Gotham Gazette Fri, 17 Aug 2018 13:51:44 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Klein's 'Newspaper' Touts His Ability to Bring Home the Bacon klein riverdale record

Sen. Klein's "newspaper"

The latest edition of the "newspaper" being published by state Senator Jeff Klein features frontpage news celebrating his ability to bring cash home to his Bronx district.

"UFT, educators herald Klein's $1.5M support for community schools," reads one frontpage headline.

Another: "Community applauds Klein for securing $250K for Hudson River Greenway study."

The timing is interesting given that the latest edition of "Riverdale Record" - circulation 37,000 - hit mailboxes just as Klein and the large sums of funding he secured have come under scrutiny by the press and good government groups.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once railed against member items and pushed to abolish them but this year they returned with a vengeance, given Cuomo's approval, and Klein, an ally to both Cuomo and Senate Republicans, appears to be the biggest beneficiary by far.

The leader of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, Klein has been in a unique bargaining position over the last several years. Klein has brought home over $11.7 million in earmarks from the State and Municipal Projects Fund over the last three years, more than three times that of any other Senator, Politico New York reported on Monday. That funding is allocated through the Dormitory Authority to projects like building basketball courts, improving parks, and installing security systems in public places.

The funding Klein touts on his new front page do not appear to be from that allotment of cash, nevertheless it fuels Bronx-based critics who say Klein has been leveraging his largesse to combat or silence local media outlets. Those critics say Klein's "newspaper" is just another weapon that allows him to avoid scrutiny and damage the legitimate Bronx press.

klein paper

Klein's Democratic critics say his take home in pork projects is a reward from Senate Republicans for helping them keep their thin majority instead of enabling Democrats to seize the chamber.

Good government groups say the current member item system is ripe for corruption and political abuse. "It is stunning that the process of handing out legislative pork was restarted during the most disastrous session in history after the two most powerful Senators and the most powerful Assemblyman were toppled by corruption inquiries," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, referring to Tom Libous, Dean Skelos, and Sheldon Silver. "To restart the process now shows utter obtuseness to the corruption that is going on."

Klein broke from Senate Democrats in 2011 after Republicans won the majority, creating the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Klein said the move was motivated by dysfunction in the mainstream Democratic caucus, but Democrats and advocates have since accused Klein of creating the party simply to increase his power and ability to bargain with Senate Republicans.

Klein did in fact partner with Senate Republicans to give them a majority in 2012 when Democrats won a numerical majority. The IDC has enjoyed increased staff funding and more legislative input. Even after Republicans won an outright majority, they have continued to try to keep Klein happy as an insurance policy against future Democratic victories.

Now critics have even more ammunition against Klein's motives as the cold hard numbers are available. To put Klein's State and Municipal Projects Fund awards in perspective you just have to look at what the most senior members of the Senate Republicans were awarded. Former Majority Leader Dean Skelos won $3.6 million, Sen. George Martins, $3.5 million, and former Sen. Tom Libous, nearly $3 million.

A spokesperson for Klein defended the member items to Politico New York, saying it "funds important government projects throughout New York State."

Many legislators argue member items are important because they allow politicians to deliver for the most worthy causes in their districts. The Bronx has traditionally been underserved by state government, but Klein is not the only representative of the area and according to the list of member items released by Senate Republicans, only Republicans and members of the IDC were able to deliver this type of funding for their districts.

Good government groups note that the process has been abused many times and has led to embezzlement and corruption. Some groups call for depoliticizing the process by giving members discretionary funding based on the population of their districts.

Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said he believes if the state insists on giving out member items it should follow the model created by the New York City Council under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

In 2014, the Council overhauled its member item process after a number of members were caught directing funds to projects that benefited them or their friends and family. The old process was also routinely criticized because it allowed the council speaker to punish and reward Council members. Now members bring home nearly equal funding to their districts, with some variance based on poverty levels.

[Related: In Battle with Local Bronx Media, Klein Starts Own 'Newspaper']

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Klein's 'Newspaper' Touts His Ability to Bring Home the Bacon Wed, 07 Oct 2015 23:32:21 +0000
Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader Flanagan Libous

Sen. Flanagan, standing, & former Sen. Libous (photo: Lori Van Buren)

When Senator Tom Libous, deputy majority leader for the state Senate Republicans, was convicted last week it sent a shockwave through the capital. Sure, indictments and convictions of powerful sitting legislators are a dime a dozen these days thanks to the efforts of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, but many in Albany felt Libous' case was different.

