State Senate

DeFran: ‘Balanced’ Diclosure That Includes Cuomo

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco in an interview on Monday said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office should be included in a finalized ethics deal.

“We believe the governor’s office should be participating in these disclosures and participating in the ethics reforms,” the Syracuse Republican said. “There’s nothing about the Legislature that they’re any different than the governor’s office. I think it’s part of the negotiations and it should be balanced.”

Senate Republicans last week introduced a bill that would require non-relatives who live state officials to disclose information on their outside income. The move was seen as a way of targeting Cuomo’s girlfriend, Food Network personality Sandra Lee (a Senate spokeswoman denied Lee was specifically being singled out by the bill).

A Cuomo official told reporters in response the office would also support amending the bill to include married lawmakers’ girlfriends.

Cuomo this year is tying new disclosure laws and per diem reform to spending in the state budget as a way of getting state lawmakers to agree to the changes.

Cuomo has said he won’t agree to a budget deal without those reforms in place.

DeFrancisco, in the interview, reiterated that Cuomo’s bargaining method this year makes it more difficult for a spending plan to pass on time.

However, DeFrancisco is skeptical the governor would risk breaking his streak of approving budgets before the start of the state’s fiscal year, April 1. Cuomo is yet to preside over a late state budget.

“I truly believe the governor wants to have an on-time budget. He’s using it for negotiating strategy,” he said. “I think we’re going to come up with something we can agree on on ethics.”

Stewart-Cousins: Ahem, What About Me? (Updated)

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is (not surprisingly) displeased by the fact that she and her fellow minority leader, Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, are being left out of the backroom budget talks that again include IDC Leader Jeff Klein, even though he no longer has a power-sharing deal with the Senate Republicans.

After the governor revealed at his Red Room cabinet meeting that the four-men-in-a-room budget talks established when the IDC and GOP split control of the chamber would continued, Stewart-Cousins responded by suggesting the time has come to get rid of this secretive negotiation process altogether.

“As we discuss ways to clean up Albany and reform state government, a perfect place to start is the much maligned three/four men in a room​ budgetary process,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “In the past we had been led to believe that membership was based on constitutional roles and not simply the whims of the governor.”

“Since membership has now been expanded, I would hope all legislative conference leaders will be ​included, giving all New Yorkers a voice in the budget. The more diversity and light we can shine on this process the better it is for everyone.”

After the GOP won its slim – but complete – majority in the 2014 elections, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Klein renegotiated the relationship between their two conferences so that it’s something less than their previous status, but something more than the minority-majority relationship between Skelos and Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo said Klein in being included in this year’s leaders meetings – the first of which is taking place right now – due to his “relationship” with Skelos, and the fact that he can deliver the votes of his five-member conference, which gives the GOP some breathing room in the closely-divided chamber.

The three men in a room process was the subject of some very public criticism by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who mocked the practice in a speech delivered the day after the arrest on corruption charges of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and said it is the root of Albany’s many problems.

“I have a little bit of a hard time getting my head around this concept of three men in a room,” Bharara said while speaking at New York Law School. “Maybe it’s just me. I’m an immigrant from India, which is overpopulated, so for me, it’s like a billion men in a room.”

“…Why three men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars? Can they have Cuban cigars now? After a while, doesn’t it get a little gamey in that room?”

Bharara told The Buffalo News in a subequent interview that he keeps the book “Thee Men in a Room” by former Sen. Seymour Lachman on his desk and has met with the ex-Democratic lawmaker to discuss the frustrations he experienced while serving in Albany.

UPDATE: Stewart-Cousins is getting some backup here from Citizen Action of NY. The organization’s executive director, Karen Scharff, released the following statement:

“It’s hard to understand ​Governor Cuomo’s ​reasons for excluding the only woman legislative leader from a seat at the decision-making table. Leader Stewart-Cousins has been a champion for New York’s working families and ​is the leader of 24 senators while Senator Klein only leads 5. Governor Cuomo should open the process so that the voices of all leaders, and the voters that they represent, can be heard.”

