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Citing Cronyism, Tenant Members Resign from Westchester Rent Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Wright Runs for Congress as Tenants Champion, to Mixed Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Buffalo Billion Probe: Bad Apples or Broken System?

cuomo buffalo billion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Comptroller Calls for State Budget Transparency, 'Fiscal Reform'

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Comptroller DiNapoli (photo via The Comptroller's Office)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 9

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The run of the week in detail:

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

At the City Council on Monday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the City Council on Tuesday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Kelly Fan and Ben Max

Lobbying, in Albany, for Better Voting Laws

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Students in Albany to lobby for voting and registration reform (#VoteBetterNY)

Before dawn on a cold and rainy May morning, about 175 New Yorkers gathered outside a building on Church Street, waiting to board a bus to Albany. Some had left their Staten Island and Queens homes as early as 4 a.m. to make departure on time, others had taken the day off work or school, all were there for the same reason: to meet with state lawmakers and convince them to modernize New York’s antiquated election laws.

Four buses pulled into the state capital a few hours later and members of the Vote Better NY coalition lined up on the stairs of West Capitol Park, behind the New York State Capitol Building, for a rally calling for passage of legislation to enact early voting, automatic voter registration, and better ballot design. These reforms, advocates say, would help to increase New York’s dismal voter turnout by making it far easier for New Yorkers to register to vote and to cast their ballots.  

The May 3 trip to Albany, the rally, and the 74 meetings with legislators and the governor’s office scheduled for the day were organized by NYC Votes, the non-partisan voter engagement campaign of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Tuesday marked the third annual NYC Votes lobby day, wherein New York City residents head north to Albany by the busload to push for voting reform, and the delegation has nearly doubled in size since last year when about 100 people attended, up from about 50 the first year.

“We still vote like it’s the 19th century and voters are sick and tired of election laws designed to benefit elected officials, rather than the voters,” said Onida Coward Mayers, director of voter assistance at NYC Votes.

“You know how they say, ‘there’s an app for that’? Well, there’s an act for that,” Mayers said, referring to the Voter Empowerment Act, a voting reform bill package that would expand online registration, allow certain government agencies to automatically register citizens to vote, extend party change and registration deadlines, and permit pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. “Voters in 37 other states have early voting,” Mayers added, “Why not New York?”

The Vote Better NY coalition was joined for its rally by two state Assembly members and four state Senators, all of whom have either introduced or sponsored voting reform bills supported by the coalition, some of which have passed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly for years, only to die every time in the Republican-led Senate. The exclusively Democratic group of lawmakers present at the rally made their support for voting reform clear as ever, and repeatedly expressed exasperation at the lack of support for such reforms from their colleagues “across the aisle,” creating a situation where those who profess their support for voting reform offload all of the blame for the lack of movement on the reforms onto those who do not support the legislation.

“We get it, we are sponsoring these bills, we have been trying to get [reform] through for years,” said Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “The last time we were able to do something significant [on voting reform] was when Democrats had the [Senate] majority.”

There has been record turnout in nearly every state that has voted in primary elections so far in the presidential race, Senator Michael Gianaris said, except New York. The Empire State has the second lowest turnout rate of any state so far this year, with just 19.7 percent of the voting eligible population casting a ballot. “All these other states, where they’ve enacted these reforms, have record turnout. The answers are simple, they’re staring us in the face,” Gianaris said.

“Why is it so hard to do something that should be so easy?” Gianaris asked, referring to getting these “common-sense” voting reforms passed. “Because there’s a lot of people in that building who want fewer people to vote because it benefits them winning,” Gianaris said, gesturing toward the collection of government buildings in the Empire State Plaza.

While it’s true that many Senate Republicans either don’t support or outright oppose many of the voting reform bills that have been introduced time and again in Albany, as Democratic Senator Brad Hoylman said when pressed to specify who was “standing in the way” of these reforms becoming law, “It’s important that everyone here get the Senators and Assembly members on the record as to whether they oppose or support extending the franchise…We can go to each Senator, Republican and Democrat, and ask them to cosponsor these bills.”

kavanagh voter better nyAfter the rally, members of the Vote Better NY coalition set out to change the minds of those not on board themselves, breaking off into groups of six or seven and heading into the labyrinth of the Legislative Office Building to meet with lawmakers. They were armed with messages of enfranchisement and efficiency, and checklists of legislators who have said they support early voting, the Voter Empowerment Act, and the Voter Friendly Ballot Act.

