JCOPE: Record $243M Spent On Lobbying

A record $243 million was spent on lobbying state and local governments in 2015, an annual report from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics found.

The report released by ethics and lobbying regulators on Thursday found the 2015 lobbying compensation was a 17 percent increase in New York over 2014.

When it came to spending for retained and in-house lobbying, New York set a record last year as well, with $206 million spent on compensation — $12 million more than the previous year.

Education-oriented groups were the top lobbyists, conducting expensive and extensive campaigns as Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a package education policy changes for teacher evaluations and charter schools.

The group Invest in Education Coalition, Inc., spent $5.1 million. The New York State United Teachers, meanwhile, spent $4.6 million. StudentsFirst New York, a pro-education reform group, spent $2.4 million. Families for Excellent Schools spent $1.7 million.

Other major spenders included the New York City and Vicinity Carpenters Labor Management Corp. spent $3.1 million, while the Greater New York Hospital Association spent $2.8 million.

The top lobbying firm in Albany in 2015 was Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, which received $10.5 million in compensation and reimbursements.

2015_ Annual Report_ FINAL_4_6_16.pdf by Nick Reisman

Monroe County Dems Call For I-Square Investigation

There’s a new twist in the ongoing public debate between Monroe County Republicans and Democrats over the I-Square project in Irondequoit. Monday, Democrats in the County Legislature proposed creating a special committee to investigate the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency (COMIDA).

In response, Monroe County Executive and Republican Cheryl Dinolfo finally fielded questions from reporters about the controversy. She said political parties have no influence over the operations of Monroe County government.

This all started when Monroe County Republican Chairman Bill Reilich, in a statement criticizing the appointment of Irondequoit Town Supervisor Adam Bello to the open county clerk seat, called the I-Square development “failing.” He came under fire when he backed that initial statement up with information obtained from COMIDA, info that wasn’t actually delivered to I-Square developers Mike and Wendy Nolan until Monday afternoon.

On top of that, COMIDA seemed to go out of its way to back up Reilich’s statements last weekend, visiting the I-Square site. Dinolfo called it a normal response to media inquiries.

“I think what we have here is really a lot of interest in I-Square. Certainly the stories were prolific. There were lots of inquiries made. So I think under those circumstances, it was entirely appropriate whether it was COMIDA or whether it was a school district or a town, to go and answer those requests promptly and they did that,” she said.

Dinolfo did on several occasions try to distance herself from Reilich’s comments. Democrats want to know if there was collusion between COMIDA and the Republican party.

During their press conference they called on the legislature and the county executive to stay true to promises of open, ethical goverment they recently made while passing public integrity legislation.

Former Panepinto Staffer Retains Attorney

Sources say a female former staffer for State Senator Marc Panepinto has retained Western New York attorney Jennifer Stergion. They believe that woman is connected to the undisclosed “personnel issues” Panepinto cited as part of his reason for not seeking re-election.

When I spoke with Stergion over the phone she said she couldn’t confirm or deny.

Panepinto shocked party insiders last week when he returned to Buffalo from Albany to make the announcement. Since then, there’s been speculation about the “personnel issues” including the sudden departure of his chief of staff, Danny Corum.

Last week, the Buffalo News reported the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has taken the preliminary actions for an ethics investigation, while the New York Post reported more details on the rumors swirling in Albany.  Tuesday morning, JCOPE met for the first time since the reports.

Meanwhile, Panepinto was also seen by reporters in the Capitol Senate Chamber for the first time since his announcement.

One person who doesn’t appear to be giving the Senator the benefit of the doubt is Governor Cuomo. The governor’s had a tepid at best relationship with Panepinto, refusing to endorse him in a vital race for Democrats last election cycle.

“I am very, very disappointed when a person who runs for public office and holds themselves out to be trusted by their community, winds up involved in a sordid affair. So I don’t know the details, I don’t want to know the details, but let somebody else run who will respect the position,” Cuomo said.

Panepinto said the primary reasons he would not run again were because his law partner had cancer and concerns about a potential legislature-wide ban on outside income.

