Early Bird Lawmakers

From the Morning Memo:

If the Legislature does return to Albany for a special session, some newly-elected lawmakers may have a chance to get a jump on their fellow freshmen when it comes to voting.

Those lawmakers elected to fill seats that were vacant before the Nov. 4 elections can be certified as full fledged members of their respective houses prior to the start of the 2015 session in January.

The eight Assembly members – six Democrats and two Republicans – who fit into this category will be certified on Dec. 15, according to Assembly spokesman Mike Whyland, which means they will take the oath of office and can be seated that every day.

If a special session is called before Dec. 15, then a resolution could be passed to make those members eligible to vote.

This is important because every vote will count when it comes to a pay raise.

Downstate lawmakers likely have more cover than their upstate counterparts, since $79,500 is on the low side when it comes to average professional salaries in NYC and on Long Island.

In the Senate, there were two empty seats prior to the elections – one was vacated by Democrat Eric Adams, who left to become Brooklyn borough president; the other belonged to Long Island Republican Chuck Fuschillo, who resigned to take a private sector job.

Democrat Jesse Hamilton won Adams’ seat. There’s still some question about whether Hamilton will join the IDC when he arrives in Albany.

Republican Michael Venditto won Fuschillo’s seat. That race was pretty much a walk for the GOP after the Democratic candidate, Dave Denenberg, dropped out of the race (though his name remained on the ballot) after he was sued by members of his former law firm for allegedly bilking clients out of $2 million worth of services.

Technically speaking, outgoing lawmakers who did not seek re-election for whatever reason could resign tomorrow and whoever was elected to replace them could be sworn in and eligible to vote in a special session.

But that’s highly unlikely, because those lame duck votes come in handy when it’s time to vote on a pay raise. Lawmakers who aren’t returning to Albany don’t have worry about incurring the wrath of their constituents by voting “yes” on a big salary bump for their soon-to-be-former colleagues.

Second Round Of Kellner Harassment Charges Dismissed (Updated)

A second set of sexual harassment charges that had been leveled against Assemblyman Micah Kellner were dismissed by a hearing officer, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver being asked to review sanctions that stripped the Manhattan Democrat of his Albany and district offices.

Kellner was accused last year of making inappropriate advances directed toward legislative staff, and a second round of charges were leveled at him when he was accused of employing an intern, a violation of the December penalties Silver had issued.

Hearing officer Howard Levine wrote in a letter that Kellner wasn’t given enough notice earlier this spring following the new charge.

Levine did said that while Kellner’s employment of an intern did violate the December order, it wasn’t determinative that Kellner’s offices should be taken away from him.

“No evidence has been offered indicating what the Speaker would have done in the absence of additional sexual harassment findings,” Levine wrote. “Moreover, whether or not it would shock my sense of fairness if the Speaker had determined to close Member Kellner’s offices absent the sexual harassment findings, that is simply not the record before me.”

Kellner in an emailed statement to reporters blasted Silver, saying the ruling by Levine proved the Assembly Ethics Committee’s review of the harassment case shwed it was “nothing more then a kangaroo court doing Speaker Silver’s bidding.”

“Speaker Silver put my appeal in the hands of a lobbying firm, assuming they would also do his bidding because it was in their financial interest, but when they showed a shred of fairness Speaker Silver, making this up as he goes along, decided to ignore his hand picked appeals officer and ham handily invoke double jeopardy,” he said.

In October, Levine denied an appeal by Kellner on the initial set of harassment charges.

Kellner has argued in his appeal that he didn’t receive the constitutional right to due process or enough time to respond to the harassment charges.

But Levine wrote in the report that Kellner had “sufficient opportunity to refute and clear his name with respect to allegations of misconduct.”

Updated: Silver spokesman Mike Whyland responded, saying Kellner has “no credibility.”

“Assemblyman Kellner has no credibility. The Ethics and Guidance Committee found on more than one occasion that he acted in an inappropriate and sexually abusive manner toward his staff. He cannot hide the fact that in direct violation of the Speaker’s directive, and confirmed by Judge Levine, he continued to employ an intern and instructed his staff to cover it up. Additionally new sexual harassment allegations were uncovered following the first round of sanctions. Given all this, at the request of the Ethics and Guidance Committee, we took the necessary steps to stop his terrible behavior and prevent him from further harassing Assembly employees.”

And here’s the letter from Levine:

Lavine Nov 13 Letter by Nick Reisman

AG Backs Legislative Pay Raises

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has endorsed a pay raise for his former colleagues in the state Legislature, provided that they also approve reforms to the per diem system that has proved too easy for corrupt lawmakers to scam.

“I think the Legislature, after 15 years, hasn’t had a pay raise, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do,” Schneiderman said during a Capital Tonight interview last night. “But I think it should be accompanied by reforms to the system.”

