Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/505 Wed, 18 Jul 2018 10:15:13 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) In Retrial, Dean Skelos Again Convicted of Corrupt Acts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7809:in-retrial-dean-skelos-again-convicted-of-corrupt-acts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7809:in-retrial-dean-skelos-again-convicted-of-corrupt-acts govcuomo us

Dean Skelos, middles, with Silver and Cuomo (photo via the Governor's Office)


The once-powerful Dean Skelos, former Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate, and his son Adam were found guilty on federal corruption charges on Tuesday after a month-long trial in federal court in Manhattan. Skelos and his son had been similarly found guilty on all charges in late-2015 but their convictions were vacated after a Supreme Court ruling changed the definition of public corruption, precipitating a retrial that began last month.

Prosecutors charged Skelos with using his official position as leverage over companies that had business with the state, pressuring them to give his son more than $200,000 in payments. In turn, Skelos took actions to benefit those firms.

“Yet again, a New York jury heard a sordid tale of bribery, extortion, and the abuse of power by a powerful public official of this State,” reads a statement from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which brought the prosecution. “And yet again, a jury responded with a unanimous verdict of guilt, in this case of Dean Skelos and his son Adam – sending the resounding message that political corruption will not be tolerated.”

The Skelos verdict is just the latest in a series of corruption convictions that have rocked state government, the Legislature, and the executive branch. Just last week, Alain Kaloyeros, a prominent ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty of bid-rigging state contracts under the Buffalo Billion economic development program. In May, former Democratic state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was similarly found guilty of misusing his office for personal gain (Silver faced a retrial just like Skelos). And in March, Joe Percoco, a former top aide and campaign manager to the governor, was also found guilty of federal corruption.

Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District who brought all four of those cases, tweeted Tuesday, “More congratulations to the fine team at SDNY, who just convicted — again — former NY senate majority leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam on all counts. Skelos and Silver will both be resentenced.”

In a statement, State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor who won Skelos’ vacant Long Island seat after the first trial, called on the state Legislature to pass stronger anti-corruption laws. “[T]his trial once again laid bare how broken and dirty Albany has become, and how far we have to go to reform it,” he said. “People want their faith in government restored, and they have been let down by years of inaction. It is time for a change.”

Since the multiple scandals broke, state government has taken no significant action to alter the playing field on which Silver, Skelos, Percoco, Kaloyeros, and others committed their misdeeds.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

 

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In Retrial, Dean Skelos Again Convicted of Corrupt Acts Tue, 17 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7764:pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7764:pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies gov cuomo bill clinton electoral

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The problem of sexual harassment in New York state politics is systemic and plaguing young women beginning their careers, according to a group fighting to change the culture and the laws around the issue. And, they argue that recently adopted state measures to fight the scourge are insufficient, despite being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as “the best in the nation.”

The seven women of The Sexual Harassment Working Group -- all of whom have been personally affected by sexual harassment while working for lawmakers in the New York State Legislature -- have consulted a handful of advocacy and legal groups, and called upon their own experiences and expertise, to put together a detailed report with recommendations for ways to better protect women working in government.

“We wonder why there aren’t women in higher office, we wonder why women are so underrepesented in our legislature and in all levels of our government. And this is a big part of why: It does not feel safe to work in government if you’re a woman,” co-author Eliyanna Kaiser, a one-time chief of staff to former Assemblymember Micah Kellner, said during an event in Manhattan on June 19. Kaiser was not herself directly a victim of sexual harassment, but instead reported to Bill Collins in the Assembly Counsel's office, under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that Kellner had been sending inappropriate messages to one of his staffers, which led to initial inaction, attacks against Kaiser, and, eventually, Kellner’s ouster from the state Legislature.

Also on the panel were working group members and co-authors Danielle Bennett, former administrative assistant to Kellner who reported his harassment to Kaiser; Leah Hebert, former chief of staff to the late, disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez; Tori Burhans Kelly, former legislative aide to Lopez; Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to Lopez; Erica Vladimer, former education policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); and Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative aide in the New York State Assembly who publicly accused Assembly lawyer Michael Boxley of rape in 2003, two years after the alleged incident and when another victim of Boxley’s came forward. The discussion was moderated by political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell, who has helped bring to light victims’ experiences as well as the insufficient responses from government officials.

The stories of these women run together in a horror plot that involves countless obstacles to reporting, near-dismissal, and a reluctance to investigate from those in charge, as well as forcibly implemented nondisclosure agreements that hinder the complainant's chances of reemployment and their ability to warn others.

“I agreed not to file a civil suit in exchange for [him to get] a HIV test,” Crothers said, adding the “loss of anonymity” after going public “follows you.”

“I really didn’t think there was another way out aside from suicide,” said Hebert, who was one of the first women to complain about Lopez groping and harassing female staffers, of her experience.

