Zack Fink

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Posts by Zack Fink

Senate Reconciliation?

It was a tough budget process this year. And it was particularly tough in the State Senate which has two ideologically opposite conferences locked in a power sharing arrangement to form the majority. The coalition has come close to falling apart before, and this year was no exception, this time over the issue of campaign finance reform. Republicans oppose it, the breakaway IDC favors it. In the end, they went with a pilot program just for the Comptroller’s race that just about everybody hates.

So could reconciliation be on the horizon between the IDC and the mainline Democrats? Sources say Democrat Mike Gianaris of Queens was poised to meet with IDC Leader Jeff Klein Wednesday to discuss a co-leadership which would bring the IDC back into the Democratic fold and terminate the experimental government in the Senate. The meeting was canceled, but clearly these kinds of conversations are now happening.

Gianaris did not deny the meeting was supposed to take place, but declined to comment further noting the “sensitivity” of this subject. He and Klein have not met face to face in years. Gianaris has said previously that the Mainline Democratic position has been that they want the IDC back, and they are eager to work with them. But Gianaris has also said previously that should the IDC come back, they would have as much power in the Democratic conference as any five members ( or actually he had said four, since this was a couple of years ago and there were four not five IDC-ers ).

So what has changed? Well, there is a growing feeling within the Mainline Democratic Conference that enough is enough already. Senators Diaz, Espaillat ans others have been vocal during conference meetings about how it is time to reconcile and give Klein “what he wants” in order to bring him back. There is a feeling among some that if they don’t bring Klein back soon his power only grows, setting up the possibility that he could run primaries against guys like Senator Tim Kennedy ( D – Buffalo ) this year and win. One source says there is also a concern that Gustavo Rivera ( D- Bronx ) might be vulnerable as well.

Lining up against this reconciliation idea are Liz Krueger ( D – Manhattan ), Gustavo Rivera, Andrea Stewart-Cousins ( D-Yonkers ) and Bill Perkins ( D – Harlem ).

Bharara The Cop

Last year During the annual LCA Show in Albany, where journalists dress up in costumes and sing songs from the 1950′s ( no, I’m not kidding ), I had the pleasure of playing U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. In the agonizing backstage debate over what outfit I should wear some suggested I depict Bharara as the Grim Reaper complete with black hood and sickle. 2013, let’s remember, was Bharara’s big year. There were a rash of corruption arrests involving public officials both in New York and Albany, so the idea behind the costume was that Bharara is coming for you, and one can never hide from the Reaper.

But I had a different idea. I thought Bharara should be depicted as Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right. “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was a little before my time, but I had caught reruns of the cartoons growing up. And let’s not forget the embarrassing attempt at a revival with that movie from 2000 starring Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and Robert De Niro. And to think, Robert De Niro had just done “Meet the Parents,” arguably his last good movie. Oh, wait…I forgot about “New Year’s Eve,” My bad.

Anyway, I think the point is that Bharara has fashioned himself more like the steady cop among all of these run amok politicians. Therefore it was particularly notable when Bharara not only scolded Cuomo in the Times, but then went on Brian Lehrer’s show to rub it in. Cuomo has also triangulated himself as the adult in the room among New York’s elected’s, and it’s rare for a Democrat ( or in this case a Democratic appointee ) to call him out on anything in public or on the record. So, what’s going on here? Couple of theories from insiders…one is that some of Moreland’s Commisioner’s felt blindsided by the decision to shut down their work after just nine months and before a final report could be issued so they tipped off Bharara in the hopes that whatever they had uncovered would be pursued further. No one has any doubt Bharara will look into some of these open story lines including but not limited to the outside income of lawmakers. After all, Bharara kinda needs to come up with *something* now that he has made a public display of saying the investigations must continue.

Another theory is that Bharara was annoyed by reports that the Cuomo Administration interfered with the independence of the commission. Knowing he couldn’t quite prove it, he did the next best thing which was criticize the Governor for bailing out early. Bharara told Lehrer,

The plain facts are it was disbanded before its time. Nine months may be the proper gestational period for a child, but in our experience it is not the amount of time necessary for a public corruption prosecution to mature.

