Gabryszak Fined $100K By Legislative Ethics Panel

Democratic former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak was fined $100,000 by the Legislative Ethics Commission on Friday after it was determined by a separate ethics panel he had violated the public officer’s law when he sexually harassed legislative aides in his office.

Gabryszak resigned from his western New York Assembly seat in January 2014 after eight women — including legislative staffers and a reporter — claimed he had sexually harassed them.

“The Commission considered the evidence submitted at the penalty assessment hearing by Mr. Gabryszak, through his attorney, and considered Mr. Gabryszak’s admission to his inappropriate
conduct, as evidenced, in part, by his prompt resignation from office, in determining the penalties,” the LEC report found.

The penalty includes $70,000 for the harassment of women who worked for the Legislature, as well as a $10,000 fine for misusing state resources for campaign purposes. An additional $20,000 was levied for the benefit he received as a result of the misuse of public property.

The resignation of Gabryszak was part of a string of harassment scandals that had engulfed the Assembly in recent years, which included the resignation of the late Housing Committee Chairman Vito Lopez.

In its report filed Friday, the LEC wrote that it “concurred” with the findings of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics that Gabryszak had misused public resources and harassed his aides.

Democratic Assemblyman Micah Kellner of Manhattan was also accused of harassment, but declined to seek re-election to Albany.

The initial allegations against Gabryszak came amid heightened awareness of sexual harassment in Albany and after then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was roundly criticized for his handling of the Lopez scandal.

The Assembly has since retained an independent law firm to review sexual harassment complaints.

Gabryszak disposition final.pdf by Nick Reisman

Bill Would Bump Up Pay Raise Schedule for M/C Employees

A new bill could speed up the pay raise schedule for management and confidential employees from a salary increase over three years to just one year.

The bill was introduced Wednesday by Senate Finance Chairperson Cathy Young. Its companion bill in the Assembly was introduced last year by Ways and Means Chairman Herman (Denny) Farrell.

Salary increases were withheld from management and confidential employees – who do not have collective bargaining rights – in 2009 and 2010. Last year’s budget agreement allocated a seven percent increase for M/C employees by 2018, starting with a two percent increase in 2015, a two percent increase in both 2016 and 2017, and a one percent increase in 2018.

This legislation would increase salaries by five percent this year following a resolution in the state budget, which OMCE – the non-union organization that advocates for M/C employees – called for ahead this session. With the two percent increase already enacted in 2015, this would complete the seven percent phase-in two years early.

Farrell actually introduced the bill last year following the initial increase for M/C employees, but the Senate had not signed on to the legislation at that time.

The bill follows a lawsuit against the state by a group of Thruway employees, who alleged the withheld pay increases in 2009 and 2010 violated terms that were previously agreed to within the agency. There has been no resolution in that case, but previous legal challenges from M/C employees have failed in court.

Lawmakers Seek Better Treatment For Women Inmates

Two state lawmakers are calling on state corrections officials to strengthen the treatment of women inmates in New York facilities.

In letter to acting Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Anthony Annucci, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donell and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic point to a number of deficiencies facing women in prison, ranging from access to sanitary pads and toilet paper to the expansion of talk therapy groups.

And the lawmakers point to the concern among women in prison to have contact with family members — especially their children — while they are incarcerated.

“We are writing to ask you to create a special directive specifically for women prisoners, taking into account all of their different needs as a minority population within the department,” the lawmakers write in the letter, which was sent last week.

“We envision that the directive would address strengthening ties to children and families, property and hygiene issues and programmatic needs that predominante among the female inmate population.”

Both Rozic and O’Donnell are making the recommendations based on both conversations with inmates during prison vitas as well as letters the lawmakers have received from women residing in prison.

The points raised also come after advocacy groups, such as the Correctional Association of New York’s Women In Prison Project pushed for changes to how women are treated in prison.

The group last year released a report based on a five year study on reproductive health care for New York women inmates.

NDR%2cDOD%20DOCCS%20Letter.pdf by Nick Reisman

Morelle: Assembly Won’t Rollback SAFE Act

From the Morning Memo:

Don’t expect the Assembly Democrats to take up a rollback of the SAFE Act under a Republican governor.

That was the message from Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle on Tuesday night, who tweeted in response to Rep. Chris Gibson’s suggestion he could find common ground with Democratic lawmakers on education reform and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature gun control law.

Gibson launched the exploratory phase of a potential gubernatorial campaign on Tuesday, arguing that he could find ways of working with a Democratic-dominated Assembly through compromise on key issue by linking reforms to Common Core with changes to the SAFE Act.

