Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1080 Tue, 24 Oct 2017 11:18:28 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


While legislative leaders are declaring opposition to a New York State constitutional convention, government reform organizations are trending in the other direction, with some who were wary of the idea in previous years coming out in support or considering doing so.

Leading up to the November 7 vote on whether to hold a convention, the debate is shaping up around fear of what could be taken away versus hope that the public can take a shot at democratic reform.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in a joint appearance in Albany on May 9, both warned of dangers posed by deep-pocketed interests from outside the state, who could potentially derail a “people’s convention.”

“I understand people’s desire to put it in the hands of the people to decide. But people are also subjected to campaigns,” Heastie said at the event at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center. “I think we should be very, very careful in exposing the constitution to the whims of someone from outside of the state who can decide to spend millions of dollars to put forward their position.”

Heastie and Flanagan, of the Bronx and Long Island, respectively, suggested that the state instead continue using piecemeal constitutional amendments to update the lengthy, outdated document. Such amendments must be passed by two consecutive legislative classes, then the public via singular ballot amendment.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that forms a ruling coalition with the GOP, and, most recently, by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview with The Daily News. On the other hand, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an upstate Republican, has for years been an outspoken proponent of holding a convention and is the only legislative conference leader in support of a “yes” vote on this year’s November ballot question as to whether New York should hold a convention to edit or rewrite its constitution.

The authors of the New York State Constitution included a provision that once every 20 years, the public would have the opportunity to completely overhaul and modernize the document. So, this Election Day, voters will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention -- or a “con con,” as it is sometimes called -- and if the referendum passes, the people will then elect delegates, who would convene to potentially rewrite, or significantly propose modifications to the state constitution. Those proposals would then go before voters as a slate of changes to be voted up or down.

While legislative leaders are expressing their fear of a con con, a growing number of government reform advocates say it’s an opportunity to enact long-sought reforms that have been stagnant in the Legislature.

In March, for the first time in half a century, the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter endorsed a “yes” vote for the once-in-a-generation referendum, citing electoral reforms, campaign finance reform, fair legislative redistricting, and the modernization of New York’s court system as motivating factors. The League had been instrumental in the last convention, which took place in 1967, but did not produce the sweeping reforms many had hoped for, and ultimately all the proposed amendments, which were controversially presented to voters as a package deal, were voted down.

In the 1990s, the group’s board had a policy that the League would not endorse another constitutional convention unless the essential changes were made to the delegate selection and convention process. Five years ago, LWV board members agreed to modify that policy; rather than automatically opposing a convention that did not meet those requirements, the board would reconvene and consider whether to support a convention while thoroughly weighing delegate election and transparency concerns.

In 1997, the last time a con con was on the ballot, most good government groups chose to remain neutral on the ballot question, focussing instead on launching educational campaigns about the pros and cons of holding a convention, and potential issues to be addressed. Only Citizens Union, one of New York’s leading government reform organizations (and sister organization to Gotham Gazette’s publisher, Citizens Union Foundation), has consistently backed a constitutional convention, despite what was to many a disappointing outcome from the 1967 convention.

Twenty years ago, as was the case during previous con con votes, there was some momentum to back a convention prior to the vote, and public opinion polls showed significant interest. But a last-minute ad campaign by labor unions and other interest groups ultimately dissuaded voters for voting “yes” on the ballot question.

“The campaign to defeat the convention referendum has created some of the oddest political bedfellows in recent memory. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Conservative Party, the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League, legislators of both parties and Change New York, the anti-tax group, were united against the measure,” wrote Richard Perez-Pena, for the New York Times, on November 5, 1997, just before the con con vote that year.

This year -- which follows a two-decade stretch that has seen dozens of elected officials leave office due to ethical or legal scandal -- there appears to be a marked shift and legislative leaders are finding themselves at odds with government reform organizations who view the convention more favorably, even those who sat out the vote in 1997.

Citizens Union is again in suppor and the League of Women Voters is not the only government reform organization reevaluating its stance. The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), which as part of its mission seeks to raise judicial standards and reform the legal system, will discuss the issue at its upcoming House of Delegates meeting on June 17, and consider voting on whether to take a position on the ballot measure, a spokesperson has confirmed.

In February, NYSBA issued a report highlighting how a constitutional convention could streamline all aspects of New York’s bafflingly complex legal system, from traffic ticket processing to child support orders.

The League of Women Voters does still hold concerns about how a convention would be implemented, but decided the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

“We’re not saying this is the end-all and be-all, but we are going to try get all we want out of it. And there are risks, but it’s a balancing act. We asked the question: Is it worth it that we could gain more than people think might be lost? And the state League has decided yes, that it’s worth opening it up and trying to get the changes that we can’t get through the Legislature now,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of League of Women Voters New York.

Ladd Bierman noted that some state lawmakers recently told members of the League they would be more amenable to pushing for voting reform if the public voted in favor of a convention.

SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, who has been on the front lines pushing for constitutional reform for decades, said he is not surprised government reform organizations are coming around on the issue.

“Twenty years ago they made a set of decisions, so they have 20 years of experience in observing whether they have been able to achieve the reforms necessary -- they have not -- so they rightfully understand that this is the only way they are going to make progress,” said Benjamin. “Twenty years have reinforced the observation that the Legislature will not make fundamental structural changes, and the reputation in New York governance has steadily declined.”

Representatives from other government watchdog organizations -- including New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- told Gotham Gazette that they have not taken a position on the ballot question, but that the issue is being debated vigorously internally.

“I'm not sure what we will do. Twenty years ago we thought we could play the most useful role by staying neutral and offering a balanced look at the pros and cons of a convention,” said NYPIRG’s executive director Blair Horner. “It's possible we'll be in the same place this year.”

Bill Samuels, a businessman, con con advocate, and chair of the board of EffectiveNY, a think tank, believes the chaos surrounding President Donald Trump’s administration will also help fuel a “yes” vote in November.

