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Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight

cuomo hochul cabinet

Gov. Cuomo at a recent cabinet meeting (Governor's Office on flickr)

At a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol on February 28, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that prosecutors already provide sufficient independent oversight over the state’s economic development programs.

“You do have independent oversight,” said Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, when asked about calls to increase checks from outside his purview on state programs at the center of federal corruption charges. “That’s called 62 district attorneys, an attorney general, U.S. attorneys in the Southern District, Northern District. That is independent oversight. Obviously it’s been effective independent oversight. So you can’t say there isn’t independent oversight.”

With these remarks, Cuomo positioned himself in stark opposition to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has said repeatedly that the power of prosecutors is limited and that it’s up to political leadership to do more to police itself. As he’s continued to lock up corrupt politicians and recently brought charges against nine individuals -- Cuomo aides, associates, and donors -- for alleged corruption related to the governor’s Buffalo Billion program, Bharara has insisted that prosecutors can’t do it all; that government culture must change.

“At the end of the day, cleaning up public corruption is not up to prosecutors,” Bharara said in Albany last February, during a speech sponsored by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and good government groups. “We certainly have our role, to prosecute the wrongdoers and the bad apples, but we can’t do it alone. It will take leadership from the Legislature itself. And that’s what people crave; they crave leadership.”

Bharara -- whose investigations have taken down numerous legislators, including most recently, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- has publicly criticized the concentration of power in the executive branch, Albany’s culture of secrecy, and the “three men in a room” style of government whereby major decisions are made by three top officials, the governor and two legislative majority leaders, behind closed doors.

Bharara has called on “good” lawmakers to take meaningful action to change the culture at the Capitol. Citing President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as a young New York Assembly member stood up to the ruling Tammany Hall political machine of the late 19th century. Bharara said at the February 2016 event, “It would be nice to see a little bit of that fight back in some of our legislators today.”

While Cuomo has overseen annual passage of new government ethics measures in Albany, they have virtually unanimously been seen as small steps, insufficient to adequately break the pattern of corruption and alter the culture that has made New York state government a national laughing stock. Cuomo continues to call for new measures, including more essential reforms that many say would help prevent corruption, not just punish it, but there is widespread doubt about how much Cuomo really wants to see them passed. The governor has been conspicuously quiet in terms of any effort to put public pressure on legislators to pass measures like public campaign financing, strict limits on electeds’ outside income, pay-to-play restrictions, and more.

Last year, Bharara’s crusade against corruption hit home for Cuomo, when the U.S. attorney’s office uncovered a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to the Buffalo Billion and announced charges against nine Cuomo associates, including Joseph Percoco, a longtime confidante of the governor’s, whom Cuomo said was “like a brother.” Cuomo, who Bharara made clear was not targeted in the investigation, claimed to have no knowledge of the alleged misconduct, instead placing the blame on bad apples and opaque purchasing and procurement processes.

bharara vanity fair event phoneCritics, including Bharara, say the widespread pay-to-play scheme resulted in part from the fact that in 2011, Cuomo and the Legislature stripped the New York State Comptroller of its authority to review billions of dollars worth of economic development contracts related to SUNY not-for-profits, including the Polytechnic Institute. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, government reform advocates, and some legislators have called for restoring those powers, but Cuomo has indicated he has no intention to do so. His cabinet meeting remarks were the latest evidence of that approach.

While Cuomo has acknowledged Albany’s pervasive corruption problem, he and Bharara apparently do not see eye to eye on how to fix it. The governor has pushed instead for increased punitive means to handle misconduct and some additional disclosure measures. A former New York State attorney general himself, Cuomo has frequently battled with oversight authorities like the comptroller and attorney general, currently Eric Schneiderman, taking steps to undermine the agencies and concentrate power under the executive branch.

During his last of six January 2017 State of the State addresses, Cuomo spoke in Albany, and called for the implementation of an ambitious ethics reform plan, hitting on many of the items pushed for by government reform groups, including transparency measures, restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, term limits, and the closure of the so-called "LLC loophole,” as well as a public campaign finance system.

The governor had promised to push some of these very reforms in his 2016 State of the State, but as critics have noted, little effort was made to sell them to the public or the legislative branch, and the few reforms that did pass meant little to stem the tide of corruption in state government.

Cuomo’s ethics plan also recommended an expansion of authority of the State Inspector General -- which answers to Cuomo -- to SUNY not-for-profits, and creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department. In light of the recent bid-rigging scandal, pressure has mounted on Cuomo to reinstate all of DiNapoli’s contract vetting powers. The governor has continued to undermine the comptroller, taking swipes at him over a series of audits that DiNapoli released related to the state’s economic development projects, and refused to support the restoration of those powers.

For his part, DiNapoli, who takes a decidedly less confrontational approach than Bharara, has called for restored vetting powers, but has been mostly muted as Cuomo’s office continue to push economic development programs through a system that appears to be easily exploited by bad actors.

DiNapoli has become slightly more vocal in recent months, but typically declines to engage in any ongoing, vocal push that conflicts with the governor.

Government watchdogs were quick to object to Cuomo's suggestion that prosecutors provide adequate independent oversight over state contracting. “The governor might as well be saying there is no need for police, because there are district attorneys. But everybody knows that the police -- and the Comptroller ---are there to prevent crime and ensure rules are followed. D.A.’s are only called on after crimes are committed. D.A.’s are no substitute for the independent oversight that the state constitution assigns to the Comptroller,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a reform group, in a statement.

Government reform groups -- including Reinvent Albany, as well as Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, the Citizen Budget Commission, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG -- called the governor’s oversight plan “stunningly inadequate,” and renewed calls to empower the comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000, among other reforms to the contracting process.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for further explanation of the governor's remarks in time for publication. A spokesperson for Bharara declined to comment on Cuomo’s comments.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan

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Assemblymember James Skouis, right (photo: @JamesSkoufis)

More than 30 members of the state Assembly have signed a budget letter to their Speaker, Carl Heastie, outlining an alternative version of the free college tuition proposal being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo that they want Heastie to adopt for the chamber.

The Assembly members, all Democrats, aim to make Cuomo’s plan more inclusive of the middle class and to ease proposed aid restrictions for the students at New York public universities who stand to benefit from the program.

The letter, drafted by Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, recommends three changes to the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship, which Cuomo unveiled in January with the help of former presidential candidate and liberal icon Senator Bernie Sanders. It was the first and anchor proposal of Cuomo’s 2017 State of the State agenda.

Cuomo’s plan guarantees free tuition at city and state colleges for students from households earning up to $125,000 per year, and is designed to make college more accessible and improve graduation rates in New York State. While many low-income students are already eligible for significant state aid to afford college, Cuomo said his plan was to ensure many middle class students could also attend college tuition-free.

However, the governor’s plan has been criticized by college accessibility advocates for its restrictive four-year graduation requirements and “last-dollar” provision that supplements tuition costs only after Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants have been expended. Currently, students who are eligible for full tuition aid are not compelled to use Pell funds for tuition, rather they can be designated for books, transportation, and other college-related expenses. Many are mindful that tuition is not the only college cost and want to see the governor take that into account.

The Assembly members’ letter asks Speaker Heastie to include in the Assembly’s one-house budget a tuition plan that rejects the "last-dollar" component of the Excelsior Scholarship as well as the 15-credit per semester requirement. With Democrats strongly in control of the chamber, they have a solid chance to see their proposal included in the one-house plan -- which, along with the Senate’s budget proposal, is expected to be released later this month. The Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have been warm to Cuomo’s tuition-free idea, but expressed concerns about how it will be paid for.

The Assembly letter also recommends the scholarship be applied to students from households earning up to $175,000 per year.

“SUNY and CUNY campuses host an undergraduate population that totals nearly 650,000 students,” the letter states. “Additionally, over 160,000 students are enrolled in Open SUNY and earning online credits towards a degree. Yet, the Excelsior Program is projected to benefit only 32,000 students once fully implemented in fiscal year 2019-20. This amounts to less than 5% of the entire undergraduate population.”

Skoufis has proposed a similar “tuition-free New York” bill, which has been introduced in the Assembly every year since 2014, but the legislation never made it past committee. He says many middle class families are excluded under the current Cuomo proposal.

The Assembly member cited the example of a household with two full-time teachers, each of them earning an average of $77,000 per year. However, he noted, if they live in particular zip codes, they may face high living expenses or exorbitant property taxes. “If you have two teachers in your household, by any standard, that’s a middle class household. Yet, they are going to fall above this threshold and get zero help,” Skoufis told Gotham Gazette.

