Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/505 Mon, 23 Oct 2017 06:03:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6808:adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-yuh-line-niou http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6808:adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-yuh-line-niou yuhlineniou2

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (photo via @yuhline)


Yuh-Line Niou, Assemblymember for the 65th District in Lower Manhattan, has a tough task. The new Assembly member takes the seat held by disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for 40 years. Niou won the September 2016 Democratic primary -- backed by the Working Families Party -- and November general election after losing a prior special election to Alice Cancel, who had been the choice of the Silver machine.

Now, she must navigate growing into her role as an elected official, managing constituent services in a district that once got special attention given Silver’s powerful perch, and making her mark on Albany’s crowded landscape.

In February, Nious spoke with Gotham Gazette about the challenges of meeting the outsized expectations of her district, getting to know her new colleagues and figuring out how to be heard in a notoriously dysfunctional state government. She also shared some of the less glamorous aspects of being a new legislator from New York City, such as taking the train to and from Albany and ordering pizza to her hotel.

GG: How was your first month as a state legislator? What was orientation like?

YLN: The first month has been pretty hectic. It’s been exciting in a lot of ways, but it’s also a lot to take in. It’s a pretty steep learning curve, because everybody else seems to know what’s going on a lot more than I do. It’s been also really exciting to get to know a lot of my colleagues. My cohort -- it’s very exciting for us to be together, because we’re all freshmen together, and there’s about 11 of us on the Dems side. It’s been kind of fun, that part of it...There’s a lot of folks that just listening to them talk and understanding some of the issues that they are fighting for, I admire them.

GG: What’s your commute like? Where do you stay? Favorite restaurants? Tell us about your day-to-day.

YLN: Actually, because there’s been so many events going on in-district, I commute Sunday night and I take the latest train usually. Sometimes it’s 9 p.m. and sometimes 11 p.m. I take the Penn Station Amtrak, and usually when I get [to Albany] it’s around midnight, or if I got the 11 o’clock, it’s like 2:30 a.m. But I try to go to as many district events as possible before I leave; because we’re up here, we don’t to get to be in the district as much as we would like and people want to see me out there. But because of the schedule and how busy it is is [in Albany] -- It’s almost budget season, it’s actually the last day for budget letters -- everything is really hectic.

I’m staying at the Holiday Inn Express — very fancy! — I actually have not gone out to eat at all really. Sometimes in the dead of night, when we finally get done with everything, it’s like 11 p.m., and everything’s closed. I go back to the Holiday Inn, and then I order pizza.

GG: Have you had much Assembly floor time? Do you speak up for your constituents?

YLN: It’s really great, because they help us by putting things into packages and days. So there hasn’t been much difficulty with drafting policy or the legislative schedule yet. I think that things get full and really crazy fast right after the budget is done — for the policy side.

Right now, we’ve done a lot on women’s rights and I was able to speak up on reproductive health. We had a bunch of resolutions heard. Mine was the Lunar New Year resolution, and it was really great, because over 80 legislators signed on to it. We also had the immigrant rights debate, a lot of criminal justice reform debates. So those were really impactful right now, because of what’s going on on a federal level.

GG: You are coming in during a strange climate given what’s going on nationally. How has the Trump administration shaped your priorities?

YLN: That a really big question. One of the things that I’m lucky enough to be a part of, is being part of ‘the people’s budget,’ I’m one of the legislators who is helping to put it together — and that’s the document that the Black, Hispanic, Asian and Puerto Rican Caucus put together. It’s really exciting. We get to talk a lot about the things I just mentioned, with criminal justice reform, and immigrant rights and women's rights. And we get to talk a lot about what we, as a caucus, would like to focus on. The other budgets don’t necessarily make those things a priority, so at least it’s a document for folks who believe in those things to have a voice. It’s a very exciting project and I’m really honored to be a part of it.

One of the pieces -- because of the weird climate -- one of the things I got to speak up on, was stopping data registries, and I think that’s really important because I know the city is going through some stuff with the [IDNYC (municipal identification card)] program. We are all trying do our best to look at what’s happening, and then do really good preparation to be a good buffer and good representation of our district.

GG: You get this question a lot, but, Asian-Americans have been underrepresented in public office in New York State for so long. As the first Asian-American state legislator representing Manhattan, is there a lot of pressure to be a voice for an entire ethnic group?

YLN: I worked for [Assemblymember] Ron [Kim] last year and he was the only Asian-American on the entire state level — I bet he felt that! Right now, there’s both me and him, and it’s nice. But I also know that there are many of our colleagues that have very large Asian-American populations, and many of them have been very good at representing those communities in those districts as well. But yes, of course, a lot of people are going to come to our office with a lot of language-access needs, and immigration issues, and things like that. Just very basic things, like how to use mail. These are things Ron and I had to deal with that a lot at his office, because he was the only Asian-American elected on the entire state level, so many times a lot of those issues came to us.

I don’t get tired of the question, by the way. I think it’s sad that we have to keep asking the question more than anything. Because, I think that you are right, absolutely, we are the most underrepresented minority in New York State and the most rapidly growing as well in our state. We are at least 10 percent of the population in our state and we definitely don’t even have 1 percent of representation on a state level. That’s shocking, for sure. I think it's upsetting in the sense that, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I am the first on a state level,’ because I didn’t think that that was still a thing, but unfortunately, it is. I think it's very important to represent my whole district, but it is also a community that grew together, and everybody is supportive of one another. That’s why it’s such an incredible district.

GG: Any other surprising moments or takeaways from the past month and a half?

YLN: There hasn’t been anything completely unexpected, but I definitely have just been just moved by how supportive everyone is. Especially with my office, the speaker [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] has been very, very good with my district and understanding the difficulty that I am under.

Given the history of this office, I think that we know that this district was serviced like no other district, because there were a lot of resources that, having the former speaker represent the district, that the district would have. Certain expectations have been set by the seat, which means I have to provide a very high level of constituent service and representation, but with only a fraction of the budget.

I was very moved and surprised by how much the Speaker understands that, and by how supportive the staff has been, on [The] Ways and Means [Committee], and the different committees, how they’ve been for our district in general, because it's got to be a drastic change.

I think it's my responsibility to the district to ensure that I’m super responsive, that we are able to get to folks’ needs very quickly and efficiently, because it's crucial. This is a constituency that literally had the most service and then almost no service for a period of time. It’s been a shock to the system. I’m hoping to make sure we are 100 percent accessible, that we are always transparent, and my priority is always constituents first.

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou Sun, 19 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians silver skelos cuomo sampson

Sheldon Silver & others in 2011 (photo: The Governor's Office)


This November, New York voters will get to decide whether state officials who are convicted of public corruption can be stripped of their pensions.

A government ethics reform bill, jointly passed by the state Legislature Monday for a second time, amends the state constitution and allows the state to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties.

Under the measure, a public officer convicted of a crime would be subject to a court hearing, which would determine the fate of of the officer’s pension. Current law only allows pensions to be stripped from lawmakers convicted of a crime who joined the retirement system after August 15, 2011, but this constitutional amendment would make the forfeiture apply retroactively to all currently in government.

Because it is a constitutional change, it must pass two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, which this legislation has now done, and then be approved by the voters via ballot referendum.

A public push for the legislation came after it was revealed that disgraced ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as other corrupt public officials, were granted pensions despite convictions on public corruption charges. As they face prison sentences, Skelos is to receive $95,832 annually and Silver, $79,224 a year, according to The Daily News.

