Ethics

In Huff Post, Fitzpatrick Defends Moreland’s Record

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick defended the track record of the soon-to-be-defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption while at the same time blasting unauthorized leaks to the press and that the panel itself was “too big.”

But largely, the op/ed in The Huffington Post is a lengthy defense of the Moreland Commission’s pursuit of wrongdoing in the Legislature that ultimately resulted in a package of ethics law changes in the state budget.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who created the commission in 2013, announced the commission would end its work following the budget agreement, which included the creation of an independent enforcement counsel at the state Board of Elections.

But his decision to close the commission soon after the agreement is coming under criticism from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office has taken possession of records generated by the panel.

Fitzpatrick in the op/ed denies there was any improper collusion from the governor’s office and decried commission members leaking to the press.

“In retrospect, the Commission was too big at 25 members. Some members were appointed by the Governor and some by the Attorney General and they had different perspectives,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Leaks to the press were frequent, unauthorized, and largely inaccurate, and they were frustrating and undermining of the Commission. We experienced the staffing issues one would expect at a start-up organization. Whatever else, we asked each other for trust, and some members, for whatever reason, violated that trust.”

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick takes aim at unnamed critics he says are engaging in “SCHADEN FREUDE” (sic) for focusing on perceived shortcomings of the commission:

“Of course, there are those who would prefer to practice the act of SCHADEN FREUDE and focus on what they perceive to be failures,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “I myself am still distressed that we as a Commission were unable to force legislators to disclose exactly what it is they do to earn lucrative outside income, not an unreasonable request of a person purportedly entrusted with serving the public good. The reality is, however, that that issue would still be in litigation long after the full term of Moreland had expired and it is left for another day. My focus is on the good that Moreland accomplished.”

The full op/ed — headline “My Moreland Mission” — can be found here.

Moreland Commission Lawsuit Pushed Back To April

A lawsuit filed by state lawmakers seeking to quash subpoenas from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption has been pushed into April, according to court documents filed this week.

Lawyers for the Senate and Assembly launched the challenge to the Moreland Commission’s authority when the panel first issued subpoenas to gain more information on lawmakers’ outside income.

The Legislature has asserted the commission does not have the authority to investigate a separate branch of government.

However, the Moreland Commission argues that the power bestowed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gives them the authority beyond investigate the executive branch.

Lawyers for the attorney general’s office and the law firms representing the Senate and Assembly had initially agreed in December for a March 17 adjournment.

But court documents filed on Monday now give an adjournment deadline of April 7.

The new date gives both Cuomo and state lawmakers some potential breathing room in the ongoing state budget negotiations.

Cuomo is seeking a package of ethics and anti-bribery measures to be included in the budget, along with beefed up campaign-finance enforcement and the public financing of political campaigns.

Document (3) by Nick Reisman

US Attorney Eyes Sampson’s Pension

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is eyeing Brooklyn Sen. John Sampson’s pension benefits, according to the indictment released by her office on Monday.

In the final paragraph of the 26-page indictment, prosecutors say “it is the intent of the United States … to seek forfeiture of any other property of the defendant … including but not limited to the following: any and all pensions, annuities, or other benefits Sampson may be entitled to as a result of his employment as a member of the New York State Senate.”

Sampson was accused Monday of making false statements to the FBI concerning questions about his involvement in a Brookly liquor store, for which he allegedly sought relief from a tax obligation for, according to the indictment.

Sampson was arrested last year and charged with embezzling funds from an escrow account he controlled in order to fund his Brooklyn district attorney’s campaign.

Lynch’s counterpart at the Southern District, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, previously filed court papers in December strip former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate of his pension benefits as well as to determine whether former Yonkers City Councilwoman Sandy Annabi, who was convicted in a bribery scandal, remains in the system.

An ethics measure approved in 2011 would require the forfeiture of pension benefits to officials convicted of corruption charges, but is limited to those who elected after the law was approved.