One group, made up of three members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and three representatives from DYCD NYU Lutheran Family Health Centers, had their first meeting of the day with Senator Jeff Klein’s office. The meeting apparently went well, though Gotham Gazette can’t say for sure, as Dan Levin, assistant counsel to Klein, said their office “doesn’t do meetings with reporters,” and asked this reporter to wait outside, despite offers not to take any notes.

Members of the voting reform group expressed frustration with the fact that, though Klein’s counsel said the Senator is supportive of the voting reform bills, as leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, Klein could do more to get Senate Republicans to support such reforms. The IDC and Senate Republicans have a power-sharing agreement that gives the five-member IDC more sway than mainline Democrats, who are led by Stewart-Cousins. Klein has not signed on as a sponsor of any Vote Better NY bills.

After the meeting with Levin, the group left Klein’s office, heading toward a newly-booked meeting with Senator Andrew Lanza, a Staten Island Republican.

“They call this ‘the million dollar staircase,’” one aide from Klein’s office quipped as she walked past the group, “because they say it cost a million dollars.” The inside of the connected government buildings that spanned the Empire State Plaza are more ornate than their gray exteriors with dark, thin windows, let on - white marble spans the majority of the interior, the "million dollar staircase" that actually ran over its million dollar budget, a part of a wall in the central hall with water cascading down it, a McDonald’s, and a Dunkin Donuts all inside the building’s winding halls.

After waiting just long enough for members of the group to become bored enough to flip through a copy of the New York Post lying on Lanza’s waiting room table in search of the tabloid’s Met Gala photos, the group’s captain and the CFB’s public affairs officer, Amanda Melillo, was told that Lanza would be free later on, and to come back any time. (When the group returned about an hour later, Melillo was told that the senator was busy and instructed to leave some material for Lanza to read).

The group wound back through the halls, stairs, elevators, and escalators of the disorienting Legislative Office Building and its connecting tunnels to their next meeting, with Senator Simcha Felder. The Brooklyn senator is perhaps the most important person determining the upper house’s balance of power - he’s elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans, and has recently created a 32-member majority in the 63-seat chamber.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I was teaching him how to tap dance,” said an aide who stopped striking the floor with her foot and moved to stand behind the main desk in Felder’s waiting room upon the group’s arrival.

Though the group was scheduled to meet with Felder himself in about ten minutes, with his tap dancing lesson cut short, Robert Farley, senior counsel in the New York State Senate, offered to meet with the group right away instead.

Gotham Gazette remained for this meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes. Throughout the discussion, Farley expressed skepticism, disapproval, or outright rejection of every voting reform put forth by the group.

Melillo and others spoke about the many issues New York City voters encountered during the April 19 primary, including the fact that some 126,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn had been removed from the voter rolls, and that many New Yorkers had showed up to the polls on election day, only to be told that they were not registered to vote and must sign an affidavit ballot instead.

“A lot of people think they’re registered and they’re not,” Farley said, generally dismissing the group’s assertion that many of these people were registered to vote and were unable to cast a regular ballot. The bills at hand would, in part, make it easier to register to vote.

One member of the group, Rosa Velez, told Farley that she had worked as a poll worker on several occasions, including during New York’s most recent primary, said she “had so many people cursing me out at the primary - it was so stressful, people would walk in and I would just hope their name was on the list.”

“One woman who showed up to vote showed me on her phone that she was registered, but her name wasn’t on the list,” Velez added. “I told her she could fill out an affidavit, but she said, “no, f*** this, I’ve been voting for nine years, I want to vote the regular way.”

Melillo and Daniel Cho, director of candidate services at the CFB, then brought up online voter registration, and the potential of online and automatic voter registration to increase the number of registered voters and reduce the number of clerical errors made with the current mostly pen-and-paper system.

“Every time you do reform, there’s going to be problems,” Farley responded. “I don’t know how much doing another reform actually is going to change the problem, with people not doing their jobs right at the Board of Elections.” Farley added that electronic voter registration has its problems as well, citing the potential for hacking or voter fraud.

“I’m a tech guy, I love technology,” Farley said, gesturing un-ironically to the decade old desktop computers in his office, one of which was displaying bubbles bouncing around the screen. “But tech in and of itself can create more problems.”

