Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/462 Tue, 24 Oct 2017 11:13:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Supreme Court Ruling May Help De Blasio Avoid Charges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6803:supreme-court-ruling-may-help-de-blasio-avoid-charges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6803:supreme-court-ruling-may-help-de-blasio-avoid-charges de blasio judges city hal

Mayor de Blasio swears-in judges (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, ruling that his help to a constituent who gave him thousands of dollars in gifts did not break the law. The ruling, which examined the meaning of an “official act,” set a new precedent for corruption prosecutions and effectively increased the burden of proof for investigators.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio faces a federal investigation into his administration over whether government action was promised to or taken on behalf of donors to the mayor’s causes, the McDonnell case may provide help in vindicating de Blasio and his aides. De Blasio has insisted that he and his team have behaved legally and will be exonerated -- the mayor recently agreed to be interviewed by federal agents.

De Blasio’s office has also said that the mayor himself is not the focus of the investigation. However, he could become a target depending on the evidence prosecutors have collected or if his answers at the interview were inconsistent with statements from others in the orbit of the investigation. At the same time, the McDonnell ruling could help prevent prosecutors from bringing charges against de Blasio.

In Virginia, McDonnell and his wife were convicted in 2015 on bribery charges for accepting loans and gifts equalling $175,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams when McDonnell was in office. Federal prosecutors argued that, in exchange for the gifts, McDonnell used his office to arrange meetings and host events to promote Williams’ business.

On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously vacated McDonnell’s conviction and ruled that for an exercise of governmental power in a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” to be considered an “official act,” a public official “must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event—without more—does not fit that definition.”

This is effectively what Mayor de Blasio has argued recently, as he has admitted bringing items to the attention of his agency leaders that were of concern to donors. His deputies, the mayor said, always know to make their decisions based on the merits. No evidence has surfaced publicly showing de Blasio ordering a government act on behalf of a donor because of the donor’s monetary contribution to a de Blasio cause.

The McDonnell decision undoubtedly narrowed the interpretation of bribery law, as it pertains to the types of actions that a public official can legally perform. “That decision has changed the way prosecutors charge these cases,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director at Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. “It impacts all cases. Prosecutors will definitely consider that when making charging decisions.”

Other experts see a minor change in how prosecutors will approach relevant cases under the McDonnell ruling. "It prevents prosecutors from bringing only the weakest of public corruption cases, those where the prosecution lacks even circumstantial evidence that a corrupt payoff was for something more than a chance to meet with the public official," write Arlo Devlin-Brown, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office and Erin Monju, a former clerk there, in a recent New York Law Journal piece.

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office seems to be winding down its investigation into whether there was quid-pro-quo involved in donations to de Blasio’s 2013 electoral campaign and now-defunct nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York. While de Blasio’s electoral campaign received a good deal of bundled money from people with city business, the Campaign for One New York received millions from such from entities, like labor unions and real estate developers. Individuals with city business are limited to $400 contributions to electoral campaigns (only recently were such restrictions created to limit groups like Campaign for One New York).

While there are a number of instances where de Blasio donors received favorable city action, the investigation is focused on about half a dozen donors, according to The New York Times.

As the 2017 mayoral race heats up, the investigation has been hanging over de Blasio, his aides, his declared and potential challengers, and the entire city for almost a year. In a twist, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, head of the investigating office, was on Saturday fired from his post by President Donald Trump. The investigation, which may be in its final stages, will continue without Bharara, as his leading public corruption lawyers have been on the case throughout.

(There is also an ongoing investigation, led by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, looking into de Blasio and his associates funnelling funds to Democratic candidates for state Senate in 2014. The McDonnell case appears to have no bearing in this instance, though the mayor also insists that he and his political team did nothing illegal.)

During a Feb. 27 appearance on NY1’s Road to City Hall, de Blasio’s first interview after a four-hour meeting with federal prosecutors the prior Friday, the mayor sought to dispel the notion that he had personally intervened to direct government action in favor of a particular donor. The donor in question, Moishe Indig, a rabbi in the Satmar Hasidic community, was a fundraiser for the mayor, and the Department of Buildings had reportedly lifted a partial vacate order on two school buildings owned by him after the mayor intervened. (The news was first reported by Kings County Politics.)

De Blasio told host Errol Louis that he only knew Indig as a community leader and played no part in any DOB decision. “I don't intervene and tell agencies how to do their business,” de Blasio said. “Agencies come to their own conclusion when they look at a community concern like the concern of a house of worship, they’re going to ultimately come to their own decision, and that’s as it should be.”

In a point that directly relates to the McDonnell decision, de Blasio argued that it wasn’t improper for him to bring an issue to an agency’s attention. “[W]hen I was City Council member, Public Advocate, and, again, as Mayor, I believe it is perfectly appropriate to put an issue on an agency's plate,” he said later in the interview. “The agency has to make the decision that they see as right.”

It’s not uncommon for the mayor to pay attention to individual constituent concerns. On his weekly appearances on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio takes questions from callers and often promises to help them with issues they raise. He does the same at local town halls that he has hosted across the city, asking his team to follow up with a person to see if they can provide assistance. The question remains, though, whether donors receive special treatment because they are donors.

In the McDonnell decision, the Supreme Court recognized that elected officials respond to constituents in many instances. Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the unanimous opinion, wrote, “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns—whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.”

