May 29th - 11:06 pm
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown acknowledged he knows all three Western New York political figures involved in State Attorney General’s Office probe. Brown told reporters Friday he was surprised by the raids and is in no way connected.
“I have been informed by law enforcement that I’m not involved in the investigation,” said Brown.
It’s still unclear exactly what state investigators were looking for when they raided the Buffalo condo of former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon, as well as the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steve Casey and Chris Grant, the current Chief of Staff for Republican Congressman Chris Collins.
“Steve Casey certainly worked with me for a long period of time, very bright, very creative, and very hardworking and always found him to be of the highest integrity,” Brown said.
Those interviewed as part of the investigation say it centers around the Pigeon backed political action committee the WNY Progressive Caucus. The PAC funded 2013 challenges to Democratic Party-endorsed candidates in several local races.
Erie County Board of Elections officials confirmed the investigation began with a complaint about critical mailers funded by the PAC. Mayor Brown said he was surprised by the Thursday’s raids and said he wasn’t aware of any wrong doing.
“I have found Steve Pigeon to be very bright, very hardworking and a person of integrity,” said Brown.
Brown isn’t Pigeon’s only ally. The former Party boss is a well known contributor to Governor Cuomo and sources confirmed Friday he hosted State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at his Buffalo condo to watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao title fight on May 2nd.
Heastie’s office did not respond to our request for a comment.
Casey and Grant’s connection to the WNY Progressive caucus is the subject of speculation but sources said the two were business partners in a firm that produced political mailers. Casey secured the services of Buffalo attorney Rodney Personius Friday night.
“We have known of the investigation for 36 hours and await further word from law enforcement as to the nature of their inquiry. They have assured us that they will be forthcoming,” said Personius.
May 27th - 11:45 am
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman outlined a broad ethics and campaign finance overhaul proposal on Wednesday by introducing legislation that would change much of how the Legislature does business.
Schneiderman unveiled the omnibus package at the Tweed Courthouse in New York City — the same spot in which Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched his 2011 campaign for governor and promised to rid the Capitol of public corruption.
Since then, the parade of state lawmakers led out in handcuffs continues unabated.
Schneiderman’s omnibus package would:
- Ban outside income of state lawmakers, save for payment from military service, royalties or pension income from previous employment
- Ban per diem and switch to a reimbursement system
- Give the attorney general’s office the jurisdiction to prosecute public corruption
- Create new crime for undisclosed self-dealing such as using an official position to enrich oneself and strengthens anti-bribery laws
- Shift the Legislature from a two-year term to a four-year term
- Creates a 6-to-1 public donor matching system for political campaigns and caps matching funds for a candidate to receive in primary and general elections
- Lowers political giving limits for candidates both in and out of the public financing system, with a statewide cap of $5,000 for the primary and general elections each.
- Ends the practice of unlimited giving through limited liability companies and eliminates housekeeping or “soft money” accounts
- Enacts lobbying reforms that would ban lobbyists from seeking donations for a public official or party and lowers the cap on personal contributions from a lobbyist to $250.
- Adds clothing and tuition payments to the list of banned items that can be spent using campaign funds
Schneiderman had previously announced in an op/ed in The Times Union posted online Tuesday he would introduce the legislation this week.
At the moment, there appears to be very little appetite for passing new ethics legislation at the Capitol, despite the arrests of both legislative leaders this session in separate corruption cases (The arrest of now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver did lead to new disclosure requirements for outside legal clients as well as curtailing some uses of campaign money).
Still, the measure is winning praise from good-government reform organizations upset that the needle does not seem to be moving much on ethics reform in the waning days of the session.
“The corruption we’re seeing in New York State government takes power from the hands of regular New Yorkers and taints the honorable work being done by the lion’s share of public officials. New Yorkers have had enough of so-called ethics reform that tinkers around the edges—what we need now is bold reform that gets to the root of corruption, equips law enforcement with the tools needed to fight it, and professionalizes our state legislature,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “It’s time to end the parade of prosecutions and restore people’s faith in their government.”
May 26th - 1:30 pm
Steven Kuhr, the former director of the state Office of Emergency Management was fined $4,000 by ethics regulators after he diverted workers responding to Hurricane Sandy remove a tree that had fallen across his driveway.
The fine was formally announced on Tuesday by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
Kuhr was fired from his post by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in November 2012 after it was learned he had ordered recovery workers to remove the tree from his Suffolk County home.
The workers were initially sent into the field to clear trees from public roads that were blocking or delaying emergency response response efforts throughout Long Island, which had been especially hard hit during the storm.
“The days immediately following Superstorm Sandy saw an unprecedented crisis recovery effort and extraordinary dedication from countless public servants, and for one manager to divert precious resources for his own benefit is simply unacceptable,” said Joint Commission Executive Director Letizia Tagliafierro, “Public officials who put their own interests above the public they were meant to serve will be held accountable.”