Resigned, the group brought up New York’s closed primaries and early party change deadlines (New York is the only state where the deadline to change one’s party does not even fall within the same calendar year as the primary). Farley also didn’t believe open primaries or a later party change date would benefit New Yorkers, citing concerns of voters switching parties to game an election by voting against a candidate they didn’t like.

When early voting was brought up, Farley said “We do have early voting, we have absentee voting,” and dismissed assertions that absentee voting in New York requires an excuse. “The BOE never checks,” he said.

Somewhat dismayed by Farley’s lack of receptiveness to any of the voting reforms Vote Better NY was there to promote, the group headed to meet with Jacob Wilkinson, counsel to Senator David Valesky, a Syracuse-area Democrat. Wilkinson was more open to hearing what members of CFB and DYCD NYU Lutheran Family Health Centers had to say, taking a photo with the group and expressing support for early voting, though he shared some of Farley’s reservations about open primaries. “The restrictions on voting are a little silly and backwards, except open primaries, that’s a different story,” Wilkinson said.

Before heading out, the Vote Better NY coalition delivered a petition for reform signed by more than 6,500 New Yorkers to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

Melillo says Vote Better NY branched out in terms of the legislators they sought to meet with this year, including more upstate representatives like Valesky.

Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs at the CFB, was part of the group that met with staff to Flanagan, Cuomo, and Heastie. He said that Flanagan’s staff had expressed reservations similar to those Farley had about passing voting reform - namely, concerns about the cost, whether they would be unfunded mandates, and questions about potential for voter fraud.

After meeting with lawmakers, those who had come along with the Vote Better NY coalition boarded their respective buses back to New York City around 4:30 in the afternoon, though the buses didn’t take off till about twenty minutes later, when a man carrying several pizza boxes across West Capitol Park handed the food to Melillo and other NYC Votes members.

The voting reform advocates who went to Albany on Tuesday included members of good government groups like NYPIRG and the League of Women Voters, civic engagement groups like Dominicanos USA and Generation Citizen, students, fraternity and sorority chapters, engaged citizens, and other groups like the NAACP and the New York Immigration Coalition.

“At the end of the day,” Friedman said on the bus ride back, “you want there to be the same concern for folks who are shut out of the process” as there is for the cost of funding and implementing voting reform bills. “Making sure the election system works for everyone shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said.

“The system that we have in place works for the people in power,” Friedman continued, adding that sustained momentum is needed to make more modernized election laws a reality for New Yorkers.

It’s not enough for lawmakers who say they support voting reform to pass “a one house bill,” Friedman said, the question is, “are you going to make it a priority in that room, are you going to put it on the table?” referring to negotiating rooms.

The early voting bill active in the Assembly is sponsored by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, and has seven Democratic co-sponsors. Early voting in the Senate is sponsored by Stewart-Cousins and co-sponsored by 16 other Democrats. No Republicans have signed on to either bill.

The Voter Empowerment Act active in the Assembly is sponsored by Kavanagh and co-sponsored by 17 other Democrats and one Independence Party member, Fred Thiele. The Voter Empowerment Act active in the Senate is sponsored by Gianaris and co-sponsored by 17 other Democrats. No Republicans have signed on to either bill.

The Voter Friendly Ballot Act active in the Assembly is sponsored by Kavanagh and co-sponsored by 20 Democrats. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act active in the Senate is sponsored by Tony Avella, a member of the IDC, and co-sponsored by three mainline Democrats. No Republicans have signed on to either bill.

With the most recent budget negotiated, lawmakers are now in the legislative session that runs until the middle of June. The entire state Legislature - 63 Senate and 150 Assembly seats - is up for election in the fall.

“The individual legislators need to stand up and support these bills as much as possible,” Friedman concluded as the bus came to a stop outside the CFB’s building on Church Street around 7 p.m.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to list the accurate sponsorship numbers of the early voting, voter empowerment, and voter friendly ballot acts.

5 Things State Lawmakers Can Do To Prevent Another Silver

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Silver, Cuomo, and others (photo via The Governor's Office, 2013)

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was perceived by many to be an institution of state government. Having served at the head of the Democrat-controlled Assembly for over a decade, Silver’s rule was iron-fisted and opaque - he could end a political career on a whim, kill a major policy initiative with a quiet grumble, and maneuver millions of dollars in state cash to recipients of his choice.