“These things that are happening are not the product of an individual harasser, they’re not mistakes,” Pasarell, another complainant against Lopez, added. “It’s massive, it’s systemic, and whenever I hear a new person coming out I say, ‘hey remember us, remember this happened to us in 2012?’”

It’s a cycle that exploits women and protects men who behave abhorrently and, as Grenell pointed out, it’s a reality yet unchanged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claims that New York has the “strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation” following the recent budget, wherein the anti-harassment legislation was passed. Grenell compared the governor’s statement to the “mission accomplished sign” former President George W. Bush stood in front of during 2003 remarks about the war in Iraq, only two months after the U.S. first invaded.

The Working Group is calling for Cuomo to hold public hearings to listen to victims of sexual harassment -- as its members demanded before the policies were decided by all-male leadership with little apparent regard for the opinions of victims. The group’s Harassment-Free Albany website states: “New York State has not held a state hearing on sexual harassment since Governor Mario Cuomo [Andrew Cuomo’s father] created a Sexual Harassment Task Force in 1992.”

The reporting system has no transparency for complainants, limited uniformity, and an obvious lack of objectivity, the panel urges. For example, when Vladimer, who this January publicly accused now-Deputy Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of kissing her forcibly and against her will outside a bar in 2015, was asked where her case is at now, she said she has no idea.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vladimer told event attendees on Tuesday. “[It’s with] the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE], which under some very vague executive law somehow has the authority to investigate sexual harassment claims. There are no experts on this commission and the commissioners who vote to decide whether or not there is wrongdoing are all appointed by elected officials.” They are also almost all men, with one woman in 14 commissioners.

“I don’t know where my investigation is and I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is that there is no transparency and I know, and have been told, I don’t have a right to know where my investigation’s going,” Vladimer added.

When Vladimer went public, Klein immediately denied the allegations, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate given no formal complaint had been lodged with its internal staff. Klein himself asked JCOPE to investigate, but other than Klein indicating an investigation had commenced, there is little information to go by.

In the lead-up to the new state budget, Cuomo had called for sweeping anti-sexual harassment policies, including greater resources for and transparency in JCOPE investigations. While Cuomo pushed through some measures, those JCOPE recommendations were not among what was passed into law.

The same Klein accused of sexually harassing Vladimer was one of the three other elected men, and no elected women, who assisted Cuomo in deciding the sexual harassment legislation this March, ahead of the annual budget. According to the budget, there are five measures designed to address sexual harassment in state politics -- as the governor’s office puts it, to “further build upon his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York.”

In a press release announcing highlights of the new budget in March, Cuomo said, "We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation, ending once and for all the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled this unacceptable behavior for far too long.”

Under the new legislation, all employers working with the state, including vendors and contractors, must implement a written policy addressing sexual harassment prevention and provide prevention training to all employees. This is an extension of a previously-existing law to include contracted workers, and means that employers may now be held liable for the sexual harassment of non-employees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take action. It does not, however, address the ambiguity around employees of elected officials.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is recommending the definition of “employee” be changed to clearly include employees of elected and appointed officials, and that the New York State Human Rights Law should stipulate elected officials are also considered “employers.”

“Our recommendation is to specify employees as everybody -- essentially someone for hire -- this is how the labor law defines it and we just want every worker to have the same protection, including staff of elected officials,” Pasarell told Tuesday night’s event.

In the new legislation, New York employers are prohibited from requiring mandatory arbitration of claims of workplace sexual harassment, except where inconsistent with federal law, and this will come into effect in July.

Any officers and employees of the state or any public entity who is subject to a final judgement of personal liability in cases of sexual harassment will have to reimburse the state for the award given to the complainant, however the Sexual Harassment Working Group points out this is only applicable for cases determined by a judge, not necessarily to those settled out of court.

Cuomo’s legislation also states no employer has the authority to include or agree to include in any settlement a nondisclosure agreement, unless the condition of confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. And, notably, a model sexual harassment guidance document and a sexual harassment prevention policy is to be created with the Division of Human Right by October -- meaning a key portion of the new policy is not yet written.

“This year, Governor Cuomo signed the strongest anti-sexual harassment policy in the country,” Dani Lever, press secretary for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette in a statement. “It closed gaping loopholes that entrapped women in toxic workplaces, extended protections to contracted workers, and strengthened rules that prevent companies from shirking their responsibility to root out bad actors—instead of sweeping problems under-the-rug.”

On the surface, all measures included in the enacted budget appear to go a long way towards exactly what the governor is promising but, according to the panel of women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in state politics first-hand, there are some areas of ambiguity that impede the path to reporting and justice for potential victims.