Say what you will, but that sounds like a shot at the Governor. Cuomo defended his actions to Tom Kaplan in Rochester yesterday, saying,

It was a temporary commission. I was not creating a perpetual bureaucracy.

That’s true. The Moreland Commission was put together specifically to pressure lawmakers into passing the Governor’s anti-corruption package known as the Public Trust Act. Cuomo can credibly claim that he accomplished precisely that. But, if there is real corruption out there, a probe should probably not end because the Governor gets his way. At least that seems to be what Bharara the Cop thinks.

 

 

 

The Mayor, The Governor and Push for Pre-K

I’m not sure if any of you heard this before, but apparently Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo really know each other. In fact, they’ve known each other for years, and worked very well together. They are also really good friends. Got it? I hope so, because that seems to be the refrain from both of them any time us pesky reporters ask why they can’t seem to land a deal on how to fund UPK. Ok, guys. You are friends. I get it. Cuomo told reporters just yesterday,

We’ve known each other for 20 years. We’ve worked together. We have a deep mutual affection and respect.

The mayor has made similar declarations of praise, calling Cuomo a “friend and an ally.”

So, why can’t they get together on the funding component? A senior Cuomo Administration recently told the Times of de Blasio getting support for UPK from Cuomo but refusing to back down on the tax, “That’s a clear win for him. He decides not to take the win.”

Cuomo has offered to pay for pre-k programs statewide with funding from the state budget. The next three weeks is the critical period when that budget gets debated and decided ( mostly by a small group of people and most definitely behind closed doors ). So, the time to get this done has not conlcuded, but the window is closing.

Cuomo also opened the door yesterday to the possibility of not getting the funding squared away with the budget. The Governor told reporters in lower Manhattan,

We want the best pre-k for all of our children. We are going to be funding it statewide. We are working on those issues now in the budget. The budget is due around April 1, so we need to get this resolved by April 1. There is a slim chance that we would do it later in the session. But I’m hoping to get it done in the budget by April 1.

It was subtle, but it was also an attempt to give the two leaders some breathing room if they can’t seem to come to terms. This week after the Mayor and the Governor met in Albany following the dueling rallies, Mayor de Blasio faced reporters alone with very little to report about progress. The mayor almost looked like he had been pushed out of the Governor’s door to be fed to the wolves as he scurried into the hallway to face a rabid press corps who hadn’t eaten all day and who had been waiting for two hours. De Blasio declined to offer details about what he and Cuomo discussed, but the message was unmistakable…they are still far apart.

So, my question is this…at what point does a friendship start to suffer?

Getting The Joke

My friend Nick Acocella who writes Politifax in New Jersey used to say of New Jersey Governor Chris Christe that “in politics you need to get the policy right, you need to get the politics right, and you need to get the joke. Chris Christie gets all three.” Not sure if one could say that is still the case, but the unredacted messages between former Christie aide Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein who used to work at the Port Authority, reveal a popular inside joke among Wildstein and just about anyone connected to Bergen County politics, like Kelly was.

The messages are about Rabbi Mendy Carlebach. And while it’s unclear ( to me at least ) why Wildstein is annoyed at the Rabbi, he sends a photo of Carlebach with House Speaker John Boehner and refers to him as a “Jewish Cid Wilson.” The joke, alluded to by the Times and Politico, refers to Cid Wilson who is politically active in Bergen County. Wilson’s facebook page is adorned with numerous photos of him with – how should I say this – marginal New Jersey political celebrities. Hey, there’s Cid Wilson with the Mayor of Ridegwood! Hey, there is Cid Wilson with the 2003 Democratic candidate for Assembly in New Jersey’s 38th district!

And it’s not confined to New Jersey, there are also photos of Wilson with folks from outside the Garden State, such as the Vice Mayor of Pasadena ( um no, I’m not kidding ). So, the inside joke is that no figure is too minor to appear with Cid Wilson on his facebook page. In the New York-New Jersey Metro area ( and this is not confined to politics ) people like to bust each other’s chops. It’s also known by a slightly more crude term. I don’t want to spell it out here, but I’ll give you a hint: two words – the first word is “breakin’” the second word is slang for a part of the male anatomy.