“If you think about the per diem system, this is in addition to travel expenses, this is not just travel expenses,” the AG continued. “This is something else that you get every day…There’s incentives to stay away from your district where your constituents are and stay in Albany.”

“It’s sort of a weird system. It struck me as strange when I first got up there, and it strikes me as a little bit strange today. So, I would like to see reforms of the system.”

Schneiderman, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a state senator prior to his election to the AG’s office in 2010. He succeeded Andrew Cuomo, who ascended to the governor’s office that year.

Schneiderman was elected to the Senate in 1998, defeating Danny O’Donnell (then a civil rights attorney, now a state assemblyman) in a Democratic primary.

That was the same year legislators did a deal with then-GOP Gov. George Pataki that raised their base pay by 38 percent to its current level ($79,500) in exchange for agreeing to forgo their paychecks in the event of late budgets and the creation of charter schools in New York.

The pay raise took effect in January of 1999, since, technically speaking, sitting lawmakers cannot vote to increase their own pay.

They can, however, give raises to members of the incoming Legislature, which, thanks to Albany’s high re-election rate for incumbents, looks a lot like the Legislature that preceded it.

This year, both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos have expressed a willingness to consider per diem system reforms along with legislative pay raises.

There’s talk lawmakers could return to Albany for a special session in December, though there have been no formal negotiations to speak of, and Cuomo hasn’t yet made clear what – if anything – he’s willing to trade legislative leaders in exchange for signing off on a pay raise.

Abuse of the per diem system has landed a number of state lawmakers in hot water over the years, the most recent of which is Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Queens Democrat who was arrested in October on charges he sought reimbursement for nonexistent travel expenses.

Schneiderman said last night that “it should be clear at this point that my office and other prosecutors are never going to turn a blind eye to these abuses any more.”

“I think you’re seeing more aggressive pursuit by the attorney generals office and other prosecutors of issues related to public corruption than you’ve ever seen before,” the AG said. “And that’s not going to stop until the culture changes.”

Kolb Re-Elected Minority Leader

Brian Kolb was re-elected on Thursday the minority of the Assembly Republicans despite a faction of lawmakers raising issues with his leadership style.

“Not everyone is going to think the same or how we do things the same way,” Kolb said after the closed-door meeting with his colleagues.

Kolb said only one lawmaker voted against him receiving another two-year term for the job he’s held since 2009.

But Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney pegged that number at at least three no votes, including herself and Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin.

Kolb has been criticized by some of his members due to, by their estimation, a lack of an aggressive posture toward Assembly Democrats, especially when it comes to the spate on sexual harassment scandals that have engulfed the majority party conference.

Kolb critics also point to a requirement that all Republican conference members must agree on particular policy issue before taking a position as a conference as a whole.

At the heart of the issue is a common complaint for Assembly Republicans, who have been in the minority since the post-Watergate scandal Democratic wave of 1974: The GOP in the Assembly has practically zero actual power than that of the bully pulpit on key issues.

For those at odds with Kolb, even that hasn’t been used effectively.

Kolb defended his leadership as well as the effort to build consensus, which he said is a long-standing rule.

“There’s a lot of things that go into this job that are very, very tough,” Kolb said. “You’re going to have your critics, the job’s not easy, but I’ve been at this now I think for a good thing and I think my track record really speaks for itself and the successes this conference has had before I became leader and after.”

Kolb also insisted he has taken on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his handling of the sexual harassment scandals in the context of the campaign season through mailers and advertisements.

Kolb reiterated that it’s ultimately up to the Assembly Democrats as to who they pick as the speaker.

“You should be asking that question of the Assembly Democrats who elected him, why they’re continuing to support him, their leader, on that particular issue — especially the women in their conference,” Kolb said. “That’s why I’ve said from the beginning.”

Criticism of Kolb was renewed this week when four lawmakers — McLaughlin, Tenney, Steve Katz and Kieran Michael Lalor — signed on to an email to colleagues that called for a new direction for the conference, which is dwarfed in size by the Assembly Democrats.

Kolb pushed back against the email, deriding it as a “piece of fiction.”

McLaughlin said Kolb’s lashing out at the concerned members was the reason why he voted against him receiving another term.

“I’m not opposed to Brian being the leader in anyway,” McLaughlin said. “What has upset me over the past week is sort of attacking is own members, saying what we wrote is a work of fiction, and that’s not the case.”

McLaughlin nevertheless said he felt his concerns were heard.

“We’re here to discuss votes and formulate a plan,” he said. “Sometimes you need to shake things up in order to move the ball forward. We want this conference to grow, we want it to be as relevant as it can be.”

Would Lawmakers Trade A Raise For Pay Diems?

From the Morning Memo:

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Tuesday said he would be in favor of overhauling how per diems are allocated if it meant getting a pay raise for his members.