While many state legislators’ initially appeared content to keep the pension (forfeiture) system as is, a public outcry following news reports on the Skelos and Silver pension packages appears to have changed their minds. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters supported pension forfeiture for corrupt officials 76 percent to 18 percent.

The new pension forfeiture measure will appear on the ballot November 7 of this year, as voters go to the polls for the general elections in a variety of local offices. In New York City, elections will include those for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, all of the City Council, and others.

On the flip side of the ballot from candidate choices, alongside the pension forfeiture “yes” or “no” question, will be another somewhat related referendum: whether New York State should call a constitutional convention. That question is required to appear on the ballot every 20 years, but New Yorkers have not called for a Con Con, as it is often referred, in several decades.

A chance to rewrite the state constitution, a constitutional convention could result in the enactment of numerous government ethics reforms, from different pension forfeiture rules to the closure of the infamous “LLC loophole,” term limits for elected officials, and more.

The last time a constitutional convention was on the ballot, in 1997, it did not pass, in part due opposition from labor groups and other special interests, which factor into this year’s vote as well. However, not only is there currently a “take back the government” political moment occurring, but the fact that the constitutional convention question will be accompanied by the popular pension forfeiture referendum could potentially have a “coattail effect,” according to Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“From an advocate’s perspective, I think this makes it easier to get it passed,” Horner said of Con Con. “Any sort of political campaign is difficult to run, when you are telling people vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other, because people forget which is which.”

According to the new measure, a court’s decision to reduce or revoke pension benefits would consider factors such as the severity of the crime and whether a reduction might be proportionate to the offense. Public officers include elected officials, direct gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers, and policy-makers.

“There must be zero tolerance for public corruption, and these ethics reforms are crucial to holding officials accountable and making sure they don’t profit from abusing their positions,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement. “Now the measure will go to the voters so that they can have the opportunity to join with us in taking a strong stand against corruption.” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican like his predecessor, replaced Skelos as majority leader when Skelos stepped down amid federal charges.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a New York City Democrat who replaced Silver when Silver stepped down from his long-time speaker post, said similarly. “The Assembly Majority believes that public officials who violate the public’s trust and engage in corruption should face the consequences of their actions including the forfeiture of taxpayer funded pensions,” said Heastie in a statement.

The proposal, sponsored by Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, and Senator Thomas Croci, a Republican from Long Island, would also allow the court to order pension benefits to be paid to an innocent spouse, minor dependents, or other dependent family members after consideration of their financial needs and resources.

Good government groups were quick to commend the Legislature’s reform efforts as a step in the right direction. Still, the potential loss or reduction of pension benefits -- a punitive measure -- is less likely to deter corruption than more preventative measures that reformers have called for, like a public campaign finance system and stricter limits on campaign donations. Jail time and other penalties faced by corrupt politicians have appeared to show little effect as state lawmaker after state lawmaker is put behind bars.

“Public officials who break the law shouldnʼt get a taxpayer pension, period. Thanks to Assemblymember Buchwaldʼs and Senator Crociʼs persistent efforts to pass this needed response to our state’s on-going ethics crisis, New York is one step closer to restoring the public’s trust in government,ˮ said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, in a statement.

The Legislature also passed a joint resolution Monday that requires any member of the Legislature earning at least $5,000 in income through outside employment to get advisory permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, to ensure the employment is consistent with the New York State Public Officers Law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a ten-point government ethics plan earlier this year as part of his State of the State tour and policy plan. Cuomo said he will be pushing reform measures, including campaign finance reform, in budget negotiations with the Legislature. The governor is supportive of the pension forfeiture amendment and has said he is supportive of a constitutional convention, but he did not include it in his 149-plank 2017 policy agenda.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians Tue, 31 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Crowded Assembly Field Looks to Quickly Unseat Silver Replacement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6513:crowded-assembly-field-looks-to-quickly-unseat-silver-replacement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6513:crowded-assembly-field-looks-to-quickly-unseat-silver-replacement AD65 panel Li mic

AD65 candidates at a debate (photo: @FilAmDems)


In a world where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hadn’t turned his eye toward public corruption in state government, Sheldon Silver would likely be running for his 21st term in the Assembly and easily extending by another two years his 40-year reign over Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District.

In the real world, Silver, who had already resigned the powerful Assembly speakership he held for almost 20 years, was automatically stripped of his seat in November 2015 when he was convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.

Silver’s Assembly seat was filled during an April 19 special election - a process notorious for being easily controlled by local political parties - by Alice Cancel, the preferred choice of Silver’s still-active and -influential network.

Now, fewer than five months later, a Democratic primary contest between Cancel, the short-term incumbent, and five other local political and community activists will be far less malleable for the disgraced former speaker’s allies. In the heavily-Democratic district, the primary winner is all-but-certain to win November’s general election. Republican candidate Lester Chang is running again; Chang earned just under 19 percent of the vote in the April special election.

While Silver’s pall will hang over the district for decades to come, this election is its first chance at a fresh start, an argument being made by Cancel’s challengers.

The change from Silver has already come at a price for the district, given the immense power held by an Assembly Speaker. Cancel took Silver’s place as a rank-and-file legislator with little sway in the Assembly majority. Whoever wins this year, Cancel or another candidate, will head to Albany as a rookie legislator without major committee assignments; with little leverage to push for major initiatives’ and unable to deliver the millions of dollars in community funding Silver was so revered for in his district and derided for from outside it.

Cancel, a former district leader, won the seat with the backing of the Manhattan Democratic Party, Silver’s wife, and a number of his allies. Since winning the seat Cancel has made a number of gaffes and appeared to many as unprepared to hold the seat.

Normally, incumbency is seen as a major advantage, bringing with it name recognition, powerful endorsements, and a dedicated fundraising apparatus. But Cancel hasn’t demonstrated that to be the case. She drastically trails other candidates in fundraising and hasn’t had much time to establish constituent services that would allow her to ingratiate herself with her voter base. She has also underperformed in her few public appearances and primary debates. Cancel has been media shy and reluctant to campaign, though during the special election she explained that her public scarcity had to do with health concerns.

The incumbent’s perceived weakness appears to be part of why five challengers hope they can marshall a dedicated base of support in what is expected to be a low turnout affair. The September 13 vote is the third primary day in New York this year.

Challenging Cancel are Paul Newell, Yuh-Line Niou, Jenifer Rajkumar, Gigi Li, and Don Lee.

Newell is a community activist and district leader who was the first Democrat to challenge Silver in nearly two decades, when he ran against him in 2008. Newell, who was endorsed by The New York Times editorial board, won about 22 percent of the vote with Silver at 69 percent. The effort gained Newell experience and notoriety that he hopes to capitalize on during this year’s primary.

Niou also has experience running for office in the district - she challenged Cancel in the special election with the backing of the Working Families Party (WFP). Niou lost by 700 votes in an effort that won her the support of The Times’ editorial board and major elected officials. (While saying that any of the challengers would be better than Cancel, The Times is again supporting Niou this month.)

Rajkumar is a human rights lawyer and district leader who has been involved in advocacy initiatives on tenant rights, labor protections, and women in politics. She challenged City Council Member Margaret Chin in a 2013 primary and, like others running now, sought the Democratic nomination for the April special election.

Li is chair of Manhattan Community Board 3 and made history in 2012 when she became the first Asian-American to be elected to chair a city community board. Li has been involved in advocating for services for families and children.

Lee is a technology executive with a long history of community activism. He got his start in politics in the Koch Administration and is now running as an outsider candidate.

The void left by Silver is immense as he brought billions worth of pork to the district over the decades, used his power to micromanage almost all changes in the district, and stood as a champion for many liberal causes. At the same time, many in Albany saw Silver as a long-term impediment to state government ethics reform and to policy reforms that could have positively impacted his district, especially on affordable housing.