Queens Pols Remember George Onorato

A trio of Queens elected officials on Monday paid respects to the late Democratic former Sen. George Onorato, who died on Saturday.

“George Onorato will always be part of the fabric of western Queens,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who succeeded Onorato in the chamber. “He dedicated his long and happy life to serving others and making the communities he represented better places to live. George Onorato served our country, our state and our neighborhoods in a way that made a positive difference in people’s lives. I will miss him. My thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. May his memory be eternal.”

Onorato was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and retired in 2010, and served as Labor Committee chairman during the Democrat’s brief stint in the majority.

“This community has lost a beloved leader and friend,” said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas in the same statement. “George Onorato served our community with distinction for decades. George’s love of his family and this community are an inspiration. May his memory be eternal.”

Council Member Costa Constantinides added: “I was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Senator George Onorato. He served our community with distinction and will be remembered by many of us. I give my condolences to his family and wish them peace during this trying time.”

Updated: Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos adds his voice to those paying tribute to Onorato.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former State Senator George Onorato. While serving in the Senate for 27 years, George was a dear friend to members on both sides of the aisle. A lifelong resident of Queens, he was a true advocate for his community and constituents. He will be deeply missed by his friends in the Senate and the residents of Queens.”

… as has Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“I’m saddened to learn of the passing of Senator George Onorato. As a former colleague in the Democratic Conference, Senator Onorato was a gentleman and someone whom I admired. He was a committed public servant to his lifelong neighbors in Queens and he will be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his children, grandchildren and loved ones.”

Smith Seeks Support

Also from the Morning Memo…

Another former legislative leader, ex-Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, is considerably further along down the corruption pipeline than ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The Queens Democrat, who lost his seat in a primary last fall, was found guilty earlier this month of trying to bribe his way into the 2013 NYC mayor’s race on the GOP line.

Smith is scheduled to be sentenced on July 1 and faces up to 45 years behind bars. His attorney has said he intends to appeal.

In the meantime, however, the embattled former senator is seeking “as many letters as possible sent to the judge regarding my impact on individual lives and the community,” according to an email Smith is sending to friends and allies he says have provided “past support and prayers.”

The email, a copy of which was forwarded to CapTon, includes instruction and an attached “guideline” letter penned by Smith’s attorney, Evan Lipton. “Please help as this is critical to my life and future,” the former senator wrote.

Lipton suggests that Smith’s supporters “carefully consider” what to say to US District Court Judge Kenneth Karas to help him “come to know Malcolm as a person” and persuade him that the former senator “deserves a lenient and merciful sentence.”

“(I)t is imperative that you rely on specific, first-hand examples of how Malcolm has touched your life and the lives of others,” Lipton wrote.

“…instead of just stating conclusions about Malcolm’s character, your letter should provide facts underlying those conclusions – in other words, specific examples and experiences involving Malcolm that give rise to your view of him or his reputation within the community. Personal anecdotes of instances that portray Malcolm’s character and personality would be helpful.”

Lipton cautions letter writers that they should use their own words and not resort to “legalese”, explaining: “Rest assured that the lawyers will file all the necessary legal documents with the Court.
You should speak from your heart and present personal information and emotions about Malcolm.”

It is pretty standard for convicted offenders facing sentencing to solicit letters of support attesting to their good works and strong characters (aside from whatever it was than landed them in court to begin with) in hopes of persuading the judge to be lenient.

Ex-Sen. Malcolm Smith seeks support in face of corruption conviction. by liz_benjamin6490

Aid-In-Dying Legislation Introduced, With Safeguards

A bill that would provide end-of-life assistance to the terminally ill was introduced in the state Senate late last week, with a number of built-in protections for patients and doctors who could face professional and legal troubles.

Even before it was introduced, the measure faces a steep climb in the Republican-led Senate, where Majority Leader Dean Skelos has signaled he would oppose the bill along with Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Initially referred to as the “Death with Dignity Act” when it was initially reported, the bill was introduced as the “New York End Of Life Options Act.”

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Diane Savino and Brad Hoylman, would create a process that would allow the terminally ill, but mentally competent adults to obtain a medication that would ultimately bring about a “peaceful and humane death.”

