Ethics

Rep. Collins’ Opponents Pounce On Ethics Report

From the Morning Memo:

Opponents of Rep. Chris Collins saw an opening and quickly took the opportunity to condemn the Western New York Republican.

A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was released as part of the House Ethics Committee investigation, suggested Collins may have violated House rules – and possibly federal law – in his dealings with the Australian-based pharmaceutical firm Innate Immunotherapeutics.

Turn NY-27 Blue, a coalition of Democratic committees and grassroots organizations within the congressional district, sent out a press release blasting Collins shortly after the report went public. The group is actively recruiting a Democratic opponent to run against Collins in next year’s mid-term elections, and they insisted the congressman’s days in office are numbered.

“It has never been more obvious that the term ‘Representative’ is misapplied when it comes to Chris Collins, and the decision released today by the House Ethics Committee to continue its investigation of him reinforces that,” said Judith Hunter, the Livingston County Democratic Chair.

“His actions prove that his priorities are his own bottom line and those of his cronies’, not the interests of the hard-working voters of New York 27.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also said it’s looking forward to finding out how voters will react to the allegations against Collins next November.

There is substantial reason to believe that multimillionaire Chris Collins has shamelessly and unapologetically abused his position to enrich himself and his Republican colleagues, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. How do Western New Yorkers feel about Rep. Collins possibly breaking federal law by engaging in insider trading?” spokesperson Evan Lukaske asked.

Finally, an organization classifying itself as an “ad hoc coalition of Western New York Resistance groups” sent an open letter to the congressman that included a list of “general moral precepts” to help guide him through his remaining time in office.

They included:

  • Thou shalt resign from all boards and divest from all businesses that create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • Thou shalt represent all of thine constituents, not just the ones who voted for you.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thine constituents, thine press outlets, or thine political opponents.

For his part, Collins has consistently refuted claims he did anything wrong as the company’s largest investor. 

The congressman’s attorney said the recommendation by OCE for further review because there was substantial evidence Collins shared non-public information and took or requested official actions to benefit the company was a “result of a tortured interpretation of reality and also bespeaks a misunderstanding of the facts, the law, or both, and should be rejected.”

House Ethics Committee Extends Review Of Collins Probe

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ethics has decided to extend its review of Republican Congressman Chris Collins’ stock market activity. According to a press release Monday, the matter was transmitted to the committee from the Congressional Ethics Office on July 14.

“The Committee notes that the mere fact of a referral or an extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension and the name of the subject matter, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee,” the Chairwoman and Ranking Member wrote in a joint statement.

Democrats, including Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, have raised questions about whether Collins helped his friends and colleagues buy shares of Australian pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics at a discount, while using his influence to make the company more valuable. In May, investigators reportedly interviewed some of his associates in Western New York.

“The House Ethics Committee is reviewing a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics in regards to the false accusations brought about by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and her allies in a partisan witch hunt against Congressman Collins,” spokesperson Sarah Minkel said. “Today’s announcement was expected and is nothing more than a pro forma delay because Congress is currently in its August recess. Congressman Collins has followed all ethical and legal guidelines when it comes to his personal investments and he looks forward to their review.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, argued the committee’s decision Monday was significant. The DCCC is targeting the congressman’s seat in 2018.

“It’s hard to overstate how damaging this is for Representative Collins,” spokesman Evan Lukaske said. “Not only is the investigation into his potentially unethical stock trading continuing, but we now know that there is ‘substantial reason to believe’ Collins violated either the law, House rules, or both. This isn’t what Western New Yorkers voted for last year—I’m sure that for many, Election Day can’t come soon enough.”

The Ethics Committee said it would announce its next course of action before October 12.

Assemblyman Kearns: ‘Sometimes Our Criminal Justice System Doesn’t Work’

Western New York Assemblyman Mickey Kearns had a cynical take on the news that a federal appeals court overturned the corruption conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“We know that there was corruption. We know that Mr. Silver monetized his office for self gain. We know that he protected and harbored sex offenders in the legislature. We know all those. Those are facts,” Kearns said. “I think it shows that sometimes our criminal justice system doesn’t work.”