The settlement reached with JCOPE includes Kuhr acknowledging that he violated the state’s ethics laws for misusing his official position by having the tree removed.
Apr 20th - 2:07 pm
A coalition of good-government groups on Monday urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to not stock a review commission charged with reporting on the workings of the ethics regulators with the “usual suspects” who will rubberstamp any findings.
In a letter to Cuomo and Senate and Assembly leaders, the groups write that the review panel should be conducted in a transparent process and put the public interest first in conducting its work.
“In making these recommendations, we urge you to go beyond the “usual suspects” that are often appointed on public commissions, and ask that the appointees publicly pledge to put the interests of the public ahead of their appointing authorities,” the groups write. “Moreover, the review panel’s work must be conducted as openly as possible in order to help build public support for whatever measures the panel recommends.”
The panel would review the workings of both the Legislative Ethics Commission and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The commission would be charged with reviewing how effective those institutions are and what changes can be made.
The good-government groups see room for improvement.
“Even when compared to the rest of the nation, New York’s ethics enforcement ranks poorly: In a 2012 comparison of state ethics laws, New York’s ethics enforcement received a grade of ‘F,'” the groups wrote.
Ideal commission members would be those who have not been lobbying or working for a lobbying shop for the last five years, have been involved in political consulting in the last five years or have held elected office during that time.
The review commission was actually supposed to be in place in 2013, with a report due more than a year ago. The state budget agreement last month included new deadlines of forming the panel by May 1, with an eye toward releasing a report by Nov. 1.
Apr 16th - 6:01 pm
When it comes to the perception of political corruption, New York is number one, according to a poll conducted by Monmouth University.
The poll found 12 percent of Americans surveyed believe New York to be the most corruption state, followed by California at 11 percent and 9 percent for Illinois. Neighboring New Jersey tied with Texas for five percent.
New York ranking first on the list — which isn’t meant to be a scientific distillation of which state is actually the most corrupt, but a measure of perception — comes after the arrest and indictment of now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is also under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Long Island Republican confirmed earlier today.
A parade of state lawmakers and politicians have been arrested in recent years, ranging from Sen. Malcolm Smith for seeking to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for accepting bribes in exchange for writing favorable legislation, Sen. Shirley Huntley for steering member items to a non-profit she controlled, Sen. Pedro Espada for embezzling funds from a health-care network he controlled, Sen. Vinnie Leibell for kickbacks and Sen. Nick Spano for tax evasion.
In addition to Silver, three other rank-and-file members of the Legislature — Sens. Tom Libous, John Sampson and Assemblyman Bill Scarborough — are under indictment for unrelated corruption charges.
At the same time, there is the ongoing probe in the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s closing down following an agreement on ethics reform.
Just to a name a few examples.
“When it comes to political corruption, it seems the entire country is in a New York state of mind,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. “Monmouth makes no claims as to the accuracy of these perceptions, but this is how the American public sees it.”
Apr 3rd - 3:05 pm
Citizens Union has released a “scorecard” of the latest ethics package to pass at the state Capitol, breaking down what was initially proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and what ultimately became the final product.
In short, a number of changes and alterations were made to Cuomo’s initial five-point plan that called for new outside income disclosure requirements, an overhaul of per diem disbursement and campaign finance measures.
Senate Republicans, in particular, had raised concerns with the effort to have lawyers who are also elected state lawmakers disclose their clients.
That disclosure was ultimately approved, albeit on a prospective basis and lawmakers can apply for exemptions.
Here’s the full analysis:
Apr 2nd - 11:38 pm
A Rochester-area State Assemblyman says if his colleagues want a pay raise they should draft legislation and vote on it. Webster Republican Mark Johns not only criticized the way the pay raise commission was approved he called the bill flawed.
“We passed the bill at 2:30-3:00 in the morning and there’s not a lot of daylight then and people aren’t necessarily paying attention. The problem I have with a pay commission is the people on the commission will be appointed by politicians to decide how big of a raise the politicians should get,” said Johns.
About a week ago the idea of a pay raise commission for state-elected officials looked like a dead issue. The commission was included in a last minute budget bill approved by the Senate and the Assembly.
“I believe the constitution says that we have to vote ourselves a raise, which will not take effect until the next legislature is seated, and I believe that’s the correct way to do it. I think if people want a raise they make their argument, like they would with any other bill, and then have an up or down vote on it so you can see how your legislators are going to vote on the increase,” Johns said.
As Nick previously detailed, the new panel is actually being rolled into the commission created in 2011 that determines whether state judges should receive a boost in pay. As Johns noted, any pay raise for the Senate and Assembly would not take effect until the next Legislature is seated, or Jan 1, 2017.