“The same activists who were around in 1967 during the civil rights-anti war movement are still around today,” he said. “When you combine that with what’s happening in Washington -- if I had to sum it up: we still have a system in Albany that’s still not reaching its goal. New York and California have emerged as the great stand-up states to Trump. We want to be excited, we want to have the best Legislature in the country, and we think we can! The best way to fight Trump is to move New York forward.”

In the past, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has repeatedly expressed support for a convention, suggesting a con con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans who oppose a public matching system and donation limits continue to control the state Senate. While Cuomo came out in vocal support last year and attempted to insert money into the state budget for a preparatory committee, the issue was not included in his 2017 State of the State policy book nor his executive budget proposal. Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette the governor still favors a con con, but Cuomo has not been vocal about the issue. This governor has not set aside funds to plot out a potential convention like his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, did ahead of the 1997 vote.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, Cuomo said he supports the idea of a convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that." In this point, Cuomo echoed what a variety of other elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have said about concerns regarding the delegate process.

Meanwhile, a 40-member coalition of con con supporters called the Committee for a Constitutional Convention has launched. The group includes many prominent public figures including former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine, and former state senator Seymour Lachman. They are joined by constitutional experts like Professor Benjamin and Touro Law Center dean Patty Salkin and slew of well-known attorneys like the Brennan Center’s Fritz Schwarz. Bill Samuels is a member as well.

For Citizens Union, support for a convention has only been reinforced over the last two decades. “Twenty years ago, we felt like money in politics was a problem, that effective strong oversight of public ethics was a problem, that our court system was a problem, and the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature were a problem,” said Citizen Union executive director Dick Dadey. “Those problems have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Our state government is broken. Budget bills are passed in the dark of night with little time to scrutinize them, pay to play culture is thriving, and voter apathy is rising.”

Opponents of a convention fear opening up the constitution could put at risk hard-won labor and environmental protections, among others. Those concerned about outside interests swaying the outcome of a convention also note that delegates are frequently people who are well-known in public life, often those who hold or previously held a public office, and point to a skewed delegate election process, which they say undermines the point of a “people’s convention.”

The current system allows major political parties to influence the delegate election, by grouping together a “slate” of candidates on the ballot. Further, of 204 elected delegates, 189 would be chosen from New York’s 63 state Senate districts, three from each, which Democrats note are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republican interests.

While opposition forces, led by labor unions, have already begun to spend sizeable sums of money to encourage a “no” vote, it is unclear how rising populist sentiments indicated in last year’s presidential election -- especially through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump -- may factor in.

If the ballot measure does pass, Ladd Bierman of LWV noted, there are many questions that must be addressed in the following legislative session. Will voters be presented with a preselected slate of delegates? Will the convention be made subject to Freedom of Information Law? Where will the convention take place? The constitution says it must take place at the Capitol on April 2, but if the convention overlaps with the legislative session, there may not be sufficient office space to host the event.

Regardless of where they stand on the ballot measure, she said, if it passes good government groups will be on the front lines pushing for a process that is as fair, transparent, and as democratic as possible.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6234:cuomos-public-schedules-offer-little-information http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6234:cuomos-public-schedules-offer-little-information cuomo reporters

Cuomo gives a press briefing in Tarrytown (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was facing pressure from the press, local officials, and the public to make his first appearance in Hoosick Falls, a small town near the Vermont border. Residents of the town were told in December that their drinking water was unsafe for consumption due to contamination from a toxic chemical that may lead to cancer. Cuomo, whose administration has been accused of mishandling reports about water contamination in the town since 2014, had been conspicuously absent.

On Sunday, March 13 at about 7:30 a.m. reporters received an updated public schedule for Cuomo announcing that at 10:15 a.m the governor would give a press briefing in Hoosick Falls. Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents the area and has been a consistent critic of the Democratic governor, said he learned of the visit from members of the press who contacted him to see if he planned to attend. McLaughlin was not contacted by the Cuomo administration, he said, nor were a host of other elected officials from the area. Some local reporters had been told specifically the governor would not be visiting the town that weekend.

"I had been there a day before for the St. Patrick's Day Parade and I said then, 'Leaders lead, they show up when people are hurting, they don't show up for a photo op,'" McLaughlin told Gotham Gazette. "I will contend the reason [Cuomo] didn't show up for 109 days is because this situation is politically damaging to him - it isn't a situation where he's hooking up and towing someone and taking a picture; people are hurting here."

The situation was typical of how the administration often handles Cuomo's public schedules - most days, no matter what the governor might actually be doing, his public schedules, emailed to the press the night before, put him in Albany, New York City, or the New York City area, with no additional information.

Occasionally the administration will issue an update about an appearance or an event with varying amounts of lead time. Sometimes a few hours, often less. Events the governor attends are regularly ones that appear unlikely to be last-minute decision. One such update was issued on January 21 at 5:29 p.m. to announce Cuomo was attending a 6 p.m. gala held by the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members include large Cuomo donors.

Other events Cuomo attends, such as fundraisers or gatherings with legislators at the Executive Mansion, are left off his schedule. Some of these events, for candidate campaigns, should be left off of the governor's official government schedule. Yet, strangely, on March 9, Cuomo held a ceremony to honor former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and no notice was given, though the administration later gave members of the press an account of the proceedings.

Administration officials paint last-minute updates and omissions as the result of minding the schedule of a very busy governor, but the pattern has rankled the press, annoyed legislators who feel the governor should notify them when he visits their districts, and stymied issue advocates and protesters. It has a growing number of critics saying that the administration shares little with the press and the public as a political strategy to protect Cuomo from unwanted coverage.

Cuomo's schedules also come in stark contrast of those of other major New York elected officials - senators, members of Congress, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others mostly issue detailed daily schedules full of events, whether the press is invited or not. They also often send their schedules earlier than the governor's office does. Case in point: on Monday evening, de Blasio's Tuesday schedule, with two public events, was sent to members of the media at about 5:30 p.m.; Gov. Cuomo's, also with two public events, was emailed at a little after 10 p.m.

"It is highly unusual for officials to play this kind of game," said Douglas Muzzio professor of political science at Baruch. "The governor is truly unique in this regard compared to other electeds. It throws everyone off, prevents people from covering things, seeing him, meeting him. It keeps everybody on edge."