That all ended last year when Silver was indicted by the U.S. Attorney on multiple corruption charges and voted out of leadership. For a few weeks he sat at a desk like a rank-and-file member of the chamber he once dominated. Even then some legislators thought there was a chance Silver would survive the scandal, but that was until he was convicted on all counts in late November. On Tuesday, Judge Valerie Caproni reminded Silver of the finality of his conviction, sentencing him to 12 years in prison, ordering him to pay back more than $5 million in ill-gotten riches, and fining him $1.75 million.

“I hope the sentence I impose on you will make other politicians think twice, until their better angels take over,” Judge Caproni told Silver. “Or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out one’s golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”

As tough as Silver’s sentence might seem, there are a number of reformers that fear it is just another in a parade of sentences handed out to state legislators who violate the public trust and that without real reform politicians will be able to continue using their power to earn outside income that is tied to policy decisions, that they’ll be able to steer state funding to those they do business with.

Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) told reporters at a press conference a little more than an hour before Silver’s sentencing that he feared Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators will be content to act on only one reform measure this year: the first vote of two that is required to change the constitution so that lawmakers convicted of a felony are stripped of their state pensions. Both Silver and former Senate President Dean Skelos, also convicted late last year of public corruption, are set to receive hefty pensions.

“If that’s all they did they might as well not do anything,” said Horner. “You would think that going to prison would be a far more scary prospect than a loss of pension,” Horner said, noting that prison terms have not yet proven to be a real deterrent. Silver is joining a long list of former New York legislators to serve prison time.

NYPIRG and other government reform groups including Common Cause NY, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters NYS, and Reinvent Albany held simultaneous news conferences in Albany and New York City on Tuesday to call on lawmakers to act to prevent corruption in state government. They released a list of five reforms they want to see enacted immediately.

Good government leaders and reform-minded legislators say that the Legislature needs to take action to focus on preventing crimes instead of worrying about how to punish legislators once they have already been committed.

“What we want today are preventive measures,” said Laura Ladd Bierman of League of Women Voters. Reformers are calling, she said, not for more punishments, but for “things that prevent [corruption] in the first place.”

On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Todd Kaminsky was sworn in after winning the special election to replace Skelos. Asked by reporters if he thought there would be any consequences to the recent ethics scandals, Kaminsky said he thought his election was one direct consequence.

“I think my election is one of those results of what happens when you don't get reforms. I took a seat that was held by the same party since I was in first grade,” said Kaminsky, himself a former federal prosecutor of public corruption who helped put crooked New York lawmakers behind bars. “Things don't change lightly, they change when there are big seismic changes and I think thats whats happening.”

Silver’s replacement, current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, struck a somber tone with reporters, but said that it was time for life to go on and that most state legislators are good, hard-working people, though there are always a few bad apples in every industry.

Later on Tuesday, Kaminsky issued a statement on Silver’s sentencing, saying “justice was served.”

“But the fight to clean up our government is far from over,” Kaminsky said. “Silver's sentencing should serve as a reminder that serious changes still need to be made in Albany. Our elected officials must act swiftly and strongly before the legislative session is over to put an end to the parade of corrupt politicians who have cut taxpayers out in our state for too long.”

Largely similar to the list put forth by reformers on Tuesday, here are five things lawmakers can do over the next few weeks to help limit corruption in New York:

1. Ban or Limit Outside Income
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 budget proposal included a bill that would restrict lawmakers outside income to 15 percent of their legislative salaries, which are currently $79,500 per year, mirroring the Congressional model. Silver was convicted of receiving payments from a law firm for which the only service he provided was referring sufferers of a deadly form of cancer.

Silver steered state funding to a doctor who in turn provided Silver’s law firm with the name of Mesothelioma patients. The arrangement earned Silver over $3 million in referral fees.

A number of other legislators work or have worked as counsel to law firms that may have business pending before the state, others have worked as lobbyists or consultants. Backers of Cuomo’s plan and ones like it say that legislators’ first loyalty should be to the people of New York and not to an outside employer.

However, legislators complain that their annual salary is not adequate. A pay commission is currently considering raises for the Legislature and the executive branch.

The Assembly has advanced its own bill to limit legislators’ outside income to almost $70,000 annually, a number that represents about 90 percent of current legislative salaries.