“I got elected in 2010 and I took a pledge not to vote for a pay increase for the duration that I’ll be down there. I think that people would like to see a lot of things voted on and a pay increase is not one of them. We don’t vote on term limits which upwards of ninety percent of the people want. We’re going to do a backdoor way of getting a pay increase and I don’t think that’s going to be real popular when it gets out,” said Johns.
Increasingly frustrated with the legislative process, Johns teamed up with Democratic Sen. Diane Savino last year to introduce the SOLE act. The Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality bill would allow each member to bring a bill that’s been discharged from committee to the floor for a vote at least once during a two-year legislative session.
A version of the bill was included in an Assembly Minority ethics reform package and did not make it into the budget. Johns is hopeful the idea will still be considered before the end of the legislative session.
“I’ll be honest with you we talk about all kinds of equality: marriage equality, pat equality, gender equality, I think legislative equality would go a long way. We vote on a lot of issues down there and the red button does work. There’s no reason a minority member or a majority member shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a good idea for discussion and have an up or down vote and if you don’t like the bill or the contents vote it down,” Johns added.
Mar 31st - 3:51 pm
The final ethics legislation to be voted on by state lawmakers includes disclosure requirements for those who work in the legal or consulting professions, but only for those with new business being taken on in 2016.
Client disclosure won’t be made public until June 2017, according to the law.
The bill language was released this afternoon and is expected to be voted on after lawmakers conference the massive education, labor and family assistance budget bill.
At the same time, there are allowances built into the legislation that would prevent client disclosure when it comes to the “invasion of privacy” for a client or “undue harm.”
Both the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Office of Court Administration will have the power to redact clients names based on that criteria and other exemptions, such as divorce proceedings, estate plannings and cases involving children.
When it comes to clients who are dealing with initial public offerings, where confidentiality is agreed to by federal law, names and other client information will be put into a “locked box” that is held by the Office of Court Administration to be opened at a later date.
JCOPE itself is due to receive a funding increase of $2.4 million, with half of that earmarked for the disclosure requirements being put into effect.
Moving forward, lawmakers with clients will need to detail what work they’ve done on their behalf and provide descriptions for a variety of sample services such as preparing “certified architectural or engineering renderings.”
Personal use of same campaign funds will be restricted, such as country club membership, rent and other dues.
But elected officials will still be allowed to use campaign money for attorney representation and other legal fees.
Mar 31st - 11:19 am
The ethics framework agreement is set to include a $2.4 million boost to the Joint Commission On Public Ethics, the lobbying and ethics regulator created in 2012.
The commission will receive $1.2 million in order to handle the new disclosure requirements for lawmakers with legal clients (Legislators who are lawyers with clients can also report to the Office of Court Administration and receive an exemption based on criteria such as the sensitivity of the case and whether the client has business before the state).
An additional $1.2 million will be earmarked JCOPE for information technology upgrades, according to an official briefed on the allocation.
Still, specific language on the ethics and disclosure package is yet to be formally released as lawmakers continue to discuss major budget bills such as the education, labor and family assistance package.
The ethics agreement, meanwhile, is being panned by a coalition of good government groups for not being released with hours to go before the deadline.
The groups — Common Cause of New York, Citizens Union, the Brennan Center, NYPIRG and Reinvent Albany — called on the bill to be released.
“It is unacceptable in a functioning democracy that an ethics bill about the disclosure of legislators’ outside income hasn’t even been disclosed to the public,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Yet it will be introduced in a moment’s notice, fast tracked with a message of necessity, and the legislature will vote on a major reform bill with no one having a chance to review it let alone read it.”
Mar 27th - 3:32 pm
As the negotiations over the state budget appear to be winding down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s counsel’s office met privately on Friday afternoon with several good-government advocates to discuss new outside income disclosure requirements under consideration.
The meeting was not with Cuomo himself, though the governor did make a brief appearance, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Details were scarce on what a possible agreement between Cuomo and state lawmakers might look like at this point, though advocates said they were under the impression no formal deal had been made.
“I think the issue is still open,” Horner said.
Common Cause New York’s Susan Lerner agreed.
“The ethics bill is still in progress,” Lerner said. “I don’t think we learned anything that is surprising.”
The meeting was meant more to “trade ideas back and forth,” she said.
Both Lerner and Horner declined to go into the specifics of what was discussed or what proposals the governor’s office sought to float with them.
“I don’t think we’re in a position to go into any specifics,” Lerner said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos earlier in the day said he expected an ethics bill to be introduced as early as this evening.
Assembly Democrats last week announce they were in support of an ethics package agreed to by Cuomo that would create new disclosure requirements for lawmakers with legal clients and campaign finance while also change the travel reimbursement structure.
Senate Republicans have balked at the disclosure requirements and Cuomo has spent the last several days trying to reach an agreement that meets their concerns.
Lerner insisted no bill language was put before them in the meeting.
“We won’t possible know until we see bill language,” she said. “Things can be described and what it comes down to is drafting. Sometimes the drafting can be more expansive and helpful than the description.”