First, the budget hasn’t defined “sexual harassment” and the way the issue is currently treated under state law leaves much room for interpretation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group recommends adding “sex and gender” to the list of classes protected from discrimination in the New York State Constitution, to offer another level of protection for all New Yorkers, including victims. And the authors suggest the current standard for behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in state law -- that it must be “severe or pervasive” -- be changed to mirror the recent changes to New York City law, where the standard for discrimination and harassment reads simply that the person is treated “less well.”

“When you’re talking about standards in law, the ‘litigative itch,’ as they call it, is all in these terms,” Kaiser said. “People are always going to bicker about the actual event that happened. We’d prefer that bickering to be asking, ‘didn’t he treat her less well?’ Rather than, ‘was it severe and pervasive?’”

The working group is also calling for an independent body to oversee all discrimination harassment policy enforcement. At the moment, JCOPE members are appointed by state elected officials. Of the 14 members, three are appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, three are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Assembly, and six are appointed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor.

Many of the stories from the women in The Sexual Harassment Working Group involve some level of disbelief from those charged with investigating their reports of sexual harassment. In Crothers’ case, it wasn’t only disbelief, it was outright protection of her alleged attacker.

“Before it came out in the press and when I met with the speaker [Sheldon Silver], I didn’t feel he didn’t believe me, he just said ‘well I won’t let him go out to bars anymore and my first priority is protecting the institution,’” Crothers said at the panel event. Silver resigned as speaker in 2015 after being arrested on federal corruption charges, and long after being accused of facilitating former Assemblymember Lopez’s harassment of eight women who were on his staff. The panelists believe this culture of cover-up and protection will continue unless there is an independent body appointed to investigate, and determine, reports of sexual misconduct in Albany.

It’s the Lopez example that best shows the need for further restrictions around the use of nondisclosure agreements, beyond what is outlined in the new legislation. Two of the women in the working group, who were on the panel, ultimately signed nondisclosure agreements after accusing the former Assembly member of sexual harassment and groping. They said they didn’t want a nondisclosure agreement -- it wasn’t implemented to protect their privacy -- but it was offered to them as a ‘take it or leave it’ measure.

“We wanted an investigation, we asked multiple times for an investigation,” Hebert said. Hebert’s name went public, despite her having signed a nondisclosure agreement, when reports from other victims were published by the media ahead of Lopez’s resignation in 2013. Instead of an investigation, Hebert said she, along with Pasarell, were made to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told Lopez would go through sexual harassment prevention training.

“The NDA, it wasn’t just that...we couldn’t speak to anyone,” Hebert said. “It was, at first, $10,000 in liquidated damages if we broke it for every occurence, and it would happen with a mediator behind closed doors so no one would know they were enforcing the agreement. And it also contained a provision that we could never apply to the Assembly again.” This last measure effectively limiting their opportunities to work in state government, and the fine making it impossible for the complainants to explain their circumstances to future employers, file for unemployment benefits, or warn others or the Human Rights Division of Lopez’s behavior.  

They pushed back on their exclusion from the Assembly and the response was, “we could never apply to Lopez’s office again, which was fine, but they increased our liquidated damages cost to $20,000,” Hebert said.

Pasarell, another of Lopez’s victims, said the anti-sexual harassment legislation in the budget regarding nondisclosure agreements -- that they can only be used in cases where the complainant consents -- can too easily be twisted to benefit the harasser.

“The way they phrased the new law is for the complainant to have a nondisclosure agreement, it’s got to be the complainant’s preference. In our case we saw repeatedly how the Assembly portrayed it as if it was our preference when it absolutely was not,” she said. “The nondisclosure agreement came to us very late in the game and it was ‘take it or leave it.’”

Women reporting sexual harassment will be better assisted, The Sexual Harassment Working Group argues, if the Legislature provides greater protection against victim coercion into signing nondisclosure agreements. The group also recommends the law allow for individual liability, so harassers can be targeted without taking the Legislature or State to arbitration or court. And, in cases where complainants do want a nondisclosure agreement for confidentiality reasons, there should be a “Sunshine in Litigation” law to prevent serial harassers (who’ve offended at least once prior) from re-offending. “Limited information would be shared but a pattern of harassment would be outed,” Pasarell said.

The way to change the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation is through changing the law, The Sexual Harassment Working Group maintains, and the way to do that is through consulting with victims, advocacy groups, and others, including lawmakers -- a process much more extensive than how Cuomo and legislative leaders, all men, went about it.

In response to The Sexual Harassment Working Group’s report, Cuomo’s team said it will review the recommendations but gave no indication of whether or not they will consider holding or pushing for a public hearing on the issue.

