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Skelos Conviction Greeted With Calls for Immediate Action on Reform


Skelos Silver Cuomo 2012

Dean Skelos in 2012, via The Governor's Office on flickr 


Sen. Dean Skelos and his son Adam Skelos were convicted on eight federal corruption charges Friday. They were found guilty of a scheme where Dean Skelos used his power as Senate Majority Leader to influence companies to employ or pay his son. The conviction comes only a week after that of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges that he illegally used his influence for financial gain of $4 million.

The convictions speak to a larger campaign by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought the cases against both Silver and Skelos, to change the culture in Albany that enables lawmakers to hold outside jobs while influencing major policy decisions and a campaign finance system that allows companies to pour unlimited funds into campaign accounts. The juries in both cases return verdicts within only a few days.

"The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?" asked Bharara in a statement following the conviction.

Skelos loses his Senate seat with his conviction. He and his son both face 130 years in prison. Skelos becomes the fifth legislative leader to leave office under ethics troubles since 2000 and is the thirty-third legislator forced to leave office due to criminal or ethical misconduct since then.

Throughout his time as leader Skelos became known as a cutthroat politician, willing to make extraordinary deals to keep himself in power.

Skelos inherited the Majority Leader mantle from the legally troubled and retiring Sen. Joseph Bruno in 2008. In 2009, Republicans were thrust into the minority but Skelos schemed to correct that annoyance. He concocted a deal with Democratic Sens. Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate and created a new ruling coalition with himself as Majority Leader and Espada as Temporary President. The deal eventually fell apart but Democrats lost their majority during the next election cycle thanks to a Republican campaign that focused on "Democratic Dysfunction."

Skelos successfully fought off a major push by reformers for independent redistricting that many thought would thrust Republicans permanently into the minority and when Democrats eventually won a numerical majority again in 2012, Skelos cut another deal. Sen. Jeff Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference partnered with Republicans giving them the majority and Klein the title of co-leader along with a hefty helping of pork and staff funding.

Adam Skelos was caught on wiretap scolding his father, Dean, for allowing Klein to keep his position when Republicans won an outright majority in 2014. Dean assured his son that Klein had no real power. "I'm going to control everything. He's going to get very little. Believe me. Very little. Everybody's going to know," Dean told Adam. He then pointed out the real objective of the exercise was to "Keep [Democrats] separate and fighting and hating each other. That's what's worked for the last six years. Keeping them at each other's throats."

Senate Republicans allowed votes on a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's major issues during his tenure as Majority Leader including same-sex marriage and the SAFE Act. He cut also cut deals with Cuomo and Silver on a number of incremental reform packages that included the formation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an agency regarded almost universally as dysfunctional and impotent.

Skelos' conviction brought a tidal wave of calls for reform from good government groups and reform-minded electeds. Many repeated their post-Silver conviction call for Cuomo to call for a special session on ethics reform.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union said that for Cuomo "not to call now for special legislative session is to aid and abet the rampant corruption in Albany."

"Inaction speaks louder than words," wrote Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group in a statement. "Failure by Governor Cuomo to convene a special session on ethics and inaction by the legislature can only be understood as a defense of Albany's status quo."

Cuomo is under increasing pressure to act on ethics as he shuttered the Moreland Commission that was investigating legislative misconduct in a 2014 deal with Silver and Skelos--a deal that greatly angered Bharara and appears to have sparked a federal investigation.

Cuomo issued a statement putting the onus on the legislature, but indicating he plans to push for reforms:

"There can be no tolerance for those who use, and seek to use, public service for private gain. The justice system worked today. However, more must be done and will be pursued as part of my legislative agenda. The convictions of former Speaker Silver and former Majority Leader Skelos should be a wakeup call for the Legislature and it must stop standing in the way of needed reforms."

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan issued a statement saying that he wants to act "swiftly and completely" to restore the public trust. Last year Flanagan successfully blocked any action reforming the LLC loophole that allows corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions.

Klein, Skelos' former partner in governing, issued a similar statement: "Today's conviction of Dean Skelos should be a call to arms for Albany and the people who serve in government," said Klein.

[Read: How Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, Dec 7-11


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday 

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio signs legislation creating the city's new Department of Veterans' Services, via Joe Bello, @NYMetroVets

BdB vets joe bello

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Skelos Guilty: Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam Skelos were found guilty on eight counts Friday. They will be sentenced in March. [Read: Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform]

2. Security Guards for Private Schools: On Monday, the City Council passed a controversial bill to provide public funding to private and religious schools to pay for security guards. $19.8 million will be spent to place at least one security guard at every private school in New York City with at least 300 students that wants one. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law.

3. Cuomo’s Common Core Overhaul: A task force created by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a report Thursday which found that the state made a number of mistakes in its implementation of Common Core learning standards and recommended reducing the tendency to “teach to a test,” giving shorter tests, and not linking test results to teacher evaluations until the 2018-2019 school year.

4. Housing Developments: The Staten Island Borough Board became the fifth to vote against Mayor de Blasio’s zoning amendment proposals on Thursday, adding to the significant criticism the plan has received from community and borough boards. Creating more affordable housing is a signature issue for the mayor determined to make New York City more equal, and de Blasio's administration is now prepared to devise a new strategy to regain momentum and secure support for a plan they believe has been poorly understood. On Thursday, AARP endorsed the mayor’s plans (it has 750,000 members in New York City), adding to two significant union endorsements the plans have recently received. [Read: Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote & Next Steps for the Mayor’s Controversial Zoning Proposals]

5. Public Housing Problem: A New York City Department of Investigation report found that the NYPD’s “systematic failure” to communicate required information to the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, is partially responsible for the disproportionately high crime rates that have plagued public housing projects. In response to the report, the NYPD will create an interactive database to improve information sharing about criminal activity in public housing with NYCHA officials.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 4,000-plus inmates are currently in solitary confinement in New York, despite vows by officials to limit its use, the Daily News reports.
  • 4,747 stop-and-frisks were recorded in New York City in July, August, and September - the lowest quarter since the numbers were first released in 2002, according to NYPD statistics.
  • 93% decrease in the number of stop-and-frisks between 2011 and 2014, according to a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
  • 797 fatal drug overdoses were recorded by the city Health Department in 2014, the most since 2006, the New York Post reports.
  • 20% increase in annual state spending for nonprofits is needed in order to fund a $15 per hour wage floor for nonprofit human services workers, according to a report released by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Fiscal Policy Institute and the Human Services Council.
  • 75% of incidents the FDNY responded to in 2014 were medical-related calls, and only 5% were fire-related, though a vast majority of the FDNY's resources are devoted to staffing fire units, according to a report from the Citizens Budget Commission.
  • $12 million will be added to the city’s budget to increase job training programs for homeless individuals in the shelter system in 31 shelters across the 5 boroughs, the Daily News reports.
  • 6,217,621 people rode the subways on October 29, 2015, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority - about 50,000 more than the previous record reached last year.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for supporters of raising the minimum wage, as a state appeals board upheld Governor Cuomo’s planned increase to a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers, disputing arguments that certain factors weren’t adequately analyzed before making the decision to raise the wage.

It was a bad week for Anthony Mangone, a former attorney whose cooperation aided in the conviction of three New York state senators, who was sentenced to 18 months behind bars this week after a judge said the “dirty lawyer” had committed crimes too serious to escape incarceration.

THE FLASH:

Around this time 40 years ago, on December 9, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a $2.3 billion seasonal loan authorization to prevent New York City from having to default.

Around this time 74 years ago, on December 7, 1941, in the panic that ensued after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese nationals living in New York were rounded up by FBI agents and held on Ellis Island. They were later transferred to internment camps for the remainder of the war.

