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IBM Hired Influential Lobbyist Months Before Securing Buffalo Billion Deal


IBM sign

IBM (photo: Patrick via Flickr)


International Business Machines (IBM) has a long history in New York - its headquarters is located on the New York-Connecticut border in Armonk; it used to be one of the largest employers in the state; and it was part of a 2011 deal to bring $4.4 billion in investments to upstate New York through the creation of a high-tech computer chip manufacturing plant. The success of the company and the overall state economy have travelled similar paths, both flourishing at times, but when IBM laid off scores of employees, the state suffered.

Given its massive business interests it isn’t surprising that the company contracts with a host of New York-based lobbying firms. But IBM’s choice of a new firm in 2013 is raising eyebrows.

That year, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo ramped up his Buffalo Billion economic development program, IBM retained Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP. A few months later, IBM was part of a September 2013 Buffalo Billion deal that saw the state pledge $55 million to create information technology infrastructure in the beleaguered western New York city Cuomo had targeted for roughly a billion dollars of investment. In turn, IBM pledged to bring 500 information technology jobs to the area.

Whiteman Osterman & Hanna is one of Albany’s largest firms, with 75 attorneys, a wide variety of service offerings, and a location across the street from the state capitol. The firm has been influential in securing development deals with SUNY Polytechnic and its nonprofits that oversee the distribution of Buffalo Billion funds.

The Washington, D.C. subsidiary of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, formerly run by lobbyist Todd Howe, is a target of the federal probe into the Buffalo Billion by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and the Cuomo administration has banned state employees from interacting with that subsidiary, WOH Government Solutions.

Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna is deeply involved in a web of relationships surrounding the Buffalo Billion program. Hiring the company is an apparent gateway to major business with state entities.

IBM retained WOH for the first time in early 2013, according to filings with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), a state regulatory body that tracks lobbying. In September of that year SUNY Poly entered into a deal with IBM, which would see the state invest $55 million into the Buffalo Information Technologies Innovation and Commercialization Hub. The hub is being designed and built by the state and IBM, other information technologies firms will have access to its resources. Cuomo announced the project in February 2014.

IBM promised in return to bring the 500 new information technology jobs to Buffalo by September of 2020. Company officials have stressed that not all of the jobs will be IBM employees - they expect some to be provided by firms that deliver services to the technology center.

Essentially, the state funded the creation of a ready-to-use research center and has handed it over to IBM while expecting other businesses and state agencies to also utilize the infrastructure.

“New York State will commit, through CNSE (College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering), $55 million, which includes $25 million to establish an open innovation facility and $30 million to purchase IT equipment and software to be used at the Buffalo Information Technologies Innovation and Commercialization Hub,” reads a February 2014 announcement from the Cuomo administration. “The Hub will be owned by New York State with IBM as the first anchor tenant and made available to all IT units at all state agencies. The facility will open in early 2015 in downtown Buffalo.”

Jerry Gretzinger, spokesperson for SUNY Polytechnic, said that funding for the project is going towards purchase of the building, infrastructure, equipment, and installation. “IBM has taken up residence in Buffalo with hundreds of employees working in Key Tower. The company is receiving no funding, which is consistent with the state's economic development model,” Gretzinger told Gotham Gazette.

The federal probe into the Buffalo Billion appears to be examining possible bid rigging around the construction contracts for both the SolarCity project and the information technology innovation center. There are concerns the requests for proposals (RFPs) for both projects were designed specifically for large Cuomo donors to win. McGuire development, winner of the information technology innovation center contract, donated $35,500 to Cuomo from December 27, 2013 to October 12, 2014. The project was announced in February 2014. The largest single donation from McGuire Development, $25,000, came in May of 2014.

McGuire development wasn't the only major Cuomo donor to benefit from IBM's participation in the Buffalo Billion. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Ciminelli Real Estate lost a major tenant at its property, The Key Tower, in 2013 - IBM has since moved in to the tower as part of its deal with the state. Paul Ciminelli, head of Ciminelli Real Estate, has donated $9,000 to Cuomo. His brother Louis Ciminelli, head of LPCiminelli, donated $29,200 to Cuomo in January 2014, just before the firm was awarded a contract, now reported to be under federal investigation, to develop parts of the Buffalo Billion. The Times found that the Ciminellis and their associates have donated $150,000 to Cuomo's various campaigns.

Recent subpoenas appear to target the relationship between former Cuomo aides Todd Howe, the aforementioned lobbyist, and Joe Percoco and work they did lobbying for clients to win Buffalo Billion contracts. No one, including IBM, has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Three sources familiar with the workings of the Buffalo Billion program say that WOH and Howe’s D.C. subsidiary were seen as critical in getting the attention of the Cuomo administration on Buffalo Billion projects. IBM did not return requests for comment, neither did WOH. WOH’s website advertised Howe and the services he could provide for New York clients until the page was removed after news broke of Bharara’s probe into Howe’s relationships and dealings.

JCOPE filings show IBM paid WOH a combined $240,000 in 2013 and 2014 and $120,000 in 2015. WOH was the only new New York-based lobbying firm IBM hired in 2013. The filings do not list any lobbying activity by WOH on behalf of IBM on any specific legislation or issue. However, the WOH employee listed on the disclosure, Richard Leckerling, a partner at WOH specializing in government contracts and government relations, is listed as managing the account. Another WOH lobbyist listed on the disclosure, William Crowell, is shown to have the sole area of practice as government relations according to the firm’s site. Leckerling did not respond to requests for comment.

Leckerling also serves on the board of the SUNY Poly’s children’s museum along with three members of SUNY Poly.

The Investigative Post has detailed Leckerling’s involvement with the two nonprofits that SUNY uses to funnel money to Buffalo Billion projects.

Fuller Road Management Corporation, one of Suny Poly’s nonprofits, paid $330,000 in legal fees to WOH from 2012 to 2014, according to The Investigative Post. Meanwhile, Leckerling has attended meetings of SUNY Poly’s other nonprofit, Fort Schuyler Management Corp.

Robert Samson, former head of IBM’s global public sector, serves on the board of Fort Schuyler Management Corp. Samson has served as a technology advisor to Cuomo and has donated to Cuomo’s campaigns. He joined the Fort Schuyler board in 2014.

The Whiteman Osterman & Hanna website advertises its government affairs work and ability to help clients land government business. “Whiteman Osterman & Hanna’s focus on matters at the intersection of the private and public sectors has led to the natural development of a vibrant practice of advising and assisting commercial enterprises and public entities through the state and municipal procurement processes. Based in Albany, New York, the Firm has represented commercial enterprises in a wide range of commodity and service procurements, including telecommunications, information technology, industrial supplies, food commodities, and environmental and financial services,” reads the firm’s site.

State law bans lobbying on procurement after the state issues requests for proposals, but IBM’s residency in the technology center did not come about as the result of an RFP. Like a host of other subsidy projects aimed at large corporations, negotiations around IBM’s involvement in the Buffalo Billion appear not to have taken place in public or through a public process.

SUNY Polytechnic reported doing business with WOH in 2015 for $2,056. The work is listed as lobbying related to “higher education” and involving the Assembly, Senate and executive branch. SUNY Poly’s founding president and chief operating officer, Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, is also a target of the U.S. Attorney’s investigation.

As the Buffalo Billion probe has ramped up and become more public, Whiteman Osterman & Hanna fired Todd Howe, a Cuomo family confidante who worked on at least one of Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns. Howe worked with SUNY Polytechnic as well as a number of firms with business before the state that won contracts with the Buffalo Billion while he ran the WOH subsidiary in D.C.

Howe worked for former Governor Mario Cuomo for a decade and is reported to have been a key member of the Cuomo clan. He worked for Andrew Cuomo during his time at HUD and on his reelection campaign and has done fundraising work for him. Howe landed major clients as a lobbyist because of his status as a Cuomo insider. At the same time, a recent New York Times profile painted a picture of someone struggling to hide a serious personal financial crisis while maintaining the image of a successful lobbyist. The Cuomo administration issued statements acknowledging there may have been improper lobbying involving Howe and Percoco, who was a long-time aide to Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo has sought to distance himself from Howe. “I wouldn’t call us close friends,” the governor told reporters earlier this month. “He worked for the state for a number of years, but I had no knowledge of his personal situation.”

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

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Players in 2009 Mayoral Control Fight Take Different Positions in 2016


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De Blasio testifies in Albany, May 4 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


In 2009, then rank-and-file Assembly Member Carl Heastie was the lead sponsor of a bill designed to weaken then Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ability to determine education policy in New York City. Seven years later, Assembly Speaker Heastie is thought to be Mayor Bill de Blasio’s greatest ally in the fight to renew the system of mayoral control of city schools as is.

The 2009 bill, called the Better Schools Act, would have removed the mayor’s ability to name the majority of members of the Panel For Educational Policy, allowed the city’s Independent Budget Office to audit "financial investments and academic achievement," and provided training for parents and teachers to be more involved in the system.

