Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1020 Thu, 19 Oct 2017 05:46:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint new queens democrats

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint Sun, 27 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order Cuomo podium

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


Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday expanding the list of New York State agencies required to provide voter registration assistance and creating a task force to oversee implementation of the program.

While current state and federal law requires the forms to be available at the Department of Motor Vehicles and certain social service agencies, Cuomo’s new order mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms.

The State Agency Voter Registration Task Force -- comprised of Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David, Jamie Rubin, his Director of State Operations, as well as a variety of agency commissioners -- will explore ways to implement the reforms laid out in the executive order. The task force will also study the use of electronic signatures and how to set up secure online voting registration systems -- similar to the one currently in place at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- through additional state agencies, according to the governor’s office.

Advocates of voting reform, who were disappointed by the lack of meaningful electoral reform during the 2017 legislative session, were buoyed by the news, praising it as an important first step, but they also noted that a lot more can be done to increase access to registration and voting.

“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.

In pointing out that voter registration is not the main barrier to voting in New York State, Wilson noted that in 2016 voter registration reached a record high, but many newly enrolled voters faced barriers to casting their ballots.

“While we agree that state agencies should take a more active role in voter registration, we would prefer to see an executive order that enacts early voting, alters registration deadlines, or allows for electronic poll books. The only way to truly empower voters and ensure ballot integrity is to make voting easier and more accessible,” said Wilson.

Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, issued a statement saying the organization is “most excited by the potential to use proven technology to implement fully online voter registration in New York State. State agencies, SUNY and CUNY and Boards of Election should make voting easier by maximizing the use of secure technology.”

“Governor Cuomo’s actions are a helpful step in what we hope is a wider push to update our archaic voting system,” said New York Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman, noting the executive action’s timeliness in the wake of the Trump administration’s request for voter information through its newly created voter fraud commission, which critics say is paving the way to attempt voter suppression, and 44 states, including New York, have refused to comply with.

The voter registration expansion ordered by Cuomo could have a significant impact in places like New York City and Westchester where a considerable number of voters do not frequently interact with the DMV, because they are not car owners or are not licensed to drive.

A recent study by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which has been pushing for all agencies to make voter registration forms available, found that fewer than 50 percent of people who are of voting age living in Brooklyn or the Bronx possessed driver’s licenses, while in Queens, 64 percent of those residents were licensed, and in Manhattan, 54 percent of those residents were licensed. Eighty-three percent of voting age Staten Islanders were licensed, and in Westchester, 88 percent of those residents were registered with the DMV.

The analysis also found disparities between men and women who interacted with the DMV in New York State; there were 300,000 fewer female licensed drivers than male drivers, though there are 600,000 more women than men in the state. The NYPIRG estimates are based on 2010 U.S. Census data.

Cuomo has also ordered SUNY and CUNY to conduct a full investigation of their campus voter registration practices in order to ensure that required steps are being taken to increase voter registration rates among young voters on the state's public college campuses. State law requires SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide all students with voter registration forms at the beginning of each school year, as well as in January of each presidential election year.

Finally, Cuomo directed the DMV to send information referencing its online voter registration application in all emails reminding New Yorkers to renew their licenses, identification cards, and vehicle registrations, in order to maximize New Yorkers' awareness of the electronic voter registration application.

Since the launch of online voter registration in 2012, there have been over 921,922 online voter registration applications, including 430,886 who identified themselves as first-time voters, according to Cuomo’s office.

Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.

Earlier this year, as part of his State of the State and 2017 policy book, the governor proposed "The Democracy Project," a legislative package to further modernize and reform New York's voting system. The bills were comprehensive, including early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration, but the governor was criticized for failing to see any of those measures passed during the budget or subsequent legislative session, which ended in late June.

When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature.

"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo said of the reforms when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.

Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, noted that while an executive order has its limitations, the governor could direct his task force to “study the benefits of and best practices for implementing opt-out automatic registration — a reform that would move New York from the back of the pack to the vanguard of pro-voter states.” Under this program, all eligible voters would automatically be registered unless they proactively declined.