JCOPE Denies Source Of Funding Shield To 4 Groups

The state’s top lobbying and ethics regulator on Tuesday denied applications to four organizations that had sought to be excluded from donor disclosure requirements.

The groups seeking the carve out from donor disclosure include the abortion-rights group Family Planning Advocates of New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s Equality Coalition, an organization that had been set up to support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10-point women’s agenda last year.

New Yorkers For Constitutional Freedoms, a socially conservative organization that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, was also denied an application for a donor-disclosure exemption.

The exemptions would have covered at least until July 15, and the Family Planning Advocates had initially been up for an exemption that would have covered three years, but that was denied as well.

The public vote was taken by the commissioners of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics after a disclosure exemption was quietly granted in June for NARAL Pro-Choice New York.

After the exemption was made, JCOPE’s leadership altered its regulations to require that votes be taken in public for exemption applications.

Given the changes to the disclosure regulations, NARAL’s exemption will expire in July, as opposed to 2016, JCOPE Chairman Daniel Horwitz said. NARAL can re-apply for its exemption at that time, Horwitz said.

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.

Officials at the organizations have argued that their organizations should have their donors shielded given the sensitive nature of their advocacy. The 2011 does include a provision that would carve out a disclosure exemption for groups whose donors could receive reprisals for their contributions.

But after NARAL’s exemption was granted in secret, Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos raised objections to the decision.

At the time, the coalition of women’s groups backing the 10-point agenda, which included an abortion-rights component, were hammering Skelos for not allowing a vote on the measure.

“By providing this exemption solely to NARAL Pro-Choice NY, and tabling any further consideration of additional exemptions, JCOPE provides an avenue for donors to evade public disclosure by laundering political contributions through NARAL Pro-Choice NY,” Skelos wrote at the time.

JCOPE will provide written explanations to the organizations as to why its exemptions were denied.

Stevenson Bribers Sentenced

The two men who conspired to bribe former Assemblyman Eric Stevenson in exchange for the Bronx Democrat writing favorable legislation were sentenced in federal court today.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office announced that Igor Tsimerman received a 24-month sentence and Rostislav “Slava” Belyansky was given 18 months for their role in the corruption scheme.

Stevenson was convicted this month of accepting about $20,000 in bribes in exchange for writing a bill that would provided both Belyansky and Tsimerman a favorable environment to build an adult day care center in the Bronx.

Stevenson, who was convicted on all corruption chargesand was formally tossed from his Assembly seat as a result, is yet to be sentenced.

“Igor Tsimerman and Rostislav Belyansky thought they could buy legislation to suit their business needs, but as these sentences show, the bribes they paid to Eric Stevenson only bought them a trip to federal prison,” Bharara said in a statement.

The efforts to draft the legislation, including coordination and message delivering was aided by Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who had been acting as a cooperating witness for the U.S. Attorney’s Office since taking his seat in the Assembly stemming from a perjury charge.

Castro, who had worn a wire under the agreement, resigned his seat after the Stevenson charges became public.

Castro was arrested again last year after he violated the terms of his parole agreement and made false statements.

Skelos Still Skeptical Of Public Financing

The inclusion of a public financing plan in the state budget from Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn’t moved Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos on the issue.

Speaking to reporters after the budget presentation, Skelos indicated he would be open to supporting some of the ethics overhaul measures Cuomo included, but won’t budge on the donor-matching system.

“My position is the same,” Skelos said. “I’d rather see the money go to pre-K to tax cuts to job creation to infrastructure. I think that’s where people want to see the money go. Not the robocalls that they hate.”

Cuomo included nearly all of his ethics overhaul measures that had been proposed last year, including closing the so-called LLC loophole that his own campaign coffers have benefited from, limiting contributions to housekeeping accounts and party transfers as well as greater disclosure rules.

Cuomo wants more oversight at the state Board of Elections and he is proposing $5.3 million to hire 11 more staffers in the reporting department.