The bill never came to a vote in the Assembly as then Speaker Sheldon Silver was a supporter of mayoral control. The bill died in the education committee two years in a row. It did, however, get a vote in the Senate in July 2009 where it was voted down. Bloomberg, in 2002 the first mayor given mayoral control of schools, won a six-year extension.

That extension came due mid-way through de Blasio’s second year in office last year and the mayor was given just one year more as his ongoing conflicts with Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, dominated policy-making in a turbulent Albany rocked by scandal.

Both Senate Republicans and Gov. Cuomo disagree with de Blasio on several aspects of education policy, like support for charter schools, while also having major political problems with the mayor.

Cuomo has proposed a three-year extension and stayed out of the public discussion, but the dynamics between de Blasio and Senate Republicans appear to have killed any chance at a nuanced debate as an extension is again being considered and de Blasio was asked to participate in two May hearings on mayoral control of the schools. He attended the first, in Albany, and sat for four hours of testimony, but declined to appear at the second, in New York City, letting his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña appear. Senate Republicans, especially Majority Leader John Flanagan, were not happy.

The irony, which applies to many involved in this education debate, is that de Blasio’s belief in the concentrated system of power that mayoral control provides more closely aligns with his biggest critics, while de Blasio’s allies are forced to support a system they largely criticized under Bloomberg.

Education reform groups, largely funded by major donors to Senate Republicans, have staged protests of de Blasio’s policies, but continue to support mayoral control as a governing system. The city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), was often at odds with Bloomberg and is very close with de Blasio, but has not been a vocal supporter of mayoral control. The UFT and Senate Republicans are often antagonists and the union declined to testify at either hearing this month.

Sen. Diane Savino, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference from Staten Island, was a cosponsor of the Better Schools Act and said it was obvious to her why the tune in Albany has changed. “Then it was Bloomberg and now it’s de Blasio. It’s just about who is mayor,” Savino told Gotham Gazette. “Quite frankly politics has taken over the issue in both houses. We should be talking about how to make the system better. The concerns everyone had in 2009 are still concerns today. If the PEP was a problem then, the PEP is a problem now. If parental involvement was a problem then, it’s a problem now.”

Heastie’s office did not return request for comment on his past support of the bill and whether he would be interested in voting on a bill that alters the current school governance system. A spokesperson for Senate Republicans declined to comment on Heastie’s support and whether Flanagan is considering changes to mayoral control. Flanagan has been critical of de Blasio on a number of fronts, including in a statement after the mayor’s Albany testimony in which Flanagan said de Blasio had not answered questions to his satisfaction.

The Better Schools Act would have expanded the PEP from 13 to 17 members serving two-year terms, with the mayor appointing eight members, each borough president one, one by the City Council, one by the Governor, and one by each head of the Assembly and Senate majorities.

Now, the panel’s 13 members include eight appointed by the mayor and one each by the five borough presidents.

“Bloomberg had gravitas and immense wealth; de Blasio has neither,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, when asked what he saw as the major difference between the 2009 and 2016 battles for extending mayoral control.

In 2009 Senate Republicans were Bloomberg’s greatest ally. The mayor was seen by many as the conference’s financier, but for the first time in decades they were technically no longer in control of the chamber. That is until then Senator Dean Skelos teamed with rogue Democratic Senators Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate to stage a coup, suddenly casting a leadership vote that other Democrats protested. The following legal and political battles saw the chamber sit empty for months. State government was crippled and mayoral control expired. Technically, the system reverted back to the old Board of Educaiton set-up with more decentralized power, something many have called inefficient, ineffective, and rife with nepotism and corruption.

When Democrats regained control of the chamber in 2009 then Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson insisted on making a number of changes to mayoral control to increase parental involvement, angering Bloomberg. Sampson and other Democrats continued to hold a grudge against Bloomberg for his generous financial support of Senate Republicans.

Despite their general support for Bloomberg, a number of city-based Republicans at the time also advocated changes to increase parental participation in education decision making.

Some of the major players against mayoral control included Sampson, Espada and Senators Carl Kruger and Shirley Huntley. All of them have since been convicted on corruption charges (as has Skelos).

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a group that is opposed to mayoral control, said she recalls being disillusioned after having a much-anticipated meeting with Assembly Speaker Silver (also since convicted on corruption charges). “He just shrugged and blew us off. We made no headway with him whatsoever,” said Haimson. “We didn't have a chance in hell getting anything through because Shelly Silver wouldn't do anything and we knew Senate Republicans were going to do anything Bloomberg wanted, that was very clear.”

Eventually Bloomberg abandoned negotiating with Senate Democrats and invoked Neville Chamberlain in a an interview. Senate Democrats were outraged saying Bloomberg had compared them to Nazis. Asked by a reporter whether he meant to compare Democratic state senators to Nazis, Bloomberg replied: “I certainly did. What part of that did they not understand? This is ridiculous." The mayor’s team later walked things back, saying he hadn’t heard the question.

The New York Post, meanwhile, ran a month-long series of pieces highlighting the benefits of mayoral control, titled “City Schools, City Rules.” The Post later celebrated its own coverage, running an August 2009 story with collected quotes from public officials, including Bloomberg, praising its reporting on the subject and taking some credit for the deal that was reached. Post front pages that spring had been unsparing, salacious attacks on the dysfunction in Albany - the paper even sent a clown and had her pose for pictures with legislators. Those pictures later became even more salacious covers.

The deal that was struck gave Bloomberg a six-year extension, but included new checks and balances: the IBO with more oversight over education spending, required hearings over the potential closure of underperforming schools, and Panel for Education Policy approval of Department of Education contracts worth more than $1 million.

Last year, as mayoral control was heading toward sunset, the Legislature was rocked by the indictments of its legislative leaders - Silver and Skelos. The Legislature was finding its footing under the new leadership of Assembly Speaker Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Flanagan as the mayoral control deadline approached. Bloomberg was no longer mayor, his large donations to Senate Republicans had ceased. Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and de Blasio were developing a strong alliance.

De Blasio not only wasn’t donating to Republican candidates - quite the opposite - he was finding creative ways to donate to swing-district Democratic candidates in their bids to unseat Republicans and win back control of the chamber. Flanagan balked at proposals to renew mayoral control by the six years it been extended under Bloomberg or even the three proposed by Gov. Cuomo and others. De Blasio was calling for it to be made permanent. When the legislative session’s “big ugly” hodgepodge of legislation was unveiled, de Blasio was left with a somewhat shocking one-year extension.

The mayor knew Senate Republicans were behind the minimal renewal, but he also blamed Cuomo for not going to bat for him - part of why de Blasio unleashed a very public tirade against Cuomo on June 30.

This year, de Blasio’s position is even weaker and Albany only slightly less chaotic. The year started with the convictions of both Skelos and Silver and then news of federal investigations into de Blasio’s fund-raising and Cuomo’s economic development programs. Senate Republicans are now on edge as they lost the seat Skelos held for decades to Democrat Todd Kaminsky and they face the prospects of a number of aging and retiring members. But the de Blasio scandal has given them hope as the probe into his 2014 fundraising for those state Senate races has led investigators to a number of districts with races that could determine control of the chamber. Democrats are sure to continue to dominate the Assembly. Carl Heastie remains de Blasio’s most important Albany ally.

Flanagan has held hearings on mayoral control over de Blasio’s head. The first hearing, on May 4, went smoothly by most accounts, with Democrats and Republicans praising the mayor’s responses and saying they expected a renewal. But Flanagan later issued a statement criticizing the mayor’s testimony, saying, “Too often, the mayor showed a disturbing lack of personal knowledge about the city schools. In addition, he has left too many unanswered questions and failed to provide specifics on many of the issues raised by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Until that occurs, I will not entrust this mayor with the awesome responsibility of operating the New York City school system.”

De Blasio then decided not to testify at the second hearing last week, further angering Flanagan.

"I am extremely disappointed the Mayor doesn't believe this hearing is significant enough to attend," he said. "With the future of mayoral control at stake, Mayor de Blasio has left too many unanswered questions about his stewardship of the New York City school system."

During both hearings this year, Democratic Senators have repeatedly mentioned that they favor renewing mayoral control for de Blasio but are concerned about how another mayor might run the system. The issues of oversight and parental involvement have been raised yet again by people on both sides of the aisle. De Blasio and many others - including the 100-plus business leaders who announced their endorsement of an immediate extension - have argued that the discussion is not about a particular mayor’s policies, but about the mayoral control system as a governance structure.

“Politics seems to be major factor in people's positions now, and politics should not decide the governance of the education system for the largest city in the country,” said Haimson. “Whether you are for or against a particular mayor shouldn't come into it. It is supposed to be about whether the system works.”

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

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Senate Holds Second Mayoral Control Hearing, Without the Mayor


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De Blasio at City Hall on Wednesday (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Just one day after Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared at City Hall with a bevy of business leaders to push for extending mayoral control of New York City schools, the state Senate education committee held its second hearing on the issue right across the street. Administration officials, education professionals and advocates testified to make their case for and against mayoral control (mostly for) as state Senators demanded answers on a wide range of educational policies, while repeatedly noting the conspicuous absence of the mayor himself.