“Today’s order is a good step forward, though more can and should be done to replace New York’s archaic, paper-based registration system with a modern, electronic one that increases efficiency and improves accuracy of our registration rolls,” Lee said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor will continue to push for the reforms introduced in his 2017 agenda, but did not elaborate about how.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order Wed, 26 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7003:reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7003:reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget Cuomo budget presentation

(photo: The Governor's Office)


A new state budget was passed in April in typical Albany fashion: with almost no time for public scrutiny of the bills or proper review by the legislators who quickly voted them through. Since the $153.1 billion budget was passed, watchdogs both in and out of government have released analyses, helping to better inform citizens and increase accountability.

The budget was adopted a little over a week into the new fiscal year, which begins April 1, after compromises were reached among legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo on contentious issues such as raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, education aid, a college tuition affordability program, the allocation of large sums of affordable housing monies, and more. The frantic and secretive nature of state budget adoption leaves a lot to digest afterward.

Now, about two months after the budget was passed, those analyses by watchdogs can bring to light a few common themes and several other key points.

Aside from general criticism of the process itself, there are the issues of the large lump sum appropriations, projects funded by mysterious sources, and the governor faulty marketing of his budgetary discipline.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report on the state budget that includes critiques of the budgeting process and the end result. The budget continues to rely heavily on appropriations from the federal government, at almost a third of state revenue, despite the unpredictability of state aid from Washington, D.C. under President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

“Although the budget came together more than a week into the fiscal year, the Legislature and Executive acted on critical budget issues that will help New York move forward,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “However, billions of dollars in spending lacks key details that would better inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent.”

The Comptroller’s report included a lengthy chart showing the legislature’s inaction on ethics reform, criticizing the fact that, among other things, the budget “intentionally omits” measures such as requiring advisory opinions on legislators’ outside income, closing the LLC loophole in corporate political contributions, and extending the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to cover the Legislature. The Comptroller was equally pointed on the state’s procurement practices, which have come under fire due to rampant corruption in the state’s contracting process, stating that the changes were needed to “ensure spending accountability and transparency” in a statement. A measure to authorize the IG to investigate criminal wrongdoing in the state’s procurements was intentionally omitted.

The Comptroller was critical of the quickness of the process, essentially disallowing public review. Also criticized was the prevalence of lump sum appropriations, which can make state money harder to track.

“It should concern all New Yorkers that budget decisions in Washington may force tough fiscal choices for the state and raise new questions for local governments and nonprofits that rely on state funding,” DiNapoli said. “Federal actions that could adversely affect New York, as well as economic uncertainty, are key risks to this budget.”

Citizens Budget Commission
In a statement on the day the budget was adopted, CBC President Carol Kellermann said “achieving a fiscally sound budget is more important than an ‘on time’ budget,” referring to the emergency budget extender passed when negotiating parties couldn’t reach a deal on time. Still, CBC expressed dismay that the state budget was neither on-time nor fiscally sound.

In a later report, CBC also criticized Governor Cuomo for misleadingly saying that the adopted budget continued his “record of holding State Operating Funds spending annual growth to no more than 2 percent.” In reality, CBC explained, spending growth is closer to 3.7%, well above the 2% benchmark that Cuomo prides himself on. The budget is able to exploit this loophole by not “adjusting for payment timing differences and accounting changes,” such as through premature debt service payments or “shifting expenditures out of state operating funds spending.”

CBC has created a “budget navigator” to allow citizens to see how city and state money is being spent.

Empire Center for Public Policy
Empire Center, a conservative think tank based in Albany, has released a slew of criticisms of the budget. Condemnations expressed on the Empire Center blog cover health care spending, certain tax breaks, and the “free” college tuition program. Empire Center is also critical of the added tax deduction for union dues, “effectively a $35 million gratuity for an already privileged caste of (mostly government) workers.”

“The positives in New York’s FY 2018 budget make up a pretty short list—while the negatives are in some respects worse than usual,” wrote E.J. McMahon, Empire Center’s founder and research director, in a budget breakdown post on the Center’s blog.

McMahon argues for more transparency and accountability with the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which he says “used to be put before voters in New York.” Now that doing so is no longer a requirement, McMahon writes, “the governor and Legislature obviously figure, why bother?”

