruption and abuse before it happens.”

In 2016, an investigation into a sprawling alleged pay-to-play scheme connected to the Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program resulted in charges against nine men, including a former top aide to Cuomo, Joe Percoco, and the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, a close government partner of Cuomo’s, on bid-rigging, bribery, and other charges.

In the aftermath of the scandal, DiNapoli called for comprehensive procurement reforms, including the restoration of his office’s powers to review contracts with CUNY- and SUNY-affiliated non-profits -- a power that was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. The governor and lawmakers had reasoned that they could more quickly move economic development funds to important projects, especially in previously downtrodden Buffalo, where Cuomo has dedicated so much focus since taking office.

Following the enactment of the 2017 state budget, DiNapoli issued a statement noting the lack of procurement reform. “Hopefully before the end of session, the procurement reforms my office has advanced will be addressed,” he said. The Legislature is in session until mid-June. Legislative leaders are looking at some procurement reform measures, while Cuomo remains opposed to what DiNapoli and government watchdogs are calling for.

At the time of the arrests, Cuomo vowed sweeping reform, and proposed a slew of them in his 2017-2018 executive budget. However few of these oversight and transparency measures -- which are different from those being proposed by legislators, DiNapoli, and reform groups -- made it into the agreed-upon spending plan, announced in early April. Additionally, at least one other key oversight and transparency provision -- a mandated report on the governor’s Start-Up NY program -- was actually removed. Instead of focusing on reform, the governor has continued boosting the his signature economic development programs and infrastructure projects, to which the state is dedicating billions of dollars every year.

Senator John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse and deputy majority leader, has proposed legislation encompassing the Comptroller’s Clean Contracting Bill, which has been approved by the Senate Finance Committee, and some form of it is expected to pass the Senate. A similar bill sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, is currently being considered in the Assembly.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, both expressed support for the legislation during a joint appearance at the Times Union’s new media center in Colonie on Tuesday.

“I truly believe the comptroller plays an absolutely critical role in public policy in New York,” Flanagan said.

“You don’t always have to wait for something bad to happen to restore confidence to the public,” added Heastie.

The “database of deals” -- which has long been advocated by good-government organizations -- was supported by both the Senate and Assembly in their one-house budget resolutions, and the governor agreed in the budget to create a report by January 2018 detailing the spending by each economic development program. However, critics say the database should go further, providing data on the benefits received by each company.

Cuomo, in his executive budget, proposed prohibiting campaign finance contributions to the executive by vendors when they are bidding on and negotiating contracts, and expanding the power of the Office of the Inspector General to include the SUNY Research Foundation and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits. He also proposed instituting a Chief Procurement Officer who would be appointed by the governor, a position that many called redundant and less effective than the position of Comptroller.

“How many scandals and indictments are needed before we enact any meaningful reforms,” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank. “We need to restore the public’s trust and put real accountability measures in place to ensure that we have full transparency and a solid return on investment before we continue to provide billions of taxpayer dollars to private businesses under the guise of economic development.”

The legislation is currently facing opposition from SUNY. A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor finds the legislation “duplicative” and “overly broad,” and believes it does not address the core of the process on contracting reform. She noted that the comptroller can already perform audits on all procurement contracts before they are paid, he just cannot slow down the initial contracting process when awards are made.

Flanagan has indicated that there may be room for negotiation on the final bill. Heastie has been vague as he plans to discuss the issue with his majority conference.

Cuomo’s former aides, associates, and donors are set to go on trial late this year.

Another spokesperson for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, sent Gotham Gazette a statement attacking the watchdog groups. "This is the same crew who preaches transparency for others and then sues to overturn state law and keep their benefactors secret. If we need a crash course on hypocrisy we know who to ask," he said.

“To create needed independence and effective oversight, the governor and the Legislature must enact sensible clean-contracting reforms,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “Not to do so would be an unfortunate and careless shirking of their greatest responsibility to ensure that government operates in the interest of the people. Stronger oversight and increased transparency in the awarding of state contracts, including providing the state Comptroller with increased independent authority for oversight and approval, are principles that a strong and effective democracy must embrace.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany Wed, 10 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it rob ortt

State Sen. Rob Ortt (photo: @SenatorOrtt)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Since State of the State, Cuomo Silent on Ethics Reform Thu, 16 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
In Wake of Charges, Cuomo Promises Change, Offers Few Details http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6553:in-wake-of-charges-cuomo-promises-change-offers-few-details http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6553:in-wake-of-charges-cuomo-promises-change-offers-few-details Cuomo gaggle teacher award night

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


A day after United States Attorney Preet Bharara unveiled a myriad of corruption charges against two of his closest allies and some of his biggest donors related to their abuse of the state’s economic development programs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled to Buffalo to announce he was expanding the program that sparked Bharara’s investigation.