Well-liked on both sides of the aisle, many legislators felt the case against Libous was weak, that the charge of lying to the FBI about using his power to help his son secure a job was the prosecution grasping at straws. Libous' colleagues were so confident he'd avoid conviction that new Majority Leader John Flannagan kept him on as deputy majority leader after Flanagan's ascension in the wake of the indictment of his own predecessor, Sen. Dean Skelos.

Not only was the 62-year-old Binghamton-area legislator thought to be honest by many, but Libous is also battling terminal cancer and was too ill to make most session days this spring. Many expected the jury to acquit Libous and that he would retire with his honor intact, with time for the GOP to prepare a strong replacement candidate. But, it took the jury just six hours to find Libous guilty. He now faces up to five years in prison.

"The amount of time it took for the jury to reach a decision sends a real message," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The indictment of Sen. Skelos certainly set Senate Republicans into a spiral, but in some ways Libous' conviction was more impactful.

"This really sets a new bar," said one lawyer-legislator on the condition of anonymity. "It was a shock to most of us because it means anyone can be found guilty on whatever charge is made."

It is well-documented that anxiety, even paranoia, was already running high among Albany lawmakers as indictment after indictment comes down.

The message for a number of Republicans is that their former leader, Skelos, is not likely to get off scot-free and that prosecutors are likely to keep digging. Libous' conviction is different than that of Democrat John Sampson's, also reached last week, in that Senate Democrats had turned again Sampson long ago, ousting him from the conference, and actively tried to defeat him in the last election. Democrats have been on a rebuilding and rebranding spree for the last four years, though their mission took a hit with the charges against Silver. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been delivering the same message: 'stay the course,' despite the fact that they hold a tenuous grasp on the majority.

It is a razor-thin majority that is at risk not only in the race to replace Libous, the election for which will occur this fall, but in the 2016 elections for every seat of the Legislature set to occur during a presidential year when Democrats typically perform better.

"The message the U.S. Attorney has sent with his indictments of Skelos, Sampson, Libous, and Silver was already very clear," said Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a left-leaning reform group. "[Bharara] is very serious about looking into their behavior," she said of Albany legislators. "This conviction isn't anything new and is why it's so frustrating that Senate Republicans aren't willing to talk about real reform."

Senate Republicans are desperate to weather what is expected to be a 2016 Democratic storm thanks to the presidential race. Senate Democrats have won a numerical majority coinciding with the last two presidential elections and Democratic turnout is expected to be relatively immense in 2016, especially given what is likely to be a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Democrats are sure push ethics and campaign finance reform, such as closing the infamous LLC loophole, throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016.

Libous' conviction spotlights another one of the conference's major liabilities - a shallow bench. While Democrats have a number of young sitting senators and have been recruiting and building up candidates in districts where they expect close contests, Republicans are dealing with a number of aging members who appear close to retirement, though committed to staying on to preserve the majority but not to do much else.

Libous was long talked about as a future majority leader and his name would periodically come up as a potential replacement for Skelos whenever there was dissension in the ranks. He was known for working across the aisle and continuing dialogue with Senate Democrats during even the most acrimonious episodes. "They are dealing with an aging conference and while we've seen Democrats recruit new faces each election, Republicans appear to be struggling to attract young, noteworthy leaders," said Scharff.

Sen. John DeFrancisco was recently named to replace Libous as deputy majority leader and while many Senate Republicans see it as a great, almost inevitable choice, it also exposes how thin their ranks are. DeFrancisco has long served as the chair of the finance committee and is integral in producing favorable budgets. Not many other members have the knowledge, commitment, or interest to replace DeFrancisco in that role, which he all but certainly vacates to become minority leader. "I'm afraid that he is going to try to do both," said one member on the condition of anonymity. "I really don't see that as being possible. It's too much for one man to do."

With Libous' seat now up for grabs the math for retaining an already thin majority becomes more difficult even though the seat is in a heavily Republican district. "We will absolutely hit the ground running," Flanagan said in Cooperstown last Wednesday. "I expect to spend a lot of time in Binghamton. It's a very important race. It's critical not only to our conference, but to the people of the State of New York."