Erie County Party Bosses Urge Wozniak To Contemplate Re-Election Bid

A scandal surrounding her affair with a staffer hasn’t scared Western New York Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak out of politics. Through a statement from HoganWillig Attorneys At Law, Thursday, Wozniak confirmed her plans to run for reelection.

“Angela Wozniak is grateful for the overwhelming support she has received by the residents of the Towns of Cheektowaga and Lancaster and the Village of Depew whom she has been diligently serving in the Assembly since December of 2014. She served with distinction as a Councilmember for the Town of Cheektowaga since 2012. Having won two prior elections, Ms. Wozniak looks forward to running for re-election to the Assembly in the upcoming race,” the statement said.

The Assembly Ethics committee concluded Wozniak did retaliate against the staffer. The Assembly will no longer allow her to have interns and will require a periodic monitor for her office.

Area Democrats say there should be even greater consequences.

“Two years ago we called for Dennis Gabryszak, a member of my own party, to step down following a ruling by the state ethics commission. In light of today’s Buffalo News editorial and the facts that have emerged regarding Angela Wozniak’s conduct, I believe Republican and Conservative party officials should consider doing the same,” Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner said.

Wozniak won the 143rd District in 2014 after the seat was vacated by longtime Democratic incumbent Dennis Gabryszak, who retired amid his own sexual harassment scandal. Wozniak ran on an anti-corruption platform and was held up as a symbol of Western New York’s conservative movement.

Wozniak was the first non-Democrat elected to that seat in four decades. She’s the only registered Conservative in the New York State Assembly.

But in the wake of the ethics report, Erie County’s party bosses haven’t been as quick to stand behind her.

Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo said he wants to give Wozniak time to make some decisions before he starts making public statements about her reelection bid. Lorigo said he believes the assemblywoman is a good person but the political implications of the report can’t be ignored.

“She’s going to have a very difficult time trying to seek reelection. She’s going to have to go back into her area and talk with her constituents,” he said.

Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy, a Wozniak mentor, echoed those sentiments in a statement Friday.

“This entire situation is incredibly disappointing,” he said. “Assemblywoman Wozniak needs to spend private time with her family and make things right. I have strongly urged Assemblywoman Wozniak to also go into her district, meet with constituents and see if they continue to support her and have the confidence in her to represent them in the Assembly.”

The Democratic Committee said it’s changing its policy as a result of two straight scandals in the 143rd. It will no longer endorse candidates who are under investigation or sanctioned for ethics violations.


Wozniak’s Attorney Expects Ethics Committee Report Soon

It’s been a recurring trend when it comes to the New York State Assembly Ethics Committee investigation into Western New York Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak. Her attorney Steve Cohen said, in general, the media has had more information about what’s going on with the investigation than he has.

That was the case again when a source told Capital Tonight’s Zack Fink to expect sanctions for Wozniak on Thursday. Cohen said he is expecting the committee’s report but doesn’t anticipate any punishment for his client.

“I just don’t think the facts could support any of those accusations or charges,” he said.

The attorney admitted if the committee concludes there was merit to accusations Wozniak sexually harassed and retaliated against a male staffer, he believes there could be trouble. He said because Wozniak is the only registered Conservative on the New York State Legislature, she is a political target.

“It is my expectation that Democrat Carl Heastie, that Democrat Charles Lavine are probably going to come down harder on her than they would on anyone else and let’s not forget Sheldon Silver was not sanctioned by the Assembly Ethics Committee,” he said.

A source told Fink the sanctions would include not allowing Wozniak to have interns and assigning somebody to monitor her office.

“I believe that would be completely unwarranted here. It is my position based on what I know of the case. It is my opinion, my belief that the accuser manipulated this situation and putting in a monitor to monitor Angela Wozniak would be entirely inappropriate.”

Cohen said he and Wozniak are hoping to put the investigation behind her but they can’t make any final decisions until they see the report. He is not ruling out an appeal though.

