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.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Seneca Stalemate Could Mean Trouble For The Falls

From the Morning Memo:

The city of Niagara Falls receives millions of dollars worth of casino revenue annually from the Seneca Nation, but that money is currently in jeopardy.

In 2002, the tribe signed a compact that required it to share 25 percent of all slot machine revenue from its casinos with the state, which subsequently doles out the cash to local communities that host the casinos.

But the Senecas believe their next $30 million dollar payment to the state will also be their last.

“Per the plain language of the compact, the revenue share contribution exists for fourteen years; this is not new,” tribe President Todd Gates said.

Despite the fact the city could be facing a major shortfall, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster is putting his faith in the governor’s office. In a short statement, he reiterated the Cuomo administration’s stance that the money, legally speaking, is still owed.

“It has been and continues to be our understanding that the payment structure put into place under the compact and 2013 MOU is to be continued,” the mayor said.

“The City of Niagara Falls has received assurances from the State of New York that any assertions to the contrary are categorically incorrect. My administration is prepared to assist in brokering any dialogue necessary and looks forward to working with all parties to reach a solution. We will withhold making any further comment at this time.”

Niagara Falls Republican Party chairman Bill Carroll isn’t satisfied with that answer. He said the tribe has indicated it’s willing to negotiate with the local governments individually and the city should accept that invitation.

“I’m terribly concerned,” he said. “I mean the city’s been using almost a million dollars a month for the last four or five years of casino dollars to supplement the general budget, and it’s going to have a significant impact on the services that the city provides – on the ability for the city to make debt service payments and payroll and all the other commitments that they have.”

Carroll also believes constituents should be reaching out to their state legislators on this issue because it’s clear there’s been a breakdown in communication between all parties.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they’re (the Senecas are) making a statement,” he said. “I think at the end of the day it’s about communication and people taking other people for granted. This is something that has to be nurtured and developed.”

Carroll noted neither the tribe nor the city of Niagara Falls would benefit from an extended disagreement. The Seneca Niagara Casino remains not just a source of revenue but a major economic driver, and the casino, in turn, needs the city’s services to operate efficiently.

Former Niagara County GOP Chairman Pleads Guilty To Elections Violation

It’s a smaller, but maybe not insignificant, element of the George Maziarz probe that’s led to the indictment of the former state Senator and his successor Rob Ortt. Former Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtaszek pleaded guilty Wednesday to an unclassified misdemeanor for failing to file disclosure forms between 2012 and 2013.

His attorney Patrick Brown said the charges against Wojtaszek were generally-related to the probe. Brown said Wojtaszek has been cooperating throughout the investigation and he expects he will continue to do so moving forward.

Sentencing is later this year and the attorney said he expects a conditional discharge with a fine.

Higgins: AHCA ‘Screws’ Americans

From the Morning Memo:

Think Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins plans to vote for the American Health Care Act when the House votes on the bill today? Think again.

“They’re looking to screw the American people; this bill screws the American people,” Higgins said.

The Buffalo Democrat didn’t mince words about his feelings for the legislation, calling it a scam perpetrated on the American people.

Higgins said if the ACHA is passed, people between the ages of 50 and 64 will see premium increases and less health care, while insurance companies and executives get tax cuts.

“There’s an unemployment tax on the unemployed so if your insurance lapses because of unemployment, the insurance companies will hit you with a penalty that goes directly to the insurance companies,” he said.

Higgins said he won’t support an amendment introduced by his Western New York colleague, Republican Rep. Chris Collins, despite the fact it’s supported by the state Association of Counties and could provide mandate relief, explaining: “It’s an exchange for supporting this bill, and this bill is a disaster.”

This is something of a turnaround for the Democratic congressman, who over the weekend was saying he supports Collins’ proposal to have the state take over the counties’ share of Medicaid.

Higgins later said that upon taking a closer look at the amendment, he discovered it presents New York with a double whammy: the cost cuts it would face under the other parts of the health bill, along with the $2.3 billion it would lose annually from the counties. “New York State is going to get clobbered under this bill,” he told The Buffalo News.

Higgins said Congress should be discussing a way to leverage the 57 million Medicare participants and negotiate lower prescription prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Maziarz, Ortt Indicted On Felony Election Law Violations

We’ve learned Republican State Sen. Rob Ortt and his predecessor, George Maziarz, have been indicted on felony election law violations. A spokeswoman for Ortt confirmed the Niagara County-based senator faces charges for three counts of offering a false instrument for filing.

The news of the indictment comes on the same day Ortt volunteered to testify in front of an Albany County grand jury convened by state Attorney General Eric Schniederman. A spokesperson for Ortt told us earlier in the day the senator volunteered to testify as part of an investigation surrounding Maziarz. A source said he waived immunity.