Although it’s unclear what evidence federal prosecutors may have collected so far, they will need to prove that public officials in the de Blasio administration did more than just highlight an issue for an agency to follow through on. They’re also likely taking that into consideration. The McDonnell decision came down the month after the convictions of both Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, former New York state legislative leaders, who were successfully prosecuted on corruption charges by the same office currently probing de Blasio. Neither has had to report to prison yet, and both are appealing their cases based on the McDonnell decision.

In New York Law Journal, Devlin-Brown and Monju argue that the McDonnell decision had “limited significance” for corruption prosecutions. “In the prototypical public corruption case—where the prosecution can make a straight-faced claim that governmental action, and not just access, was the intended aim of the bribe—McDonnell defenses will have little impact on judges and still less on juries,” they wrote, “who may fail to rally around the official who argues he was selling ‘only’ access to an elected office.”

[Related: The Risks of De Blasio’s Interview with Federal Prosecutors]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Supreme Court Ruling May Help De Blasio Avoid Charges Sun, 12 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6788:cuomo-contradicts-bharara-on-prosecutors-government-oversight http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6788:cuomo-contradicts-bharara-on-prosecutors-government-oversight cuomo hochul cabinet

Gov. Cuomo at a recent cabinet meeting (Governor's Office on flickr)


At a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol on February 28, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that prosecutors already provide sufficient independent oversight over the state’s economic development programs.

“You do have independent oversight,” said Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, when asked about calls to increase checks from outside his purview on state programs at the center of federal corruption charges. “That’s called 62 district attorneys, an attorney general, U.S. attorneys in the Southern District, Northern District. That is independent oversight. Obviously it’s been effective independent oversight. So you can’t say there isn’t independent oversight.”

With these remarks, Cuomo positioned himself in stark opposition to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has said repeatedly that the power of prosecutors is limited and that it’s up to political leadership to do more to police itself. As he’s continued to lock up corrupt politicians and recently brought charges against nine individuals -- Cuomo aides, associates, and donors -- for alleged corruption related to the governor’s Buffalo Billion program, Bharara has insisted that prosecutors can’t do it all; that government culture must change.

“At the end of the day, cleaning up public corruption is not up to prosecutors,” Bharara said in Albany last February, during a speech sponsored by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and good government groups. “We certainly have our role, to prosecute the wrongdoers and the bad apples, but we can’t do it alone. It will take leadership from the Legislature itself. And that’s what people crave; they crave leadership.”

Bharara -- whose investigations have taken down numerous legislators, including most recently, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- has publicly criticized the concentration of power in the executive branch, Albany’s culture of secrecy, and the “three men in a room” style of government whereby major decisions are made by three top officials, the governor and two legislative majority leaders, behind closed doors.

Bharara has called on “good” lawmakers to take meaningful action to change the culture at the Capitol. Citing President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as a young New York Assembly member stood up to the ruling Tammany Hall political machine of the late 19th century. Bharara said at the February 2016 event, “It would be nice to see a little bit of that fight back in some of our legislators today.”

While Cuomo has overseen annual passage of new government ethics measures in Albany, they have virtually unanimously been seen as small steps, insufficient to adequately break the pattern of corruption and alter the culture that has made New York state government a national laughing stock. Cuomo continues to call for new measures, including more essential reforms that many say would help prevent corruption, not just punish it, but there is widespread doubt about how much Cuomo really wants to see them passed. The governor has been conspicuously quiet in terms of any effort to put public pressure on legislators to pass measures like public campaign financing, strict limits on electeds’ outside income, pay-to-play restrictions, and more.

Last year, Bharara’s crusade against corruption hit home for Cuomo, when the U.S. attorney’s office uncovered a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to the Buffalo Billion and announced charges against nine Cuomo associates, including Joseph Percoco, a longtime confidante of the governor’s, whom Cuomo said was “like a brother.” Cuomo, who Bharara made clear was not targeted in the investigation, claimed to have no knowledge of the alleged misconduct, instead placing the blame on bad apples and opaque purchasing and procurement processes.

bharara vanity fair event phoneCritics, including Bharara, say the widespread pay-to-play scheme resulted in part from the fact that in 2011, Cuomo and the Legislature stripped the New York State Comptroller of its authority to review billions of dollars worth of economic development contracts related to SUNY not-for-profits, including the Polytechnic Institute. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, government reform advocates, and some legislators have called for restoring those powers, but Cuomo has indicated he has no intention to do so. His cabinet meeting remarks were the latest evidence of that approach.

While Cuomo has acknowledged Albany’s pervasive corruption problem, he and Bharara apparently do not see eye to eye on how to fix it. The governor has pushed instead for increased punitive means to handle misconduct and some additional disclosure measures. A former New York State attorney general himself, Cuomo has frequently battled with oversight authorities like the comptroller and attorney general, currently Eric Schneiderman, taking steps to undermine the agencies and concentrate power under the executive branch.

During his last of six January 2017 State of the State addresses, Cuomo spoke in Albany, and called for the implementation of an ambitious ethics reform plan, hitting on many of the items pushed for by government reform groups, including transparency measures, restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, term limits, and the closure of the so-called "LLC loophole,” as well as a public campaign finance system.

The governor had promised to push some of these very reforms in his 2016 State of the State, but as critics have noted, little effort was made to sell them to the public or the legislative branch, and the few reforms that did pass meant little to stem the tide of corruption in state government.

Cuomo’s ethics plan also recommended an expansion of authority of the State Inspector General -- which answers to Cuomo -- to SUNY not-for-profits, and creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department. In light of the recent bid-rigging scandal, pressure has mounted on Cuomo to reinstate all of DiNapoli’s contract vetting powers. The governor has continued to undermine the comptroller, taking swipes at him over a series of audits that DiNapoli released related to the state’s economic development projects, and refused to support the restoration of those powers.