He also criticized Cuomo’s “punitive” provision that would drop students from the program if their course load fell below 15 credits at any point. According to Skoufis’ bill, students would be required to graduate a two-year college within three years or a four-year college within five years to remain in the program -- it is the equivalent of 12 credits per semester. “There needs to be some flexibility here,” he said.

The proposed changes echo some of the criticisms of the Excelsior Scholarship raised during last month’s joint legislative budget hearing on higher education. Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly higher education committee, said the committee intends to put forward its own proposal, one that addresses all aspects of the higher education budget and the way it impacts CUNY and SUNY schools.

“My feeling is we could perhaps utilize those resources in a way that would help SUNY and CUNY, if the goal is completion,” Glick said, in an interview, of state money that would go toward tuition-free college. “We want to look more broadly at how we can use the same amount of resources to assist a larger number of students to finish their degrees and to do so with little or no debt.”

Other criticisms, which have been raised by higher education committees in both chambers, concerned insufficient state funds going to the schools’ operating budgets, a proposed restriction on TAP funding for private colleges that increase their tuition more than $500, and a “punitive” tithing on money raised by CUNY foundations for tuition assistance.

The Skoufis-led proposal drew praise from advocates. "Fortunately, this plan recognizes the majority of students take more than four years to graduate and that most middle income families still need support beyond tuition relief,” said Kevin Stump, Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, in a statement. “However, while these proposed improvements are a big step forward, the state will still need to address the inadequacies of the Tuition Assistance Program."

In January, the Independent Democratic Conference, which is in a power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, released its agenda, which includes an expansion of the TAP. The IDC is at times able to sway the Senate GOP majority into adopting positions that may be more favorable to Democrats. The Assembly Minority also supports TAP expansion.

Prior to a February 15 deadline, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, received hundreds of letters from legislators recommending measures to be included in the chamber’s one-house budget proposal, which will be discussed by the Assembly over the next two weeks.

Of the Assembly members’ tuition proposal, Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for the speaker, said, “We are discussing the issue with our members.”

When reached for comment, the governor's office stood by the Excelsior proposal, but did not indicate whether Cuomo would be amenable to the suggested changes. "Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible -- regardless of race or religion; gender or orientation; documentation or ability; Zip code or lineage -- the opportunity to go to college tuition free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program," said Cuomo's spokesperson Dani Lever via email.

A new state budget is due by April 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year. Cuomo is likely to insist that some version of his tuition-free program is in the final spending plan for the state’s 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The story has been updated to include a comment from Cuomo's office.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, February 27

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

After a somewhat slow Presidents Day week in which both the City Council and State Legislature were out of session, this week is a busy one, with the Legislature meeting in Albany and a variety of City Council hearings, including the start of preliminary budget hearings.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is back in town after a trip to Atlanta where he was whipping votes for Keith Ellison for Democratic National Committee chair (Ellison lost to Thomas Perez, but will serve as deputy chair). The mayor's trip occurred just after he spent four hours on Friday with federal investigators in relation to the ongoing investigation into the mayor and his associates over whether government favors were promised or given to donors to the mayor's campaign or political nonprofit. De Blasio is set to make his weekly appearance on NY1's Road to City Hall Monday evening. The mayor will outline his much-anticipated new homeless-fighting vision on Tuesday afternoon - see details below.

Otherwise, there's a lot happening this week - 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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

At the City Council on Monday:

  • The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
  • The Committee on Governmental Operations will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Transportation will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including a law related to a proposed pilot program for reserved parking spaces in municipal lots, as well as laws pertaining to taxicab licenses.
  • The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 11 a.m.
  • The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss the mayor’s nominations of Jeffrey Friedlander and Malini Cadambi Daniel to the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the New York Equal Employment Practices Commission, respectively.
  • The Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight meeting regarding the city’s cultural plan.

At the State Legislature on Monday: The Assembly Committees on Health, Aging, and Labor, and the Task Force on People with Disabilities, will meet at 11 a.m. to conduct a public hearing to “examine the growing need for home care and personal care, and to examine the obstacles to recruiting, employing, and retaining an adequate home care workforce.”

At 8 a.m. Monday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will appear on the WPIX-11 morning news.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, the Queens Chamber of Commerce will host “Post Election Affordable Housing City Forums” at 1301 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, discussing the future of affordable housing under President Trump and Dr. Ben Carson as HUD Secretary.

Public Advocate Letitia James has several public events Monday: at 9:15 a.m., James will deliver remarks at 80 New York Avenue Tenant Demonstration in Brooklyn; at 10:30 a.m., James will deliver remarks at Congress Member Serrano and State Senator Serrano's Black History Month Celebration at Hostos Community College in the Bronx; and at 7 p.m., James will host a Lunar New Year Celebration at P.S. 124 in Manhattan.

On Monday at 11 a.m. on the southeast corner of 40th Street and 7th Avenue, "Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz will be joined by colleagues, community leaders, and MTA supporters at this conference hosted by the Riders Alliance to voice their opposition to the proposed state budget cut of $ 65 million to the MTA. Assemblyman Dinowitz, chair of the Committee on Corporations Authorities and Commissions, which oversees the MTA, penned a letter to Governor Cuomo opposing the proposed budget cut. He will attend this press conference to stand up for his community, all those who depend upon the MTA, and to make sure promises made to keep the MTA adequately funded are kept."

At 11 a.m. Monday at The Door in Manhattan, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance will announce $58 million in grants for youth and family programs to prevent crime. "In Total, Grants to Fund 100 Community Organizations in Four Neighborhoods: East Harlem, Central/West Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Lower East Side."

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • The Committee on Public Safety will meet at 9:30 a.m. to discuss a proposed law “requiring the police department to share collision reports digitally.”
  • The Committee on Health will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Contracts and the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss “the potential for a work stoppage at Sims Metal Management and its potential impact on residential recycling.”
  • The Committee on Finance and the Committee on Education will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss oversight regarding school planning and siting, as well as a proposed law “requiring the department of education to report information on school applications, offers of admission, enrollment, and school seats available.”
  • The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.
  • The Committee on Public Housing and the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will meet jointly at 1 p.m. to discuss “Sandy recovery and resiliency projects in NYCHA developments.”
  • The Committee on Environmental Protection will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss the “installation of solar water heating and thermal energy systems on city-owned buildings.”

On Tuesday, the New York State Legislature will be in session.

Also at the State Legislature on Tuesday:

  • The Senate Standing Committee on Energy and Telecommunications and the Assembly Standing Committee on Energy will hold a joint hearing at 10 a.m. to discuss the impact of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant Shutdown
  • The Senate Standing Committee on Aging and the Assembly Standing Committee on Aging will hold a joint hearing at 10 a.m. to discuss “education, awareness, and prevention of elder abuse.”

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the Queens Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee will hold a meeting at the Queens Chamber Conference Center to discuss two proposed transportation projects: QueensRail and QueensWay.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, "The workers who sort and process all of NYC's residential recycling will rally at City Hall ahead of a City Council hearing on a potential strike at the facility. The workers at Sims Municipal Recycling in Sunset Park are unionizing with Teamsters Local 210 and are calling on Sims to bargain a contract. A strike would bring chaos to the Department of Sanitation’s recycling operations." Participants will include Sims Recycling Workers, Teamsters Local 210, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, Transform Don't Trash NYC, ALIGN, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, "Public Advocate Letitia James will announce legal action to ensure that all New Yorkers with disabilities have safe and reliable access to sidewalks and pedestrian pathways, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act." James will be joined by Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), Bronx Independent Living Services, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), and Harlem Independent Living Center.

On Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in Albany, "dozens of New York City parents will join with elected champions to rally in support of public charter schools being given equal treatment in the upcoming state budget. Parents will share their personal stories about their children’s life changing experiences in New York City’s charter schools and call on state leaders to treat their public schools fairly. Assembly Members Marcos Crespo and Robert Rodriguez will stand with charter families in front of the Great Western Staircase." The event is being organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

At 12 p.m. on Tuesday, City & State New York will hold its NYC Power 100 Luncheon. This is a “list ranking New York City’s most influential personnel,” and the luncheon will be the first place where this list is released.

Also at noon Tuesday, "Chancellor Fariña will visit Manhattan Bridges High School and make an announcement regarding bilingual education programs."

At 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the Manhattan Institute will host “Treating Serious Mental Illness In NYC: Can They Get The Help They Need?” Speakers Speakers include DJ Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy Org, Dr. Gary Belkin of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Judge Matthew D’Emic of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, and Muzzy Rosenblatt, CEO and President of BRC. NY1 anchor Errol Louis will moderate.