The debate around mayoral control has reignited as the June 30 deadline for extending it fast approaches. The Democrat-controlled Assembly gave the mayor a three-year extension on Tuesday and the ball is now in the Senate’s court, where Republicans who have control of the chamber have been reluctant to extend it beyond one year, if at all. The mayor has spent the last few weeks pushing his administration’s accomplishments to make his case for extending mayoral control for seven years. Having spent four hours at the first hearing in Albany on May 4 arguing for a seven-year extension, de Blasio declined to testify on Thursday. His absence was not taken lightly.

“We are missing the mayor, and he’s the chief player and he’s the person in charge and we would like him to have been here,” said Senator Carl Marcellino, chair of the education committee, in his opening remarks. Without giving examples, he stressed that many questions from the May 4 hearing had been left unanswered and the mayor should have been there to answer them.

Instead, the administration was represented by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who had testified by the mayor’s side in Albany. Throughout her testimony, Fariña sought to establish the gains from mayoral control - increased graduation rates, fewer dropouts, the implementation of universal pre-kindergarten, increased arts education investment, the success of the Renewal Schools program, to name a few.

“Mayoral control also allows us to plan more fully and with more confidence for the future,” Fariña said. “Without mayoral control it would be nearly impossible for a mayor to lay out a long-term detailed vision for our schools such as Equity and Excellence.”

Marcellino, while insisting that Fariña’s testimony was “fantastic,” bookended it with another call out to the mayor. “This would’ve been a better situation if the mayor was here to defend his, and I don’t mean defend in a negative way, but to defend his running of the city schools,” Marcellino said. Other Senators made similar remarks throughout the hearing, including Senators Jose Peralta of Queens and Simcha Felder of Brooklyn.

While the stated agenda of the hearing was mayoral control, it was quickly apparent that it would not be limited solely to the system as a governing structure for education policy-making. Over the course of four-and-a-half hours, the hearing touched on numerous aspects of education policy and planning in the city - overcrowding, school closures, school safety, the number of psychologists per student, the Panel for Educational Policy, and the ever-touchy subject of charters schools.

As he often does, Senator Bill Perkins of Manhattan in particular railed against charter schools, stressing that they are an outcropping of the “dictatorial” mayoral control system. At one point during the hearing, Marcellino seemed to rebuke Perkins for deviating from the issue at hand and even offered to hold a separate hearing on charters. A similar scene had unfolded at the May 4 hearing. In this case, Farina was forced to carefully answer charter school-related questions that the de Blasio administration would rather avoid. After battles with charter school, the administration has moved toward a peaceful coexistence model, especially after new state laws forced their hand.

About 20 advocates, education professionals, and experts testified and most were in favor of mayoral control, albeit often with caveats. Some proposed shorter extensions while others proposed reforms to the system at various levels. Some emphasized that their support of mayoral control did not necessarily imply support for all of de Blasio’s policies, or even some. Indeed, the current situation creates an often dissonant reality where some of those who were the strongest proponents of mayoral control under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who first won the power in 2002, are now twisting in knots as they criticize de Blasio’s policies but do not go so far as to call for the end of mayoral control.

Others who testified did oppose mayoral control even while suggesting reforms if it is extended. “Any system of governance must have checks and balances,” said Teresa Arboleda, chair of the Education Council Consortium’s legislative committee, insisting on more local control and parent input in educational policy. “We cannot have a new school system every time there is a new mayor.”

Some of the reforms proposed included:

  • Changes in composition to the Panel for Educational Policy to allow it more independence and insulate it against ‘rubber-stamping’ the mayor’s decisions
  • Reforms in how Community Education Councils are constituted, making CECs more transparent and giving them increased authority
  • Expanding the Citywide Council on Special Education
  • Mandatory experience and qualifications for the schools chancellor
  • More clearly defined discipline policies
  • Equal treatment of charter schools as compared to district schools
  • More transparency in Department of Education contract procurement and policy making

Jacob Mnookin, founder and executive director of Coney Island Preparatory Charter School, supports an extension of the system, he said, but insisted that the mayor should stop letting his political agenda interfere with student education. The mayor has been a very vocal opponent of the charter school movement in the city. “All public school students deserve to be treated equally no matter what politics are at play,” said Mnookin. “The mayor must address these inequalities present in the public school system of New York City.”

The two most important people were not at Thursday's hearing, though: Mayor de Blasio and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. Flanagan, formerly chair of the education committee and a critic of de Blasio, had chastised the mayor's refusal to appear before the committee a second time in a Wednesday statement. Though he was not there, Flanagan had also criticized de Blasio after the May 4 hearing in Albany, saying he had not answered many of the questions posed to him in a satisfactory fashion, which surprised many who had witnessed it. Flanagan will negotiate extension of mayoral control with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a de Blasio ally, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is in a long-standing feud with the mayor. Cuomo did call for a three-year extension of mayoral control in his January budget.

Although there emerged plenty of ideas about how to change the system on Thursday, and ample criticism of its weaknesses, most people did not want to see a reversion to the old school board system. Not many could even articulate what would happen if mayoral control did indeed lapse. The final speaker of the day, Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of the Queens Library system, perhaps had the most informed perspective on that issue. Walcott served as Schools Chancellor before Farina and deputy mayor of education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

He stressed that the old Board of Education system was chaotic and plagued by “patronage, waste, dysfunction” and that mayoral control reversed that. “Mayoral control is about making the mayor, elected by the people of New York City, take responsibility for the education of our city and effectuate the best education possible for our children,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

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Citing Cronyism, Tenant Members Resign from Westchester Rent Board


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The Westchester Rent Guidelines Board is undergoing a shakeup as the two tenant representatives on the nine-member board have tendered their resignations over an appointment they say inappropriately benefits landlords and reeks of cronyism.

Like its counterparts in New York City and other jurisdictions, the Westchester RGB sets increases in rents for affordable housing in the region just north of the Bronx. Board members are nominated by the Westchester Board of Legislators and appointed by the New York Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), a state agency. The board consists of two tenant-friendly members, two landlord-friendly members, and five public members including the chair.

On Friday, the two tenant members of the Westchester RGB resigned their positions in letters to DHCR Chair James Rubin and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Both cited DHCR’s appointment of Michael Rosenblatt to a public seat on the RGB as the impetus for their resignations. Rosenblatt is a former DHCR counsel and currently works for one of the city's largest real estate focused law firms, Rosenberg & Estis.

Tenant member Genevieve Roche resigned effective Friday, May 13, writing, “I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a Board to which the DHCR has appointed as a public member its former deputy counsel who currently works as counsel to the largest landlord real estate law firm in New York.”

Rev. Emma Jean Loftin-Woods’ resignation is effective December 31,2016, after the board concludes its work for the year. “Unfortunately the composition of the current Board and the disregard for providing an open and fair forum for consideration of the issues hasrendered our advocacy for tenants voiceless,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

Roche and other tenant advocates say that Rosenblatt’s appointment was not only inappropriate because he is employed by Rosenberg & Estis, a firm that bills itself as “Comprehensive Real Estate Representation,” but because his name was put forward by current DHCR counsel Charles Lesnick and appears to them to be a case of cronyism.

Rosenblatt was approved by the Board of Legislators last May over one other candidate in the running. He was then certified and appointed by DHCR despite protests from some legislators and tenant advocates.

“I love them both,” Rosenblatt told Gotham Gazette of Roche and Loften-Woods. “They’re great advocates for the cause. I will miss them both.” Rosenblatt added that he worked prosecuting landlords for DHCR and his current firm also represents tenants.

“I want to stress again, regardless of what Genevieve thinks about the propriety of DHCR appointing me to the position, I don’t feel I’m another landlord member of the board,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ll vote my conscience and my work doesn’t come into it.”

The Westchester RGB functions much like New York City’s: both are made up of nine members and the two-two-five breakdown. The RGB debates and decides rent increases for regulated units subject to the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 each June - more than 25,000 units of affordable housing across Westchester County in cities including Yonkers and White Plains.

Westchester is known for its wealth, but affordable housing has been a major point of contention there for decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo resides in the county where his former gubernatorial rival Rob Astorino is county executive. Tenant advocates say they feel the influence of both men in their struggle to keep rents affordable. A spokesman for Astorino declined to comment on the RGB resignations citing the fact that the board is not overseen by the county executive.

Ken Jenkins, a Democrat representing Yonkers on the 17-member Board of Legislators, and his colleagues voted down a motion to move Rosenblatt’s name to consideration by the entire chamber during a committee meeting last year, but the nomination advanced after Joe Montalto, another candidate, removed his name from consideration. Jenkins said he suspects landlord interests and Republican legislators were motivated to put Rosenblatt’s name into contention. The Board of Legislators is ruled by a bipartisan coalition.