For his part, DiNapoli, who takes a decidedly less confrontational approach than Bharara, has called for restored vetting powers, but has been mostly muted as Cuomo’s office continue to push economic development programs through a system that appears to be easily exploited by bad actors.

DiNapoli has become slightly more vocal in recent months, but typically declines to engage in any ongoing, vocal push that conflicts with the governor.

Government watchdogs were quick to object to Cuomo's suggestion that prosecutors provide adequate independent oversight over state contracting. “The governor might as well be saying there is no need for police, because there are district attorneys. But everybody knows that the police -- and the Comptroller ---are there to prevent crime and ensure rules are followed. D.A.’s are only called on after crimes are committed. D.A.’s are no substitute for the independent oversight that the state constitution assigns to the Comptroller,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a reform group, in a statement.

Government reform groups -- including Reinvent Albany, as well as Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, the Citizen Budget Commission, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG -- called the governor’s oversight plan “stunningly inadequate,” and renewed calls to empower the comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000, among other reforms to the contracting process.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for further explanation of the governor's remarks in time for publication. A spokesperson for Bharara declined to comment on Cuomo’s comments.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight Sun, 05 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
DiNapoli, Seeking Restored Power, Points Finger at Only the System http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6577:dinapoli-seeking-restored-power-points-finger-at-only-the-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6577:dinapoli-seeking-restored-power-points-finger-at-only-the-system DiNapoli speech charts

Comptroller DiNapoli (photo: @NYSComptroller)


Comptroller Tom Dinapoli is not interested in pointing fingers at any of his fellow elected officials when it comes to the massive scheme alleged to have corrupted major state economic development programs under the noses of Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators.

In the wake of corruption charges brought against nine individuals by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, DiNapoli was given multiple opportunities Friday during a radio interview, but he declined to criticize either Cuomo or the Legislature. Speaking with host Susan Arbetter on The Capitol Pressroom, DiNapoli instead called for greater oversight through his office of the large state contracts that had been awarded by SUNY Polytechnic and two affiliated nonprofits as part of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program and other state efforts to boost the economies of central and western New York.

Calling the bribery and bid-rigging allegations “very troubling,” DiNapoli said that the situation “seems to speak to a systemic failure, as to not having adequate checks and balances.” But asked by Arbetter if Cuomo helped create the system that was so ripe for abuse, DiNapoli demurred. After pausing and searching for his words, DiNapoli said, ”I don’t know that it’s productive to, you know, finger-point at the governor.”

The comptroller repeatedly said that the system lacked oversight and accountability, but excused the mindset behind its creation, saying that communities needed help and that he understood the desire for efficiency in moving money to projects meant to stimulate local economies that had not recovered from the Great Recession. His office, he said, is designed to approve contracts and is incorrectly known for slowing down the process -- when his office does slow something down, DiNapoli said, it is for good reason.

In September, Bharara brought charges against former Cuomo aides, prominent developers who were generous Cuomo campaign donors, and the now former head of SUNY Poly, Alain Kaloyeros, on whom Cuomo heaped praise and responsibility over years.

When Arbetter pressed DiNapoli on Cuomo and the Legislature enabling SUNY Poly and the system that appears to have been abused by what the comptroller called “a web” of stakeholders, DiNapoli again struggled to find his answer, then said, “From my perspective there was not adequate oversight in the way the process was set up, both with SUNY Poly and with the use of Fuller Road or Fort Schuyler, these nonprofits that were set up.” He pointed to the fact that the Comptroller’s oversight of construction contracts was diminished in 2011 and called for it to be restored.

Later in the interview, Arbetter asked DiNapoli why the Legislature, which he was once part of as an Assembly member, had been so quiet about the questionable system at play. DiNapoli began answering by saying officials were trying to help downtrodden communities, that there was consensus “we need to do more.”

“There is a hopeful expectation that it’s all going to be handled in the right way,” DiNapoli said of the mindset when a key priority is established by state government. Arbetter asked, “So lawmakers don’t want to get in the way?” To which DiNapoli said, “Well, unless there’s a reason to. In fairness, you did have the hearing that the economic development committee had in the Assembly and some fireworks came out of that.”

DiNapoli was referring to a recent hearing that came well after media reports of the federal investigation into the Buffalo Billion and years after flags were raised by watchdogs about the system at hand.

After Arbetter pushed back further, DiNapoli conceded, “Well, I think clearly that there’s more that could have been done, more questions asked...Clearly the lesson of this is that you can’t just trust that it’s all going to be handled in the right way.”

“I think the Legislature does have to play a more effective role in oversight,” DiNapoli said. DiNapoli's office did not provide further comment when asked on Sunday to clarify why the comptroller was hesitant to more directly hold anyone accountable.

When Cuomo and the Legislature stripped power from the Comptroller in 2011, they left the independent auditor’s office on the sidelines as hundreds of millions of tax dollars flowed to developers and other corporations through SUNY Poly. It was this cash flow, the opaque contracting process, and the state’s loose campaign finance laws that helped allow former Cuomo aides Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe to manipulate the system for their means, according to Bharara’s allegations.

While DiNapoli has called for restoration of all contract vetting powers before, he, like legislative leaders, has largely been quiet as Cuomo and others have revved up economic development programming through a system some watchdogs have long warned can too easily be taken advantage of by nefarious actors.