So, while I am in no way suggesting this joke about the rabbi and Cid Wilson is an any way appropriate, nor am I indicating whether I find it funny, I can say there are a handful of people in Bergen County and beyond, who find it downright hilarious.

Tracking The Bridgegate Timeline

Let’s try to unravel the tangled Bridgegate scandal a little bit more on the other side of the Hudson River.

Last week, in a now infamous phone conversation, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said he informed the Inspector General of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. Foye wrote an email on September 13th calling the lane closures a violation of federal law and the laws of both states. Well, it turns out the Inspector General’s office was not CC-ed on that email. The Inspector General is the investigative/law enforcement arm within the Port Authority, so it would stand to reason that if Foye discovered a violation of law, the first thing he should have done was notify law enforcement or at the very least the Authority’s Inspector General. He did none of those things initially.

It was not until November 27th when Former New Jersey Senate President and Governor Dick Codey wrote a letter to the Inspector General formally calling for a investigation that one was commenced. Sources tell me the Inspector General’s office conducted it’s own review and has handed over everything it found to Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney in Newark.

But now, the Port Authority is claiming the Inspector General’s office had been informed, they just decided not to open a formal investigation. Conveniently, there is no paper trail. In a statement, Chris Valens of the Port Authority said,

The Port Authority Inspector General’s office has confirmed that Executive Director Pat Foye called the Inspector General in October to discuss the GWB lane closure incident and inform the IG that Foye was opening a review of the matter. The IG noted during that conversation that it was aware of the incident and had opened its own review into the matter as well. Subsequently, the IG opened a formal investigation.

This of course falls far short of demanding an investigation.

What crimes were committed here? It’s hard to say exactly, but insiders believe one could start with illegal use of government employees, disruption of interstate commerce, interfering with the safety of citizens, conspiracy to commit fraud and misuse of government property, to name just a few. It also seems possible that by not reporting those crimes there was a violation of the public officer’s law which states in part,

An officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should endeavor to pursue a course of conduct which will not raise suspicion among the public that he is likely to be engaged in acts that are in violation of his trust.

So, did the New York side do it’s duty, or did Governor Cuomo’s hand-picked Executive Director fail to follow proper protocols. One investigator tell me “there is no question Foye could have done more.” Governor Cuomo so far has stood behind Foye and his actions. He seems to think Foye did all he could. It’s interesting because last year Cuomo introduced a program bill targeting public corruption which would have specifically required a public official to report misconduct, otherwise that individual would have faced a misdemeanor charge.

Finally, it’s worth noting how hard the Port Authority fought subpoenas from the New Jersey Legislature in the early days of the scandal. The bi-state agency had retained Gibson Dunn, a high powered law firm. Sources say When the investigative committee asked for documents, Randy Mastro, a partner at Gibson Dunn and a former Deputy Mayor, initially resisted for several months. When the committee inquired about where the documents it had requested were, the firm responded that they had turned over all documents that “weren’t privileged.” But they never explained what “privileged” meant. There are all kinds of privilege, Attorney-client being the most obvious, but the Authority’s attorneys simply stonewalled, claiming they would provide documents on a “rolling basis.” Mastro has since been retained by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to conduct an internal review of what happened at the bridge for the Governor’s office.

So, in conclusion we know that the culture of secrecy at the Port Authority may have prevented proper procedures and protocols from being followed when a crime had allegedly been committed. Moreover, that secrecy appears to have carried over to the Port Authority’s outside counsel when it came time to put the cards on the table, reveal what they know and cooperate with an investigation. That is big problem. Numerous lawmakers have called for reform of the agency, but that gets tricky because reform packages would have to pass four houses, the Senate and Assembly of both states. Further complicating matters is that the New Jersey legislation takes on all authorities, which means The Delaware River Port Authority would be included and Pennsylvania would have to pass identical legislation. What are the chances that all six houses will pass these bills and three Governors will sign them? About as likely as the Port Authority coming clean about it’s actions and not spending the better part of six months covering up Bridgegate.

