Gotham Gazette Fri, 20 Jul 2018 19:49:04 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Skelos Conviction Greeted With Calls for Immediate Action on Reform Skelos Silver Cuomo 2012

Dean Skelos in 2012, via The Governor's Office on flickr 

Sen. Dean Skelos and his son Adam Skelos were convicted on eight federal corruption charges Friday. They were found guilty of a scheme where Dean Skelos used his power as Senate Majority Leader to influence companies to employ or pay his son. The conviction comes only a week after that of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges that he illegally used his influence for financial gain of $4 million.

The convictions speak to a larger campaign by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought the cases against both Silver and Skelos, to change the culture in Albany that enables lawmakers to hold outside jobs while influencing major policy decisions and a campaign finance system that allows companies to pour unlimited funds into campaign accounts. The juries in both cases return verdicts within only a few days.

"The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?" asked Bharara in a statement following the conviction.

Skelos loses his Senate seat with his conviction. He and his son both face 130 years in prison. Skelos becomes the fifth legislative leader to leave office under ethics troubles since 2000 and is the thirty-third legislator forced to leave office due to criminal or ethical misconduct since then.

Throughout his time as leader Skelos became known as a cutthroat politician, willing to make extraordinary deals to keep himself in power.

Skelos inherited the Majority Leader mantle from the legally troubled and retiring Sen. Joseph Bruno in 2008. In 2009, Republicans were thrust into the minority but Skelos schemed to correct that annoyance. He concocted a deal with Democratic Sens. Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate and created a new ruling coalition with himself as Majority Leader and Espada as Temporary President. The deal eventually fell apart but Democrats lost their majority during the next election cycle thanks to a Republican campaign that focused on "Democratic Dysfunction."

Skelos successfully fought off a major push by reformers for independent redistricting that many thought would thrust Republicans permanently into the minority and when Democrats eventually won a numerical majority again in 2012, Skelos cut another deal. Sen. Jeff Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference partnered with Republicans giving them the majority and Klein the title of co-leader along with a hefty helping of pork and staff funding.

Adam Skelos was caught on wiretap scolding his father, Dean, for allowing Klein to keep his position when Republicans won an outright majority in 2014. Dean assured his son that Klein had no real power. "I'm going to control everything. He's going to get very little. Believe me. Very little. Everybody's going to know," Dean told Adam. He then pointed out the real objective of the exercise was to "Keep [Democrats] separate and fighting and hating each other. That's what's worked for the last six years. Keeping them at each other's throats."

Senate Republicans allowed votes on a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's major issues during his tenure as Majority Leader including same-sex marriage and the SAFE Act. He cut also cut deals with Cuomo and Silver on a number of incremental reform packages that included the formation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an agency regarded almost universally as dysfunctional and impotent.

Skelos' conviction brought a tidal wave of calls for reform from good government groups and reform-minded electeds. Many repeated their post-Silver conviction call for Cuomo to call for a special session on ethics reform.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union said that for Cuomo "not to call now for special legislative session is to aid and abet the rampant corruption in Albany."

"Inaction speaks louder than words," wrote Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group in a statement. "Failure by Governor Cuomo to convene a special session on ethics and inaction by the legislature can only be understood as a defense of Albany's status quo."

Cuomo is under increasing pressure to act on ethics as he shuttered the Moreland Commission that was investigating legislative misconduct in a 2014 deal with Silver and Skelos--a deal that greatly angered Bharara and appears to have sparked a federal investigation.

Cuomo issued a statement putting the onus on the legislature, but indicating he plans to push for reforms:

"There can be no tolerance for those who use, and seek to use, public service for private gain. The justice system worked today. However, more must be done and will be pursued as part of my legislative agenda. The convictions of former Speaker Silver and former Majority Leader Skelos should be a wakeup call for the Legislature and it must stop standing in the way of needed reforms."

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan issued a statement saying that he wants to act "swiftly and completely" to restore the public trust. Last year Flanagan successfully blocked any action reforming the LLC loophole that allows corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions.

Klein, Skelos' former partner in governing, issued a similar statement: "Today's conviction of Dean Skelos should be a call to arms for Albany and the people who serve in government," said Klein.

[Read: How Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds]

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Skelos Conviction Greeted With Calls for Immediate Action on Reform Fri, 11 Dec 2015 19:56:40 +0000
Albany Lawmakers Putter Past Deadlines, Surprising No One Cuomo Heastie

Two of the 'three men' (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)

Albany has a reputation for procrastination. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature seem to meet no sunsetting regulation that impacts millions of people, mandated federal action with millions of dollars at stake, or other serious deadline that is too important for them to skirt. State government loves to push issues right to the edge, pause, and then shove them over the cliff just when everyone is looking.