Now, Republicans are coalescing around Broome County Undersheriff Fred Akshar. Denver Jones, who has campaigned as a Republican in the past, also appears to be seeking the seat, which could cause some trouble for Akshar and the party.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed the Democratic candidate, Barbara Fiala, even before she was officially a candidate. "Barbara Fiala is a quality person," Cuomo told reporters last week. "I've known her for a number of years, she was a member of my administration, she was a commissioner for the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Cuomo's endorsement surprised Republicans, as Cuomo has previously worked closely with them in preserving their majority and has praised a number of sitting Republican legislators. However, Libous still maintains a great deal of power and popularity in the district and could turn the tide if he is able to campaign.

Legislative corruption is almost certain to come up during a campaign for a seat rendered empty by the conviction of a sitting legislator. Democrats are likely to try to paint Republicans as roadblocks to sweeping ethics and campaign finance reforms, though it will be a tricky message to craft given the party's own corruption issues.

The vote to replace Libous will take place in November unless Cuomo calls a special election, something he has been loathe to do in the past. Whoever wins this year will have to turn around and defend the seat in 2016. Meanwhile, Skelos' case remains in the news as Bharara has introduced new charges and it heads toward trial. Both Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are scheduled to be on trial in early November, in the days surrounding the general election.

A recent Siena College poll found that public corruption is very much on voters' minds and likely to impact their votes come November. Ninety percent of voters surveyed for the poll released July 15 said public corruption is a major problem and 49 percent said recent scandal would make them less likely to reelect their incumbent legislator come 2016.

Horner said he believes Republicans hope the Libous case blows away as so many other scandals have so that they can attack Democrats on corruption in their ranks. Running races with corruption as an issue isn't exactly easy for Republicans as they have opposed every major reform measure good government advocates support.

"They really have no world view on reform other than term limits," said Horner of Senate Republicans. "And they back term limits in the same way Democrats back campaign finance reform - because they know the other side won't let it pass."

Meanwhile, reform groups and some legislators continue calls for a special session to address public corruption which in turn has forced Cuomo to point the finger at Senate Republicans for their recalcitrance. "I haven't heard a legislator say, 'OK, my mind is changed.' I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass," Cuomo said in defending his dismissal of those calls for special session.

Cuomo, who was close to Libous and has spoken kindly of him even of late, is seen by many as a roadblock to true large-scale reform. Cuomo said Libous "never stopped serving the people of his district," despite having terminal cancer and added: "It's a sad, sad personal tragedy. This is a man who was a quality public servant for a lot of years."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader Mon, 03 Aug 2015 21:33:02 +0000
Despite Unprecedented Scandal, Calls for Special Ethics Session Fall on Deaf Ears john sampson

Recently convicted former Sen. John Sampson (photo: @SampsonVictory)

It would reason to think that the conviction of two legislative leaders would lead to a flurry of anti-corruption activity in any state capital. But in Albany, where the new normal appears to involve multiple convictions and indictments of sitting lawmakers every year, last week's crime blotter appears to have barely turned a head. The convictions of Republican Senate Deputy Leader Tom Libous and Democratic Sen. John Sampson, a former Majority Leader, on charges of lying to the FBI (Sampson was also convicted of obstructing justice) don't appear to have had much of an impact at all on reform efforts, despite ongoing calls for action from those who don't work at the capitol.

Good-government groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Union have reiterated calls for a special session on ethics reform, calls that began in June at the end of the legislative session. That was the session that saw the indictments of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos - and that produced little by way of reform.

"Normally, in a rational world, these indictments would shock the legislative body into action, but it ain't gonna happen, not in New York," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man who could compel the Legislature to return to session, made it crystal clear during a radio interview last week 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 appearance on The Capitol Pressroom. "We've proposed and accomplished unprecedented disclosure," the governor added, referring to what did get done.

On Tuesday, Cuomo reiterated that a special session is not in the cards. Speaking to reporters after an event near Lake George, Cuomo said, "I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass.' So for the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago makes no sense," according to Capital New York.

Cuomo's stance has a number of advocates concerned that he has abandoned reform efforts because the public has grown numb to the cloud of scandal that hangs around the state capitol - a cloud voters appear to be attaching to the governor in public opinion polls. Advocates also worry Cuomo has gone as far as he is willing to go on reform and is digging in to defend the reforms he has made, despite the fact that they haven't quelled the tide of indictments.

"It sounds like he's throwing in the towel," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG, one of the reform groups calling for a special session to deal with corruption. "He is trying to create an environment where action is not on the table. He dreamt up the current system, so it could be that he is trying to protect it."