“If you have a leader, with a mandate, with a strong vote, you could package a bill that rolled back Common Core, that empowered local schools with resources and flexible policies and in the same bill, roll back the SAFE Act and include mental health and include provisions to crack down on gangs and narco traffickers,” Gibson said.

That’s unlikely to happen, Morelle said in a post on Twitter.

“Mr Gibson will learn that the @NYSA_Majority, like most NYers support the common sense gun control provisions in SAFE ACT,” Morelle said.

Morelle, a Rochester-area lawmaker, is the number two Democrat in the chamber behind Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. He’s also been a key political ally for Cuomo, who has said he plans to run for a third term in 2018.

Last year, Cuomo and Senate Republicans agreed to not enact a provision of the 2013 gun-control law: an ammunition database, which the State Police have struggled to develop. Cuomo has said the database would be in place once the technology is available.

Lawmakers Push Aid-In-Dying Legislation

A pair of Assembly Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday pushed for legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with prescribed medication.

The measure, which has the support of at least one Republican lawmaker in the Senate, would allow a doctor to prescribe end-of-life medication to an individual who has a life expectancy of six months or less.

The measure is backed by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried and is sponsored in the Senate by Republican John Bonacic.

“Just like withdrawing food and withdrawing meds is a choice, this is a choice,” said Paulin, a Westchester County Democrat whose sister, while suffering from stage-four cancer, declined food and medication before dying last year.

“We are each responsible for our lives,” added Gottfried. “It seems to me that if you’re responsible for your life, you have the moral right to have control over your life.”

The aid-in-dying legislation was pushed for last year and is staunchly opposed by the Catholic Church as well as the Catholic Conference.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, also raised concerns with the proposal.

“My visceral reaction is I don’t like that for a variety of reasons,” he said. “This is an area where we need to be extraordinarily careful and circumspect. We are literally talking about life and death.”

Heastie: Time Is Now To Talk About Taxes

heastiefebWhile Gov. Andrew Cuomo sees “no appetite” for increasing tax rates on those earning $1 million and more, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Tuesday said it’s time to get the conversation started.

Speaking with reporters at the Capitol, Heastie noted the Democratic conference last year pushed for a $15 minimum wage as well as a 12-week paid family leave program, versions of which Cuomo is making priorities this year.

The current tax rates are due to lapse at the end of 2017.

“We believe we put out good ideas. We championed the minimum wage last year,” Heastie. “There seems to be a real deep discussion around minimum wage. We championed paid family leave and there’s a real discussion on paid family leave. This conversation has to happen sooner or later. We hope sooner because it expires at the end of next year.”

The Assembly Democratic plan also expands an earned income tax credit, which Heastie said coupled with the minimum wage hike would help the poor in New York.

“We’re trying to tackle poverty and the two biggest ways to tackle poverty is to raise the minimum wage and also increase the investment in the earned income tax credit,” Heastie said. “That’s the way to do it.”

Cuomo was less enthused with the proposal when asked about it on Monday after swearing in the state’s new chief judge.

“I don’t believe there is any reason or appetite to take up taxes this year,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Working Families Party in a statement called the Assembly’s tax proposal “common sense.”

“New York’s tax system is upside down,” said WFP state director Bill Lipton, “and we need to turn it right-side up so it works for all of us.”

Morelle: Assembly Open To Tax Cap Changes

From the Morning Memo:

Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly would be open to potential changes in the tax cap as municipalities and school districts grapple this year with flat levy growth.

“I think we’re very much open to it,” said Majority Leader Joe Morelle after speaking to the New York Conference of Mayors on Monday. “We’ve had a lot of conversations in the last couple of weeks.”

The comments echo what Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters at a news conference last week, namely the tax cap this year is part of a growing concern local government leaders have shared with lawmakers and the Assembly is potentially supportive of making even broader changes than last year’s modifications.

Criticism of the cap has emerged this way: The cap is not really 2 percent cap as sold to the public, since it is also tied to the rate of the inflation. The cap levy increases has been under 2 percent since its approval in 2011 given the flat rate of inflation.

Now some lawmakers want to see the link between the cap and the rate of inflation tweaked in someway, either by doing away with it entirely or limiting increases to 1 percent when inflation growth is so low.

“It makes it very difficult if you have labor contracts, any increases in cost that are beyond your control, almost impossible to do it,” Morelle said. “I think the Assembly majority is willing to look at what index we use, are there things we should calculate outside of the cap or finally whether we should make it outside of the rate of inflation.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan on Monday threw cold water on potential changes to the cap this year, even as he acknowledged some members of his conference are split over the issue. A heavier lift would likely be to get any changes past Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has touted the cap as a top legislative achievement from his first term.