Senate Republicans have balked at the idea of limiting outside income. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who left his outside practice when he replaced Skelos last year, has said he opposes a ban or strict limits. Republican Senator John DeFrancisco has argued that a ban would dissuade well-qualified people from public service. “I think you’re eliminating a lot of good people in government,” DeFrancisco told State of Politics in January. “If anyone really thinks creating a professional politician is going to root out corruption, where that politician is required every two years to win an election, I don’t think that’s a road to any less corruption.”

Kaminsky disagrees. On Tuesday after his swearing in, he said, “To have both leaders of both houses convicted and not having moved on outside income is unconscionable. We’ve got 21 session days starting in about ten minutes, so let's get to it.”

2. Create Stronger Budget Oversight and Transparency
In a new report, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli criticizes this year’s budget for relying on lump sum appropriations. Silver was able to tap into hundreds of thousands of dollars of those sums to provide support for the doctor who provided him with referrals. The funds are not subject to public scrutiny.

Good government groups want such lump sums either banned or included in a newly created database to track exactly who requests the cash, who ends up spending it, and how it is spent. A Citizens Union report recently revealed that the 2016-2017 budget contains $2.4 billion in lump-sum spending.

3. Confront Pay-to-Play
Entities with business before the state are also some of the biggest campaign contributors. Good government groups say it creates at the very least an appearance of an inherent conflict of interest wherein those who give the most end up with favorable legislation, state contracts, and business subsidies. New York City currently places very strict limits on campaign donations from anyone with business before the city as part of its public-matching program, which the state does not have.

In another part of his scheme, Silver encouraged real estate groups with business before the state to use a law firm he was connected to in exchange for kickbacks from the firm. Real estate interests are some of the biggest donors in the state and have been allowed to negotiate policy by Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature.

4. Close the LLC Loophole
Real estate and other groups have been able to game the state’s already lax campaign finance limits by using a loophole that allows the creation of mysterious limited liability corporations with the express purpose of donating to favored politicians. “We have the highest limits in the country of any state that has any and even those limits get circumvented,” said Horner.

Leonard Litwin - who had previously been the largest campaign donor in the state - described to prosecutors how he and his corporation, Glenwood Management Inc., used the system to get around contribution limits.

Richard Runes, a lobbyist overseeing Glenwood’s government relations, detailed the process during Silver’s trial, saying: “I would take the checks, and I would attach my business card to the check with a paper clip, put it in a 1200 Union Turnpike envelope, and deliver it to whichever campaign committee it was going to,” referring to Glenwood’s address.

5. Ethics Watchdog Independence
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), tasked with policing lobbying and ethics in the state, is renowned for its opaqueness and lack of major action. The body is made up of legislative and gubernatorial appointees, and the three chairs it has had in its short existence have all served as aides to Gov. Cuomo (one of them even returned to Cuomo’s direct employment after leaving the body).

The commission has routinely been crippled by infighting, with legislative appointees calling for less influence from the governor’s office, and JCOPE largely conducts its business in secret. The appointees of both Silver and Skelos have lingered on after their bosses were convicted of public corruption.

“We need to have a much better enforcement mechanism,” said Horner. “The fact that JCOPE has been relegated to the sidelines shows the need for better enforcement. We shouldn't have to rely on the federal government to police the state. We don't want a group that is solely a creature of the Governor and Legislature.”

“JCOPE needs to be an open entity,” Horner added. “It’s a public ethics watchdog, we should know as much we can know about it within reason.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect the two Tuesday news conferences and that a list of reforms was put forth.

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

Takeaways from New York Presidential Primary Voting

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Donald Trump (photo: @realDonaldTrump)

In the 2016 New York presidential primary, Hillary Clinton won the greatest portion of New York City’s Democratic vote share by a better margin than pundits expected, substantially increasing her votes in predominantly black communities from 2008 and also receiving solid support from a number of traditionally white, liberal areas.

For Bernie Sanders, reports said he was trying to emulate the campaign that liberal upstart Zephyr Teachout ran in the 2014 gubernatorial primary, and expand the support she got in many of the small, rural areas that she did well in against incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo and Clinton are seen as of the same centrist wing of the Democratic Party. Sanders, who operates to the left of the party, was not extremely successful in expanding on Teachout’s support, but he did do well and even received a majority of votes in some surprising neighborhoods not known as liberal strongholds.

