Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1204 Sun, 17 Dec 2017 19:37:10 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most three men at a table

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office)


"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on NY1 on Jan. 3. "We have done a lot in Albany, but we haven't done enough. And I'm going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement, etcetera."

While the governor did unveil an aggressive ethics agenda during his State of the State speech a week later, Cuomo’s words ring hollow now, as a state budget containing no government ethics reform passes and any hope for such reform happening this year is pushed to the legislative session, where it is unlikely to occur.

Cuomo has done nothing public on ethics reform despite the promises he made during his Jan. 13 State of the State address. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve,” Cuomo said at the time. “And remember the stronger the citizen trust, the stronger the government’s ability.”

Just about a month after two of New York’s most powerful legislators were convicted of several federal corruption charges in separate trials, Cuomo laid out a plan to close the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs, limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn, and adopt a publicly funded campaign finance system, among other reforms.

Yet, as negotiations for the state budget come to a close, the “three men in a room” deciding the state’s roughly $150 billion budget have not moved ethics reforms that could help give the people they serve “the government that they deserve.” In a Siena College poll released Feb. 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers said corruption in state government is a serious problem, with 60 percent calling for outside income to be banned.

Although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and one of the “three men in a room” along with Gov. Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has pledged to “increase transparency and accountability” and “restore the public’s trust in government,” the lack of any ethics reform in the state budget calls Heastie’s follow through on that commitment into question.

“The Assembly has pledged to enact comprehensive ethics reforms, and we take that commitment very seriously,” said Heastie in a press release detailing the ethics reform component of the Assembly’s budget plan, which was released Friday evening March 11. Like Cuomo, Heastie outlined an ethics reform agenda, but did little else to publicly promote it.

On that Friday morning three weeks ago, Heastie outlined the Assembly Democrats’ ethics package at an event held by Crain’s New York Business. The plan also includes a proposal to close the LLC loophole, as well as proposals to limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn (though not as strictly as Cuomo’s plan), and to make it so that legislators who also work as attorneys can only earn money for the casework they perform, rather than for simply serving as "of counsel," lending their name to a law firm - a practice at root of the scandal that brought down Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver.

Both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were brought down last year by corruption convictions related to their use of their public offices for private gain.

The new head of the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the need for further ethics reform, and he and many other Senate Republicans are opposed to making the Legislature full-time or placing any limits on lawmakers’ outside income.

Sen. Flanagan has previously pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill, aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption cannot collect a government pension, in a deal with the Assembly, only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute. Pension forfeiture is notably absent from the Assembly's reform plan.

As the New York Times Editorial Board writes, “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both.

New Yorkers, legislators, and government reform groups alike say that ethics reform is essential, “especially considering the context of the past year,” as Cuomo himself said during his State of the State. Yet at a time when Cuomo has the most leverage, he has failed to achieve reform. Heastie has decided not to aggressively pursue the Assembly's plan, and Flanagan has appeared totally disinterested in the issue. The minorities in each house - one Democratic, one Republican - have actually been more vocal than the majorities.

“We are blowing our Watergate moment,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told the Wall Street Journal. “This year’s budget process has been nothing but a series of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public.”

Senate Republicans’ resistance to outside income limits and closing the LLC loophole have left room for Cuomo and Heastie to play a blame game. In part because neither did anything beyond one speech to promote ethics reform leading up to the budget, there is room to question their seriousness. But, Senate Republicans have, it seems, let the two Democrats and Assembly Democrats in general off the hook.

“It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures,” Assemblymember David Buchwald said upon signing a pledge to fight for good government reform, including closing the LLC loophole. “I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge.

"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted both Silver and Skelos, said during a talk in Albany in February.

A coalition of government reform groups, including Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany, released a statement denouncing the governor and legislative leaders for failing to pass any ethics reform in the three-and-a-half months since former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver were convicted of corruption, despite strong public demand for action to be taken.

“With a recent poll showing that nearly 90% of New Yorkers believe that unethical behavior is a serious problem in state government a month before former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are sentenced for public corruption,” the statement reads, “the governor and legislative leaders have an obligation to New Yorkers to reach a significant agreement on ethics reform.”

“The collapse of ethics reform during the budget is failure by the governor to mobilize overwhelming public support for change," said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “New York State’s political leaders have chosen to ‘kick the can’ instead of tackling the needed reforms to respond to Albany’s ‘Watergate moment.’”

When Cuomo was asked in February whether ethics reform were likely to remain in the budget, the governor replied, “As we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it’s going to be at the top of the list.” Not long after, Cuomo conceded that ethics reform would not be included in the budget.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most Thu, 31 Mar 2016 23:07:07 +0000
As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Activists Launch 'Vote Better' Campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5963:as-new-yorkers-go-to-the-polls-activists-launch-vote-better-campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5963:as-new-yorkers-go-to-the-polls-activists-launch-vote-better-campaign voter registration via NYC Votes

Voter registration efforts (photo: @NYCVotes)


On Tuesday morning - Election Day - in Manhattan's Foley Square, a large group of New Yorkers will hold a rally, kicking off a campaign to address two of New York's enduring problems: voting access and voter turnout.