The Cuomo administration flatly denied that the governor's schedules are designed to reduce interaction with the press or voters. "People have all kinds of opinions, it's just not true," Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

"There is a clear difference in style and substance between this governor and people who are willing to go into the lion's den and deal with it and take not only the accolades, but the criticism head on," said Assembly Member McLaughlin. Cuomo has made a habit of "ducking, covering, and avoiding and misdirecting," McLaughlin added, saying that Cuomo has had "the hypocrisy" of saying he would run the most transparent administration in history. "People are waking up to it," he said, "The answer to it is to stop doing what you're doing, but his answer will be to double down and do more of what got him in trouble to begin with."

The situation is particularly pointed this year as budget negotiations again play out almost entirely behind closed doors. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Cuomo has not held public leaders meetings to discuss budget priorities.

Meanwhile, Cuomo hasn't held a traditional media availability on the second floor of the Capitol since June of last year. While the governor has taken press questions after events at a variety of locations around the state, he has eschewed a traditional Albany press conference for well over 200 days.

A recent Freedom of Information Law request for any email communications sent by Cuomo, filed by Gannett's John Campbell, resulted in no information. An administration official told Campbell that Cuomo has no state-issued email account or Blackberry device.

"Do you get the impression this governor doesn't want coverage, doesn't want to answer any questions?" asked Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "Wasn't this the governor who said he would have the most transparent administration in history? Well it hasn't turned out that way. He doesn't seem to let people know he is going to be somewhere unless he is handing out money or responding to a disaster."

John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said that from his perspective the governor's office has been ahead of the game on releasing the governor's schedules when compared to other elected officials, albeit months after the fact. Kaehny points to the administration's information portal that is updated every few months with the governor's past schedules, including the names of groups and people he meets with. "We're happy to have more complete schedules later, rather than faster, less specific schedules right now," said Kaehny, who acknowledged it might be different for the press.

"The state website allows searches by name so you can see what meetings they've had with the governor," explained Kaehny. "That isn't comparable to anything [Mayor de Blasio] has at the moment. It's extremely useful."

Azzopardi touted Cuomo's transparency website in a statement to Gotham Gazette: "This administration has proactively made more documents and data publicly available than any other in recent memory. The governor's final schedules are publicly posted on CitizenConnects and have been since the beginning of this administration."

Cuomo's schedules have been shown to have at least a hole or two. In 2012 The Wall Street Journal reported that Cuomo's schedules did not show an October fundraiser where the Governor was pitched on a massive casino project by Genting, a group that had given millions to a lobbying group created at the governor's behest. Administration officials said the omission was a mistake.

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noted that compared to Albany standards where the leaders rarely announce their plans to the public, Cuomo's scheduling isn't particularly concerning.

For others however, it is concerning that the governor who pledged utmost transparency appears to only be interested in interacting with the public of his choosing and has limited his press interaction.

"Is he afraid of the press or does he think New Yorkers aren't interested in what their governor is doing?" asked Bartoletti. "I don't know why he wouldn't want to be more visible."

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

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Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information Tue, 22 Mar 2016 03:06:14 +0000
In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6155:in-albany-bharara-challenges-lawmakers-to-act-not-enable http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6155:in-albany-bharara-challenges-lawmakers-to-act-not-enable bharara

Preet Bharara (photo: Buck Ennis)


Asked how he can spur legislators to enact major ethics reforms during his visit to Albany on Monday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he has a "particularly blunt incentive...the avoidance of prison." The reminder from Bharara comes as legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are quietly discussing possible ethics reforms behind closed doors--reforms none of them have appeared interested in discussing publicly since Cuomo outlined his platform in his State of the State address last month.

Speaking before a captive audience, Bharara focused on the lack of a public conversation on ethics by lawmakers and the strict control legislative leaders have over rank-and-file members, and called on legislators to speak up against the norm and blow the whistle on corruption. The crusading U.S. attorney delivered prepared remarks and sat for an interview at an event on public corruption hosted by WAMC public radio and good government groups.

Bharara didn't need an indictment to send lawmakers scurrying for the exits during his visit. Earlier Monday at the Albany Hilton where they both addressed the New York Conference of Mayors, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan bolted up a flight of stairs before Bharara, the man who successfully prosecuted Flanagan's predecessor, Dean Skelos, took the stage.

Flanagan unsuccessfully tried to avoid reporters who inquired why he wasn't staying for Bharara's remarks. He said that he had "appointments" in his office. Flanagan refused to answer questions about what ethics reforms he might support this session, continuing what has been a deafening silence from legislative leaders on ethics reform for the last month.

Flanagan also avoided mentioning ethics in his speech to the mayors conference--Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb both discussed the need for reform. Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Carl Heastie did not attend the event, his surrogate, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, spoke instead and also avoided discussing reform.

"They're afraid they're going to get asked questions by the press about ethics reform," said Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "I would doubt we will hear anything from them on it soon. We have said 'please open up these leaders' meetings and tell us what issues you're looking at in the budget' but this governor has not done that."

Silence from both majority leaders and Gov. Cuomo has become the norm since earlier this year when Cuomo proposed a series of significant reforms that include restricting legislators' outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and public financing of elections. Flanagan has openly questioned the need for more reforms, while Heastie has said that his conference is open to discussing a number of proposals.

Cuomo has avoided holding a press conference with the Albany press corp for nearly 230 days, though he has taken a series of questions after events on a number of occasions. The lack of public leadership on ethics gave Bharara, who already attracts massive attention for his high-profile prosecutions, even more of a spotlight on the issue.

Bharara has been cursed and bemoaned by legislators for painting them all as corrupt. On Monday, he seemed at points to be trying a softer approach. While he did speak in stark terms at times, Bharara kept a fairly subdued tone and was quick to crack a joke as he spoke of the nobility in public service, the existence of "good" legislators who speak out against corruption and the "three men in a room" system that dominates decision-making in Albany.

As he said the key to undoing a culture of corruption in any institution is the good actors taking action rather than enabling the bad actors, the U.S. attorney said he expects more legislators will soon buck the closed leadership system. He also cited a recent Siena Poll that showed 92 percent of those surveyed think public corruption is a major problem.

