Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Pence Helps Rep. Collins Raise More Than $400k

Tuesday was a lucrative afternoon for Congressman Chris Collins. Vice President Mike Pence flew into Buffalo on Air Force Two and within a few hours had helped the Western New York Republican raise more than $400,000 for his reelection campaign.

The Collins campaign said there were more than 200 people in attendance for the luncheon at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster. The congressman said it was easily his most successful fundraiser, eclipsing visits from House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan in past years.

“A lot of people wanted to meet him, get their photos taken with him and we did have a small gathering of individuals that had some concerns and you know, when you have an event like that, you price it accordingly,” Collins said.

The tickets were priced at $2,700 per person or $20,000 for a table. Collins said the vice president spoke about the administration’s efforts so far including its Supreme Court and cabinet appointments, and “promises kept” like pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, and a focus on regulatory relief.

“It was just a positive message,” Collins said. “He spoke for 20 to 30 minutes to the entire group and it was very well-received. Again, he’s the consummate gentlemen, certainly recognized a lot of people in the room, thanked them for what they’ve done for the party and for me.”

The congressman said the money will be well-spent. With the money raised this week, his campaign war chest is nearing $1.5 million.

Since Democrat Erin Cole terminated her campaign, announced earlier this year, Collins doesn’t officially have a challenger for the 2018 mid-term election, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted his district and a handful of candidates are exploring a potential run. He said preemptively that loading up should make it difficult on anybody who decides to challenge him.

“There will be somebody running and we’ll have to monitor how serious they are. Are they going to raise money to be running commercials? Do we have to? The last two campaigns I have not had to spend money or run commercials because my opponent did not,” he said.

In the past, Collins has shared his coffers with other Republicans running for Congress across the country as well as various local committees. He said regardless of who runs against him, he expects to make more contributions as November 2018 approaches.

“You can never have enough money and partly what I do is help the team so some of this will be me sharing some of these funds with other members who are going to be in tough races, including the other eight Republicans in New York,” he said.

Erie County Democratic Committee Jeremy Zellner called the fundraiser “political payback” for Collins, who was the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president. He said the vice president did not deliver a message of substance to middle-class Western New Yorkers.

“What I’d like to have seen is delivering a message to Western New York that we’re here to help, that we’re here to help this community, but we’re getting a tax increase. They’re trying to take 600,000 people’s health care away from them, so wonderful for Chris Collins that he was able to have such a successful fundraiser while this community is suffering,” Zellner said.

The chairman acknowledged that fundraising is important but he believes the party is still in good position to unseat Collins. Particularly, he said allegations that Collins’ dealings with Australian pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics potentially broke House rules and federal laws are resonating with voters.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the congressman has paid law firm Baker Hostetler more than $160,000 since July.

Pence Heads To WNY

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit the Buffalo area today.

Pence will have a busy schedule after Air Force Two touches down at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, starting with a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Chris Collins, long an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, which is scheduled for noon.

Guests said they were notified of the location, Salvatore’s Italian Gardens, last night. Protesters, including opponents of Collins, plan to stage a rally outside the fundraiser.

“While Chris Collins holds a million dollar fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence on October 17th, citizens and friends of the 27th District will come together to give voice to the voiceless, and visibility to the invisible,” they said in a press release.

Pence’s appearance on Collins’ behalf comes on the heels of a revelation by the House Ethics Committee that there is “substantial reason to believe” the congressman engaged in insider trading and either took or requested official actions to benefit a biotech company in which he’s the largest shareholder.

The committee announced it would extend its review of whether Collins potentially violated federal law and House rules regarding insider trading under a procedure that does not set deadlines for further public announcements and rarely results in punishment.

Collins has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong.

Pence’s trip may indeed have been in the works for some time, but his decision to go ahead and attend an event with Collins is an indication that the congressman continues to have the support of the president.

Remember that Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign at a time when many of his fellow Republicans were running the other way. That no doubt counts for quite a bit in the president’s eyes.

Following the luncheon, the vice president will tour a local manufacturing facility and host a round table discussion about the federal tax reform plan being aggressively pushed by the White House. The fundraising event is private, but the roundtable will be open to a local media press pool, members of which were pre-selected.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer preemptively criticized Pence and the administration’s reform plan yesterday – particularly the proposed elimination of the State and Local Tax Deduction. They said eliminating the deduction will hurt many of the very same constituents the vice president will meet with today.