“No woman should ever be violated, let alone in the workplace—period. And that’s why Governor Cuomo has championed measures that hold employers accountable for ensuring a hospitable workplace,” Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary, told Gotham Gazette. “The ‘Me Too’ movement has caused an awakening in our society, and while we’ve taken positive concrete steps in New York, we need to continue to see progress in our state and across the country. We look forward to reviewing these recommendations and continuing this important work.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Lopez allegedly harassed eight women on 33 counts, not 33 women; that two, not three, of the women mentioned signed NDAs; and that Kaiser reported Kellner's behavior to the Assembly counsel's office, not Speaker Silver directly.

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Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies Sun, 24 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
In Retrial, Sheldon Silver Again Found Guilty on All Counts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7667:sheldon-silver-retrial-in-jury-s-hands http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7667:sheldon-silver-retrial-in-jury-s-hands Sheldon Shelly Silver

Sheldon Silver and other state leaders in 2011 (photo via the Governor's Office)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was found guilty Friday on all seven federal corruption charges he faced, ending a retrial spurred by a United States Supreme Court ruling that changed the definition of public corruption, which led to Silver's prior convictions being vacated and prosecutors from the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York seeking a new chance to convict the man who was for decades one of New York's most powerful elected officials.

In recognizing the outcome, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said Silver "took an oath to act in the best interests of the people of New York State. As a unanimous jury found, he sold his public office for private greed."

Silver was convicted of fraud, extortion, and money laundering, among other charges.

In a very brief statement reacting to the verdict, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, "The justice system shows no one is above the law."

But during a Sunday appearance on NY1 television, Cuomo was asked about Silver's conviction and how it connects to other top government officials who have been found guilty of corruption, including Cuomo's own former top aide, Joseph Percoco.

"I think the common thread is...that people will do bad, stupid, criminal, venal things. And that's society. It's state government, it's local government, it's the federal government, it's the private sector," Cuomo said. "The question is do we have a system in place that finds it and corrects it? And we do. We should have, take confidence in that. Eric Schneiderman resigned the office. I went, moved very quickly to give my position which is that kind of behavior doesn't justify remaining in office and I called on him to resign. We then appointed a special prosecutor to make sure there is no conflict, no perception of conflict. And that's Madeline Singas who is the Nassau County District Attorney and a very experienced, proficient prosecutor in just these areas. So, my point is, will people do bad things? Yes. That goes back to Adam and Eve. Do we have a criminal justice system in place that says nobody is beyond the law or above the law? Yes, we do. And that's why we moved so quickly for special persecutor on Eric Schneiderman who was the Attorney General. Top law enforcement officer in the state. And justice will be done and that's how the system works and were going to make sure it works that way."

More from our Thursday story on the closing arguments in the Silver retrial case:

The retrial of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges neared a close on Thursday, with the jury beginning deliberations late in the day.

Silver, a Democrat representing Lower Manhattan who was for years a pillar of New York politics, was convicted in 2016 on charges of honest services fraud, extortion under the color of official right, and money laundering in connection with two separate pay-to-play schemes. He was later sentenced to 12 years in prison, but his conviction was overturned after the Supreme Court’s decision in a separate corruption case redefined what constituted an “official act” that an elected official would have to take in exchange for money or services in order to be guilty of abusing their office. The vacated conviction prompted a retrial.

In federal district court in Manhattan on Thursday, prosecution and defense attorneys made their closing arguments to the jury, recapping a week-and-a-half long trial that saw 26 witnesses testify and a mountain of evidence presented. Like in the initial trial, Silver did not take the stand in his own defense. The case was argued this time by different prosecutors, as there has been significant turnover in the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York since Silver was first charged under the leadership of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Over the course of nearly three hours, assistant U.S. Attorney Tatiana Martins laid out the case against Silver, detailing the two schemes that he used to enrich himself. For the most part, both the prosecution and the defense agree on the details of the case, but only the prosecution believes Silver’s behavior was illegal.

“What the defendant did to line his own pockets wasn’t just wrong, it was criminal,” Martins said.

Both schemes, Martins noted, involved the same modus operandi -- referrals for cash. In the first scheme, Dr. Robert Taub, a former Columbia University researcher who was a prominent witness at the trial, directed mesothelioma patients to Silver who then referred them to his law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, for hefty referral fees -- totalling $3 million for 48 patient referrals. In exchange, Silver directed $500,000 in state grants to Taub’s clinic and took other actions favoring Taub’s family. “Dr. Taub was Sheldon Silver’s golden goose and Sheldon Silver did whatever it took to keep getting Dr. Taub’s golden eggs,” Martins said, in outlining the alleged quid-pro-quo.

The second scheme involved Silver nudging two real estate firms -- Glenwood Management and the Witkoff group -- to send business towards a law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, which gave a 25 percent cut of the money to Silver, about $800,000 in total. In turn, Silver allegedly used his office to advance legislation and approve massive state tax credits that benefited the firms.