‘Fakakta’

It was a bit of a surprise when I received a phone call shortly before deadline last night from a very agitated Patrick Foye, Cuomo’s hand-picked Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I thanked Foye for reaching out, but it became clear pretty quickly we were not going exchange pleasantries.

He was furious, saying he heard that I had a bunch of “fukakta f*%#ing theories” about the Bridgegate scandal that’s been tormenting Governor Chris Christie — and that Governor Cuomo has been trying to avoid.

I may be the world’s worst Jew, but I did grow up around enough Yiddish to understand what Foye meant. It was difficult to get much else from the conversation, which felt a bit like a verbal barrage of salty language and vitriolic venom.

On Wednesday, the Port Authority held it’s first monthly meeting since the Bridgegate scandal really took on steam. Foye is the central figure in the case because he was the first person to call the controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge a “violation of federal law and the laws of both states.”

Foye expressed that belief in an internal September 13th email sent to other Port Authority officials in September and CCed Howard Glaser, a top aide to Cuomo.

At the meeting we asked Foye whether he reported his belief to proper authorities. Foye said he sent an email to the Inspector General, the law enforcement arm within the the bi-state agency. fair enough. But that was it? Glaser apparently had one phone conversation with Foye after that, but never spoke to the Governor about the case.

But if your top guy at the Port Authority – who happens to run the agency – suggests a crime was committed, might that rise to the level of at least a conversation with the Governor? Cuomo Administration officials have maintained that they believed it was a mess that was somehow contained to Jersey. The problem with that is twofold:

1) Anything that is done under the auspices of the Port Authority (like lane closures enforced by PA police) is immediately the problem of both states, since it’s a bi-state agency. There is no “New Jersey” side or “New York” side.

2) Foye’s email explicitly said New York law was violated…that’s what “both states” means.

Foye yesterday refused to say whether he ever had a conversation with Cuomo. I asked him a variation of this question at least three times, and he referred me to the governor’s office on “second floor” – which is odd because the second floor had referred me to him.

Cuomo has said that he first learned of the lane closures in October when it hit the press. So, did he and Foye have a conversation then? The legislature in New Jersey finally began to investigate, and that’s when Foye was called down to Trenton to testify.

But it was not until that testimony on December 9th that Foye revealed there had been no traffic study – the stated reason from the Christie appointees (who have since been fired) as to why the lanes were actually closed. Clearly, Foye had already conducted his own internal investigation and determined that malfeasance was afoot. It’s an open question whether people could have known about this case on the “New York” side and kept quiet to avoid getting into a messy scrum with Christie.

Matt Wing, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo says,

“Clearly Pat Foye acquitted himself exactly as a public servant should.”

Let’s look at the oath and guidelines Foye is obligated to uphold. According to the Port Authority’s own ethics policy,

“No employee shall commit any act or neglect any duty which in any way is prejudicial to good order, discipline, or efficiency, or reflects unfavorably upon the good name and reputation of the Port Authority, or adversely affects the interests of the Port Authority or those of the general public.”

In addition, as a lawyer, Foye is obligated to uphold rules of professional conduct outlined by the Unified New York State Court System which includes,

“A lawyer should maintain high standards of professional conduct and should encourage other lawyers to do likewise…Obedience to law exemplifies respect for law. To lawyers especially, respect for the law should be more than a platitude.”

Foye didn’t simply write a hyperbolic email on September 13th. He doubled down on the claim that a crime had been committed Wednesday saying,

I believe then and I believe now, and obviously given the multiplicity of law enforcement investigations underway there is some serious question of violations of federal and state laws. It was my belief then, it is my belief now.

It’s clear the culture of secrecy is alive and well at this massive bi-state agency. And when things go wrong there is a tendency to hush them up out of an overarching concern about the agency’s bond rating. These agencies were set up to be above the politics of both states — but now it appears that it could be operating beyond the laws of them as well.  The Port Authority has been operating in a gray netherworld where a lack of transparency keeps pests in the press from finding out what is actually going on.

But when something really bad happens, the ultimate authorities here – in this case the two Governors – are obligated to find out the truth and be honest about what they know. That appears not to have happened here.