It was not immediately clear how much money the public financing system he is proposing will cost, but it won’t take effect until 2016 for state legislative races. Cuomo includes a voluntary check-off box proposal that would help fuel a campaign finance fund.

Cuomo is including the measures in the budget after state legislators failed to approve any ethics overhaul measures following a series of corruption arrests last year.

The governor in response launched a Moreland Commission on Public Corruption panel that is investigating legislators’ outside income and their party conference campaign accounts.

The commission is being challenged in court by the Legislature and the various law firms that employ lawmakers. No resolution on the legal challenge is expected until March, which is around the time the budget is expected to be completed.

“I’m confident there will be reform by the time we finish this budget just as I was confident JCOPE would come into play and be the most historic ethics reform measure in the history of this state,” Skelos said.

Rochester Mayor’s Security Chief Suspended For Speeding Twice On NYS Thruway

Monday, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren told reporters the media attention surrounding the head of personal security detail was not a distraction.  Thursday, the man who’s been the center of controversy not only acknowledged the “disruption to City Hall business” he created, he did his best to take sole responsibility.

“I want to apologize to the citizens of Rochester, the New York State Police, Rochester City Council, the staff of City Hall and all concerned parties regarding my lack of judgment,” Reggie Hill wrote in a memo to Rochester’s Deputy Mayor Leonard Redon.

Hill’s “lack of judgment” came last week on the New York State Thruway while driving the mayor to and from the Governor’s State of State Address in Albany.  In his apology letter, Hill seemed to contradict Warren who, earlier in the week, told the Rochester Media Hill was stopped on the way home from Albany and was not speeding on the way there.

“On the return trip, the vehicle was stopped for a second time. Again, I explained that I was driving a security detail – but this time the trooper verbally reprimanded me and told me to abide by the speed limit, and I complied,” Wrote Hill.

The trip became the focus of intense media scrutiny after the Albany Times Union reported Hill, who’s also Warren’s uncle, was stopped on the Thruway for going 97 miles per hour on the in the city owned SUV.  It’s a speed Warren repeatedly disputed; explaining Hill was traveling 77 miles per hour.

Warren refused to answer follow up questions after subsequent media reports continued to suggest Hill was stopped twice and did exceed 90 miles per hour.  Hill acknowledged he was speeding but did not give specifics.

“As a member of the Governor’s security detail, it had been our practice to travel at a rate above the prevailing speed of other travels for security reasons,” Hill wrote.

Hill also referenced “threats” to Warren over social media that he’s been monitoring.  Warren said Monday this online chatter, which she described as racial and physical in nature, prompted her to hire the two-man security team.

While on the subject of social media, Hill took the opportunity to clear up what he called a new issue being raised.

“I confirm that I purchased a child safety seat for the vehicle with my personal funds (receipt available) since Mayor Warren’s daughter, Taylor, accompanies her to community and other events from time to time – most recently to the YWCA for Governor Cuomo’s holiday visit,” Hill wrote.

Hill is being suspended for a week without pay for the Thruway incidents, beginning January 19th.  He also agreed to pay a fine of $50 for failing to make a complete stop before turning at a red light.

“I take full responsibility for this occurrence and regret any embarrassment that it has caused to Mayor Warren,” Hill added.

With an impending city Board of Ethics investigation into whether Warren’s hiring of this two-man security detail violated civil service requirements, or the city’s Anti-Nepotism Policy, it’s unlikely this “disruption,” as Hill put it, is going away anytime soon.

It appears there was some good news for the Warren Administration.  The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle is reporting the Civil Service Commission did formally authorize the two new security positions.  These positions will be advertised but both Hill and Caesar Carbonell are expected to apply and be chosen.

Rochester Mayor’s Security Team To Be Investigated By Ethics Board

For the last week Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has been defending her decision to hire her uncle, a retired New York State Trooper, as part of a two-man personal security team.  Monday night she learned she may have to defend the decision in front of the city’s Board of Ethics.

