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

AG Defends Maziarz Plea As Success

From the Morning Memo:

It seemed a bit of a peculiar outcome.

Less than a week before long-time Niagara County Republican power-broker and former state Senator George Maziarz was supposed to stand trial, he agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors. Maziarz was facing five felony charges, and ultimately pleaded guilty to just a single misdemeanor.

To many observers it appeared the former state senator got away with just a slap on the wrist. But don’t tell that to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who vigorously defended the result.

Schneiderman said there were plenty of repercussions for Maziarz – including the loss of his influence, elected post and reputation – when he admitted to engaging in misconduct in court.

“I don’t think if you asked George Maziarz, he would say, ‘Oh boy, this was a good experience for me,'” Schneiderman said. “Look, it’s important to take on cases that are more challenging cases.”

Schneiderman said a case like the one against Maziarz – a complicated pass-through scheme to circumvent campaign finance rules – never would have been pursued in the past. A recent partnership with the state Board of Elections and the state comptroller’s office has allowed the AG’s office to expand its focus on public corruption.

Schneiderman said they’ve been able to obtain more than 75 dispositions from “corrupt officials and their cronies,” as a result.

“We continue to bring cases all across the state against Democrats and Republicans. Corruption is a bipartisan enterprise and I’m proud of the work we did in that case,” he said.

The attorney general noted this effort continues, pointing to the recent indictment of the mayor of Mount Vernor, Richard Thomas, on charges he used campaign cash to pay for personal expenses.

Reed: Dem Win in PA Indicates Engaged Anti-Trump Movement

From the Morning Memo:

Many Republican members of Congress are dismissing Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent special election victory in a GOP-dominated Pennsylvania district as a one-off, giving a number of reasons for his strong performance – from a poor campaign run by his opponent to the Democrat’s notably conservative views.

But Southern Tier Republican Rep. Tom Reed seemed to go against the trend during a conference call Wednesday, noting the special election result in the Keystone State does not exist in a vacuum.

“I think that it does reflect a lot of what we’ve been hearing across the country – that there are many people who are adamantly opposed to this present administration and to a President Trump presidency, and they are engaged and they are organizing and expressing their opinion as you see in these special elections as well as what we see across the country,” he said.

Still, Reed doesn’t think the special election is necessarily a harbinger for the GOP this fall, including in his district where seven Democrats are currently vying to unseat him this fall. Those Democrats would very much like to use Lamb’s victory as a model for their own, assuming they’re able to win a June primary.

The congressman said he’s glad to see the small-d democratic process unfold, and is prepared for a robust debate once his general election opponent emerges.

“I’m very confident in the positions we articulate and take in regards to representing the folks of the 23rd Congressional District,” the congressman said. “And at the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to them to make the decision as to who represents their voice in Washington, and I just try to be that voice, loud as I possibly can.”

Erie County Comptroller Calls For Independent Investigation Into Alleged Rape Incident

The Erie County comptroller has written a letter to the chairman of the county legislature asking for the body to appoint a special counsel to investigate rape allegations against the former commissioner of the Department of Social Services. Specifically, Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said he wants information about what the county knew and when it knew it.

A notice of claim filed by an employee, alleged the county was aware of prior reports of sexual harassment or abuse committed by commissioner Al Dirschberger and did not act appropriately to stop the behavior. The attorney for the woman claimed that lack of action resulted in her alleged rape by Dirschberger in December.

The county executive’s office said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation but did say it was not aware of any previous claims of sexual harassment or abuse. Mychajliw said the investigation needs to be independent.

“They cannot investigate themselves and that’s why we need to find someone outside the walls of Erie County government with no political, financial or legal connections to county government to take a look at this,” he said.

Mychajliw said there is precedent to appoint special counsel as well. He said the administration contracted out in order to negotiate a new stadium lease deal with the Buffalo Bills.

The county legislature could potentially take up the item as soon as Thursday.

“I think Republicans and Democrats wholeheartedly agree,” Mychajliw said. “We’re all on the same page. We all want a special counsel, an independent investigator to look at this and I think it should have strong support on both sides of the aisle.”

He said by getting a report of the environment leading up to the alleged incident, the county can learn if it needs to make any changes.

Giambra Report Outlines Impact Of Recreational Marijuana Plan

Gubernatorial candidate Joel Giambra released a report Wednesday outlining the potential economic impact of his proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. The campaign said $500 million dollars per year in new revenue is a conservative estimate.