A careful, serious elected official who is well-regarded by many across the state, DiNapoli, a Democrat like Cuomo, is not one to throw verbal bombs or pursue headlines. Not necessarily media shy, DiNapoli is, however, inclined to let his audit and contract oversight work do the talking.

Recently, DiNapoli was on the receiving end of Cuomo vitriol when the comptroller released audits of other Cuomo economic stimulus programs, calling into question their efficacy. In turn, Cuomo called audits “opinion” and said that DiNapoli needed to “educate himself,” referring to him as “the Assemblymember” in an apparent effort to undermine him further.

DiNapoli responded in typical fashion -- by downplaying conflict and pointing to the content rather than escalating the back-and-forth. An astute headline from Politico New York read, “Cuomo thunders, and DiNapoli shrugs.” It is unsurprising that DiNapoli took the path he did on Arbetter’s show, pointing toward the future and needed changes, rather than laying direct blame with the governor or legislative leaders for past mistakes.

In May, DiNapoli did announce a series of proposed “reforms to state fiscal practices” that he led with a call for restrictions on “‘backdoor spending’ by public authorities” and requirements for “more comprehensive public authority disclosure.” In a press release, DiNapoli’s office said that “public authorities are not subject to the same checks and balances that apply to state agencies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually with limited oversight.”

The proposals also came after news reports of the federal investigation into Cuomo’s economic development programming.

Earlier in May, DiNapoli had released his analysis of the recently-passed state budget for Fiscal Year 2017. His office wrote, “the budget expands on actions in recent years that have blurred both fiscal and operational distinctions among state agencies and public authorities.”

Cuomo paid DiNapoli's May suggestions and analysis little public mind, but did announce plans for procurement reform in the wake of the September charges brought by Bharara. The day after the U.S. attorney outlined the criminal complaint, Cuomo said in Buffalo that the revitalization of the city would not miss a beat, but that he was immediately moving power from SUNY Poly to the Empire State Development Corp. Cuomo also said that he had received recommendations from a private investigator he had hired and that he was accepting all of them -- but he declined to make them public.

On Thursday budget and government watchdog groups called on state legislative leaders to “hold emergency oversight hearings on the allegations by the U.S. Attorney of the largest bid-rigging scandals in state history.” A coalition including Reinvent Albany, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, Citizens Budget Commission, and others said that the public deserves more information about how “more than a billion dollars in state contracts were rigged and what reforms will be implemented to address this huge and systemic failure.”

Asked by Arbetter about the call for such hearings, DiNapoli said no one should rush to do anything, that it is important for all the best minds to get together and figure out the path ahead. Noting that state legislators are focused on their impending elections next month, he said that if they want to hold hearings toward the end of the year, that would be “their prerogative.”

The watchdog groups on Thursday also laid out “five clean contracting reforms” including that all state funds be awarded through “competitive and transparent contracting” and empowering “the comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250k.” Additionally, they called on the state to enact “pay to play” laws as are found in 19 states and New York City that would limit what entities with state business can donate to political campaigns.

DiNapoli appears to be largely on the same page. The comptroller has not been aggressive about publicly pushing his reforms, though -- while he gave a speech in May to outline his proposals, he has not, for example, called a press conference to put more public pressure on lawmakers to act.

When asked by Arbetter what he could have done differently to protect against the type of corruption alleged by Bharara, DiNapoli said he could have been more aggressive, but focused more on his “limited authority.”

“I would hope the Legislature would look at our role, restore what’s been taken away...perhaps some areas where our role can be strengthened,” he said. When Arbetter asked if he’s going to be more aggressive, DiNapoli paused and said, “We will certainly be more vigilant.”

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by Ben Max, 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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DiNapoli, Seeking Restored Power, Points Finger at Only the System Sun, 16 Oct 2016 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."

***
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
Bill Bratton Announces Retirement from NYPD, to be Replaced by James O'Neill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6465:bratton-announces-retirement-from-nypd-to-be-replaced-by-o-neill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6465:bratton-announces-retirement-from-nypd-to-be-replaced-by-o-neill de blasio bratton o'neill gomez nypd

De Blasio, Bratton, O'Neill, & Gomez (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)


Bill Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department, announced his retirement from the NYPD on Tuesday, ushering in new leadership at the department he has shaped over the course of several decades. At a City Hall press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Bratton will be replaced by Chief of Department James O’Neill, who has been a long-time member of the NYPD, rising through its ranks to now fill the top uniformed position under Bratton.

Bratton, who first served as NYPD commissioner under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani between 1994 and 1996, is leaving his post next month for the private sector. The outgoing commissioner is joining Teneo Holdings a “global CEO advisory firm,” where, according to a news release from the company, he will be “Senior Managing Director and Executive Chairman of Teneo Risk,” “a new division of the firm focused on advising clients on key risk identification, prevention and response.”

Although Bratton had indicated at earlier occasions that he would step down at or before the end of the mayor’s current term in office, Tuesday’s announcement just halfway through the third year of that term came as somewhat of a surprise. His retirement comes as crime in New York City is at or near record lows and amid continued calls for reform of NYPD practices and a federal investigation into corruption at upper levels of the department, although the investigation does not appear to directly involve Bratton. United States Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office has recently brought charges against high-ranking NYPD officials, issued a statement congratulating Bratton on his public service.

At the news conference, de Blasio called Bratton an “extraordinary partner” and said his “contributions to our city and to law enforcement not only here, but across the nation are literally inestimable and extraordinary.”