The federal corruption charges against Silver revealed his close financial ties to the real estate lobby that he swore he was fighting during Albany negotiations over rent control and other major housing issues.

While many expected Silver’s conviction to bring real change to Albany the special election to replace him was a sign to many across the state that there were still plenty of roadblocks in place. When Manhattan Democrats gathered to back a candidate for the empty seat, Silver’s allies maneuvered to ensure that Cancel got the nod. Special elections in New York remain largely controlled by local party committees.

Niou and her supporters protested the selection process and campaigned against Cancel with the backing of the WFP, which is supporting her again. Other candidates plotted for their current runs.

This crop of candidates for the 65th will be looking to tap into voting bases across a district that includes Chinatown, the Lower East Side. and most of Lower Manhattan. Political consultants expect that the district’s powerful Asian vote, which could have been tapped as a bloc by one candidate, to be splintered, making the race less easy to predict.

According to the state Board of Elections, as of April 1, 2016, there were 65,766 active registered voters in the 65th Assembly District, 43,094 of them Democrats. (There were 6,320 active registered Republicans and 14,100 active registered voters unaffiliated with a party.)

Top issues facing the district include affordability, especially in housing, as well as education, including school space, climate resiliency, senior services, and health care infrastructure. There is also, of course, a lot of discussion of government ethics and state government reform.

Gotham Gazette spoke to all of the challengers about the race, but attempts to secure an interview with Cancel were unsuccessful.

Candidates painted a picture of a district where elderly residents are finding it harder to afford to stay, where immigrant families can’t afford more than one bedroom, and where properties owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are in constant disrepair. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature managed to put aside $2 billion for affordable housing and supportive housing, but have yet to actually allocate spending for most of that sum.

Niou said it must be a priority to get the money out of the state’s coffers and into districts. Asked about Cuomo’s plan to revive the expired 421-a tax break for developers who agree to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, Niou was skeptical. “Affordability is a huge issue for our district and the thing is you can't lose money building apartments in Manhattan,” she said, noting the escalating cost of rent. Niou said that if 421-a is necessary checks must be in place.

“We need to make sure developers pay workers the proper wage and make sure we are actually getting affordable units,” Niou said. She also advocated reopening discussions over rent regulation laws to end practices that incentivize landlords to push tenants out.

Meanwhile, Li said the state needs a multi-pronged approach to affordable housing. “We can't just throw money at new development to solve the affordability issue,” she said. “We need preservation. Repairing NYCHA properties and dealing with sustainability must be a priority, but it is important we build new apartments.” She added that she believes it is time to alter the Urstadt Law that gives the State say over major city issues in order to give the City more power.

Rajkumar advocated for quickly funding supportive housing projects and reforming 421-a to “hold developers accountable.”

Newell said his district faces an “acute capital need” as far as housing goes, citing the disrepair of NYCHA properties. “We obviously need to continue building to meet our housing demands, but not I’m sure we need 421-a, with or without a wage subsidy.” He said that he would favor increased checks on the subsidy program to ensure developers are actually delivering the affordable units they receive breaks for.

Lee said that “special interests” must be removed from housing policy and that the State is “playing with funny money.”

Asked how she would preserve affordable housing at a recent debate, Cancel responded: “To be very honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question, in terms of how do we stop what’s going on,” before suggesting rezoning might help, according to The New York Times. Rezoning is under purview of the City Council.

With education funding a major issue in the district and a proposed tax credit for donations to education institutions likely to be a major factor during the next legislative session in Albany, Gotham Gazette asked the candidates about their position on the controversial measure that is aimed at helping private and charter schools. The five challengers all appeared opposed to the measure, to varying degrees. Li said that while she generally supports “compromise,” she is “focused on funding public education first and foremost.”

Newell said flatly that he opposes the tax credit. Niou, who noted that Cuomo supports the credit said, “The Governor wants lots of things but he hasn't paid us for the CFE case yet,” referring to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that resulted in a judge saying the state chronically underfunds the poorest schools. “So he owes public schools, so it is ridiculous to give breaks to people who support private schools when public schools are suffering,” Niou said.

Rajkumar said CFE funding is critical to make sure city schools can serve students from all districts equally. She also decried how legislators use funding for city schools as a political “football.”

Lee said he was concerned that people who make donations not be allowed to dictate how the money is spent.

The candidates also all came together on the need to save local health care providers given the closing of Beth-Israel Hospital. They were also concerned about resiliency issues the city was forced to confront during Superstorm Sandy.

Li said she discovered while campaigning that many residents of the district don’t realize they are eligible for health care and other benefits under the Federal Zagroda Act. Li and Niou said that they saw a desperate need in the district for constituent service efforts to connect residents with government programs.

All of the challengers to Cancel professed to support a list of government ethics reforms that include limiting or banning outside income for legislators, implementing a statewide system of public campaign financing similar to that employed in New York City; ending the LLC loophole; and adjusting the budget process to make it more open and inclusive.

They differed less on what they wanted done and more on how they would achieve it.

“I think we have a window of opportunity for real change that hasn’t existed for generations,” said Newell, who added that he expected Democrats to take control of the state Senate thereby ending a Republican blockade on most of the aforementioned reforms. “On the Assembly side, Carl Heastie did not expect to be Speaker, and he filled out last session without putting dramatic changes into action,” said Newell. “Next session I think we will see who Carl Heastie really is when he brings the Assembly into the 21st Century.”

Rajkumar said she believes individual Assembly members and committee chairs need more individual power. She also wants lobbying on legislation to be revealed in a database in real time.

Lee said voters are tired of waiting for the system to change. “These guys see problems and they say ‘let's kick it to the next election cycle.’ They have no sense of urgency. They are so out of touch and expectations have gotten to be so low. The bigger issue is that we need true reform - not fresh blood but a blood transfusion,” Lee said.

Asked about the differences between challenging Silver and 2008 and running in a crowded field in 2016, Newell first said the difference is “we are going to win,” but added having a crowded field of deeply invested community members means that the district will have the first “healthy debate process” it has had in decades.

As for campaign funds to support stretch-run efforts, Cancel reported having $11,581 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing.

Other candidates have significantly more money for final flyering and other advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Endorsements from unions, elected officials, and other groups have also been divided, mostly among Cancel’s challengers.

Rajkumar reported having $182,826 on hand in her 32-day pre-primary filing; her 11-day pre-primary filing has not been posted by the BOE. Rajkumar has been endorsed by The Public Employees Federation and Citizens Union of New York, a government reform group.

Newell reported having $92,347 on hand as of his 32-day pre-primary filing. He has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Citizen Action of New York, and City Council Members Rosie Mendez, Mark Levine, and Ben Kallos.

Niou reported having $76,635 on hand in her 11-day pre-primary filing. Along with her endorsements from The New York Times and The Working Families Party, Niou is supported by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, state Senator Daniel Squadron, and others.

Li reported having $36,404 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing. She has been endorsed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Members Margaret Chin and Helen Rosenthal, and state Senator Jesse Hamilton.

Lee reported having $31,856 on hand of his 11-day pre-primary filing.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Crowded Assembly Field Looks to Quickly Unseat Silver Replacement Wed, 07 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6339:should-everything-silver-and-skelos-touched-be-reviewed http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6339:should-everything-silver-and-skelos-touched-be-reviewed skelos cuomo silver

Skelos, Cuomo, Silver (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office, Jan. 2015)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were each told by their judge during recent prison sentencing that their corrupt actions have increased public cynicism around state government. Their corrupt actions, they were told, make people question what might have been different in the budgets and policy deals they negotiated, government decision-making that impacted millions. Judge Kimba Wood told Skelos we “can’t know” how his budget advocacy would have differed had he not been corrupt.