Cuomo publicly acknowledged the “truly disappointing” allegations and told the gathered crowd that his administration plans to learn from revelations about bid-rigging and bribery schemes. He also promised not to “miss a beat” and pledged his administration will “redouble our efforts” on economic development projects in Buffalo and Western New York.

What exactly Cuomo has learned and what he and his administration actually plan to do about the alleged corruption - which was uncovered by reporters and watchdogs over a year ago and outlined by Bharara last week - remains largely unclear. The lack of clarity is especially stark given the amount of time the administration has had to formulate a response to problems and change protocols.

On Friday, Cuomo announced that the Empire State Development Corporation would take over a portfolio of projects previously overseen by SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros, who was suspended without pay after he was charged Thursday in two separate bid-rigging investigations (one by Bharara and one by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman).

“We are today going to take that portfolio of responsibility, those projects, transfer them all to the Empire State Development Corporation, which is run by a fellow named Howard Zemsky is his name, and he’ll take over management of that immediately,” Cuomo said on Friday.

Asked if the governor’s announcement would end the use of nonprofits under SUNY Poly to administer economic development projects, Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette that “ESDC will oversee all economic development projects.”

Cuomo said this week that Zemsky will formulate new procedures and oversight mechanisms to be unveiled in January during the governor’s State of the State Address. Cuomo is also expected to debut a new phase of the Buffalo Billion in the same speech.

On Friday, Cuomo also cited a report from Bart Schwartz, a lawyer retained by the governor in April after it became public that Bharara had subpoenaed a number of Cuomo officials and allies as part of his Buffalo Billion probe.

“We engaged an organization headed by a former prosecutor to review our entire procurement system. We have that report. It recommends changes to the procurement system,” Cuomo said on Friday of Schwartz’s investigation. “We accept all the changes to the procurement system and we are going to be instituting them immediately to make sure whatever can be done to protect the taxpayer dollars is going to be done.”

However, the Cuomo administration has not made Schwartz’s report public. Cuomo announced that the “independent” investigation came to a conclusion on the same day Bharara unveiled related charges, in an apparent attempt at moving the conversation from the charges toward reforms. The governor said earlier this year that he wouldn’t have a problem releasing Schwartz’s report, but that it may not be made public depending on whether Bharara’s office approved its release.

Bharara’s office declined to comment on whether its representatives had spoken to Schwartz or the Cuomo administration about the report.

Schwartz’s office declined to comment on whether the report will be made public or how it will be implemented.

The Cuomo administration failed to return requests for comment about whether the report will be made public and what kind of changes will be made to the state’s economic development programs to reduce corruption risk. Representatives for Cuomo also failed to respond to a question about whether Schwartz looked into, or continues to investigate, malfeasance in the state’s economic development programs.

When Bharara announced the charges at a Thursday news conference, he said that his investigation is “ongoing.” Bharara said that Cuomo was not implicated in the criminal complaint, but would not comment about whether the governor is an ongoing target. On Wednesday, Cuomo told reporters that he was not interviewed by Bharara’s office and that he did not expect to testify in Percoco’s trial, if there is one.

David Friedfel, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, said CBC welcomes the handover of state projects to Empire State Development Corp. “We certainly think the move to the ESDC is a good idea. In general we take the view that if you can’t do what you want to do with economic development through a government entity you should not be able to do it or be allowed to create a non-government entity to do it,” he said.

While ESDC does appear to have stricter contracting rules in place than SUNY Poly and its nonprofits, in the end both are controlled by Cuomo.

And ESDC didn’t go untouched by the recently revealed criminal charges, which were brought against nine people and showed a system lacking oversight. One of the charges against Cuomo’s close friend and former top aide Joseph Percoco is that he took a $35,000 bribe to get ESDC to select a company for a project it didn’t technically qualify for.

Watchdogs believe the state used SUNY Poly and the nonprofits it oversees, like Fort Schuyler Management, in an end-run around standard state contracting protocols and to reduce public scrutiny, in part to fast track expensive projects. On Wednesday, Cuomo repeatedly blamed the alleged corruption on that same system, which he has done nothing to reform. He told reporters on Wednesday that the system “had worked fine for 15 years. In retrospect I did not revisit their procurement system because they’re a separate branch, they’re a separate agency,” Cuomo said, appearing to reference SUNY Poly. “We will do just that,” he promised of such a reexamination.

Cuomo said on Friday in Buffalo that Zemsky will “learn from what happened and to see how we can improve the system to make sure that it never happens again.”

The idea that there isn’t already a blueprint on the table on how to avoid the pitfalls connected to the administration’s use of nonprofits to administer economic development programs is laughable to many groups that have been calling for drastic changes for years and warning of corruption.