Around this time 22 years ago, on December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train, killing six passengers and wounding 19 others. Days later, a New York Times editorial called for stronger gun control laws in response to the murders, pointing to the ease with which Ferguson obtained a handgun in California, which had one of the country's stricter gun laws at the time.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Resignation Highlights City Council Gender Imbalance, by Ben Max

Cuomo Urged to Sign Executive Transparency Bills Before Looming Deadline, by David Howard King

Next Steps for The Mayor's Controversial Zoning Proposals, Christian Zhang

Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform, by David Howard King

Little-Known Commission Expands Access to City Government, by Meg O’Connor

Hearing to Examine ‘Efficacy’ of City Response to ‘Homelessness Crisis’, by Ryan Brady

In Zoning Amendment, One Size Does Not Fit All, by Council Member Donovan Richards (opinion)

Harmful Legal Reform Is Not an Ethics Solution, by Joanne Doroshow (opinion)

Give Police Tools to Reduce Arrest and Improve Community Health, by Chelsea Davis (opinion)

Public Money Is For Public Schools, by Ayishah Irvin (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio spoke with Errol Louis on NY1's Inside City Hall on Wednesday to discuss his first two years in office, and spoke about the city’s homelessness crisis, his affordable housing plan, and more.

An in-depth report by ProPublica’s Marcelo Rochabrun and Cezary Podkul reveals that city and state regulators stood by as developer Two Trees Management disregarded laws requiring rent stabilization in exchange for the large property tax break it received.

Politico New York’s Bill Hammond writes that Cuomo is making excuses about not doing anything to stop Albany’s ongoing culture of corruption, and argues that there are many glaring weaknesses left in New York’s anti-corruption laws.

 

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform


rent protest albany

Tenants sit-in at the Albany capitol


"It's just surreal," said Jaron Benjamin a week after the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and on the day of closing arguments in the federal corruption case against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, knowing that those cases may have been bolstered by work he did years ago in the fight to strengthen the state's rent laws.

In the span of less than a year Benjamin went from issuing a report exposing the connections among the real estate industry, holes in New York's campaign finance laws, and major legislation to seeing his work used by the Moreland Commission, only to see Gov. Andrew Cuomo unceremoniously shutter the anti-corruption panel.

Then came the 2015 indictments of Silver and Skelos that many expected would scare Albany into enacting serious reform. But no transformative action has come, leaving Benjamin and other advocates to wonder what kind of impact their work actually had.

"There is still part of me that thinks surely the people charged with enforcing the laws must have known this type of activity was going on," said Benjamin referring to the SIlver and Skelos cases, especially in terms of the involvement of the real estate industry. "Seeing all of this play out has made me question what is pay-for-play and what is business as usual. It's all been blurred, and being involved in Moreland and the 421-a fight made me question what exactly is unethical and what's illegal."

In 2013 Benjamin was looking for a way to get people's attention. Then director of The Metropolitan Council on Housing, he needed a way to get regular New Yorkers interested in the backroom dealing that he saw as having continually allowed the real estate industry power to weaken rent laws every time they were up for renewal.

"We knew we had to start preparing then for the 2015 rent law renewal and I said, 'I want an issue that kind of encapsulates all the talking points, captures the outrage of big real estate's buying power in Albany, something that would rile people up,'" Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

The report The Met Council released on June 5, 2013, focused on the influence of real estate moguls, like the now infamous Leonard Litwin, and their ability to flood politicians' campaign coffers with cash, subverting campaign finance limits by using the also infamous LLC loophole.

Three years later, looking back, some advocates feel that the report was a turning point for Albany. But things didn't change the way Benjamin and his allies might have expected.

After the report drew the interest of Moreland Commission staff in their investigation of legislative corruption that was later picked up by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos were indicted on federal corruption charges brought by Bharara's office. The Met Council report and the federal charges exposed what many see as the undue influence of the real estate industry on New York State lawmakers and industry leaders' willingness to lavish lawmakers with cash legally and illegally to get what they want.

And yet, with Silver convicted and the Skelos case before a jury, the state legislature and Gov. Cuomo have yet to act to change the system. Cuomo has been the biggest beneficiary of Glenwood Management's largesse, with his campaign accounts receiving over $1 million in donations over the years through many LLCs. Glenwood also gave half a million dollars to Cuomo's Committee to Save New York.

In fact, even after Silver and Skelos were indicted and their relationships with Litwin's Glenwood Corp. revealed, Cuomo and new legislative leaders delivered a blow to tenant groups by enacting what many see as a real-estate-friendly renewal of the rent laws, deflecting pressure from advocates and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, who has been involved in fighting for stronger rent laws in Albany for decades, said he hopes the convictions jolt Albany into action, but he is dubious that it will happen because the indictments weren't exactly shocking to him. "We knew Shelly had sold us out; he sold us out three times," McKee said of Silver, who was touted by many others as the protector of all things progressive in the state legislature. "We knew Skelos was owned by real estate lock, stock, and barrel. We didn't know the details, but it wasn't a surprise."

Neither Benjamin nor McKee were surprised that Silver was receiving payments from Glenwood Management, or that members of Glenwood were helping Skelos' son land no-show jobs. The details were new to them, but the idea that legislative leadership and Glenwood were intimately connected was not at all revelatory. Neither was Skelos' declaration on a wiretapped phone call that he was weakening Senate Democrats by awarding Sen. Jeff Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference token power.

Despite his doubts about active efforts at change, McKee acknowledges that the Albany reform conversation has changed since the Silver and Skelos indictments. The LLC loophole is now a major issue, with increasing pressure from good government groups, newspaper editorial boards and reform-minded lawmakers - like state Senator Daniel Squadron, who, along with colleagues and other allies, just released a report on the loophole.

"It is very gratifying that people are paying attention now," said McKee (pictured below). "They ought to be properly shocked. It's just breathtaking, but some of this corruption is illegal and some of it is still perfectly legal."

mike mckee arrested albany

In June 2013 McKee and Benjamin weren't starry-eyed, but there was a feeling they might spur action in Albany. That month, Met Council released its report titled, "Tax Breaks For Millionaires: How the Campaign Finance System Failed New Yorkers and Helped Luxury Developers." That report examined how a small group of real estate interests used loopholes in the state's campaign finance law to funnel tremendous amounts of cash to politicians in exchange for support of the 421-a tax rebate program, which benefits developers of luxury apartment buildings.

The hope of all hopes was that perhaps public outrage would move lawmakers to close the LLC loophole, "maybe level the playing field so we would have a shot against the real estate industry. At the time we knew that Leonard Litwin was a poster child for the LLC loophole," Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

Two years later Litwin's name would hang over Albany like a tropical depression, deals with Glenwood potential portals to the U.S. Attorney's office.

The report made waves, gaining the attention of the editorial pages of The New York Times and New York Daily News, and garnering support of liberal activist groups across the state.

Their hope for actual change was stoked when, in July of 2013, Cuomo empanelled The Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. The commission held public hearings and appeared to be moving to a predetermined outcome. One day Benjamin was approached by commission staffers who wanted research information and addresses for real estate groups they planned to subpoena. "It really seemed like the Moreland staff took it seriously, but then the subpoenas got held back."

The Governor's Office put the brakes on those subpoenas, which may be an ongoing topic of federal investigation itself.

Benjamin's hopes were stoked again after U.S. Attorney Bharara took over the commission's files. "But there was no immediate action, so I thought 'OK, it was worth a try,'" Benjamin recalls.