Avella Introduces Pension Forfeiture Amendment

Sen. Tony Avella on Friday introduced yet another version of a constitutional amendment that would require elected officials convicted of public corruption to surrender their pension.

Lawmakers in the GOP-led Senate and Democratic-controlled Assembly remain at odds over pension forfeiture, or at the very least how to go about it.

The Senate approved one version of the amendment at the conclusion of the March budget process last year. The Assembly was poised to do the same, but lawmakers raised concerns about the way the measure was written, and passed on the initial amendment. The Assembly subsequently approved their own pension forfeiture measure which the Senate is yet to consider.

Avella, a Queens lawmaker, is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference. His amendment does not have a same-as in the Assembly.

As introduced, the amendment would require any “elected official who is convicted of a felony offense against public administration that occurred during his or her time in office shall forfeit rights to his or her benefits subsequent to the criminal conduct for which such elected official was convicted.”

This proposal has an interesting wrinkle. Rather than stripping an elected official of their pension entirely, the credit would essentially end at the time in which they committed the crime.

The amendment comes the same week it was revealed the final pension calculation for ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos would exceed $95,000 a year. Skelos was convicted of felony federal corruption charges in December.

His former counterpart in the Assembly, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, is drawing on a $79,000 a year pension.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday called it “absurd” disgraced ex-lawmakers were receiving pension benefits.

“This is one where actually the people of the state can make a real difference,” Cuomo said while on Long Island. “I would ask them to reach out, call their assemblyperson, call their senator, and say revoke the pension of any person convicted of a crime in office, period.”

Earlier this month, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Democratic conference had sought “clarity” on the forfeiture issue. At the same time, he questioned the impact of stripping retirement benefits from ex-legislators.

“One of the things people need to realize that even for those whose pensions are taken, there are families that are affected,” Heastie said. “We in the Assembly we always want to be mindful how this is going to affect everyone. Yes people are going to raise concerns, because it doesn’t just affect who has unfortunately has done a misdeed, but it also affects the family. We just want to take a real holistic approach to things.”

S6769 by Nick Reisman

LDC Saga Continues As Monroe County Political Committees Call On Each Other To Refund Contributions

Tuesday, Rochester businessman Daniel Lynch, became the fourth and final co-defendant to plead guilty in Monroe County to bid-rigging charges. But the scandal surrounding contracts awarded by a Local Development Corporation that has dragged on for years, did not end just because the litigation is over.

Wednesday, Monroe County Democratic Chairwoman Jamie Romeo called on the county Republican committee to refund or donate any “stolen funds” contributed to the party by Lynch. The press release cites testimony from Lynch in the plea agreement that he directed tens of thousands of stolen dollars from inflated county contracts to both the Monroe County Republican Housekeeping Account and Friends of Maggie Brooks, a committee for the former county executive.

GOP Chairman Bill Reilich quickly responded that the party is investigating and will return any money associated with the illegal activities in question. Reilich also said, to the best of his knowledge, only one individual donation was made by Lynch to the party since his chairmanship began in 2008.

“During an investigation in 2012, an inquiry was made regarding individual donations. At that time we learned that Mr. Lynch had donated $10,000 to the Housekeeping account. That amount was immediately refunded,” he said.

Furthermore, Reilich said during the party’s own investigation it found Lynch’s company Navitech Services Corp. had made two separate donations totaling $4500 to the Democratic committee. He called on the chairwoman to heed her own advice.

“I am disappointed in the hypocrisy that has been displayed by Ms. Romeo. Instead of jumping to conclusions, she should have taken the time to review her own Committee’s financial dealings with individuals and businesses implicated in the LDC investigation,” he said.

Romeo volleyed back.

“We have been in that process regarding this money but to try to insinuate that County Democrats were influenced by such a contribution is beyond absurd,” she said.

New County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, R, has made eliminating LDC’s one of the main focuses of her office and has also introduced legislation to create an Office of Public Integrity.

