Ethics

Former Spring Valley Mayor, Footnote In Smith Case, Sentenced

bhararaFormer Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin on Friday was sentenced to four years in prison after she was found guilty in April of fraud and extortion charges.

Jasmin’s case stemmed from a broader investigation that was being conducted by federal law enforcement that eventually would ensnare now-former Queens Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith and New York City Republican county officials.

Jasmin was found guilty during a five-day bench trial in which she was accused of taking $5,000 and selling for vote for the approval of a proposed community center and catering hall in exchange for 50 percent ownership. More >

JCOPE Denies Funding Disclosure Exemptions

jcopeThe state’s lobbying and ethics regulators on Tuesday denied source of funding exemption requests from three organizations that sought to shield the identities of their donors.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics turned down source of funding exemption requests from the New York Civil Liberties Union, as well as Family Planning Advocates — a group that supports abortion rights — and the socially conservative New Yorkers For Constitutional Freedoms, which commissioners determine did not meet a monetary threshold to consider its application.

It’s not the first time JCOPE has denied donor-disclosure exemptions from the groups, which have sought to shield their donors from being disclosed.

The 2011 ethics law that created JCOPE required new disclosure of how non-profit organizations that seek to influence public opinion in the state are funded. More >

Panepinto Denies Ethics Violations

A Buffalo-area state senator is pushing back against a New York Daily News report accusing him of a potential ethics violation.  The newspaper is reporting that Democrat Marc Panepinto tried to lobby a state agency to change policies that could have potentially benefited his private law firm, Dolce Panepinto.

Shortly after he took office in January, Panepinto reportedly lobbied the state Workers Compensation Board to abandon plans to alter or reduce reimbursement rates paid to doctors and other medical service providers.  According to the Daily News report, Panepinto’s law firm “specializes in Workers Compensation cases and recovered more than $8.5 million for injured workers in just the first few months of 2015.”

“The regulations apply to how much insurance carriers are required to pay the physicians who participate in the NYS Workers’ Comp system and therefore how many physicians are financially able to help injured workers get the care and treatment they deserve and need to get back to work,” Panepinto said in a Statement Monday.

Panepinto certainly wasn’t alone in opposing the changes other elected officials, activists and members of organized labor did so as well.  A Panepinto spokesperson disputed the paper’s use of the term “lobbyist” and Panepinto strongly denied any conflict of interest.

“My law firm does not do any lobbying and neither to my knowledge do the other law firms, doctors offices, hospitals who fought these harmful regulatory changes,” said Panepinto.

Panepinto has been a favorite target for the GOP.  While calling for the Senator to “come clean,” Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy reminded the public of Panepinto’s 2001 misdemeanor election fraud conviction for collecting false signatures on nominating petitions.

“His Senate staff dodged reporters’ questions, but Panepinto can’t dodge his constituents. Residents of his district deserve to know: Did he seek approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, as required, before he moved to lobby for his law firm and their labor pals?” Langworthy asked.

Panepinto was elected in 2014 with strong backing from labor unions.  Despite Langworthy’s conclusions, Panepinto says he’s not backing away from those labor relationships.

“I ran for office in order to be an advocate for working people, as I have done throughout my life as a construction worker, labor organizer, father, attorney, and citizen,” Panepinto added.

Buffalo Mayor Says He’s Not Being Investigated

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.

Schneiderman Unveils Ethics Package

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.”

Former Emergency Management Director Fine $4K

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.

Kuhr Settlement – Executed by Nick Reisman

Good-Government Groups: Don’t Stock Review Panel With ‘Usual Suspects’

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.

Merged Release and Letter Review Panel by Nick Reisman

Survey: New York Most Corrupt State

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.”

What Was Proposed, What Changed, In Ethics Deal

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:

CU Scorecard Comparison of Ethics Reform 2015 by Nick Reisman

Johns Calls Pay Commission ‘Backdoor’ Way Of Getting A Raise

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.