Silver faces three charges from each of the cases -- honest services wire fraud, honest services mail fraud, and extortion under the color of official right. He also faces a seventh charge of money laundering, stemming from his use of his allegedly ill-gotten gains to invest in blue chip stocks.

Silver corrupted his office, Martins said, “turning his official power into a cash cow to line his own pockets.” She noted that Silver repeatedly lied about these various sources of income, failing to report it on annual disclosure forms required of state legislators. And she insisted that the defense’s arguments were a “red herring” meant to distract the jury.

“This is bribery, this is extortion,” she concluded, “This is corruption. This is the real thing. Don’t let it stand.”

Silver’s defense attorney, Michael Feldberg, sought to poke holes through the prosecution’s theory, broadly insisting that Silver’s actions were far from violating the law. “It is perfectly legal for New York Assembly members to earn outside income,” he pointed out in his closing.

In both schemes, Feldberg insisted that Silver was simply earning income as a lawyer, which was declared on his disclosure forms, and that referral fees for the type of work Silver was doing are a “common, standard and accepted” practice in the field. New Yorkers may not like some of the practices involved, Feldberg argued, but that does not mean they are illegal.

Feldberg insisted that none of the witnesses testified to the existence of a quid-pro-quo arrangement in either scheme. He said Silver and Taub were close friends and that their relationship “wasn’t purely transactional,” rebutting the prosecution’s claims. And he insisted that in the real estate scheme, neither firm was aware that Silver was receiving referral fees, “so they couldn’t have been bribing him.”

“We’re not arguing that Shelly is a perfect man...We’re not arguing that he’s a saint,” he said, impressing upon the jury that even if Silver’s actions were “unseemly,” they were not enough to find him guilty.

Following a relatively short rebuttal from the prosecution, Judge Valerie Caproni read the charges to the jury, which then headed into deliberations briefly before the day was over. Jury deliberations will continue on Friday.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Retrial, Sheldon Silver Again Found Guilty on All Counts Thu, 10 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7286:amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7286:amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning Cuomo Sheldon Silver Skelos Albany

Gov. Cuomo, Sheldon Silver & Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As allegations of sexual harassment and assault against disgraced movie producer and major Democratic political donor Harvey Weinstein piled up earlier this month, women around the world took to social media to share stories of abusive behavior using the hashtag #MeToo.

The light being shone on the predatory behavior of Weinstein and many others resonated at statehouses across the United States, from California to Rhode Island, where women in politics have been speaking out about sexual misconduct they experienced first-hand or witnessed, with victims including legislators, young staffers and interns, lobbyists, and others.

In New York’s capital, the response has been more muted, in part because the Legislature is not currently in session, but also because Albany was recently forced to face its own mishandling of sexual misconduct scandals. As recently as 2014, the aftermath of a debacle around sexual harassment by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, which led to his forced resignation from the Assembly, produced a number of significant reforms to how harassment, misconduct, and discriminatory behavior are addressed in the state Assembly.

Now, three years later and amid a national reckoning with issues related to sexual misconduct, women in state government who spoke to Gotham Gazette noted an improvement in the Albany culture since these reforms, but say that sexist attitudes and behavior continue to plague New York state government.

While several female legislators were hesitant to speak on the record about their own experiences with sexual harassment, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa spoke frankly about her own experiences with sexism in the political sphere at a recent forum organized by Berkeley College in Manhattan. She described one incident, a decade ago, when on a conference call, it was announced that she would take the lead on a project. A man on the line, who is now a national leader in progressive politics, according to DeRosa, joked, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room,” apparently unaware that DeRosa was on the line.

“These instances have stuck with me, but I'm not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it's not just actresses you're reading about in the news this week,” she said, according to a transcript distributed by the governor’s office.

Calling for “societal course correction,” DeRosa encouraged young women in all industries to speak out.

The statement was a powerful one coming from DeRosa, who at 34 became the youngest person and first woman to be named Secretary to the Governor, the top aide to the state’s most powerful government official, when she was appointed to the post by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Days after DeRosa’s remarks, a former top official in Cuomo’s administration came forward with allegations that her former boss sexually harassed staffers, saying she was inspired by DeRosa’s remarks, according to The New York Post.

Patricia Gunning, who had recently resigned as the special prosecutor/inspector general of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, told The Post that she faced retaliatory violence for calling out her boss for his behavior.

“My hope is that this conversation will be the beginning of a new era in [how] these issues are addressed by employers,” Gunning told The Post.

On Monday, it was revealed that Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman and Cuomo ally who ran Buffalo area projects for the state's Empire State Development Corporation, had abruptly resigned to take a job in the private sector. By Tuesday afternoon, Hoyt, who was disciplined by the Assembly in 2009 for an affair with 19-year-old intern, was accused by a former state employee of pressuring her into a romantic relationship. She told The Buffalo News that she was paid $50,000 for her silence.