Now VP of community mobilization at Housing Works, Benjamin watched as the indictments rolled in - indictments that were spurred in part by the very issues he tried to highlight in 2013. It wasn't the change he expected. "I would never celebrate someone else's misfortune, but I am enormously proud of the work I did at the Council and I do feel some of that work did help clean up Albany."

jaron benjamin

Benjamin (pictured above) says he sees indications that both new legislative leaders are more interested in listening to their members and willing to meet with groups that aren't the biggest donors. "It could be that they are both new, but it seems like they are both listening more and their doors are open," he said of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican.

McKee isn't holding his breath for sweeping legislative reforms spurred by the Silver conviction and Skelos trial. "I wish I could say the crap that came out about Shelly and Skelos is enough to get the governor and legislature to do something real on election reform and ethics, but left to their own devices they are going to pass some Mickey-Mouse bill that tinkers around the edges," he said. McKee hopes public outrage will move the politicians to enact real reforms.

Years of frustration appear to have led McKee to conclude that tenants have one real shot left to influence policy in Albany, and that is the 2016 elections.

He told Gotham Gazette that he is dropping all of his lobbying commitments to focus on recruiting and promoting Democratic Senate candidates for 2016, despite disappointments he has had with Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate. He believes the presidential election year offers as ripe an opportunity as Democrats will ever get to seize the Senate, and after that it will be too late for the next rent-law renewal. "I consider next year do-or-die. If we don't do it now we won't do it two years later."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Little-Known Commission Expands Access to City Government


tish james presser childcare

Public Advocate James (photo via @TishJames)


While government transparency can often be a vague concept, one concrete way to see what elected and appointed officials are doing is through live-streamed and archived video of public hearings.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, the little-known Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) met for the final time this year at John Jay College in Manhattan. The meeting agenda was centered around the commission getting an update on the implementation of Local Law 103 of 2013, better known as the city’s webcasting law, which requires certain agencies to record all public meetings and make them available online.

At the meeting, officials discussed progress on developing programs to provide training and equipment to municipal entities for webcasting; creating a central repository for municipal webcasts; and establishing COPIC’s own website.

The goal of the commission, established by the City Charter in 1989, is to improve public access to City information and to develop strategies for the use of new communications technologies to improve access to and distribution of city data. It is led by the Public Advocate, currently Letitia James, who has revived the commission since taking office in 2014.

According to COPIC commissioners, programs to provide training and guidance to agencies looking to comply with the webcasting law are almost set, with the first “best practices workshop” likely to be held in February. The COPIC website should be operational mid- to late-January. The commission is still looking into better ways to provide webcasting equipment to agencies, and a venue to host a central archive of the city’s webcasts has yet to be determined.

Nicholas Sbordone, a delegate to COPIC from the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, kicked off the meeting by asking Janet Choi, general manager at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, for an update on the plans to provide training resources and technology aids for agencies looking to comply with the webcasting law.

Choi said that since the last meeting, COPIC has explored how to go about “providing the best guidance for all of the organizations and agencies to help them comply with Local Law 103,” and has examined the potential creation of a “lending library” to provide equipment for webcasting.

As of October 20, 2015, under the webcasting law, 45 boards and commissions must webcast public meetings. According to Sbordone, many agencies subject to the webcasting law are either in full compliance or are willing to comply.

“For the most part,” Sbordone said, agencies that are not actively webcasting “have not yet met, or they have particular meetings that they have on specific topics that are not subject to webcasting...For instance, there’s the Master Electricians and Licensing Board,” which holds a number of meetings on “the details of specific licensee information, which would not be subject to public review anyway.”

As for the “guidance” COPIC has been developing to help agencies comply with the webcasting law, Choi said COPIC is “about ready to host or continue to build the agenda and the training for a best practices workshop to be held in February, the first of what we hope will be a couple per year,” Choi said. “This is essentially to give the agencies and organizations who are looking for guidance tips, pointers, and best standards and practices for effective webcasting.”

Given the rapid rate of technological development, Choi said, COPIC has determined that “there is no one best way to do anything. We can’t possibly say [to the agencies] ‘this is the equipment you should use’…we don’t want to give them information that is obsolete.”

“So,” Choi continued, “We have concluded that the best thing we can do is show them what the goals are. We want clear and audible audio, we want a clear visual representation - everything that is needed to best fulfill the spirit of the law. There’s any number of ways you can accomplish this, and all we can do is provide guidance.”

Regarding the creation of a “lending library” for webcasting equipment, Sbordone said COPIC is “culling and trying to refine a list of facilities that have good audio/visual capability and to the extent that they have WiFi or an internet connection.”

“The thought was that if there is a number of places that the city has or has access to, we can put those into one place, a pool, and then have a calendar developed,” Sbordone continued, “so that agencies might have the ability to reserve certain dates and times and then have their webcasting calendar built out, so if agencies have a meeting, they would know the best place and date to go.”

Public Advocate James, chair of COPIC, turned the discussion toward the establishment of a central repository for municipal webcasts and the use of the City Record.

“The newly launched City Record Online has modules in each of the records that are submitted by the agencies, about a public meeting, where and when,” Sbordone said “it has a module that you could add a link to to a webcast version of the hearing.”

Some agencies, Sbordone said, like the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), will add links to their entries on City Record, which will link to their webcasting archives. “Going forward,” Sbordone said, when the Taxi and Limousine Commission makes “submissions to the city record about upcoming commission hearings,” they will add the link to their webcasting archives.

“We have a number of agencies that we’re conducting outreach to,” Sbordone added. “It’s very iterative, but it’s really starting to come together now where we have the new version of the City Record launched, that itself allows for the better proliferation and dissemination of webcasting materials through the actual technology.”

Still addressing James’ question regarding the establishment of a “central portal” and the use of the City Record, Sbordone brought up finding “some type of central repository where all these archive webcast videos would reside. The City Record, ideally, would be a record that the meeting is taking place or has taken place. The link then would link back out to where this central repository is.”

“I think one of the things that we maybe want to begin discussing for next year is how best to present this to the public,” Sbordone said, floating the idea of creating a place online - “for instance, ‘webcasting.nyc’” - where all of these archive records would reside. “So if someone was looking for everything in one place, they could find it, and that would also be the place that was linked out to from various sites.”

“The shape and the form of what that takes is still yet to be determined,” Sbordone added, explaining that it could be something that the city hosts, or even a YouTube channel that contains all of New York City’s webcasting archives.

“I know the last time [we met] Commissioner Toole had suggested that the Department of Records and Information Systems could also be a possible venue” for hosting the city’s webcasting archives, James suggested.

Toole was unable to attend COPIC’s Dec. 8 meeting, though Sbordone said that she had mentioned “she would love to see, to the extent that it made sense, the government publications portal to play a role in this, again, as a central repository for all the reports and white papers, things like that, that are issued by city agencies across the board.”

The discussion then shifted from the creation of a central repository for the city’s webcasts to the progress in updating COPIC’s own website. COPIC meeting announcements are currently available within the Public Advocate site.

Sbordone passed out a mock-up of the website, which is not yet functional, and which, he said, was actually created at the request of a prior public advocate a number of years ago, though he wasn’t sure which. “We stood it up for them and it’s got basic functionality, as you can see, but the content was never updated.”

The next step, Sbordone said, “between now and the next time we get together, is to try to work to get that content updated with recent information.”

“Due to the work of this commission over the past year now,” Sbordone continued, “we have a good amount of stuff to put up - meeting minutes, meeting agendas, what we’ve accomplished, we have information on webcasting, tips, maybe even links to the webcast hearings that we’ve had, so we have quite a bit we can update the site with.”

“The idea is to institutionalize COPIC,” Umair Khan, Deputy Counsel to Public Advocate James, added, “by having a web presence for a body that’s purpose is to provide City information to the public.”