"I heard a very strong exhortation to empower the good people in the legislature to stand up and that's basically what needs to happen," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "I think it was absolutely the right message and it's not scolding. I think it is important to empower change."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, introduced Bharara on Monday afternoon, noting the many lawmakers who have been removed from office in recent years due to corruption. Dadey agreed that Bharara went out of his way to acknowledge legislators who want reform. "He was acknowledging that there are lot of good people serving in the legislature who are tarred by the brush of corruption, by the actions of those who have been convicted," Dadey told Gotham Gazette. "That being said, they have a responsibility to address this issue of corruption and for them to swing too low and not truly address the core issues contributing to all of this is an abdication of their responsibility as state legislators."

Bharara wasn't all sunshine and roses by any means. He lashed out at legislators for "whining" and failing to blow the whistle on corruption. "People knew, people knew before the prosecutors showed up, before the FBI showed up," he said. "People always know. You think no one knew Sheldon Silver was corrupt before he was put in handcuffs? Not a chance."

He also shamed those in the Assembly who tried to keep Silver as leader even after he was indicted. Bharara said that police or teachers who had been arrested and faced a 35-page indictment would find themselves on "desk duty" or in a "rubber room."

Bharara called for there to be more respect for public service by public servants and continued to challenge them to live up to the jobs they hold. He mocked Silver's defense strategy that his behavior was just "politics as usual" asserting that that defense unfairly tarred his fellow lawmakers.

"Looking the other way is not leadership," he said, "blaming the prosecutors is not leadership, kicking the can is not leadership, accepting lies and half-truths is not leadership, making excuses is not leadership, whining is not leadership."

What Bharara did not offer was specifics, though he did give a half-blessing to a few reforms, like pension forfeiture for those lawmakers convicted of wrongdoing. Bharara declined to weigh in definitively on proposed reforms such as increasing legislators' pay and banning outside income, though he did say that there is a good argument to be made for limiting such income.

The U.S. attorney would not comment on his investigation into Cuomo's' Buffalo Billion economic development plan. "We aren't closing up shop anytime soon," Bharara said smiling.

Lerner said she thinks Bharara's visit comes at an important time when the legislature is negotiating reforms behind closed doors and cautioned patience as the process plays out. "The most important thing right now is not what they say publicly but are there internal discussions going on and I believe there are. Like the U.S. Attorney said, we need reform-minded people pushing the leaders for change. I'm very happy not to go to one more press conference that results in nothing. We want them to talk amongst themselves and come to a conclusion that they need to adopt reforms, and that could be a quiet time where they aren't saying much to me and you."

Concern is growing amongst reform advocates that Assembly Democrats have fallen back to their default position under Silver of waiting to voice their individual opinions until they are told what the leader has decided. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans appear desperate not to pass any of Cuomo's substantive reforms. Bartoletti said she expects the issue of reform could slip away given that this is an election year, unless Bharara bags another big indictment.

Bharara made it clear on Monday that he is ready to serve as a constant reminder that reform is needed. "This moment in history calls for something more than just talk," Bharara said. "There's been a lot of talk."

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

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In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable Tue, 09 Feb 2016 01:31:58 +0000
Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform cuomo silver skelos 2011

L-R: Silver, Cuomo & Skelos in 2011 (photo via the governor's office) 


New York's leading good government groups gathered at Manhattan's Foley Square Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. The press conference, held in the shadows of a federal courthouse where one of New York’s most powerful politicians is being tried on corruption charges, came as other recent developments also shine a bright light on the state's insufficient handling of ethics and corruption.

Not only has the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver begun, but the trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to begin next week; and, there was the recent release of a report by a state ethics review commission calling for changes as well as a national study assessing state government accountability and transparency giving New York a "D-" grade.

So on Wednesday, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the two new legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, urging them to come together to enact comprehensive and significant reforms in five ethics categories. To bring further attention to their calls for reform, the groups held a press conference.

“This news conference is the first of many actions our groups are going to be taking in the months to come to really push this front and center, because we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We want to urge immediate action and if possible even a special session.”

“New Yorkers are so disgusted, they’ve just come to accept that this is part and parcel of how state government operates, and it should not be,” Dadey said. “With the convergence of all these events, there is no better time than now to enact these reforms.”

The reforms the groups are calling to be enacted either in a special end-of-year session or in early 2016 include:

  • Change legislative compensation through upcoming recommendations by a recently appointed pay commission, considering increased salaries and greater limits on outside income.
  • "Limit the influence of dark money campaign contributions and end government spending that takes place in the shadows' through measures such as closing the infamous LLC loophole.
  • "Reform ethics oversight and enforcement" by making changes to JCOPE’s structure, scope, and voting procedures to increase transparency and independence.
  • "Strengthen financial reporting disclosure requirements for public officers to allow the public to more easily spot conflicts of interest."
  • "Streamline and standardize disclosure of lobbying activity for better analysis and easier evaluation by the public."

While the Silver and Skelos trials come just two months after the Senate's second-highest-ranking Republican, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying under oath to FBI agents during an investigation into his son's hiring at a politically connected law firm. New York City just elected two new state legislators to fill vacant seats vacated due to corruption charges.

Silver, charged with five federal counts of theft of honest services, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion for improperly using his public position to obtain nearly $4 million in illicit payments, and Skelos, charged with six federal counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and soliciting bribes in connection with exploiting his public position in order to secure a lucrative no-show job for his son, have both declared their innocence, with Silver’s legal team attempting to paint its client’s dealing as par for the course in Albany.

It is the pervasive culture of corruption - both legal and illegal - in state government that has undermined public trust and yet failed to spur truly meaningful reform, good government advocates and many legislators and other stakeholders say.

“For far too long, state legislators in particular have used their public posts for private gain, and have lined their pockets,” Dadey said Wednesday. “Much of what is happening here in the Silver trial and in the Skelos trial shows how one hand washes another, and we want to see that practice end.”