Schumer Challenges Pence On Eve Of WNY Trip

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a challenge Monday to Vice President Mike Pence who Is making a visit Schumer’s home state of New York. Pence will be in Buffalo on Tuesday to discuss the federal tax reform plan.

Schumer said Pence should explain to middle class families why the administration is proposing the elimination of the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction.

“Will Vice President Pence have the courage to answer questions about this deduction to answer questions about this deduction elimination?” he asked. “Will he tell middle class New Yorkers that they’re going to get a huge tax increase under this bill?”

Schumer said the deduction elimination would amount to a tax increase for thousands of middle class families across Upstate New York. He said it will result in home values decreasing and businesses choosing not to locate in the region.

“The state and local elimination is a dagger to the heart not just of Buffalo but of Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and all of Upstate New York,” Schumer said.

Organizer said Pence plans to have a round table at a so-far undisclosed location which will be open to a local press pool selected prior to the event.

Rep. Collins’ Opponents Pounce On Ethics Report

From the Morning Memo:

Opponents of Rep. Chris Collins saw an opening and quickly took the opportunity to condemn the Western New York Republican.

A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was released as part of the House Ethics Committee investigation, suggested Collins may have violated House rules – and possibly federal law – in his dealings with the Australian-based pharmaceutical firm Innate Immunotherapeutics.

Turn NY-27 Blue, a coalition of Democratic committees and grassroots organizations within the congressional district, sent out a press release blasting Collins shortly after the report went public. The group is actively recruiting a Democratic opponent to run against Collins in next year’s mid-term elections, and they insisted the congressman’s days in office are numbered.

“It has never been more obvious that the term ‘Representative’ is misapplied when it comes to Chris Collins, and the decision released today by the House Ethics Committee to continue its investigation of him reinforces that,” said Judith Hunter, the Livingston County Democratic Chair.

“His actions prove that his priorities are his own bottom line and those of his cronies’, not the interests of the hard-working voters of New York 27.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also said it’s looking forward to finding out how voters will react to the allegations against Collins next November.

There is substantial reason to believe that multimillionaire Chris Collins has shamelessly and unapologetically abused his position to enrich himself and his Republican colleagues, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. How do Western New Yorkers feel about Rep. Collins possibly breaking federal law by engaging in insider trading?” spokesperson Evan Lukaske asked.

Finally, an organization classifying itself as an “ad hoc coalition of Western New York Resistance groups” sent an open letter to the congressman that included a list of “general moral precepts” to help guide him through his remaining time in office.

They included:

  • Thou shalt resign from all boards and divest from all businesses that create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • Thou shalt represent all of thine constituents, not just the ones who voted for you.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thine constituents, thine press outlets, or thine political opponents.

For his part, Collins has consistently refuted claims he did anything wrong as the company’s largest investor. 

The congressman’s attorney said the recommendation by OCE for further review because there was substantial evidence Collins shared non-public information and took or requested official actions to benefit the company was a “result of a tortured interpretation of reality and also bespeaks a misunderstanding of the facts, the law, or both, and should be rejected.”

Attorney For WNYCPC Has Strong Words For Cuomo

From the Morning Memo:

Despite getting a victory in court earlier this week when a judge denied a motion to dismiss the case, the attorney for the coalition that wants to keep the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca had some harsh words for the governor.

The coalition argues that the state’s plans to move the facility to a shared site with the adult hospital in Buffalo amounts to closing it down, which they say the governor can’t do without legislative approval.

Attorney Steve Cohen said the state hasn’t even responded to the initial petition yet – a move he believes is designed to wear out the group’s financial resources.

“I have to anticipate appeals,” he said. “I think the governor wants to wear us out financially, because this is expensive and people are financing this litigation out of their own pockets.”

Cohen didn’t stop there, claiming Gov. Andrew Cuomo is threatening state employees, and even legislators, who might want to speak out against the move.

Democratic Assemblyman Mickey Kearns and Republican Sen. Pat Gallivan are leading the resistance, but Cohen said he believes other members of the Legislature would like to be more vocal – if only their fear of Cuomo wasn’t so strong.

“This governor has a lot of people scared,” he said. “There are members of the state Senate and the state Assembly who are frightened, who are saying: We’re getting some pressure from the governor now.”

In perhaps his most damning accusation against the governor, Cohen, both in court and following Wednesday’s proceedings, said he believes Cuomo wants to move what has been a successful and well-respected facility because he has plans for the land it sits on.

The attorney said he and others have tried to find out what those plans are, but are being stonewalled.