In fact, everything that has come through the state Legislature during Silver’s or Skelos’ tenure is open to questioning based on the facts that we now know they were illegally using their public positions for private gain and that nothing goes through either chamber without its majority leader signing off. In the wake of their convictions, every decision either was involved in could be worth reviewing, not that such an investigation is necessarily warranted or welcome.

For years, SIlver and Skelos were two of the “three men in a room” negotiating budget and other deals, approving what legislation came to a vote in their houses and directing policy initiatives. The third man in that equation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, currently faces a vast probe into his administration’s signature economic development program.

As Albany grapples with a wave of corruption convictions highlighted by those of Silver and Skelos, it does so with ethics laws negotiated by two men who have now been sentenced in major federal corruption cases and under the watch of an ethics body they not only helped create but appointed members to. The latest convictions also follow the shutdown of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which was ended prematurely in a deal among Cuomo, Skelos, and Silver.

A Siena poll released on the day of Silver’s early May sentencing found 93 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a major problem for the state and 97 percent want new laws to combat corruption.

With 16 lawmakers forced from office due to misconduct in the last six years, the nearly simultaneous downfall of the two legislative leaders, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s continued insistence that everyone “stay tuned,” the questions arise: How tainted were the budget- and law-making processes? Should decisions engineered and shepherded by corrupt officials stand?

Those are questions, according to former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, currently a Demos scholar, that are in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the Legislature.

“If the governor or Legislature has concerns about the integrity of a law, it can be repealed, re-enacted, etcetera,” said Brodsky. He added, though, “Remember, the motive of a bill's author is what it is. It takes 76 Assembly votes to pass a bill no matter who the sponsor is.”

It is nearly impossible to imagine the governor or lawmakers wanted to revisit decisions made during the tenure of Silver or Skelos to investigate whether certain decisions were made in relation to their scandals.

Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, concurred that no matter how powerful Skelos or Silver was, laws passed by the Legislature are the action of “an institution,” not “one legislator.”

Benjamin said he knows of no case where a law was later “examined due to a general charge of corruption.”

Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S assistant attorney and current head of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, said that the Silver and Skelos convictions don’t prove that either of them manipulated legislation. “And the opacity of the proceedings leaves us in the dark as to what they actually did,” she said, referring to Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making culture. Because of that, Rodgers said repealing a law due to corruption does not seem to be “a realistic avenue to pursue -- you couldn't prove that the bribe caused the legislation to pass or fail.”

Silver, the long-time Democratic Assembly Speaker known for getting his way in budget deals by holding out longer than anyone else, was convicted of sending government money to a doctor who researched cures for mesothelioma in return for the researcher referring patients to a law firm that in turn paid fees to Silver. Able to tap into opaque pots of discretionary money called State and Municipal Facilities Program funding, Silver quietly funded the doctor’s work.

Silver had a similar deal with two real estate firms that moved their business to a law firm that paid Silver in exchange for supporting rent legislation that they backed.

At the time of his misdeeds, Silver was considered by some to be tenants’ best hope in negotiations over rent laws as Senate Republicans favored real estate. Tenant advocates now see many of the actions taken by Silver, including renewing controversial tax breaks for developers and his back-room dealings on the extension of rent regulations, as tainted.

Skelos, meanwhile was accused of extorting three firms with business before the state to employ his son Adam, who rarely showed up to work and often made problems when he did. Those businesses were real estate firm Glenwood Management; an environmental technologies firm, AbTech Industry, which wanted to earn lucrative state contracts having to do with Hurricane Sandy and hydraulic fracturing; and Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, which gave Adam Skelos a $78,000-a-year job. PRI was hoping for favorable action from Dean Skelos on legislation having to do with medical malpractice.

Skelos also benefited from State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, funds. He was able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary funding for projects at universities and colleges all over Long Island.

In Albany it is rare for major legislation to move independently. Legislative leaders and the Governor generally have two major sets of negotiations a year: early in the year around the budget, especially in the days leading up to the April 1 deadline, and during the post-budget legislative session, especially the days nearing its June end.

Budget negotiations are notorious for being sorted out in intense, closed-door meetings by the three leaders while rank-and-file legislators remain mostly in the dark. Items included in negotiations rarely adhere to generally accepted budget issues and allow the governor to trade spending increases or threaten cuts for other policies.

In post-budget session, lawmakers usually jam through a “big ugly” deal at the end, again with much secrecy and little time for many legislators or the public to review.

With so much opportunity for behind-the-scenes horse-trading it is impossible to know what exactly was influenced by Silver or Skelos, but it is also impossible to rule out that the corrupt practices they were convicted of didn’t color the major deals they oversaw.

Laws have been challenged in court due to what plaintiffs charge were improper procedures. The gun control package Cuomo pushed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting faced a lawsuit over the use of a message of necessity. State law requires bills to age three days before coming to a vote. Cuomo issued a message of necessity, saying that introducing the bills and allowing them to age would lead to a rush on gun stores. Courts withheld Cuomo’s use of the message and have generally deferred to the governors on such matters. The governor has repeatedly used messages of necessity to move budget deals through, giving legislators minimal time to review thousands of pages of bill language before having to vote.

“Concerns of disruption and consequences of undoing laws weigh heavily on all of this,” said Professor Benjamin, indicating how unwieldy a review process could be.

Rodgers said that “unwinding legislation is not one of the remedies available in a criminal case.”

Even if it were, she said she sees “A huge problem to this notion of trying to undo legislation (even if it is procedurally possible, which I don't know enough to offer an opinion on), which is proving causation."

Rodgers said “given the lack of transparency of how things are actually passed in Albany,” even if there was a lawsuit brought seeking an injunction on behalf of an impacted company that wanted to undo legislation, “It seems to me that even in a civil court it would be impossible to prove that a bribe, even if the bribe itself was proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's harm, assuming a plaintiff could even prove harm.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed? Mon, 16 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
5 Things State Lawmakers Can Do To Prevent Another Silver http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6318:5-things-state-lawmakers-can-do-to-prevent-another-silver http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6318:5-things-state-lawmakers-can-do-to-prevent-another-silver cuomo silver et al 2013

Silver, Cuomo, and others (photo via The Governor's Office, 2013)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was perceived by many to be an institution of state government. Having served at the head of the Democrat-controlled Assembly for over a decade, Silver’s rule was iron-fisted and opaque - he could end a political career on a whim, kill a major policy initiative with a quiet grumble, and maneuver millions of dollars in state cash to recipients of his choice.

That all ended last year when Silver was indicted by the U.S. Attorney on multiple corruption charges and voted out of leadership. For a few weeks he sat at a desk like a rank-and-file member of the chamber he once dominated. Even then some legislators thought there was a chance Silver would survive the scandal, but that was until he was convicted on all counts in late November. On Tuesday, Judge Valerie Caproni reminded Silver of the finality of his conviction, sentencing him to 12 years in prison, ordering him to pay back more than $5 million in ill-gotten riches, and fining him $1.75 million.

“I hope the sentence I impose on you will make other politicians think twice, until their better angels take over,” Judge Caproni told Silver. “Or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out one’s golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”

As tough as Silver’s sentence might seem, there are a number of reformers that fear it is just another in a parade of sentences handed out to state legislators who violate the public trust and that without real reform politicians will be able to continue using their power to earn outside income that is tied to policy decisions, that they’ll be able to steer state funding to those they do business with.

Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) told reporters at a press conference a little more than an hour before Silver’s sentencing that he feared Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators will be content to act on only one reform measure this year: the first vote of two that is required to change the constitution so that lawmakers convicted of a felony are stripped of their state pensions. Both Silver and former Senate President Dean Skelos, also convicted late last year of public corruption, are set to receive hefty pensions.

“If that’s all they did they might as well not do anything,” said Horner. “You would think that going to prison would be a far more scary prospect than a loss of pension,” Horner said, noting that prison terms have not yet proven to be a real deterrent. Silver is joining a long list of former New York legislators to serve prison time.

NYPIRG and other government reform groups including Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters NYS, and Reinvent Albany held simultaneous news conferences in Albany and New York City on Tuesday to call on lawmakers to act to prevent corruption in state government. They released a list of five reforms they want to see enacted immediately.

Good government leaders and reform-minded legislators say that the Legislature needs to take action to focus on preventing crimes instead of worrying about how to punish legislators once they have already been committed.

“What we want today are preventive measures,” said Laura Ladd Bierman of League of Women Voters. Reformers are calling, she said, not for more punishments, but for “things that prevent [corruption] in the first place.”

On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Todd Kaminsky was sworn in after winning the special election to replace Skelos. Asked by reporters if he thought there would be any consequences to the recent ethics scandals, Kaminsky said he thought his election was one direct consequence.

“I think my election is one of those results of what happens when you don't get reforms. I took a seat that was held by the same party since I was in first grade,” said Kaminsky, himself a former federal prosecutor of public corruption who helped put crooked New York lawmakers behind bars. “Things don't change lightly, they change when there are big seismic changes and I think thats whats happening.”

Silver’s replacement, current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, struck a somber tone with reporters, but said that it was time for life to go on and that most state legislators are good, hard-working people, though there are always a few bad apples in every industry.

Later on Tuesday, Kaminsky issued a statement on Silver’s sentencing, saying “justice was served.”

“But the fight to clean up our government is far from over,” Kaminsky said. “Silver's sentencing should serve as a reminder that serious changes still need to be made in Albany. Our elected officials must act swiftly and strongly before the legislative session is over to put an end to the parade of corrupt politicians who have cut taxpayers out in our state for too long.”

Largely similar to the list put forth by reformers on Tuesday, here are five things lawmakers can do over the next few weeks to help limit corruption in New York:

1. Ban or Limit Outside Income
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 budget proposal included a bill that would restrict lawmakers outside income to 15 percent of their legislative salaries, which are currently $79,500 per year, mirroring the Congressional model. Silver was convicted of receiving payments from a law firm for which the only service he provided was referring sufferers of a deadly form of cancer.

Silver steered state funding to a doctor who in turn provided Silver’s law firm with the name of Mesothelioma patients. The arrangement earned Silver over $3 million in referral fees.

A number of other legislators work or have worked as counsel to law firms that may have business pending before the state, others have worked as lobbyists or consultants. Backers of Cuomo’s plan and ones like it say that legislators’ first loyalty should be to the people of New York and not to an outside employer.

However, legislators complain that their annual salary is not adequate. A pay commission is currently considering raises for the Legislature and the executive branch.

The Assembly has advanced its own bill to limit legislators’ outside income to almost $70,000 annually, a number that represents about 90 percent of current legislative salaries.

Senate Republicans have balked at the idea of limiting outside income. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who left his outside practice when he replaced Skelos last year, has said he opposes a ban or strict limits. Republican Senator John DeFrancisco has argued that a ban would dissuade well-qualified people from public service. “I think you’re eliminating a lot of good people in government,” DeFrancisco told State of Politics in January. “If anyone really thinks creating a professional politician is going to root out corruption, where that politician is required every two years to win an election, I don’t think that’s a road to any less corruption.”

Kaminsky disagrees. On Tuesday after his swearing in, he said, “To have both leaders of both houses convicted and not having moved on outside income is unconscionable. We’ve got 21 session days starting in about ten minutes, so let's get to it.”

2. Create Stronger Budget Oversight and Transparency
In a new report, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli criticizes this year’s budget for relying on lump sum appropriations. Silver was able to tap into hundreds of thousands of dollars of those sums to provide support for the doctor who provided him with referrals. The funds are not subject to public scrutiny.

Good government groups want such lump sums either banned or included in a newly created database to track exactly who requests the cash, who ends up spending it, and how it is spent. A Citizens Union report recently revealed that the 2016-2017 budget contains $2.4 billion in lump-sum spending.

3. Confront Pay-to-Play
Entities with business before the state are also some of the biggest campaign contributors. Good government groups say it creates at the very least an appearance of an inherent conflict of interest wherein those who give the most end up with favorable legislation, state contracts, and business subsidies. New York City currently places very strict limits on campaign donations from anyone with business before the city as part of its public-matching program, which the state does not have.

In another part of his scheme, Silver encouraged real estate groups with business before the state to use a law firm he was connected to in exchange for kickbacks from the firm. Real estate interests are some of the biggest donors in the state and have been allowed to negotiate policy by Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature.

4. Close the LLC Loophole
Real estate and other groups have been able to game the state’s already lax campaign finance limits by using a loophole that allows the creation of mysterious limited liability corporations with the express purpose of donating to favored politicians. “We have the highest limits in the country of any state that has any and even those limits get circumvented,” said Horner.

Leonard Litwin - who had previously been the largest campaign donor in the state - described to prosecutors how he and his corporation, Glenwood Management Inc., used the system to get around contribution limits.

Richard Runes, a lobbyist overseeing Glenwood’s government relations, detailed the process during Silver’s trial, saying: “I would take the checks, and I would attach my business card to the check with a paper clip, put it in a 1200 Union Turnpike envelope, and deliver it to whichever campaign committee it was going to,” referring to Glenwood’s address.

5. Ethics Watchdog Independence
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), tasked with policing lobbying and ethics in the state, is renowned for its opaqueness and lack of major action. The body is made up of legislative and gubernatorial appointees, and the three chairs it has had in its short existence have all served as aides to Gov. Cuomo (one of them even returned to Cuomo’s direct employment after leaving the body).

The commission has routinely been crippled by infighting, with legislative appointees calling for less influence from the governor’s office, and JCOPE largely conducts its business in secret. The appointees of both Silver and Skelos have lingered on after their bosses were convicted of public corruption.

“We need to have a much better enforcement mechanism,” said Horner. “The fact that JCOPE has been relegated to the sidelines shows the need for better enforcement. We shouldn't have to rely on the federal government to police the state. We don't want a group that is solely a creature of the Governor and Legislature.”

“JCOPE needs to be an open entity,” Horner added. “It’s a public ethics watchdog, we should know as much we can know about it within reason.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect the two Tuesday news conferences and that a list of reforms was put forth.

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

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5 Things State Lawmakers Can Do To Prevent Another Silver Tue, 03 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6291:special-election-results-buoy-hopes-for-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6291:special-election-results-buoy-hopes-for-reform kaminsky voting april 2016

Todd Kaminsky votes for himself Tuesday (photo via @toddkaminsky)


The polls may be closed but the heated race to replace convicted former Republican Senator Dean Skelos is far from over. Late Tuesday night Assemblymember Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat, declared victory while Republican candidate Chris McGrath refused to concede, saying the race would be decided by absentee ballots. Only 780 votes separate Kaminsky from McGrath and there are over 2,000 outstanding ballots to be counted. Regardless of the results the pair may face off again in November when the seat will be up for grabs again.

