Albany

Morelle, IDC Poke Fun At Themselves At LCA Show

The rebuttals of last night’s LCA Show featured Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle and Sen. Diane Savino poking fun at themselves and the Capitol press corps.

Morelle in his remarks roasted journalists and himself, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s predilection for PowerPoint presentations.

Savino, meanwhile, brought a video that made light of their relationship with the press in Albany.

Last night’s show was the 117th edition of the gridiron dinner.

Bill Aims To Crack Down On ‘Double Dip’ In Asbestos Settlements

From the Morning Memo:

A major test for the power of the trial lawyers in Albany is coming up at the end of the legislative session with a push for a ill that seeks to end the practice of “double dipping” for recovering funds in asbestos-related injury lawsuits.

The measure is designed to end contradictory claims in different court settings that pop up for the same asbestos cases by placing new filing requirements on attorneys.

“I’m pleased to sponsor this bi-partisan bill in the Senate because I know it will promote transparency and accountability in the state’s asbestos litigation law,” said Sen. John Bonacic, the Republican who backs the bill in the state Senate.

The measure — which enjoys support from majority lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate — seeks to require anyone who has field a civil case in asbestos related illness complaints to file bankruptcy claims within 45 days.

By placing those requirements, the measure aimes to discourage attorneys from falsifying disclosure of their clients’ history of exposure.

In the Assembly, the bill is backed by Queens Democratic Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas.

“Transparency and fairness in the civil justice system are important for everyone,” she said. “I look forward to an open dialogue regarding these issues with all stakeholders.”

Bharara Refers To Stipend Controversy As ‘Sad & Shady Stuff’

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara weighed in early this morning on the controversy surrounding the use of stipends for non-committee chairs, calling it “sad & shady stuff” that should be paid attention to.

“While all eyes are fixed on Washington, let’s not forget the sad & shady stuff going on in our own NY capital,” he posted to Twitter.

The comment was in response to a New York Post story on some vice chairs — who receive stipends normally reserved for committee chairman — not attending committee meetings. Spectrum News reported on Wednesday lawmakers who have received thousands of dollars as vice chairs have missed committee meetings in recent weeks.

Bharara had risen to prominence as a federal prosecutor in part for his aggressive pursuit of public corruption in city and state government.

The arrangement surrounding the use of paid stipends for lawmakers who are not committee chairs — but listed with the title in Senate payroll records — is being investigated by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office.

Senate officials have maintained no laws were broken and that the use of the records was meant to designate which lawmaker was owed which stipend.

Stipend Controversy Moves To Investigation Phase

From the Morning Memo:

Lawmakers in the Republican and Independent Democratic Conference spent the week insisting the arrangement in which non-committee chairs receive paid stipends is a legal one.

Now, they could spend next week answering questions about an investigation reportedly be launched by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and prosecutors at the federal Eastern District of New York.

The investigation threatens to hijack what was expected to be a quiet end to the legislative session, due to wind down at the end of June, in which lawmakers were considering a rather light menu of issues such as mayoral control and Gov. Andrew Cuomo was largely leaving to the Legislature.

The development comes after NY1 initially reported this week Scheniderman was keeping his powder dry in the controversy as a referral from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office — who had signed off on the stipend checks — was yet to materialize.

But that tone started to shift on Thursday when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked about the stipend controversy, when he put the onus not on the Senate leadership, but his political rival DiNapoli.

Eight lawmakers over the last two years have received payments for holding the official title of “vice chair” in the Senate, receiving checks normally designated for actual committee chairs. The lawmakers are listed on official payroll with the various committee chair titles next to their names.

Senate Republicans have insisted that was meant as a way to designate which lawmaker receives which stipend and not as a way to mislead who had which leadership post. Senate Democrats in the mainline conference have sought an investigation.

Enter Cuomo on Thursday, who has been loathe to comment publicly on the internal power dynamics of the Senate, where the eight-member IDC and Senate Republicans have been allied, much to the chagrin of liberal critics.

Instead, he pointed to DiNapoli, who has he had a feud over the years that has run hot and cold. It’s currently running hot again.