“What does Governor Cuomo want this land for?” Cohen asked. “What does he want to do with the beautiful park-like setting on which the Western New York CPC is located and the governor is mute. He doesn’t deflect. He just doesn’t respond to the question. He doesn’t say, well I haven’t thought about it. He knows what he wants to do.”

The governor’s office referred our request for a response to the state Office of Mental Health.

“We deal with facts, not conspiracy theories,” OMH spokesperson James Plastiris said. “Since the beginning of this process, OMH has been clear that relocation of WNYCPC will allow us to expand services to 1,000 additional children and families, increase coordination with local mental health systems, and provide opportunities for children to recover in a safe, secure and state-of-the art treatment setting. This is a win-win for the children and families of WNY.”

The Legislature did pass a bill to stop the children’s facility from moving, but it has yet to be delivered to the governor’s desk.


House Ethics Committee Releases Report On Collins’ Stock Dealings

According to a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, released Thursday by the House Ethics Committee, there is “substantial reason to believe” Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, violated House rules, standards of conduct, and federal law. At the recommendation of the office’s report, the committee is continuing to investigate the allegations, which surround Collins’ involvement with pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics.

The report, which was initially adopted by OCE in July, recommends further review of the allegation the congressman shared nonpublic information in the purchase of Innate stock. It also claimed there was substantial reason to believe Collins took official action or requested official actions that would benefit the company he had a significant financial interest in.

The office did recommend dismissing allegations the Republican purchased discounted stock that was not available to the public and that was offered to him based on his status as a member of the House. In his response, Collins agreed with that assessment but rejected the other two.

“Each recommendation is the result of a tortured interpretation of reality and also bespeaks a misunderstanding of the facts, the law or both and should be rejected,” his attorney said.

He told the House Ethics Committee the recommendations should be dismissed without further investigation and said the basis for the initial review were politically motivated accusations from Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.

“Many people, including many members of Congress from his own party, were concerned by his zealous pursuit of profits when he should have been representing his constituents,” Slaughter said. “Former Secretary Tom Price, who refused to cooperate with this investigation, was involved in this scandal and was eventually forced to sell the same stocks in question due to conflicts of interest. He ultimately resigned from the Trump administration as a result of his ethical lapses. Now, the Office of Congressional Ethics has found clear and convincing evidence that Congressman Collins likely broke federal law. He put his obsession to enrich himself before the people he swore to represent. It is a disgrace to Congress and to his constituents, who deserve better.”

OCE said it found evidence that Collins sent emails to shareholders with background information about the company, including information about the number of clinical trial participants and timeline, that were not disclosed publicly.  It also detailed communications between Collins’ office and officials from the National Institute of Health, potentially about the company.

The House Ethics Committee said it can’t make any other public comment until the initial review is completed.

Buffalo And Rochester Teaming Up In Pursuit Of Amazon

The Rochester and Buffalo metro regions plan to submit a joint bid in the highly competitive process to secure Amazon’s second headquarters. For the past month, the economic development arms of both cities had been putting together separate packages.

In a joint statement, Invest Buffalo Niagara and Greater Rochester Enterprise said it was apparent by linking efforts they could offer a proposal that is “both compelling and extremely competitive.”

Amazon said the new headquarters would bring up to 50,000 high-paying jobs over the next ten to 15 years. The Request for Proposals included a list of company preferences, including that the metropolitan area have more than 1 million people.

Both the Rochester and Buffalo regions have a little more than a million people each, which would have made them among the smallest cities applying. By combining, the agencies said the corridor will include a population of 2.2 million, a talented workforce, livable communities, and existing organizations that are excited to help entice Amazon to the area.

“This collaboration demonstrates the undeniable connectivity that already exists between our two great communities,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said in a joint statement. “In addition to several excellent site options and a low-cost operating environment, we believe that it is our people, highly-skilled workforce, world-class colleges and universities, and strong regional competency in radio-frequency identification, sustainable packaging, flight controls, drone technology, high-performace computing, software development, and data analytics that will help our proposal stand out.”

In addition to potentially eliminating concerns about lack of population, the collaboration also solves a potential dilemma for statewide and federal elected leaders. Few were choosing sides as the two cities, roughly an hour apart on the thruway planned to compete against each other.

Empire State Development has encouraged any region that qualified, including Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, and New York City to participate and has promised the state’s tax incentive package would be largely the same across the state. The two economic agencies have a week to finish the joint proposal before the October 19 response deadline.

WNY Competes For Even More Economic Development Funding

From the Morning Memo:

Starting with the Buffalo Billion and now Phase II of the governor’s signature economic development initiative, the state has made Western New York a priority for roughly the past half a decade.