Despite the unresolved nature of the affair, good government groups and legislators who back major ethics reforms, have been buoyed by Kaminsky’s performance. A former federal prosecutor, Kaminsky ran with cleaning up government corruption at the top of his agenda.

"Whatever the outcome, the race shows the power of the ethics reform message,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the non-partisan New York State Public Interest Research Group. “Continuing to ignore the public's demand for Albany to clean up its act will only lead to incumbents putting themselves in political peril."

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch, said he believes a Kaminsky win could in fact spark major reform. “If Kaminsky wins it’s a real signal voters were upset about indictments. Republicans held that seat forever,” said Muzzio. “A Kaminsky win could signal a larger rebellion against the establishment and endanger the Republican [Senate] majority. Of course he could win now and lose in November.”

Kaminsky campaigned in part by condemning the culture that led to the convictions of Skelos and his counterpart, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose seat was also being filled Tuesday night. The Kaminsky campaign sought to tie his opponent to the disgraced Skelos.

McGrath, on the other hand, remained silent on major reform initiatives and Skelos’ conviction. His campaign focused on tying Kaminsky to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a progressive agenda favoring New York City over Long Island. Nassau County, a former Republican stronghold, has seen a surge in Democratic voter registration over the past few years.

“Reform won tonight and corruption lost,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, as Kaminsky declared victory. “Kaminsky championed reform and won, McGrath was silent on reform and lost.”

That take on the race was echoed by a spokesperson for Senate Democrats: “Kaminsky ran on a platform of cleaning up Albany and won their former leader’s seat. Senate Republicans should get the message, stop stalling, and work with the Senate Democrats to enact ethics reforms to better the public trust.”

As ethics reform efforts have stalled in Albany even in the wake of the Skelos and Silver convictions, many have pointed to Senate Republicans’ limited support for enacting new laws to prevent and punish corruption. Some, however, say that even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats who control the Assembly have put forth more robust ethics reform platforms, lawmakers of both parties are largely disinterested in actually enacting them.

Democratic control of the Senate would change the conversation.

A long recount and/or lawsuit could prevent either Kaminsky or McGrath from being seated before November, but if Kaminsky does come out as a clear winner, Democrats will technically have the majority. In the 63-seat Senate, Republicans currently hold a majority through 31 elected Republicans and Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with them. They have also partnered with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference to keep the majority in the past.

Now, Democrats are confident the numbers add up in their favor and that a recount will be brief and any legal action would simply be forestalling the inevitable. Senate Republicans did launch a lawsuit that drew out the seating of former Sen. Cecelia Tkaczyk in 2012 when she narrowly defeated now-incumbent Republican Senator George Amedore. (Amedore took the seat in 2014.)

Kaminsky has sought to make his election about both Long Island issues and reform, while pushing back against attacks tying him to de Blasio and even in some cases his role as someone who would shift control of the Senate.

During an April 13 interview with Brian Lehrer of WNYC, Kaminsky stressed his work as a federal prosecutor under now U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, where he said he took a bipartisan approach to prosecuting corruption and noted he spent two years on the prosecution of former Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada. “People are fed up. They’re absolutely sick of their government. They blame both parties. They know something stinks,” Kaminsky told Lehrer.

When Lehrer asked Kaminsky if he was running for Democratic control of the Senate Kaminsky demurred. “I try not to look at it that way. I don't think anybody knows what happens. There certainly are a group of Democrats who caucus with Republicans. I try not to look at the chessboard,” Kaminsky said.

Dadey said he sees Kaminsky as standing out from the party fray.

“This victory is Kaminsky’s, not the Democrats’,” said Dadey. “Kaminsky is seen as a serious person with purpose, that's what voters supported.”

Leaders of both the mainline Democrats and the IDC issued statements congratulating Kaminsky on his victory.

The race may rank as one of the costliest senate contests in state history with the United Federation of Teachers spending heavily on independent expenditures for Kaminsky while McGrath was supported by a pro-charter school PAC that spent nearly $1 million.

Government reform groups have struggled to get any traction this legislative session. Cuomo’s ethics package, outlined during his January State of the State address, was quickly removed from budget negotiations and since then the Legislature and governor have been preoccupied by the presidential primary and the special elections.

Many assume the Legislature is looking to run out the clock on the post-budget session and return to their districts to prep for the upcoming elections where all legislative seats will be up for grabs.

Reformers hope that the special election results will force legislative leaders to take some action on ethics to prevent public backlash in November.

The Manhattan special election to replace Silver would on its face seem not to hold any encouraging news for those looking for a repudiation of politics of usual. Silver’s chosen successor, Alice Cancel, won the race with just over 40 percent of the vote - her closest challenger, Working Families Party-backed Yuh-Line Niou won about 35 percent.

However, reformers do see some bright spots in the results. “Sixty percent of those who voted, voted against the handpicked candidate of Sheldon Silver,” said Dadey. A Republican candidate, Lester Chang, got about 25 percent of the vote.

Muzzio noted that Cancel’s victory was sealed when Silver’s allies helped her win the Democratic line. “People just aren't used to voting Working Families or Republican,” said Muzzio of the lower Manhattan district.

Cancel will head into the fall election as the incumbent, but she is likely to face a number of challengers in the Democratic primary. Niou indicated in a post-election announcement that she plans to stay involved in the district and perhaps run again, and district leader Paul Newell announced Tuesday night that he plans to run in the primary. A number of other Democrats have expressed interest in the seat.

Niou enjoyed the backing of a number of elected Democratic officials, some of whom expressed great distaste for how Silver supporters orchestrated Cancel’s candidacy. It isn’t clear if those same electeds will look to oust Cancel in the fall.

But the fairly narrow margin of her victory combined with Kaminsky’s apparent victory have energized reformers and could lead to a larger push for ethics-minded candidates in the fall.

“I think this sends a big message that the status quo is not to be tolerated,” said Dadey. “This is a repudiation of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver...voters supported change.”

[Related: Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics]

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform Wed, 20 Apr 2016 19:17:15 +0000
Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6276:legislative-days-quickly-dwindle-intensifying-worry-over-ethics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6276:legislative-days-quickly-dwindle-intensifying-worry-over-ethics albany

Rally in the capital


For the past two weeks state legislators have been preoccupied by the New York presidential primary. They’ve been charmed by candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Kasich who’ve come to the capital to pitch their campaigns and ask for support; and by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who’ve invited them to attend large rallies.

Legislators have been so distracted that the first two weeks of post-budget session have slipped by without much real legislative action, despite the fact that there is a long list of high-profile issues unsettled in the budget. The point was driven home on Tuesday when both the Senate and Assembly agreed to cancel session scheduled for Wednesday, leaving only 21 meeting days until the session’s calendared end in June.

Not only is New York at the center of contested presidential primaries on both sides of the aisle, but there are impending special elections resulting from the convictions of two legislative leaders - and one of those races could help decide which party controls the Senate next year. Legislative staffers are expected to swarm Long Island ahead of the April 19 special election between Republican Christopher McGrath and Democrat Todd Kaminsky, a sitting Assembly member, to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ conviction. That race has so far been dominated by a debate over ethics.

As session days quickly dwindle, advocates on various issues are concerned that the Legislature has no intention of taking up more controversial topics or cutting any deals, especially on ethics reforms. On Tuesday, the Senate dealt with no legislation during its session. The Assembly passed some resolutions, honored a few guests and voted on a number of bills in honor of “National Crime Victim’s Rights Week.” Several have no companion bill in the Senate, or do not enjoy any Republican backing.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in Binghamton: “We have a relatively light agenda because we did so much work in the budget.” With major wins on the minimum wage and paid family leave, Cuomo is in a celebratory mood, it seems, and appears little concerned with getting more done at this time.

