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Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax'

linda rosenthal julissa ferreras copeland

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

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Buffalo Billion Probe: Bad Apples or Broken System?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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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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Decision Opens New York to Widespread Online Voter Registration

schneiderman rally

AG Schneiderman (photo via AG's office on flickr)

The office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued an opinion on Tuesday concluding that online voter registration is permitted by state law.

The opinion comes as a response to a request sent from Suffolk County to the Attorney General’s office in February for advice on whether implementing online registration, including the use of electronically handwritten signatures, would be allowed under state election law.

Schneiderman’s go-ahead to Suffolk means the county is free to expand online registration. “Thanks to this opinion from Attorney General Schneiderman,” said Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, “we can explore avenues to make voter registration more modern and help increase participation in our democracy.”

Currently, 31 states and Washington, D.C. offer online registration. New York is one of those states, however, voters can only register online through the Department of Motor Vehicles and must have a driver’s license, learner’s permit, or a non-driver ID card to register that way. The opinion from Schneiderman’s office allows counties to offer widespread online registration.

Additionally, the DMV’s voter registration system is not entirely paperless, as paper forms are still exchanged between the DMV and the State Board of Elections, meaning the administrative process is still paper-based, which runs the risk of losing forms or data entry errors from processing hand-written applications.

“We ought to modernize the election laws so that both registering initially and maintaining and updating the registration can be done online and automatically,” Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsors several voting reform bills, told Gotham Gazette during an interview earlier this month. “Both to give voters more control over the process and to minimize the extent to which there are errors in the rolls resulting from clerical errors from paper applications.”

The conclusion from Schneiderman’s office won’t do much to eliminate clerical errors from paper applications, however, as the opinion stipulates that, while voters may electronically sign their registration form, the registration form must still be “mailed to the board of elections by the applicant or a third-party.”

Still, Schneiderman hailed the opinion as one that opens the door to electronic signatures and expanded online voter registration drives. “At a time in New York where our citizens experience too many barriers to participation, I am gratified that this opinion invites a new era of truly online voter registration, an incredibly exciting step that will help make the state election process more accessible and simpler for all,” Schneiderman said in a statement announcing the opinion.

The announcement was applauded by Citizens Union, a government reform group. Its executive director, Dick Dadey, said in a statement that accompanied the attorney general’s notice, “We are thrilled that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued an advisory opinion stating what Citizens Union has long held – that current state law permits the use of an electronic handwritten signature for the purposes of registering to vote.”

According to Dadey, “The consequence of this opinion will hopefully increase ease of access to casting a vote and encourage many New Yorkers not only to register, which has been an outdated and cumbersome process for many, but also exercise their civic duty to vote. After many years of being able to pay their income taxes online, New Yorkers will be pleased to know that they now can register to vote online.”

Assemblymember Kavanagh and state Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, have pushed for years for the passage of the Voter Empowerment Act, which would expand online registration, among other reforms, yet the political will to reform New York’s outdated registration system has not been present in Albany.

The Voter Empowerment Act would expand online registration and require the state Board of Elections to make certain registration information available to voters online so they may update their information over the internet, which could improve the accuracy of New York voter rolls by reducing the number of outdated or duplicate registration records. It would also save the state and counties money by reducing costs involved with processing voter registration and maintaining an accurate list with the current error prone, paper-based registration system.

Kavanagh is hopeful that with the renewed focus on New York City’s dysfunctional Board of Elections and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s inclusion of proposals for early voting and automatic voter registration in his State of the State address, progress on the long list of voting reform bills in Albany may happen this year.

“I do think that what has happened leading up to the presidential [election] may be a spur for many real changes,” Kavanagh said, “A lot of people heard these concerns - legislators, the administration, the Board, and the press - so I do hope that this will be the start of some changes.”

The opinion from Schneiderman’s office comes one week after his his office's voter complaint hotline received a record number of complaints due to numerous errors made by the city Board of Elections during and leading up to the presidential primaries.

According to Schneiderman, his office ”received more than one thousand complaints" on election day, meaning about six and a half times more complaints were received that day alone than during the 2012 general election (150 complaints total in 2012).

Persistent problems with the BOE has led both City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Schneiderman to open investigations into an agency that Stringer has called “consistently disorganized, chaotic, and ineffective.”