“For too many years the public members [of the Westchester RGB] have tended to be mortgage banker types who do not appreciate the fact that the rent laws are there to protect tenants and keep housing affordable,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC. “Joe Montalto is exactly the kind of thoughtful, fair-minded person needed for the five public member positions. For the Cuomo administration to appoint a landlord lawyer as a public member is outrageous.

Roche attempted to explain her opposition to Rosenblatt’s appointment last year at a board meeting but was shouted down by a number of representatives. She eventually submitted her concerns as a written statement. “My main problem is that DHCR recommended its own former deputy counsel who otherwise spent his entire career working for law firms that work in the interest of landlords,” Roche told Gotham Gazette. “DHCR reviewed its own conduct in making the recommendation and appointment and found that it had acted appropriately.”

Jenkins wrote then-DHCR Commissioner Darryl Towns on May 12, 2015, asking him not to approve Rosenblatt’s appointment. Jenkins wrote that Lesnick, of DHCR, had confirmed “interference with the county board’s recommendation.” He continued, “any candidate suggested by Mr. Lesnick should be rejected at this time.” Jenkins went on to say that Rosenblatt testified during an interview that he had never suggested names of potential candidates for the board when he served in the same position.

Roche and other tenant advocates say it is unprecedented for DHCR to put forward candidates while Lesnick indicated to Gotham Gazette that it was fairly standard procedure. Lesnick declined to comment on the record, as did a spokesperson for DHCR.

Gotham Gazette obtained an email from Lesnick to an employee of the Westchester Board of Legislators from March 17, 2015, that appears to show when Lesnick put Rosenblatt’s name forward. In the exchange, subject: “re: WRGB Members expiration date,” Lesnick writes: “With respect to the additional public member position I have spoken to two people who would be qualified.” He first puts forward Rosenblatt, noting that he “needs no training” because he “served the board for 14 years.” He then puts forward another name, Diana Browne-Temple, and says he has asked both candidates to contact their local legislators. Browne-Temple is president of the Yonkers NAACP.

Rosenblatt said he was relatively uninvolved in the appointment process. “I got a phone call from someone on the Board of Legislators about my interest in the position,” he said. “I saw it as an extension of my public service. I ran it by people at my firm and they said ‘go ahead, keep us up to date.’ Next thing I know I’m appointed. I don’t know what was said behind my back or during the process.”

Roche, who has resigned from the RGB, has been seen as an especially effective tenant advocate, putting together sophisticated presentations opposing rent increases using economic arguments and accounting practices. In 2011 the board approved a rent freeze. In January of this year the board decided to limit the amount of time both tenant and landlord members have to make presentations and instead of giving a chance for rebuttals at later meetings, decided to have an immediate vote on agreed upon rent increases unless members want more time.

These changes concern both Roche and Loftin-Woods. Roche, an accountant and attorney, said she thinks they were designed to lessen the impact of her presentations and to expedite compromise so that rent freezes can be avoided all together. “I can't contribute to a board that does not allow for discussion. I can’t lend my credibility to a board that is not open,” she said.

Jenkins said he is frustrated by the resignations. He notes that the board will go ahead in June short one tenant representative. “I heard about the concerns they had and I suggested we would find mechanisms to raise concerns about the appointment,” Jenkins said. “I’m not quite sure how resigning helps tenants rights to protection. I feel Genevieve [Roche] is trying to bring attention to the issue, but I’m not sure it is the mechanism to make a change. We won’t be able to replace her before the new guidelines come out. This is a challenging situation.”

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

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Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed?


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wright Runs for Congress as Tenants Champion, to Mixed Reviews


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Keith Wright, Charles Rangel, and others (photo via Wright's campaign)


New York Assemblymember Keith Wright’s congressional campaign has flooded inboxes declaring him a “champion” for tenants. Many see it as an appropriate description for the housing committee chair - his campaign touts the support of “100 tenant leaders” and he has a long history of advocating for renters, starting in the 1980s as the head of the tenant association in Harlem’s Riverton Houses, where he still lives. Wright and his fellow tenants recently settled a lawsuit with their landlord for $2 million after alleging they were charged improper rent and other misdeeds.

One of several campaign emails to supporters seeking donations based on Wright’s tenant advocacy reads: “Keith has been a voice for our neighborhoods for decades. His leadership has made sure that NYC protects and expands affordable housing. He pushes to stand up for tenants and hold NYCHA management accountable.”

Wright is a leader in the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel, who has endorsed him, and he’s very much running on his housing record.

There is another view of Wright held by some tenant advocates and legislators, though, who see him as being an outspoken advocate on housing issues who has failed to turn his bully pulpit and considerable power and influence in Albany into actual results.

These critics maintain that Wright failed to buck former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Andrew Cuomo and fight for drastic changes to the rent laws that would do away with what they see as incentives for landlords to increase rent and drive out rent-controlled tenants.

In the 13th Congressional District largely made up of Harlem and Washington Heights, Wright is facing state Senator Adriano Espaillat; Clyde Williams, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton; Assemblymember Guillermo Linares; and former Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell. Appearing the favored establishment candidate, Wright - along with Espaillat and Linares - has faced criticism from Williams and others for connections to Albany and its notorious corruption and dysfunction.

Several tenant groups were excited when Wright took over the housing committee from disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez in 2013, but a number of them were quickly disillusioned, representatives say. They believe Wright has simply maintained the status quo and amassed power in anticipation for his run for Congress. They point to Wright’s fundraising records that show he’s taken significant donations from real estate interests and question his loyalty to tenant issues such as doing away with the process by which landlords can deregulate affordable units or ending the 421-a subsidy they call a giveaway to developers.

“The problem with Keith is that he says all the right things but then follows orders, resulting in the ongoing destruction of our rent-regulated housing. And I am disturbed by the staggering amount of real estate money he has amassed for his congressional race,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC, which organizes around affordable housing issues and backs like-minded candidates. Tenants PAC does not endorse in national races.

A 2014 study by the Community Service Society, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, found that the city lost 40 percent of apartments for low-income residents over the prior decade.

Wright defended his record in an interview: “As chair of the housing committee we’ve had to work against a very conservative state Senate,” Wright said, referring to the Republican-controlled upper house of the New York Legislature. “Listen, no matter what you do you are not going to be able to please everyone. Sure you get folks who want me to hold up the budget and this that, but I’ve been through those days before and it didn't quite work. If I thought it would work I would do it again. You can’t please everyone.”

As for his major wins, Wright counts his “greatest achievement” as a 2014 lawsuit he filed with his fellow tenants at Riverton Square accusing the landlords of illegally inflating rent, improperly evicting tenants, and overstating the value of the improvements made to apartments. In February the landlord, CWCapital and CompassRock, agreed to a $2 million settlement that will be paid in rent credits (they admitted no wrongdoing).

Wright was also a key player in negotiations of the recent sale of Riverton to A&E Real Estate. Part of the sale included an agreement that A&E would repair homes and include 975 apartments, including Wright’s, in a 30-year affordability agreement.

Two of Wright’s major wins didn’t come legislatively, but instead in actions he took to protect his own housing complex.

Wright rejected the idea that contributions from real estate influenced his fight for stronger rent laws. “Ask him why he’s taken so much Wall Street money and D.C. money,” Wright said, apparently referencing his opponent Clyde Williams, who brought up donations Wright has taken from real estate interests in recent debates. “We’ve all taken real estate money. It has nothing to do with my commitment to the tenants of New York City. I think my record is plain on its face.”

Filings with the State Board of Elections and Federal Elections Commission dating back to 2013 show that Wright has taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from major real estate and construction interests and their subsidiaries. Real estate groups are known for donating to many state politicians in hopes of influencing policy.

Major donations to Wright from real estate interests include $2,050 from the Real Estate Board PAC; $4,100 from JSignal LLC, which is connected to Cayuga Capital, a real estate management and development firm; $500 from John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of NY; $2,700 from Eliot Spitzer, the former governor who now focuses on real estate; $5,000 from Empire PAC, which represents real estate interests; $2,500 from REBNY member Daniel Zucker; and a total of $4,200 over three contributions from Donald Capoccia, head of BFC Partners, a development firm that specializes in affordable housing.

Wright’s first action as housing chair in 2013 was to introduce a package of housing bills that included a surprise: renewal of the lapsed J-51 program. The program is intended to provide tax breaks to landlords who make improvements to affordable housing, but tenant groups asserted it was abused by landlords. A study found half of the tax breaks went to owners of market-rate buildings.

“I was named housing chair on a Friday and we had a very large bill that was somewhat controversial that had to be done on Monday," Wright told Gotham Gazette during an interview in February 2013. "I know folks in the tenant movement were upset, they wanted that bill to be used as leverage, but it was a bill for coops, condos, and lofts, and those type of people do live in New York City. We had to do this bill.”

Last year, as rent regulations that govern affordable housing in the city and across the state came up for renewal, tenant groups were hoping Wright and newly sworn-in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, would be able to win significant changes to the rent laws to do away with what they call incentives for landlords to take apartments off of the affordable housing rolls. Instead they say they got tweaks.