“Right now all we have are vague, undefined reforms wrapped in secrecy,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has followed economic development projects closely. “The questions we have about the administration’s approach remain the same as the questions we had last year.”

While Cuomo plans to wait until January to unveil his changes to the state’s economic development procurement system, a number of watchdog groups have been clear for over a year on what changes needed to occur to better prevent corruption. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has also complained that Cuomo and the Legislature stripped him of his ability to review contracts at SUNY, something watchdogs have echoed. State legislative leaders have said little about the issue.

In a letter dated September 23, 2015, several groups, including CBC, Reinvent Albany, Citizens Union, Fiscal Policy Institute, and the New York Public Interest Research Group, called on Cuomo to increase accountability and transparency surrounding economic development projects. The groups asked Cuomo to consider “making one state agency the sole negotiator and implementer of state subsidy deals with public review and input, and ending the use of state controlled non-profit groups and the state university system in the contract award process.”

In a letter dated December 23, 2015, some of the same groups called on the state to implement a “database of deals” to allow for greater transparency and give New Yorkers a better idea of whether businesses that receive subsidies, like SolarCity, are actually keeping their promises to the state on deliverables like jobs.

Wall Street’s faith in SolarCity has been shaken in recent months and the company has altered the timeline for what it will produce. Meanwhile, the state paused a payment to the company this week that would allow it to purchase factory equipment it needs for its Riverbend Plant. The state has repeatedly skipped scheduled payments to SolarCity this year, as reported by Politico New York.

Friedfel said that CBC would prefer to see the state stick to economic development programs where businesses are forced to deliver on their promises before they see payment from the state. “Our view, taken apart from the criminal charges, is that economic development should be done with set metrics that are accomplished ahead of time the state makes any payments,” he said. “The state should only spend after promises are delivered on.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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In Wake of Charges, Cuomo Promises Change, Offers Few Details Wed, 28 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Federal Corruption Charges Confirm Systemic Flaws in State Economic Development System http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6544:federal-corruption-charges-confirm-systemic-flaws-in-state-economic-development-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6544:federal-corruption-charges-confirm-systemic-flaws-in-state-economic-development-system cuomo topping off buffalo

Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


After laying out multiple corruption and bribery charges against nine players involved with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature economic development program, including his former aide and close friend Joe Percoco, family friend and confidante Todd Howe, and a number of major developers and Cuomo donors, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara refused to say whether the governor is a target in the probe or if it is reasonable to hold him accountable for the conduct of the people he empowered. The prosecutor noted the case remains open as a “general matter.”

Alluding to things possibly to come, though, Bharara said, "I really do hope that there is a trial in this case, so that all New Yorkers can see, in gory detail, what their state government has been up to.”

Whether or not Cuomo is indeed being investigated, or will see charges, those brought by Bharara on Thursday are an indictment of a system that the governor has presided over, and one that other leaders in state government have done little to oppose.

Cuomo issued a statement lamenting the charges and promising justice will be served: “If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed. I hold my administration to the highest level of integrity. I have zero tolerance for abuse of the public trust from anyone. If anything, a friend should be held to an even higher standard. Like my father before me, I believe public integrity is paramount. This sort of breach, if true, should be and will be punished.”

Cuomo and his administration have continuously responded to reports about corruption in his economic development programs as though they are surprising and have caught them off guard, but the administration has been receiving warnings for years that the system was being abused.

Watchdogs have been setting off alarms that the state’s economic development system is ripe for corruption, while the press has consistently reported what appeared to be instances of bid-rigging related to the Buffalo Billion and government favors for donors to Cuomo’s electoral campaigns.

All the while, the Cuomo administration has taken the criticism and spun it as attacks on the effectiveness of the investments and on the needy communities they benefit, especially Buffalo. And while the governor did hire an “independent” investigator, Bart Schwartz, to examine and oversee the system last Spring, it was only after the administration was rocked by a storm of subpoenas. Schwartz and his firm can earn up to $450,000 for their work examining the system, a job watchdogs say should have been carried out by the state Legislature, Comptroller, and Attorney General.

Schwartz’s office declined to comment on the charges or what his role will be going forward now that the charges have been unveiled.

“The real story here is the system is broken. Everything we thought was going on, was going on, and is actually worse than we thought,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been pushing for major reforms to the state’s economic development systems and greater budget transparency.

Kaehny noted that the scandals related to bid-rigging in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany involve over $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. “These indictments shine a light on a broken and corrupt system -- not a few bad apples,” said Kaehny.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds flow through opaque non-profits that the state established, a practice that predates Gov. Cuomo but he has expanded. Large sums of cash are approved in the state budget with little debate and the money is given little scrutiny by the Legislature thereafter.

