Silver Says There’s Issues With Special Elections

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told reporters on Monday he would advise Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call for special elections for the 10 vacancies in the Senate and Assembly.

But he said it’s likely that whoever wins those races would be seated after the budget is approved.

“I would advise him that we should,” Silver said before he formally started the first day of the 2014 legislative session at the Capitol. “The problem is that by law we would miss the budget enactment and once the budget is enacted there isn’t a lot that would be considered between now and the end of the year.”

But he also stressed it was the governor’s decision to whether to call the special elections to fill the seats or wait until they are up for election in November to fill them.

“I’m saying it’s something the governor is going to have to make a determination on,” Silver said.

The most recent vacancy, of course, was caused by Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a western New York Democrat who stepped down on Sunday following a series of sexual harassment allegations.

“I called upon him to resign if the allegations were true,” Silver said on Monday. “I would assume that if enough of those allegations were true, he followed my advice and resigned.”

It remains unclear what the chamber’s Ethics Committee will do about the Gabryszak case, just one of three in the last year to surface in the Assembly.

A civil suit involving Gabryszak will continue, but it’s up to the lawmakers on the ethics panel to determine whether they will keep investigating themselves.

“The Ethics Committee will make the determination as to what they’ll do,” Silver said.

Gabryszak Resigns Amid Sexual Harassment Allegations (Updated)

Western New York Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak is resigning from the chamber amid allegations from seven different women he sexually harassed them over the years.

Gabryszak said he would step down from his post immediately.

It remains unclear what this means for the ongoing internal investigations into the charges leveled at Gabryszak by the legislative aides.

The resignation comes after pressure was put on Gabryszak to leave the Assembly from both Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The governor had called on both Gabryszak and other state lawmaker accused of sexual harassment, Manhattan Democrat Micah Kellner, to either deny the charges or resign.

Kellner, who last month was stripped of his committee chairmanship and had his staff allocation frozen by Silver, says he is appealing the decision.

Gabryszak on Sunday acknowledged “mutual banter and exchanges” that were inappropriate for a work environment, but denied they rose to the level of harassment.

“My decision today is based on the impact that this has had on my family and my concern for the important work of the Assembly,” Gabryszak said. “I have decided therefore after 32 years of public service, I will retire from the New York state Assembly.”

Silver, who has been criticized for the series of harassment scandals in the last year involving his conference, in a statement said Gabryszak was making the right choice to resign his seat, reiterating that the allegations were “disturbing.”

“The citizens of the 143rd Assembly District deserve to be represented by someone who will be a strong voice for their community and focused on getting things done,” Silver said. “As I have said from the start, sexual harassment has no place in the State Assembly and it will not be tolerated. Mr. Gabryszak’s decision to resign his Assembly seat is the right one.”

Update: Cuomo also weighed in on Gabryszak’s resignation.

“Following the latest reports of horrific behavior in the Assembly against Assemblymember Gabryszak, I asked him to either deny the allegations or resign immediately. Today, he has given us his answer. Our representatives in elected office can and should be held to a higher standard — especially at a time when the Legislature’s ethics are being questioned and the confidence of their constituents being undermined. This kind of alleged behavior has no place in New York State government or any other office in society. My thoughts are with the alleged victims and Mr. Gabrysak’s family during this difficult time.”

Assembly Democrats Push Faster Minimum Wage Hike

As expected, Assembly Democrats on Thursday introduced a pair of bills that would accelerate the time table for a minimum wage increase approved last year and end tax credits to businesses who employ low-wage teens.

The measures, announced in a news release by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Carl Heastie, come after the state’s minimum wage officially increase from the federal $7.25 minimum to $8.

Legislation approved last year would increase the minimum wage to $9 by the start of 2016.

But the liberal state lawmakers have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the agreement, which Senate Republicans had initially opposed but eventually signed off on.

“Introducing this legislation to accelerate the three-stage minimum wage increase underscores the fact that right now, there are thousands of hardworking men and women that are still forced to choose between putting food on the table for their families and paying their bills each month. These are the people – the families with children to feed, houses to maintain and doctor’s expenses to pay for – that simply cannot wait two more years for a decent raise,” Silver said in a statement. “It is unreasonable to condemn these families to a life of poverty in order to appease large-scale businesses that are exploiting the working poor to maximize profits.”