In a statementCuomo spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that allegations of misconduct had emerged against Hoyt and that an investigation was underway.

"All state employees must act with integrity and respect," the statement read. "When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately refered to the  Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER) for an investigation."

After GOER determined there were grounds for further review, the matter was referred to the Inspector General's Office, and later, the Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE), according to the statement. Hoyt maintains that the relationship was consentual, according to The Buffalo News.

But while to this point there has not been a new public outcry at the New York Legislature, female lawmakers say that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have struck a chord and sparked private conversations about their early experiences in Albany and how they can best aid young female staff aides and legislators.

One such conversation occurred at a retreat for the Women’s Legislative Caucus in Saratoga two weeks ago, where women shared uncomfortable incidents they had experienced early in their careers and discussed how they could better unify when scandals occur, according to Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo area lawmaker who chairs the Women’s Caucus. One thing agreed upon, Peoples-Stokes said, was that the Assembly’s sexual harassment enforcement could be enhanced by a mentorship program for incoming members and their aides.

“We wanted to see if there is anything we can do in addition to ensure that we never need to have these experiences again,” said Peoples-Stokes. “It is something that we decided we are going to do as women of the Legislature, and you know, when women decide to do something, we get it done.”

While the Assembly reforms appear to have improved the culture in the 150-seat chamber, Albany’s sexual harassment problem has not disappeared. The Senate and the Assembly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on outside counsel to investigate sexual harassment complaints. The Assembly’s ethics committee -- which exists solely to enforce policy on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation -- convened a meeting in executive session on October 12 and is expected to meet again on November 2. The matter at hand is not clear.

Currently reported to be under investigation by JCOPE and the Erie County District Attorney’s office is Senator Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, who announced he would not seek reelection last year amid rumors of sexual harassment. Also last year, the Senate paid out $121,000 for two contracts with Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP “for legal counsel related to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters and investigation of sexual harassment claims.”

Assembly members who spoke with Gotham Gazette acknowledged the body’s embarrassing history of dismissing sexual misconduct claims internally, which has led to a slew of unflattering headlines in 2012 and 2013, but noted that an influx of female legislators to the Assembly in recent years has also helped to reshape the culture. At the Senate, such scandals and its culture of protecting those in power has not drawn the same scrutiny.

Last week, New York’s chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) made an effort to further jumpstart the conversation, calling on women and men who currently or previously work(ed) in government in Albany and throughout the state to speak out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment or assault while on the job, citing the Legislature’s history of quashing sexual harassment complaints.

“Government sets the standard and the policies and the laws that all other industries are asked to uphold,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women - New York, said in a statement. “Given that Albany is a place where lawmakers have abused their power and sexual harassment has gone unchecked in the past, we felt it was important to give women in politics a platform to speak up.”

The women’s advocacy organization has announced the creation of a new, dedicated hotline for individuals in government to report their experiences (people can call 518-362-7857 or submit a story online at nownys.org).

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Ossorio said the goal is to build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The hotline will provide independent counsel and resources to victims while also assessing how effective recent policies have been, she said.

“We immediately thought about the culture that has existed in Albany and we wanted to be able to empower women who work in politics, particularly young women and interns who head to their internships idealistic and wanting to be part of American government and are disillusioned by it,” she said. “We really want to know to what degree the environment of sexual harassment has been uprooted.”

The personal stories tumbling out of statehouses around the nation are eerily familiar to anyone who has closely watched New York state government in recent years. In California, women leaders in government have formed a campaign called “We Said Enough,” sharing stories about how they have endured groping, inappropriate comments about their bodies and abilities, and insults and jokes that diminish them professionally. In some cases, “men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” wrote the group on a website created for women to submit their stories.

An open letter circulated by members of the Illinois Legislature drew a direct comparison between the Weinstein scandal and the coercive situations in which women in government find themselves and had drawn 130 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter. "Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry."

Albany, which has historically been referred to as the New York’s own “sin city,” is no stranger to such scandals. Repeatedly, a series of particularly egregious complaints of sexual harassment or rape has led the Legislature to a watershed moment of sorts, producing much-needed reform in how accusers are treated and how their complaints are handled.

A major turning point for the Assembly occurred in 2004, when, roiling from a series of rape accusations against Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and Michael Boxley, chief counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, its leadership decided to bar members of the Legislature from fraternizing with interns.

In the state Senate, a somewhat similar soul-searching happened, but at the time many of its members were strongly opposed to the idea of an intern-fraternization ban.