The major beneficiary of the alleged malfeasance, besides those charged with unfairly winning contracts and those accused of taking bribes, appears to be the Cuomo campaign. Developers involved in the scandal gave generously to Cuomo around the times they won state economic development contracts.

According to Reinvent Albany, three of the executives now charged in bid-rigging schemes are some of Cuomo’s biggest donors. Louis Ciminelli of LP Ciminelli has given Cuomo’s campaign $143,550 in contributions and received over $600 million worth of contracts through state-controlled non-profits. Joe Nicolla of Columbia Development has given Cuomo $320,000 while receiving $190 million in contracts through state-controlled non-profits and Steven Aiello of COR Development has given $338,500 to the Cuomo campaign while receiving $105 million through state-controlled non-profits.

Among those charged is Percoco, a childhood friend of Cuomo’s who has followed the governor throughout his various political positions. Percoco was known as the governor’s enforcer when he worked under him in the Capitol and later as a high-pressure fundraiser when he worked for Cuomo’s campaign. He is accused of using his position to take state action on behalf of contractors in exchange for bribes.

Alain Kaloyeros, now the former head of SUNY Polytechnic, which has awarded contracts to Buffalo Billion developers, was also charged Thursday. Kaloyeros is charged with bid-rigging.

Also charged were developers including Aiello, Ciminelli, and Joseph Gerardi.

Bharara’s office also unsealed a guilty plea by Todd Howe, a lobbyist and Cuomo family friend who has faced financial trouble over the years and was advocating for contractors while also overseeing and working with Kaloyeros.

Up until very recently the system allowed the state to funnel money to two non-profit entities overseen by SUNY Polytechnic. Those entities issued requests for proposal that in several instances were written specifically to only fit developers that had donated generously to Cuomo’s campaign. Bharara charges that Kaloyeros actually tipped his favorite contractors far in advance of issuing an RFP to give them a leg up.

The nonprofits have resisted transparency, only recently opening board meetings to the press. Additionally, the state appears to have been extremely lax in holding recipients of economic development funds to their promises, like how many jobs they plan to deliver or how much a project will cost.

Legislative leaders, the comptroller, and attorney general have raised little fuss about an economic development system that appeared to evade standard state contracting procedures by using a complicated system of nonprofits controlled by the State University to award bids and dole out funding.

Even with the spectre of Bharara’s investigation hanging overhead, the Legislature made no broad attempts to reform the system, instead mostly deferring to the Cuomo administration.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office raised concerns this year about its ability to audit economic development projects, but DiNapoli has a reputation as being non-confrontational. When an audit of his challenged the effectiveness and oversight of Cuomo’s Excelsior Jobs Program, the administration hit back hard, attacking the competence of DiNapoli’s staff. Cuomo said DiNapoli should “educate” himself and called his audits of economic development's “opinion.” DiNapoli has said he’s not intimidated and that he does his mandated job.

Cuomo and the Legislature actually stripped DiNapoli of the ability to review contracts issued by SUNY and CUNY ahead of time, part of creating a secretive system without clear checks and accountability.

On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled bid-rigging charges of his own, these having to do with the construction of dorms near SUNY Albany, against Kaloyeros and Nicolla, of Columbia Development. Kaloyeros has spearheaded economic development programs under Cuomo and routinely appeared by Cuomo’s side for years.

According to Schneiderman’s office the investigation took a year and was performed in partnership with the probe by federal agents led by Bharara’s office. Schneiderman accused Kaloyeros, who was the state’s highest paid employee until being suspended without pay on Thursday, of rigging bids to go to developers who in turn directed grants and other benefits to SUNY Polytechnic. Kaloyeros’ compensation package was directly tied to the activity he oversaw at SUNY Polytechnic, therefore he benefited from the bid-rigging.

Last year Kaloyeros contacted this reporter by Facebook messenger after reading and apparently being upset by a story about the role he played in the Buffalo Billion. When asked if he would like to set up an interview to correct any misunderstandings or inaccuracies, he replied that he would like to give a tour of the nano facilities he oversees, but any discussion of federal investigations would be off limits. "The issue we have is confidentiality. We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation,” Kaloyeros wrote. “So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly. The rest is not a problem.”

The article attracted attention to Kaloyeros and he later deleted his Facebook profile.

Now with the “gory” details of the charges out for all to see, Reinvent Albany is calling on the state to take quick action to fix the system. It wants the state to freeze any new economic development activity by SUNY Poly and its subsidiaries; a phase out of using state-controlled non-profits to oversee economic development funds; a uniform contract process by the state, public authorities, and SUNY; new pay-to-play controls limiting contributions from those doing business with state entities; the creation of a database that reports the details of state subsidies and contracts given to businesses; and restoration of the Comptroller’s ability to review contracts issued by all state entities before they are signed.

Asked for a comment on Reinvent Albany's reform suggestions in light of Thursday's charges brought by Bharara, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo did not respond.

Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School and a former prosecutor who served in Bharara’s office, said that the charges give proof that the state’s economic development system failed.

"As shown by the allegations in the indictment, there was a clear failure here in the oversight of the bidding procedures related to these Buffalo Billion projects,” Rodgers said in a statement. “We need greater transparency in these processes and stronger oversight; hopefully this will prevent recurrences of a situation where public funds made their way into the defendant's' pockets instead of being used for the benefit of the people of New York."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Federal Corruption Charges Confirm Systemic Flaws in State Economic Development System Thu, 22 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6541:praise-and-recommendations-for-city-s-open-data-progress http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6541:praise-and-recommendations-for-city-s-open-data-progress vacca tech open data cropped

Council Member Vacca (photo: @JamesVacca13)


There are two years to go before the deadline set by the city’s 2012 Open Data Law, which requires city agencies identify and publish all their citywide aggregated public data online. At a Wednesday afternoon oversight hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Technology, open data and civic technology advocates offered praise for the city’s progress thus far and recommendations for the city to meet its goals.

Open data is considered a vital transparency tool that allows citizens and government to evaluate and improve city services. New York City, considered a trendsetter in this area, committed to this goal in 2012 by passing a law that would make data easily accessible and consumable by the public. Through the city’s Open Data Portal, New Yorkers can access a range of information such as the number and type of complaints made to the 311 helpline, real-time traffic speed data, or where the City Council spends discretionary funding.

The Open Data Portal hosts nearly 1,600 datasets across all city agencies.

Last year, in the annual progress report on the city’s implementation of the Open Data Law,  Mayor Bill de Blasio released a new open data plan, “Open Data For All,” which aims at making the Open Data Portal more user-friendly, making it easily visualized for those with little experience in data or programming, and pushes for more citywide engagement.

Following that, the City Council passed a package of legislation to enhance the existing law and improve access to information through the city’s Open Data Portal maintained by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

This was the first year which saw some of the new amendments put into effect. These new laws, seven in total, deal with retention of data, building data dictionaries, standardizing geospatial data, establishing timelines for agencies to respond to public requests on the Open Data Portal, mandating timely updates for public data, requiring publication of datasets obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests, and examination and verification of agency compliance.

“One of the things we’ve been able to do is build an open data ecosystem,” testified Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA), who is also the chief analytics officer and chief open platform officer for the city. He said the new laws help “anchor the administration’s commitment to transparency and equitable uses of technology around open data.”

Ra Mashariki stressed that MODA’s focus has been on user research, feedback mechanisms, and technical standards, and he laid out the city’s progress on each while teasing updates that will be released later this year. These updates include a first-of-its-kind analysis with NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress on “data poverty” -- the lack of access or representation of communities in city data; a study with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on opportunities for community based organizations to utilize open data; and a new centralized mechanism for receiving feedback, with quicker responses and tracking.

Concluding his testimony, Ra Mashariki cited an important example of how open data can be useful to the public. He referenced Ben Wellington, a data scientist who runs the blog “I Quant NY.” Wellington examined parking violation data and found that the NYPD had been ticketing legally parked cars for millions of dollars. He took his analysis to the NYPD who confirmed it and took measures to prevent it in the future.

Testifying on behalf of DoITT, Albert Webber cited the city’s key accomplishments over the last year -- traffic on the Open Data Portal increased to more than 5 million hits; 116 datasets were made public, bringing the total to nearly 1,600; 100 new data sets are now automatically updated; and more than 40 unscheduled data sets were identified and published. He also said DoITT would soon fill three of four new dedicated positions for the Open Data Portal.

At the hearing, government transparency advocates and civic technology professionals wholeheartedly endorsed the city’s efforts, and also made a few recommendations for improvements.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group, emphasised “that City Council stay actively and energetically involved in pushing, cajoling and cheerleading for open data in this city,” without which the program can not be a success.

The Transparency Working Group is co-chaired by Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, and its members include Common Cause New York and Citizens Union. “Open data and the idea behind open data is working in New York City,” Kaehny said, also stressing that city agencies will eventually save tens of millions of dollars by using open data.

He said the de Blasio administration has “started upping their game” in implementing open data but in his testimony Kaehny pointed out a number of outstanding issues. These included the need for a better process for remedying public complaints about data quality, more standardization of data, clearer agency criteria for publishing data, and publishing high-demand data sets, such as NYPD crime statistics or the Department of Transportation’s street paving schedule.

He also suggested other needed improvements to the overall system and the law. Currently, one of the new laws requires publishing the number of datasets requested under FOIL -- a method often used by advocates and journalists to examine city information. These, he said, should also be named. He said the city should also consider creating a data issues tracker to monitor errors in datasets reported by the public, similar to a tool used by the federal government.