His comments echoed the sentiments of Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who also backs per diem reform as a way to achieve the first legislative pay hike since 1998.

Now, rank-and-file lawmakers are adding their voice.

Democratic Assemblyman Karim Camara on a Capital Tonight interview said he would certainly support a pay increase from the base $79,500.

While not the top issue facing lawmakers, Camara said the hike is due given the dedication the job requires.

“I know it’s something that causes great controversy, but when you think about the fact the Legislature hasn’t had a pay raise since 1998… when you think about the dedication, people who are involved in the local communities, people involved know it’s not a part-time job,” Camara said. “It’s hard to argue against a group of people for not having a pay raise for close to 20 years.”

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers would be called back for a special session of the Legislature before the end of the year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo would probably seek some form of a pay increase for his commissioners, whose salaries are set by statute as well.

“I’m not sure,” Camara said when asked about a year-end session. “As they say in Albany, it doesn’t happen until it happens.”

Silver: ‘Fine’ With Overhauling Per Diem System

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Tuesday indicated to reporters in Albany he would be open to changing how per diems are allocated to state lawmakers, possibly as a way to achieve a pay increase for the Legislature.

“I’m fine with that,” Silver said when asked about reforming the per diem system.

The current system was created as a reform in order to limit lawmakers overstating how much they should be reimbursed for working on taxpayer time.

But the per diem system has come under scrutiny after lawmakers linked to corruption scandals — including cases involving Assemblyman William Scarborough and former Assemblyman William Boyland.

“There’s a number of ways to do and obviously I’m open to suggestions as to how we would do it,” Silver said.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos on Monday in Albany said he would be open to linking a pay hike to per diem reform as well.

Both Silver and Skelos are backers of increasing the base pay for state lawmakers, which currently stands at $79,500. Lawmakers have not received a pay increase since 1999.

Any pay increase would likely have to be considered in a special session of the current lame-duck Legislature before the end of the year and newly elected lawmakers take their seats.

What remains to be seen is what Gov. Andrew Cuomo would want from the Legislature in exchange for signing off on a pay increase. Cuomo would likely come under pressure from advocates for a minimum wage hike and the Dream Act, but also could use the issue to gain leverage for approval on infrastructure projects and spending of a multi-billion surplus.

$150,000 in Sexual Harassment Legal Services

A total of $150,000 in taxpayer funds will be used to pay for legal services related to the sexual harassment scandals of Assemblymembers Vito Lopez and Micah Kellner, according to a release from the state comptroller’s office Tuesday.

The largest recipient was Proskauer Rose LLP, who received $141,000 for defense of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a federal lawsuit regarding sexual harassment allegations against Vito Lopez. That’s on top of the almost $363,000 they received in February for work on the case.

Whiteman Osterman and Hanna LLP received $8,000 for outside counsel in the appeals process for Assemblyman Micah Kellner. That brings the total amount going to the firm this year to $101,000.

And for Rossein Associates, $1,000 will be used as a payment against the law firm’s contract for outside counsel, for sexual harassment policy development and investigations. They also received just over $140,000 earlier this year for the same purpose.

It’s now been more than a year since Vito Lopez held office in the Assembly. The investigation into harassment claims against the Assemblyman actually began in 2012, but it wasn’t until May 2013 that he stepped down amidst pressure from party leaders, including Governor Andrew Cuomo.

That case has not yet went to trial, meaning more legal fees are almost definitely inevitable.

Assemblyman Micah Kellner did not seek re-election this year after an ethics committee report found he interacted inappropriately with members of his personal staff during his time in the Assembly. Kellner has since appealed that finding.



McLaughlin Will Vote For Kolb, But Wants A Plan

Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin insisted he plans to vote to keep Brian Kolb minority leader of the Republican conference in the chamber.

Nevertheless, McLaughlin in an interview said he wants a more aggressive push next year from the Assembly Republicans, a minority conference that is dwarfed by the 100-plus majority of the Assembly Democrats.

“What’s our business plan? How are we going to grow this company?” McLaughlin said.

Kolb, meanwhile, criticized the letter’s timing and knocked the lawmakers who signed on to the letter, suggesting that they were trying to generate headlines at the expense of the full GOP conference.

The Rensselaer County Republican, along with three other Republican lawmakers, signed onto a letter that called on Kolb to delay a leadership vote set for Thursday.

But McLaughlin said the push to delay the vote isn’t aimed at staging a leadership coup within the conference against Kolb, who has led the Assembly GOP since 2009.

“This wasn’t a throw-them-all-out email,” McLaughlin said. “I told Brian a week ago that I’m voting for him.”

Instead, McLaughlin said he wants to have a “come to Jesus moment” for the conference and address specific grievances, including pushing back more forcefully against the Democratic agenda in the Assembly and Albany writ large.