The bill is yet to have a sponsor in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

At the same time, the legislation provides for penalties for those who would seek to manipulate the process for their own financial gain by making it a felony offense to either coercing a patient or forging an application for the end-of-life process.

Additional safeguards include requiring multiple witnesses attesting the patient is acting on their own and at least two doctors in overseeing the process as well, who would be protected against both civil and criminal liability, along with any professional penalties for participating.

Throughout the end-of-dying process, a patient could rescind the request to participate, according to the bill language.

Updated: The New York State Catholic Conference’s Kathleen Gallagher, the director of Pro-Life Activities, has a rebuttal to some of the bills particulars:

It is misleading to suggest this bill has “safeguards.” Here are just a few areas of concern:

– “Multiple witnesses”: Neither of the witnesses is required to be an adult and only one of them must not be a relative or someone who stands to inherit from the estate. So one witness can have a vested financial interest in the patient’s death and the second witness could be a minor over which the first has influence and control.

– The standards in this legislation regarding determination of capacity are much lower than elsewhere in New York law, such as the health care proxy law, appointment of guardian law, and power of attorney law. It requires only an “opinion” rather than a determination “with a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”

– There is no requirement for referral to counseling for possible depression causing impaired judgment.

– The attending physician is the person who first deems the patient terminal; he/she is the same person who declares the patient is capable, acting voluntarily and making an informed decision; he/she is the same person who writes the prescription or dispenses the medications directly; and he/she is the same person to sign the patient’s death certificate; and he/she is required to lie on the death certificate by writing the terminal illness as the cause of death, not the lethal drugs(!). No one else is authorized to offer an alternative version of events. This is how abuses occur.

Flanagan: Don’t Let Ethics Eclipse Education

From the Morning Memo:

Before the latest ethics reform craze swept the state Capitol in reaction to the Sheldon Silver corruption scandal, education was the top topic of debate among lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo made it clear long before he unveiled his 2015-16 budget – and even before the November 2014 elections – that he had the teachers unions in his crosshairs, and intended to break the so-called “monopoly” he believed is to blame for most of the public education system’s woes.

As promised, Cuomo included a host of aggressive education reform proposals in his budget. And he told lawmakers that if they accepted his overhaul plan in total, districts would receive $1.1 billion in aid instead of just $377 million.

This set the stage for an epic education budget battle – perhaps the biggest Albany has seen for some time.

But it’s taking place alongside the ethics reform fight. Cuomo has said this is now his top priority – something for which he might even be willing to shut down the government if lawmakers don’t accept his five-point plan to clean up Albany.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan said during a CapTon interview last night that while ethics reform is important, it shouldn’t distract lawmakers from the rest of the budget – and education in particular.

“I want to stay focused on what are our primary responsibilities,” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, told me.

“Education is New York State’s number one obligation and responsibility, and I believe that’s dictated by virtue of our Constitution and a long historical perspective.”

“So, what we do on education – whether it’s funding or reform – has to be the focal point of the budget, and it has been for a long time.”

“Of course, there are great parallels to the health budget in large part because of federal funding. But New York State’s primary focus and obligation has to be on the proper and appropriate funding of education. The other issues…are real and they’re legitimate, and there’s going to be discussion on that.”

Flanagan is one of 16 state lawmakers who reported earning at least $100,000 from outside work in 2013. (Like a number of his Senate and Assembly colleagues, he’s an attorney).

The senator said yesterday that he does not support a full ban on outside income, which has been floated – though not formally proposed – by the governor, and endorsed by the IDC as part of a larger legislative reform package.

Flanagan said he believes Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, (also an attorney, whose outside income is reportedly the subject of a federal investigation), and the rest of the GOP conference will “support transparency and disclosure.”

But, Flanagan argued, a full ban on outside income would dramatically limit the Legislature’s talent pool, preventing anyone but career politicians and the very rich from entering public service.

“I believe there’s nothing wrong with people making money,” the senator said. “That’s one of the fundamental components of our democracy…I believe in government service…But I don’t think that should preclude me or anyone else from being able to earn money for our family.”