Council Member James Vacca, chair of the technology committee, was generally satisfied with the administration although he raised a few concerns at the hearing. He was especially pleased that one dataset to be added soon will be of snowplow locations, updated every hour, which would give people quick answers during snowstorms when the city usually struggles to clear roads across the five boroughs. He did question the administration on whether certain agencies were fully complying with the law, particularly the New York Police Department.

Vacca also wondered later whether open data use was being taught to local community groups and Community Boards, which would then have a stronger ability to advocate for local issues. “I know communities that always say ‘We want more police, we want more traffic agents...but they don’t have the documentation, they don’t do the research,” he said. “Here it’s at their fingertips, here we can do the research.”

DoITT’s Webber said that agencies “have made strides across the board,” and that the NYPD had added a number of datasets to its website and the Open Data Portal links to them. “Overall I wouldn’t say any particular agency is not committed to doing what they’re supposed to do,” Webber said, adding that he would later follow up with the Council Member with specific NYPD datasets.

For civic technology advocates, the major concern is not only the availability of data but its usefulness to the public.

Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology and open government group, made this clear even as he praised the administration and the Council for their push on open data. “The seven pieces of legislation that were passed are taking us in the right direction and have really strengthened the city’s open data practice,” he said. But Hidalgo pointed out that one big weakness, echoing Vacca’s words, is figuring out how to teach community groups to access, understand and utilize open data. “Frustratingly, there are zero best practices out there on how to teach the city’s open data to itself,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo added that under the provisions of the new laws passed last year, the data dictionaries need to contain tutorials and that there needs to be easier access to bulk data downloading. Finally, he stressed the need for the city to create an open data legacy that can last through successive administrations and City Council classes, with a unit dedicated to leadership, standardization, development, and education.

There was also consensus at the hearing among advocates that the very infrastructure of the Open Data Portal could be modernized. Joel Natividad, director of open data at OpenGov Inc., said the portal, currently run by a contracted vendor, needs to be an open source platform that can “support innovation and experimentation” by universities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This will allow the city to “tap the genius of the crowd,” he said. Kaehn, of Reinvent Albany, agreed, saying the current platform has severe limitations.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress Wed, 21 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Seeks to Undermine Comptroller’s Check on His Power http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6485:cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6485:cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power cuomo dinapoli flags state of the state

Cuomo, left, and DiNapoli, middle, in 2012 (photo: The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent assertion that Comptroller Tom DiNapoli should “educate himself” and that the comptroller’s audits on state economic development projects are “dead wrong” and “opinion” drew a lot of attention. Many Albany observers took it as a sign of Cuomo’s growing sensitivity to criticism about his signature projects.

Those projects, like the Buffalo Billion, are the subject of a federal investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The state Legislature remained fairly removed from oversight of the projects until very recently. However, several government watchdogs say that Cuomo’s attacks on DiNapoli are part of a long-running pattern of Cuomo trying to weaken the comptroller’s oversight of the executive branch.

“The governor hates oversight and the governor actively works to undermine and weaken anyone who is keeping an eye on him,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has closely followed the Buffalo Billion economic development project. Kaehny noted that Cuomo and the Legislature approved a measure in 2011 that prevented DiNapoli from reviewing contracts at SUNY and CUNY ahead of time. “The governor has been undermining the comptroller from his first budget,” said Kaehny of Cuomo, who took office in January 2011.

A recent DiNapoli audit of the Empire State Development Corporation’s Excelsior Jobs Program, which gives businesses refundable tax credits for creating jobs in certain areas of the state, found that there wasn’t proper oversight to make sure companies were providing the jobs they pledged to create and that they weren’t simply relocating jobs from elsewhere in the state. Further, the audit found ESDC didn’t obtain the proper paperwork to justify handing out tax breaks to some organizations. Cuomo told reporters that DiNapoli’s audits on his economic development programs are invalid partly because DiNapoli is a former member of the state Assembly.

“The comptroller is not just the comptroller. The comptroller was an Assemblyman for many, many years. And that New York State Assembly, first of all, passed numerous economic development plans for many, many years,” Cuomo explained. “For an Assemblyman to now critique economic development programs in upstate New York - what did you do? What bills did you vote on? And how did you allow this situation to develop?”

When asked by a reporter from The Observer why he then put DiNapoli in charge of auditing New York’s homeless shelters, Cuomo responded: “You get in some audits the person’s opinion, right? ‘I think this about economic development.’ Some audits are pure quantifications: count how many people are in a homeless shelter. Go ‘one, two, three.’”

The combination of comments appeared aimed at undermining DiNapoli’s work and authority, and fit the Cuomo mold of punching back at critics, whether they are advocates, local elected officials, or the elected chief fiscal officer of the state, DiNapoli.