Under Giambra’s plan the state would institute a 13 percent excise tax, permits and licensing fees for the new industry and a 7 percent state and local sales tax. The chairman of the Le Moyne College economic department, Ted Shepard, who contributed to the research, noted Washington and Colorado bring in a combined $500 million annually and the two states together have less population than New York.

Shepard said the cannabis industry should create 5,000 initial jobs, 25,000 once it’s fully running, plus another 15,000 ancillary positions. Giambra said its time to take those jobs and revenue from the black market.

“How any elected official in New York state, the governor and others, could’ve allowed this to continue over the years, is criminal in and of itself,” he said.

The candidate said the state can leverage the new money into roughly $12 billion in bonding over a seven-year period for upstate infrastructure and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. According to the report, the plan could create 240,000 direct and indirect temporary construction jobs – 35,000 per year.

The governor, in his State of the State address this year, proposed a task force to study the legalization of marijuana. Giambra said that study should have been done a decade ago.

“We already have a group of experts here today and around the state and around the country, have already studied this,” he said.

Giambra said if elected, he would try to institute the plan as quickly as possible, but acknowledged he may need the legislature to act on a legalization bill. He said once marijuana is legal, he would also move to expunge criminal records and release prisoners incarcerated for related crimes.

Molinaro Is Keynote Speaker For ECGOP Fundraiser

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro will be the keynote speaker for the Erie County Republican Committee’s 2018 Lincoln Leadership Reception. While Molinaro has not officially announced his candidacy, the invitation bills him as “the next governor of the state of New York.”

The Republican has collected a significant amount of endorsements since indicating to party leadership earlier this month he planned to enter the race and subsequently winning a GOP straw poll. Among those supporting Molinaro is Erie County Chairman Nick Langworthy.

“Marc has been no stranger to Western New York having attended many events here in the past, but this will be an excellent opportunity for many Western New Yorkers to hear his bold vision to turn this state around,” Langworthy said. “Marc Molinaro is a change agent and he is exactly the leader we need at this critical time to restore our faith in state government.”

The annual dinner is the local committee’s signature event. Past speakers include Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro and now-President Donald Trump.
Tickets range from $100 for individuals to $500 for the VIP reception. The party is honoring County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.

Rep. Slaughter Treated For Concussion After Fall

A spokesperson for long-time Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said she is recovering from a fall last week at her Washington, D.C. residence. The 88 year old Democrat was taken to George Washington University Hospital to receive treatment and monitoring for a concussion.

Her office said she did not suffer any broken bones or fractures. She remains at the hospital.

“The congresswoman is tough as nails and she will bring that same spirit to this recovery,” Chief of Staff Liam Fitzsimmons said. “We appreciate the outpouring of support and the community’s patience during her recuperation. We will release additional information as it becomes available.”

In 2012, Slaughter spent a month in a Rochester hospital recovering from a broken leg she suffered when she fell during an event in New York City. She was unable to travel to Washington during the recovery period.

Slaughter has been a member of Congress for more than three decades. Republican Jim Maxwell is challenging the incumbent this year.

Open Government Group Slams Authorities For Lack Of Transparency

From the Morning Memo:

It might seem like piling on, but the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government said it had started working on its report about public authority websites long before the recent reports of a so-called Golden Parachute for the executive director of the Erie County Water Authority. The results weren’t good.

Of 14 Western New York websites the group analyzed, only one – the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority – received a passing grade. The coalition looked at criteria like whether the authorities posted meeting agendas, minutes, and Freedom of Information Law information on their sites.

In the meantime, the water authority has been criticized for approving a potential $400,000 severance package for its executive director should he be pushed out by the incoming Democratic-controlled board.

“I thought, well this was going to be perfect timing, quite honestly. I wasn’t aware of the Golden Parachute as I don’t think anyone was because as we point out in our report, the Erie County Water Authority is one of the entities that does not post meeting agendas,” coalition president Paul Wolf said.

He said transparency issues are not just a problem for the water authority. In fact, the four local housing authorities received the worst grades, including the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority which received a seven out of 100.

Part of the problem, Wolf said, is the state’s open meeting laws do not hold public authorities to the same standard the report did. He said New York needs to catch up with the times.

The coalition suggested several solutions, including mandating agenda documents and meeting minutes be posted online. It also suggested the state comptroller take a more active role in auditing authorities.