On Tuesday at 2:15 p.m. at Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in Manhattan, "Mayor de Blasio will deliver a speech outlining his vision and plan to combat homelessness." The mayor will not take press questions afterward, but, "Immediately following the speech, Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio and Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks will host a technical briefing to further discuss the Mayor’s plan," according to the mayor's office.

At 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will hold a public cabinet meeting at the Capitol.

At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the NYC Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee will hold a public meeting at 100 Church St.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the City Department of Education will holds its 2016-17 Educational Policy Meeting at Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn.

At 6:30 pm on Tuesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host “Trailblazers” at Mist Harlem, honoring African-American leaders Michael A. Hardy, EVP of the National Action Network; Bill Thompson, the former Comptroller; and LaKeesha Walrond, the executive pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church.

At 6:30 pm on Tuesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton will take part in a discussion with the New School’s Maya Wiley on “key issues impacting civil rights, social justice, and criminal justice reform in NYC and nationally.” The event will be held in the John L. Tishman Auditorium at the New School’s University Center.

The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics will meet on Tuesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • The The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss the mayor’s nominations of Jeffrey Friedlander and Malini Cadambi Daniel to the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the New York Equal Employment Practices Commission, respectively.
  • The Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss “approving the new designation and changes in the designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the expense budget.”
  • The City Council will have a full-body Stated Meeting Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. As always, this will be prefaced by the pre-stated press conference led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Crain’s New York will hold a breakfast forum with Stephen Banks, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services. At this event, Banks “will discuss the de Blasio administration's homelessness programs, public-assistance reforms and efforts to address poverty and income inequality.” The moderators will be Erik Engquist, Assistant Managing Editor of Crain's New York Business, and Nikita Stewart, reporter for The New York Times.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, the Brooklyn GOP will host two declared Republican candidates for mayor, Paul Massey and Michel Faulkner, for the mayoral election’s first mayoral candidate forum. The candidates will “present their vision for a better New York City;” the candidates will also have meet-and-greets with attendees. The forum will take place at Dyker Beach Golf Course & Catering in Brooklyn.

At the City Council on Thursday: The Committee on Finance will meet at 9:30 a.m. for a preliminary budget hearing.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a public hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall regarding zoning in Crown Heights.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will hold a public hearing on the Greater Midtown East Rezoning Proposal at Guttman Community College, 50 West 40th St on the ground floor.

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo will continue her “Community Exchange Series.” At this event, Cumbo will talk about “Imagining the Future of Crown Heights through the Eyes of our Youth.” This event will take place at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a Lunar New Year celebration at Flushing Town Hall, honoring Louie Liu, VP of the Brooklyn Community Improvement Center; Katherine H. Kim, executive director of YWCA Queens; JD Kim, managing director of the Korean Advocacy Council; and Yuh-Line Niou, NYS Assembly Member from the 65th District.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday:

  • The Committee on Civil Service and Labor will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss seveal proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Higher Education will meet at 11 a.m. for a preliminary budget hearing.

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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max

How Cuomo's Special Prosecutor Order Is Playing Out, 19 Months Later

Cuomo Schneiderman special prosecutor mothers of the movement

Cuomo, Schneiderman, and family members, July 2015 (photo: The Governor's Office)

About 19 months ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that was hailed by many advocates and elected officials as a bold and unprecedented step towards police accountability.

Cuomo made Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a special prosecutor in certain cases of civilian deaths involving police officers. At the time, much of the country was focused on several high-profile examples of police killings of unarmed people, including Eric Garner in New York City.

The order aimed to have the Office of the Attorney General -- which Cuomo himself held from 2007 through 2010 -- bypass what many came to see as an inherent conflict of interest faced by district attorneys who are assigned to investigate and, when warranted, prosecute the very police officers they work alongside on a regular basis. The impetus, Cuomo said, was to restore faith in the criminal justice system.

“There’s a feeling that the system of criminal justice -- the officials in criminal justice system -- are too close to law enforcement. And that closeness is a conflict,” Cuomo said on July 8, 2015, when he signed the order during a special event at John Jay College in Manhattan. At the time, Cuomo was celebrated by those desperate for more police accountability. With the creation of a special prosecutor, the governor said, “the perceived conflict is removed.”

The December 2014 failure of a Staten Island grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who had placed Garner in a deadly chokehold, had sparked a public outcry, and Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, including in New York City, accelerating a national conversation on race and policing. Following the grand jury decision, Schneiderman called on the governor to grant his office jurisdiction to investigate police killings of civilians, especially those unarmed when killed.

Cuomo’s acquiescence to Schneiderman’s request to be named special prosecutor for police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians was somewhat unexpected, coming after the governor agreed to meet with family members of unarmed men who died in confrontations with the police — including the mothers of Garner and Ramarley Graham, both killed by NYPD officers — to discuss criminal justice reform. Though the governor had initially prefered what he called a “more nuanced” approach, such as an office of "independent special counsel," which would review cases before referring them to a special prosecutor, he vowed to put Schneiderman in the role in the event that the Legislature failed to agree to a permanent bill.

Though there was little movement in Albany for a special prosecutor beyond activism — the governor had denied or ignored earlier requests for meetings with victims’ family members and no bill satisfactory to reformers had been introduced in either legislative chamber — police accountability advocates say they saw an opportunity to enlist the governor, who tends to seek issues that make him a national leader. Indeed, Cuomo said in a statement, “The justice system does not work without the trust of the people, so it was imperative that New York act to address the crisis of confidence that has been plaguing communities nationwide.”

Sitting next to Schneiderman on July 8, 2015, Cuomo was surrounded by leaders of both houses and other legislators of color from both the state Senate and Assembly, all of whom vociferously praised the governor for his bold action on a matter they had placed at or near the top of their priorities.

Over the course of the year-and-a-half since Cuomo signed the order, there have been more than a dozen police-involved deaths across New York State that have warranted examination by Schneiderman’s office. Nine have been determined to fall under the attorney general’s jurisdiction, with mixed results.

One case, a road rage-related incident in East New York, produced an indictment of the officer involved; three were thoroughly investigated and closed without an indictment (though in each case a detailed report, along with recommendations for reforms in procedure, was issued); and five cases -- two of them related to incidents in the Bronx -- are currently open, according to Schneiderman’s office.

Now, advocates and victims' families are pushing for the executive order to be written into law — both for permanence and to broaden criteria for cases that fall under the attorney general’s jurisdiction. As is being seen in Washington, D.C., any order signed by one executive can be rolled back by the next.

“There are things that we'd like to tweak,” said Monifa Bandele, a Vice President at Moms Rising and a member of the Steering Committee for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group in New York City. “Through that legislative process we can get some stronger language, broadening it, to make sure that more cases go to special prosecutor rather than fewer cases.”

There remains fairly muted opposition to the order, though critics may become more vocal were there to be a more formal push to see a special prosecutor enshrined into law. Republicans who control the state Senate are unlikely to pass such a bill, part of the reason Cuomo issued the order, and in the absence of permanent legislation, has kept the executive order in place.

Insulted by the suggestion that they might be reluctant to prosecute anyone deserving, including police officers, prosecutors of both political parties, including the late Ken Thompson, a Democrat and Brooklyn’s first black district attorney, criticized the order. “As the duly-elected district attorney of Brooklyn, I am more than able to thoroughly and fairly investigate any fatality of an unarmed civilian by a police officer,” Thompson said, according to The Observer. In subsequent appearances, Thompson softened his position, calling Schneiderman an "outstanding public servant," but questioning whether it made sense to appoint one special prosecutor over all of New York's 62 counties.

Calling the order “gravely flawed,” the state’s District Attorneys Association instead proposed its own reforms to increase transparency, such as publicizing the instructions given to grand jurors, creating ways for grand jurors to issue reports on the nature of evidence, and creating an independent monitor to review proceedings where certain police-involved deaths are investigated.

At the time, Schneiderman assured critics that taking on these cases was a temporary solution necessary to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement, a position his office has since reaffirmed. “We think the appointment of the attorney general as special prosecutor has been an important step, though we continue to urge the legislature to devise a permanent solution,” said Amy Spitalnick, a Schneiderman spokesperson.

The ambiguous language of the executive order leaves open many questions about jurisdiction. In nearly all of the nine cases, the attorney general sought clarifying orders from the governor, authorizing the agency to move forward, and Schneiderman’s office inevitably butted heads with local prosecutors over jurisdiction.