“That is something that we’re eagerly working on and moving forward with. We hope by mid- to late-January to have a fully functioning operational website for people to access all of our COPIC records,” Khan said. “Over time, we can tweak it and adjust it make it more user-friendly, but at least start to get this information out and make it more accessible.”

In addition to webcasting information, the website could also include information on “how [agencies] can get web cameras to use for their own proceedings,” Khan said, and “will have a mailbox, so people can communicate more directly with COPIC.”

James added that the website should include a list of COPIC members with brief bios on each, then adjourned the meeting, with the next meeting tentatively set for February.

Under James, COPIC is more active than it has been in previous years - COPIC held only one meeting during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s time as Public Advocate, according to Politico New York. Though COPIC may have made some strides toward the goal of improving access to City information under the webcasting law, issues remain with both the access to equipment for webcasting, and improving the dissemination of data.

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by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette
@MegOConnor13

Resignation Highlights City Council Gender Imbalance


MMV alatriste young womens initiative

Speaker Mark-Viverito & others announce Young Women's Initiative (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo recently announced she will resign at the end of the year in order to attend to family matters. In vacating her seat, which she has held since 2005, Arroyo creates uncertainty about who will represent her Bronx district, but also brings to the forefront a larger issue about political representation in New York City: the number of women in the City Council.

The 51-member City Council currently consists of 15 women and 36 men. While the Speaker of the Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and chair of the powerful Finance Committee, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, are both women, it is clear that the Council is not nearly representative of the general public when it comes to gender.

The gender imbalance is of concern to Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017, Ferreras-Copeland, and many others - both inside and outside the Council, female and male.

"The need for women's representation in elected office is unquestionable," Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "As our society grapples with issues crucial to a woman's livelihood – including unfettered access to healthcare, equal pay for equal work, and educational parity – it's more important than ever that women are involved, invested, and leading these discussions."

Several times over the past year, Mark-Viverito has made a point to publicly express her worry that the Council will have even fewer female members when the new class is inaugurated in January, 2018. Of eight Council members facing term-limits in 2017, five are women (the entire Council will be up for election in 2017; incumbents are virtual locks for re-election).

The special election to replace Arroyo will give some indication of where things are heading in terms of support for female candidates, especially by official Democratic Party leaders. (The Council has 48 Democrats and three Republicans; Arroyo and all other Bronx members are Democrats.)

"Women aren't naturally ushered into the pipeline of political leadership," says political strategist Alexis Grenell. "The role parties play in pipeline development is key to ensuring fair and equal representation...which means they have to be conscientious about their choices."

Mark-Viverito, Ferreras-Copeland, fellow Council Member Helen Rosenthal, and former Council Members Gale Brewer, now Manhattan Borough President, and Letitia James, now Public Advocate, have all participated in "Why She Ran" events hosted by groups including The Working Families Party and Eleanor's Legacy, which are aimed at encouraging women to run for office. The events have been held over the past few years in locations all over the city and are often well-attended.

At the most recent Why She Ran event, held Oct. 28 in Manhattan, Council Member Ferreras-Copeland said, "We need women in the City Council. I am here today to tell you we are in a crisis." She continued: "It will be an embarrassment if this Council loses more women after 2017."

"We need you to run," Ferreras-Copeland told the audience of mostly women. "Even if you think you're not ready, you're ready." At this and other Why She Ran events, one statistic is frequently cited: on average, it takes seven asks to convince a woman to run for office.

In her statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "New York City is ready for the next generation of strong women leaders, at all levels of government. We need to do everything we can to amplify these voices and ensure that women trailblazers have the tools and platform to make a difference."

Attendees of Why She Ran are encouraged to hear from local elected officials about "the challenges women face in politics — and the importance of tackling those challenges head on." Chief among those challenges are confidence and fundraising, participants say. Essential to the process is often also cracking the "old boys club" of local politics.

"The lack of gender balance is alarming," Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette. "You know, there are various senses in which the City Council is more progressive. We have more LGBT people in the City Council, we have more young people in the City Council, we have a strong caucus of black, Latino and Asian members. The one sense in which we have been regressing is the number of female Council members to the point where I would regard it as a crisis...and a poor reflection on the City Council."

The 2013 city elections saw a net loss of one female Council member - the prior Council included 16 women and 35 men.

While he said gender should never be the lone deciding factor in supporting a candidate, Torres pointed to the fact that "people are a product of our life experiences and we bring those experiences to bear on our governance of the city or the state or the country."

"It's no accident," he said, "that the more women you have in politics, the stronger the commitment to addressing deeply rooted problems that might affect women disproportionately."

Mark-Viverito pointed to the importance of women in elected office during a summer speech at the Young Women's Leadership School Commencement. "The more involved I became, the more I realized that the systemic issues of social and economic justice we battle on the ground in our communities was something we needed to address at the government level, and I knew my perspective could make a difference there as well," she said.

"Because women play pivotal roles in our families, in our communities, and in government," Mark-Viverito said, "our perspective is crucial. We get things done."

In October, Mark-Viverito and the Council launched the Young Women's Initiative, a coalition of public and private sector leaders and organizations, "aimed at supporting young women in New York City and combating chronic racial and gender inequality in outcomes when it comes to healthcare, education, involvement in the justice system and economic development."

In the special election to replace Arroyo, set to occur on a date to be determined in February, there are several rumored and confirmed candidates, including at least two women. One crucial aspect to the race will be the backing of the Bronx County Democratic Party organization - the chair of which is Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, who recently replaced new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Grenell, the political strategist, points to research showing that, particularly in special elections, establishment support correlates highly with outcomes. Grenell says that balanced gender representation "absolutely should be a priority of county organizations."

"Part of developing a pipeline of strong female leadership is parties looking for and cultivating qualified female candidates for office, not defaulting to whoever's 'turn it is,'" Grenell says.

Pointing to a looming "crisis in female leadership in the Council," Grenell says "if county leadership doesn't prioritize female leadership it will compound the problem going into 2017."

"This is not a cosmetic issue," Grenell warns, "women in government prioritize different issues than men, and we see different outcomes."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, December 7


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


 ***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Monday
On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio will attend the memorial service for John E. Zuccotti. At 12:30 p.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks at NYPD's Clergy All-In Conference at One Police Plaza." At about 2:45 p.m. at the Staten Island South Shore YMCA, "the Mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray will host a press conference to make an announcement related to substance misuse."

On Monday morning in Albany, leading experts on the New York State Constitution and the prospects for a Constitutional Convention will hold a media “boot camp.” The event will include Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz; constitutional scholars Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie; Richard Brodsky, senior fellow at Demos and former Assembly member; and Henry M. Greenberg, chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on the New York State Constitution and former counsel to the New York State attorney general. “The event is sponsored by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York, New York State Bar Association, Government Law Center of Albany Law School, state League of Women Voters, Siena Research Institute and New York News Publishers Association.” 

On Monday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, the push for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) intensifies: “Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Member Donovan Richards, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and the “BRT For NYC” Coalition will co-host a press conference to announce increased community support for bringing high-quality bus rapid transit to Queens. The “BRT For NYC” Coalition will be represented by ABNY, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, New York League of Conservation Voters, Pratt Center for Community Development, Riders Alliance, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, Transit Workers Union Local 100, and Working Families Party. Bus riders and members of the Queens community will also be in attendance.” [Read our recent look at the issue: All Abord the BRT Express?]

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss a bill about expanding the Metrotech Area Business Improvement District.
  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet, agenda TBD.
  • At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, the City Council will have a Stated Meeting, prefaced as always by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference, set for 12:30 p.m.