At the same time, the lawmakers say the tax credit measure has incentivized businesses to not hire older workers and turn to students in order to pay them the minimum wage.

“We refuse to sit by as thousands of New Yorkers work day-in and day-out on minimum wage and struggle to support their families,” Heastie said. “With this legislation, the Assembly majority is taking significant strides toward giving these hardworking men and women a better shot at a more fair and honest minimum wage in one year, rather than in two.”

Senate And Assembly Spending Some Time Apart This Year

The Senate and Assembly will share a total of 55 legislative session days this year, according to the 2014 calendar released on Wednesday.

In something of a change from recent years, the chambers will be meeting on separate days as well.

The Senate will hold session four days in Albany without the Assembly scheduled to be in session. Meanwhile, the Democratic-led Assembly will be in Albany on six stand alone days.

The chambers will be meet virtually every week day in March, the height of the budget season, save for every Friday.

By comparison, the Senate and Assembly in 2013 held session dates 55 days jointly in 2013.

The legislative session is scheduled to end June 19, ostensibly leaving the final week of June for the Congressional primaries, scheduled for June 24.

The Senate and Assembly have not agreed on whether to hold a statewide primary to match the federal judge-ordered June primary.

2014 Session Calendar by Nick Reisman

Silver Wants More In Tax Plan For NYC

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wants more tax cut provisions aimed at middle-income homeowners, saying on Tuesday the $400 million renters credit wouldn’t go far enough to help some New York City residents.

The renters credit is part of a $2.2 billion tax cut package that Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled at a Monday news conference this week.

The credit was initially not included the tax commission report led by former Gov. George Pataki and ex-Comptroller Carl McCall, but later included as an addendum.

The Cuomo administration’s budget division would later release an analysis showing the commission’s recommendations would total $1 billion. The report found the renters credit and circuit-breaker alone count for $450 million in the city, while overhauling the estate tax would equal $267 million.

“We haven’t seen those details yet, but what I think is more important is there has to be some fairness and equity in spreading around the tax relief to people who need the tax relief and there are a lot of homeowners in the city and to my understanding on the governor’s plan they would not be eligible for the kind of relief they’re offering in other places,” Silver said. “There’s got to be some equity beyond the renter’s credit.”

As for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to increase taxes on those making $500,000 and more a year, Silver said it was a home rule issue, comparative local governments elsewhere controlling their own property tax increases.

“We have a new mayor and I think the new mayor is entitled to set the city tax rate and to make determinations as to what he would like. We would not be imposing a new tax, we would only be authorizing the city council for them to do what they think is appropriate,” he said. “In New York City the income is part of the property tax. Together they fund the operations of the city. No other city other than Yonkers has that duality of property tax and income tax. If we allow all the cities to regulate their own property tax, we should allow the city to regulate its income tax as far as its rights.”

Silver, meanwhile, is dealing the twin headaches of Assemblymen Micah Kellner and Dennis Gabryszak, two members of his Democratic conference who are facing sexual harassment allegations. Kellner is appealing a decision by Silver to strip him of a committee chairmanship and freeze is staff allocations.

Gabryszak, meanwhile, has been silent on the allegations, now coming from seven women.

“In the Gabryszak case we’ve heard nothing,” Silver said. “We’ve heard no denials and if those allegations are true he should resign. He should not come back.”

Seventh Woman Details Accusations Against Gabryszak

Dressing as a “sexy elf” for a Christmas photo shoot, showing off “random photos” of women he’s taken in New York City and urging her to sunbathe “topless” at his Albany apartment are among the latest charges to be leveled against Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak.

The seventh woman to file a complaint against Gabryszak is Kristy Mazurek, a former communications director who has worked as an Albany-based TV reporter and is not a talk-show host in Buffalo.

The allegations were first reported in The Times Union.

In documents from her lawyer, Mazurek says that once she complained to Gabryszak’s top staffer, she saw her $52,000-a-year salary drop by half and her time sheets weren’t filed properly.

Bartolomei to Silver Re Mazurek by Nick Reisman

Assembly Med-Mar Sponsor Won’t Drop His Bill (Updated)

Assemblyman Dick Gottfriend, who has sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use since 1997, said he’ll continue to push the measure despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to use his executive authority to provide limited access to the drug.