The bickering over jurisdiction has grown particularly heated in the 2016 case involving Edson Thevenin, who was fatally shot by a Troy police officer as he allegedly tried to pull away during a suspected DUI traffic stop. Schneiderman’s office maintains that local prosecutors convened a grand jury without the attorney general’s approval. The grand jury immunized the officer, who claimed he was being “pinned” by the car at the time of the shooting, according to reports. Schneiderman’s office sued Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove for the documents involved in the case, though Abelove maintains he would have agreed to hand them over had the attorney general asked.

In a rare move, Cuomo issued an order granting Schneiderman’s office the authority to investigate everything that happened in the case, including the actions of the Rensselaer County District Attorney’s office -- another stinging rebuke to district attorneys, who maintain that they are capable of fairly prosecuting police officers.

Abelove’s lawyer, John Bailey, says his client was told by a deputy attorney general at the crime scene that the case would not fall under the attorney general’s jurisdiction, because the vehicle was considered a weapon, though he admitted there was no formal letter granting local prosecutors jurisdiction.

“They indicated it very clearly to Abelove that they would not be taking jurisdiction over the case,” said Bailey. “What happened is that then somebody up the food chain decided, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s take a look at it.’”

The attorney general's office mantains that it sent Abelove a written request asking for evidence in order to help make a jurisdictional determination. 

The case, as well as others and the ongoing politics surrounding the order, is reason for some that a permanent solution is needed.

For the most part, civil rights experts say Cuomo’s order is more comprehensive than any legislation proposed to date. A bill proposed by former Assemblymember Keith Wright, a Democrat from Harlem, passed the Assembly 82-47, but the Senate’s version, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, had only two co-sponsors and died in committee. The Assembly recently passed a 2017 version of the bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Nick Perry, which drew criticism from several members of the Republican minority.

Among the nine cases that the attorney general has investigated, the September grand jury indictment of an off-duty NYPD officer who shot and killed Delrawn Small in front of his wife and children in an East New York road rage incident on July 4, 2016 seems to most strongly justify the position that an outside prosecutor is necessary to obtain an indictment in police brutality cases.

Wayne Isaacs was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter in the proceedings overseen by the attorney general’s office after damning video evidence contradicted Isaacs’ story. Isaacs, 37, has been suspended without pay from the NYPD.

“In the absence of [permanent] legislation, the executive order is great,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It's really the gold standard for a special prosecutor bill and has broader jurisdiction than any other bills that have been introduced. That’s why the families supported it, and we supported the families.”

Even when there wasn't an indictment, advocates say the attorney general issued a detailed report, communicated with the families, and issued recommendations. In one of the two cases that were closed, involving Raynette Turner -- the 42-year-old woman who died in a Mount Vernon jail cell after being arrested for multiple larcenies -- the attorney general’s office made recommendations to change the processing and arraignment process for arrestees, some of which were adopted by the Legislature during the last legislative session.

Like other advocates and community leaders, Loyda Colon, co-director of the Justice Committee, a coalition of families who have lost loved ones to police violence, called the executive order “an incredibly important and historic” step towards accountability. “Since the establishment of the special prosecutor, we have seen an unprecedented level of transparency regarding the investigations of police killings in New York, in stark contrast to the handling of these cases by local district attorneys,” she said.

However, in another high profile case, involving Deborah Danner -- a 66-year-old emotionally disturbed Bronx woman who was fatally shot in a confrontation with an NYPD officer in October 2016 -- the attorney general’s office determined that the case did not fall under its jurisdiction, prompting some critics to decry the executive order’s definitions as too narrow. At the time, investigators determined that Danner was armed because of the threatening manner in which she wielded a baseball bat during the confrontation.

“Ms. Danner's death is a tragedy that never should have happened,” Schneiderman said in a statement at the time. “From the moment my office received the news, our Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit commenced a rigorous review of the evidence. I believe there is no question this case must be investigated. However, the legally empowered prosecutor must take the lead.”

This leaves the case to the Bronx District Attorney, Darcel Clark. Like Schneiderman, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill quickly said that Danner should not have died in the incident. The matter remains under review.

By contrast, Ariel Galarza, a 48-year-old emotionally disturbed Bronx man, died of a cardiac arrest after an NYPD sergeant tasered him twice. Galarza reportedly threatened police with a glass hot sauce bottle prior to the incident. The case is under investigation by Schneiderman’s office.

The similarities -- and distinctions -- between the Danner and Galarza cases appear to provide additional grounds for those who want a special prosecutor to have jurisdiction over all police-involved civilian deaths, whether the deceased was armed or not.

It remains to be seen whether the 2014-2015 momentum for a permanent special prosecutor bill can be recaptured in 2017. The power dynamics in the Legislature remain unchanged since the November election, with a heavily Democratic Assembly and Republicans maintaining a slight majority in the Senate. Some elements of criminal justice reform, including raising the age of adult criminal responsibility in New York -- the state is one of only two that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults -- remain at the forefront of policy debates in Albany.

One issue, raised by Upstate New York lawmakers during the 2015 legislative session, was whether one prosecutor, based in New York City, should be charged with handling Upstate cases. There were more disagreements. “There were questions about credentials; there were questions about conflict of interest; and at the end of the day we did not pass a law. We did agree mutually that we would come back next year and pass a permanent law,” said Cuomo at the order signing.

There has been little mention early this year of special prosecutor legislation, though. The issue was absent from Cuomo’s six-part State of the State tour in January, but in his 2017 policy book, the governor has renewed his 2016 call for an office of "independent special counsel.”

At the 2015 signing of the executive order, Cuomo vowed to push aggressively for permanent legislation -- something his office says is still a priority in 2017.

“We believe the executive order is serving its intended purpose, while we continue to explore opportunities to advance comprehensive criminal justice reform through the legislative process,” said Abbey Fashouer, the governor’s press secretary. “The governor sought comprehensive criminal justice reform, including a permanent legislative special prosecutor, and will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s office of special counsel proposal has been criticized by criminal justice reformers and state legislators on both sides of the aisle, with critics saying it is redundant and would undermine the power of the special prosecutor.

"If you are going to have a special prosecutor, you should have it. You should not have a special person, with no resources to decide whether you should or should not send it to a special prosecutor," said Assemblymember Joe Lentol, a Democrat who represents North Brooklyn.

As with many controversial measures in the state capital, the future of special prosecutor legislation will depend in part on whether the Independent Democratic Conference -- an eight-member breakaway faction of Senate Democrats that conferences with Republicans -- decides to prioritize the issue.

The IDC did not include the special prosecutor bill in its legislative agenda for 2017. When asked if the IDC would back permanent legislation, IDC Leader Sen. Jeffrey Klein said the attorney general has performed well in the role. "Eric Schneiderman has done an outstanding job in looking into these cases in a timely and effective manner," said Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx.

Some criminal justice experts note that even if the executive order becomes law, it would not address larger systemic issues. For example, the reality that police are sent to address situations that should be handled by social service agencies, and that many deaths that seem problematic to the public are technically legal.

Alex Vitale, a sociologist and professor at Brooklyn College, says the criminal justice system relies too heavily on people with guns, and notes that the police regularly use lower levels of unjustified force with no repercussions or accountability. "The executive order only addresses a very small number of very extreme cases," said Vitale.

Vitale has argued at length that localities need to rethink how they respond to emergency situations, such as the Danner incident, by not sending police to deal with an emotionally distressed person.

Meanwhile, as the momentum for a permanent special prosecutor may have temporarily waned since 2015, advocates say, the climate is still ripe for serious criminal justice reform.

(July 2015 through December 2016)

Indictment Secured – Brooklyn – Delrawn Small - Off-duty NYPD officer shot and killed Small late during a traffic dispute on July 4, 2016. There is video of the incident. The AG's office secured a grand jury indictment of the officer in September on charges of Murder 2 and Manslaughter 1.

Ongoing Investigation – Bronx – Richard Gonzalez – NYPD and EMTs took Gonzalez into custody after he brandished a weapon in front of police on March 17, 2016. Gonzalez was under the influence of multiple drugs at the time and was therefore put into an ambulance, rather than a police vehicle, when taken into custody. During the ride to the hospital, Gonzales suffered cardiac arrest and died.

Ongoing Investigation – Bronx– Ariel Galarza -- An emotionally disturbed man allegedly threatened officers with a hot sauce bottle when they arrived on the scene on November 3, 2016. An NYPD sergeant used a stun guy to subdue Galarza twice. He suffered a cardiac arrest and later died at the hospital.