At noon, before the Council’s stated meeting, there will be a rally at City Hall to unveil “First-of-its-kind NYC Council legislation to be unveiled cracking down on deadbeat companies that stiff the city’s 1.3 million.” Members of the Freelancers Union, other labor reps including from the UFT and 32BJ, other activists, and several City Council members led Brad Lander, Laurie Cumbo, Rafael Espinal, Steve Levin, and Margaret Chin will hold a rally at the steps of City Hall to pass legislation protecting New York City’s freelancers. [Read our recent look at the issue: City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy

As the week begins, City Council Member Jumaane Williams is in Washington, DC from Sunday to Tuesday “attending the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies' bi-annual Roundtable Discussion being held at George Washington Law School.” It is a conference “for a select group of 25 elected officials of color from across the nation will feature discussions regarding policy innovations.”

At the State Legislature on Monday: at 11 a.m., the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Assembly Climate Change Work Group will hold a joint hearing on climate change.

On Monday at noon, The New York City Bar Association is hosting a “Lunch and Public Policy Discussion” with Gale A. Brewer, Manhattan Borough President.

On Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Queens Borough Hall, “The Queens Borough Board, chaired by Borough President Katz, will hear details from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP about the department’s new “Parks Without Borders” program, which aims to make New York City public parks more open, welcoming, and beautiful by focusing on improving park entrances and edges, and park-adjacent spaces.”

Monday at 7 p.m. at The New School, “Politics and Policy: The Latino Vote and The 2016 US Presidential Election” with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, among others, offering “a fresh examination of the role of Latinos in the 2016 election. Featuring a panel of journalists, pollsters, and political insiders, we’ll explore political, demographic and economic trends that will shape the outcome in 2016.” The event is organized by Feet in 2 Worlds, The Center for New York City Affairs and the Milano School.

On Monday at 8 p.m., city Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks "at West Side Federation of Neighborhood and Block Associations Annual Holiday Party."

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday: at 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to discuss two bills related to New York City crossing guard deployment.

At the New York State Legislature on Tuesday:

  • At 10 a.m. in Manhattan, a joint committee hearing on Daily Fantasy Sports in New York will be held by the Assembly Standing Committee on Racing and Wagering, the Assembly Standing Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection, and the Assembly Legislative Commission on Administrative Regulations Review.
  • At 10:30 a.m. in Albany, a joint committee hearing about law-enforcement officials using body cameras will be held by the Assembly Standing Committee on Codes, the Assembly Standing Committee on Judiciary, and the Assembly Standing Committee on Governmental Operations.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, a “Public Projects Forum” hosted by City & State NY will have Noam Bramson, Mayor of New Rochelle, NY; Reginald Spinello, Mayor of Glen Cove, NY; Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora, NYC Department of Design & Construction; and Holly Leicht, Regional Administrator, Housing & Urban Development; speak about the upcoming public projects in the tristate area.

On Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at Queens Borough Hall, “The Queens Borough Cabinet, chaired by Borough President Melinda Katz, will hear a briefing from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) on its current counterterrorism efforts in light of recent events in this county and abroad. The briefing will include a review of new counterterrorism technologies employed by the NYPD. In addition, the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY’s) Fire Education Safety Team will deliver a presentation on how City residents can best keep their homes safe during the holiday season. Also, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation will deliver a presentation on the implementation of the Neighborhoods.nyc domain, which has launched nearly 400 online hubs for civic engagement, information sharing and economic development.” 

Wednesday
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Quarterly Chairman's Breakfast will take on the presidential transition and the need for the most carefully planned transition in United States history in anticipation of January 20, 2017. [Read an op-ed on the subject from Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Chair Ken Biberaj and David Eagles of Partnership for Public Service: Let’s Be Prepared for America’s Biggest Corporate Takeover

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Health will meet to discuss a bill to create two new health-focused city government bodies and another that would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene “to post a New York City map on its website of the clinics they run, comprehensive care and primary care facilities run by the Health and Hospitals Corporation, voluntary non-profit and publicly sponsored diagnostic and treatment centers, and federally qualified health centers.”
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on the city’s efforts to address “the homelessness crisis.” [Read our recent look at issues related to how and where homeless shelters are sited.]
  • At 1 p.m., the Committees on Aging and Finance will meet for a joint oversight hearing on the city’s “efforts to conduct outreach” and boost registration for the Rent Freeze Program; and on a new a bill that would “require the Department of Finance to include a notification regarding preferential rent on certain documents related to the NYC Rent Freeze Program.”
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Civil Rights will meet to discuss four bills regarding the city’s human rights law.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Immigration will have an oversight hearing about “Resources Available in New York City for Unaccompanied Minors.”

At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday:

  • At noon in Manhattan, the Assembly Standing Committees on Labor and Small Business as well as the Assembly Commission on Skills Development and Careers Education will hold a joint oversight hearing on the state’s apprenticeship programs.
  • At 1 p.m. in Albany, the Assembly Standing Committee on Real Property Taxation will hold an oversight hearing on the 2015-2016 budget plan.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings meet on three bills. The first would create a Department of Buildings-headed task force that would assess the dangers posed by construction sites to motorists and pedestrians and submit recommendations to the City Council and mayor about measures proposed to minimize the hazard. The other two bills would raise penalties for working without a permit and for violating stop work directives.
  • At 10:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will review two land use applications.
  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will review five applications.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Civil Service and Labor and the Committee on Higher Education will have a joint oversight hearing on “Establishing the Murphy Institute as a new CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.”

At the New York State Legislature on Thursday: at 10:30 a.m. in Manhattan, the Assembly Standing Committee on Election Law and the Assembly Standing Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and Voter Disenfranchisement will hold a joint oversight hearing about “Enhancing the voter experience, preventing voter disenfranchisement and improving emergency voting protocols.”

At 8:30 a.m. at Civic Hall on Thursday, Scott Stringer’s Red Tape Commission will meet in Manhattan to hear suggestions from small business owners and others.

On Thursday, the Staten Island Borough Board is expected to vote on Mayor de Blasio's two rezoning amendment proposals. It will be the fifth borough to do so - the other four have voted against them, sometimes with lists of conditions that the advisory boards would like to see made to revised proposals.

At 4 p.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board holds a “New to the CFB” session.

At 6 p.m. Thursday: “Power Lines: Race, Class, The City & Its Schools,” a discussion about segregation in New York City schools.

Friday and the weekend
At the New York State Legislature on Friday: at 10:30 a.m. in Manhattan, a hearing of the Assembly Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development regarding “Injuries in combative sports.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is launching a Manhattan Youth Council, and is holding an initial information session on Friday afternoon at her offices. “High school students from across Manhattan are invited to meet and talk with Borough President Gale Brewer about the issues that matter most to you...Young people who live, work, or attend school in Manhattan can sign up here.”

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Konstantine Beridze, Ryan Brady, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, Nov 30-Dec 4


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday December 4, 2015

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Sheldon Silver outside the courthouse, via Zack Fink of NY1

silver via zack fink

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Sheldon Silver Guilty: On Monday, former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was found guilty on all seven counts in his federal corruption trial and now faces prison for abusing his position to obtain $4 million in illegal payments. At the center of Silver's trial was the culture of corruption in Albany, sparking a renewed push by good government advocates for ethics reform. [Read: Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform?]

2. NY vs. AIDS: At an event on World AIDS Day Dec. 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced the city will spend $23 million a year on a new plan to fight AIDS. The city has seen a 35 percent decrease in the number of HIV diagnoses in the past decade, though nearly one tenth of people living with HIV in the U.S. reside in the city, prompting the mayor to call for increased efforts to “end the AIDS epidemic here in New York City by 2020.” At the same event, Governor Cuomo said he plans to seek $200 million in new AIDS funding in the state budget.