While New York City voters go to the polls Tuesday to fill vacant City Council, District Attorney, and state legislative seats, as well as to vote for judges, a coalition of advocates and activists, including good government and community groups, will launch a petition drive toward passing legislation it says will "modernize elections in New York."

The "Vote Better NY" coalition is led by NYC Votes, the voter outreach arm of the city Campaign Finance Board; and also includes Dominicanos USA; Generation Citizen; New York Immigration Coalition, and other advocacy groups, along with good government organizations Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG. The push is to garner popular support and "show lawmakers" that "New Yorkers from across the state want election reform to be a priority in Albany."

The petition calls for three key reforms to make voting easier in New York:
-The Voter Empowerment Act (A5972/S2538A) to upgrade our voter registration system
-The Voter Friendly Ballot Act (A3389) to establish better ballot design
-Early voting so New Yorkers have more than one day to cast their ballots

The hope is that Albany lawmakers will pass these measures during their 2016 legislative session.

Speaking of 2016, New Yorkers will go to the polls several times next year as they vote in presidential, congressional, and state-level elections on a variety of dates. Then, come 2017, there will be another round of New York City elections featuring a mayoral race as well as other citywide and City Council seats.

First, though, there's this Tuesday's Election Day. There aren't a lot of high-profile races on the ballot, but New York City will soon have two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and perhaps a few new judges.

Judicial elections can often be the most mysterious, as City Limits recently pointed out, along with its discussion of how the election for Bronx District Attorney has transpired in a fashion that good government groups and other watchers have called an insult to democracy.

On Staten Island, the district attorney race has been far different as two candidates seek to replace Congressional Rep. Dan Donovan. It's unclear who has the edge heading into Tuesday's vote as former Rep. Michael McMahon, the Democrat, faces Republican Joan Illuzzi, a longtime prosecutor.

Along with its voter guide for Tuesday's city elections, the New York City Campaign Finance Board offers, "To learn more about judicial candidates running in your district, visit the online Judicial Voter Guide published by the New York State Unified Court." Still, there's limited information to be found on the candidates, as City Limits has shown.

The CFB outlines candidates for several special elections taking place on Tuesday to fill vacant seats in the City Council or the state Legislature.

The two Council vacancies are due to members who resigned to take other jobs. There are three vacancies in the state Legislature that are being filled. One, a Brooklyn Assembly seat (District 46), is due to a resignation for another job opportunity. Two others are due to corruption, where the former members were forced to resign. Those two seats include one Queens Assembly seat (District 29) and one Brooklyn Senate seat (District 19).

In District 23 in Queens there is a City Council vacancy created by the resignation of Mark Weprin, who took a job in Governor Cuomo's administration. The Democratic candidate, Barry Grodenchik, faces Republican candidate Joseph Concannon. Grodenchik, a former Assembly member, came out of a crowded Democratic primary.

In District 51 on Staten Island, there is another vacancy being filled - it is an uncontested race for City Council, where Assemblymember Joseph Borelli will be elected to the Council to fill the seat vacated by former Minority Leader Vinny Ignizio, who resigned to take a job as a nonprofit leader. Like Ignizio, Borelli is a Republican.

Borelli and the winner of the Grodenchik-Concannon race will have to run for re-election in 2017, when the entirety of the City Council and the citywide officials will be on the ballot.

First, a year from now, there will be elections for all the seats in the New York State Assembly and Senate. Just ten months from now, there will be primaries in those races.

As both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and form Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos head to trial this month on corruption charges (Silver's trial starts Monday), speculation continues to swirl around whether either will still be in office come next year's elections, and if they are, whether they will see significant challenges.

While there is more intrigue ahead in 2016 and 2017, don't forget to go out and vote on Tuesday in the 2015 elections, if you have races to vote in - check your poll site here, via the City Board of Elections. Turnout is expected to be quite low this year, even lower than it has been in other recent years with more high-profile offices on the ballot, part of why 'Vote Better' activists are launching their campaign Tuesday.

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by Ben Max, editor, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

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

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As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Activists Launch 'Vote Better' Campaign Mon, 02 Nov 2015 02:19:48 +0000
Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate squadron podium

Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


On Tuesday the state Assembly passed a bill to close the controversial LLC loophole at the center of the federal corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both men - a Democrat and a Republican, respectively - were recently arrested and subsequently stepped down from their powerful leadership posts. Later in the evening Tuesday, the Senate’s version of the bill to close the loophole that allows money to flow unfettered into campaign accounts appeared to be dispatched by Senate Republicans in a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

The LLC loophole that allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to legislators has been treated by many as a political hot potato all year. It gained attention when Glenwood Management and its principle, Leonard Litwin, were connected to the Silver indictment. Litwin is the state’s largest campaign donor thanks to the many LLCs he controls and his tendency to donate large sums to politicians at all levels of state government and in both major parties. The issue flared up again after Litwin and his company appeared in the federal complaint against Skelos.