He added, “I know this is a job for a strong man. I know it is a job for someone with a real vision – a vision of change and reform and progress. Like I always said about Bill Bratton, who never has ever rested on his laurels to the benefit of all is, [Chief of Department] Jimmy O’Neill burns with a passion to keep making things betters, to keep finding the next innovation. And he is going to be an extraordinary leader for this Department.”

While it is a “bittersweet moment” for him, Bratton said, he explained he is leaving the NYPD in capable hands. “I worked very hard for these last couple of years with the Mayor...recognizing there would be a point in time, whether it’s now or a year from now, that I would leave,” he said. “Policing is never done, it’s always unfinished business, and the issues that we’re facing now are going to require years to resolve. There’s no quick fixes to them. So, recognizing that, better to leave at this juncture where there is a team that is capable, that is energetic, that is creative, and that wants to engage, and you’ve met them, you know them, you’ve been exposed to them over these last 30 months.”

Bratton’s career as a police officer began in 1970 in the Boston Police Department. In 1990, he became chief of the New York City Transit Police and two years later he returned to Boston to serve as commissioner. Between 2002 and 2009, he led the Los Angeles Police Department. Bratton worked in the private sector before returning to lead the NYPD upon de Blasio’s election.

Often viewed as the face of modern policing in the country, Bratton is also a polarizing figure. In his first tenure as NYPD commissioner, under Giuliani, he introduced the CompStat system to statistically track and target crime, and was widely credited with a drastic drop in the city’s crime rate. His policies have also defined by the aggressive policing of low-level offenses, a system known as Broken Windows policing, which targets low-level crime and disorder with the belief that such enforcement prevents more serious crime. The practice has earned Bratton criticism from police reform advocates who say Broken Windows disproportionately and unfairly targets communities of color.

Under de Blasio, Bratton has overseen a number of changes at the police department, including to how Broken Windows is practiced - both Bratton and de Blasio have described it as an evolving system. Bratton has explained that because of the significant crime drops ushered in by Broken Windows policing, the NYPD has recently been able to reduce the number of “negative interactions” with civilians. He has called it the “peace dividend” and also compared the need for aggressive policing to treating cancer with chemotherapy.

Bratton has also implemented new use of force guidelines, reduced enforcement of low-level marijuana arrests, and instituted training in implicit bias and de-escalation tactics. He also spearheaded a neighborhood policing program, crafted by Chief O’Neill, designed to repair and build police-community relationships. Crime has been consistently dropping and has been at historic lows while police encounters with civilians have also decreased significantly.

The Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, in a statement on Tuesday commended Bratton for “working hard to keep crime low and our city safe.” She added, “The City Council looks forward to partnering with incoming Commissioner O’Neill as we work to improve police community-relations, reform practices and strive to create a more fair and just city.” In the last two-and-a-half years, Bratton has had a complex and at times combative relationship with the City Council, which has pushed numerous police and criminal justice reforms under Mark-Viverito’s leadership. There has often been eventual compromise between Bratton and Mark-Viverito, though, which Bratton mentioned during his remarks on Tuesday.

The City Council also pushed for the hire of 1,300 additional police officers, which de Blasio originally opposed but eventually agreed to and Bratton appreciated. There have also been major funding increases for the NYPD under Bratton, de Blasio, and the Council.

On several occasions, though, Bratton took issue with reforms being sought by the Council, often in harshly worded public statements.

Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, acknowledged the challenges of the Council-Bratton relationship on Tuesday and said she expects O’Neill to bring a more conciliatory approach to the top cop position. “I believe that he is someone that we can actually reach and talk to on an everyday basis,” Gibson told reporters shortly after the news conference. Gibson said that Bratton was not always easy to talk with and often oppositional to the Council’s efforts. She has known O’Neill for years, she said, as he has risen through the NYPD ranks, including as a local commander in the Bronx.

"It was frustrating because I think when you look at a comparison of what we’ve done at the Council in terms of budget or hiring of more officers," Gibson said about the Council's dealings with Bratton, adding that Bratton "refused to understand why legislation was proposed...because after our administration and after our term, we want the good practices of the department to remain in local law for future commissioners and future Council members."

With O'Neill, she said, "I think he understands the role that we play and the fact that, you know, we introduce legislation for a reason."

While O’Neill has been working directly under Bratton and they go back decades, the new commissioner will bring his own personality and leadership to the position. He does not come into it with the fame that Bratton did when de Blasio hired him for this run, and he is not known for the type of blunt public comments that Bratton often makes.

“Even though O’Neill comes out of the Bratton administration,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, “I still think it’s an opportunity to establish his own style of governance and establish his own relationships with communities of color.” Like Bratton, O’Neill is white. It was also announced Tuesday that First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who is black, will stay on under O’Neill, and that Housing Bureau Chief Carlos Gomez, who is Cuban, will replace O’Neill as chief of department.

"I love being a cop, I love this uniform, I love what it stands for and want to help make this a better city," O'Neill said in his remarks on Tuesday, during which he was at times emotional as he ascended to his dream job. O'Neill also recognized the need for continued reform at the NYPD.

Bratton said on Tuesday that on July 8 he told de Blasio of his intention to retire from the NYPD and pursue a public sector job. The Mayor’s Office told Gotham Gazette that no external search for a replacement was conducted and that only O’Neill and Tucker were considered, with O’Neill getting the nod.