Citizens Union
Citizens Union identifies the budget’s large non-specific lump sum funding in its “Spending in the Shadows” report. The watchdog identified nearly $13 billion in the budget in nonspecific funding: around $3 billion “subject to decisions of one or more particular elected officials,” and nearly $10 billion “in approximately 40 different economic development and infrastructure pots listing no official with spending authority.” The group also found that there was “inadequate reporting as to how these funds are eventually spent.”

Citizens Union calls on the governor and Legislature to publicly identify all nonspecific funding and to publicly disclose information, such as purposes and the requester, regarding these funds, especially ahead of spending, not afterward as is often the case. Further, the organization calls for amending state finance law to introduce accountability and conflict-of-interest identification to public contracting, the disclosure of grants and contracts “awarded under nonspecific lump sum appropriations and reappropriations,” and for “aging the budget bills for three days.”

Reinvent Albany
Reinvent Albany has focused largely on procurement reform, which has become a major point of contention, particularly after the Buffalo Billion corruption scandal broke. Along with other watchdog groups, Reinvent Albany issued a release in May calling for “five clean contracting reforms,” all of which failed to make it into the budget:

1. Require competitive and transparent contracting for the award of state funds by all state agencies, authorities, and affiliates. Use existing agency procurement guidelines as a uniform minimum standard.

2. Transfer responsibility for awarding all economic development awards to Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and end awards by state non-profits and SUNY.

3. Empower the Comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000.

4. Prohibit state authorities, state corporations, and state non-profits from doing business with their board members.

5. Create a ‘Database of Deals’ that allows the public to see the total value of all forms of subsidies awarded to a business – as six states have done.

The groups have continued to call for such reforms, but legislative leaders have been hesitant to challenge Cuomo, who is opposed.

New York Public Interest Research Group
NYPIRG also criticized the opacity of the state budget process, which notorious for taking place largely behind closed doors, especially in terms of the final, major deals reached, with the infamous “Three Men in a Room” process determining what stays and what goes -- largely without public input. (There’s been a fourth man in the room of late given the addition of IDC Leader Jeff Klein along with the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.)

“The process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past,” said the organization in a statement shortly after the budget’s passage. “Virtually all the deliberations in developing the budget were conducted behind closed doors. There were no hearings, no open meetings, and with the three day legislative review period waived by the governor lawmakers were voting on bills that they had little time to comprehensively review.”

***
by Ben Brachfeld & Jynn Schubert
@GothamGazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget Thu, 15 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
For Second Time, Legislature Sends FOIL Penalty Bill to Cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6982:for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6982:for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo bill signing Cuomo

(photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


A bill that would greatly strengthen New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), already vetoed once by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has again passed both houses of the Legislature -- with some minor adjustments.

The bipartisan legislation, which passed the Assembly in May and the Senate on Monday, mandates that city or state agencies be liable for court costs incurred by any individual who submits a FOIL request, is wrongfully denied documents, and then prevails in a lawsuit. Currently, the public officers law states that a court “may” award legal fees -- leaving the decision up to a judge -- rather than “shall,” a word change that would effectively penalize state agencies that willfully disregard disclosure law.

The governor’s office did not provide indication which way Cuomo is leaning this time.

The Freedom of Information Law allows everyday citizens, journalists, advocates, and others to seek and obtain information, like documents and communications, from government entities. The scope of the law is fairly wide, though there are significant exceptions, including for the deliberative process and much of what the state Legislature does.

Nearly identical legislation passed the Legislature in 2015, but Cuomo vetoed it, along with another FOIL-related bill, at the eleventh hour and with some harsh words. In his 2015 veto letter, Cuomo wrote that the bill “would allow attorneys’ fees to be assessed against a state agency, even if the state agency ultimately prevails.”

In the same letter, Cuomo, who regularly rails against the Legislature’s FOIL exemption, suggested that tightened FOIL requirements should also apply to the legislative branch. The governor is known for communicating himself in ways that are not FOIL-able -- for example, he is known not to use email.

Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and recommendations from the Committee on Open Government, which helped craft the bill, the legislation has been amended to create a two-tier system. The first tier relates to situations where the complainant in the FOIL lawsuit was victorious because the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal, in which case the court would still have discretionary authority to award attorneys’ fees. The “second tier” mandates the award of attorney fees when a party denied access to records “has substantially prevailed” and the court finds that “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access.”