Muzzio said that Cuomo is making the only play he has at the moment. "The upper house is going to come back and do nothing," Muzzio said of the Republican-controlled Senate. "The governor is making a sound governmental argument - he's asking what would the purpose be of having a special session when we know the bottom line is nothing is going to happen."

Other Democrats, including Cuomo rival Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been advocating a special session to take on an overhaul of ethics enforcement. Schneiderman has been touting his "End New York Corruption Now Act" that would create a system of public campaign financing, eliminate outside employment for legislators, extend legislative terms, and allow the AG to prosecute public corruption, among other things.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and constant advocate for reform, told Gotham Gazette he thinks a special session on ethics reform is desperately needed. "I can't think of anything that would better help excise the opprobrium from last week's twin state Senate convictions than a special session entirely devoted to ethics reforms," said Hoylman. "No more piecemeal fixes or trimming around the edges; it's time for Albany to address ethics comprehensively and head-on. Let's come back from our vacations and get to work closing the LLC loophole, restricting outside income, and rationalizing our campaign finance system. If this effort isn't begun now, it'll have to be addressed in January when we return."

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins indicated during an interview on The Capitol Pressroom on Monday that she would be more than willing to bring her conference back for special session should Cuomo call one. But she said she doubted Senate Republicans would be interested. "I have not, he has not, we collectively have not been able to get our Republican Senate colleagues to actually be serious about real, strong ethics reforms," Stewart-Cousins said, referring to the governor.

It isn't just the indictments and convictions that have reformers concerned. They point out that recent campaign filings show that candidates are taking in increasing amounts of campaign cash through the LLC loophole that allows corporations to flout donation limits by the creation of multiple LLCs. Developer Glenwood Management was the largest abuser of the system before it became entangled in the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos.

Both Cuomo and Schneiderman, who have decried the loophole and called to close it, were major beneficiaries of it in the last election cycle. Now, filings show that Schneiderman took in over $260,000 from LLCs since January; Cuomo took in $1.4 million from LLCs in the same period.

Meanwhile, two ethics enforcement units created under Cuomo's watch appear either slow to action or crippled by infighting. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, has been criticized for being the puppet of Cuomo and legislative leaders and its board has seen repeated turnover in its leadership. Legislative appointees are currently fuming over what they say is outside interference from the executive.

Four legislative appointees wrote the Albany Times Union expressing dismay at recent executive hires and appointments and stressed that the next JCOPE director must be found outside of state government (i.e. without direct ties to Cuomo). "If the next Executive Director is not hired from outside State government after an exhaustive search, the public trust will be inexorably destroyed," reads the letter.

"JCOPE is disintegrating," said Horner of NYPIRG. "What better time to act on a new system?"

Cuomo's enforcement counsel at the Board of Elections has also been criticized for being slow to move on the most basic enforcement issues. And the Board recently declined to close the LLC loophole, which it had created years ago.

Muzzio said he believes there will have to be major public outcry before the Legislature gets serious on reform. "You need someone charismatic enough to carry the message, because people forget about it unless they are forced," said Muzzio. "That kind of messenger just ain't there. The governor has been gun-shy since the SAFE Act hurt his poll numbers. I don't think he's gonna push it. It's gotta be another guy. There's Schneiderman, but he doesn't have the same cache as the governor. He can't deal."

Horner said it is obvious to him that New York does have a new, charismatic, corruption-fighting figurehead. He says Cuomo relinquished his status as "conductor of the reform train" to the U.S. Attorney responsible for many of the Albany indictments. "The new conductor's name is Preet Bharara, and New York will go wherever he takes us," Horner said.

A July 15 Siena Poll, taken before the convictions of Libous and Sampson, found that corruption is still on the minds of voters and that legislators should probably be concerned about the issue if they want to keep their jobs. The poll found 90 percent of voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. Meanwhile 49 percent of those surveyed said recent scandals make it less likely they will re-elect their representatives in 2016.

Horner said he doesn't have much reason to believe Cuomo is going to return to ethics reform, but he does have some hope.

"We often see governors run as reformers in their first terms, and in their second terms become defenders of the status quo - because they become the status quo," said Horner. "Now, perhaps [Cuomo] thinks he will have more leverage next year around the budget. I would argue there is no better time than now. I don't think we've ever seen two legislative leaders convicted in the same week."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Despite Unprecedented Scandal, Calls for Special Ethics Session Fall on Deaf Ears Tue, 28 Jul 2015 20:47:17 +0000