The threshold for rent at which a vacant apartment can be deregulated was increased from $2,500 to $2,700. The deal also required landlords stretch out the period they increase tenants’ rent after making major capital improvements. Landlords were also limited in how much they can increase rent between tenants. The wins were seen as small, minimal in comparison to what Cuomo and the Assembly publicly pushed for. Wright said he was nevertheless proud of the changes that were made.

Last year was a not a typical year - both legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were indicted during budget season (and later convicted). Rather than a traditional negotiation of the expiring rent laws and 421-a program that gives tax breaks to developers for including affordable housing in their projects, Cuomo allowed real estate and labor interests to negotiate 421-a renewal on their own, outside the Legislature.

Tenant groups say 421-a is a “tax suck” that has been demonstrated to produce very few affordable units and been the subject to major abuse and fraud by developers. Investigations, like one by ProPublica, have proven those claims to be true. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others want to see a new, strengthened 421-a program enacted.

Cuomo attributed giving real estate and labor control of negotiations to the sensitivity of legislators towards the Silver and Skelos scandals that included revelations about the political influence of Glenwood Management, a real estate company that was the state’s largest campaign donor.

Labor and real estate failed to reach an agreement on renewing 421-a, so the program lapsed. Still, Cuomo and other stakeholders appear loathe to let it go, to the dismay of some tenant groups.

Results of the legislative negotiations on rent laws last year were hailed as “historic” by Cuomo, but tenant groups found it lacking. They say it basically cemented the status quo allowing landlords to steadily raise rents and move apartments off the affordable housing rolls.

"We pretty much got nothing," said Delsenia Glover, director of Alliance for Tenant Power, said at a press conference in Albany in early April. "At the time Governor Cuomo said they were the 'strongest rent laws in history.' It's not true, we got nothing."

Glover, who is from Harlem, does not blame Wright for the rent law negotiations. “Keith is extremely supportive,” Glover told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. “He was one of our lead champions last year along with Speaker Heastie. He worked as hard as he could on the rent laws.”

The focus of Alliance for Tenant Power’s April press conference was demanding that if Albany does decide to find a replacement for 421-a that they must also reopen negotiations on rent laws. Glover says lawmakers should end current rules that incentivize landlords to make apartments unaffordable.

“Instead of discussing benefits for rich developers, all attention should be on fixing the major loopholes in the rent regulation system that houses 2.5 million tenants in approximately 1 million units with no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer,” Glover wrote in an April op-ed at Gotham Gazette.

Glover and other tenant groups deride the idea of any replacement for 421-a. Wright attended the press conference and appeared to agree, despite the fact he introduced what many tenant advocates saw as a direct replacement. Wright proposed a program that would provide $100,000 to developers per affordable unit they build that would be funded by the state abandoned property fund.

Wright said at the time that the bill was negotiated with the Real Estate Board of New York the NYS Association for Affordable Housing, and the Building & Construction Trades Council. All three groups indicated to the Daily News at the time that they didn’t actually support the plan.

“I’m sorry the press picked it up as a replacement for 421-a,” Wright told Gotham Gazette, implying that his plan was not aimed to be such and that a lack of enthusiasm for it was the result of that mistaken characterization.

Asked for her take on Wright’s plan, Glover demurred, saying, “You’d have to ask someone who was in the room.”

Barika Williams, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), praised Wright for bringing together disparate groups to discuss the creation of “a tool” to spur the creation of affordable housing. “It was a unique table that brought together different parts of the for-profit and nonprofit set. You saw a lot of people who don’t normally sit at the same table. We were looking at achieving the deepest affordability and trying to target resources to those buckets of the population that are desperately in need.”

Williams said that in the end all of the groups may not have been on the same page because not all the groups involved were present for the entire process. “It was a long process that took commitment and being consistently involved for over two months.”

Wright has been criticized by advocates and fellow legislators for not being properly versed in the bills he supports. He’s also been criticized for being too close to Governor Cuomo.

Wright said he would love to see the rent laws reopened for negotiation this year.

City & State NY recently reported that Tom Cayler, chair of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance’s Illegal Hotel Committee, was unhappy with a bill Wright carries that is technically designed to deal with illegal hotels.

Wright’s bill would create a process by which permanent residents of certain apartment buildings could register to rent their apartments in the short term - similar to how Airbnb functions.

Cayler said the bill would simply allow residents to rent their apartments as “illegal hotels,” rather than ending the practice. There is a good deal of pushback against Airbnb in Manhattan. The group met with Wright and were asked to send him a memo with their concerns. They say they never heard back.

“It was really shocking to us that he didn’t actually seem to know much about the bill he had his name on,” Cayler told City & State. “He was not well-informed about it. His chief of staff was the one who knew about this particular bill.”

Wright’s spokesperson Emma Forbes told City & State that the bill was designed to increase transparency and that the bill had yet to move because there wasn’t “consensus” from residents and stakeholders.

Asked about Cayler’s criticism Wright told Gotham Gazette: “I thought he was somewhat misinformed.”

Wright said his door is always open and he is willing to discuss legislation.

WIlliams, of ANHD, countered the idea that Wright was ill informed about legislation. “I think from our experience Assemblymember Wright understands the complexity of housing and the complex mix of interests that are involved. With all of that in mind, his goal always seems to be thinking about deep affordability and how to help those folks in New York City who are struggling and who are the most underserved.”

Asked if he expects legislation on illegal hotels to move this session, which ends in mid-June, Wright replied, “The bill is in my name in a committee I head and I control the bill and it hasn’t moved.” “So if it quacks like a duck...,” he added, implying there was little chance the bill would advance.

Wright said he is proud of his record as a tenant advocate and that despite the overwhelming support he has received from the Democratic establishment, including words of support from former President Bill Clinton and formal endorsements from Gov. Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and Rep. Rangel, he does not take it for granted that he will be leaving Albany for Washington. “We have a lot to do here,” Wright said, adding that should he be elected to Congress his main focus will be on changing the definition of area median income because of the way it impacts affordable housing in the city.

“The reason I’m running is to change the definition of area median income and the way it is put forward with affordable housing,” said Wright. “The housing that is being built is called “affordable,” but it's not affordable to anyone I know or even me.” (Wright, who lives in rent-stabilized housing, has an Assembly salary of $79,500, not including the stipend he receives for heading the housing committee, and he has served for 24 years.)

Citing the fact that the AMI used for New York City to determine rent thresholds takes into account Westchester and Rockland counties, greatly increasing the number, Wright said that reform would benefit city residents.

“Changing the definition is what I want to do the first day I get to Congress, most definitely,” said Wright.

New Yorkers are tired of seeing condos going for millions of dollars while they worry about paying the bills and staying in their neighborhood, Wright said.

“The people of Harlem shed blood, sweat, and tears to make their neighborhood a safe place to live,” Wright said. “People are scared to death their children won't be able to afford to live in the neighborhood because it won’t be affordable.”

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

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Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax'


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Assembly Member Rosenthal, right, and Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo)


A difference of a few words is all that stands in the way of New York State becoming the sixth in the nation to exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax, though that could soon change. The Assembly sponsor of the bill, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she and state Senator Sue Serino, the Senate sponsor of the bill that has slightly different language, have agreed on new amendments that will make their bills identical.

However, Serino’s office declined to comment as to whether or not the two had actually reached an agreement, raising doubts about whether a compromise had truly been reached on an issue that is so strongly supported that both houses unanimously passed the bills to eliminate the so-called ‘tampon tax.’

Rosenthal said that, having agreed upon a few amendments to the legislation, the bill will head to the Governor “probably next week” after moving through both houses. Rosenthal is in the Assembly’s Democratic majority, Serino in the Senate Republican majority. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has already expressed his support for the legislation and will sign a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tampon tax if and when it does reach his desk. The Legislature has just 15 days of legislative session left before its June end.

In March, the Assembly passed Rosenthal’s bill to exempt “feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, sanitary napkins, tampons, and panty liners,” from the state sales tax. In February, Serino introduced the same bill as Rosenthal, yet amended it some time after “to specifically exempt sanitary napkins and tampons from the tax,” according to a press release from Serino’s office. The Senate then passed that more limited version of Serino’s bill in April.

News of the bill’s passage in the Senate was met with celebration, and many outlets incorrectly reporting that the same bill had passed both houses and was heading to Cuomo’s desk.

Yet, the slight but significant difference between the two bills means legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products can’t be signed into law by Cuomo - not until the language is identical.

According to Rosenthal, after speaking with Serino last week, the two agreed upon a few amendments to the bills that would make the two identical. “We put back other feminine hygiene products and added panty liners,” Rosenthal said on Thursday. The tax exemption “will include feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, tampons, sanitary napkins, and panty liners, because the world of products to meet the needs of women menstruating is actually expanding right now, so we didn’t want to have to revisit this at some point. It will be done,” Rosenthal said.