“We think [the two-tier system] address the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale who authored the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “So we are very confident that it will be a law this year and it will give everyone the opportunity to to file a complaint when there’s been a violation.”

This legislation, which has the backing of the newspaper industry and has been the subject of numerous editorials, would have immense implications for news outlets, good government groups, think tanks, and other organizations focused on transparency.

Reinvent Albany and the New York Civil Liberties Union also worked closely with Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, the Senate sponsor, to fine tune the language, and hailed the legislation as an important step.

“We think this bill is a very big deal and, if the governor signs this, it will be the most important transparency legislation to pass in quite awhile,” John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette.

Kaehny noted than many are dissuaded from bringing FOIL lawsuits, even when they are confident they were wrongfully denied, because they fear being stuck with the legal bill. “How many people or groups can afford to ‘win’ a FOIL lawsuit when winning gets them a government document and a bill for $10,000 or $50,000 in attorneys' fees?” he asked rhetorically.

Other states -- including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey -- already have such laws granting legal fee reimbursement to those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the bill is “under review.”

Gallivan and Paulin said they were hopeful that Cuomo would sign this version of the bill. “If the governor cares about transparency, he should sign it,” said Gallivan.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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For Second Time, Legislature Sends FOIL Penalty Bill to Cuomo Thu, 08 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6927:government-watchdogs-push-clean-contracting-reform-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6927:government-watchdogs-push-clean-contracting-reform-in-albany Kaloyeros infrastructure

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany Wed, 10 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Renewed Push for 'Performance Budgeting' Through Mayor's Management Report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6754:push-for-performance-budgeting-through-mayor-s-management-report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6754:push-for-performance-budgeting-through-mayor-s-management-report 24722286022 fc206fafab z

Council Member Ben Kallos (Photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


A critical study by a fiscal watchdog on the city’s annual performance report has led to renewed calls for city agencies to base their budgets on the efficiency of services.

The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent nonprofit, released an analysis earlier this month of the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), a detailed survey of city agencies and their functioning which the Mayor's Office of Operations puts out twice a year. The preliminary version of the report, the PMMR, covering the first four months of the 2017 fiscal year, was released last Monday and will be followed by the full MMR in September.

The MMR contains performance evaluations of 44 city agencies, helping the city improve the efficiency and delivery of services and helping the public keep the administration accountable. Elected officials rely on the reports to conduct oversight of agencies, citing them in annual budget hearings.

CBC’s report notes, however, that while the MMR has thousands of indicators related to the “volume or quality” of services, there is little examination of efficiency through unit-cost measures, which gauge the city’s spending on each unit of service. “Unit cost indicators enhance accountability, inform operational changes, and highlight ways to increase efficiency,” the report reads.

The city’s already limited use of unit cost indicators has declined, according to the CBC’s analysis, and in last year’s MMR for fiscal year 2016, only 10 agencies reported a total of 35 unit cost indicators out of more than 2,000 metrics tracked by the city. These include, for instance, the cost to the Fire Department per ambulance tour per day, which grew from $1,799 in fiscal year 2012 to $1,937 in 2016, a 7.7 percent increase. In the same period, the average cost for the Department of Citywide Services to train a city employee fell 56 percent from $253 to $112. The report points out that the city can easily create more such unit cost indicators with current data and recommends steps to implement those measures across city agencies, including aligning units of appropriation with specific services and linking service quality with cost and efficiency.

“While the MMR provides thousands of indicators, the report is short on indicators that assess the efficiency of city government operations,” said Ana Champeny, director of city studies, CBC, in an email. “The City should develop more unit-cost measures that could support agencies in making their operations more cost-efficient.”

Elected officials and good government advocates have long been pushing for an improved MMR, calling for increasing the number of indicators and clarifying how agencies measure their performance. Last year, at an April oversight hearing on the MMR held by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, many of those concerns were raised, including the need to link agency funding with performance.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, has been pushing the city to do better for years and, at his request, the latest reports now show spending information by general categories of appropriation. But, he points out, the report still fails to connect budgeting with agency goals, despite being mandated by the city charter. “The MMR should be treated as an investment document,” Kallos said in a phone interview, “and spending should be tied to specific programmatic performance goals so New York City residents know how their tax dollars are being spent and can advocate for them to be increased or decreased.”