Empire State Development issued a detailed rebuttal to DiNapoli’s Excelsior audit that challenged some of its more damning assertions. ESD claimed DiNapoli’s staff failed to grasp how the program actually works and the mandate of certain statutes. DiNapoli’s office responded that ESD staff had not been cooperative.

Jason Conwall, spokesperson for ESD, issued a statement to media outlets after the report was released, stating: "Any truly objective review would show this program is cost-effective, performance-based, and incentivizes business growth by only providing tax credits to those that have achieved their job commitments and investments. The reporting requirements to this agency, as well as to the Department of Labor, are rigorous and companies have to demonstrate to ESD that they met their job commitments before any credits are issued."

The comptroller also recently released audits of Cuomo’s Charge NY program and of Medicaid. DiNapoli’s Medicaid audit found dead people were still receiving benefits.

Cuomo’s dismissal of the comptroller’s audits seems to discount the fact that the comptroller oversees an army of professional auditors that base their reports on figures and facts.

E.J.McMahon of The Empire Center, a conservative think tank, said that it is generally expected that there will be tension between a Comptroller and Governor and that it is unsurprising that Cuomo, who has a reputation for “ad hominem denunciation” over “the substantive argument,” is feuding with someone charged with monitoring him. Yet accounting for those points, McMahon said there is still something surprising about Cuomo’s animosity toward DiNapoli.

“Cuomo has exhibited a peculiar mix of antipathy and disrespect for Tom DiNapoli. It's hard to explain. After all, DiNapoli generally has been cautious and measured in his criticisms of administration policies, which reflects an institutional tradition in the comptroller’s office. He’s not exactly a confrontational kind of guy. If anything, DiNapoli seems to go out of his way to avoid taking potshots or unduly juicing up the wording of criticisms he does make..”

Representatives from Cuomo’s office repeatedly pointed to press releases of critical audits by DiNapoli’s office as salacious, saying they do not jibe with what is contained in the reports. During legislative hearings on economic development programs held earlier this month, administration officials quizzed on DiNapoli’s audit failed to provide detailed rebuttals, only indicating they did not agree with the audits.

Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement, “When someone makes false or misleading attacks, our administration aggressively defends and corrects the record and we make no apologies for doing so.” She did not offer comment to the assertion that Cuomo has worked to undermine the comptroller’s office. She also did not respond to a request to elaborate on what might have been “false” in DiNapoli’s audits.

In a statement, DiNapoli reiterated his role: "As state Comptroller, my office provides checks & balances and oversight to ensure that the state is working efficiently for our taxpayers. Government should always be working to improve itself. We have a job to do, and we will continue to do it.”

Cuomo and DiNapoli are both Democrats.

In October, as news about Bharara’s investigation broke, DiNapoli faced questions about why his office wasn’t more involved in providing oversight into how two SUNY nonprofits were awarding million-dollar contracts. He told Susan Arbetter of The Capitol Pressroom that Cuomo and the Legislature had taken away his ability to review contracts before they were issued by SUNY and CUNY.

Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that it is important to note that these powers were stripped from DiNapoli as the Buffalo Billion program began to take off. “The governor has worked methodically to undermine and resist the comptroller’s oversight. His first budget stripped the comptroller’s oversight over SUNY Research Foundation, which has been essential in the unfolding scandals in what appears to be pay-to-play for millions of dollars of contracts,” said Kaehny.

Just as McMahon said, many watchdogs see Cuomo’s reaction to DiNapoli’s audits as concerning because they don’t believe DiNapoli has been as critical as he could be and has not hit some of the more sensitive areas of Cuomo's economic development programs.

At the same time they see DiNapoli as standing mostly alone as a check on Cuomo’s economic development spending given the Legislature has been relatively absent. “There is no question Tom DiNapoli has been standing alone on this,” said Ron Deutsch of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. “The comptroller should be praised for doing his constitutionally-mandated job and the governor shouldn't begrudge him for doing it. The governor needs to learn to take the criticism along with the praise.”

Kenneth Giardin of The Empire Center agreed, “The comptroller has been picking up the slack that has been all but abandoned by the Legislature. The responsibility for oversight has fallen exclusively to the comptroller.”

In New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer has released a series of troublesome audits of city government, which have painted different levels of waste, dysfunction, and ineffectiveness by the administrations of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. While de Blasio has contested different points and looked to downplay the findings, he and his administration have not dismissed the office as one that simply delivers ‘opinion.’ Nor has de Blasio called Stringer’s work politically motivated, even though Stringer is thought to be a potential 2017 challenger to de Blasio.

Asked about the conflict between Cuomo and DiNapoli on Thursday, de Blasio said that he wasn’t familiar with all the specifics, but that the comptroller was asking “valid” questions about the efficacy of economic development programs and that he’s known DiNapoli to be a “a very serious public servant.” “And obviously the state Comptroller should be respected,” de Blasio added.