“It’s either legal or not legal. The comptroller of the state signed a check, or funded a payroll, or whatever he did,” Cuomo said Thursday. “He either did it legally or illegally. I believe his position is, It was legal.”

DiNapoli’s office, meanwhile, said it’s not up to the comptroller to determine legality of Senate stipends.

“The Comptroller’s office is not a court of law,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman. “This issue needs to be decided by the Senate itself or the legal system.”

The back-and-forth came after DiNapoli issued a pair of reports this week critical of economic development spending and the agreed-upon state budget, questioning the transparency commitment in the Cuomo administration.

Even more fraught is the debate over procurement reform in the state Legislature, where lawmakers had sought to restore power to the comptroller’s office when it comes to oversight of economic development spending.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan before the controversy over stipends broke last week was confident a form of procurement reform would get done by the end of June.

NYSAC Launches Raise The Age Task Force

From the Morning Memo:

County leaders from around the state are launching an advisory group to help local governments implement a measure that sets the age of criminal responsibility to 18 over the next 2-1/2 years.

The provision, known as raise the age, was a key component in the state budget agreement last month. It formally takes effect by Oct. 1, 2019.

The New York State Association of Counties formed the committee, which includes county prosecutors, sheriffs and other local officials that will address the fiscal impact of the measure and identify needs for county probation departments, district attorneys, mental health agencies and social service offices.

“This law will require initial and sustained investments in critical county departments, and this task force is charged with identifying those areas of investments and other unintentional consequences that may result from it,” said Chuck Nesbitt, the county administrator of Orleans and the group’s chairman.

The budget included a partial reimbursement for counties associated with the cost of implementing raise the age.

Bharara Cheers Independent Counsel

From the Morning Memo:

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Wednesday cheered the appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible meddling by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

On Twitter, Bharara praised the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was selected to lead the independent probe.

“Having known him for years, I believe special counsel Mueller is a very good thing. He is one of the best — independent and no-nonsense,” Bharara posted.

Bharara, fired by President Donald Trump earlier this year as U.S. attorney for the Southern District, has not been shy in expressing his opinions since then on Twitter, especially when it comes to the recent upheaval at the Justice Department.

In subsequent posts on Wednesday, Bharara noted Mueller intervened in 2004 with then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey in the dramatic bedside discussion with John Ashcroft over the reauthorizing a spying program.

He added it’s a “good sign” the White House was not given much of a heads up before the Mueller appointment was announced.

And he then tweeted a link to an Urban Dictionary page for the term “backfired”: “An attempt to fix something in which the fixing actually makes the situation worse for you.”

DFS Regulation Would Crack Down On ‘Discriminatory’ Car Insurance Rates

A proposed regulation by the Department of Financial Services announced Tuesday is aimed at blocking insurance companies from using a driver’s job status or education level in setting rates.

The proposal comes after the DFS conducted a review of how insurance companies use occupational or education status, finding they can penalize drivers who do not have college degrees or work in low-wage jobs.

The review found some insurance companies operating in New York take that criteria into account, giving less favorably rated tiers that led to higher premiums.

“This new protection cracks down on this unfair practice that soaks drivers for not having a college degree or a high-paying job,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “These metrics are discriminatory, have no relationship to how good a driver you are and should not be used as an excuse to overcharge New Yorkers.”

The move was praised by the New York Public Interest Research Group as a needed consumer protection.

“Auto insurance rates should be based on how you drive, not who you are,” said Russ Haven, NYPIRG’s general counsel. “With these regulations, New York is taking an important step to protect many low- and moderate-income New Yorkers from discrimination when purchasing auto insurance.”

Stipend System Falls Under Scrutiny

From the Morning Memo:

Falsely reporting senators as committee chairs so they can receive lucrative stipends has shined a light on a more commonplace practice in both the Senate and Assembly: The so-called lulu system of doling out extra pay for leadership positions.

“I think sometimes in Albany the people here forget whose money it is,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s taxpayer dollars and we think it should be spent appropriately. Both houses should defend these leadership positions that have these vague and obscure titles.”