Ongoing Investigation – Troy – Edson Thevenin (alleged DWI) – Thevenin was pulled over for a suspected DWI on April 17, 2016. Officers say that he tried to pull away after they approached his vehicle. An officer fired shots through Thevenin’s windshield, killing him. Officer claimed he was being “pinned in” at the time. AG office began investigation, but Rensselaer County DA nevertheless convened a grand jury without AG office approval, immunized the officer in question, and exonerated the officer. Everything that happened in the case, including the DA’s actions, is being investigated by the AG's office.

Ongoing Investigation – Washington/Dutchess County – Warren C. Corbitt - Corbitt was traveling by motorcycle October 14, 2016 when he fatally collided with the vehicle of a state trooper who was responding to an emergency situation at a nearby school. Police say the trooper had been driving with lights and sirens on. Corbit was pronounced dead on the scene.

Ongoing Investigation – Buffalo – Wardel Davis - Davis was stopped by two officers on February 7, 2017. Police said he tried to flee and fought with officers as he was arrested. As he was handcuffed, Davis, who was unarmed appeared to be in medical distress. Police officer administered CPR on Davis and he was transfered to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Closed – Report Issued / No indictment Mount Vernon - Raynette Turner - Turner died in a jail cell after being arrested for multiple larcenies in the area on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. She was taken to the hospital during her stay at the Mount Vernon police department. Shortly thereafter, she died. AG issued a detailed report and made recommendations to change the processing and arraignment process for arrestees. The Legislature adopted some of these recommendations.

Closed – Report Issued / No Indictment - Yonkers – Miguel Espinal – NYPD pursued Espinal in a high-speed chase on the Saw Mill Parkway December 8, 2015. Mr. Espinal pulled a U-turn on the parkway and drove several hundred feet against traffic. He then drove off the highway, crashed his car, and started running (there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest). An NYPD officer pursued Espinal into the woods. According to the police officer, there was a scuffle for the officer’s gun, at which point the officer shot and killed Mr. Espinal. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing.

Closed – Report Issued / No indictment - Carmel (Putnam County) – Joseph Segiun (ie, Taser) – Seguin was beating his girlfriend when police arrived on November 30, 2015. He was reportedly under the influence of PCP at the time. He is said to have resisted arrest. Officers tased him several times in an attempt to restrain him. Seguin had a bad reaction and died.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated the number of police-involved deaths that have been investigated by the attorney general since Cuomo's executive order was issued. The article has been amended to reflect these changes.

Schneiderman: ‘Not one single substantiated claim of voter fraud in New York last year’

Schneiderman voting

AG Eric Schneiderman voting

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman responded to a congressional inquiry Wednesday, making clear that there was “not one single substantiated claim of voter fraud in New York last year.”

In a letter, addressed to Reps. Elijah Cummings, Robert Brady, and James Clyburn, Schneiderman emphasized the real voting challenges in New York are those that disenfranchise potential voters, rather than the “imaginary problem of voter fraud.”

“New York’s voting system faces many challenges,” Schneiderman wrote, with restrictive laws, rules and procedures, as well as administrative errors, that both legally and illegally disenfranchise New Yorkers seeking to exercise their right to vote.

Schneiderman’s letter came, he wrote, in response to an inquiry from the three members of Congress, all of whom are fellow Democrats, that came in the wake of President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally, costing him the popular vote during the presidential election. Cummings is the top Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; Brady is ranking member, Committee on House Administration; and Clyburn is Assistant Democratic Leader.

In a letter to election officials and attorneys general in all 50 states, the representatives asked for details like the identity of individuals who cast a prohibited vote, the date of the vote, the polling place where the vote was cast, the legal reason for the vote being prohibited, and whether the individual was prosecuted.

Out of the thousands of calls fielded by the Attorney General’s office during the four elections that took place in New York during 2016 (three primary days and one general election day), just two callers alleged voter fraud, according to Schneiderman. The Attorney General’s office investigated one claim and determined the charge was unfounded. The second caller did not provide sufficient information to warrant an investigation in that case.

Furthermore, the New York State Board of Elections has not referred a single allegation related to fraudulent voting during the 2016 elections to the Attorney General for investigation or prosecution, according to Schneiderman. “The lack of such complaints made directly to my office, as well as the absence of referrals from other agencies, leads me to conclude that voter fraud—the act of an ineligible individual casting a vote in an election—is a non-issue, at least in New York State,” he wrote in the letter.

Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have erupted on the local and national stages in the past year. In October 2016, Manhattan Board of Elections Commissioner Alan Schulkin came under fire after he was secretly filmed alleging that rampant voter fraud exists in New York City, enabled, in part, by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s municipal identification program (which has no relationship with voting given that New York does not have voter identification laws). Schulkin, a Democrat, also claimed organizations in certain neighborhoods bus voters around between districts to fraudulently win seats, apparently making the case for Republican-backed voter ID laws.

At the time, City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito blasted Schulkin’s claims as “uninformed opinions” with “no basis in fact” while Mayor Bill de Blasio called for his resignation. Democratic Party leaders decided not to reappoint Schulkin after his term ended in December 31, 2016 -- he continues to serve, though, until a replacement is named and confirmed through the City Council.

Trump’s more recent theory that thousands of voters were “bussed in” from Massachusetts to New Hampshire during the presidential election have since been discredited even by the president’s closest aides.

Voter access continues to be a problem given New York’s antiquated electoral system, which has drawn the scorn of many elected officials, advocates, and everyday New Yorkers. In December, the Office of the Attorney General released a comprehensive report detailing the many issues voters faced at the polls during the April 2016 presidential primary election.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio outlined a series of voting reforms he wants to see, including early voting and same-day voter registration.

As he has before, Governor Andrew Cuomo included those measures and others in his 2017 State of the State policy agenda.

Attorney General Schneiderman recently introduced the New York Votes Act, which seeks to address many of these ongoing issues by updating the state’s voting systems through early voting, automatic and same-day registration, consolidated primaries, shortened party registration deadlines, and more. Schneiderman also recently filed suit against the New York City Board of Elections for widespread violations that illegally purged over 200,000 New Yorkers from the voter rolls.

Republicans in the state Senate continue to form the most obvious and entrenched blockade to most of the voting reforms being sought by Cuomo, Schneiderman, and others.

“Our democracy is ailing, with too few eligible citizens registered to vote, too few of those who are registered exercising this fundamental right, and too many states devising methods to suppress the vote, rather than encourage participation in our nation’s elections,” Schneiderman wrote to members of Congress. “We would be happy to work with Congress to solve these problems – many of which persist not only in New York but also in states across the country – rather than seek to address the imaginary problem of voter fraud.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

As Con Con Debate Heats Up, Heastie Declares Opposition

Heastie Cuomo

Speaker Heastie, right, & Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)

While it will be several months before the airwaves are flooded with special interest-backed ad campaigns warning of the potential “dangers” of a constitutional convention, in Albany, legislative leaders are beginning to speak out on the issue.

On Saturday, February 18, at Black and Latino Caucus weekend, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had one message for labor union leaders: make sure your members vote “no” on the upcoming ballot question. This November, New Yorkers will vote on a referendum whether to call a constitutional convention -- an opportunity for the public to “take back state government” and update the antiquated state constitution that occurs once every 20 years.

While a Con Con, as it is often called, would provide a chance for enacting reforms on things like government ethics, term limits for elected officials, modernized voting and voter registration rules, and more, it would open up the entire state constitution to change. To some, including government reform groups and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, this promises an incredible opportunity. To others, like Heastie, it appears too risky.

Like many state and city elected officials who spoke at Saturday’s labor luncheon, Heastie cited threats to progressive institutions posed by President Donald Trump’s administration as he urged union leaders to oppose the convention.

“We are going to need you to remind people that dangerous things can happen,” said Heastie in his remarks. “There are some very wealthy people who want to open up the constitution and really undo some of the protections for labor. We need your help and cooperation to make sure that doesn't happen.”

If voters approve the convention this November, each of the New York’s 63 state Senate districts will elect three delegates in 2018, triggering a convention for the following year. Any constitutional amendments proposed by a convention would need to be approved by voters before they would take effect.

Heastie’s fear that the convention would be coopted by certain interests has been raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But while Democrats say a convention could lead to the dismantling of labor and environmental protections by conservative interests, Republicans say they are concerned that New York City’s progressive interest groups would dominate the convention.

Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, said, “The convention could be dominated by New York City special interests, which would be disastrous for Upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.”

Like other lawmakers, Flanagan, of Long Island, has also argued that a constitutional convention would cost millions of dollars at a time when New York has other, more pressing needs, and it is unlikely to produce much change.

Flanagan’s position stands in sharp contrast to that of Assembly Minority Leader Kolb, an Upstate Republican who has been on the front lines advocating for a Con Con, and the reforms it might bring, since 2011. In a column earlier this month, Kolb once again laid out the case for a convention, and urged voters to consider a “yes” vote.