“The city comptroller does much, much broader audits,” said Kaehny. “When the state comptroller does an audit that looks at how the executive branch spends money they don’t pull back and ask questions about the bigger picture of nonprofits cutting million-dollar checks to campaign donors.”

Former Gov. George Pataki had a relatively cordial relationship with Comptroller Carl McCall despite the fact that McCall was a political rival. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s dislike for Republican Comptroller Edward Regan was not much of a secret - Regan was considered a possible serious challenger, though he never ran for Governor.

The New York Post recently reported rumors that DiNapoli could challenge Cuomo in a 2018 primary and capitalize on Cuomo’s weakness with liberal voters. DiNapoli dismissed the notion in an interview with Politico New York and said he plans to run for re-election as Comptroller.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: this article has been updated to include ESD rebuttal to the Comptroller's Excelsior audit.

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Cuomo Seeks to Undermine Comptroller’s Check on His Power Thu, 18 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly to Begin Implementation of Technology-Based Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6428:assembly-to-begin-implementation-of-technology-based-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6428:assembly-to-begin-implementation-of-technology-based-reforms 17084452209 83b7800f6b z

photo via The Governor's Office


Earlier this year, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced he would implement a series of recommendations -- proposed by the Assembly Workgroup on Legislative Process, Operations and Public Participation -- designed to increase transparency, efficiency and participation in the chamber. Some of those changes were voted on as rules reforms, others were made as pledges. But many of them that deal with technology, like a revamp of the Assembly’s website, posting more information about bills and committee hearings online and broadcasting hearings, were not implemented during the legislative session.

Assembly Democrats say staffers will begin implementing those technological improvements between now and the next session that begins in January. “It was difficult for the staff to work on these things while in session but now that legislative work is wrapped up they will begin to put many of these things in place,” Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh a Manhattan Democrat and co-chair of the 12-member workgroup that came up with the recommendations, told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we are in the off session we will be looking to get as many of these things in place as soon as possible.”

He stressed, however, that there is no “item-by-item deadline” to implement the reforms. Heastie’s office did not return requests for comment.

Assembly Republicans have criticized Kavanagh and his taskforce for taking nearly a year to recommend a series of “common sense” changes that don’t actually reform the power structure of the Assembly. They say the Assembly Democrats didn’t seek input on rules changes and have not kept them updated on implementation.

“They worked a whole year supposedly and came up with things that aren't particularly brave, that don’t change the power dynamic and (don’t) give members the ability to move their own legislation,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican from Canandaigua, to Gotham Gazette.

Some of the technology-focused changes the Assembly pledged to implement include making the functionality of the legislature’s bill-tracking system available to the public; creating a web portal that includes all information related to bills, including committee actions and evaluations by outside groups; the creation of a C-Span like legislative television channel; making the content of the legislative library searchable online and modernizing the Assembly’s phone system to include digital voicemail boxes.

"The recommendations put forth by the work group are thoughtful and comprehensive," Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle said in a statement in March when the reforms were released. "These measures build on the steps that we have taken recently to introduce technology into our operations. While these new changes will take some time to put into operation, this investment will increase efficiencies as well as provide greater transparency and accountability."

The workgroup came together in the wake of the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on multiple federal corruption charges last year. Heastie, in his bid to replace Silver, promised to appoint a group that would look at changing how the Assembly operates.

Many good government groups had the expectation that the workgroup's proposals would help empower individual members while decreasing the speaker’s ability to control all legislation, something they saw as playing into the charges against Silver, who had long resisted calls for basic technological changes to increase transparency. The Senate Republican Majority made these changes long ago.

Those advocacy groups welcomed the workgroup’s eventual recommendations but saw them as failing to deal with the issues that lead to Silver’s indictment. “Watching this process is like watching paint dry,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “They’ve done some good things but they haven't tackled anything to do with reforming the flaws in the system. It fits in with the overall Albany reaction to recent scandals, which has been to do nothing. Little has happened in the Assembly or in the Senate since Silver’s indictment that would really change anything. The name of the game has been public relations.”

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said he has faith that the Assembly will make good on promised changes in a timely fashion. “Speaker Heastie has every reason to get this right to show he is a good manager and sincere leader,” Kaehny said. “He is under intense scrutiny by the press and watchdog groups and will lose a great deal of credibility if he can't manage to get these fairly modest improvements done on-time."

As much as Assemblymember Kavanagh would like things implemented quickly, he also wants to make sure any changes are worthwhile. “We need to do it right,” he said, “and make sure we create a high functioning system.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly to Begin Implementation of Technology-Based Reforms Thu, 07 Jul 2016 15:59:46 +0000