A statement issued by a Rochester City Council spokesperson Monday night detailed the request:

“The Board will be asked to determine if the hiring was done in accordance with Civil Service Commission requirements and whether the hiring of Reggie Hill, the Mayor’s uncle, violates the city’s Anti-Nepotism Policy.”

Warren welcomed a review by the ethics board Monday night and at a press conference earlier in the day insisted the hiring did not violate civil service requirements.  Warren said Hill and Ceaser Carbonnel were hired on a temporary basis which she claims was authorized by the executive secretary of the Civil Service Commission.

“Both gentlemen understood when they took the job that it was a temporary appointment and that it would be advertised because it needed to be,” Warren said.

As far as the city’s Anti-Nepotism Policy, Warren explained since Hill will report directly to the Deputy Mayor and not to her, it is not a violation.  It’s an issue the Board of Ethics will ultimately decide but not right away.

Rochester’s Board of Ethics currently has two empty seats and a member whose term has expired.   Once the board has quorum, the council is asking it to,

“Immediately look into the matter at hand with extreme thoroughness and render a decision as soon as possible.”

If the security detail becomes permanent, Hill will be paid a little more than $80,000 a year, Carbonnel will be paid a little more than $61,000.  The money would come out of the Mayor’s budget.

Warren explained last week using this two-man security team, instead of a Rochester Police detail offered to all mayors but not previously used, will save money.  Warren acknowledges the story has received a lot of attention, but refused to describe the situation as a distraction.

“This issue of the security detail has become the one thing people want to talk about every day.  And I’m fine with that, and I don’t apologize for it,” Warren said.  “I think we have become so engulfed in trying to make a scandal out of something that people can not just be upfront and honest. ” She added. 

Warren cited a report Monday in the Albany Times Union as an example of “dishonesty.” According to the report Hill, who was driving Warren to the Governor’s State of the State Address Wednesday, was traveling at 97 miles per hour when he was pulled over by State Police on the New York State Thuway.

“That is completely untrue, completely untrue.  He was not going 97 miles per hour,” Warren said.

Warren said Hill, who’s worked security for three Governors, was accustomed to driving a little faster than the posted speed limit. Warren said Hill was driving about 77 miles per hour on the way home from the Governor’s event and told the trooper who pulled him over that was customary for security details.

“He (the trooper) said, ‘well you’re not working for the governor anymore sir, so you need to slow down.’ He (Hill) said, ‘ok well I understand the protocol now, I’ll abide by that,’” Warren recalled.

Hill was not ticketed.  State Police released a short statement Monday:

“We are aware it is possible a trooper effected discretion during a traffic stop involving the Mayor of Rochester last week. Having said that we want to be clear, we would never encourage or condone driving at an excessive rate of speed.”

The incident fueled continued criticism over the security detail that began as soon as the positions were made public.  Warren, Rochester’s first female and second African-American Mayor, continued to reference threats she’s received online and through social media but for the first time described them as racial and physical in nature.

“Well what does ‘you won’t be here for long’ mean?  I perceive that to be a physical threat,” Warren said.

Warren told reporters she regrets not better explaining her reasons for making this decision before the news, the security team was hired, became public.  She said part of the reason for that is because the decision to hire them was made so late in the transition process.

“But making the decision to hire a security detail that is as qualified as this security detail, I do not regret,” said Warren.

The former City Council President believes most of the criticism she’s received has less to do with who she is and more to do with her surprise upset over incumbent Tom Richards.  She hopes in time she’ll win her critics over.

“I’m fine with that I know I have a lot to prove to people,” Warren added.

Lawyers For Moreland And Legislature Debate Over Briefs

As state lawmakers gathered in Albany to hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fourth State of the State address, lawyers representing the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption and the very same lawmakers trying to quash the panel’s subpoenas argued in court filings over how to submit briefs.