Decrying a system that is akin to “a perfect storm that would encourage corruption by state lawmakers,” Dadey said “Citizens Union believes we should raise the pay significantly, limit outside income, eliminate stipends, and overhaul the way in which [legislators’] daily expense reimbursements are handled.”

In the past decade, 27 legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues. “So far, there is no sign that the arrests of the legislative leaders has changed how Albany does business,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said in a statement. At the press conference, Kaehny added, “One big step toward changing that is to see where the money is going. No more secret spending. No more spending in the shadows. Let’s see transparency for state spending, and let’s end the pay-to-play and legal bribery that are on trial here.”

On the same day that Silver's trial began, the New York Ethics Review Commission released an evaluation the current ethics oversight system and recommended reforms to improve the functioning of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).

The recommendations include eliminating the veto power JCOPE commissioners have over investigations, among several others.

Citizens Union has advocated for all of the aforementioned reforms, and while the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Commission are certainly seen as a welcome first step by good government groups, the recommendations failed to include other reforms advocates have called for, such as making commissioners more independent.

“We want to ramp up the capability and the independence of ethics oversight,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Reform JCOPE, give it more independence, give it more teeth, give it the ability to investigate, and reform the actual number of commissioners so that they don’t deadlock and are not beholden to the people who appoint them.”

Saying that he believes JCOPE can be essential in improving public ethics and integrity, Dadey added, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were two of the three architects that created JCOPE. And they created some of the protections that JCOPE is hindered by right now in terms of the voting procedures. With the two of them on trial, and both of them having been authors of this Public Integrity Reform Act that created JCOPE, we have an opportunity to strengthen JCOPE in the coming months.”

dick dadey good govt groups nov 11 presser(Dick Dadey, center; photo by Zack Fink of NY1)

On Monday, the Center for Public Integrity and open-governance group Global Integrity released the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, and gave New York a D- grade, a drop from the previous 2012 State Integrity Investigation, when New York received a D.

Ranking 30th among 49 states, New York failed miserably in several categories, receiving an F on public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability, state budget processes, procurement, and ethics enforcement agencies.

The reforms proposed by good government groups would go a long way in preventing a repeat of New York’s dismal performance on those measures.

“We need absolutely clarity in terms of who [legislators] are getting paid by and what they are getting paid for,” Lerner said Wednesday. “So that someone can’t say ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent ordinary people,’ and then it turns out that his law partners say he doesn’t do any legal work and is solely gaining money from referrals” (as was the case with Silver and is the case with other lawyer-legislators who are “of counsel” at law firms).

“There is something wrong with our disclosure system if that kind of misstatement can exist for years and years and years and it takes a criminal trial to really show what the true situation is,” Lerner added.

New York’s failing grade on state budget processes - for which New York ranked dead last in the nation - comes as no surprise, given New York’s reputation for“three men in a room” (the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding on the details of the state’s $142 billion budget behind closed doors.

“The governor can’t reform the legislature by himself,” Kaehny said, “but the governor can lead by example. And right now, we have billions of dollars in spending that are secret, that the public cannot see.”

“Is it corrupt?” Kaehny asked. “We don’t know. But we should know. So can the governor do something about that by taking a lead? Absolutely, yes. The governor could have complete transparency on budget matters - he proposes the budget, he can reveal the budget, that’s up to him.”

The recent release of these two reports and the ongoing corruption trials of two legislative leaders have put the spotlight on New York's dire need for state action on ethics reform, yet as Bob Hardt wrote in a recent NY1 column on the issue, “Never aggressively pushing campaign finance reform or transparency, Governor Cuomo seems content to play the master of Albany's current political game rather than rewriting its rules. A government of one is naturally threatened by an open door.”

When pressed as to whether Cuomo has done enough to fix Albany’s corruption problems, Dadey said, “The governor has been a leader on many of these ethics reforms,” but added, “I wish that he was a more vocal leader on some of these issues that are still left on the table, like legislative compensation, like restructuring JCOPE so that it has a greater authority and stronger voting structures to pursue corruption.”

In 2013, Governor Cuomo established the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to combat the systemic corruption in Albany. Yet less than a year later, in a deal involving Silver and Skelos, Cuomo disbanded the commission - reportedly just as the commission was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaign committees.

Governor Cuomo could, as good government groups have suggested, compel the legislature to return for a special session to overhaul ethics laws, though the governor has made it clear in the past that he has no intention of doing so. “A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom in July.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has previously advocated for a convening a special session on ethics reform, in addition to pushing his “End New York Corruption Now Act,” a sweeping ethics reform package which seeks to drastically reform how business is done in Albany.

“One of the requests that Citizens Union has made for a long time is to give the Attorney General the power to pursue corruption,” Dadey said of one of the elements in Schneiderman’s plan. “He can only pursue corruption right now if the governor consents to granting him that authority.”

“It’s a strange thing that when the current governor was Attorney General, he asked for that same authority when Governor Spitzer was in office, and when he became governor, he was not willing to give that authority to Attorney General Schneiderman,” Dadey pointed out.

A July 15 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 90 percent of New York voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. An October 26 Siena poll found 74 percent of those surveyed believed Governor Cuomo was doing a poor to fair job reducing corruption in state government.

“New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state,” the good government groups said in a statement. “In light of this storm of two trials and two reports, the groups call for immediate action on these widely-supported reforms, and in a special session if possible.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

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

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Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform Thu, 12 Nov 2015 04:12:57 +0000
Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate squadron podium

Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


On Tuesday the state Assembly passed a bill to close the controversial LLC loophole at the center of the federal corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both men - a Democrat and a Republican, respectively - were recently arrested and subsequently stepped down from their powerful leadership posts. Later in the evening Tuesday, the Senate’s version of the bill to close the loophole that allows money to flow unfettered into campaign accounts appeared to be dispatched by Senate Republicans in a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

The LLC loophole that allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to legislators has been treated by many as a political hot potato all year. It gained attention when Glenwood Management and its principle, Leonard Litwin, were connected to the Silver indictment. Litwin is the state’s largest campaign donor thanks to the many LLCs he controls and his tendency to donate large sums to politicians at all levels of state government and in both major parties. The issue flared up again after Litwin and his company appeared in the federal complaint against Skelos.