He noted, for instance, that the PMMR shows more homeless families and individuals entering the system than in previous years, as reflective of the city’s homelessness crisis. At the same time, it also shows fewer adults exiting permanent supportive housing than before. “If we have performance budgeting, the mayor would have to say he’s spending certain amounts of money to improve that number,” Kallos said. “We would be able to tie the amount of spending to that number and we’d be able to understand what the barrier is and possibly solve it with more funding.”

Government reform groups have argued that the city has improved the MMR but has been slow to institute certain common sense changes that have been recommended for years. “[The MMR] was a huge leap forward when it was first introduced forty years ago,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, and co-chair and founder of the New York City Transparency Working Group. “It is basically obsolete. It needs to evolve so the public, the City Council and the mayor himself can tell how city agencies are doing.”

Pushing for a more comprehensive MMR, Kaehny said, would be consistent with the city’s reputation as a national leader in areas of open governance and transparency. He also believes that the charter’s mandate, to make MMR goals linked to the budget, is more realistic now than it has ever been, with the ubiquity of data and the means to compute it in the digital age. “This is a logical evolution of the MMR,” he said, although pointing out that city agencies and public sector unions may be wary of such scrutiny. “This would really put them under a microscope, it would show trends citywide and show how efficient the city can provide services over private entities.”

Mindy Tarlow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the city’s public reporting of data on delivery of services has been more comprehensive and transparent “than any other major urban jurisdiction in the country” for the last forty years. “We continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Office of Management and Budget to further align performance and spending,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With reporting by Ben Max.

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Renewed Push for 'Performance Budgeting' Through Mayor's Management Report Mon, 13 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6635:city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6635:city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance berger council

Henry Berger testifying (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council heard testimony Monday on a broad package of bills that would prevent conflicts of interest between elected officials and political nonprofits, limit the electoral influence of those who do business with the city, and make it easier for first-time candidates to navigate the city’s campaign finance system.

The Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics heard 14 bills on Monday in what was the current Council’s first hearing of the committee focused on legislation. Of the 14, the headlining bill, Intro. 1345, was the Council’s direct response to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit formed by the mayor’s allies to promote his agenda that has been at the center of controversy, criticism, and law enforcement investigations.

The Campaign for One New York, since disbanded, skirted the city’s campaign finance law, in part by raising major sums from entities with city business. Federal investigators have been looking at whether government action was exchanged for donations. The mayor has maintained that he, his administration, and the organization followed the law and sought guidances from the Conflicts of Interest Board throughout. His activities were probed by the city Campaign Finance Board, which let him off with a slap on the wrist but stressed the need to close the loophole in the law that he took advantage of in fundraising for his group.

The bill at hand is sponsored by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally. It takes aim at that exact loophole and limits donations from those who are lobbyists or have business before the city to nonprofits created or controlled by elected officials or their agents. The limit of $400 currently applies to donations made by such categories of donors directly to candidate committees. Under the bill, if an organization spends more than 10 percent of its annual budget on “public-facing communications that feature the name or picture of the elected official who controls them” contributions to the nonprofit would be limited and it would have to disclose its donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Mark-Viverito did not attend the hearing, which was led by Standards and Ethics Committee Chair Alan Maisel. Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson, Robin Levine, said in an email that Council staff was monitoring the hearing and will brief the speaker as she reviews the testimony.

While there was broad support for Mark-Viverito’s bill, there were questions about its language and the implementation that it requires. As it currently stands, the bill seeks to prevent actual and perceived conflicts of interest by preventing business interests from donating large sums of money to a nonprofit to ingratiate themselves with an elected official. But concerns were raised that the bill paints with a broad brush and would include nonprofits that are affiliated to an extent with public officials but aren’t involved in public fundraising to benefit those officials. The bill also doesn’t include high-ranking public officials in city agencies, only elected officials. Council Members sought feedback on how they could amend and improve the proposal, and agency heads suggested more clear definitions of the organizations that would be covered.