Mayor de Blasio has also offered the BOE an additional $20 million in “incentive funding,” which the BOE may only accept on the condition that the agency signs a binding agreement to work with an outside consultant and elections experts to “identify and rectify systemic challenges within the organization.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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

Despite Concerns, BOE Commissioners Call De Blasio Referral Valid

de blasio testifying

De Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies are under investigation for using a common fundraising tactic employed in legislative races across the state. Risa Sugarman, the state Board of Elections enforcement counsel hand-picked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, kick-started the investigation with a criminal referral to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Now, as controversy swirls around the mayor, the degree to which he and his team exploited state election law could be what the case hinges on, experts say.

Sugarman’s memo, which was leaked to the New York Daily News and the New York Post, alleges that de Blasio’s allies funnelled millions of dollars through county party committees to specific Democratic candidates in a 2014 bid to flip control of the state Senate. Sugarman’s referral raises questions about de Blasio’s team’s practices, but also about why their use of the campaign finance system in such a way is under scrutiny when the practice appears routine.

“There is nothing novel about the 2014 Democratic Party campaign to elect Democratic candidates to the state Senate, other than your attempt to selectively criminalize it,” Laurence Laufer, an attorney for de Blasio and others targeted by the investigation, wrote in response to Sugarman. Laufer’s letter was made public over the weekend as de Blasio and his allies sought to respond to the news of the leaked memo and ongoing investigation.

Laufer continued, claiming: “Beyond the legal and regulatory issues implicated by your office’s memorandum being improperly leaked to the press, your memorandum reflects either a shocking lack of understanding or a complete disregard of the most fundamental aspects of the state’s election laws.”

While making this claim, however, neither Laufer nor de Blasio has explained how the mayor’s attempt to flip the Senate was legal. Laufer did not return a request for comment and when answering a series of questions from reporters on Monday at an unrelated news conference, de Blasio did not go into a detailed justification. Instead, the mayor said that others have done similarly while asserting “unequivocally” that he and his associates did not break any laws.

A look at the fundraising practices of candidates from both sides of the aisle involved in tight elections across the state generally reveals large donations from party campaign committees. State election law limits donations to candidates to $10,300, but the cap to state and county political committees is $103,000. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg used his fortune to bolster the Senate Republican Majority by large donations to their party accounts, which made their way to individual candidates. Assembly Democrats routinely use the tactic and Senate Democrats and Republicans have done the same during recent special elections. Donors are usually aware that their large donations to party accounts will be quickly sent out to candidates in tight races.

The question for many becomes: What is different about this case?

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he believes the case, as raised by Sugarman, rests on the ability to show coordination by de Blasio’s allies. He is not sure whether that will meet a legal test.

“The New York State campaign finance laws are such a disgrace already, but then they’ve created the ability to use the party committee to circumvent campaign limits. My understanding is the more explicit you are in how the money is to be spent the closer you get to trouble,” Horner said. “It's going from implicit, where everyone knows this is how things work, to being explicit and writing instructions on checks. But in the end it will be up to prosecutors to decide whether they think it is criminal.

Sugarman’s memo details that some checks being sent to county committees were labeled “per mayor” and alleges de Blasio’s allies effectively took over party committees, ensuring the large donations they solicited would go into a party account and then quickly out to a candidate.

“Based on the evidence that these transfers were pre-arranged, reasonable cause exists to believe that all the contributions were made to the county committees simply as straw donors. Therefore, they should be considered contributions to the candidates and subjected to the candidate’s contribution limits,” reads the memo.

Sugarman cites election law that states “willfully” collecting and coordinating donations “for the purpose of evading contribution limits” is a Class E Felony.

“It is my understanding that what makes this different was that donations were specifically earmarked for certain campaigns. That there was explicit coordination,” Richard Briffault, professor of law at Columbia, told Gotham Gazette. “How do you prove it? You have to get the right testimony to make the case.”

On Monday, de Blasio told reporters that all of his fundraising activities are vetted by lawyers and he is confident he violated no laws. "It's outrageous and, again, I don't know what's motivating it,” de Blasio said of Sugarman’s accusations, which had to be approved by BOE commissioners. “I think Mr. Laufer's letter raised a number of good questions about what might be motivating it, but the facts that he lays out about the consistency in our state law and the fact that my predecessor and so many other people live by those exact same standards, I think it speaks for itself."