The primary, especially for Democrats, was decided along the lines of candidates’ institutional and grassroots support networks, and demographic voting patterns, both familiar and new. Clinton won very few counties outside of New York City, but in the city, where roughly half of all Democratic voters in the state reside, she won competently in most election districts. In areas of New York City where support for Sanders was strong, the margin of victory was often smaller, whichever candidate won.

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There are over five million registered Democrats in the heavily blue state of New York, of which 2.76 million live in New York City according to the state Board of Elections. Roughly one-third of them, both state- and city-wide, turned up to the polls to vote on their party’s nominee for President. Secretary Clinton, who beat Senator Sanders with 58% of the state’s Democratic vote, did especially well in more urban areas, winning New York City and Long Island counties, as well as a few suburban counties just north of the city, but lost in almost every rural upstate county.

In the Republican primary, Donald Trump won all but one county statewide, receiving 60% of the 874,572 Republican ballots cast across the state. Of the close to 12 million registered New York voters, 3.2 million could not vote in either primary because of their enrollment status. Only registered Democrats and registered Republicans can vote in New York’s closed primaries, voters not registered in a party or registered with a party other than the two major ones were not eligible to vote.

In New York City, where John Kasich won Manhattan (New York County), the only county in the state that did not go to Trump, the number of Republican voters - 70,000, according to CUNY Graduate Center’s NYC Election Atlas - was nearly three times the GOP turnout of the 2012 primary. Still, close to one-third of the city’s 5,400 election districts saw fewer than five Republican voters at the polls. In almost 500 of them, no Republicans voted.

Clinton’s strongest support came from places with concentrations of middle- and upper-middle class New Yorkers, and in predominantly African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods, like the north Bronx and southeast Queens. She often received more votes in communities of color than she did in 2008 against now-President Barack Obama, even when the voter turnout was below the city-wide average this time around, according to CUNY.

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Election maps provided by the WNYC Data News Team, indicate that Clinton’s two best neighborhoods in New York City in terms of the portion of the vote share she received were on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Rugby-Remsen Village in central Brooklyn. East and central Brooklyn are areas that are predominantly African-American and Afro-Caribbean. While the primarily white, middle-class Upper East Side saw above average voter turnout, according to the NYC Election Atlas, the turnout in central Brooklyn was mixed and in east Brooklyn it was below the city-wide average turnout by Democrats per election district. Clinton won in those places by wide margins - at least 2:1 - despite the lower turnout.

The neighborhood where Sanders received the greatest majority of votes was Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where a larger percentage of Democrats showed up to vote than the city-wide average. Although Clinton received a higher number of votes there than she did in the 2008 primary, Sanders still won 63.8% of the vote share - his highest margin.

In Steinway in northwest Queens - another one of Sanders’ best areas by vote share, along with Breezy Point, parts of Bay Ridge, and the South Shore of Staten Island - Clinton received far fewer votes than she did in 2008.

In New York City, many of the places Sanders did well - Greenpoint, Astoria, Bay Ridge - are places that have seen or are beginning to see major demographic changes that come with gentrification. Especially in these areas, “hipsters” have become an emerging demographic of increasing political influence in elections.

“If you think about these as young people,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, who studies city election trends, “somewhat more artistically inclined, somewhat more involved with gig economies, perhaps less likely to be employed by an organization that provides health insurance, perhaps closer to or still immersed in the experience of paying off college debt - there are lifestyle implications and there are time-of-their-life-cycle implications that suggest a set of experiences that would be consonant with and responsive to the Sanders message.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Sanders’ victories along the south shore of Staten Island, where 30,467 of the 119,328 registered Democrats there cast their ballots. Staten Island does not have an influential “hipster” demographic, nor a particularly strong liberal base. When asked about it, Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service, responded, “Why?...I have no idea...I don’t even want to speculate. It’s just odd.”

In the Republican contest, Trump won 63% of the New York City vote share despite losing Manhattan, where Kasich received 45% of the 25,000 Republican votes. Trump’s best victories in the entire state were on Staten Island where he won 82% of the vote. He also did quite well in many predominantly white, conservatively-inclined communities in Queens, such as Middle Village and Howard Beach.