In a statement, the New York Civil Liberties Union praised certain policies under Bratton but criticized his commitment to Broken Windows policing, calling it an “outmoded policing model of the 1990s” and “not effective.” The NYCLU wants O’Neill to embrace de-escalation tactics and community-based policing. “We need a new era of policing in New York,” the organization contends.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Bill Bratton Announces Retirement from NYPD, to be Replaced by James O'Neill Tue, 02 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Role of Cuomo’s ‘Independent Investigator’ Remains Unclear http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6363:role-of-cuomo-s-independent-investigator-remains-unclear http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6363:role-of-cuomo-s-independent-investigator-remains-unclear cuomo purple tie

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


In trying to stifle the blaze that has become U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation into the Buffalo Billion economic development program, Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly invoked the name of Bart Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor the administration has retained (or is in the process of retaining) to carry out an “independent” review of the project.

In acknowledging that people close to him were being investigated in relation to the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo announced Schwartz’s hire on April 29.

When the Public Authorities Control Board met this week and approved without debate another $485 million for a key Buffalo Billion project, the administration quickly reminded reporters that Schwartz would now provide another layer of oversight by considering approval of disbursement of the funds.

The day before, Cuomo told reporters he had yet to finalize Schwartz’s contract. The governor also appeared unsure whether Schwartz would make his findings public. Administration officials later clarified Schwartz would release his findings as long as doing so wouldn’t interfere with Bharara’s investigation, which appears to be focused on bid-rigging and a web of relationships among private and public entities.

Even as Schwartz’s presence is held up as a measure of confidence in the Cuomo administration and the state’s vast economic development apparatus, several questions about Schwartz’s role and power remain. These include whether Schwartz has already started his work; when his contract will be available to the public; if his efforts are duplicative of the U.S. attorney’s office’s; and what authority Schwartz will invoke to audit the nonprofits that oversee the Buffalo Billion, which are said to be independent from the Governor’s Office.

Both the Cuomo administration and Schwartz’s recently-hired public relations firm failed to respond to Gotham Gazette’s questions about Schwartz’s role.

“In the real world someone doesn’t start work before they have a contract,” said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group.

In conjunction with Cuomo's office, Schwartz issued a statement April 29 detailing some of his plans and saying he would begin immediately.

“The state has reason to believe that in certain programs and regulatory approvals they may have been defrauded by improper bidding and failures to disclose potential conflicts of interest by lobbyists and former state employees,” Schwartz wrote, in apparent reference to Cuomo associates Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe.

“As the state needs to continue operating these important programs, they have asked me to commence an immediate review of all grants and approvals – past, current and future – in certain programs and operations including the Buffalo Billion/Nano Economic Development Program,” Schwartz wrote.

It remains unclear exactly what Schwartz will be reviewing and how he will conduct his work. Part of the uncertainty and unease around Schwartz’s role held by some stems from Cuomo’s messaging around the investigation and various long-standing concerns about the Buffalo Billion.

There are three major questions about the Buffalo Billion raised by watchdogs and, it seems, Bharara’s office: Was the contracting process designed to benefit Cuomo campaign donors? Did Cuomo loyalists use their connections to play both sides of the contracting process? Are SUNY Polytechnic, the college that oversees the distribution of Buffalo Billion funds, and its associated nonprofits doing enough to make sure corporations like SolarCIty make good on their jobs promises and other deliverables. SolarCity recently appeared to revise the number of jobs it expects to host in its Buffalo Billion-funded factory and pushed back the factory’s open date.

Cuomo himself appears to have introduced a fourth question, which goes something like: Did someone steal money? It's a question watchdogs see as misdirection given that many of them doubt any money was actually secretly taken by lobbyists or contractors - they are more concerned about contracts being awarded improperly.

While Cuomo is calling it a measure to ensure integrity, Schwartz’s appointment is seen as a smokescreen by many legislators and watchdogs who are concerned about the Buffalo Billion. The governor has continued to tell the press that the investigations by Bharara and Schwartz will examine the possible wrongdoing of “one or two” individuals while analysts say Bharara’s subpoenas indicate an investigation into systemic corruption.

“This is a major effort the state is running that is working extraordinarily well and is vitally important to upstate New York,” Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse on Wednesday of the Buffalo Billion. “There is no reason to stop investing in upstate New York, to hurt the upstate economy, because a couple of people may or may not have done something wrong.” He went on to say: “You have questions raised about the conduct of several individuals. That’s now being investigated by the U.S. attorney. We also started our own internal investigation by a former prosecutor.”

Cuomo has also said he will “throw the book” at anyone found to have violated the public trust, and that he holds every Buffalo Billion dollar as “sacred.”

Without seeing Schwartz’s contract it won’t be possible to ascertain what Cuomo has actually tasked him with investigating. It also won’t be clear what the public is actually paying him to investigate a project that watchdogs say should have already been monitored by the state Comptroller.

“It’s ironic that [Cuomo] has gone out and hired someone who apparently will have access to contracts and information that the Comptroller of New York, who is independent, doesn’t have access to,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy. McMahon did note that Schwartz isn’t “political” or “one of the governor’s people,” though.

When Schwartz’s role was first announced on April 29, Cuomo Counsel Alphonso David said of the Buffalo Billion, “Any grants made by this program will be thoroughly scrutinized – past, current or future.” David’s statement accompanied Schwartz’s in the same release to the media.

Schwartz may indeed be performing duties that once belonged to the Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, who was formerly allowed to review SUNY and CUNY contracts. That ability was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. SUNY Polytechnic has created two nonprofits to distribute state cash to various economic development projects across New York.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been closely tracking the Buffalo Billion, said that it is unclear to him what problems the governor has asked Schwartz to examine, especially because Schwartz’s contract has yet to be made public. “Where is his contract? Exactly what does it say?” Kaehny asked, wondering whether Schwartz is focused on everyday expenditures or aspects of possible pay-to-play and conflict of interest in the awarding of contracts.