Among the issues was a lack of forceful response to the sexual harassment scandals that have engulfed the Democratic conference over the last several years.

Meanwhile, Kolb’s leadership style for seeking absolute consensus before moving forward with conference-wide policy is also being questioned by the the lawmakers.

Specifically, McLaughlin pointed to the lack of an official Assembly Republican response to the Women’s Equality Act. For Republicans in the Senate, the standard talking point has been supporting nine of the 10 measures of the act, but opposing the measure aimed at codifying Roe v. Wade in state.

However, Republican Assemblywoman Janet Duprey is supportive of abortion rights and has signed on to passing the full agenda, going as far as to record a radio ad for Planned Parenthood.

McLaughlin said Duprey’s support for the abortion provision has prevented the conference from taking a formal position on the Women’s Equality Agenda.

“As a GOP member, I’m still ticked off about it two years later,” McLaughlin said.

Kolb, in an interview, lashed out at the lawmakers who signed on to the letter, questioning the timing of the complaints and insisting he has an “open-door policy” for conference members to air concerns.

He knocked both signatories Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, Assemblyman Steve Katz and Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, who he said “deliberately” have not returned his phone calls.

“Claudia Tenney has spent more time running for other offices,” Kolb said. “She ran for Congress this year, she ran for judge, Steve Katz says he’s not coming back, so where do they get off saying they’re looking out for the conference?”

Kolb said the issues raised in the letter, along with its timing just before the Thursday conference meeting, could have been brought to him earlier.

“There is a time and place for everything,” Kolb said. “If members want to have discussions with conference positions, all that stuff, are legitimate discusses we can have.”

He also accused the lawmakers of leaking the email to reporters (Gannett and Capital New York reported its contents this morning, McLaughlin denied releasing the letter the media).

Kolb said the letter has had the opposite impact of rallying the conference around him and turning lawmakers against the four who signed on to the letter.

“If it’s done anything, it’s galvanized the other members who are unhappy with the members who chose to go to the media,” Kolb said.

He added: “They in my view have launched a missile here before thinking about it before it came out of the launching pad.”

Six Lawsuits Filed Against Former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak

Six women who worked as legislative aides for former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak filed sexual harassment lawsuits in State Supreme Court Thursday, seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages from the state, according to official court documents.

Besides the Assemblyman, all six lawsuits name Gabryszak’s former Chief of Staff, Adam Locher, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as defendants.

The complaints include everything from taking a staffer to a massage parlor in Albany, making inappropriate comments about the female anatomy, and attempting to have aides share a hotel room with him on business trips – among other allegations.

Gabryszak retired from office in January after the sexual harassment complaints became public. He claims the allegations are false.

A seventh staffer is also expected to file a lawsuit, but in federal court.

Tenney: NY Economy to Blame for Remington Layoffs, Not Just SAFE Act

From the morning memo:

Assemlywoman Claudia Tenney is expanding her thoughts on the 126 workers laid off at Remington Arms in Ilion earlier this week.

In a Capital Tonight interview Wednesday, Tenney criticized the Cuomo administration for “picking winners and losers and deciding which business are more meritorious than others.”

Tuesday, the Assemblywoman tweeted, verbatim, “Thanks Cuomo for killing NY manufacturing. 126 layoffs at Remington today.” Those layoffs add to the 105 workers who lost their jobs at the Herkimer County plant in August. This all came after Remington moved production of a few of its products to a site in Alabama.

At the time, many blamed Governor Cuomo’s gun control law for the layoffs, but Tenney says differently. While the SAFE Act may have played a role, she says it was the state’s economic policies that ultimately drove Remington to drop the workers.

“It’s the unfriendly workplace we have in New York, being ranked so low and having high taxes, a high regulatory burden,” Tenney said.

Tenney also said she’s been in contact with managers at the Ilion plant, who she says don’t expect any more layoffs through the end of this year.

Regardless of that bittersweet news, Tenney also said the layoffs may have been avoided if the state provided more economic incentives to the gun industry, like they have with solar power in Western New York.

“The governor is happy to spend billions and all the other incentives he put through this year,” Tenney said, “But yet this business has been around almost 200 years and is a wonderful business with great benefits, great opportunities for our community and has tradition here.”

Tenney went on to contrast the state’s investment in nanotechnology to the gun manufacturer’s layoffs.

“We’re hoping and praying that a company does come to the Utica area or Utica Nano and brings jobs with it,” Tenney said, “but right now we’ve put hundreds of millions into that center and we don’t have a job. But literally twenty minutes down the road is Remington Arms which has now laid off 126 people.”

As for a potential pay raise for state lawmakers, Tenney says she’s against the measure. In fact, she says she’d rather see the legislature take a pay cut and convene for only three months out of the year, citing how much money it would save the state.

“We don’t need to have full time career politicians working in the state Assembly.”