Ethics

Molinaro Unveils State Government Reform Proposal Package

Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro unveiled his 2019 Albany Accountability Act during a Thursday morning press conference in Buffalo.

The proposal includes roughly twenty pages of reforms directed at a variety of issues including government transparency, campaign finance and economic development. Many of the policy ideas, Molinaro admits, are not new, but are reforms he has identified as ways to root out corruption in state government and return power to the people of the state of New York.

He said they are “perhaps the most sweeping and fundamental ethics reforms” in the state’s history. The candidate has already discussed some of them of the course of his campaign, including a call to limit statewide elected officials to two terms and members of the state Legislature to six terms, plans to convene a new Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption, and a ban on political contributions from individuals and entities pursuing government contracts.

“This triple A action plan is organized around five simple and clear goals: creating a government of, by and for the people, opening the doors of government and providing true transparency to the media and the public, taking big money out of politics, holding politicians accountable, providing for independent oversight, and rethinking and right-sizing New York State’s economic development programs,” Molinaro said.

Another proposal would give voters the power of initiative and referendum in New York which would allow them to petition to put specific legislation before the legislature or directly on the ballot. Molinaro also wants to “return power to the people” by impaneling a commission to revisit independent redistricting ahead of the 2020 census.

Regarding increasing transparency, the Republican proposes creating a Unified Economic Development Budget, a searchable “database of deals,” and empowering an independent auditor to review all state government contracts. he would like to expand the state’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws and give the state Committee on Open Government, which right now serves in an advisory capacity, the power to enforce those laws.

Molinaro calls for a strengthening of the state code of ethics, the addition of sexual harassment as an ethics violation, and a new “truly independent” five member oversight committee which would assume the duties of the Joint Commission of Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Committee. Finally, regarding “rightsizing economic development,” he said he would end the practice of direct grant funding to private corporations.

“Those projects that are contracted for, we’re not going to disrupt that system, but no new direct grants, no new direct checks, no new direct payments to corporate interests, period. It’s corrupted,” Molinaro said.

The state Legislature would have to approve a majority of these plans and Molinaro said, if elected, he would like to see the package taken up as a single piece of legislation. However, he noted if legislators do not seem receptive to the idea, the governor has broad authority during the budget process to push forward legislation and he has no qualms with including the reforms in a budget bill.

“On Day One, everyone who serves with me will be asked, ‘Do you stand with the people of the state of New York or do you stand with those who believe that government is about the powerful and those who have influence?'” he said.

Molinaro said he’s not concerned if members of his own party are unhappy with some of the proposals.

 

Albany Accountability Act of 2019 by Ryan Whalen on Scribd

Still Waiting On A Panepinto JCOPE Report

From the Morning Memo:

Federal court documents confirmed a long-reported Joint Commission on Public Ethics Investigation into former state Sen. Marc Panepinto regarding accusations of unwanted sexual advances toward a female staffer.

Panepinto pleaded guilty to attempting to cover up the incident by directing another staffer to offer the young woman money and/or a job in exchange for not participating in the investigation. The Buffalo Democrat will face sentencing at a later date, and could receive up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, although prosecutors have recommended a lesser sentence.

Despite the plea, there has been no conclusion to the now more than two-year-old investigation. Meanwhile, the commission has cleared former Empire State Development official Sam Hoyt of wrongdoing in an investigation that lasted a fraction of the time.

After the Hoyt decision, several observers questioned why the Panepinto decision has taken so long. A spokesperson for JCOPE responded late yesterday that it could not comment on any pending or potential investigation without a vote from the commission giving him the authority to do so.

The penalty, under state law, is a misdemeanor. However, the spokesperson referred Capital Tonight to a statement made by JCOPE Chairman Michael Rozen back in March 2018. What he said remains relevant.

“I would like to remind everyone that no conclusions can be, or ever should be, drawn from the commission’s silence when it is asked whether an investigation is possible, commenced or finished,” Rozen said at the time. “To divulge such information is a crime.”

“The commission has not responded to questions when it has been actively conducting investigations, or when federal prosecutors have asked it to ‘stand down’ – meaning step aside in investigating matters until criminal trials and appeals arising out of trials have concluded.”