“I think it’s terrific that the governor is taking the action that New York’s limited law enables him to do, and it’s enormously important that he’s recognizing the medical benefit that marijuana can provide to tens of thousands of seriously ill patients,” Gottfried told me during a telephone interview this evening.

“But the 1980 law is very limited and very cumbersome. So, for New York to have a comprehensive and well-working system clearly requires legislation.”

Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who is carrying the med-mar bill in her house, told me she’s “not sure” whether legislative action would be necessary if the governor acts, but also said that is something “(Gottfried) and I and the executive branch need to talk about…this is still relatively new.”

Both Savino and Gottfried said they did not receive a heads up from the administration until this afternoon – just hours before the New York Times broke the news – that the governor planned to tackle this issue without the Legislature and would discuss is in his State of the State address next week.

The little-known law Cuomo intends to revive to accomplish his goal – the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program – was named for a former assemblyman and New York City councilman who lobbied his colleagues from his hospital bed, urging them to pass a medical marijuana bill before he died of brain cancer in 1980.

The bill was approved and signed into law by then-Gov. Hugh Carey, but never implemented. It authorizes hospitals to administer pot to cancer and glaucoma patients for medicinal purposes upon receiving approval by a review board appointed by the state Health Commissioner.

UPDATE: A source very familiar with the Olivieri program says it was indeed implemented and ran for several years, adding: “It ended when Marinol was approved by the FDA, as the number of patients shrunk so much that they couldn’t justify the staff expense involved in running it.”

According to Gottfried, who has been sponsoring a med-mar bill in his house since 1997, the marijuana used for this program would have to either be seized by law enforcement or grown by the federal government.

During a brief telephone interview this evening, Savino said she was pleased to learn the governor, who has steadfastly refused to entertain the possibility of legalizing pot for medical use, has apparently had a change of heart.

As recently as last April, Cuomo said he was “looking” at the med-mar issue, but was not ready to support legalization “at this time.”

Saying she is “not one to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Savino insisted she is pleased Cuomo is now willing to “have the conversation” about medical marijuana at a time when almost all neighboring states have already done so.

The senator declined to speculate what had spurred Cuomo to change his mind on this issue, noting only that New York is “the only state between Delaware and Maine that doesn’t yet have medical marijuana.”

Nevertheless, Savino said she believes there still may be a role for the Legislature to play on this issue – especially when it comes to determining how to regulate any program to make sure only seriously ill New Yorkers are able to access pot.

“New York can be the most restricted most regulated state in the nation,” Savino said. “That’s what I want, and I think Andrew Cuomo can be the national leader on this.”

New Details In Gabryszak Harassment Case Emerge

A 22-page document released by the attorney of two more women who are accusing Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak of sexual harassment claim the western New York Democrat attempted to grab one and kiss her, while a second said he would hang “sexually charged photographs” in his official office.

The claims made by former Gabryszak office administrator Emily Trimper and Trinda Tardone mark the fifth and sixth women to come forward and say the embattled lawmaker created a hostile working environment through sexual harassment.

Attorney John Bartolomei added in a claim filed in state Supreme Court on Thursday that a seventh woman is expected to come forward as well.

In her statement, Tardone says the harassment from Gabryszak began in her first week of employment in the Legislature, when Gabryszak offered to come up to her hotel room to make sure it was “acceptable” for her. In another instance in 2009, Tardone claims Gabryszak attempted to grab her and kiss her in his Albany apartment.

Trimper, meanwhile, complained of photos depicting a woman’s navel being hung in the government office, and of unwanted advances from Gabryszak. Trimper says Gabryszak would often wear “tight jeans and black button down shirts that showed off his chest hair.”

The latest harassment charges come after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on both Gabryszak and Assemblyman Micah Kellner, a Manhattan Democrat accused of engaging in inappropriate online chats with legislative aides to either deny the claims or resign from office.

Kellner was stripped of his committee chairmanship by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last week, order to under go harassment training and is having his office allocation frozen. Kellner is appealing the punishment.

Statement Re Gabryszak Matter 010314 (2) by Nick Reisman

Assembly Women Renew Call For 10-Point Agenda

Women members of the Assembly’s Democratic conference in a statement Thursday said they plan to push a renewed effort to pass the 10-point women’s agenda, a package of measures that stalled in 2013.