It is a habit so ingrained in capital culture that long-time observers simply expect it. "When they announced the last day of session was a Wednesday I just assumed the actual end would be Friday," said Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who has witnessed decades of Albany dysfunction.

With both houses and the governor having failed to prevent the city's rent laws that govern affordable housing for millions of New Yorkers from expiring, they remain in Albany locked in a more-than familiar routine. Leaders meetings are punctuated by declarations to the press of "No deal yet!" or "See you tomorrow!" The governor's office issues press release after press release about funding grants to various projects and there is an occasional deal announced on an important issue while a host of legislative debates over bills bordering on the absurd take place in chambers - as happened Wednesday in the Senate on a bill that would make the wood frog the state amphibian or with a bill naming an official state dog that was on the Senate's active list on Thursday.

Lawmakers expect to continue this routine on Friday and Monday after that, if no deal materializes on rent regulations and a couple of other high profile issues like mayoral control of city schools. Legislators have special incentive to stay and negotiate, not only because of public opinion, but because if they fail to negotiate major policy now, Gov. Cuomo will be able to hammer his preferred policy positions through more easily in the next budget.

In Albany, where passing a state budget on time is seen as a work of wonders - and a late budget is labeled on-time because the clocks in the chamber are stopped during voting - many see the current situation as par for the course and think it may the best the state can hope for, especially given current realities. "In many ways this is a really typical end of session," said Horner. "Everyone is waiting while deals are rolled out slowly, negotiations are covered in a shroud of secrecy, and this is an odd numbered year so they are focused on delivering for the political elite rather than the voters."

Things could be worse given that the legislative hierarchy was upended by US Attorney Preet Bharara and Cuomo's negotiating team consists of second-term rookies. New conference leaders Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, have yet to storm away from the negotiating table and taken their conferences home. Cuomo hasn't begun making public threats, beyond saying he would keep the Legislature in town for as long as it takes to reach a deal on the rent laws. But history shows that there isn't much anyone can do to force the sides into a deal and as long as discussions are ongoing, there is still hope issues can be resolved.

The Legislature wrapped session fairly neatly over the last 3 years without a big ticket deal - often known as a "big ugly." But in 2011 Cuomo and legislators found themselves in a somewhat similar situation. Rent laws expired while negotiations over hot-button issues like marriage equality were actually resolved. The Legislature stayed in session a few days past the scheduled conclusion, passing simple extenders of the rent laws until they allowed the law to expire for 48 hours. Eventually a deal was struck.

Horner and others say it is when both sides stop talking that people really need to worry, because there is no effective recourse. "At the moment, cooler heads are prevailing and they continue to talk," said Horner. Cuomo could call a special session which allows him to force the Legislature to return to Albany to consider a legislative agenda of his choosing, but there is nothing he can do to make them pass bills. "The governor can call them back but it is largely an ineffective executive tool that is mainly used as a torture device rather than a deal-maker. It is used as a weapon to force them to schlep to Albany," said Horner.

Former Assembly Member and Senior Demos Fellow Richard Brodsky says that special sessions are "just silly," because "the Legislature can just gavel out of special session and into regular session," without even considering the governor's agenda.

Brodsky said it is actually in Cuomo's best interest if end-of-session negotiations fail. He said the governor's considerable budget powers have actually led to this end-of-session stalemate. "Last minute negotiation is a basic tenet of any democracy, from London to Jerusalem," said Brodsky. "What is really going on here is the governor has no incentive to negotiate because he can get whatever he wants in the budget thanks to Silver v. Pataki."

The decision in that case prevents the Legislature from altering Cuomo's budget proposals, allowing the branch to only agree or disagree with each entry. This year the result was the adoption of Cuomo's hyper-controversial education plan, free of legislative tinkering. There was, of course, much that the governor attempted to include in the budget that legislators would not agree to and was thus bumped out completely.

Brodsky says he expects Cuomo and the Legislature to agree to basic extenders so that Cuomo can put more long-term deals on mayoral control and rent regulations in his budget.