“As someone who fought and sacrificed for our country, I am sickened that a career politician and hyper partisan like Eric Schneiderman can concoct baseless charges to serve his own political agenda. One thing is clear: the only reason I am included in this is to make their case politically appealing,” Ortt said in a statement.

“As multiple news organizations have documented, Eric Schneiderman has been obsessed with using his political office to persecute his political enemies and protect his political allies. We look forward to telling voters the truth about Eric Schneiderman and exposing him for the power hungry, political opportunist he is and I will fight this ridiculous charge.”

Ortt is being represented in court by Albany-area attorney Steve Coffey. Calls to the attorney general’s office have not yet been returned.

A source close to the Ortts said he believes the charges stem from an agreement the senator’s wife Meghan had with Synor Marketing and Regency Communications. Meghan Ortt apparently did graphic design work and was under retainer with company.

The source said payments were made directly to Mrs. Ortt, and all the appropriate disclosures were made.

WNY State Senator Scheduled To Testify Before Maziarz Grand Jury

A source confirmed state Senator Rob Ortt was scheduled to testify before a grand jury in Albany County this morning, in connection to an investigation surrounding former state Senator George Maziarz, the man he replaced. The source said the Niagara County Republican proactively requested to testify and has waived immunity.

The Buffalo News previously reported at least five Maziarz associates testified before the grand jury earlier this month including Ortt’s wife Meghan and state Assemblyman Mike Norris. They were reportedly granted immunity.

Ortt has also hired Mercury Public Affairs to represent him.

“Whether it has been as Mayor of North Tonawanda, a New York State Senator or as a decorated combat war veteran, Rob Ortt has always gone above and beyond to defend the rule of law at home and abroad. He felt strongly that he wanted to help the investigation in any way he could, which is why he is voluntarily speaking to the grand jury investigating George Maziarz and will answer any questions they may have,” spokesperson Andrea Bozek said.

Ortt was elected in 2014, after Maziarz, a long-time Western New York GOP power-broker, abruptly announced he would not seek re-election. Maziarz currently works for lobbying firm Patricia Lynch Associates.

Hawley Disapointed State Is Replacing I Love NY Signs

From the Morning Memo:

When a major wind storm knocked down the I Love NY signs along the Thruway in Assemblyman Steve Hawley’s Western New York district, he appealed to the state to please leave them down.

This occurred smack in the middle of an extended dispute between the federal government and the Cuomo administration about the legality of the signs, and Hawley said he even joked at the time that the storm was a sign from God.

“I thought that that would be a good time, since it hasn’t been resolved, just to leave them down, not spend anymore taxpayer money to put them back up,” he said.

No such luck. The Republican assemblyman posted a photo on Facebook of a crane replacing the sign earlier this week.

But he said he still believes the state, which has already spent millions to install the signs despite the federal government’s opposition, shouldn’t be spending any more public cash on this effort.

“I think that spending more taxpayer money renting cranes and having man hours there just is not an advisable thing,” Hawley said. “No business person with a situation like this would ever spend anymore money, especially taxpayer money, until it was resolved.”

Hawley also questioned the governor’s claim that the Thruway billboards are a significant moneymaker for the state, noting: “It’s pretty hard to put a straight dollar figure on whether the signs have generated these kinds of dollars,” he said.

The assemblyman said the money in question would be better spent on improving and/or replacing the state’s many deteriorating roads and bridges.

Slaughter Joins Collins Bashing Brigade

Rep. Louise Slaughter is the latest high-profile New York Democrat to criticize Western New York Republican Chris Collins for his role in the crafting of the American Health Care Act. The congresswoman called an amendment Collins made to the proposed legislation, which would effectively force the state to take on the counties’ shares of Medicaid, costs a gimmick.

Slaughter said the House plan would result in New York losing billions of dollars in federal funds and jeopardize hospital stability.

“Shifting the local cost share to the state is a political sleight of hand – if Republicans steal billions from New York to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy it doesn’t matter if taxpayers have to cover the cost at the county or the state level. Either way, Congressional Republicans are proposing New Yorkers pay for their terrible plan, and with this amendment, they would be sending our state a $4.7 billion bill,” she said. “If Rep. Collins thinks that’s a good deal, he’s not a very good businessman or representative for our state.”

Earlier this month, Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul ripped into the Collins amendment for it’s potential cost to the state and Governor Cuomo echoed many of those same sentiments yesterday.

Collins, meanwhile, has the support of the New York State Association of Counties and this past weekend touted the plan in a press conference with Erie and Niagara County leaders.