In comparison to the 150-seat Assembly, sex scandals in the 63-seat Senate have unfolded more discreetly -- hinted at through money spent on lawyers or a senator or a top aide leaving the job abruptly amid rumors -- and as a result the body’s leadership has not been forced to publicly reckon with its record in the same way, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who was instrumental in compelling the Senate to implement a mandatory sexual harassment training program.

A decade ago, Krueger said she was privy to two incidents involving interns who were molested by older male senators. One incident occurred in a packed elevator and Krueger famously threatened to kick the senator if he touched an intern again. The other time she learned of a sexual assault claim when she found a young staffer crying outside a senator’s office at the Capitol.

After the second incident, Krueger, who is known for her bluntness on the topic, said she urged then-Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from the Capital Region, to create mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators. When she threatened to hold a press conference naming and shaming the offending senators, Bruno, who later stepped down from the leadership role amid his own public corruption scandal, responded he would hold a competing press conference naming Democratic senators.

The way Krueger tells it, she said, “I didn't tell you [what] party this senator is in. I don't give a damn what party they are. We can do a joint press conference, and we all can name names. I don't give a [expletive].” To which Bruno responded, “OK, OK, we'll do mandatory sexual harassment training,” Krueger told The Albany Times Union.

The training became mandatory for senators and staff members and the regulations were clearly stated in a written document.

It was not the last time Krueger took her colleagues in the Legislature to task over crimes against women. In June 2003, when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, having been accused of rape for the second time, Krueger said she had a very public confrontation with Assemblymember Lopez, who a decade later would be toppled by his own slew of sexual harassment scandals. They were scheduled, coincidentally, to hold a joint press conference in front of the Legislative Correspondents Association office. According to Krueger, the Assembly member fumed, “How dare they come over here and arrest our counsel in our house?”

“I said ‘excuse me, he was tried with rape,’ pause, ‘for the second time,’ pause,” Krueger recalled to Gotham Gazette, “‘It seems to me that if you have anything to say publicly about this, it's let justice be fair and swift. Otherwise, I think you should keep your mouth shut.'”

Lopez’s Assembly colleagues later told her that she had made an enemy for life. “I said, ‘Good. Some enemies are worth having,’” said Krueger of the former Brooklyn Democratic boss, who lost a City Council race in 2013 and died in November 2015.

Still, Krueger acknowledges that the current sexual harassment policy in the Senate does not encourage women to come forward. “I’d like to believe the written policies the Senate came up with and mandatory training might have helped in some small way,” she told Gotham Gazette last week.

In 2014, following a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving Lopez, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, and Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak, the Assembly officially changed its policy on sexual harassment, which had last been updated in 2009. In the past, sexual harassment complainants would typically report the incidents to the speaker’s office or the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), but it was up to the discretion of the speaker’s counsel whether to investigate the complaints.

When it was revealed that Speaker Silver did not follow protocol and report misconduct allegations by two staff members against Assemblymember Lopez to the ethics body, instead cutting a secret $103,000 settlement with the women, Silver publically apologized for the lapse and announced that the Assembly would review its practices.

To help restructure the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the Assembly’s ethics committee enlisted CUNY Law School Professor Merrick Rossein, an attorney, law professor, and expert in discrimination litigation. Through interviews with women in the Assembly, Rossein made a series of recommendations to the bipartisan legislative task force that was convened to address deficiencies in the Assembly’s policy.

“There are a number of things in this policy that I’m very proud of that I’d like to see in every sexual harassment policy, including the private sector,” said Rossein, who has since been retained by the Assembly as an outside counsel to investigate complaints against members, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Recommendations made by Rossein include the appointment of an outside investigator to look into complaints; a guarantee of confidentiality for accusers; severe consequences for an employer that retaliates against a complainant; and more. Most importantly, a lawmaker accused of harassment is barred from talking to the accuser until a designated time. Additionally, lawmakers were made mandatory reporters, required to inform the ethics committee about sexual misconduct if they see it or hear about it -- a component women say has had a dramatic impact on the culture in Albany. A hotline has been set up for people to submit tips.

The Assembly policy outlines two types of harassment, hostile work environment harassment — which is directed at somebody based on their sex, would be considered offensive by a reasonable person, and is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with one’s work environment — and quid-pro-quo harassment, the type described by victims of Weinstein, in which professional opportunities are offered in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the barrage of corruption and sexual harassment scandals over the last decade, the Legislature has also dramatically revamped the way it approaches its ethics and sexual harassment training, according to Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and former chair of the Assembly’s ethics committee. Not only are class sizes smaller, according to Lavine, but they have gone from obligatory and dry, to dynamic, thought-provoking, and interactive.

“We have gone from the days when it was almost an obligation to provide -- or what seemed to be at the time -- ethics training that was done in large groups of people,” said Lavine in a January interview with Gotham Gazette. “And while it was content-specific and good, it was not nearly so effective as the modern approach, which is to work with smaller groups of individuals in an interactive environment.”

