NY’s Corruption Report Card: “D-“

reportcardNew York’s state government is “beset” by corruption and earns a “D-” when it comes to its public integrity index, according to a report from the Center For Public Integrity.

New York is ranked in a tie for 30th — along with a host of other states like Florida, New Hampshire, Missouri and Arkansas — when it comes to corruption.

To be fair, the Center for Public Integrity has some seemingly high standards or state governments have some low ones: No state this year received better than a “C” grade, with Alaska scoring the highest.

The Empire State’s poor showing comes, however, after a year in which state government was rocked by twin corruption arrests, ultimately taking down Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Both Silver and Skelos are on trial in their separate corruption cases this month. In July, Republican Sen. Tom Libous was forced from office when a jury found him guilty of lying to the FBI in a case stemming from his son receiving a job at a politically connected law firm.

The report assessed and graded states on a number of government functions, including public access to information (F), political financing (D-), electoral oversight (F) and the enforcement of ethics (F).

When it comes to the state budget process — known famously in Albany for being conducted largely behind closed doors with little oversight by “three men in a room” — the Center For Public Integrity gives the state an “F” grade as well.

“The final budget is virtually impossible for the general public to navigate, a labyrinthine book of numbers that gives little insight into the negotiations that led to it,” the report found.

New York’s overall D- is actually worse than the last time the states were assessed on their integrity in 2012, when the state government earned a “D” grade.

Flanagan: Looming Skelos And Silver Trials ‘Not Good For Anybody’

As the coming corruption trials of the two former state legislative leaders are due to start next month and lay bare Albany’s misdeeds, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hopes public servants writ large aren’t unduly impacted.

“I think it’s always a challenge,” Flanagan told reporters on Friday while in Albany attending an event for 4201 schools. “You don’t want to see people in harms way.”

Flanagan, of Suffolk County, assumed to the top leadership post in the chamber after Majority Leader Dean Skelos resigned from the majority leader job after he was arrested on charges that he used his official influence to aid the business interests of his son.

A similar drama had played only months earlier on the other side of the state Capitol in the Democratic-led Assembly, where longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was forced from his perch when he was arrested on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

Both retain their seats in the Legislature, but Skelos and Silver face automatic ouster if they are found guilty of felony charges.

The trials for both men begin next month and, through the discovery process, have the potential to show Albany at its self-dealing, influence peddling worst.

“It’s not good for anybody,” Flanagan said. “Whether it’s at the staff level or the member level, I think our members and both houses and both parties try extraordinarily hard to be in the right place, not to get in harms way and try to maintain their integrity and do the right thing by the people they represent.”

Ex-Staffer Accusing Assemblywoman Of Sexual Harassment Hires Attorney Who Sued Gabryszak

The former Legislative staffer accusing Western New York Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak of sexual harassment has hired an attorney. It’s the same attorney who represented six women who raised similar complaints against Wozniak’s predecessor, former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak.

Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen has learned Wozniak’s accuser, Elias Farah, hired Niagara Falls-based attorney John Bartolomei. Bartolomei represented all but one of Gabryszak’s accusers, many of them former staffers, in 2013.

Gabryszak retired soon after the accusations came to light. That cleared the way for Wozniak, a Republican, to win the Democratic-leaning Cheektowaga-based Assembly seat, last November.

In the Gabryszak case, Bartolomei’s clients sought an astounding total of more than $2.6 billion in damages from the former Assemblyman, his Chief of Staff, the State Assembly and others. Bartolomei has not responded to several requests for comment on the Wozniak complaint.

As Whalen first reported last month, Farah’s claims are being reviewed by the Assembly Ethics Committee. Wozniak was scheduled to be the last person interviewed by an outside law professor brought in to conduct a preliminary investigation.

Wozniak is represented by Buffalo-based attorney Steven Cohen. Cohen has spoken to several media sources denouncing the claims against his client, but has since has since been advised by the Ethics Committee to keep the proceedings confidential.

SUNY Poly: Buffalo Billion Contracting A Transparent Process

SUNY Polytechnic on Monday released yet another statement responding to news reports of a focused investigation on the institution’s leader, Alain Kaloyeros, insisting the contracting process for the Buffalo Billion economic development program was performed in a “transparent process.”

“As a public SUNY institution, all funding and contracts to SUNY Poly and its expenditures are subject to the same approvals, rules, regulations, and oversight as any other New York government agency. This includes public and transparent review and oversight by all appropriate state agencies including the New York State Division of the Budget, Empire State Development, the State University of New York, the New York State Comptroller, and the Attorney General,” SUNY Poly spokesman Jerry Gretzinger said in the statement.

In a bullet-pointed “statement of facts,” Gretzinger used the word “transparent” three times to describe its contracting and request for proposal procedures, using media reports to bolster its case.