Statewide, Trump received a lot of voter support in the suburbs of New York, especially Suffolk County on Long Island. He also did well in the partially more-urban Erie County, home to Buffalo, where he had the endorsement of Carl Paladino, the high-profile businessperson who had strong backing from voters in western New York when he ran for Governor in 2010.

In the Democratic primary, Sanders won every upstate county above Orange and Westchester, except Erie, Monroe, and Onondaga, all of which have major cities where Clinton excels.

democrat state

In New York City, Clinton also won large swaths of the northwest Bronx, southeast Queens, and east Brooklyn with over 70% of the vote share, all of which are predominantly African-American or Afro-Caribbean, and all of which saw below average turnout at the polls. In these areas, Clinton received more votes than she did in 2008, sometimes by triple digits, according to the CUNY election study, which is based on unofficial results provided by the city Board of Elections.

When asked why he thought Clinton received greater support from black voters than she had in the last Democratic presidential primary in New York, Romalewski told Gotham Gazette, “I think conventional wisdom is that...she was not running against Barack Obama, a historic African-American candidate, and in 2008 Barack Obama did very well in those areas - the only areas of the city she did not do well in.” It is likely, Romalewski said, that in 2008 there was “a strong connection between black communities and the black candidate. In 2016 that wasn’t the case.”

This, combined with the Clintons’ robust support from urban and black Democrats across the country, Romalewski said, is a plausible explanation of her new successes in those areas of the outer boroughs, even with the decrease in voter turnout. “So that’s one theory and probably the one that people tend to think of first off.”

“When you look at the patterns of where she picked up more votes between 2008 and 2016,” Romalewski said, “it also happened to be where Mayor de Blasio, or candidate de Blasio, in 2013 did well. And not just in predominantly black communities, but also in the Park Slope area and Clinton Hill and along the East River in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, those areas. So it’s possible that de Blasio’s endorsement of Clinton helped prompt more voters in those communities to support Clinton over Sanders.”

The south and central Bronx, largely Puerto Rican and Dominican areas, also saw a landslide Clinton victory with below average turnout.

In addition to being a group that Clinton has historically received strong support from, the active competition with Sanders may have forced her to make further commitments that resonated with Puerto Rican and other Latino voters. “She took a much stronger stand on Puerto Rico, when...she typically wouldn’t speak out against hedge fund people...That’s her crowd,” Theodore Hamm, chair of journalism at St. Joseph’s College and an open Sanders supporter, told Gotham Gazette. “Because Sanders was competing, [Clinton] was also forced to spend a lot more time...in New York City.”

Clinton’s visit to a NYCHA building in East Harlem with City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito just days before the primary, where she promised more funding for affordable housing, is another example of this. Following the visit, said Hamm, she made “commitments that she hadn’t made, that she probably wouldn’t have made without being challenged.”

Hamm believes the effect of the Sanders competition was positive, at least for the politicians embracing Clinton, who wanted to leverage their endorsement. The additional heat brought on by deep Sanders campaigning in the city “allowed Melissa Mark-Viverito and others to sort of step in and say, ‘OK well we’re gonna wholeheartedly support you, but then you gotta take a few stands that we want.’”

The strength of their support networks for both Democratic candidates was fundamental to the outcomes of the primary, even as the nature of their support differed greatly. Clinton owes part of her victory last week to returning, longtime supporters and the networks of politicians and political groups who ushered them to the polls - Clinton was, of course, a Senator from New York for eight years. Many of the places she did best, including her two strongest micro-areas - the Upper East Side and Rugby-Remsen Village - saw a relatively small increase in Democratic registrants who have not voted in a presidential primary before.

Calling the state a Clinton “stronghold,” Hamm said, “Clinton has been around for a while now in New York. She’s got pretty much all the Democratic politicians in her camp. They have their networks and they’ve turned out their voters, a lot of them older.”

While her political machine in New York allowed for a decisive victory last week, what that means for the future is completely unclear, Hamm believes. “I don’t know if she could do this again four years or eight years from now, or if someone who is sort of attaching themselves to the Clinton legacy, and so on, could pull this off. They would really need to get younger voters into the mix,” he said, referring to the fact that Sanders continues to dominate Clinton among young voters.