The rest of the bills being heard Monday aim at streamlining campaign finance disclosure requirements and tweak certain aspects of the city’s campaign finance law. These bills would usually be heard by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has heard another package of campaign finance reform bills that awaits a vote, but were lumped together with the first proposal concerning conflicts of interest, which is under the standards and ethics committee’s jurisdiction.

“All these bills are designed to ensure we streamline the process of running for office without sacrificing the safeguards that ensure integrity of our democratic process,” said Council Member David Greenfield, sponsor of five of the bills, in his opening statement.

The campaign finance bills cover a lot of ground. One bill shortens the deadline for candidates to choose a hearing before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings for alleged campaign violations and penalties. Currently, most candidates go through a more informal hearing before the Campaign Finance Board. Another bill requires campaign contributions to be deposited within 20 business days, and cash contributions to be deposited within 10 business days.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander would allow non-public campaign funds to be used by public officials for their official duties. One of the proposals that the CFB particularly opposed would prohibit CFB staff from being present at an executive session of the board where campaign finance violations are being adjudicated. This bill would prevent the CFB’s own executive director from attending such a session.

The main bill, Intro. 1345, received support, with certain caveats, from the de Blasio administration, the Conflicts of Interest Board, the Campaign Finance Board, and private government reform organizations that favor more transparency in campaign finance.

Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, testified in support of all the bills but expressed certain doubts about the scope of Intro. 1345 and about one provision in Intro. 1355, one of Greenfield’s bills.

On Intro. 1345, Berger said the administration was “generally supportive of the intent of this bill,” but said the definition of an organization affiliated with an elected official was “overbroad and may be problematic.” He warned that it could also raise legal concerns over free speech of private entities. “These concerns would need to be addressed in future discussions at a staff level,” he said.

Berger cited the precautions that the mayor’s team took for the Campaign for One New York, including the willing disclosure of donors, which the new bill would require, and he agreed that limits should be placed on nonprofits that create a perception of helping a particular candidate. “[Intro. 1345] provides very strong assurances that would avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest,” he said. “And that’s important. Confidence in our government requires that.”

But he worried that the bill would also apply to nonprofits that don’t raise funds and are already subject to extensive reporting requirements, such as the Economic Development Corporation, or programmatic organizations that don’t benefit an individual but may raise funds such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “We’re looking for some tightening but....we think this bill comes very close to drawing the line,” he said.

Once a bill is heard in Council committee, behind-the-scenes negotiation usually occurs to tweak bill language, before a bill is voted on in committee and then, if it passes, the the full Council. At times, like the other package of campaign finance reform bills that was heard months ago by the government operations committee, bills do not receive a committee vote soon after a hearing, if at all. Council sources do indicate, though, that they plan to move the bills heard today quickly, while also moving the other campaign finance bills.

Changes to the campaign finance system would already be late in the four-year election cycle as the election year of 2017 is fast-approaching and candidates have already been raising money.

The political nonprofits bill also expands the definition for those who do business before the city to include family members, which, Berger said, would create logistical and technical issues for the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, which maintains the city’s doing business database. MOCS would need time to adjust to the bill, he later told Council members.

Addressing Intro. 1355, which relaxes certain documentation requirements for campaign contributions, Berger said there was a potential for fraud since the bill removes the obligation for a candidate committee to collect contributor cards if they receive a check or money order with the name and address of a donor on them.

Berger’s biggest complaints, however, were that certain necessary proposals were not included in the package of bills. He said the Council should consider legislation that would overhaul the process for post-election campaign audits, to ensure they are concluded faster; proposed that legal fees for responding to campaign finance issues should not be counted against a campaign’s expenditure limits; and suggested that candidates who must raise money for a general election during primary season be allowed to attribute fundraising expenditures to their general election spending cap instead of the primary one.

Representatives of the Conflicts of Interest Board commended the Council on Intro. 1345, but said they are unsure about being charged with implementing it. Executive Director Carolyn Lisa Miller said the board “remains uncertain whether we are the right agency to administer the legislation,” but expressed willingness to work with the Council and the administration.