Sugarman’s position was created in a 2014 deal between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature that saw the end of the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. The idea behind it is to give more teeth to enforcing election law.

Since starting at the BOE in September, 2014, just around the time de Blasio’s efforts to flip the Senate kicked into high gear, Sugarman has repeatedly butted heads with BOE commissioners who have expressed concerns that she has neglected routine enforcement - including reminders and fines for candidates that neglect their filings - and has refused to explain to them the standards by which she pursues investigations. Sugarman did not return a request for comment.

“I agree with Laufer’s memo and his concerns about selective prosecution,” Douglas Kellner, one of two Democratic BOE commissioners, told Gotham Gazette. “All four commissioners have been complaining Sugarman has not explained standards by which she refers criminal complaints or why she has abandoned the civil process of fining people who violate disclosure.”

Gregory Peterson, one of two Republican BOE commissioners, echoed Kellner’s concerns. “Every time we ask what her standards are she tells us it is her business,” Peterson told Gotham Gazette. “Selective enforcement is a slippery slope where you have to wonder whose agenda are you riding on? This case may have been selective enforcement, but I think she was right on.”

Despite their concerns about Sugarman’s approach, both Kellner and Peterson indicated they believe her take on de Blasio’s efforts to switch the Senate may be correct and warrant further examination.

“Without commenting on any particular case I can say there is nothing wrong with giving to a party committee. There is nothing wrong with transferring from a party committee to a candidate,” Kellner told Gotham Gazette. “But you can’t have an agreement to do all of the above.”

Peterson said similarly. “You can’t do indirectly what you can’t do directly,” said Peterson. When asked what makes the de Blasio case different from any of the many other instances of donors using party accounts to boost candidates, Peterson responded: “I think this one timing wise...it was done one, two, three, boom! A lot of times a union donates to a party account and it sits there for a while. In the mayor’s case you have a note saying ‘per the mayor’ and the money goes in and it goes out just as quickly.”

It will be up to investigators at DA Vance’s office to decide whether the tactics of de Blasio and his allies amounts to a prosecutable offense. Vance, a Democrat like de Blasio, works closely with the mayor’s administration. On Monday, as de Blasio repeatedly questioned Sugarman’s motivation, he said defiantly, “we welcome a full airing of the facts. I want all the facts out there because I’m quite convinced the facts will show that everything was done legally and appropriately.”

Regardless of whether the case comes to court a number of observers believe Sugarman’s memo could lead to more scrutiny of the use of party accounts in general.

“She may be inadvertently opening an attack on all committees and be setting a precedent,” said Horner. “How do you stop at just one?”

Still, Horner admits there is another possibility: “This may come down to the way people in Albany operate implicitly rather than explicitly. It may be possible for one to see the way things are done in Albany and out of ignorance act explicitly. Maybe you’re just not supposed to say the magic words.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Will for Water Contamination Hearings Nearly Vanishes

cuomo hoosick

Cuomo tours a water filtration area in Hoosick Falls (photo: Governor's Office)

A number of state legislators once eager to hold hearings into drinking water contamination by a cancer-causing chemical in the small town of Hoosick Falls now seem loathe to even discuss the matter. The change in tune by some seeking to hold the Cuomo administration accountable and ensure a public discussion of the issue appears to have accompanied the passage of the new state budget.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, announced in February that hearings would be held into the matter in April. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, chair of the health committee, and Assemblymember Steve Englebright of Long Island, environment committee chair, were set to oversee them.

Several lawmakers stressed the importance of using the hearings to discuss the state’s decaying water infrastructure and dealing with and preventing the kind of contamination found in Hoosick Falls, a village in Rensselaer County not far from the Vermont border. Others were interested in examining why it took the state a year to warn residents about the safety of their water after being contacted by concerned residents and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The topic of drinking water protection and infrastructure was put forward by some Assembly Democrats and their allies as one of the issues that needed more funding and could be provided for by the millionaire’s tax being proposed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

With the budget resolved at the end of March and April nearing an end, hearings have not been scheduled and lawmakers who were supposed to be involved don’t want to discuss them. The offices of Gottfried and Englebright failed to return inquiries into the status of the hearings. Neither did the offices of Senate health committee Chair Sen. Kamp Hannon of Long Island nor Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents Hoosick Falls.