Still, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to rectify inequities for women and in Albany. It likely doesn’t help that those at the top of Albany’s power chain are all men. Many have pushed for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who has led Senate Democrats since 2012 and is the first woman or person of color to lead a legislative conference, to be included at the negotiating table during budget and other high-level talks. Currently, the state’s $150 billion-plus budget is largely hammered out by four men: Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which forms a ruling coalition with the Republican conference. Democrats hope that the 2018 state-level elections and an agreement with the IDC will lead to Stewart-Cousins becoming the leader of a new Senate majority.

Having more women in the Legislature would go a long way towards creating a safer space for female employees at all levels of government, according to Stewart-Cousins.

“The most disturbing thing is that almost every woman has a story regarding harassment or worse,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is true in every walk of life and unfortunately true in government. Only by confronting sexism and gender bias head-on will we be able to truly create a culture which respects everyone equally. We need to support women and pro-women candidates for office and energize pro-women New Yorkers to get out and vote.”

An increase in the number of women in Albany has helped reshape the culture from an old boys' club, in which women were largely relegated to secretarial positions, to a more egalitarian environment, where women are not only elected to office, but have risen to acquire key chair positions in both houses and led the passage of women-friendly legislation.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, who became the youngest woman in the state Legislature and the first woman ever to represent Queens’ 25th District when she was elected in 2012, said she has watched the culture transform since she began her tenure in Albany as an aide to Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh.

“It’s certainly gotten better since I was a legislative staffer, but we have a long way to go. The underlying change that’s happening is that more women are getting elected to the Legislature and that really positively affects our work place,” said Rozic.

Aside from the most serious cases of sexual assault and rape, it’s often sexual comments and diminishing jokes -- such as the one described by DeRosa -- or an extra-long hug that makes the state Legislature a treacherous place for young women.

Alexis Grenell, a political strategist and commentator on feminist issues, said the comment described by DeRosa is a quintessential example of how women are verbally undermined in the workplace.

“The harassment that Melissa described is fundamentally dehumanizing,” said Grenell. “There is nothing benign about it. It’s meant to take away her worth as a thinking, contributing person in a professional environment and renders her the sum total of her physicality and sex appeal. That is dehumanizing. It’s not why she’s on the call.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, recalled her first years as a legislative staffer in Washington, D.C. and as chief of staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim, of Queens. She said that when she first arrived in Albany, Kim warned her not to get into elevators with “the wrong people.” Later, she learned that she had been named on a “hot or not” list that had been circulating among male staffers at the Legislature.

“People would stop me in the hallway and say ‘you are just so exotic,’ but you know I’m not going to report them for it,” said Niou, who was elected to Silver’s old Assembly seat in 2016. “It’s just an ignorant and not very thoughtful comment.”

These types of incidents collectively create a hostile environment that women internalize and come to see as normal, she said.

“Over time, I’ve built this protective shell, like ‘oh these things are just going to bounce right off of me,’ but these things happen every day,” said Niou. “Somebody insists a kiss on the cheek -- like forces it -- but everyone kisses on the cheek, all over Albany people do the kiss-kiss thing.”

The cheek kiss, which is often reserved for women in political settings, falls into a bit of a grey area, but many women in government have observed the greeting often provides an opportunity for hands to roam. The Assembly’s newest sexual harassment policy warns that touching -- including brushing against the body, squeezing, hugging, massaging or patting -- may fall under the category of sexual harassment, but that has not ended the practice.

Grenell, who frequently holds press conferences at the Capitol, said to bypass the double kiss, she initiates a handshake by extending her arm as far away from her body as possible.

A similar strategy is deployed by one Pennsylvania lawmaker, who at a recent women-led panel in the state, explained how she avoids the cheek kiss -- by placing one hand on her colleague’s shoulder, and the other outstretched for a handshake, according to an account by a journalist covering the Harrisburg Capitol in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Albany veterans say they have grown accustomed to awkward and demeaning daily experiences.

"I've been saying for the last 15 years: Every week, I drive three hours north and 30 years back in history in regards to how we treat women," said Senator Krueger, of Manhattan.

With women across all industries, including government, empowered by the Weinstein blowup and its ripples to speak out about their experiences, Krueger said she would not be surprised if it led to another watershed moment in Albany.

“I would suspect in the New York State Legislature, like so many other places -- where you have men in powerful positions and young women who might not have a lot of worldly experience, who think these are very important men,” she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out.”

Update: The story has been updated with allegations about former EDC official Sam Hoyt that emerged Tuesday afternoon.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
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.”

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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]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform Wed, 20 Apr 2016 19:17:15 +0000