According to a study by Common Cause NY, Glenwood Management has given $12.8 million in political donations from 2005 to 2014, but only 10 percent of those donations actually came directly from Litwin or his companies. The rest of the donations were made by LLCs registered to Glenwood or listed at its address.

In April, Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat, used a parliamentary maneuver called “Motion for Committee Consideration” to force the Elections Committee to consider the bill. In an apparent move designed to avoid controversy, Republican Senators voted to move the bill out of committee without recommendation. Instead of being sent to the floor for a vote it was sent to the Corporations Committee. Squadron told Gotham Gazette at the time it appeared the Republcians had “used a loophole to kill an attempt to stop a loophole” because the Corporations Committee rarely meets.

The rules say that once a bill is referred to a committee it must be heard within that committee’s next two meetings, if they are held within the legislative session for which the bill is active.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporations Committee did indeed meet on Tuesday, only after the meeting had been rescheduled multiple times - its second meeting since the bill left the Elections Committee. The meeting was finally called to order in the evening after the day’s Senate session. Committees rarely, if ever, meet after session. In fact, Squadron said he couldn't recall a committee meeting being scheduled for after session during his seven years serving in the Senate.

The LLC bill was not on the committee's agenda despite Squadron’s insistence that Senate rules mandated it. Committee Chair Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer told Squadron that he had not received a letter requesting his bill be put on the agenda until just before the meeting.

Squadron said he indeed had notified the committee properly and that the request for consideration he filed with the Elections Committee should have ensured the bill was on the agenda. Republican counsel interpreted the rules differently saying that the motion did not mandate a vote in Corporations.

“I just got your letter. I haven't been able to digest your letter,” Ranzenhofer told Squadron. “Let me take look at it and decide whether it should be on the calendar.”

Squadron pressed Ranzenhofer on when the committee might meet next and if it is likely his bill would be on the agenda. “Actually, before this subject came up it was actually not my plan to have any more meetings,” Ranzenhofer responded and referenced the many bills that had already been considered during the meeting. With that the meeting was adjourned.

“Hope springs eternal,” Squadron told Gotham Gazette. “I have hope that the new leader will consider the importance of this measure,” Squadron said, noting that new Majority Leader John Flanagan had only been elected to replace Skelos the day before. Flanagan told reporters earlier in the day that he would discuss the loophole with his conference.

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said she wasn’t exactly surprised Squadron’s bill was not considered. “No one pays attention to committee meetings in the Senate,” she said, adding, “Most lobbyists don’t even show up because they are controlled by leadership.”

Consensus on ending the loophole has been elusive despite the headlines it has inspired.

Closing the loophole appeared to be part of budget negotiations, with Governor Andrew Cuomo saying publicly that he believes it should be closed, but it was absent from the final deal that was revealed to legislators minutes before they had to vote for it. It has been unclear if the governor, whose campaign accounts have benefited immensely from LLC contributions, has worked at all to move Senate Republicans toward closing the loophole.

In April, good government groups partnered with legislators to push the State Board of Elections to close the loophole that it had created through a 1996 ruling. The Board deadlocked 2-2, with both Republican appointees voting against a measure sponsored by the Democrats to consider limits on LLCs.

Also last month, the Senate Elections Committee referred Squadron’s bill to Corporations, where it appears it will die. There is no indication that the committee will meet again before legislative session ends in mid-June.

“They all benefit from this,” said Bartoletti of both houses of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo. “One of them will do something on it knowing the other will prevent real action.”

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill to close the LLC loophole, acknowledged the fact that members of both political parties are beneficiaries in the status quo. “This is a non-partisan issue,” said Kavanagh. After his bill was passed by a whopping 120-8 vote in the Assembly, Kavanagh later issued a statement saying he hopes “The Senate will join us in enacting this, by passing Senator Daniel Squadron's companion bill."

In the news release celebrating the Assembly vote sent out by Speaker Carl Heastie’s office, Kavanagh is also quoted saying that "The LLC loophole is perhaps the most egregious weakness in our laws regulating money in politics. It has been the mechanism of choice for certain people to attempt to buy influence wholesale.”

For his part, Heastie stated, “Limits on political contributions exist for a reason...By treating LLCs the same way we treat corporations, we can create greater transparency and put an end to the use of multiple LLCs as a means of working around campaign finance laws.”

Good government groups issued a statement praising the bipartisan passage of the bill in the Assembly. “With the passage of A.6975-B, the Assembly has sent a strong bipartisan signal, and is taking an important step to uphold the public interest and rebuild confidence through the passage of one of many needed ethics reforms,” said the statement from a coalition of groups including The New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, The Brennan Center, Reinvent Albany and Citizens Union. “We encourage the Senate to follow suit and let New Yorkers know they are serious about addressing the pervasive culture of corruption plaguing Albany.”

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

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Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate Wed, 13 May 2015 03:41:38 +0000
With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform Skelos Silver Cuomo

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The State Senate Elections Committee is expected to vote Monday whether to advance a bill that would close a controversial loophole in state election law that allows wealthy donors to pour unlimited cash into campaign coffers through the use of multiple limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has maneuvered the bill to a committee vote despite major opposition from the Republican majority conference. Monday's vote will come after reform groups and some legislators failed in an attempt to get the State Board of Elections to reverse its 1996 interpretation of state law that created the loophole. Senate Republicans have bristled at using the term "loophole" to describe the BOE interpretation.

"As the focus continues on this critical ethics reform, it will be disappointing if Monday's Elections Committee vote breaks down along the same partisan lines that the recent budget and Board of Elections votes did," said Squadron. "In light of the BOE's professed arguments, I'm hopeful that the Elections Committee will take a serious look at this issue to prevent unlimited sums of anonymous dollars from perverting our state government and the entire political process."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, also a New York City Democrat, sponsors the same bill in the Assembly. Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette he believes his conference is also ready to move on the bill and that he thinks Senate Republicans should be too. "The Republican BOE chair said that he thought the Legislature was the appropriate place to address this. And I know he isn't the only one who believes that."