“Voter empowerment is part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation,” he wrote. “There is no more effective way to engage the public than a Constitutional Convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany.”

The Assembly member -- who said he is interested in seeing the elimination of backdoor borrowing and term limits enacted in both houses, among other changes --- has spent the last five years campaigning with Con Con advocates like SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin and government reform activist Bill Samuels, participating in countless town halls and panel discussions to help get the word out.

“Those who like the way things are, whether it’s the legislature or special interest groups, they’re going to be adamantly opposed to this and that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Kolb. “But people work on fear and people say ‘the sky is falling!’ But it’s all predicated on establishing doubt that it could be worse than what they already have.”

Former State Assembly Ways & Means Chair Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, in a new book analyzing the potential costs and benefits of a convention, writes that in 100 years, only six amendments have been made through the convention and 200 have resulted from individual constitutional amendments. A constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, followed by voter ballot approval the following Election Day.

The last time a constitutional convention was called, in 1967, few changes were made and all those that were introduced were ultimately rejected by the voters. This occurred, at least in part, because many of the Con Con delegates were also elected officials, Kolb says.

While it is against the constitution to prohibit anyone from running as a delegate, Kolb has introduced a bill that would require any elected convention delegate holding political office or certified as a lobbyist to step down from the other positions to serve in that role. “I think that really strengthens a grassroots approach with the delegate selection process,” said Kolb.

Kolb’s concern about the makeup of the delegates is shared by many, including some prominent Democrats, like Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as government reform groups.

Since his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Cuomo has continued to express support for a convention, but, unlike last year, the issue was notably absent from his 2017 State of the State policy book and his executive budget. However, the governor did propose several reforms, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, same-day voter registration, and limitations on legislators’ outside income, which he says could be done through constitutional amendment. Cuomo has also indicated that a Con Con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans continue to control the state Senate.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, the governor waffled slightly on his previous position, saying that he conceptually supports the idea of a constitutional convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that."

Even Democratic legislators that are focused on government reform, such as Assemblymember Robert Carroll, newly elected from Brooklyn, and Manhattan Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, have said they are concerned with the delegate selection process, which allows the representatives to be determined based on heavily gerrymandered Senate districts. As a result, reformers fear that that some Republicans might dominate the convention and do away with labor and environmental protections.

Not all Democrats are opposed to the constitutional convention. Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and longtime advocate for government ethics reform, pushed for a “yes” vote in a June 2016 interview with Effective New York, the think tank founded by Samuels.

“We are in such need of dramatic change in the state that a convention would be a great way to kind of turn the whole thing over and start fresh,” said Gianaris, who also leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts. “It would involve real redistricting reform as opposed to the thing we enacted that won’t achieve the goals we all wanted of a truly independent process. Ethics reforms, including a full-time legislature, pension forfeiture for those convicted of crimes. The list is not short of the things we can do.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has hesitated to take a formal position on the issue, and did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that has formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans -- came out against the convention earlier this month, citing concerns for labor protections.

Kolb says he’s not worried about how a convention might play out. Regardless of which amendments the delegates propose, the decision would ultimately return to the voters.

“In the end, when I talk to people about it I say, ‘Is New York State working for you?’ And if your hand is up, then you probably won’t vote for the convention,” said Kolb. “But if you think New York State could be better, run more efficiently, run more cost effectively, answer to the people it represents, then here’s an opportunity to see it change.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, February 20

640px New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As usual, the Presidents' Day week will be a slow one as both the New York City Council and the state Legislature will be on break. Over the weekend, however, elected officials were busy in Albany, as the Legislature's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus held its annual Caucus Weekend celebration and conference. The event had a distinctly anti-Donald Trump flavor to it, with dozens of speeches critical of the new administration in Washington. New York City electeds, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James, were in attendance.     

In New York City on Sunday, thousands gathered at a rally led by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in Times Square, under the banner, "Today, I am a Muslim too," to protest President Trump's immigration policies and his executive order that sought to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The rally was organized by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and featured faith leaders and activists from the city. Mayor de Blasio also addresses the crowds.

The mayor has no events scheduled for Monday but he will make his weekly appearance at 7.pm. on NY1's Road to City Hall, hosted by anchor Errol Louis. 

Even with the two main legislative bodies on a break, there are several events to be aware of this week - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Schedules are largely clear for Presidents' Day.

At 7 p.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will appear on NY1's Road to City Hall.

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, City & State NY will hold “NY State of Finance.” This event will be “an educational day with the City and State’s finance experts, policy leaders responsible for expense, cost, investment and fiscal challenges in government.” This day will include five Power Panels on security, health care, infrastructure pension funds and nonprofits. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer will be the Keynote Speaker.

At 10:30 a.m., Mayor de Blasio will host a press conference on "the future of the Administration for Children's Services." The mayor is expected to announce his new pick to head the agency. 

At 11:15 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Republican mayoral candidate Paul Massey will "expose" Mayor de Blasio's "historic network of corruption" during a press conference.

At 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Comptroller Stringer will host a press conference "regarding major investor opposition to discriminatory Texas Bathroom Bill." 

At noon Tuesday, "students and community groups including Urban Youth Collaborative (Future of Tomorrow, Make the Road New York, Sistas and Brothas United), Desis Rising Up and Moving, The Point, Girls for Gender Equity, and Rockaway Youth Task Force along with Councilmember Antonio Reynoso will convene in front of City Hall to protest the unrelenting over-policing of students of color in New York City."

At 1 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, "Council Member Rory Lancman will hold a press conference along with representatives of lawyers organizations to identify specific actions Mayor de Blasio must take to protect Immigrant New Yorkers from possible deportation under Donald Trump, particularly treating fare evasion as a civil, rather than criminal, offense, as Councilman Lancman demanded in a letter to the Mayor on January 26, 2017." Participants will include Lancman, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services, and others.

At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the NYC City Planning Commission will hold a review session at Spector Hall, at 22 Reade St in Manhattan.

At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Senator George Latimer and Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer will hold a Community Budget Hearing at the Grinton I. Will Library Auditorium in Yonkers regarding the 2017-18 NYS budget.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Andrew Cohen will participate in a town hall at In-Tech Academy in the Bronx.  

Public Advocate Letitia James has three events scheduled for Tuesday - 

  • At 6:30 p.m., she will co-host "Bystander Intervention Training" with Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell.
  • At 7:30 p.m. she will deliver remarks at the full board meeting of Manhattan Community Board 11.
  • At 9:00 p.m., she will speak at the Queens Village Civic Association general meeting.

At the State Assembly on Wednesday:

  • The Assembly Committees on Health, Aging, and Labor, and the Task Force on People with Disabilities, will meet at 11 a.m. in the Assembly Hearing Room in NYC to conduct a public hearing to “examine the growing need for home care and personal care, and to examine the obstacles to recruiting, employing, and retaining an adequate home care workforce.”

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the NYC City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at Spector Hall, 22 Reade St.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, a public hearing regarding several revocable consent notices will take place at the Department of Transportation, at 55 Water St in Manhattan.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute will host “Realignment: Will America Forge a New Political Consensus,” featuring George Mason University School of Law professor F.H. Buckley, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, National Review editor Rich Lowry, and others. The panel will discuss whether “the inauguration of President Trump and an insurgent Republican administration marks the beginning of a fundamental political and social realignment.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, NY Indivisible, the local chapter of Indivisible, in partnership with the New York Society for Ethical Culture, "will be hosting a town hall in Manhattan to discuss how the average citizen can hold elected officials accountable to protecting the freedoms outlined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to support legislators at all levels of government who value country over party."

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Temple Emanu-el will host former Vice President Al Gore for a talk on the future of climate change policy.

At 10 am on Thursday, the MTA will hold a board meeting at the MTA Boardroom, 2 Broadway, 20th Floor, Manhattan.

At 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. will deliver his “State of the Borough Address.” This will be held at John F. Kennedy High School, which is at 99 Terrace View Avenue in The Bronx. People can RSVP through this link.

At noon on Thursday, the New York City Bar will host “Over the Rainbow: Ending Mass Incarceration - Fewer Inmates and Better Prisons,” featuring Pace University School of Law’s David Yassky and Michael Mushlin. This event was originally scheduled for February 9 but was rescheduled due to snow.