And that is what I would call “fakakta.”

 

What They Knew, and When They Knew It

Let’s start with this, The Port Authority’s Mission Statement:

Providing the highest quality, most efficient transportation and port commerce
facilities and services that move people and goods within the region.

Clearly, we can all accept that when the agency purposely causes a traffic jam, that flies directly in the face of its core mission which is to provide safe and effective transport, not hinder it. A lot has been written about the Bridgegate scandal and I am not going to rehash all of it. But serious questions remain about what was done immediately after it came to the attention of the higher ups that the agency not only violated its mission, but may have aided and abetted a cover-up by not immediately alerting authorities or demanding an outside investigation.

We now know that on September 13th, several days into the GWB lane closures in Fort Lee, Governor Cuomo’s hand-picked Executive Director Patrick Foye wrote an internal email which read in part,

I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both States.

That is a very serious charge. Director of State Operations Howard Glaser was cc-ed on that email. But Governor Cuomo claims he didn’t find out about the lane closures until October, and then only from press reports. When Capital’s Jimmy Vielkind pressed him on it last week, Cuomo said  ( in response to when he found out ),

When it hit the papers or the radio or became public

So, let’s get this straight…Foye identifies the lane closures as a crime, but doesn’t inform Cuomo? Did Glaser not inform Cuomo either? It seems odd, that no one would be concerned enough to inquire about what exactly is going on here. Vielkind pressed Cuomo on the issue about the Foye email, and Cuomo said,

We know Mr. Foye learned about it and sent out an email. Right? We know that. So he sent out an email saying this happened and I didn’t know about it. So we know from that email that it happened and he didn’t know about it.

I’m not totally clear on what this means ( and neither should any of you be clear ). But it seems as though Cuomo is suggesting that Foye didn’t know about the lane closures before they happened. OK, right, but that’s not the point. The question is what they did after they found out.

Some have speculated that maybe Cuomo didn’t wanna rain on Christie’s parade. Remember, Christie was at 35,000 feet last Autumn. No one could have predicted how quickly he would fall, particularly from something like a lane closure.

Perhaps more clarification is needed from Cuomo, but it’s been tough to come by since he has done so few Red Room press conferences this year compared to the same period last year.

 

 

 

Snubgate

Politics ( like driving a car in New York City ) can be a contact sport. Wielding power and punishing enemies is often part of the job. The good ones never forget a slight, and they always get you back.

I remember Former New Jersey Senate President ( and one time Governor ) Dick Codey didn’t speak to me once for nine months. It was so long, I was actually impressed. We only finally broke the ice when I did a series of stories about corruption at the Delaware River Port Authority, which was controlled by South Jersey Democratic Boss George Norcross. Codey **hated** Norcross so much, that he suddenly wanted to be my friend again. A politician I know used to joke that the Irish forget everything…except the grudges.

Governor Cuomo has proven himself not only a shrewd politician, but a master of the Albany political game. Having grown up around it, he just understands it, and plays it better than anybody else. He also knows how to use the full power of the office. Sure, it doesn’t always work out, but there are multiple tools at his disposal and he is not afraid to employ them. One of those is what I would call the blanket of the office. The warmth it provides can be very reassuring to fellow politicians, even members of the opposite party. When some are left uncovered by that blanket it can start to feel very chilly.

A number of Republican members of the State Assembly have relayed numerous examples of instances when Cuomo either came to their district for an event and didn’t include them or invited them very late after everyone else already knew. It’s not quite Watergate here, although some of those who feel they were dissed have dubbed it “Snubgate.” First a couple of examples…last August Governor Cuomo was in Herkimer County to deliver checks to those whose businesses and homes were damaged by July flooding. Republican Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney says she was not invited, so she wound up crashing the event. Although technically the press conference was not held in her district, her constituents were among those receiving checks as much of the damage **was** in her district. Tenney had previously been outspokenly critical of the Governor, which apparently kept her on the wrong side of the velvet rope. ( Do I need to say again how high school it is in Albany at times?!? )

But wait, there’s more. Last year, Cuomo was on Staten Island to announce a home buyout program in Oakwood Beach. Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis was not invited, despite the fact that it was her district taking the buyouts. She had previously criticized Cuomo on Verrazano Bridge tolls. Earlier this month Cuomo held a press conference to announce that tolls would be reduced for Islanders, and it’s worth noting that malliotakis was, in fact, present at that one. But guess who wasn’t? Republican Assemblyman Joe Borelli, who was previously critical of Cuomo’s Tax Free New York program.