Poloncarz: Trump Budget Could Devastate County Departments

From the Morning Memo:

Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz believes President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget could mean major cuts to local services, saying the county stands to lose millions of dollars for departments and programs if Congress passes the spending plan without making significant changes.

The county executive had all of his department heads compile individual reports estimating the financial impact of the budget that was released last week. He presented the results during a press conference yesterday afternoon.

“Here in Erie County, the injurious effects of this budget will be felt by our children, our seniors, our working families, and all communities, especially in our rural areas,” Poloncarz said. “There will be more hunger, more homelessness, more public and mental health needs that go unmet, fewer protections for workers, and a rise in poverty.”

The Department of Emergency Services and Homeland Security said it could lose 25 percent of its funding. Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services is concerned about plans to completely eliminate the Home Energy Assistance Program (H.E.A.P.), of which tens of thousands of county residents take advantage.

Poloncarz also said losing environmental funding used to clean up the Buffalo River would be a major negative for the region, though he expressed confidence that the president’s plan won’t be approved in its entirety by Congress.

“This budget blueprint is not a final document,” he said. “And we need to urge our congressional delegation to preserve funding for these programs that are so integral to the quality of life here in Erie County. We cannot stand by idly and let the avarice, indifference, and misguided ‘priorities’ in this proposed budget go unchallenged or we will see all the progress we’ve made in the past few years rolled back.”

Western New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins, a Trump ally, has already promised to fight controversial cuts to programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Poloncarz said people should reach out to Collins and his fellow congressional colleagues with their concerns.

Federally-funded programs in the 2017 budget will not be affected by the proposed cuts, according to his office.

Collins Invites Constituent To Meet With Him During Live Town Hall Show

From the Morning Memo:

One of the constituents from New York’s 27th Congressional District who has been clamoring for a town hall meeting with Western New York Republican Chris Collins, got a chance to put her congressman on the spot Tuesday night. Renee Sutton traveled from her home in Canandaigua to New York City where Collins was a guest on The Messy Truth with Van Jones.

On the show both the host and members of the audience get a chance to ask questions. Sutton’s exchange with Collins took place live during the broadcast.

“How do you justify your appearance here tonight, national audience, here on CNN, outside of our district with an audience not consisting entirely of your constituents, when the actual people you represent are asking to meet with you and you’re refusing to do it?” she asked.

Collins responded that he meets with hundreds of his constituents every week at his district offices and in Washington. He maintained the stance he’s had for weeks now, that he’s never seen the value in large meetings where individuals protest and shout, in contrast to an actual give and take.

“These aren’t productive,” Collins told Sutton. “I would invite you to make an appointment. Let’s sit down in my office and talk about any issues that you have and I can promise you that will happen.”

Sutton seemed skeptical of his offer and after the congressman extended it for a second time, she asked him to please respond to her emails requesting a meeting.

That was the last exchange during Collins time on the program. Prior to Sutton’s question he spoke to the audience about health care, immigration and the opioid epidemic.

Collins, the congressional liaison for the Trump Transition Team, did appear to break from the administration on a few issues. Among the highlights he told Jones that apparent major cuts in funding to Meals on Wheels in the president’s proposed budget were not his plan. He noted he oversaw the program when he was Erie County Executive.

“Meals on Wheels is a wonderful program. It is one I would never vote to cut even one dollar.”

Democratic Party Chairs In NY-27 Condemn Collins Upcoming CNN Appearance

On the same day Western New York Republican Chris Collins will appear for a town hall on CNN, the eight Democratic county chairs in his congressional district are criticizing the choice. Rep. Collins will be on the Messy Truth w/ Van Jones tonight.

The Democratic chairs said it’s an insult to the voters in his district. Collins has refused to appear for a public town hall-style meeting in NY-27 despite demonstrations and even a billboard campaign asking him to do so.

“Mr. Collins has repeatedly insisted he has no intention of holding such a meeting, even calling town halls ‘useless.’ But when invited to appear on a cable television program with a studio audience in New York City that will not represent his constituents, Rep. Collins jumped at the chance,” the party leaders wrote.

They said Collins may find out the concerns of a New York City audience, where the show is taped, but he is continuing to avoid the people who vote for him.

“That is unacceptable, and that’s why we will support a vigorous campaign to replace Chris Collins in 2018 with someone who will actually represent New York’s 27th District,” the chairs said.

Collins spokesperson Michael McAdams said the congressman saw the Van Jones show as an excellent opportunity to discuss important issues in depth. He said voters in the 27th district will be able to hear exactly where Collins stands.

“Hardworking families won’t need to take time off to attend. They can simply turn on their televisions to CNN Thursday at 9pm,” McAdams said.