After news broke this month that Bharara had subpoenaed Cuomo’s office, DiNapoli unveiled a series of reform proposals that watchdogs say would upend how the Buffalo Billion is administered and overseen by the state. His plan would ban lump sum appropriations, create a council to plan capital spending, and require economic development program proposals to be scored and ranked in a public database.

“Public authorities are not subject to the same checks and balances that apply to state agencies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually with limited oversight,” reads a release from DiNapoli’s office detailing the reforms. “DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria. His proposal also requires more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing activities.”

DiNapoli also recently indicated that he may investigate parts of the Buffalo Billion.

“Why, other than Cuomo saying so and Schwartz saying so, is there any reason to think that Schwartz is completely independent of the governor's office?” asked Kaehny. “Schwartz is not a court appointed monitor, nor is he reporting to a board of directors. He is effectively reporting to a CEO with no board whose top associates are under federal investigation.”

Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said it is critical for the integrity of Schwartz’s work to make the terms of his employment clear. “If this investigation is about transparency it should start by making this contract public to reassure people that there will not be a repeat of the Moreland Commission where the governor promised independence but abruptly shuttered it.”

Cuomo told reporters on Tuesday “We're doing a contract that's being finalized now. When it's finalized we’ll give it to you.” He added negotiations were about “the dollars.”

The use of nonprofits to disburse government funds has led many to question the application of state procurement rules requiring an open request for proposals process. The RFPs for two major Buffalo Billion projects appeared tailored for the two firms that won them, both of which donated generously to Cuomo.

Kaehny, in a press release, asked members of the Public Authorities Control Board, a five-member group appointed by the governor, four of whom are recommended by heads of the Legislature’s majority and minority conferences, that is tasked with approving funding for state economic development projects, to pose that very question in their meeting on Wednesday. It was not asked.

However, the Assembly Democrats' representative on the board said she was voting for disbursing the funds with several conditions of more transparency and oversight.

SUNY Poly has previously insisted that the nonprofits do abide by those rules.

“SUNY Poly and our related entities follow New York state government’s well-established and legally defined procurement procedures — to the letter,” David Doyle, a spokesman for SUNY Poly, told the Times Union in a September letter.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on whether the office believes the law actually applies to the nonprofits.

For the first time, on Wednesday Cuomo denied having influenced the contracting process for the Buffalo Billion. “The way it worked...the state didn't do any of the contracts," Cuomo was quoted as saying by The Post Standard. "It's all done through SUNY, the state university system. They are the ones that actually managed the contracting process. They are the ones who ran the contracts, ran the competitions, made the selections," he said. "I had absolutely nothing to do with that. It was done by SUNY.”

However, as Cuomo distances himself from SUNY Poly and its decisions in contracting, his appointment of Schwartz brings into question just how much control the governor does have over the SUNY nonprofits. It appears, in a sense, by hiring Schwartz Cuomo is saying he has direct authority over all the entities involved despite legal and rhetorical framework painting them as independent.

Kaehny said he doesn’t believe Cuomo has “the legal authority” to direct the Empire State Development Corporation or SUNY’s nonprofits to allow Schwartz to review their contracts or approve them. “ESDC is a public authority with a legally independent board and the nonprofits also have legally independent boards,” said Kaehny. “If they want to vote to subject themselves to control by Schwartz, they could do that, but that would be abdicating their fiduciary duty to a consultant to the governor, which raises questions of separation of powers. Are these entities independent of the governor or not? If they are not, then why are they exempt from state contracting and conflict of interest rules?”

SUNY Poly and a representative of Fort Schuyler Management, one of SUNY Poly’s nonprofits that administers the Buffalo Billion, failed to return requests for comment on whether Schwartz had begun his work and whether the boards of Fort Schuyler Management and Fuller Road Management had decided to give Schwartz access to their decision making processes.

On Tuesday Cuomo was asked about the scrutiny of his use of nonprofits and whether he would consider changing the process. “What's interesting is that all predated me, right?” Cuomo said to reporters. “That went back to Governor Pataki, who was a saint. That was all in place and we used the existing mechanism; we did not design that mechanism.”

Watchdogs say this is another misdirection by Cuomo as the particular system he has used to expedite Buffalo Billion was pioneered by SUNY Poly head Alain Kaloyeros during Cuomo’s time in office.

“The governor said the structure was here when he got here,” said McMahon of the Empire Center. “That isn’t true. It was set up by a very ambitious college president [Kaloyeros] who wanted to expedite the construction of his empire. The governor has used it because he can get done what he wants to get done faster. It avoids the niceties that usually go into spending public money.”

Dadey said there should be no mistake that Schwartz’s full task is to examine systemic issues in the Buffalo Billion and not just look for possible wrongdoing. “The SUNY cartel is hard to follow and that is a problem. Bart Schwartz's task is not just to find out if someone did something wrong, but to examine this opaque system and suggest ways to improve it, so voters can have faith in it.”