Some lawmakers hold rather oblique titles. For example, Senator Carl Marcellino holds the post of majority conference vice chairman. In the Assembly, there’s a deputy majority whip and an assistant majority whip. All come with stipends on top of the base $79,500 pay.

“I believe that all the members, Democrat or Republican, Assembly or Senate, are worthy of the compensation they receive,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

Flanagan on Monday defended the procedure of falsely reporting leadership titles and the lulu system overall, saying it’s constitutional.

“There’s been litigation for the Senate to uphold the ability to run its own house,” he said. “The statute for stipends has been in place for years.”

The Assembly, too, defended its use of committee and leadership titles, which some good-government groups argue empowers leadership to hold sway over members.

“I think every one of the established lea dership positions or committee chairs do the relevant and they compensate for doing that extra work,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Sen. Tom O’Mara is one of the lawmakers who receives compensation for his role as vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, receiving $15,000 for the job.

But O’Mara says he’s advocated for key issues, such as highway funding.

“I would say the primary role I’ve had is I’ve been a leading advocate on CHIPs funding,” O’Mara said, “and infrastructure funding for many years now since I’ve been in the Senate.”

‘JCOPE Should Look At This’

From the Morning Memo:

Jeremy Creelan, a former special counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, knows more than a little on state government corruption.

At the Brennan Center in 2004, Creelan wrote what has become an ur-text of state government dysfunction, which was especially withering of the arrangement in which state lawmakers receive “lulus” or stipends for leadership and committee posts.

“This was one of the main areas in which the New York state Legislature was problematic,” Creelan said in an interview on Sunday.

“The basic juxtaposition was it was producing a vey low percentage of bills passed into law and yet the lulus were being abused at an extraordinarily high rate. You were paying a lot for a very little.”

His comments come as it has been revealed seven state lawmakers in the Independent Democratic Conference and Senate GOP conference have received stipends after they were falsely designated on pay schedule documents as committee chairs.

Creelan, in the interview, questioned the stipend system, saying both chambers should be investigated by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

“JCOPE should look at this and see if it’s a violation of the public officer’s law,” he said. “Voters and taxpayers deserve the transparency and the enforcement of the law against the appearance or the actual violation of public trust that may be involved.”

Hoosick Falls Marks 500 Days

From the Morning Memo:

Five hundred days after the chemical PFOA was confirmed the drinking water in Hoosick Falls, residents there want the state to free up funding for a permanent clean water source.

“There’s $450 million in a slush fund that can be allocated this afternoon for clean water for Hoosick Falls,” said resident Michele Baker at a news conference on Thursday. “Three thousand families depend on what Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature does.”

The money is part of a larger $2.5 billion fund for clean water projects statewide.

“The money is there and it can be used for this purpose,” said Liz Moran of the Environmental Advocates of New York. “These folks have spoken for themselves today. They’ve been waiting over 500 days for that drinking water source.”

The news conference on Thursday coincided with the state announcing $220,000 in funds available for Hoosick Falls to cover engineering costs and other water-related expenses.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, however, says the the state is already tapping into the Superfund program to help Hoosick Falls.

“We’re using that fund to fix all of these problems and go after a clean water supply source,” Seggos said in an interview. “The $2.5 billion — we don’t need to go there.”

Seggos says the state is continuing a search for a permanent safe water source for Hoosick Falls.

“I certainly understand the community wants to get to the next level of clean water and not have to rely on filtration alone, I get that,” Seggos said. “I sympathize with them. But it’s premature to just go spend the money when we’re in the middle of that already.”

And he insists the state continues to pay attention to the rural village near the Vermont border and its clean water needs.

“In the six years I’ve been with the administration one way or another, I’ve never seen a response like the response of the DEC and the DOH to this problem,” Seggos said.

But 500 days after the contamination was confirmed, village residents say they feel like they’ve been shunted aside, even as their crisis spurred a focus on clean drinking water problems throughout New York.

“It’s too easy for officials that don’t live our lifestyles to put us on the back burner,” resident Michelle O’Leary said.

The state expects to have the report identifying a clean water source by the summer.