"Gramercy Stuyvesant Independent Democrats, in coordination with Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), Downtown Independent Democrats, Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, Manhattan Young Democrats, New York Progressive Action Network and Village Independent Democrats, will hold “Election Reform: Elections Don't Have To Be Like This!” on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 7:30pm at the Seafarers International House located at 123 E 15th St in Manhattan." Panelists: Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh; Lourdes Rosado, Chief, Civil Rights Bureau at the Office of the Attorney General; Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director, New York City Board of Elections; Sarah Steiner, Election Lawyer; former Chair of the Election Law Committee of the New York City Bar.

Friday and the weekend
No events on our radar as of Monday, but Mayor de Blasio is expected to make his weekly Friday morning appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m.

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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Benjamin Brachfeld and Samar Khurshid

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, February 13

Gotham Gazette:

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver his State of the City speech on Monday evening at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, likely touting the accomplishments of his first three years in office as he gets ready to face reelection later this year. In announcements last Friday and over the weekend, the mayor revealed a few of the major initiatives he will include in his speech -- a $1.9 billion investment to increase affordability at 10,000 units of housing for seniors, veterans and low-income New Yorkers; a new Elder Rent Assistance Program for 25,000 seniors that would be funded through the mayor's proposed Mansion Tax; and a $93 million program to provide free legal services for tenants in housing court. 

A nonpartisan City Council special election is scheduled for Tuesday in Harlem's District 9 for the seat vacated by Inez Dickens, who was elected to the state Assembly in November. Since it is a special election, no party primary was held and each candidate is running on their own party line. Special elections tend to draw few voters to the polls and the winner, out of nearly a dozen candidates, will likely be decided by a small number of votes. The new council member will serve through the remainder of Dickens' term and be up for reelection later this year. 

On Thursday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be giving her State of the City speech in Brooklyn, her final one as speaker as she will be term limited out of the Council this year. 

Up in Albany, budget hearings continue as the Legislature examines Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive budget which was released last month.   

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?
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The run of the week in detail:

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Juvenile Justice will meet to discuss several proposed laws on youth in detention facilities, a proposed law on “requiring the administration for children’s services to maintain electronic health records for youth in the juvenile justice system,” and a proposed resolution asking New York State to amend an article of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will hold an oversight hearing on one question--”How can public transportation better serve the needs of New York City residents?”
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Technology will meet to discuss a proposed law on electronic emergency notifications.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss four proposed laws on the commercial rent tax.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Parks and Recreation will hold an oversight hearing on “an update on the status of the Parks Without Borders initiative,” and to discuss proposed laws that would deal with pedestrian access to park facilities and “the naming of 40 thoroughfares and public places.”

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday.

The New York State Board of Regents will meet on Monday.

On Monday at 8 a.m., NYU Wagner and the Center for an Urban Future will hold a policy symposium titled “Driving Innovation: Can Cities Serve as Models for Solving Some of the Nation’s Biggest Domestic Policy Challenges?” At this symposium, the participants will grapple with the question of whether cities will be able to maintain, or even accelerate, progress under the existence of the Trump administration. The speakers include Nigel Jacob, Co-Chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in the City of Boston; Christiana McFarland, Research Director at the National League of Cities; Josh Moskowitz, Director of Global Public Affairs at Citi; Michael Nutter, Former Mayor of Philadelphia; and Mindy Tarlow, Director of the Mayor's Office of Operations in New York. This event will take place at NYU’s Puck Building (295 Lafayette Street) in the Rudin Conference Room (2nd Floor).

On Monday at 9 a.m., Riders Alliance will hold a rally on the steps of City Hall on MetroCard fares.

At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on environmental conservation in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

At 11 a.m. in Albany on Monday, Senate Democrats will hold a news conference at the Capitol calling for action on raising the age of adult criminal responsibility in New York. 

At 12 p.m. on Monday, New York City Council members and business representatives from Manhattan will host a news conference at City Hall "in support of reforming the Commercial Rent Tax -- an unfair, 1960s-era tax that only applies to businesses south of 96th Street in Manhattan." 

At 12:30 p.m., members of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference and Assembly Democrats will "join Foreclosure Prevention Network Organizations to release a whitepaper and call for $30 million over two years for foreclosure prevention legal services," according to a press release. 

At 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Open Society Foundations of New York will hold a live webcast called “Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel.” At this event, Harvard Professor Michèle Lamont will discuss her book, which “illuminates the different kinds of stigmatizing or discriminatory incidents individuals encounter in each country, how they respond to these occurrences, and what they view as the best strategy—whether individually, collectively, through confrontation, or through self-improvement—for dealing with such events.”

On Monday at 7 p.m., Mayor de Blasio will deliver his State of the City speech at the Apollo Theater.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to discuss a proposed law related to “improving access to city services for limited English proficiency individuals.”
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to discuss the proposed Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act, a legislative package of thirteen bills, as well as a proposed law prohibiting the use of all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes in the city.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Women’s Issues and the Committee on Higher Education will hold a joint oversight hearing on “child care centers at the City University of New York.”
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet for an oversight hearing on the towing industry in New York City, and to discuss a proposed law that would increase the maximum charges for towing motor vehicles.
  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings and the Committee on Economic Development will hold a joint oversight hearing on “evaluating the City’s purchase of FHA-financed underwater mortgages through the Community Restoration Program.”

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday.

There will be a special election in City Council District 9 in Harlem. 

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the New York City Industrial Development Agency will hold a Board of Directors Meeting.

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the NYC Board of Correction will hold a public meeting.

At 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on elementary and secondary education in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a stated meeting.
  • At 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on transportation in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the Brennan Center for Justice will hold “The Future of Miranda: Police Practices and Power in the Modern Legal Landscape.” The symposium is centered on issues surrounding Miranda v. Arizona, a Supreme Court decision which had a major impact on law enforcement. The panels at this symposium “will explore the ways in which Miranda and related law-enforcement issues have evolved in the 50 years since the decision was issued.” People can RSVP through this link.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m., the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs will hold a discussion with DCA Commissioner Lorelei Salas.

At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will hold a hearing on New York City’s proposed budget.

At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy will hold “Can we Put a Price on Student Achievement?: Financial Returns for Academic Success.” The speakers are Eric A. Hanushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research; and Henry Levin, the William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Columbia Teachers College. These two speakers will be in conversation with David Steiner, Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, and Professor of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Councilman Corey Johnson will hold a Community Resource Fair. This event will talk about the various services and resources that are available to people who live in New York City.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute will hold a “Young Leaders Circle Forum With Matt Oczkowski.” At this event, Oczkowski, who is the Head of Product at Cambridge Analytica, will answer questions like these: “What can big data—and organizations such as Cambridge Analytica—do to shape the future of the electoral process around the globe? And how did Cambridge, in particular, use information about consumer behavior to shape messaging and maximize campaign resources to deliver Trump's unforeseen victory?”

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo will continue her “Community Exchange Series.” At this event, Cumbo will talk about “Land Use, Zoning, and Knowing Your Rights as a Tenant.” This event will take place at Medgar Evers College, which is at 1638 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Council Member Dan Garodnick will hold “Defending the Vulnerable: Call to Action on Immigration and Refugee Crisis.” This event “will cover a variety of timely issues -- from the Executive Orders to sanctuary cities, and much more.”


At 8 a.m. on Thursday, Crain’s New York will hold the “Crain’s 2017 Business Breakfast Forum: NYC’s Regulators.” At this event, top regulators in New York City “will discuss reforms they would like to see, how businesses can avoid trouble and their top priorities for 2017.” The regulators speaking at this event include Daniel D. Brownell, Commissioner and Chair of the New York City Business Integrity Commission; Mark Peters, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation; and Lorelei Salas, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. The moderator will be Erik Engquist the Assistant Managing Editor at Crain's New York Business.

At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on health/Medicaid in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

At 12 p.m. on Thursday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will deliver her State of the City Address. This will take place at Kings Theatre which is at 1027 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

At 12 p.m. on Thursday, the Manhattan Institute will hold “After Indian Point the Risks Of Renewables.” At this event, Robert Bryce, the Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, will discuss the issues he sees in the future once the Indian Point Energy Center closes.

Friday and the weekend:

The weekend of February 17 is Caucus Weekend in Albany. From 9 a.m. on Friday to 12 p.m. on Saturday, the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators and New York City Council will hold “Caucus Weekend.”

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, “Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and New York Urban League Honors Activist Organizations.” The three organizations which will be honored at this event are West Harlem Environmental Action, the New York Immigrant Coalition, and the NYS Nurses Association.

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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Brendan Birth and Samar Khurshid

Attorney General Unveils Sweeping Voting Reform Package

Schneiderman releases voting reform legislation

Attorney General Schneiderman with voting reform advocates outside Federal Hall (photo: @AGSchneiderman)

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled an extensive voting reform package Wednesday that aims to streamline New York’s voter registration system, boost voter participation and increase voter turnout.