Meanwhile, for further head-scratching consider that both houses of the Legislature maintain a technical defense against any gubernatorial special session by staying in regular session even when members aren't actually in Albany to vote on anything. When leadership announces the end of a session week they will unfailingly announce their return date along with the phrase "intervening days being legislative days." The move is designed so that they never technically go out of session and leave themselves open to an official special session called by the governor. Horner says he isn't exactly clear whether the mechanism actually works. If Cuomo were to call the Legislature back it would carry with it the weight of public opinion, regardless of the technicalities.

The Legislature has returned outside of normal session voluntarily in the past to address pressing issues. They've reached deals on tax reform under Gov. Cuomo and on anti-terrorism measures after 9/11 under Gov. George Pataki.

One reason the current situation may not seem so bad to veterans like Horner is that there was a time when having the Legislature in Albany through the summer was basically the norm. Under Pataki and Gov. David Paterson budgets, due by March 1, were routinely months late.

Paterson put his executive power to the test during the 2009 Senate coup where Republicans attempted to seize control of the chamber by aligning with Sens. Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate. Both Democrats and Republicans insisted they controlled the chamber, the stalemate continued for weeks as legal challenges mounted. Paterson issued a special session to address outstanding issues like mayoral control of schools.

Legislators returned to Albany facing the threat of having the State Police force them there but Democrats and Republicans refused to enter the Senate chamber at the same time. Nothing got done.

Paterson later pressed Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to withhold senators' pay until they got to work. DiNapoli initially resisted but in early July 2009 he began withholding payments despite the lack of any clear legality. The situation was eventually resolved when Paterson filled the vacant lieutenant governor position, which stripped the Senate of some of its power.

Horner stresses that the current situation isn't anywhere near the dysfunction of 2009 but that with all the pressure the Legislature faces and tension in the chamber due to Bharara's indictments, things could change for the worse. The situation is already at a point where many policy issues have been swept off the table as almost only the most basic items that have or will soon sunset are being dealt with.

"I really couldn't give odds on whether things get settled," said Horner. "This is a unique session. normally muscle memory is that there is radio silence from the governor and leaders as agreements roll out and I think that is what the expectation is now. But there is a giant question mark over whether Albany has the capacity to deal with all the changes it has been through this year."

Brodsky, however, said he knows how this movie ends. "I've been saying for months we will get extenders and the governor will put what he wants on these issues in his budget in March. I don't fault the governor, why would he negotiate when he doesn't have to?"

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Albany Lawmakers Putter Past Deadlines, Surprising No One Thu, 18 Jun 2015 23:54:41 +0000
Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds Skelos Silver Cuomo

Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)

In June 2008, after serving 23 years as the State Senator from Nassau County, Dean Skelos inherited the troubled Republican conference from retiring Majority Leader Joe Bruno. It wasn't exactly the most enviable position.

Facing an aging conference and with Democrats enjoying a huge enrollment advantage across the state, 2009 saw Republicans enter the Senate minority for the first time in decades. The same month Skelos began his stint as minority leader his predecessor was indicted on eight counts of corruption. It began Skelos' long but successful fight to keep his conference not only relevant but in charge when it mattered the most in terms of decision-making for the future of his party.

Now, seven years later, Skelos faces a federal complaint with several charges, including monetizing his office by arranging payments to him and his son through a developer who sought favorable legislation. The case involves many elements of state government that have been attacked as corrupt and unethical - from the LLC loophole that allows donors to pump the lifeblood of campaign cash into the Republican conference, or the 421-A tax break for developers that has been attacked as a giveaway to corporate donors, major issues at play in the indictment are parts of how Skelos managed to keep himself and the Senate Republicans in power in Albany.

"I'm going to be president of the Senate, I'm going to be majority leader," Skelos allegedly told his son during a phone conversation about their deal with a developer - a call being recorded by federal agents. "I'm going to control everything, I'm going to control who gets on what committees, what legislation goes to the floor, what legislation comes through committees, the budget, everything."

On Monday Skelos issued a statement claiming his innocence and worked to maintain his role as leader of the Senate Majority.

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action, an organization that has advocated many major reforms that Skelos directly opposes, said that Skelos' power can be directly traced back to the policy he delivers and the reforms he opposes.

"It was never more clear than in last year's Senate elections how much the system helped keep the Republicans in power," said Scharff. "They raised vast amounts of money from hedge funds that were interested in very specific policy points and had them spend massive amounts of money in independent expenditures to deliver the policy that keeps them in power."