Cuomo on Monday insisted the cap remains flexible for local governments given the override feature.

“Politically they don’t want to override the 2 percent,” Cuomo said of local leaders. “It’s become a good housekeeping seal for budgetary diligence. If a locality wants to go beyond the cap, they can go beyond the cap.”

At the same time, the flat tax cap has led to renewed calls for increasing aid to municipalities, which has been flat in recent years. Morelle said the AIM funding should be “dynamic” source of funding for some communities that are struggling.

“I would certainly hope so. AIM has not gone up,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect any longer the individual challenges communities have. It ought to be a dynamic changing fund source that really helps those communities in need.”

Cheektowaga Council Member Plans To Challenge For Wozniak’s Seat

Western New York Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, C, will have some competition for her seat this fall. Cheektowaga Council Member James Rogowski, D, plans to announce his candidacy at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

“I decided to run because the Lancaster-Cheektowaga area has been losing out on funding for years now. True representation has not been lived up to,” Rogowski said.

Wozniak won the seat after incumbent Dennis Gabryszak retired amid a sexual harassment scandal. Despite a 2-1 Democratic enrollment advantage, she won handily.

Now the assemblywoman is the focus of an Assembly Ethics investigation that’s been going on for months. A staffer claimed Wozniak sexually harassed and retaliated against him.

Rogowski said the allegations aren’t the reason he decided to run. He said he hasn’t even talked to Wozniak about whether she plans to run.

“I don’t get involved in other people’s problems. None of us live in glass houses. If she’s running, I’ll run against her. If someone else lines up, I’ll run against them,” he said.

Rogowski, a teacher, said he plans to have support from local labor at his press conference, including NYSUT and CWA.

Manhattan GOP Backs Candidate For Silver Seat

From the Morning Memo:

Republicans in Manhattan on Thursday formally backed the candidacy of Lester Chang to run for the Assembly seat once held by Sheldon Silver.

The endorsement of the 54-year-old businessman comes as multiple Democrats are vying to win the lower Manhattan district Silver vacated in November when he was convicted on corruption charges.

In his remarks to Manhattan GOP members, Chang backed term limits, boosting the number of charter schools, the education tax credit and “fiscal sanity” in Albany.

Chang also criticized the proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 and pledged to fight the proposal if elected.

“Fiscal sanity also means fighting the $15 an hour minimum wage,” Chang said. “Mayor DeBlasio and Governor Cuomo, two professional politicians who have never run a business, met a payroll or had a real private sector job need to understand this will not be a tide that lifts all boats. It will be a Tsunami that wipes out jobs and small businesses across our city and state.”

The district is a heavily Democratic one, giving Chang an uphill battle in the upcoming special election scheduled for April 19.

DOCCS Chief Cool To Prison Ombudsman

The acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Services was skeptical on Thursday of creating an ombudsman’s office to provide independent oversight of the state’s prison system.

The proposal had initially been raised by Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell last year following a legislative hearing on the June escape of two convicted murders from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

But on Thursday at a joint Senate-Assembly budget hearing, Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci indicated the state already has independent inspections of prisons.

“We have outside entities that come and do investigation,” Annucci said during his testimony on the state budget. “We have the justice center the comes in, the justice department can in, the U.S. attorney can come in with any investigation.”

Annucci was questioned for several hours by state lawmakers about the conditions of the state’s prison facilities, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to close as New York reduces its overall population, as well as the effort to move juvenile inmates into alternative facilities (the effort is already underway to transition Hudson Correctional Facility into a juvenile inmate-only prison, with a completion timetable later this year).

But the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat last year — along with an ensuing manhunt that captivated the nation and paralyzed the northern reaches of the state — dominated much of the questioning.

Annucci couldn’t answer many of the inquiries from state lawmakers, however, citing an ongoing state investigation into the matter.

The cost of the escape and manhunt is estimated in overtime dollars alone to have cost at least $25 million, said Sen. Michael Nozzolio.

“The impact of wrongdoing within state employment entrusted to the taxpayers can have enormous financial implications,” Nozzolio said, “not to mention the havoc it created in your department in trying to deal with these issues.”

Annucci pointed to new training and oversight given to DOCCS workers, including a video called “Games Inmate Play” that warns prison staff of having a close relationship with prisoners.

At the same time, the department’s investigation office now has an attorney with a law enforcement background leading its efforts.

“I think we are moving in the right direction in this area,” Annucci said.

But O’Donnell, who has pushed for greater oversight amid concerns over abuse of prisoners by corrections officers, wasn’t convinced.

“Maybe,” he said, “there’s another way to run this railroad.”