As a result, members of the local regional economic development team know securing even more funding could be a big ask.

“It is a little bit difficult for us to win this competition because we already won over a billion and a half dollars in state support for our strategic initiatives including this one, Buffalo Manufacturing Works, but I would say this team is very impressed by the turnaround they’ve seen in Western New York and Buffalo in particular,” WNY REDC co-chairman Jeff Belt said.

The team is striving to put its best foot forward when it comes to New York’s annual regional competition. Every year it puts together a report on its strategy, progress and project priorities for the coming year.

On Wednesday, team members toured a number of projects in order to highlight what has already been done. The five-county region is focusing on key industry sectors, including advanced manufacturing, agriculture, bi-national logistics, energy, health & life sciences, higher education, professional services and tourism.

The latest report proposed new state investment of at least $20 million dollars, which the team believes it could use to leverage another $75 million in private investment. They said it would create 195 new jobs, 748 indirect jobs, and retain 290 existing jobs.

“Through the stops on today’s tour, the WNYREDC was able to showcase the priority projects that fit well into the council’s core strategies,” said the other Co-Chair and President of the State University of New York at Fredonia, Dr. Virginia Horvath.

“Our progress report demonstrates how we are moving forward and how we will continue to do so on our path to prosperity. The collective support of the state and the region as a whole over the last seven years has been the key factor in making sure Western New York has a bright future.”

Officials said the governor is expected to make a decision on additional funding in December.


EPA Responds To Schumer On Radioactive Sites

From the Morning Memo:

The EPA is responding to questions raised by U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer during a visit to Niagara County earlier this week about why the agency’s staff appeared to have stopped plans for remediation of three sites with radioactive waste.

The senator Monday said lack of funding should not be a reason behind the stoppage, and he vowed to restore any cuts to the EPA budget pushed forward by the Trump administration.

However, according to an EPA regional spokesperson, the work has merely been temporarily suspended -not ceased completely – until there is enough funding to finish the job.

“Since it is best to have all that we need to finish the job, combined with the fact that these sites must be weighed against other cleanup projects that post greater risks, we have suspended work until we can return in 2018,” Region 2 Press Officer Tayler Covington said.

The EPA said the first phase of the projects has been finished, and the material still on the sites doesn’t represent an immediate threat because exposure pathways have been contained with deterrents like fences, pavement and driveways.

“As long as the shielding (asphalt or concrete) is not broken and the fencing remains in place, exposures will be minimized to below that of concern,” Covington said.

Homeowners, meanwhile, maintain it’s virtually impossible to sell their homes until the clean-up is 100 percent complete. They also said the town of Lewiston so far has refused to reassess their homes for property tax purposes, which would ostensibly lower their annual bills.

At a press conference yesterday, the town supervisor said reassessment delay was due to the fact that remediation was still in progress. He promised the town would take another look at the situation once it has more answers from the federal government.

Schumer: Infrastructure Bill Could Mean Funds For Niagara Falls Water Plant

From the Morning Memo:

That inky black discharge in the water below Niagara Falls was back Monday morning. The city Water Board confirmed that “heavy and prolonged rainfall” caused an overflow from the wastewater system.

Those so-called discharges have happened numerous times and to different degrees throughout the summer and this fall, including one less than a week ago. Last month, the Department of Environmental Conservation asked the board to sign a consent order agreeing to no more discharges without consent.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, Monday in Niagara County, said another thorough investigation should be conducted.

“The first one they found was human error. That’s very bad,” Schumer said. “Hopefully they can correct that.”

The DEC said its investigation is ongoing and it’s unclear what kind, if any, further action it might take. For its part, the water board said the overflows can’t be avoided when the system hits capacity, nor can it control the color or cloudiness during a wet weather event.

Schumer did agree, the system needs updates, regardless of whether the people running the plant are doing their job correctly.

“I would say this, the infrastructure of our water supply here in Niagara Falls and in Western New York is old and we need a major infrastructure bill,” he said.

The Senate Democratic Leader is trying to strike a deal with Republicans and the president to dedicate up to $1 trillion for projects over a decade. Schumer said if they can pass a bill, the wastewater treatment plant would be the type of project that would have a good chance to get an upgrade.

“In the old days the federal government would pay 75 percent,” he said. “We got cleaner water, better water, etc. Hopefully we can restore that if we do a major infrastructure bill and this is just what an infrastructure bill is aimed at.”