When asked for his priorities for the remainder of the session during a lunch event hosted by the Association for a Better New York on Tuesday in Manhattan, Cuomo responded jokingly, “No, I’m done...I think I’m good.” He went on to list ethics reform, heroin abuse, cancer screening, and the 421-a property tax break program meant to spur affordable housing as his major priorities.

While the magnitude of the recently passed budget and the presidential primary may seem like valid excuses for a light session, the truth is that the state Legislature has a history of taking little action in the post-budget session until the last few weeks in June. Last year the Legislature cancelled session days following the arrests of both former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Skelos. This year the lack of session days is particularly concerning to reform advocates worried that ethics is being ignored.

"It’s disappointing. There is so much we could be doing like passing real ethics reforms. But unfortunately the Senate GOP have decided to take an extended vacation,” said Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, of the decision to cancel session on Wednesday. Neither the Assembly Majority Democrats nor the Senate Majority Republicans responded when asked for a reason for the cancellation.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group said he is concerned that while Gov. Cuomo continues to list “ethics” as a top priority he hears the governor speaking more about two particular ethics reforms - pension forfeiture for convicted public servants and the closure of the LLC loophole - rather than the entire legislative package contained in his executive budget proposal. “That’s moving the goal post closer to the kicker and not addressing what got Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in trouble,” said Horner.

Cuomo’s ethics package includes limiting legislators’ outside income to 15 percent of their salary; the creation of a voluntary public campaign finance system; the closure of the LLC loophole; stricter fundraising disclosure; requiring bundlers to disclose their identities; putting a $25,000 limit on donations to party housekeeping accounts; strengthening the Joint Commission on Public Ethics; pension forfeiture; and increasing the scope of the state’s freedom of information laws.

Meanwhile, as session days slip by the convictions of Skelos and Silver drift further from public memory. Government ethics reform polls well with voters, but it isn’t clear how long that will remain true. Advocates worry that legislators are simply trying to run out the clock to make it back to their districts for reelection this fall, betting that their incumbency will protect them from public dissatisfaction. Polls do show that while about 9 in 10 New Yorkers believe state government corruption is a serious problem, many do hold favorable views of their local representatives sent to Albany.

“So they're losing April,” said Horner of lawmakers and session, “but what worries me is, what is the governor going to do with the time he has left on ethics? We know when he goes from rhetorical support to real support he can move mountains. What is he defining as success? It doesn’t sound like it is the same as what was in the budget. How does he visualize victory?”

A Cuomo administration official said the governor is interested in passing the ethics measures contained in his budget proposal. Many are waiting for Cuomo to give ethics reform a full-throttled effort, as he did with the minimum wage leading up to a budget agreement. Neither Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan nor Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appears to have a sense of urgency around ethics reform - Flanagan has said he doesn't see the need for much, if any, such legislation.

“There’s no question we’ve made significant progress on reform over the past ten years,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “But the time has past for incremental reforms. We need a comprehensive solution to deal with legislators who enrich themselves at the cost of the public good and that solution must include [increasing] legislative compensation and [limiting] outside income.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics Wed, 13 Apr 2016 04:51:05 +0000
For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6254:for-state-budget-leaders-choose-on-time-over-open http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6254:for-state-budget-leaders-choose-on-time-over-open cuomo flanagan heastie june 2015

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r), June 2015 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As negotiations over the state's $150 billion budget sputtered on Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ramped up pressure on legislators to accept a deal. Speaking with reporters, Cuomo implied legislators could jeopardize a potential pay raise if they can't deliver an on-time budget.

"So they're gonna need to be able to make that case not just to the pay commission but to the people of the State of New York in November when they go to seek re-election," Cuomo said. "So performance matters - if they don't pass a budget on time obviously that is a failure of performance."

Cuomo has made better state government function, including on-time budgets, a signature of his time as governor. Legislators and good government groups dismiss the governor's insistence that an on-time budget is paramount, especially when negotiations come so close to the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

In Albany it has practically become tradition for rank-and-file lawmakers to be asked to vote on a budget with only a few hours time to review its contents. The state constitution requires bills to age three days before they are voted on in order to facilitate public review, but Cuomo, like many governors before him, has taken to issuing "messages of necessity" to bypass the otherwise-mandated waiting period. Final budget votes - with debate that is often only for show or to get comment on the record - have stretched late into the night with rank-and-file members discussing measures they discover in the budget almost in real time.

With no budget deal reached as of Wednesday evening, it is all but certain that this year will see the governor again issue messages of necessity and a very short window between budget bills printed and voted on.

Meanwhile, a seven-member commission has begun meeting to determine pay raises for legislators and other state officials. Three of the members of the commission were appointed by the governor, two by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and one each by the legislative majority leaders. Legislators haven't had a pay raise since 1999, currently earning a base salary of $79,500.

Contrary to Cuomo's statement Wednesday, the language creating the pay commission does not explicitly mention "performance" as something to be factored into deliberations. The commission is scheduled to make its recommendations in November, right around Election Day when every state Senate and Assembly seat is on the ballot. The recommendations would then automatically take effect in 2017, unless the Legislature votes to oppose them.

A number of legislators told Gotham Gazette pay raises wouldn't factor into the time it takes them to consider the budget.

"Our conference is going to go over and deliberate what's in there, we are going to know what we're voting on," said Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens. "That review is going to be done at the pace that it takes. We are not going to go out there ignorant to what's in the budget. If those negotiating the budget wanted to ensure timeliness they should have concluded negotiations earlier."

Gianaris' sentiments were echoed by a number of Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats. The groups represent their chamber's minority, though, and not driving negotiations, which are largely taking place among Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

"Cuomo should look in the mirror if budget is late," tweeted Republican Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin. "Absurd argument to pin it on the legislators who haven't seen it."

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, pointed out that budgets have passed with fairly controversial measures tucked in at the last minute by lobbyists and their government allies thanks to the lack of thorough review.

"Does anyone really want their state legislator voting on a $150 billion, 10,000 page budget they haven't had time to look at?" Kaehny asked rhetorically. "Does anyone other than the governor really think it is more important to pass a budget on time and unscrutinized, than a few days late and fully examined? Do people want their state representative voting for a budget that could be stuffed full of things like tax breaks for yachts and private jets - like last year?"

Dick Dadey, executive director for Citizens Union, said that a budget that is "a few days late but ages for the requisite three days for public review is far preferable to an on-time budget when the public has no time to review the $150 billion that taxpayers are funding."

In stark contrast to his predecessors Cuomo has successfully delivered on-time budgets each year he has held office. It was typical for budgets to go weeks and even months over deadline before Cuomo became governor. Cuomo has actually used messages of necessity considerably less than his predecessors, but he has used them to pass the budget three times since taking office in 2011.

"As a practical financial matter it won't amount to much if they are a few days late," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It will shake what little confidence the public has left in state government. The last reasonable claim the governor can make that he brought order to chaos in Albany is in on-time state budgets," said Horner.

This year's final budget negotiations appear to be difficult for both legislative majorities for different reasons. The Assembly majority is fighting a Cuomo proposal to force New York City to take on $250 million in Medicaid funding. The Senate majority is grappling with Cuomo's push to raise the minimum wage to $15 across the state. Some see the wage increase as a winner with voters and admit Cuomo was very successful in pushing the issue, but others are adamant an increase will hurt the economy and hurt them at the polls in November.