In the Sanders camp, support came from activist bases and on-the-ground networks. Part of his unexpected success in places like Bay Ridge and southwest Brooklyn is likely due to the strength of grassroots networks there. “I’m sure part of it had to do with the ground game,” said Romalewski. Almost in the next breath, however, he said, “I’m sure part of it had to do with New York City voters in some places being unpredictable.”

“There are definitely some political activist bases” in Bay Ridge, said Hamm on the subject, “Linda Sarsour, for example. Perhaps the Muslim vote was significant there - or helps explain that.” The demographic of voters in Bay Ridge, Hamm added, may also be more inclined to vote for Sanders than Clinton, even without pointed support from leaders like Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. “Hillary actually won most of the low-income neighborhoods in the city, but most of them are predominantly black or Latino...This is a lower-income white and immigrant neighborhood now - Bay Ridge. There is not a large black population.”

But despite the get-out-the-vote efforts in Bay Ridge, neighboring communities in southwest Brooklyn saw turnout below the city-wide average and still went to Sanders. This may partially be explained by the growing number of young people in this area, who express support for Sanders, but many of whom are not registered Democrats.

“It’s so difficult to tell when the turnout is low,” said Birdsell, “and particularly when a neighborhood is in transition, as Bay Ridge clearly is right now - repopulating from an old-line, ethnic community to a relatively young-family, new-hipster neighborhood community.”

The influence of Sanders’ and Clinton’s support networks made central Harlem a closer battle than many would expect of the predominantly black area where Bill Clinton has had an office since the end of his presidency. Voters there went to the polls in greater numbers than other mostly black neighborhoods. In central Harlem, despite the Clinton victory, Sanders received relatively more votes than he did in other predominantly black areas of the city.

According to Romalewski, “part of this probably depends on local efforts, grassroots get-out-the-vote campaigns, local district leaders, that sort of thing.” The proportion of white residents in Harlem is also growing, which may have impacted the strength of Clinton’s support there. While demographic data from the last six years is inconclusive, the number of white residents in Central Harlem South quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, with white residents making up 16% of the population in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Clinton still received a higher number of votes in central Harlem than she did in 2008.

For Republicans, the contest in Manhattan depended more on the affluent than on low- and moderate-income groups or people of color. Birdsell told Gotham Gazette, “This is sort of the home turf par excellence of silk-stocking Republicans of the old guard, and the corporatist Republicans of the perhaps not-quite-as-old a guard...and certainly not the pitchfork-waving loyalists of the Trump revolution.”

“So the notion that a candidate who presents himself as a more traditional corporatist Republican,” Birdsell continued, “who speaks more politely and talks about positive visions of the economy, even if at the end of the day the policies are, with certain signal exceptions, not strikingly different, that candidate is probably going to do better than someone who, despite being a millionaire and despite being involved in real estate of New York all his life, has hardly behaved like the discreet and genteel upper class that attracted that corner of the GOP.”

republican city

One of the only enclaves of Republican voters that supported Senator Ted Cruz in New York City was in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn where he won some votes but no delegates. “He’s the most pro-Israel of all three,” Hamm said. “I don’t know that Kasich is distinct in that...But Trump said he would be a neutral negotiator [regarding Israel], and so if that’s your primary issue...then [Cruz] was the one to go for, right? Because he has been pandering to AIPAC and the Sheldon Adleson crowd.”

Suffolk County, which Trump won with over 72 percent of the vote, is another notable site for Republicans because of the diverse demographic makeup of its conservative voters. It is one of the largest counties by area in the country, ranging from rural to suburban landscapes, with some areas, especially on the north shore, having very high household incomes. Romalewski told Gotham Gazette that he noticed something “interesting” about a week before the primary: The number of students that opted-out of the Common Core tests in Suffolk County towns like Brookhaven and others was very high. “It really struck me. I noted on Twitter that...it would be interesting to compare how well this overlays with Trump’s vote support.”

“I think that’s an indication,” Romalewski went on, “of people fed-up with the system and, to the extent that they’re enrolled Republicans, that means they’ll likely vote for the candidate who says he’s fed-up with the system.”

The surprises that have come out of the New York presidential primary, Romalewski ruminated, are “one reason why we have elections and don’t just rely on polling.” On a broad scale pollsters and pundits may be relatively accurate, he went on, “but people, when they make their decisions, they’re making their own decisions...There are unexpected results that reflect reality and what some New Yorkers are thinking.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, Gotham Gazette

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