Let me be the first to say that I am not one of those people who criticizes politicians all the time for constantly looking toward re-election, and always angling to get their face on the news if something good happens in their district. For starters, they must run every two years, so yes, they are always looking towards their re-elect. And frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. This is what they have chosen to do with their lives. It is how they make a living ( albeit not a very lucrative one ). It is completely legitimate for an elected member to wanna be at a press event with the Governor to demonstrate to their constituents that they were part of securing help. That’s only natural. For the most part, these guys fights hard for their districts and they want to be able to share the spotlight when something positive happens. That’s why it can be hurtful when they are left out in the cold.

The Governor’s office holds a lot of power, and not just constitutionally. Cuomo has emphasized many times that he wants to be the Governor for all New Yorkers. Power politics and the culture of persuasion are alive and well. Cuomo is not the first Governor to employ hardball tactics, and he will certainly not be the last.

Budget Mistake

If there is one thing people in this State expect from their Democratic leadership it’s a pro-choice position on abortion. The polls reflect that, and most leaders are diligent in respecting that view. Governor Cuomo has reiterated his strong pro-choice position  multiple times in his State of the State speeches since taking office.

So, it was odd to see that the Governor’s proposed budget actually cuts the annual appropriation for Family Planning Advocates, which is responsible for a wide range of family planning services in New York State, including Planned Parenthood. Last year, FPA received $23,701,000 plus an add of $750,000 during budget negotiations by ( you guessed it! ) The New York State Assembly. In this year’s budget, Cuomo proposes $22,369,000 representing a cut of $1,332,700 for FPA. I’m no budget expert, but That sounds to me like a lot of money.

Advocates would naturally like to see this money restored. Sources say the reason for the reduction, while slightly tortuous, is worth a brief a explainer. Apparently, the Cuomo Administration had a “misunderstanding” about how a planning grant could be used. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the Administration believed that fewer people would need money for reproductive health since more people would be choosing plans with the health exchange. However, the grant is also used for education and outreach in high risk communities, so all the money will be utilized even if there are fewer people on the rolls.

Advocates say they have been working closely with the Cuomo Administration, and they anticipate a restoration. An Administration official confirms that an error was made, and the issue will be resolved with the 30-day budget amendments due next week. Crisis averted.

Mended Fences

Next month Governor Cuomo will headline the Nassau County Democratic Committee Spring dinner. The dinner will be held March 31, at the Crest Hollow Country Club where retiring Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy will be honored. What’s interesting about this is that whatever issues Cuomo may have had with the Nassau County Democrats appears to have been fixed – just in time for re-election where suburban and Long Island votes in particular will be critical.

If you remember, Cuomo’s closeness to Republican County Executive Ed Mangano was questioned during the campaign last fall.  Last month, after Tom Suozzi had safely lost the election, Cuomo even attended Mangano’s swearing in ceremony ( I guess there weren’t enough people there to support him ).

Reached by phone, Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs said there was never a problem between he and the Gov. Jacobs says he is the only County Chair who has supported Cuomo in every statewide election, and has raised a lot of money for Cuomo. But when it comes to the concerns raised about the Governor’s closeness to Mangano during the campaign, Jacobs said,

That doesn’t mean I was overly delighted about some of the times he was out here with the County Executive. I took issue at times with the timing. However, I never took it personally against me or the party.

Jacobs says he raised his concerns with Cuomo at a Suozzi event last year. Cuomo explained that while politics is important, he needs to do government too. Jacobs says he takes the Governor at his word, but adds that they don’t always have to agree. Finally, Jacobs says Cuomo has nothing to worry about in Nassau County,

We are going to be coordinating closely to ensure a big turnout.