Organizations like NOW-NYC and the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York (both of which either supported Rosenthal’s bill or lobbied for its passage) would prefer the more inclusive language of Rosenthal’s bill become the law.

“Obviously it’s always better if it’s more inclusive, but I don’t know what the mechanics of putting it into place are,” Jean Bucaria, deputy director of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette.

“In instances like this, we of course support the broadest possible version of this legislation that helps the most people,” said Danielle Castaldi-Micca, director of political and governmental affairs for the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York.

It may be the case that Serino and other lawmakers prefer the more specific language of the Senate bill because the fiscal impact of exempting only those two products (pads and tampons) from the state sales tax is easier to predict and account for.

However, both Bucaria and Castaldi-Micca believe a compromise is likely to happen. “I have confidence that they’re going to get to a point of agreement and a single bill that the governor can sign,” Castaldi-Micca said. In Albany, deals are often elusive until the very end of session, when a bill package known as a “big ugly” gets passed at the last minute before lawmakers leave town for the rest of the year.

Besides amending the language of the bill to leave room for less-common, reusable menstrual products like sponges, cloth pads, and menstrual cups, Rosenthal says she and Serino have also agreed on an amendment to change the time when the exemption will go into effect, and an amendment to make the exemption exist in it’s own section of the tax code, rather than lump the exemption for feminine hygiene products in with exemptions for medical products.

Initially, the bill was to go into effect immediately, but “we changed that because there are four state tax reporting periods, so it will go into effect during one of those, it’s just easier to align it,” Rosenthal said.

In tax law, the coming exemption for feminine hygiene products, Rosenthal says, “stands on it’s own, it’s its own little section, it’s not connected with the other tax exemptions. It was a regressive tax on women and their bodies and it’s related to a natural biological function, so it shouldn’t be viewed as a medical problem or anything else, so it has it’s own line - section 3A.”

It seems some movement has indeed been made on Rosenthal’s version of the bill - according to the Senate website, on May 11, the bill was recalled from the Senate, returned to the Assembly, and amended on third reading. The latest version of the bill in the Assembly does indeed include all of the amendments Rosenthal mentioned above: it would take effect on the first day of a sales tax quarterly period; it would add a new section to the tax code, rather than lumping it in with drugs and medicine; and it maintains the more inclusive language.

These amendments have not yet been included in the Senate version of the bill, according to the Senate’s website, and no changes have been made to the bill since it passed in the Senate last month.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@megoconnor13     @GothamGazette

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Buffalo Billion Probe: Bad Apples or Broken System?


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Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office)


As U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office issues a storm of subpoenas to the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo and his close associates in relation to the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development program, the governor and his aides have delivered a consistent message: the investigation targets the dealings of a few bad apples, the governor wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing and he wants to get to the bottom of the situation as quickly as possible.

“I’ve said to all my people, and I’ve said to the U.S. attorney, any way we can find out and be helpful and be cooperative, we will be,” Cuomo told reporters during a press conference in the Adirondacks on Tuesday. “Nobody wants the facts more than us. That’s why we started our own private investigation. We know the questions: did two people act improperly? Did they represent companies they shouldn’t have? Was there undue influence for those companies? Those are the questions, we now need the answers and we don’t have the answers.”

The message rings as spin to a number of expert observers who insist Cuomo has long overseen a system that allows, at the very least, for the appearance of pay-to-play to flourish as mini-economies have popped up around the state where connected consultants work with both state government entities and those looking to win state contracts, and where the state funnels money through non-profits, allowing them to avoid scrutiny and standard state contracting procedures.

Bharara’s probe appears to have also spurred inquiries into surrounding issues by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli - all of whom, like Cuomo, are Democrats.

It is unclear whether the two men who have been reported to be at the center of the probe - longtime Cuomo aide Joe Percoco and Cuomo family associate and lobbyist Todd Howe - violated the law or how Bharara’s many subpoenas that have targeted the executive chamber, former Cuomo aides, consultants, and businesses involved in the Buffalo Billion all fit together. However, the scope of the investigation and the deep layers of connections between and among some of the players involved makes it fairly clear that the target of Bharara’s investigation is not simply two Cuomo associates.

Unlike New York City, New York State has no restrictions on what is referred to as “pay-to-play.” Donors with business before the state are allowed to contribute the same amount as anyone else to a candidate campaign.

Meanwhile, the checks that exist on how the state awards contracts have been subverted by the use of non-profit entities that aren’t subject to the same regulations. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and other government and budget watchdogs have criticized the proliferation of these entities and called for reform.

When acknowledging that investigators are looking into actions by individual actors and decisions that were made by state entities, Cuomo also announced “our own investigation with a private investigator who was from the U.S. attorney’s office originally, Mr. Bart Schwartz.” Though it is being explained differently, the move is seen by some watchdogs as designed only to target specific contracts and not intended to address what they say is a flawed system plagued by the appearance and risk of corruption, if not worse.

“The governor is trying to get in front of this issue and is saying a couple of people did something wrong, but the reality is that the entire system is ripe for corruption,” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of The Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent group that analyzes New York fiscal issues.

Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever declined comment, but pointed Gotham Gazette to a statement issued by Cuomo counsel Alphonso David. (Another Cuomo aide emailed a sarcastic comment to Gotham Gazette.)

Alphonso David issued a statement just as the New York Daily News broke a story April 29 revealing that Percoco is a target of Bharara’s probe, acknowledging allegations and announcing the independent investigation.

“This [federal] investigation has recently raised questions of improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest by some individuals which may have deceived state employees involved in the respective programs and may have defrauded the state,” David wrote. “We take violations of the public trust seriously and we believe these issues must be resolved by further investigation by the U.S. Attorney. In the meantime, and as the [Buffalo Billion] program operates on a daily basis, the Governor has ordered an immediate full review of the program. Any grants made by this program will be thoroughly scrutinized – past, current or future.”

David went on to say: “Ensuring the integrity of the contracting process for this program is paramount, so that the Buffalo Billion and Nano program can continue creating new jobs and revitalizing Upstate’s economy.”

The statement wasn’t reassuring for many watchdogs, especially those who have long-criticized the Buffalo Billion program.

“The governor is looking at it in terms of the mistakes, or poor behavior of a couple aides that he seems to be disassociating himself with,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany. “But what the subpoenas are targeting seems to be the corruption risk and bid-rigging favoring the governor’s campaign contributors. No one cares Todd Howe did something dumb. This is not what this is about - the governor sidestepped the larger issues.”

At least six current or former members of the Cuomo administration have been targeted by subpoenas. The administration has defended some of them.

A review of a number of businesses targeted by Bharara’s subpoenas shows that most of them are regular contributors to Cuomo’s campaigns. That leads some observers, including Kaehny, to believe that Bharara is interested in the state’s economic development subsidy programs as a whole.

“The Buffalo Billion is just a microcosm of the pay-to-play racket that has engulfed economic development under Governor Cuomo,” said Kaehny. “It is just a giant machine that takes in donations and doles out grants to donors. It is remarkable in its scope, consistency, and is dramatic in how it all leads back to the same people. What caught Bharara's interest in this is a system - not a rogue agent, not a bad apple, it's a system.”

Jennifer Rodgers, formerly of the U.S. Attorney’s office and current executive director of Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, said she does not believe that is the case.

“I wouldn't say the fact that the U.S. Attorney is involved means it is systemic,” said Rodgers. “This is important enough even if it is just two guys who took bribes for grants with their position, and importance makes it a very worthy case to pursue. If I learned two guys were taking all this money and were involved in these subsidies, I would think they were good targets,” said Rodgers.

However, Rodgers said she understands why there is suspicion about the overall system. “I think it is a disaster of a system that everyone in good government sees as asking for trouble - there is no oversight. At the same time, it is not the U.S. Attorney's job to change the system. Their job is to charge guys with criminality. I could see issuing a grand jury report that says ‘by the way this system is asking for trouble,’ but it is not the crux of what he does.”

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said without knowing what Bharara knows, it is impossible to judge what he is really after. “But I would say opacity in government increases the risk for corruption. What is so notable about how the Cuomo administration operates is they keep their decision-making process behind closed doors and he only shows the public what he wants them to see. This is the governor who ordered agencies to delete their emails and who still hasn’t told us how the Tappan Zee Bridge will be funded and it’s half completed.”

Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz noted that the fact SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros has been subpoenaed and appears to have been a target of the probe since the fall, “makes it a much bigger matter that could be focused on systemic practices.”

Kaloyeros has overseen much of the Buffalo Billion contracting and has become a major figure in the Cuomo administration as the governor has ramped up his economic development programs.

“The issue we have is confidentiality,” Kaloyeros told Gotham Gazette by Facebook messenger last fall when being asked about the Buffalo Billion investigation. “We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation. So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly."

Gov. Cuomo has distanced himself from Percoco and Howe. Percoco, who has been characterized as a third son to Mario Cuomo, worked at Andrew Cuomo’s side since his days at HUD. Percoco left the administration for part of 2014 to run the governor’s reelection campaign. He later filed income disclosure forms with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) revealing he received income from two developers with business before the state while managing the governor’s campaign.