3. Cuomo and de Blasio’s Dinner Detente: On Tuesday, Cuomo and de Blasio met in midtown for a secret sit-down dinner in an attempt to put aside their differences and potentially resolve their longstanding feud, which intensified last week after a Cuomo spokesperson said de Blasio couldn’t manage the city’s homelessness crisis. Apparently, the meeting "didn't go well," though aides who were with Cuomo and de Blasio at the time said the “conversation was constructive." [Read: Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio]

4. Mayor’s Rezoning Plans Face Pushback: Discussions on the mayor's rezoning policies continued this week, with some significant criticism from community and borough boards. On Monday, the Manhattan Borough Board voted against de Blasio’s zoning changes, with conditions they’d like to see used for amendments, and on Tuesday, the Brooklyn Borough Board did the same, with its own set of suggestions. The mayor has acknowledged the pushback, saying it was not unexpected and that tweaks will be made to the plans before they head to the City Council early in 2016. [Read: Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote]

5. Cuomo on Gun Control and Hypocrisy: In the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left at least 14 dead and 17 injured, Gov. Cuomo once again reiterated the need for Congress to take action on federal gun control. Speaking on Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, Cuomo pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans wanting to close the border to Syrian refugees following the attacks in Paris, while repeatedly blocking the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act since 2007. On Friday on WNYC radio, Mayor de Blasio announced he would be moving to push New York City’s pension funds to divest from gun manufacturers.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

$90,700 a year is the estimated legislative pension former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is entitled to, despite being convicted on federal corruption charges, the Daily News reports.

3,000-plus New York City police officers have been trained so far in so-called active shooter situations, learning how to move through buildings, with just one partner if need be, as part of a new approach, the New York Times reports.

8 school districts are suing New York State over funding inequities, asking that the court declare current school funding levels “so inadequate” they violate students’ rights, Times Union reports.

$90 million in bonds were allotted to the city through the state for funding affordable housing this week, Politico New York reports.

12 communities with limited access to health food have been selected to be part of the new initiative which will build more urban farms, expand school gardens, and establish community-center culinary programs and farmers markets, the Wall Street Journal reports.

2,000 city-owned sedans used by local agencies like the Transportation Department will be replaced with electric vehicles by 2025, in an effort to cut municipal vehicle emissions in half by that time, the de Blasio administration announced Tuesday.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for Westchester County district attorney Janet DiFiore, who was nominated by Governor Cuomo to replace Jonathan Lippman as chief judge of the State Court of Appeals after Lippman retires at the end of this year.

It was a bad week for former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who faces decades in prison after being found guilty on all seven counts of federal corruption charges against him.

THE FLASH:

Around this time two years ago, on December 1, 2013, four people were killed and 61 were injured when a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx after the engineer fell asleep at the controls.

Around this time 60 years ago, on December 1, 1955, commuting became a little easier for straphangers in Queens when the 60th Street Tunnel Connection opened in Queens, which is used today by the R train.

Around this time last year, on December 3, 2014, protests erupted in New York City after a grand jury decided not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Protests calling for Pantaleo, who is currently on modified duty, to be fired took place once again this Thursday, though NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said his department is waiting for the federal investigation to be complete before proceeding with any administrative departmental action.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

City Council Submits Testimony to Pay Commission, by Ben Max

Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? by David Howard King

Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio, by David Howard King

Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials, by David Howard King

City's Rezoning Plans Won't Improve Quality or Affordability, Andrew Berman (opinion)

Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors, by  Anne Klaeysen (opinion)

After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform, by Thomas Stebbins (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Friday to discuss a variety of issues.

On Inside City Hall, Errol Louis discussed the controversy over Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan with Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development and Carl Weisbrod, chairman of the City Planning Commission.

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform?


sheldon silver conviction

Sheldon Silver in 2012 (photo via the Governor's Office)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, thought to be the most powerful man in New York state government for decades, was found guilty Monday on seven counts of corruption in multiple schemes to monetize the power of his office. During the trial Silver's own defense attorney insisted that Albany itself was on trial and claimed that Silver's behavior was business as usual in Albany, and that even if it felt unseemly, it was in fact legal.

The jury did not agree. And though Silver left the courthouse saying he plans to continue his legal fight, the big question now is whether this startling development will be the impetus for major reform of the rules of the game for Albany lawmakers. With his conviction, Silver is removed from office and becomes the 32nd state lawmaker forced from office due to criminal or ethical issues since 2000.

Silver never took the stand on his own behalf and the defense called no witnesses. Instead, Silver's defense attorney, Steven Molo, argued that the federal government was trying to make Albany's long tradition of backroom dealing illegal. "It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York state has chosen, and it is not a crime," Molo said on Nov. 3 during opening statements. "The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it's not."

Some advocates and legislators have railed against Silver's influence for years, decrying the concentration of power of the 'three men in a room,' of which Silver was one until he was indicted and resigned his leadership post. Some thought that with Silver all but gone Albany would somehow be redeemed. That redemption has been elusive.

As Silver faces decades of prison sentencing, Albany is still left to write its own rules. The men in charge, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who replaced Silver, have indicated there is currently no appetite for more reform and have rejected calls for special session on ethics.

"We will continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct," Heastie said in a statement responding to Silver's conviction, adding that "accountability and transparency" are of utmost importance to the Assembly Majority. Heastie went on to list previously enacted reforms as evidence of his commitment as well as reform efforts that have been repeatedly stalled in the legislature by Senate Republicans.

"In addition to the enacted measures, the Assembly Majority has independently passed a number of ethics-related bills that were not taken up by the State Senate," reads the statement from Heastie, a Democrat like Silver and Cuomo. "Among these measures is a bill to close the LLC loophole and campaign finance reform measures to limit the influence of big money in politics, including the clarification of housekeeping accounts and independent expenditures, as well as the establishment of a meaningful public financing system."

Advocates hope public reaction to the conviction and the ongoing trial against Silver's former Senate counterpart, Sen. Dean Skelos - which is creating sensational soundbites thanks to wiretaps - will force more systemic change. Charges against Silver and Skelos were brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office.

"A political earthquake has hit Albany," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "This is a stinging rebuke to the 'Albany business as usual' defense and a clarion call to clean up state ethics. Hopefully this will be the tipping point at which New York's political leadership will gets its heads out of the sand. Governor Cuomo must now call a special session devoted to ethics reform."

Good government group Citizens Union, which tracks lawmakers who've left office due to criminal or ethical issues, quickly issued a statement calling for a special session after Silver's conviction. "Citizens Union calls upon the legislature to meet in special session and deal once and for all with the problem of public corruption in state government," the statement reads. "Legislators need to address the problem of using their public posts for private gain."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been calling for a move away from incremental reform and laid out a legislative package to move the needle and prevent conflicts of interest and corruption.

Good government groups including NYPIRG and Citizens Union recently reiterated calls for sweeping reform, including:

  • Increased legislative compensation, but add 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."

Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo pointed to prior reforms he oversaw that required disclosure of outside income that enabled the case against Silver. "We've passed disclosure laws that, frankly, would have been unthinkable ten years ago," Cuomo said, adding, "For the first time ever, they have to disclose their clients. That's one of the reasons this case is this case, right?"

But the Reform Albany Act that contained the disclosure requirements also created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a board that has yet to take any major actions and remains paralyzed by infighting between members appointed by legislative leaders (including Skelos and Silver) and Cuomo.

In response to the Silver verdict Monday, Cuomo issued a statement that read, "Today, justice was served. Corruption was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, and the jury has spoken. With the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

There is some indication rank-and-file legislators are looking for larger reforms. Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell issued a statement calling for a full-time legislature to limit the influence of outside income and to raise legislative salaries in conjunction.