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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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Role of Cuomo’s ‘Independent Investigator’ Remains Unclear Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
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
     

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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
Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director cuomo nyu ethics speech

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director Wed, 23 Mar 2016 17:40:27 +0000
Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6166:assembly-reform-group-nears-release-of-49-recommendation-report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6166:assembly-reform-group-nears-release-of-49-recommendation-report Heastie laughing

Assembly Speaker Heastie photo: (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


The long wait for recommendations from a group of Democrats charged with finding ways to improve the transparency and democratization of the state Assembly may soon be over. According to Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, the release of a 49-point report is imminent.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the the committee's report will be made available after a press release is written and legislators return from their week-long mid-February break. According to Pretlow and several other sources, the rest of the majority conference was briefed on the dozens of recommendations contained in the report, some of which wouldn't be acted on until the start of next session, in 2017. Others that could be implemented as "tweaks" to operating procedure or legislation could be voted on this session, they say, while some would have to be agreed to by both the Senate and Assembly.

"We're just waiting for the press release to be done," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette. "We did a presentation of all 49 recommendations to the speaker [Carl Heastie] and all the members but we didn't give them copies because you'd already know what was in it if we did that. So, hopefully the report will be out after the break."

Both houses of the Legislature are due back in session on Feb. 24.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, the group's other co-chair, said that the committee was "reaching a consensus" but refused to give a timeframe for the report's release, saying that Gotham Gazette's previous report that the group had missed its own deadline was unfair. Since January, Kavanagh has told other outlets that the timeline for the report's release was "soon," but with "no timeframe."

Neither Kavanagh or Pretlow would divulge any of the 49 proposals.

A number of legislators briefed characterized many of the changes as "common sense" and "overdue" with fewer "large," "big deal" changes. A few members indicated that they believed some larger issues have yet to be resolved. A number of members said they expect a public review process.

The group has been presented with a wide array of proposals from legislators and good government groups--things as simple as creating electronic alerts to notify legislators of committee hearing times and locations, using the internet to enhance public comment and participation, and revamping the Assembly's legislative search tool. More complex and politically difficult issues include creating a way for bills with wide support to be considered in committee and advanced to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Republicans and reform groups have derided the Assembly panel's deliberations for a lack of public hearings and for excluding legislators from the Republican minority. Kavanagh and Pretlow polled Democratic members and held meetings with good government groups for input on what changes might lead to more open debate, allow rank-and-file members to advance legislation, and perhaps even provide members from both parties with equal resources for staffing and offices.

Heastie announced the appointment of the working group on April 16 of last year after he won a leadership battle sparked by the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. At the time, Kavanagh was a member of an upstart reform caucus that asked candidates for Silver's position to consider whether changes should be made to increase transparency and make it easier for bills to make it to the floor for debate without the speaker's direct blessing. The group has been largely inconspicuous since Heastie announced it.

Earlier this year Assembly Republicans proposed a number of rules changes of their own that Democrats quickly rejected. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco, who is backing a bill that would allow members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote if they have the support of 76 members (a majority in the 150-seat chamber), has pressured the group to release its recommendations. "They said they needed ways to make the Assembly more transparent, well we gave it to them and they rejected it," Tedisco told Gotham Gazette of the Republicans' attempt at rules reform, which included term limits for leadership positions.

Tedisco announced earlier this week that he was writing Kavanagh a letter asking for the transparency group's report. "These guys are just playing stall ball," said Tedisco. "It's nearly been over a year and now they aren't going to release it over vacation. It's the longest lived and least productive working group I've seen in my life."

Tedisco said Kavanagh arrived at his desk shortly after he announced he was writing him, looking to collect the letter. "So I handed it to him, with the signatures of 25 other guys who signed the letter." He added that he didn't admire Kavanagh's position. "I've never seen Superman and Clark Kent in the same room and I've never seen a powerful leader voluntarily give up power," said Tedisco, referring to the hold of the speaker and majority on the Assembly. There are many questions about how much reform Heastie is willing to support.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who took down Silver and his Senate counterpart, former Republican Senate President Dean Skelos - has focused on what he said was the corrupting nature of the "three men in a room" structure that concentrates power in legislative leaders and the governor. He called on rank-and-file members to stand up and challenge leaders when they use their power to block votes or interfere in committees.

"You have to make sure everyone in the institution has an independent operating mind and brain and gut," Bharara told interviewer Alan Chartock of WAMC radio during his visit to Albany on Monday. "So at least somebody in the face of overreaching, or face of despotism, or face of corruption, will rally people to go to the other side and say 'This is enough, we can't go along with this.'"

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said Bharara's comments spotlighted the need for more for rules reform and increased transparency. "I think the U.S. Attorney's remarks were on target. They showed the necessity of the working group and the need for it to get its job done," said Dadey.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said that Assembly Democrats should defy their leadership and issue a set of recommendations that takes some of the power back from the speaker--especially given how Silver was removed from office.

"The U.S. Attorney is dead right in asking, 'since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything,'" said Kolb, who lamented the rejection of his caucus' proposed rules changes. "These were good ideas, but from the minority point of view it was arrogance - they said, 'We're in charge and you're not.' The Kavanagh group did a lot of hooting and hollering for almost a year. It is nonsensical to continue to stall."

Democratic members point out that getting over 100 politicians, many of whom have long enjoyed the perks of being in the majority, all on the same page about revamping the rules of the chamber isn't exactly an easy task. While good government groups have been critical of the time it's taken many of them indicate they are withholding judgement until they see the final product.

DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center, said that she has had no indication of what the working group has focused on or that they've considered the Brennan Center's many reports on legislative rules that focus on empowering members to bring bills to the floor without the speaker's blessing. "That's the heart of how to empower and operate a more democratic process," said Getachew.

"The report should have been out before the start of 2016 so the rules could have been enacted this year," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "I would have prefered the group acted quickly and had an open public discussion but I am hopeful that the report is one that we can embrace."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report Fri, 12 Feb 2016 04:27:47 +0000