The LLC loophole has become a major flashpoint in the battle for campaign finance reform because other efforts at reform failed in this year's budget negotiations and a pilot public financing program for last year's comptroller race never got off the ground.

Advocates acknowledge that while having a committee vote on the issue is a victory in itself it isn't exactly likely that the bill passes the Senate given that Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority that could fall apart at any time due to indictment, illness, or retirement. Their candidates are often bolstered by large donations from single individuals or industries that use the LLC loophole to their advantage.

Advocates admit that the vote may be the last gasp for campaign finance efforts this year. "I think the real chance for reform this year is on the LLC loophole because there is more clear agreement on that," said Rachael Fauss of good government group Citizens Union. "I think we will have to wait for another major push until the budget next year."

Kavanagh said he expects the LLC loophole to remain a major focus for the rest of the year with perhaps some room between the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats to negotiate further contribution disclosure rules, including, perhaps, requiring donors to list their employers. Conversation and movement during this year's budget negotiations mostly revolved around legislators' outside income.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for campaign finance reform advocates. Last March advocates were in a place they had never been before: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal included a system for publicly funded campaigns and the Moreland Commission on Public Integrity was digging deep into just how weak and ineffective the state's Board of Electionss is at enforcing New York's already lax campaign finance rules. "It felt like we had so much momentum," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who also served as an advisor to the Moreland Commission.

Over a year later things have changed drastically: Cuomo abruptly killed Moreland in exchange for some limited campaign finance reforms, and despite massive scandals the Legislature has remained obstinant, refusing to make major reforms. If last March was the high of highs, this April has been the low of lows as campaign finance reform appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

Reformers' best chance at change - having the BOE reinterpret its opinion regarding LLCs - failed and Senate Republicans stand even more steadfast against reform. It isn't surprising that the Legislature has failed to act on campaign finance reform despite the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos because, as Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters told Gotham Gazette, nothing in Albany is surprising anymore.

"Scandal does not seem to deter the Legislature in its appetite to avoid dealing with the issue," said Bartoletti. In fact, Bartoletti said that scandal appears to have increased the Senate Republicans' affection for the current system. "The Senate Republicans hold such a tenuous grasp on the majority that they are loathe to change the system that gets them elected," said Bartoletti.

Republican Senators do tend to benefit more from the largesse of the real estate industry and corporations that use the LLC loophole to subvert the state's donation limits. Republicans counter that Democrats benefit from massive union donations.

"As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously," Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. "Until then, they should get a life."

Advocates don't put responsibility entirely on Senate Republicans. They look at the governor, saying Cuomo has failed to capitalize on major public outcry over scandal and not used his bully pulpit to push reform. They point to budget negotiations last year when most thought Cuomo was in a position thanks to Moreland and continuing pressure from the US Attorney to truly campaign for public financing of elections.

Instead Cuomo abruptly shuttered Moreland for what advocates call "meager" ethics tweaks and minimal campaign finance measures. The two measures - a pilot program for public financing exclusively in the 2014 comptroller's race and a new enforcement office in the BOE - have not delivered.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an advocate of public financing of campaigns, declined to participate in the system because it was so hastily arranged and his Republican opponent failed to raise enough money to participate. The program, meant to perhaps initiate a much larger system, is now defunct.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the BOE's enforcement unit headed by Cuomo appointee Risa Sugarman.

Moreland dedicated an entire hearing to attacking the BOE's paltry enforcement mechanisms. As part of the deal to kill the commission Cuomo and the Legislature installed Sugarman as the head of an office charged with finding violations of campaign finance law and bringing cases against violators.

Good government groups and election board members alike say that so far Sugarman's appointment has only caused a regression in the board's enforcement actions.

"The independent enforcement counsell is taking a very different approach to enforcement and has given much less focus to the routine enforcement work that was done before the independent office was created," Democratic Board Chair Douglas Kellerman told Gotham Gazette.

Kellerman says that Sugarman has failed to collect fines from those who were found delinquent before she took office in 2014 and has not issued notices to campaign committees that had not filed since the July filing deadline last year. As of January Sugarman had also not begun assembling a report on the biggest violators of campaign contribution limits the board has traditionally issued.

Sugarman did not respond to a request for an interview but she confirmed publically in board meetings with Kellerman that she had not sent the notices.

At a board meeting in January Sugarman argued she had found a number of bad addresses for previous filings. She also said she was waiting for hearing officers to be hired. Hearing officers were the Legislature's contribution to the enforcement unit and are seen by good government groups as an uncesscary hoop to jump through because cases against violators must also be presented in State Supreme Court. Other commissioners pushed Sugarman to act because such a large backlog had been created.

"I guess my overall concern is that there were certainly lots of problems with the old enforcement unit," Kellerman said to Sugarman at the January meeting, "but there were lots of things that were getting done with the old enforcement unit that I'm concerned have now gone by the wayside with the transition and I hate to see us have a step backwards as opposed to forward on this. The over-contribution report was one of those things."

BOE staffers and chairs have expressed frustration that Sugarman doesn't update them on her activities. She has stressed her independence and ability to work on investigations with complete secrecy but some BOE members think the office is directionless and is looking to land big cases at the cost of basic enforcement.

Advocates share a lot of those concerns. "It seems they are missing basic procedure, missing basic compliance that the board used to do such as filing reports and audits," said Fauss of Citizens Union. "It is unfortunate that the board is not in a better position. It is a shame that we don't even see enforcement of basic compliance."

Assembly Member Kavanagh said that he believes Sugarman's office has already accomplished a great deal: "We never had someone looking at filings beyond whether they were on time or not. Without that it is hard to see how real enforcement happens. Now we actually have someone scrutinizing them and I think that will have a great impact."

Bartoletti said she hopes to see increased action from the enforcement unit over the next few months, but is concerned that precious time has already been lost. "We will be watching closely for the rest of the calendar year. We may will be looking carefully at who they hire and how independent they are. I would hope they will be a fully-staffed, functioning enforcement unit by 2016 because without enforcement nobody cares what the laws are," Bartoletti told Gotham Gazette.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette: "The administration included additional funds in the budget last year to create and support the BOE enforcement unit. The unit is fully staffed and effectively operating at capacity."