Standing with elected officials, good government groups, union members, and voting reform advocates outside Federal Hall in Manhattan, Schneiderman released the legislation, called the New York Votes Act. The bill contains provisions to update the state’s voting systems by adding early voting, automatic and same-day voter registration, consolidated primaries, shortened party registration deadlines, increased language access at the polls, online absentee ballots, and more. “Any law that makes it easier to vote is a good law; any law that makes it harder to vote is a bad law,” said Schneiderman, in a statement Wednesday. “New York has long been a bastion of democracy, but our state’s current system of registration and voting is an affront to that legacy.”

New York State has seen abysmal voter turnout for years. In 2014, the state ranked 49th of 50 in the country, with just 29 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the general election. While other states have tweaked their voting laws to encourage participation, voter turnout in New York has only grown worse, with just 19.7 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries.

Many of Schneiderman’s proposals grew out of the findings and recommendations from a December 2016 report produced by his office on the problems that voters faced during the presidential elections. The attorney general’s office was flooded with thousands of complaints of problems at the polls during April’s primary as well as hundreds during the November general election. These barriers, and the subsequent victory of Donald Trump, a historically unpopular president, have spurred renewed interest from New York’s top elected officials in modernizing the state’s electoral system.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a fresh push for reform in the weeks leading up to election day. On Wednesday, the mayor praised Schneiderman’s proposal, in a statement saying it would “help bring New York up to speed and ensure New Yorkers statewide aren't turned away from casting their ballots as a result of senseless roadblocks.” Governor Andrew Cuomo has also pushed strongly for voting reform, making it a key platform in his State of the State agenda this year.

Schneiderman’s bill, which encompasses both Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s voting reform proposals, will be sponsored in the state Assembly by Assemblymember Michael Cusick, a Staten Island Democrat who chairs the body’s election law committee. “This legislation, aimed to simplify the voting process and improve voter accessibility, will give citizens a better opportunity to participate in the democratic process by increasing voter participation across New York State,” said Cusick, in a statement.

In previous years, similar voting reforms were passed by the Assembly and backed by Senate Democrats, but were ultimately blocked by the GOP Senate Majority. Schneiderman’s sweeping legislation, however, appears to have gained an added push from the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- an eight-member body that has formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans. The legislation will be sponsored by IDC member Senator David Carlucci, and the body’s seven other members will co-sponsor the bill, IDC member Senator Diane Savino told the Staten Island Advance.

IDC Leader Jeff Klein commended the attorney general’s legislation in a statement, saying, “The Independent Democratic Conference has long been an advocate for making our election process simpler and more accessible for all New Yorkers."

Good government groups, many of which were represented at Wednesday’s news conference, applauded Schneiderman’s proposal to modernize the state electoral system. “New York ranks consistently as one of the nation's worst in terms of voter participation, driven by state laws that create obstacles to voting,” said Megan Ahearn, program director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, “Much of the rest of the nation has developed practices that improve voter turnout. The Attorney General's package relies on those best practices.”

Barbara Bartoletti, Legislative Director for the League of Women Voters of New York State urged the Governor and the Legislature to act on the reform as soon as possible to ensure that voters do not face barriers in future elections. “Laws that would allow for automatic voter registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and consolidation of primary elections will empower voters and give greater access to the ballot,” she said.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Citing Trump Threat, Assembly Passes New Immigrant Protections Along With DREAM Act


Assembly Speaker Heastie (photo: @CarlHeastie) 

The New York State Assembly passed a slew of bills on Monday aimed at protecting immigrant New Yorkers in the wake of the federal government’s anti-immigrant crackdown which sparked protests at airports around the country last week.

The legislative package, called the New York State Liberty Act, prohibits city and state law enforcement officials from unnecessarily questioning someone’s immigration status, decreases jail time for misdemeanor offenses, and protects the privacy of data collected through New York City’s municipal identification program. The Act, which was first announced at a news conference on Monday prior to the legislative session, was passed in conjunction with the Assembly’s fifth passage of the New York DREAM Act, which provides tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants attending higher education institutions.

The first bill, which dictates how police and government agencies may interact with immigrant New Yorkers, was sponsored by Assemblymember Francisco Moya, a Democrat from Queens who also sponsored the DREAM Act bill. “Immigrants are a vital asset to our nation and their contributions are undeniable in New York's communities, work force, colleges and universities,” Moya said, in a statement. "Our conference has been championing the DREAM Act for years and the stakes have never been higher. We cannot stifle the potential of thousands of New York students in the name of moral high ground."

The Liberty Act would also prohibit state and local agencies from expending resources to help the federal government create or maintain a database or registry based on race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or national or ethnic origin -- a response to President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” an executive order barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. The president’s order was suspended by a federal appeals court over the weekend.

The second half of the Assembly’s legislation wades into a political tug-of-war between Mayor Bill de Blasio and a pair of Republican state lawmakers over New York City’s policy towards undocumented immigrants and what will become of the data associated with New York City’s municipal identification program (IDNYC).

The IDNYC program, launched by de Blasio’s administration in 2015, aimed to remove barriers that some New Yorkers face in obtaining identification -- including undocumented immigrants, the homeless, transgendered individuals, and the formerly incarcerated -- granting them access to important city services. So far, the city has received more than 900,000 applications for IDNYC.

The IDNYC law included a clause allowing the city to flush certain information from the records after two years, or before December 31, 2016, a clause the city was ready to invoke in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and his vow to deport all undocumented immigrants. Assembly Members Ron Castorina and Nicole Malliotakis, Republicans from Staten Island, argued that the city would pose a risk to national security by deleting that information, and sued the administration, making the case to a Richmond County Supreme Court judge that it would violate the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which bars the destruction of city records. The lawmakers dispute privacy violation claims noting that FOIL law allows documents to be submitted with redacted information to protect individual privacy. A judge ruled in December that the city could not purge the data until the lawsuit was resolved. 

Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat, and chair of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, the sponsor of the new bill, noted that New York City residents signed up for municipal IDs under the impression that records would be sealed, so any inquiry into the information should be denied under FOIL exemption. A second bill sponsored by Crespo reduces the maximum sentence for misdemeanor offenses by one day from one year to 364 days, an apparent technicality that could potentially spare thousands of immigrants from deportation under federal law over certain lesser offenses. Some misdemeanor offenses can result in automatic deportation because of New York State's current sentencing standards, a harsh mandatory consequence for misdemeanor conviction. This bill would allow judges to use discretion in whether deportation is warranted for each individual case.

Citing the current anti-immigrant political climate, Crespo said, “Immigrants make substantial contributions to our communities and are being scapegoated by the White House. Now more than ever, we must take a stand against those who wish to cast millions of hardworking people to live in the shadows."

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio has vowed to protect the identities of IDNYC cardholders at all costs. "We are not going to sacrifice half a million people who live among us and are part of our community," de Blasio told reporters days after Donald Trump won the presidency.

Monday’s vote in Albany also marked the fifth time the New York DREAM Act has been passed by the state Assembly since 2010, when the federal version of the DREAM Act -- one that would put undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship -- died in the United States Senate. In 2014, a version of the New York DREAM Act was voted down in the state Senate by a tiny margin, despite having support of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- an increasingly powerful breakaway group of Democrats that aligns itself with Republicans. Two democratic senators, Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, who also caucuses with Senate Republicans, and Ted O’Brien of Rochester, voted against the act. The IDC leadership has indicated that the conference will continue to push for the DREAM Act. IDC member Senator Marisol Alcantara, who was recently elected to the Senate and became the sixth Democrat to join the conference, told Politico New York that passage of the DREAM Act is on the top of her agenda for 2017.

At the Monday news conference, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said he hoped the Senate would once again take up the bill and pass the DREAM Act. “Let’s hope that this is the last time you have to come up to ask us to get the DREAM Act done,” Heastie told the crowd of activists and Dreamers who had gathered at the Capitol.

When asked how the new legislation and the DREAM Act would interact with Cuomo’s Excelsior scholarship -- which provides tuition free college for middle class New Yorkers, and includes a provision for funding for Dreamers -- Heastie said the plan was a good one, but the Assembly would counter it with their own version of the scholarship.

“Of course we support helping our Dreamers go to college; they’re interconnected issues for us, because we have an overall feeling that we like to see as much access as possible for our young people that are here in the state of New York,” Heastie said. “The premise of the governor's proposal...we’re OK with, but we are going to come out with our own vision.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.


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