Kearns was one of the more vocal critics during Silver’s last few years as Speaker and left the Democratic Conference to protest the handling of the Vito Lopez scandal. The Buffalo Democrat didn’t caucus with his party again until Silver stepped down in 2015.

“I know there is going to be a retry of the case,” he said. “I’m going to advocate that. I’m going to personally reach out to them to have them retry Mr. Silver.”

While he said he’s disappointed, the assemblyman quickly pointed to a silver lining from Silver’s high-profile corruption case. He said it put an increased focus on ethics reform in Albany and led to the legislature’s approval of a pension reform.

The constitutional amendment still needs approval from the general public.

“The voters are going to have an opportunity to hold public officials accountable that breach the public trust and you’ll be able to vote in a referendum to strip corrupt politicians of their pensions,” he said. “That will be on the ballot this November, so that’s a positive thing that came from this.”

Meanwhile, Kearns said the decision today is a reminder more ethics reform is needed.

 

WNY Legislators Celebrate Second Passage Of Pension Forfeiture

From the Morning Memo:

I can usually tell when state legislators are pleased with something they’ve done based on my inbox. Monday afternoon, I received roughly a dozen emails from both Republicans and Democrats celebrating the second passage of pension forfeiture legislation.

Because it’s a proposed amendment to the state constitution, the bill required approval in two consecutive legislative sessions before being sent to the general public for a referendum vote. If approved by voters this fall, any elected official convicted of a felony crime related to their office will be stripped of their state pension.

“The Senate is committed to restoring faith in government, and pension forfeiture has been a priority for us because those who violate the public trust need to be held responsible,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Young. “Corrupt officials should not be able to cash in their taxpayer-funded pensions and continue to enjoy the fruits of their misdeeds.”

Ethics reform was a major topic at the end of last year’s session and during this past election, but as leadership turned their attention to the budget at the beginning of this year, some legislators were worried the momentum had stalled.

Freshman Assemblyman and former Judge Angelo Morinello, a Niagara Falls Republican, was among the concerned.

“Restoring the people’s trust in government and holding corrupt officials responsible for their actions is the reason I ran for office,” he said. “Today, I was proud to help pass legislation which does both of these things.”

“The individuals in my district are incredibly hard-working people, and there is no reason they should be funding the pensions of public officials who choose to use their position in government to break the law. While there is a long way to go in terms of cleaning up Albany, stripping all corrupt public officials of their taxpayer-funded pensions is an important first step.”

Freshman Democratic Assemblywoman Monica Wallace also campaigned on ethics reform. The University at Buffalo law professor, who actually teaches the subject, said she’s pleased with the vote but wants to continue to push other issues like closing the so-called LLC loophole.

“I’m committed to holding myself and all legislators to the highest standards,” Wallace said. “I came here to fight for strong ethics reform, and I am determined to fulfill that promise.”

Other legislators who touted the passage of the pension forfeiture bill included Republican state Sens. Chris Jacobs, Rich Funke, and Demcoratic Assembly Majority leader Joe Morelle, of Rochester.

 

Bharara: ‘Systemic’ Corruption in Albany, Cuomo Not Implicated ‘At This Moment’

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara this afternoon outlined what he called a “network” of wrongdoers – both inside and out of state government – involved in two complex public corruption schemes that involved individuals close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including his former top aide, Joe Percoco.

Unlike in past press conferences, Bharara was careful not to go overboard in his excoriation of Albany. (He has been admonished by a judge in the past for saying too much, too soon).

He repeatedly stressed that the charges in the complaint unsealed this morning are “allegations,” though he also said that he hopes the eight remaining defendants – Todd Howe has already pleaded guilty, and is cooperating with investigators – end up going to trial, so New Yorkers “can see in gory detail what their state government has been up to.”

Bharara said the complaint outlines what he believes is a “systemic problem” in Albany – and he was also quick to note that when he uses the term “Albany,” he means the state government that is located there, and not the city itself, which he called a “wonderful town,” as Mayor Kathy Sheehan has told him “multiple times.”