“The SUNY Poly economic innovation model is open, transparent, and successful, as demonstrated by the hundreds of media reports on its structure, process, and results, including the following,” Gretzinger said, providing links to stories written by the non-profit Investigative Post which, along with Gannett, has sued the state for the release of documents pertaining to the Buffalo Billion program. More >

Boyland Sentenced To 14 Years

boylandDemocratic former Assemblyman William Boyland on Thursday was sentenced to 14 years in prison following his conviction on nearly a dozen counts of bribery, extortion and wire fraud among them.

“As he demonstrated time and again, Boyland, a lawmaker himself, lack any respect for either the law or his constituents who elected him,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie. “Officials who would seek to sell the power and influence of their office to the highest bidder are on notice that they will be held to account for their crimes.”

Boyland’s sentence is one of the longer prison terms handed down by judges in cases involving former state lawmakers who have been found guilty of corruption, coming after former Sen. Malcolm Smith received seven years in a plot to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot as a Republican. More >

Update: WNY Assemblywoman Turns Over Cell Phone And Computer Records As Part Of Sexual Harassment Probe

New details Thursday, in the sexual harassment and retaliation investigation of a Western New York Assemblywoman.  The attorney for Cheektowaga Republican Angela Wozniak says they have taken steps to cooperate with a preliminary investigation by the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Buffalo-based attorney Steven Cohen told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen, who broke the story last week, that Wozniak has turned over her cell phone, email and copies of all her hard drives to the Ethics Committee.

“Assemblywoman Wozniak has said she’s got nothing to fear and she’s directed me just to cooperate in turning over all of the evidence so we did that today,” Cohen said.

The committee has assigned an independent law professor, Merrick Rossein from the City University of New York, to conduct the interviews in the investigation.  Cohen said Wozniak will be interviewed last, September 28th.

Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, Former Wozniak Staffer Elias Farah

Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, Former Wozniak Staffer Elias Farah

Cohen told several media sources that Wozniak’s former Legislative Director Elias Farah filed the complaint.  Farah, who declined comment, ran for Erie County Legislature in 2013.  Sources have told Time Warner Cable News that Wozniak and Farah did have a sexual relationship, although Cohen would not confirm that.

“I too find it hard to believe that any credible complaint could be made against this assemblywoman to be intimidating or harassing anyone,” said Cohen.  “She (Wozniak) and her husband are bearing under the embarrassment of these kinds of allegations but both of them are confident that they’re going to get through this,” said Cohen.

Cohen expressed frustration with the Ethics Committee’s process.  He said he was never given a copy of the complaint or even told initially who made it.

“I have represented members of the United States Congress, military commanders in ethics investigations and never before have I not been given the charges that have been placed against my client and never before have I been told that I’m not allowed to investigate it.” Cohen said.

Cohen has said repeatedly he’s not only working to clear Wozniak’s name but he’s also preserving evidence for a defamation suit against Farah.

“If it is determined that this was a complaint made with actual malice, we will seek to bring the complainant to justice through the courts,” said Cohen.

Wozniak has made no public appearances since allegations surfaced last month.  Cohen made it clear she is continuing to represent her district and will be addressing the allegations soon.

“Once the Assembly Investigation Committee, Ethics Committee, unties my hands we would look forward to a press conference and we would look forward to commenting on everything,” Cohen added.

Wozniak was elected in 2014 to the 143rd seat vacated by Democrat Dennis Gabryszak who retired.  Several of Gabryszak’s former staffers accused him of sexual harassment.

Update: Assembly Ethics Committee Investigates Sexual Harassment Complaint Against WNY Assemblywoman

Last week we learned a Western New York Assemblywoman had hired an attorney following what her lawyer described as “unsubstantiated accusations” made by a former male staffer.  Wednesday we learned more about those accusations and how they’re being investigated.

Time Warner Cable News Buffalo is reporting the Assembly Ethics Committee has started a preliminary investigation into a sexual harassment claim against Cheektowaga Republican Angela Wozniak.  Sources tell Ryan Whalen, Wozniak and others have been scheduled for interviews as part of the committee’s probe.

Buffalo-based attorney Steve Cohen is representing Wozniak.  Cohen said last week he was not only working to clear Wozniak’s name but he was also preserving evidence for a defamation suit against Wozniak’s accuser.

Wednesday, he acknowledged there is an investigation.

“We can confirm that there has been an accusation brought against the Assemblywoman.  We are now looking forward to cooperating with the investigation to clear her good name.  Once that is accomplished, we will turn our attention to bringing her accuser to justice.  There are consequences for bringing malicious false accusations,” said Cohen.

Cohen reiterated that he has not received any formal charges against his client.  The chairman of the Assembly Ethics Committee would not confirm or make any comment about the investigation.

The Assembly Ethics Committee is an eight-member bi-partisan committee that includes two Western New York Republicans, Joe Giglio of Gowanda and Peter Lawrence from Greece.

Wozniak was elected in 2014 to the 143rd seat vacated by Democrat Dennis Gabryszak who retired.  Several of Gabryszak’s former staffers accused him of sexual harassment.

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.