Monroe County Executive Amends Office Of Public Integrity Proposal

Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, R, announced, Monday, an amendment to her proposed legislation to create a county Office of Public Integrity.  The county legislature is set to vote on the bill, with the new amendment, Tuesday.

Under the proposal the office would have the ability to examine all county operations independently and report its findings to law enforcement. Dinolfo said the changes were the result of bipartisan input from the legislature as well as the public.

“Some of the amendments have been added to ensure clear understanding of the Office of Public Integrity. Many additions were implied before and were common sense or are already in statute. However, by incorporating these sections into the amendments, there will be one document setting forth all of the duties of the Office of Public Integrity,” Dinolfo said.

The new proposal more specifically outlines the role of the office’s director. The director would be appointed by the County Executive, confirmed by the legislature, and serve a fixed 5-year term.

He, or she, could only be removed for cause. The amendment also gives the director full authority to issue subpoenas to any private vendor doing business with the county including Local Development Corporations.

An LDC scandal plagued the former County Executive Maggie Brooks’s, R, last term in office. Three of four men accused of bid-rigging by the state Attorney General’s Office have pleaded guilty, including Brook’s husband Robert Weisner, the former security director at the Monroe County Water Authority.

“I think it’s something that County Executive Dinolfo was very vocal about as she was coming into office and I think it’s a fantastic idea and I think it’s something that she wanted to bring to county government and I think it’s very welcome,” Legislature Majority Leader Brian Marianetti, R, said.

Marianetti said he’s confident the legislation will pass Tuesday. Democrats in the legislature also issued a press release praising the changes.

“County Executive Dinolfo promised a new and more open Monroe County government, and on this issue, she has delivered,” Minority Leader Cynthia Kaleh said.

Acting Erie County District Attorney Proposes Ethics Code Reform

The Erie County District Attorney’s Office is proposing a number of changes to strengthen the County Code of Ethics. Acting DA Michael Flaherty sent the proposal to the legislature and county executive, Friday.

Among the recommended changes, Flaherty wants to expand the definition of “political party official,” increase penalties for violations of the law, and restrict appointments for party leader. He said he began looking at the laws because he was handed a “widely reported” case about a local elected official.

While he said it was inappropriate to comment specifically, he most likely was referring to County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw’s case, which was placed on his desk as soon as he took office. In December, the Board of Ethics ruled Mychajliw violated the code when he allowed a group of local businessmen to pay for his tuition to a Harvard executive seminar.

“The inspiration was what do I do about this particular case. The answer was, I can’t do anything right now and so what I want to do is be able in the future, should that happen again, have some tools to work with,” Flaherty said.

The district attorney said he would be meeting with the ethics board chairman, Wednesday, to discuss the Mychajliw case. Under the current law, the Ethics Board had permission to fine the comptroller for his violation but the law did not allow for the board or the DA to force Mychajliw to pay back the $12,000 in tuition he received. Flaherty’s plan addresses that.

The district attorney’s proposal also recommended closing the LLC Loophole for campaign contributions by adopting the language of the Moreland Commission recommendations. Governor Cuomo has also proposed the state legislature close the loophole but Flaherty believes the county could get ahead of the curve.

Flaherty said he hopes the legislature and the county executive will take his recommendations even further and add their own. County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he plans to introduce his own ethics reform which could include new rules requiring elected officials who are also attorneys to disclose their client list.

Wozniak Spends More Than Four Grand On Attorneys

Defending herself in Assembly Ethics investigation is proving costly for Cheektowaga Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak. According to her January 2016 campaign finance report Wozniak has paid more than $4,000 dollars to HoganWillig Attorneys At Law.

Right now, Wozniak has less than $2,000 left in her campaign coffers. She could face a strong Democratic challenger in Cheektowaga Councilor James Rogowski.

Rogowski said, Wednesday, he is considering an Assembly run. He currently has more than $9,000 dollars in the bank.

One interesting note, the Republican Assemblywoman did get a $100 campaign contribution from her attorney Steven Cohen, who on multiple occasions has told reporters he’s a liberal.