Todd Howe, the Washington lobbyist who had a relationship with Mario Cuomo and worked for Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 campaign under Percoco, has been involved in steering donations from contractors to Cuomo and attended a fundraiser with Cuomo as recently as December, according to Politico New York, which reported that Howe steered donations from “several development and energy companies” to Cuomo’s reelection campaign.

Cuomo has said he allowed Percoco to take on outside work because he was strapped for cash. The governor has denied he had much of a relationship with Howe. Cuomo rejected the idea that he should have questioned Percoco on whether his outside clients had business with the state, telling reporters on Tuesday, “No. The state has tens of thousands of employees; they’re not supposed to be cross-examined to make sure they’re following the rules, right?”

Horner rejected Cuomo’s assertion that he shouldn’t have kept himself apprised of Percoco’s outside work. “It is the governor’s responsibility. He allowed Percoco to take outside work in the first place. This guy is not a hands-off administrator. That being said, he can’t know everything.”

Aside from the red flags sent up by donations and dealings with the air of conflict of interest, watchdog groups say they believe Bharara may be examining the Buffalo Billion because it is clear that up until now on one on the state level has been.

Cuomo and the Legislature crippled the Comptroller’s ability to audit deals made regarding the Buffalo Billion in 2011, DiNapoli and others say, by passing legislation that prevented auditing of SUNY, CUNY, hospital or construction funds. That is important to the Buffalo Billion because the state funnels cash for Buffalo Billion contracts through two non-profits controlled by SUNY.

On Wednesday, DiNapoli unveiled a series of proposals to bring more transparency to state spending - a few which would likely impact how the state funds the Buffalo Billion. His plan would ban lump sum appropriations, create a council to plan capital spending, and require economic development program proposals to be scored and ranked in a public database.

“Public authorities are not subject to the same checks and balances that apply to state agencies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually with limited oversight,” reads the release from DiNapoli’s office. “DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria. His proposal also requires more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing activities.”

Deutsch has been advocating for such a database for years. “My entire career I've been calling the efficacy of these programs into question,” said Deutsch. “We saw Empire Zones move to cater to where businesses wanted to be rather than have them come to economically disadvantaged areas,” Deutsch said of an economic development program that was a hallmark of Republican Governor George Pataki. “Every once in awhile there's a bad deal, or someone breaks the law and people pay attention for a little while.”

While calling for his own investigation of the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo has simultaneously downplayed the role of the state’s existing ethics body in preventing possible conflicts of interest. Asked whether JCOPE should have flagged Percoco’s filing that showed him taking income from groups with business before the state, Cuomo told reporters on Tuesday: “JCOPE has proven effective. Can an agency always be more effective? But I don’t think this is about JCOPE. We’re looking at two individuals to see if they’ve done anything improper. The first responsibility lies with that individual.” Cuomo also told reporters that you have to engage in criminality to be a target of JCOPE.

JCOPE is able to give administration officials guidance in taking outside work. It is unclear if JCOPE issued such an opinion in the case of Percoco. The commission has been headed by a succession of three Cuomo aides since its inception. Seth Agata, the new and third head of the commission, once served as Cuomo’s counsel, where he wrote to JCOPE to ask for clearance for Cuomo to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a memoir for a company that has business before the state. Permission was granted.

The Legislature has shown little interest in reforming how the state doles out subsidies. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, told State of Politics on Wednesday that the state should be “forging ahead” with current economic development programs. “The executive has an inherent responsibility to be overseeing these projects from start to finish,” Flanagan said. “I don’t think we should be scaling back anything. Can we take a closer look, put it under a microscope, fine. But people need jobs. This is a great way to create economic development.”

Cuomo’s creation of an independent investigation is worrying to some because of the governor’s history with independent commissions.

“Bart Schwartz is not independent, Alphonso David is not independent, Seth Agata is not independent,” said Kaehny. “The public will not get the truth unless the facts are independently accessed and the governor is incapable of investigating himself. We’ve seen what happens when the governor says ‘Follow the money wherever it may lead’ - as soon as the money brought [the] Moreland [Commission to Investigate Public Corruption] back to the governor and his real estate contributors at REBNY, Cuomo pulled the plug...No one is good at investigating themselves,” said Kaehny.

Rodgers, of CAPI, said that she has faith in Cuomo’s independent investigation. “The U.S. Attorney's Office will proceed with their work regardless of what internal investigation is going on,” said Rodgers. “And Bart Schwartz being chosen to head the internal investigation is a good sign for the credibility and independence of whatever findings he makes. If the governor's office had chosen someone with less credibility, you could see that there might be suggestions about tampering with witnesses and other evidence (i.e. that the governor's investigation might try to taint the government investigation during their own evidence collection), but I don't think you'll see any of that here with Bart in charge.”

Asked if voters should have faith in Schwartz’s investigation, Horner replied, “They should have faith in Preet Bharara.”

On Thursday, following the sentencing of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Bharara issued a statement trumpeting the conviction and sentencing of Skelos and former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The statement included a reference to Cuomo-controlled investigations. “These cases show--and history teaches--that the most effective corruption investigations are those that are truly independent and not in danger of either interference of premature shutdown.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Comptroller Calls for State Budget Transparency, 'Fiscal Reform'


dinapoli podium

Comptroller DiNapoli (photo via The Comptroller's Office)


“With all the other storylines coming out of Albany these days, it’s not surprising that fiscal reform doesn’t crack the top ten list of priority issues to address, but it should,” said New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli at a Wednesday morning event held by Crain’s New York Business, striking a serious tone as he outlined proposals for fiscal reform just released by his office.

DiNapoli’s plan calls on the state to bring more transparency and accountability to state finances by eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, restricting “backdoor spending” by public authorities, requiring more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing, and making the state budget more understandable and accessible.

“A lack of fiscal transparency and accountability affects everything we are trying to achieve as a state,” said DiNapoli, a Democrat in office as the state’s elected fiscal watchdog since 2007. “It hinders full, open public discussion of critical decisions that are essential to sound, sustainable budgeting. In the extreme, or worst case, it can contribute waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars...it is time for us to improve our fiscal practices.”

DiNapoli’s reform agenda would also address other areas of concern, such as the sufficiency of reserves and the appropriate levels and use of debt, as well as capital planning and prioritization. He said his office has drafted legislation that lawmakers could pass to enact his reform proposals (though one would require a constitutional amendment), which is included in his report. DiNapoli is a former state Assembly member from Nassau County.

Public authorities are not subject to the same oversight as state agencies, which allows for “backdoor spending,” or the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars without traditional checks and balances. DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be “scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria,” he said, as well as greater disclosure of those authorities’ activities.

Eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, through which the state spends billions of dollars with little, if any, justification for how projects were selected to receive funding or explanation of how the funding will be used, is another proposal the comptroller is supporting. “For instance,” DiNapoli said, “a $385 million increase of authorized borrowing for the state and municipal facilities program was enacted with little detail on intended purposes, projects, or selection.”

The use of lump sum appropriations for executive and legislative initiatives “raises issues of transparency and accountability,” DiNapoli said. His plan would also require unallocated funds to be awarded through an open and competitive process with clear, measurable criteria.

“The people of the state have the right to expect transparent, accountable budgeting and the confidence that public resources are protected from waste and abuse,” DiNapoli said. “Too often, the state has fallen short of meeting that goal.”

DiNapoli’s reform package also aims to make the state’s notoriously opaque budget process more open and transparent by requiring the overall impact of legislative changes to the budget to be disclosed before the budget is adopted and the cost of new and existing programs to be included.

“Once again this year, the budget falls short on transparency, both in process and in content,” DiNapoli said, in part referring to the fact that this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo once again issued messages of necessity to waive the constitutional three-day aging period for budget bills in order to get the state budget passed before the April 1 deadline (technically, it wasn’t, but Cuomo and legislative leaders had a general deal in place on March 31).

“Just handed the 704 page State Ops budget bill at 3:38 AM to vote on in a few minutes,” Republican Assemblymember Raymond Walter tweeted in the wee hours on April 1.

“Major provisions were submitted to the Legislature with little time for review,” DiNapoli said, “and there was minimal disclosure of the short- and long-term fiscal impact of billions of dollars in spending and tax law changes.”

Part of DiNapoli’s reform agenda would require lawmakers to receive an update “so that the differences between the budget that’s going to be voted on and what was presented [by the Governor] would be understood by the Legislature.” This targets the situation that repeats every year in Albany where lawmakers are given those massive budget documents with hardly any time to look over what they are about to vote on. This occurs after deals have been struck by Cuomo and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate majorities, in the infamous “three men in a room” process that is much-maligned, but well-trodden.

Representatives of Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return requests for response to DiNapoli's proposals.