During his time as Majority Leader Skelos won battles on redistricting, not only pushing back efforts to create independently drawn lines but even succeeding in the creation of the 63rd Senate seat upstate. He publicly derided campaign finance reform, public financing of campaigns, and efforts to have lawyers disclose their clients. And behind the scenes he was mostly successful in holding back the tide of government and campaign finance reform. He's appointed members to the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, and fought successfully to kill the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. As the federal charges against him and much political history show, Skelos has not been alone in any of this.

The indictment against Skelos alleges he monetized his office by abusing the same systems and loopholes that he protected from reform. The charges against Skelos say that the developer involved in the kickback scheme used the LLC loophole to subvert campaign finance limits. Only last month, Skelos' new appointee to the Board of Elections thwarted efforts to eliminate the same loophole.

Skelos maintained this power by cutting deals with Democrats like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Independent Democratic Conference head Sen. Jeff Klein who both share some of Skelos' economic concerns and larger donors.

"Skelos' indictment gets to the core problem," Scharff told Gotham Gazette. " Those who raise the most money are the ones who have the most power and they have gone out of their way to make sure reform doesn't happen. They have made sure it is built into how Albany works."

How He Got Here: The Coup
In 2009, Senate Democrats reveled in their new-found power. Exposing Bruno's largess - personal, customized vans for his use, private printing facilities, and television studios, Democrats were riding high as they took control of the chamber. But Democrats only enjoyed a few seat margin over Republicans.

The "Three Amigos" including Pedro Espada, Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz pushed for more power within the conference in exchange for their loyalty. Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith appeared weak and scattered. Meanwhile Buffalo billionaire Thomas Golisano, who had helped Democrats win the majority, felt ignored by Smith. He and his political fixer Steve Pigeon met with Skelos and Republican Sens. Tom Libous and George Maziarz in an Albany rock club and began devising a Senate takeover.

They recruited the dissatisfied and particularly-ambitious freshman Espada and Espada recruited Sen. Hiram Monserrate. On June 8, 2009, with only days left in session, facing the expiration of mayoral control of schools and the rent laws, Republicans lept into action. Republicans moved for a surprising leadership vote and although it was disputed by Democrats soon Skelos was standing in the chamber shaking hands with Espada - the two split Smith's positions as Majority Leader Espada and Senate President Skelos.

Control of the Senate was disputed for months. Eventually Espada and Monserrate rejoined the Democratic conference but the damage had been done - rifts in the Senate Democrats were made public, and they were painted as dysfunctional during their first shot at the majority in decades.

Worth noting is that at the time both Monserrate and Espada faced ethical questions beyond just conniving for Senate power. Espada was eventually convicted of stealing from his own health clinics, in one case using cash for HIV victims to fund his campaigns, and Monserrate was eventually expelled from the Senate for slashing his girlfriend's face with a bottle. And yet, Skelos partnered with both men for a tenuous shot to regain control of the Senate.

Keeping Power Through Redistricting
In 2011 Skelos regained the title of Senate Majority Leader thanks to major donations from real estate, developers, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it wasn't a moment too soon. A coalition of reform groups led by former Mayor Ed Koch were pushing for legislators to deliver a redistricting plan that better reflected the actual enrollment and population of the state. For decades Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats engaged in a redistricting process that allowed them to draw districts that would assure their incumbents had the best chance of being reelected, disregarding the actual makeup of communities. Skelos played hardball, slamming Koch's efforts as "partisan."

Eventually Cuomo gave up his pledge to veto any district lines that were gerrymandered and agreed to new lines that drastically favored Senate Republicans, even creating a 63rd district upstate that suspiciously carved its way around major population centers and incorporated rural towns populated by more voters who were more likely Republican.

During this time Skelos proved to be a valuable ally to Cuomo as he helped the governor pass some of his more conservative fiscal plans, including a tax cap, while also delivering Cuomo the votes he needed on same-sex marriage. Although Cuomo also delivered a highly-touted ethics package that year, advocates insist that major issues were ignored because Skelos and Senate Republicans refused to cede any ground on campaign finance reform as they believed the current system was essential to keeping them in the majority.

2013-2014 Deals and The Death of Moreland
Democrats technically held enough seats for a majority after the 2012 elections but Skelos cut a deal with the IDC and newly-elected Sen. Simcha Felder to create a coalition government which saw Skelos rotate control of the chamber with Klein. During this time a number of legislators were indicted on corruption charges and advocates began a major push for public financing of campaigns. Skelos stood steadfast against campaign finance reform, even holding a hearing against the policy featuring national anti-public finance advocates.