Sen. Joseph Addabbo of Queens, who is in favor of the concept of both the minimum wage increase and the paid family leave proposal that appears to be close to finalized, said it is critically important to him to see exactly how those measures are actually implemented. "It's not about beating the clock. I'm not voting on a $150 billion budget without getting every detail," Addabbo, a Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

Many good government advocates see this year's budget negotiation as one of the least transparent in modern history. Coming on the heels of the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Cuomo and legislators have held clandestine meetings at the Governor's Mansion and routinely dodged the press. They have been more open about the process in the last few days, but after dealing with two press scrums on Thursday Flanagan dodged the press by exiting a back door of Cuomo's office.

Legislative leaders have rejected discussion of ethics reform and adding transparency to stashes of cash the governor and the Legislature insert into the budget without any particular use given.

Both Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have decried being left out of negotiations and assailed this budget season as the least transparent in memory. Representatives for Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on the use of messages of necessity and concerns over budget transparency.

Gianaris said that while he agrees that rank-and-file legislators need time to examine the budget, "The real issue is that had this process been open and transparent along the way we wouldn't be sitting here at the eleventh hour with nothing. If all conferences had been included we could have wrapped this up a long time ago." 

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open Wed, 30 Mar 2016 22:42:54 +0000
De Blasio Concerned with Lack of Clarity as State Budget Deadline Nears http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6248:de-blasio-concerned-with-lack-of-clarity-as-state-budget-deadline-nears http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6248:de-blasio-concerned-with-lack-of-clarity-as-state-budget-deadline-nears de blasio on phone we don't know with who

De Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


 

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday afternoon that he has been in regular contact with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and that he spoke with Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier in the day, but that he did not gain much clarity as Albany budget negotiations enter their final days.

A new state budget is due by midnight Thursday, with the state's fiscal year beginning Friday, April 1. There are several areas of budget concern for de Blasio and others who represent New York City, including Heastie. On Monday, de Blasio repeatedly cited Heastie and the Democratically-controlled Assembly as essential allies in the fight to protect city interests throughout negotiations.

At an unrelated press conference at 1 Police Plaza, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor what he is watching for as state lawmakers negotiate the final details of a $140-plus billion budget. While expressing frustration about the lack of clarity, de Blasio said, "What I can tell you for sure, I've spoken to Speaker Heastie today and yesterday. He has, and the Assembly has, consistently supported the interests of New York City."

It appears that de Blasio and others are again depending on Heastie to be the strongest defender of New York City during "three men in a room" negotiations with Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican.

"I spoke to the governor this morning, and I still don't have real answers," de Blasio said Monday. "There's no budget language."

Cuomo's Executive Budget, unveiled in January, caused concern for de Blasio on several fronts, including hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed CUNY and Medicaid cost shifts to the city. The governor also upset de Blasio by proposing a new layer of state approval in the process by which the state allocates federal affordable housing bonds to the city, among other measures de Blasio and his allies have been fighting.

"[T]here have been voices speaking out since February saying that the city should not suffer cutbacks when it comes to CUNY and when it comes to Medicaid," de Blasio said Monday. "We shouldn't have our affordable housing efforts undermined by needless bureaucracy. We should get more support in our efforts to end homelessness - these issues have been talked about now for months and months."

"This is supposed to be one of the decision days," the mayor added, referring to the fact that state budget bills would need to be printed Monday in order to have the required three-day aging period so that they can be voted on and passed by Thursday night's deadline. No deal has been reached, no bills were printed, so the governor is likely to issue "messages of necessity" to waive the aging period. Cuomo has prided himself on leading a new era of on-time budgets and more functional and responsible government.

The governor told reporters on Friday that he is reluctant to use messages of necessity, but that he does when needed. While the governor, whose tenure began in 2011, has indeed shepherded through on-time budgets (last year's was technically late by a few minutes), state government remains dogged by corruption scandals. Last year saw both legislative leaders convicted on federal corruption charges in separate cases.

Cuomo, who vowed to clean up Albany and has not been able to, unveiled an aggressive ethics reform plan in his January State of the State address, but has said little about it since and all parties have indicated that ethics will not be part of the budget.

Asked about whether he is troubled that ethics reform won't be taken up in the state budget, de Blasio said Monday, "I want to see ethics reform in Albany." Citing "public financing of elections and obviously a lot more disclosure," de Blasio said state lawmakers must act, but he cut Cuomo, Heastie, and others slack in terms of when. "Whether it happens now or it happens in the legislative session is less important to me than the fact that it needs to happen," de Blasio said.

On more urgent budgetary matters, after months of questions Cuomo's office said last week that it was tabling the CUNY cost shifts, but that it would be appointing a monitor to find efficiencies in the joint city-state system. It was a message met with some relief at City Hall, but de Blasio still said Monday that he wants to see budget language.

"There's no confirmation or guarantees related to CUNY, related to Medicaid or any of these other issues," de Blasio said, sounding at least a little frustrated. "And the things I talked about back in February when I gave my budget testimony in Albany, I talked about the fact that the State was going to take away some of our sales tax revenue in a way that we thought was arbitrary and unfair, and now things have been resolved on that front. So I want to see action, and I want to see real language that we can take to the bank right now."

De Blasio continued: "You know, the same reality as the day after the governor's State of the State is true. He said none of this would cost New York City a penny and I said I will hold him to it. I'll take a man's word but I'll hold him to it, and I'll still hold him to it because as of this moment, there are no guarantees and we need them. The people of New York City need those guarantees."

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo declined to comment in response to de Blasio.

On other issues of concern to the mayor, it appears both mayoral control of city schools and a renewed property tax break to incentivize affordable housing development will have to wait for the legislative session after a budget is settled.

The governor proposed a three-year extension of mayoral control, which expires in June, but Senate Republicans have rejected both that proposal and the Assembly Democrats' call for a longer extension. Last week, the Senate announced it would be calling de Blasio to testify at two May hearings on his education leadership.

There's been almost no talk of a new 421-a program, or something like it, to spur affordable housing development through tax abatements. The expiration of the previous system is one of the key sources of tension between de Blasio and Cuomo.

In Albany, de Blasio has had to rely on Heastie, the Bronx Democrat thrust into the Speaker's chair last year when Sheldon Silver was indicted on the federal corruption charges that led to his conviction.

On Monday, de Blasio credited Heastie and other Assembly Democrats for sticking up for the city, as Silver was infamous for doing. The Assembly, de Blasio said, "fought hard to make sure that there would be no cuts to our budget in terms of CUNY and in terms of Medicaid; there would be nothing that would stand in the way of our efforts to create affordable housing. The Assembly and its one house bill went out of its way to say the State would have to do more to help us deal with homelessness. So the Assembly has been very consistent."

Once de Blasio sees the details of the state budget, he'll have to adjust his city spending plan for fiscal year 2017 accordingly. De Blasio's preliminary $82 billion spending plan, which did not account for the CUNY and Medicaid cost shifts, is in the midst of a series of City Council hearings. The city's fiscal year begins July 1.

Further north, Heastie said a few words Monday to reporters trying to find out how the closed-door budget negotiations were going. "Albany is the art of the compromise," Heastie said in the capital on Monday, adding that the big-ticket items of minimum wage and paid family leave are being debated. Cuomo's two major policy priorities - both of which de Blasio supports - have taken center stage, though many other smaller issues could become part of a larger compromise by the time the budget is announced.

"I think in some regards we are able to move forward," Heastie said, "but there's still some outstanding issues about how the City of New York comes out of this."

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Concerned with Lack of Clarity as State Budget Deadline Nears Tue, 29 Mar 2016 04:21:50 +0000
Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director cuomo nyu ethics speech

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director Wed, 23 Mar 2016 17:40:27 +0000