Miller listed 20 possible issues arising from the legislation, ranging from the definition of the nonprofits covered to the substantial penalties levied and the timeframe of disclosures required by organizations. She also cited issues with enforcement and investigation. COIB is a small city agency, with 26 full-time employees, and has no investigators of its own, relying instead on the Department of Investigation which is an independent agency. Miller said COIB would likely require additional staff and funding to comply with the legislation.

What might complicate things further is that COIB cannot enforce fines on City Council members, if one should choose not to accept a violation found and penalty assessed by the board. In such a situation, which Miller said has never arisen to date, the board could only make recommendations to the Speaker and the Council which would have to decide to refer the case to the standards and ethics committee.

Council Member Lander, co-sponsor of Intro. 1345 and a prime sponsor on another one of the bills, pushed back against Miller’s uncertainty. “To me the reason to put this legislation and its enforcement with you is it is an issue of conflicts of interest,” he said. “Even though we are concerned about the public-facing communication, what we’re guarding against here is public corruption. That’s the goal, making sure that people who have business interests with the city don’t have an avenue into giving that influences public officials. That’s not primarily campaign finance. That’s primarily conflicts of interest.”

With 13 bills out of the package dealing directly with the Campaign Finance Board, much of the hearing focused on testimony from Amy Loprest, CFB executive director. Loprest, like COIB’s Miller, praised Intro. 1345 but had strong apprehensions nonetheless. “We note the several concerns regarding the bill’s drafting and implementation raised by our colleagues at the Conflicts of Interest Board,” Loprest said in her opening statement. “We urge the Council to take those into account, and we will be available to assist in any way they or the Council deems appropriate.”

She also criticized the legislation’s accompanying “poison pill” measures which would “significantly weaken the CFB’s oversight of the matching funds program.”

“These measures should not be the cost of implementing a commendable and necessary reform,” she said, taking issue with the timing of many of the proposals, saying they would be disruptive to the board’s preparations for the 2017 city elections.

In a cordial back-and-forth with Council Member Greenfield, who argued that the Council’s proposed changes to CFB procedures were warranted, necessary, and justified under its jurisdiction, Loprest attempted to explain her broader concerns.

“It is important for us to review how we do operate, how we do our audits, how we do our procedures,” she conceded. “I do however think that this kind of piecemeal, finger in one part of a complicated process will have unintended and unwelcome consequences and will make things more complicated when our goal is to try and make things less complicated.”

Greenfield pushed back. “I think that’s where we’re going to come to agree to disagree,” he said. “Just like your job is to audit candidates, our job is to audit the CFB, for lack of a better term.”

Good government groups testified in support of the bills, but had reservations about both the timing and the manner in which they were drafted and introduced. Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, approved of the bills but said it was late in the game to consider changes to the city’s campaign finance system, with the next election so close.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, applauded the Council, but insisted that the bills should have included more public discussion when they were being drafted. Intro. 1345, in particular, addresses concerns that Citizens Union raised earlier this year in a proposal to regulate nonprofit organizations affiliated with elected officials. “We believe the proposed bill can effectively bring needed oversight to these organizations,” Dadey said at Monday’s hearing.

The only testimony that rejected most of the proposals outright came from Dominic Mauro, staff attorney for Reinvent Albany, an advocacy organization. Mauro said his organization supported the intent of Intro. 1345 but questioned how it could be implemented. The entire package of bills, Mauro said, “add up to a huge step backwards.” Admitting that the CFB is “imperfect, he said, however, that his organization thinks “Many of these bills seem like petty retaliation and an expression of irritation by Council members who are annoyed with CFB nitpicking.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance Mon, 21 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
In Wake of Charges, Cuomo Promises Change, Offers Few Details http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6553:in-wake-of-charges-cuomo-promises-change-offers-few-details http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6553:in-wake-of-charges-cuomo-promises-change-offers-few-details Cuomo gaggle teacher award night

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Federal Corruption Charges Confirm Systemic Flaws in State Economic Development System Thu, 22 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Seeks to Undermine Comptroller’s Check on His Power http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6485:cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6485:cuomo-seeks-to-undermine-comptroller-s-check-on-his-power cuomo dinapoli flags state of the state

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuomo and DiNapoli are both Democrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Cuomo Seeks to Undermine Comptroller’s Check on His Power Thu, 18 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000