“In short, silence in the face of these questions is mandated by law, but does not indicate action or inaction on the part of the Commission. No conclusions should be inferred by the commission’s silence.”

The details to which Panepinto admitted in his guilty plea would suggest wrongdoing by a sitting state legislator. He admitted to making a series of sexual advances toward the young woman in her hotel room while the two were traveling for a New York City fundraiser for his campaign in 2016.

Among the things he confessed to: Putting his head in her lap, and pulling her feet toward him and saying they smelled “sexy.”

Molinaro Proposes ‘Pay-For-Play Ban’

Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro introduced one component of his 2019 Accountable Government Act, which he billed as a comprehensive proposal to weed out corruption in state government.

Molinaro said he wants to ban individuals and businesses seeking or holding state contracts from making political contributions. He said the “pay-for-play” culture is “infectious” in state government and something that has been fostered and utilized by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The candidate pointed to the conviction of former Cuomo aide Joe Percoco, the upcoming bid-rigging trial related to state contracts and the Buffalo Billion, and a federal investigation into Crystal Run Healthcare’s state grants as direct examples.

“Those linkages are clear and we know over the course of the last decade that pay-for-play scandals where state officials, including this administration, gave dollars to organizations, tax dollars to organizations that either contributed to or participated in political contributions,” Molinaro said. “It’s infected state government for a generation.”

He acknowledged it may be difficult to stop individuals, particularly employees of companies, from making campaign donations. Molinaro said if elected, he would first focus on the actual corporations.

“There’s a freedom of speech (component), certainly, but we have to absolutely make certain that those who are directly benefitting, at least are prohibited to the extent possible from making contributions,” he said.

The Republican, who is currently the Dutchess County Executive, admitted he has received contributions in the past from companies that have done business with his county. One important difference from the state, he said, is nearly every contract the county enters into is competitively bid.

“I have received contributions and my expectation would be, the second I take office, I’ll ask the Legislature to impose this standard and live by that standard,” Molinaro said.

The Accountable Government Act would also close the so-called LLC Loophole, which allows candidates and contributors to circumvent campaign finance limits and transparency standards, by donating through Limited Liability Corporations. The plan also calls for term limits, a new universal Code of Ethics, and a new commission to identify and uncover corruption.

Molinaro said he will be revealing more details in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: “Trump mini-me Marc Molinaro–who has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA and is the NY GOP’s handpicked anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ candidate–is desperately trying to deflect from the sad state of his campaign. In fact, Molinaro is a hypocrite who has himself taken contributions from businesses with contracts before Dutchess County,” Cuomo campaign spokesperson Abbey Fashouer said in a statement.

Curran Hammers Martins’ Skelos Link in Ad No. 3

From the Morning Memo:

The Nassau County executive race continues to focus largely on ethics reform, with both sides trying desperately to tie the other to a number of scandals that have dogged their respective political parties in recent years.

Exhibit A: The latest TV ad – number three of the race, according to her campaign – released by Democrat Laura Curran, a Nassau County legislator.

The spot hammers Curran’s Republican opponent, ex-Sen. Jack Martins, for initially defending former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in the wake of the federal corruption charges that eventually forced him from office.

The ad features footage of Martins demanding in the Senate chamber that Democratic colleagues trying to oust Skelos immediately after his arrest “please sit down.”

That was just part of a very heated exchange between Martins and Deputy Senate Minority Leader Mike Gianaris, who shouted at and over one another until the Democrats, after failing to force a vote on Skelos’ leadership, walked out of the chamber, en masse.

Curran also appears on the ad, saying that New Yorkers are “all paying a corruption tax, we are paying for the patronage, we are paying for the nepotism.”

“I love Nassau County,” she concludes. “I know we can do better.”

Curran’s campaign could not or would not reveal any information about the size of the buy for this ad, or how long it will be running.

Martins, as you’ll recall, has been lambasting Curran for hiring a NYC-based consulting firm, BerlinRosen, that has longstanding ties to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and played a key role in scandals involving his fundraising that were investigated but did not result in any charges.

The ethics issue has been a particular focus in this race due in large part to the fact that a corruption scandal has forced the current county executive, Republican Ed Mangano, not to seek re-election.

Mangano has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of receiving bribes and kickbacks from a local businessman in exchange for favors.

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.