"Public financing of elections would not have stopped any one of those crooks and idiots from doing what they did," Skelos told reporters on April 23, 2013. Skelos directly referenced Smith who had been indicted that day on counts that he tried to bribe his way onto the Republican ticket in the race for New York City mayor.

As pressure mounted in 2013 Skelos obstinately opposed a series of reforms proposed by Cuomo - a package of reforms most advocates actually considered insignificant. Finally Cuomo made good on his longtime threat to empanel a Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. For months, as Moreland held hearings, Skelos and now-indicted then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver waged a court battle against Moreland and publicly decried it as a "witch hunt."

"These actions amount to an attempt to coerce or threaten the Legislature and upset the separation of powers that exists between the executive and legislative branches, and cannot be accepted," Skelos wrote to Senate Republicans in November 2013.

It was in 2013 that reports of possible influence by Cuomo's office into the commission began. Some Moreland insiders insisted Cuomo's office was particularly deadset on stopping subpoenas to the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members are key Cuomo donors, but also major backers of Skelos and Senate Republicans. Cuomo began facing increasing pushback from Skelos and Silver during 2014 budget negotiations.

Moreland was reportedly closing in on ties between donations from the real estate industry and policy and it was making everyone in charge antsy. In March, Cuomo quietly announced he had killed Moreland in exchange for his proposed slate of reforms. "Skelos killed the commission just as it was starting to expose the quid-pro-quo system that is built into Albany," said Scharff.

As the 2014 election season kicked into high gear Cuomo felt increasing pressure to support a Democratic Senate and align himself with liberal policy. The governor promised the Working Families Party he would help elect Democrats to the Senate and the IDC promised it would caucus with Democrats.

Senate Republicans mobilized their major donors, reminding them of the coming sunset of the rent laws, the push to expand charter schools in the state, and of the "Democratic dysfunction of 2009." Not only did the real estate industry pour record amounts of cash into Senate Republican coffers, but it marshalled a number of independent expenditures to boost candidates in important districts.

This Year
Republicans started 2015 with the wind in their sails. They had won complete control of the Senate and soon after the year began Silver, longtime Democratic Assembly majority leader, was indicted. But quickly word came that Skelos was also a target of US Attorney Preet Bharara. Still, Skelos rejected just about any Democratic policy proposed in the state budget: tossed out were proposals on campaign finance reform, renewing mayoral control of schools, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage, and a host of other issues.

After returning from the budget break in mid-April, Republicans largely ignored the major outstanding issues. Session became a parade of small-time legislation having to do with vanity license plates and honoring local sports teams. Last week as more chatter picked up around Skelos' possible indictment, session slowed even further with Republicans spending more time in conference.

Finally on Friday the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported federal prosecutors might arrest Skelos on Monday. Skelos and his son faced charges in court and the Senate Majority leader proclaimed his innocence. Senate session went on as planned Monday afternoon, with little of substance being discussed and many Republican Senators expressing solidarity with Skelos, the man who kept them in power against the odds. But signs exist of a possible break in the solidarity. Some, like Sens. John DeFrancisco and John Flanagan jockeyed to replace Skelos while others like Sen. John Bonacic said Skelos had to resign with an indictment over his head.

Democratic Sen. Michael Gianaris said he was "troubled" by the allegations against Skelos, adding: "Senator Skelos should now step down as Majority Leader for the good of our state and in the interest of allowing the remaining weeks of our legislative session to proceed without distraction. There are too many important issues which remain unresolved, ironically including several long overdue ethics reforms and expiring housing laws."

Saying that "Legislative leaders must be held to a higher ethical standard of conduct and his actions violate that standard," good government group Citizens Union called for Skelos to step down from his leadership post on Tuesday.

Klein, who maintains a deal with Senate Republicans, did not call for Skelos to resign. "The burden now falls on the Republican Conference to determine if new Republican Leadership is warranted," Klein said in a statement.

Cuomo, who has remained mostly in New York City of late, was in Albany Monday, but his only public event was an announcement that he participated in by phone. He did not comment on the Skelos matter.

Scharff and Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group both said it is now up to Cuomo to push through the reforms he could not achieve earlier this year. "At the top of that list of legislative "must dos" are initiatives to overhaul ethics enforcement, limit outside income, and reign in the influence of New York's powerful special interests," said Horner. "The governor must take up the unfinished Moreland Commission agenda to restore the public's confidence in state government; specifically closing the LLC loophole."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds Tue, 05 May 2015 15:59:40 +0000