"We need to change the way things work in Albany. As today's verdict demonstrates, the ability to earn outside income creates too much potential for impropriety," wrote O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat. "To restore respect for the hard work that the New York State Legislature does, we need to make it more like the federal system."

Schneiderman, a Democrat, has called for the creation of a full-time legislature and a few members of the Senate also support the idea.

Several other members of the Assembly and Senate have called for major changes to campaign finance and other laws.

Paul Newell, a Manhattan Democratic district leader who challenged Silver in 2008 and is raising money to run for Silver's seat, called on voters to take action to reform state government.

"This is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York," Newell said in a statement. "Today's verdict proves it is up to us to reclaim our government. No court will end Albany's culture of corruption and cronyism. If we, as voters and citizens, continue to accept a government that favors those who buy power and influence, then that will be the government we get. But, if we want a government that is fair, transparent, and works for all of us, we must reclaim it ourselves. We can and must do better. The time for us to act is now."

[Read: Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials]

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

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

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 30


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

After a quiet Thanksgiving weekend, New York politics springs back into action Monday. As the week gets going we're watching as discussions continue around the mayor's rezoning policies, which have been seeing some significant pushback from community and borough boards. The mayor has acknowledged that pushback, saying it has not been unexpected and that tweaks will be made to the plans before they head to the City Council early in 2016. The Manhattan Borough Board votes Monday, the Brooklyn Borough Board, Tuesday (Queens and the Bronx have both voted against the plans, Staten Island has not scheduled a vote yet). Community and borough board votes are advisory.

We're also watching for the latest fallout in the de Blasio-Cuomo feud, which has continued to escalate recently. It's just over a month until Governor Cuomo delivers his January 6 State of the State speech, which will outline his priorities and policy plans for 2016. After de Blasio said he couldn't wait for the state any longer and announced his own supportive housing plan, Cuomo and his team have criticized the mayor's management of the city's homelessness crisis and indicated Cuomo will include related plans in his State of the State. For his part, de Blasio has pointed to the state and the city, then under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, cutting rental subsidy programs in 2011 as integral to the increase in homelessness seen since.

We're awaiting word from the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, which is in jury deliberations, and the trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, which continues to see the prosecution present its case against Skelos and his son, Adam. [Read our new look at the top moments from the two trials thus far]

At 11 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will host a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall (details below). At 12:30 p.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks at the Department of Transportation Recognition Ceremony for FDR re-paving crews, who are completing the first full resurfacing of the FDR since it was first built." On Tuesday, de Blasio will participate in a tele-town hall around climate change, which coincides with the Paris climate conference, at which de Blasio's recovery and resiliency director, Daniel Zarrilli, is participating.

Also, Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the grand jury decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter activists plan a series of events, "Actions will take place in Manhattan & Staten Island," according to a Facebook event page.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
On Monday at 9 a.m., Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a Manhattan Borough Board vote on the de Blasio administration's proposed zoning changes: Zoning for Quality & Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.

Read about those zoning changes and the controversy around them through our coverage:
Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote
East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own
De Blasio Housing Chief Looks to Allay Fears, Build Support for Rezonings
Rezoning Discussion Shifts to Food Access

At 11 a.m. at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio will hold public hearings for and sign Intros 898-A, 890-A, 900-A, 914-A, and 915-A, which strengthen and modify existing requirements related to open government data; Intro. 743-A, creating an Office of Labor Standards; Intro. 783-A, related to interest rates on emergency repair bills for residential buildings; Intro. 956-A, extending the Biotechnology Tax Credit; and Intro. 982-A, extending the current rate of hotel room taxes. The Mayor will also hold a public hearing for Intro. 314-A, related to establishing the Department of Veterans Services." Then, at 12:30 p.m., the Mayor will speak at the aforementioned FDR repaving ceremony.

At 10 a.m. Monday, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressional Reps. Jeffries and Rangel, and Assembly Member Wright will hold a press conference announcing anti-gun violence initiatives.

Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Applebee's in Times Square, city Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett will make a "sodium warning label announcement."

On Monday at the City Council:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will hold a hearing on Introduction 554-2014, in relation to training for certain employees of the city of New York on runaway and homeless youth and sexually exploited children, and Introduction 993-2015, in relation to changing the date of an annual report related to sexually exploited children.
  • At 10 a.m. at Johnson Community Center in Manhattan, "The Committee on Public Housing will hold an oversight hearing examining the Mayor's plan to address violent crime in public housing." City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito is set to participate.
  • At 10 a.m., "The Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations and the Subcommittee on Libraries will hold a joint oversight hearing on six day service at public libraries." [Read our preview of the hearing with a lot of key info: Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost]
  • At 1 p.m., "The Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will hold an oversight hearing on the resiliency of New York City's electricity transmission and distribution systems."

At 12:45 p.m. Monday, Whoopi Goldberg, George Takei, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Corey Johnson, and the Council's LGBT Caucus will acknowledge this year's World AIDS Day by "flipping the switch" to light the Empire State Building in red in honor of World AIDS Day.

At 6 p.m. Monday Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will host a workshop at the Queens Borough Parents Advisory Meeting about how to be more supportive of schools.

Tuesday
On Tuesday the Brooklyn Borough Board, led by Borough President Eric Adams, will vote on the de Blasio administration's two rezoning proposals.

On Tuesday at noon, Joe Domanick of John Jay College will speak about his new book Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing, which details NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's work transforming "the police department of America's second largest city—a period which saw Los Angeles's violent crime rate, including homicides, drop by double-digits" 2002-2009. The event is hosted by the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 1 p.m. the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet.

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the City Council will host a Diwali celebration - Diwali is the Indian festival of light.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio, City Hall representatives, and activists on climate change will take part in a tele-town hall on sustainability. Participants will include Nilda Mesa, Director, Mayor's Office of Sustainability; Bill Lipton, State Director, New York Working Families Party; and Eddie Bautista, Executive Director, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday: "Bail Reform - Federal and State Courts Wrestle with Options for Change" will be hosted by the New York City Bar's Criminal Advocacy Committee. Panelists include: Karen Friedman Agnifilo, Chief Assistant District Attorney, New York County District Attorney's Office; Elizabeth Glazer, Director, Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice; Scott Hechinger, Staff Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services; Joan Loughnane, Chief Counsel to the United States Attorney, Southern District of New York; Jerold McElroy, Executive Director, New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc.; Marika Meis, Legal Director, Criminal Defense Practice, The Bronx Defenders.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Riders Alliance will host "Discount Fares for Low-Income NYers: A Conversation."

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Economic Development will meet on "Community planning boards receive an annual report submitted to the mayor with regard to projected and actual jobs created and retained in connection with projects undertaken by a certain contracted entity."
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss a number of bills regarding bicycle safety in the city, including founding a bicycle safety task force, seizure of abandoned vehicles, and a number of bills on walking away from and not reporting incidents and accidents.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet to discuss a bill that would exempt licensed plumbers from registering with the business integrity commission.

At the State Legislature on Wednesday: an 11 a.m. meeting of the Assembly Standing Committee on Correction for "Oversight and Investigations of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision."

On Wednesday at 8 a.m., City & State NY will host an event on the impact of raising the minimum wage. Speakers will include state Senator Jack M. Martins, Chair of the Labor Committee; E.J. McMahon, President at the Empire Center for Public Policy; and Hector Figueroa, President of 32BJ.

On Wednesday at 6 p.m., Open Society Foundations and Vera Institute of Justice will hold "Policing and Public Health: Advancing Harm Reduction Strategies in Law Enforcement Practices," bringing together health specialists and law enforcement representatives for a discussion on how to "protect the rights and foster the health of the most vulnerable members of society."