Asked whether Cuomo plans to continue to push for campaign finance reform during the rest of session Lever said: "Yes, the Governor has been and remains committed to campaign finance reform."

Right now Bartoletti said she only has faith in one man to do campaign finance enforcement and it isn't technically his job. "The only one doing campaign finance enforcement at the moment is Preet Bharara," she said.

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

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With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform Thu, 23 Apr 2015 22:40:31 +0000
Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny Cuomo Heastie

Gov. Cuomo & Speaker Heastie shake on an ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The New York State Board of Elections opened up a floodgate in 1996, allowing cash to flow virtually unabated to political candidates. The BOE issued a ruling that allowed limited liability corporations, or LLCs, to be treated as individual donors and individuals to donate unlimited funds to candidates for state-level offices by creating multiple LLCs. Efforts to change the law in the Legislature have failed miserably and now a coalition of progressive and good government groups are asking the BOE to correct what they say is a major mistake that has damaged New York democracy. On Thursday, the BOE will take up what has come to be known as the "LLC Loophole," and interested parties on both sides of the debate will be watching.

Meanwhile, State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat from New York City, is expected to use a parliamentary measure to force the Republican-controlled Senate to consider a bill to fix the loophole when the Legislature returns to session next week. Coming out of a budget season where ethics reforms were passed, but the LLC loophole was largely ignored, there appears to be spring life to the issue.

"The loophole is based on a ruling that hasn't been relevant since the last century," Squadron told Gotham Gazette. "I would hope the board would act to remedy that." He said he will push for a vote on his bill, but added, "I hope that won't be necessary."

The BOE is a political entity made up of Republican and Democratic appointees. Its members have tight connections to their party bosses and the BOE has shown a major reluctance to pursue and punish officials who violate election laws and campaign finance limits. But advocates remain hopeful that some in power might want to see things change. "We've seen this continual finger pointing between the Board of Elections and the Legislature, [each] saying 'they could do it if they wanted to,'" said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for good government group Citizens Union. "The Legislature failed to act, now we are saying to the Board 'it is your turn.' We are going to actually put people on the record."

The BOE added discussion of the LLC loophole to its agenda for Thursday, as Capital New York reported, but no formal action on its status is expected. Fauss and her good government colleagues plan to be there, though.

A coalition of reform groups including the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Citizens Union wrote Governor Andrew Cuomo this week urging him to ask the BOE to close the loophole. The letter to Cuomo follows one from the Brennan Center and Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady LLP to the BOE last week asking its members to do three things: rescind the 1996 opinion; treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships depending on the tax status they select (just as the Federal Elections Commission does); and clarify BOE rules to make it clear that no individual can upend donation limits by using LLCs.

In New York, corporations are limited to giving $5,000 to a political candidate, while LLCs fall under limits of individuals and can therefore give $150,000.

Governor Cuomo has a complicated relationship with the LLC loophole. He has taken in millions of dollars from single donors who use multiple LLCs to maximize their giving. According to NYPIRG, 20 percent of Cuomo's $35 million campaign chest he utilized last election cycle came through the LLC loophole.

The most striking example of this loophole largesse is via Leonard Litwin. Using LLCs and corporations, Litwin, a real estate mogul, gave Cuomo over $1 million during the last election cycle. And Litwin is the largest single donor statewide - he blankets state elections in cash - giving to candidates and committees regardless of party.

Cuomo has spoken out against the loophole and his budget included a proposal that would ensure LLCs were restricted to the $5,000 corporate donation limit, which he also proposed reducing to $1,000. But advocates note the proposal did not call for stopping individuals from donating through multiple LLCs. Even Cuomo's "half loaf" proposal was rejected by the Legislature during budget negotiations. It is unclear how hard the governor fought for LLC reform.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette, "Whether by legislation or action taken by the Board of Elections, the Governor believes the LLC loophole should be closed."

Advocates note that the BOE's 1996 decision was based on a federal ruling that has long since been changed. "In 1996, the Board of Elections decided to treat LLCs as human beings, rather than as corporations or partnerships, despite the fact that there was no indication the Legislature ever intended such treatment," the good government groups wrote to Cuomo. "The Board justified its decision by citing a single phrase in state law and stating that it sought to follow federal practice. But the short-lived federal rule it emulated was quickly changed, and the relevant state law in fact provides the Board with leeway to make a more common-sense decision. Federal rules now treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships, and in most contexts New York state law treats LLCs like other business entities, rather than as humans. There is no legal reason the Board should refuse to correct its error."

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat whose conference has been stymied in its attempts to fix the issue legislatively, said he hopes the BOE acts. "We want to see it closed anyway possible," he said of the LLC loophole. "I believe it was created under a misguided ruling based on a federal rule that was quickly changed. They created it, so it would make sense for them to fix it."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who has two bills pending in the Legislature to address the loophole, said he favors BOE action on the matter. "I am confident I will be able to move something in the Assembly this year, but the cleanest way to do it would be for the Board of Elections to correct their misguided ruling."

Fauss said that it may take more public scrutiny of the loophole to finally force action and some groups have begun to try to engage their members and the public in what may seem like an obtuse and wonky issue.

Activist groups like Common Cause, Every Voice, and the Working Families Party have asked their members to contact the BOE to pressure them to rethink the loophole. "If we're ever going to end Albany's culture of corruption, we need to stop letting billionaires secretly dump millions into campaigns," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "The Board of Elections must rein in this flood of cash now as a first step toward returning New York state government to voters."

Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action said that the time is right because voters have become more keyed in to the influence of money in Albany. "They see the guys with the most money are just pouring an enormous amount of cash into the system and people are more aware of it than ever," said Wisneski. "Governor Cuomo says every year that he has reformed the system and it is functioning, but people can see that just isn't the case and this might be the single biggest way to change that."

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

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

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Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny Tue, 14 Apr 2015 19:48:46 +0000