It’s a modest update to the legal challenge brought by the state Assembly, Senate majority coalition and private employers of state lawmakers to the jurisdictional claims the investigative panel is making over its ability to pry more information out of the Legislature.

Lawyers representing lawmakers and their employees in a joint letter to Judge Alice Schlesinger wrote on Tuesday to the court that a Moreland Commission request for a single brief in response to motions made in seven separate and unconsolidated proceedings is “an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers under new York State’s Constitution.”

They added that such a sweeping consolidation would “unnecessarily inject confusion” into the litigation of separate proceedings.

Lawyers for state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, argued in subsequent filing submitted on Wednesday wrote that filing one brief on the merits of quashing subpoenas “will be more convenient for the Court and will avoid confusion.”

Attorney Leslie Dueck added in the letter, “In our opinion, it will be more convenient for the court to read those overlapping arguments only once, in a consolidated brief that does not rely on corss-references to another brief filed by the commission.”

Alternatively, the attorney general’s office said it would support submitting a single brief of at least 60 pages to respond to all of the motions to quash or intervene.

The commission’s response brief is due on Friday, so the attorney general’s office is hoping for a response shortly.

Cuomo in his address on Wednesday referenced the Moreland Commission’s work in passing, and urged lawmakers to take up a series of ethics overhaul measures he’s urged in the past: stronger enforcement at the Board of Elections, tougher anti-bribery laws and the public financing of political campaigns.

Here are the letters:

morelanddoc1 by Nick Reisman

morelanddoc2 by Nick Reisman

Poloncarz Calls On Gabryszak To End The ‘Stupidity’

If the last two weeks weren’t bad enough for a Buffalo-area State Assemblyman, Friday, things got worse.  Another fellow Democrat with strong ties to Dennis Gabryszak’s home district called on him to resign.

It’s time for this stupidity to end.  He needs to resign.  He needs to resign now.  The people of his district deserve representation and right now they’re not getting representation,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Gabryszak’s support in his own party had been lukewarm at best since word first broke last month that three former female staffers accused him of sexual harassment.  Since then, three more former staffers have come forward including Trina Tardone, Gabryszak’s communications director from June 2009 to January 2011.

“She’s exceptionally well-respected in this community and in other communities where she’s done work.  If she said it, I believe it, and it’s time for him to step down,” Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz said he’s known Tardone both professionally and personally for 15 years.

“She is a consummate professional, exceptionally well-respected by everybody for her work and when I read the report in the Buffalo News about the allegations, I know she wouldn’t have filed that notice of claim unless it was true,” said Poloncarz.

Tardone accused Gabryszak of luring her to his Albany apartment to look at documents and then grabbed and tried and tried to kiss her.

“It sickened me to read what Mr. Gabryszak did,” Poloncarz said.

A sixth woman, Emily Trimper, who served as Gabryszak’s district office administrator from August 2007 to March 2008, came forward Friday.  She claims the Assemblyman spoke about pornography freely in the office during her tenure and, on one occasion, brought in framed black and white sexually charged photographs of women’s navel areas that he intended on hanging throughout the office.

When the first allegations surfaced, several high profile Democrats seemed content to let the legal process play out.  But, recent developments have caused the Governor, and even the Erie County Democratic Party Chairman, to turn up the heat.

“This is what gives politics and government a bad name and I don’t blame the county executive for taking a stand on this as he did today,” said Erie County Democratic Committee Chair Jeremy Zellner.

Thursday, Gabryszak’s attorney seemed to indicate his client was ready to leave his fate in the hands of the court system.  For a growing amount of Western New York politicians that’s no longer good enough.

“If it was one person I think people might say there’s a he said, she said (situation) here.  We’ve got six individuals who are staffed individuals who’ve worked here at different times, many of whom didn’t work with each other.  So they don’t even know each other,” Poloncarz said.

Gabryszak’s attorney did not return calls for comment on Friday.