Finally, the coalition called out elected leaders who appoint authority leadership, saying they need to take responsibility for transparency issues.


Accuser Of Former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Claims Negligence Led To Rape

The woman who accused the now-former commissioner for the Erie County Department of Social Services of raping her at an Albany hotel has filed court documents claiming the county’s negligence led to the alleged sexual assault. In the Notice of Claim, the attorney for the woman, identified as Jane Doe, said the county, among other things, was aware of prior incidents of sexual harassment and/or abuse of employees by Al Dirschberger and allowed the conduct to continue.

In January, Dirschberger pleaded not guilty to felony counts of third-degree rape and third-degree committing a criminal sexual act. He is accused of engaging in sexual intercourse and oral sex with a female subordinate without her consent while the two were traveling for a conference in Albany in early December.

The commissioner resigned later that month at the request of the county executive as details about the allegations began to emerge. The court document, however, claimed the county did have “actual or constructive notice of prior actions” of Dirschberger sexually harassing or abusing county employees and failed to take necessary action, nor did it properly alert the claimant.

The attorney also said the claimant sustained serious injuries including bruising, lacerations and possible transmission of sexual disease, as well as depression and anxiety. The Notice of Claim was dated January 30, 2018.

The accuser intended to bring a lawsuit against Erie County if damages were not paid within a “reasonable time.” Spectrum News has reached out to the woman’s attorney regarding the status of the litigation.

A spokesperson for the county executive’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation but did say neither the county executive nor the office were aware of any claims of sexual harassment or abuse alleged to have been committed by Dirschberger.

WNY School Districts Plan For Walkouts

From the Morning Memo:

Across the country, students plan to participate in tomorrow’s national school walkout to call for additional gun control measures in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting.

The planned 17-minute protest – one minute for each person who died in the massacre – at 10 a.m. has districts wrestling with how to avoid disruption while also supporting their students’ right to protest.

In Niagara Falls, officials are asking students to register if they intend to participate in the walkout. In return, they’ll receive two hearts. One is a pass to participate, the second a place for them on which to write how they plan to make the world a better place.

“I believe school is more than just sitting and learning and taking tests; it’s really about helping kids come together and helping kids deal with certain situations in their lives,” superintendent Mark Laurie said.

The Buffalo Public School District, meanwhile, said it is organizing alternative activities for its student body at 10 a.m. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said it’s good that the administration is working with students to give them a voice.

“Young people have always been change agents in this country,” Brown said. “Young people have always been involved in movements to bring change to different issues that have been of concern to them.”

At Lancaster High School, the administration said it will not let students leave the campus, but they will be able to walk the halls for 17 minutes.

Assembly GOP Proposes Medicaid Reform

Assembly Republicans unveiled legislation Monday to restructure New York’s Medicaid program. The bill would require the state assume the full local share of Medicaid, everywhere but New York City.

The change would be phased in over a decade to “allow the state time to make structural changes that do not reduce services to the overall cost of the program.” Over a 20 year period, the state would take on half of New York City’s costs as well.

“Simply put, we can no longer sit idly by and watch New York take ownership of another ‘Worst Of’ label,” Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said. “Continuing to force localities to pay massive Medicaid costs leads to higher property taxes and punishes taxpayers, homeowners and businesses alike. We must change how New York does business when it comes to managing sky-high Medicaid enrollee costs.”

The New York State Association of Counties has long prioritized Medicaid mandate relief. It said the 57 counties and New York City pay $7.5 billion annually and it accounts for the vast majority of county tax levies.

The Minority proposal would mandate the savings be passed on directly to the taxpayer.

“In Monroe County, our 2018 Medicaid payment to Albany will total $175 million. If we were empowered to pass those savings on to taxpayers, we would be able to cut our property tax rate nearly in half,” Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said.

GOP Gubernatorial front-runner Marc Molinaro, who Kolb endorsed Monday, also expressed his support for the plan. He said in Dutchess County, where he currently serves as county executive, the mandate accounts for 70 percent of the tax levy.

“Minority Leader Kolb’s proposal will lift a major burden off the backs of state property taxpayers, providing much-needed tax relief that will benefit New Yorkers and boost our state economy,” he said.

Last year, congressmen Chris Collins and John Faso proposed an amendment to the Republican healthcare legislation which would have required New York to take on the local Medicaid burden. The legislation, which ultimately failed, did spur criticism from the governor’s office.