Bharara was asked if Cuomo himself has any involvement in the case by a reporter who noted that he had once issued a statement absolving the governor of wrongdoing in connection with the early demise of the corruption-busting Moreland Commission. His reply:

“What I can say at this moment is that there are no allegations of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor anywhere in this complaint. That’s all I’m going to say.”

When pressed on whether it’s “realistic” to believe that the governor, who has a reputation of being something of a micromanager, did not know what his top aide was up to, Bharara said simply: “It’s not my job to comment on what is realistic or unrealistic.”

Bharara also said that this investigation, “as a general matter,” remains open.

The U.S. attorney was also asked if he believes that the corruption problem in Albany is getting better as a result of all the cases he has brought in recent years – including the successful prosecution of two men who were once among the state’s most powerful political players, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

“I presume some people have gotten the message and abstained from engaging in criminal activity,” Bharara said. “But we’re as busy as we ever were, in some ways busier…if that’s the metric you use then the assessment is not a positive one.”

Wozniak Accuser Contemplating Run For Her Seat

The complainant in the sexual harassment and retaliation case against Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, C-Cheektowaga, is considering a run for her office. Elias Farah, the former staffer who Wozniak admitted to having an affair with, said if the candidates who are already running for her seat don’t adequately address ethics reform in Albany, he might take it upon himself.

“Now that others, Republican or Democrat, plan to take the place of the previous two assembly members, I will hold their feet to the fire in addressing the protections that should be afforded to those who speak out against corruption and ethics violations. If they can’t address those issues I won’t rule anything out as far as a political run goes,” Farah said.

Wozniak announced earlier this week she would not seek re-election and planned to take that time to focus on her family. She has a husband and a young son.

In March, Wozniak was sanctioned by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie after the Ethics Committee determined she had retaliated against Farah after their consensual sexual relationship had ended.

The committee wrote in its findings to Heastie that the relationship had a negative impact on the office. It also determined that Wozniak displayed “incredibly poor judgment” by entering into a relationship with someone who worked in her office.

The committee also claimed Wozniak’s attorney violated confidentiality privileges by confirming Farah’s name to Time Warner Cable News. Despite repeated calls to Farah and his attorney, neither had commented publicly about the investigation before.

“I was shamed, humiliated, intimidated, and brought into the public eye when I tried to address legitimate ethics concerns in the correct manner. That should never be the case for anyone,” Farah said.

He still works for the Assembly. Heastie called for Farah to be reassigned to a comparable job with similar pay and benefits that would come from Wozniak’s staff budget until the end of her current term.

Farah has run for office before too. In 2013, he was a Republican candidate for Erie County Legislature.

“We are currently putting together a candidate screening process. Anyone interested in running for the 143rd Assembly District should send a letter of interest and their resume to Erie County Republican headquarters,” said Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy.

Remember, this is the seat Wozniak won in the aftermath of another scandal, when multiple former staffers accused her predecessor Dennis Gabryszak of sexual harassment. She defeated Mark Mazurek, the brother of Kristy Mazurek, one of the women suing Gabryszak.

Kearns Calls Silver Sentence ‘Fair And Just’

Since joining the Assembly in 2012, Mickey Kearns, D-Buffalo, has been one of Sheldon Silver’s most vocal critics. In 2013, he left the Democratic conference in protest to how the house speaker handled the Vito Lopez case.

“It was a very difficult decision but I knew it was something I had to do,” Kearns said.

He didn’t start caucusing with the Democrats again until last year, when Silver stepped down as Assembly Speaker. Tuesday, Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison for public corruption charges.

“I don’t personalize things. I think it was fair and just,” Kearns said.

Just as interesting to Kearns as the unprecedented length of the sentence, was the $1.75 million fine the judge imposed on the former speaker.

“I believe part of the reason for that is he’ll be collecting his pension in prison,” he said.

Kearns believes the judge made a statement but he said the Assembly needs to as well. He’s calling on his colleagues to pass a bill that would forfeit legislators state pensions if they’re convicted of a felony.

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.