According to a study by Common Cause NY, Glenwood Management has given $12.8 million in political donations from 2005 to 2014, but only 10 percent of those donations actually came directly from Litwin or his companies. The rest of the donations were made by LLCs registered to Glenwood or listed at its address.

In April, Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat, used a parliamentary maneuver called “Motion for Committee Consideration” to force the Elections Committee to consider the bill. In an apparent move designed to avoid controversy, Republican Senators voted to move the bill out of committee without recommendation. Instead of being sent to the floor for a vote it was sent to the Corporations Committee. Squadron told Gotham Gazette at the time it appeared the Republcians had “used a loophole to kill an attempt to stop a loophole” because the Corporations Committee rarely meets.

The rules say that once a bill is referred to a committee it must be heard within that committee’s next two meetings, if they are held within the legislative session for which the bill is active.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporations Committee did indeed meet on Tuesday, only after the meeting had been rescheduled multiple times - its second meeting since the bill left the Elections Committee. The meeting was finally called to order in the evening after the day’s Senate session. Committees rarely, if ever, meet after session. In fact, Squadron said he couldn't recall a committee meeting being scheduled for after session during his seven years serving in the Senate.

The LLC bill was not on the committee's agenda despite Squadron’s insistence that Senate rules mandated it. Committee Chair Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer told Squadron that he had not received a letter requesting his bill be put on the agenda until just before the meeting.

Squadron said he indeed had notified the committee properly and that the request for consideration he filed with the Elections Committee should have ensured the bill was on the agenda. Republican counsel interpreted the rules differently saying that the motion did not mandate a vote in Corporations.

“I just got your letter. I haven't been able to digest your letter,” Ranzenhofer told Squadron. “Let me take look at it and decide whether it should be on the calendar.”

Squadron pressed Ranzenhofer on when the committee might meet next and if it is likely his bill would be on the agenda. “Actually, before this subject came up it was actually not my plan to have any more meetings,” Ranzenhofer responded and referenced the many bills that had already been considered during the meeting. With that the meeting was adjourned.

“Hope springs eternal,” Squadron told Gotham Gazette. “I have hope that the new leader will consider the importance of this measure,” Squadron said, noting that new Majority Leader John Flanagan had only been elected to replace Skelos the day before. Flanagan told reporters earlier in the day that he would discuss the loophole with his conference.

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said she wasn’t exactly surprised Squadron’s bill was not considered. “No one pays attention to committee meetings in the Senate,” she said, adding, “Most lobbyists don’t even show up because they are controlled by leadership.”

Consensus on ending the loophole has been elusive despite the headlines it has inspired.

Closing the loophole appeared to be part of budget negotiations, with Governor Andrew Cuomo saying publicly that he believes it should be closed, but it was absent from the final deal that was revealed to legislators minutes before they had to vote for it. It has been unclear if the governor, whose campaign accounts have benefited immensely from LLC contributions, has worked at all to move Senate Republicans toward closing the loophole.

In April, good government groups partnered with legislators to push the State Board of Elections to close the loophole that it had created through a 1996 ruling. The Board deadlocked 2-2, with both Republican appointees voting against a measure sponsored by the Democrats to consider limits on LLCs.

Also last month, the Senate Elections Committee referred Squadron’s bill to Corporations, where it appears it will die. There is no indication that the committee will meet again before legislative session ends in mid-June.

“They all benefit from this,” said Bartoletti of both houses of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo. “One of them will do something on it knowing the other will prevent real action.”

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill to close the LLC loophole, acknowledged the fact that members of both political parties are beneficiaries in the status quo. “This is a non-partisan issue,” said Kavanagh. After his bill was passed by a whopping 120-8 vote in the Assembly, Kavanagh later issued a statement saying he hopes “The Senate will join us in enacting this, by passing Senator Daniel Squadron's companion bill."

In the news release celebrating the Assembly vote sent out by Speaker Carl Heastie’s office, Kavanagh is also quoted saying that "The LLC loophole is perhaps the most egregious weakness in our laws regulating money in politics. It has been the mechanism of choice for certain people to attempt to buy influence wholesale.”

For his part, Heastie stated, “Limits on political contributions exist for a reason...By treating LLCs the same way we treat corporations, we can create greater transparency and put an end to the use of multiple LLCs as a means of working around campaign finance laws.”

Good government groups issued a statement praising the bipartisan passage of the bill in the Assembly. “With the passage of A.6975-B, the Assembly has sent a strong bipartisan signal, and is taking an important step to uphold the public interest and rebuild confidence through the passage of one of many needed ethics reforms,” said the statement from a coalition of groups including The New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, The Brennan Center, Reinvent Albany and Citizens Union. “We encourage the Senate to follow suit and let New Yorkers know they are serious about addressing the pervasive culture of corruption plaguing Albany.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing 

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Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate Wed, 13 May 2015 03:41:38 +0000