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Cannabis and Hemp Association will host "Open for Business," a panel discussion on the subject of medical marijuana in New York City. State Senator Diane Savino and Dr. Julie Netherland, Deputy State Director for Drug Policy, are among those who will speak.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet.
  • At 11 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will meet for an oversight hearing on alcohol abuse in New York City.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Community Development will meet to discuss establishing an urban agriculture advisory board.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Parks and Recreation will meet: "Oversight - An Examination of the City's Parks Without Borders Initiative."

At the State Legislature on Thursday: a 10 a.m. meeting of the Assembly Standing Committee on Transportation to discuss the Department of Transportation two year capital program.

On Thursday the New York Justice League and Black Lives Matter will hold "#ChokeHoldOnTheCity," remembering the one-year anniversary of the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner and continuing the push for policing reform and accountability. "Actions will take place in Manhattan & Staten Island."

At 4 p.m. Thursday the Center for Bronx Non-Profits and South Bronx Rising Together will host "Voter Engagement in the South Bronx," a panel discussion on non-partisan attempts to increase civic participation, a discussion of tools and ways to involve the populace in shaping policies that they feel are important.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a town hall event for New Yorkers to discuss concerns and learn about what the Comptroller's Office can do to help.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday: the Committee on Courts and Legal Services will meet at 1 p.m. on "Client satisfaction surveys for city-funded indigent legal services."

At the State Legislature on Friday: a 10:30 a.m. hearing of the Assembly Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions jointly with the Assembly Standing Committee on Energy and the Assembly Subcommittee on Infrastructure to evaluate natural gas safety efforts by utilities.

At noon Friday, Crain's New York Business will hold its annual "Best Places to Work in New York City Awards" luncheon.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, BetaNYC will hold "Hack for Heat" in response to the fact that 230,000 heating complaints were filed by New Yorkers because their landlords would not turn on the heat.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson is hosting another "Begin Again" event, allowing New Yorkers with outstanding summons warrants to resolve them without being arrested. [Read our look at the efforts by DAs, led by Thompson, to hold such events, including pledges from two incoming DAs, elected in early November, to hold them and the declaration by Queens DA Richard Brown's office that he does not intend to join the movement]

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Konstantine Beridze and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials


cuomo silver skelos

Happier times: Silver, Cuomo, Skelos in 2011 (l-r) photo via Governor's Office on flickr 


Two former leaders of their respective houses of the New York state legislature are on trial concurrently. In separate cases brought by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, each is accused of using his office for private gain, among other charges. While the case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sent to jury deliberation on Tuesday, Nov. 24; the case against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, continues on.

No matter the outcome of the two cases, the underbelly of New York state politics has been further exposed through the two trials.

As good government groups and fellow reformers call for sweeping changes to the way business is done in Albany and around the state, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and others throw their hands up and say you can't legislate morality, that there will always be bad actors.

The Silver and Skelos trials have provided significant insight into the ways in which legislators use their power and influence for personal gain - and, especially in Skelos' case, the ways in which scheming politicians talk about their "work." While one or both may be found not guilty, there have been a number of comments made or heard during the trials that relate to corruption, whether of the legal or illegal kind.

We bring you top moments of the two trials thus far:

1. "It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York State has chosen, and it is not a crime," Silver's defense attorney Steven Molo said on Nov. 3 during opening statements. "The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it's not." Molo insisting that prosecutors are trying to criminalize a part-time legislature and lawmakers holding outside employment.

Reform Issues: lawyers as legislators, full-time legislature, quid pro quo

2. "It's OK to be motivated by the money," Steven Molo, defense attorney for Sheldon Silver said during closing arguments on November 23. "Our legislators in the state of New York are part-time. They're able to work and have other jobs."

Issues: part-time legislature, lawyer legislators, conflicts of interest

3. "At the beginning of our relationship, I asked Mr. Silver if he would convince his company to donate funds to [cancer research] and he asked for referrals. That was the pattern," Dr. Robert Taub told jurors on Nov. 4.

Issues: Lawyers legislators, public officers law/self-dealing

4. "You have my cellphone number. It's a privilege to have that number. Now, if you want to utilize my f–king reach and business opportunity, then you call me and I'll set up a meeting," Adam Skelos told a member of a diner association, exploiting the sense of power he felt as his father's son, as captured through federal wiretap Dec. 22nd, 2014.

Issue: public officers law

5. "Let's stop pretending. Guys like you aren't fit to shine my shoes. And if you talk to me like that again, I'll smash your [expletive] head in," Adam Skelos said to his "boss," the head of a medical malpractice insurance firm. Prosecutors contend Skelos was only hired by the firm as a favor to his father.

Issue: public officers law

6. "I was uncomfortable with the arraignment," Richard Runes, lobbyist for Glenwood Management - a real estate firm that is also the state's largest donor to political campaigns (including the governor's) and is involved in the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos - speaking about removing Silver's name from what would have been a publicly disclosed document revealing a fee-sharing arrangement between Silver and a law firm employed by Glenwood. Runes further testified he "did not want to sign a retainer that listed Mr. Silver as one of the attorneys."

Issues: disclosure of outside income, lawyers as legislators, LLC loophole, public officers law

7. "You've been nodding your head up and down and back and forth in what looks like a signal to the witness," Judge Kimba Wood scolded a Senate staffer on Nov. 23 during testimony by an ex-councilman from North Hempstead who testified he gave Adam Skelos a $20,000 referral fee on behalf of Glenwood Management. Wood was addressing Senate staffer Welquis Lopez, a friend of Dean Skelos who remains on the Senate payroll.

"If you nod your head one more time, I'm going to have court security escort you out of the courtroom," Wood added.

Issue: corruption

8."Keep them separate and fighting and hating each other," Dean Skelos said, explaining why he empowered state Senator Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, during a wiretapped phone call captured Dec. 22, 2014. "It's worked for six years...Keeping them at each other's throat."

The younger Skelos protested giving Klein any role at all. "I can't afford [Sen.] Bill Larkin having a heart attack," Dean Skelos said, referring to an elderly Republican senator and the slim Republican margin in the Senate.

"When your enemy is in a weak state, you don't back off. You destroy them," Adam Skelos said, referring to Klein. "It's going to be co-coalition leader. It means nothing," Dean Skelos responded.

Issues: political control of the Senate; 'Three men in a room'

9. "Ahhh! This day sucks," Adam Skelos said during a phone call with his father, then Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on December 17, 2014. The Cuomo administration had decided not to move ahead with hydrofracking and the prosecution in the trial where both father and son are defendants contends that the younger Skelos used his father's connections to win no-show jobs with companies that stood to benefit from his father's actions. Adam Skelos was employed with AbTech, a group that manufactures water filters that are used in the fracking process. Prosecutors say he stood to gain $1 for each barrel of waste created in the fracking process on top of his $10,000-a-month salary. Skelos and his Senate Republican majority strongly promoted fracking for the state.

Issue: public officers law/self-dealing

10. "I represent only claimants, individual claimants, in personal injury actions," Silver told a reporter during a recorded interview played during the trial. "My clients are little people. I don't represent any corporations," he told another reporter. "I don't represent any entities that are involved in the legislative process." The prosecution provided witnesses and documentation showing that Silver's income came exclusively from referrals set up through his law firm - not from working with clients - referrals he is accused of earning through quid-pro-quo relationships with real estate interests and Dr. Taub.

Issues: outside income, income disclosure, conflict of interest, lawyers as legislators

Silver jury deliberations and the Skelos trial will continue Monday, November 30. All defendents are innocent until proven guilty.

[Related: Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Sweeping Reforms]

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



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