A number of legislators and advocates are concerned the hearings were traded away in a budget deal, a concession won by the Cuomo administration. The Hoosick incident has proven embarrassing for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team - the administration was slow to respond and has sought to downplay criticism of how it handled the matter. The Cuomo administration did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the governor supports hearings.

Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents Hoosick Falls and surrounding areas, originally pressed for hearings and said he is concerned the hearings and, in turn, his constituents were used during budget negotiations. “I told them in February: ‘Don’t use my constituents as leverage,’ and it looks like that is exactly what happened.” McLaughlin said he wouldn’t be surprised to see federal hearings on the matter before the state takes action because Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson represents the area. Gibson’s office did not return an inquiry into whether he would support federal hearings. (Gibson has indicated he exploring a run for Governor in 2018.)

Concerns were raised in 2014 about the possibility of contaminated drinking water leading to increased cancer rates in Hoosick, a town of about 4,000. Emails obtained by The Times Union and Politico New York show that the state Department of Health resisted pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to warn residents about the safety of their water for nearly a year. It wasn’t until December 2015 that the EPA issued a warning to residents notifying them that their drinking water was testing well above acceptable levels of a chemical known as PFOA. The state declared it a disaster area and has since begun installing filters on local wells. Residents, meanwhile, are still scared that they face an increased risk of cancer.

Cuomo has lashed out at the EPA, criticizing the agency for not establishing the amount of PFOA safe to consume over the long-term. "Just pick it, you have the scientists, EPA," Cuomo said on March 14 during his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the water crisis began. "We want a national standard because this shouldn't be a question for anyone.

Cuomo came under considerable criticism for failing to visit the town for months after declaring its water unsafe to drink. Then, his Sunday morning visit was only announced to the press a few hours ahead and local officials were left in the dark.

“If this happened in Westchester there wouldn’t have been any hesitation to hold hearings,” said McLaughlin, who said he plans to press the Assembly to reschedule hearings immediately. “This is just shameful. I may just hold hearings myself. I don’t know who would show, but it can’t be ignored.” McLaughlin said he hasn’t been told directly the hearings are not happening. Heastie’s office did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the speaker still supports holding hearings. In February, Heastie’s spokesperson told Politico New York that the Assembly was planning April hearings.

McLaughlin’s counterpart in the Senate, Marchione, is considerably less troubled by a lack of hearings. She told Susan Arbetter on the Capitol Pressroom radio program in February, “We will discuss that [hearings] because whether the state didn’t move quick enough or whether they thought they moved fast enough, sometimes you have to hear from the other perspective why they moved slowly, when did they actually know?”

Marchione told Politico New York last week that she doesn’t want hearings until the Department of Health completes blood testing of Hoosick Falls residents. Her message echoes that of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who said in February he thought hearings should wait until after the problem is fixed. Fixing the problem is more important than figuring out who to blame,” Flanagan told Politico New York.

Flanagan’s office did not return request for comment on whether the majority leader still supports hearings.

McLaughlin said he is dubious of assertions that hearings should not be held while the problem is being solved. “The people of Hoosick Falls deserve clean water, but they also deserve the truth,” McLaughlin said.

Advocates say New York could lead on what has become a national focus by setting new drinking water standards, and holding hearings to examine the events in Hoosick Falls to determine how to best prevent and respond to contamination in other areas of the state.

“There is no doubt government needs to be held accountable,” said Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York. Senator Marchione publicly called for hearings and now she says we don't need them. This is very high stakes for her constituents and they will hold her accountable.”

In a March op-ed in The Times Union, Moran’s group wrote that ”Public hearings can also address the root causes behind such contamination: America's broken chemical policy of calling things safe until someone gets sick, and the lack of strong regulations and enough cops on the beat to keep people safe.”

While Moran said she is disappointed by the lack of hearings, she noted that the state budget does include some items that deal with the overall issue of ensuring clean, reliable, and safe drinking water across the state.

“Water safety is definitely something that is in the spotlight because of Flint [Michigan]. It is much more on the minds of New Yorkers,” Moran told Gotham Gazette, with an additional nod to Hoosick Falls. “There are lines in the budget to provide funding to detect water quality and a grant program to help repair aging water infrastructure. More can always be done but it's a positive step.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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