“When Bill Mulrow, the governor’s secretary, was here last month, I had asked, ‘Why can’t there be some public vetting of the budget between when it’s finalized and when the vote is held?’” said Erik Engquist, assistant managing editor at Crain's New York Business and one of two moderators asking DiNapoli questions after the comptroller gave remarks. “And he looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘Obviously you’ve never negotiated a budget before.’”

DiNapoli, who served as an Assembly member for two decades starting in 1987, can recall a time when the budget process was more transparent, though he admits that even then, there were some years “where last minute decisions were made” and lawmakers were “presented with a stack of bills that you didn’t really have time to read.”

At one time, however, when there was “a serious use of conference committees in the Legislature, where you engaged rank-and-file members beyond the leadership to meet...publicly, for the press to report on issues being considered,” DiNapoli said. “It at least gave the public a better sense of the choices being made.”

In more recent years, Gov. Cuomo has touted and been applauded for his ability to return Albany to timely function, delivering on- or nearly-on-time budgets each year since he took office in 2011. Earlier, state budgets were routinely quite late and the capital was known for dysfunction. Still, work done at the state capitol is regularly criticized for its lack of transparency.

While the reforms put forth by DiNapoli could help ameliorate corruption in the state government, said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the other moderator at Wednesday’s event, “How do you convince other elected officials to tie their own hands and in effect not give themselves these opportunities for corruption?”

“I would argue that if you don’t tie your hands,” DiNapoli responded, “someone’s going to come to tie them up in handcuffs for you - that’s what seems to be happening lately.”

“I think, in this kind of environment, where people are so cynical and prosecutors are - justifiably - so aggressive, it would be smart, as self preservation, for these kinds of reforms to be adopted,” DiNapoli added. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“I believe that fiscal reform can restore public trust in state government and enhance the state’s ability to act in the best interest of all New Yorkers,” DiNapoli said to the crowd seated in the Grand Ballroom of the Yale Club - mostly men in suits from places like the Building Trades Employers’ Association, Cablevision, Nicholas & Lence Communications, and Brown and Weinraub PLLC, whose companies spent thousands of dollars for tables of ten to attend the breakfast event.

“There is time for the Legislature to consider it before they complete their deliberations,” DiNapoli said, referring to the ongoing, post-budget legislative session that is scheduled to end mid-June. “I’m hoping that given all the thought leaders that are in the room this morning, they will raise some or all of what we’re proposing and help to get the word out there.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@megoconnor13     @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 9


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As the week begins we’re looking for more news around the plethora of ongoing investigations into the activities of Mayor Bill de Blasio, his administration, and his allies and those into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and allies.

So far for this week, we know that de Blasio is due to hold an event Monday with Arianna Huffington; hold a Bronx town hall Tuesday evening; speak at a housing conference Wednesday morning; and host a reelection fundraiser with Louis C.K. on Thursday night in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, executive budget hearings are underway in the City Council - they began on Friday with the finance committee hearing where top de Blasio administration budget officials testified, and now continue on an agency and issue basis for the next several weeks.

The legislative session in Albany only has about a month left, with a few session days this week. Will there be ethics reform? That’s among the top questions facing lawmakers, but there are several other policy issues on the agenda as time flies. One key issue for New York City is mayoral control of city schools, which is due to expire in June. The state Senate hosted Mayor de Blasio for the first of two May hearings on the subject last week in Albany (the second will be May 19 in the city). The Legislature is due in session Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week - they are three of 18 scheduled session days left.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - see 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
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, jointly with the Committee on Finance, will hold its executive budget hearing.
  • 12:30 p.m., the Committee on Aging, jointly with the Committee on Finance, will hold its executive budget hearing on senior centers.
  • 2:30 p.m., the Committee on Environmental Protection, jointly with the Committee on Finance, will hold its executive budget hearing on environmental protection.

At 9 a.m., Civic Hall will host Mayor Bill de Blasio in conversation with Arianna Huffington to discuss technology, equality, and the future of civic engagement. On Monday evening, the mayor will deliver remarks at the 2016 North Star Fund Community Gala.

At 10 a.m. Monday, “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and his Bronx Veterans’ Advisory Council will host the annual Bronx Veterans’ Appreciation Day Breakfast, part of Bronx Week 2016.”

There will be a press conference at 10:30 a.m. Monday at City Hall at which participants will call for speed cameras at every school. Assemblymember Deborah Glick will lead the event, Public Advocate Tish James is among those who will speak.

At noon in Albany, “State Senator Daniel Squadron and State Senator Todd Kaminsky, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, Citizen Action NY, Common Cause/NY, League of Women Voters of NYS, and Citizens Union will urge passage of Squadron’s bill to close the LLC Loophole (S60B/A6975C-Kavanagh). Squadron used a Motion for Committee Consideration to force a vote on the bill at Monday’s Senate Elections Committee.”

At 3 p.m. Monday, the Department of Cultural Affairs panel on diversity in theater at the New Victory Theater. City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the cultural affairs committee, will speak.

At 5:30 p.m., Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Tish James are among those who will speak at a press conference regarding the Stonewall National Historic Site, P.S. 41.

At 6 p.m., the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), in collaboration with the Department of Transportation (DOT), will host the first of several BQX (streetcar) community engagement events in Astoria, in order to gain a better understanding of resident travel patterns and to begin a conversation about how best to integrate substantial transit investments into city streets.

At 6:30 p.m., the Manhattan Institute will honor Harvey A. Silverglate, civil liberties litigator and co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Bruce Kovner, founder of CAM Capital and chair of The Juilliard School’s Board of Trustees at its 16th annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner. The award serves to honor individuals helping foster the “revitalization of our nation’s cities.”

Also at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a Mitchell Lama Housing Town Hall at her offices.

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Albany, "the New York Civil Liberties Union will announce major legal action it will take regarding the unequal treatment, abuse and denial of rights for farmworkers in New York state." Farmworkers, advocates and NYCLU attorneys will be speaking at the press conference.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo will make an announcement at Elk Lake Lodge in North Hudson. At 2 p.m. the governor will tour the Veterans' Memorial Highway in Lake Placid.

At noon on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio will sign a variety of bills into law and then take questions from the press at City Hall.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services, jointly with the Committee on Health and the Committee on Finance will hold its executive budget hearing.
  • 1:30 p.m., the Committee on Small Business, jointly with the Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Finance will hold its executive budget hearing.

On Tuesday evening in the Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson will be hosting Mayor de Blasio and other senior administrative officials for a town hall.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday: 11:30 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings, jointly with the Committee on Finance, will hold its executive budget hearing.

At 8 a.m., New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will discuss the state’s finances, government efficiency and ethics, shareholder activism, and the state pension fund at a Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum. Erik Engquist, Assistant Managing Editor of Crain’s New York Business, and Nicole Gelinas, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, will moderate.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the New York State Association for Affordable Housing will launch its annual two-day conference and showplace, “Housing For All,” gathering agencies, developers, and affordable housing professionals for workshops on the financing, development, and preservation of affordable housing. Mayor de Blasio will give opening remarks at 9 a.m. Other peakers will include Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Stanford University and principal investigator of the Equality of Opportunity project, Lisa Belkin, chief national correspondent for Yahoo News and author of “Show Me a Hero” exploring fair housing issues in 1980s Yonkers, HPD commissioner Vicki Been, DOB commissioner Rick Chandler, and others.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Vera Institute of Justice will host “Resetting Bail—the Price of Justice in New York City,” a discussion about the city’s bail system, strategies for making it more fair and effective, and practices in place to inspire change. Speakers include Chiraag Bains, senior counsel to the Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and others.

Thursday
Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday on bribery, fraud, and extortion convictions.

The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m.

At the City Council on Thursday: 10 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare, jointly with the Committee on Women’s Issues, the Committee on Juvenile Justice, and the Committee on Finance, will hold an executive budget hearing.

At 6 p.m., Mayor de Blasio will be holding a fundraiser for his reelection campaign at Brooklyn Bowl, where he will be introduced by Louis C.K., as reported by Politico New York.

Also at 6 p.m., the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Region Chapter will host a panel of seven experts to address a broad range of local and statewide criminal justice issues, including the need for parole reform and the recent developments in solitary confinement regulations in state prisons. Speakers include Bill Bastuk, chairman and founder of It Could Happen to You, Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, and others.

Friday and the Weekend
At the City Council on Friday: 10 a.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, jointly with the Committee on Governmental Operations and the Committee on Finance, will hold its executive budget hearing.

At 9 a.m. Friday, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs will host an event to explore the gap between men’s and women’s wages, featuring New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, founding Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity within the New York City Mayor’s Office, and founder of PowHer New York Beverly Cooper Neufeld.

At 12 p.m. on Saturday, City Council Member Corey Johnson will hold his second annual West Side Summit, where he will deliver a State of the District to community members from across District 3, and announce the winning projects of Participatory Budgeting. Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education will be the keynote speaker.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, State Senator Daniel Squadron will be hosting his 8th annual Community Convention

***
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 Kelly Fan and Ben Max
@GothamGazette



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