“As a New Year begins, we look forward to hearing Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address,” they said in a statement. “As we women of the Assembly Majority have watched state after state pass laws that affect women’s lives in a negative fashion, we feel deeply that it is of paramount importance that we work to ensure equality for the women of New York. We are proud to have voted in favor of the Governor’s full 10-point Women’s Equality Agenda, including the codification of Roe v. Wade. The most personal decisions a woman makes concern her health and reproductive choices. This is a most fundamental part of women’s equality.”

The Assembly approved an omnibus version of the legislation, but the Senate, led by a coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats, approved the measures in a piecemeal fashion, excluding the provision to codify Roe v. Wade in state law.

The new push comes after the Women’s Equality Coalition late last year announced a revamped campaign to back the agenda as well.

The Assembly has been rocked with a series of sexual harassment scandals over the last several months.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez resigned in May, and Assemblyman Micah Kellner was disciplined by Speaker Sheldon Silver for having suggestive online conversations with female staffers. Western New York Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak also faces sexual harassment complaints from multiple women, charges that first surfaced in December.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who originally introduced the women’s agenda package in his State of the State address last January, has not given an indication if he’ll make the package a centerpiece of his 2014 agenda.

Cuomo did call on both Kellner and Gabryszak to either resign or deny the allegations made against them.

More from the statement:

Each and every aspect of the Women’s Equality Act, which advances the Governor’s agenda, signifies an important step forward. Taken together, they signal real progress in the effort to improve the lives of women in New York State and change the gender inequality that the Governor dramatically pledged to eradicate in his State of the State message at the beginning of 2013.

We look forward to continuing to fight for the rights of women under New York State laws so that women are full participants in every aspect of civic life. We believe it is important to look at all of those barriers women face and to make sure we include issues such as access to affordable, high-quality child care, paid family leave and eldercare so that New York’s women and families have every opportunity for a dynamic future and we ensure greater equality for all New Yorkers.

Kellner Appeals Silver’s Sanctions

Assemblyman Micah Kellner, the Manhattan Democrat accused of sexual harassment who was sanctioned this week by Speaker Sheldon Silver, is formally appealing the penalties.

In a letter sent to Silver and released Wednesday, Kellner lawyer Arnold Kriss asks the speaker to put a hold on the sanctions recommended by the Assembly Ethics Committee, which included a freeze on the lawmaker’s office allocations and barred from chairing any committees.

The penalties also included barring Kellner from having legislative interns and required him to attend harassment training.

For Kellner, who lost a city Council bid this year, the move also stripped him of his chairmanship of the Assembly Committee on Libraries.

Kellner is accused of having flirtatious and explicit conversations with Assembly staffers online in 2009.

The accusations against Kellner stopped at the office of Assembly Counsel Bill Collins, who left Silver’s office in June after the allegations became public.

Kellner apologized for his behavior after the details surfaced last year.

In a separate statement released Tuesday evening, a Kellner spokesman called the findings by the Assembly Ethics Committee “factually inaccurate” and the investigation “flawed.”

“Assembly Member Kellner will appeal the ruling in accordance with the Assembly’s 2009-2010 Assembly Sexual Harassment Policy, Article VI, mandating that a hearing officer be designated to conduct a public hearing concerning these findings,” the statement read. “At a hearing, sworn testimony must be taken from all witnesses permitting the fundamental right to cross examine the accuser and the evidence that exists. Perhaps then the real facts surrounding this matter will be heard.”

Kellner is one of three state lawmakers in recent months to be accused of sexual harassment. In May, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, resigned after a Joint Commission on Public Ethics report found he harassed and abused several women working in his office.

In December, western New York Democrat Dennis Gabryszak was accused of sexual harassment by several women who worked in his office.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on both Kellner and Gabryszak to deny the allegations of harassment or resign from the chamber.

Silver himself has come under criticism for the scandals. His office approved $103,000 in settlement money to the women who accused Lopez of harassment, which was kept confidential.

Though Silver has not been accused of any legal wrongdoing, he’s apologized for keeping the settlement a secret.

010114 Kellner Appeal Letter by Nick Reisman