At the end of the day, Flanagan predicted that the Legislature and the governor will be able to come to a deal on an on-time budget that is “a good, solid product everyone can be proud of.”

But he allowed the process of getting there will likely be messy – to say the least.

Senate Republicans Push Cuomo On GEA

Senate Republicans on Tuesday returned to familiar, and politically fertile ground: The push to end the so-called gap elimination adjustment for education spending in the state.

The GOP conference, now fully in the majority, pushed the issue it had raised during the election season at a news conference at the Capitol.

In essence, the Republicans want the final state budget agreement to include $1 billion that would completely eliminate the gap in funding, which was first approved in 2010 during the final year of Gov. David Paterson’s administration.

GOP lawmakers have contended the GEA as its known disproportionately hurts rural and suburban districts — a drum beat during the last election cycle.

So it was little surprise to see the Senate GOP use the news conference to give their freshman lawmakers — Rich Funke, Terrence Murphy and George Amedore among them — a starring role.

The pitch was that eliminating the gap was something everyone in Albany could be on board with.

“We need to get the Assembly, we need to get the governor to join us and we need to make sure the GEA is completely eliminated in this year’s budget,” Amedore said.

About $600 million in last year’s budget went toward restoring the cuts, made at the height of the state’s post-recession budget crisis.

But so much of the governor’s $142 billion budget proposal when it comes to education spending is linked to his policy proposals.

Cuomo’s spending plan could boost education spending by as much as $1.1 billion next year, but much of that money is linked to enacting tougher standards and evaluations for teachers and a strengthening of charter schools.

“I believe there’s going to be a very lengthy, robust conversation on all of those proposals,” Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan said. “I don’t think any one of us here can stand on this side of the table and say the governor gets whatever he wants.”

At the same time, Cuomo’s budget office did not release the school aid runs — projected dollar amounts for districts so they can begin to budget for the next school year. Cuomo has said districts should plan to budget using the low-end of his spending plan’s education increase, $370 million.

Still, the lack of school aid runs has made for some cause for concern among state lawmakers as well as school districts who need the estimates in order to put budgets before voters by May. 

“Whatever the governor comes out with, we do look at that and school districts look at that and they like to kind of touch and feel it and play with and get ready for preparation of their budget,” Flanagan said.

Democrats, meanwhile, knocked the effort.

“Once again the Senate GOP are showing their glaring hypocrisy,” said Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. “The Senate Democratic Conference understands the importance of immediately ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is why the Senate Democrats have repeatedly offered legislation to achieve that, only to be blocked by the Senate Republicans. Within the past month alone, we offered a bill stopping the GAP elimination and every Senate Republican voted against it. The Senate GOP conference once again shows that they care more about partisan politics than actually helping our kids.”

Senate Democrats: Pass Ethics Bills Now, Not In Budget (Updated)

Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a package of ethics reform legislation that would cap outside income, strengthen disclosure requirements and close a loophole in campaign finance laws that guarantees unlimited contributions from limited liability corporations.

The ethics push comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push his own ethics overhaul legislation in the budget negotiations – even if it means a late spending plan – which would be the first of his tenure as governor.

“I know the governor is frustrated, we’re frustrated,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat. “I think the most important thing is to make sure the people of New York know the people who they sent to work for them, are actually working for them.”

Should lawmakers and the governor fail to agree to ethics legislation, a shutdown of state government could be triggered.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to hold up the budget for it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Obviously, a lot of work has to be done. We’re hoping to grease the wheel by supporting the fact that ethics is of paramount importance and has to happen.”

The latest iteration of ethics reform comes after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver was arrested last month on corruption charges. Silver was forced to resign as speaker of the Assembly – a post he had held since 1994.

Stewart-Cousins at a Capitol news conference said the bills her conference is proposing should not wait for the budget process to be completed, but instead be taken up now.

“We firmly believe that we need to pass these ethics reforms now,” she said. “We need to pass our bills now. It shouldn’t have to be part of the budget conversation at all, to be quite honest.”

Cuomo has fended off criticism that the Silver arrest shows the shutdown of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission was premature, saying the panel worked the way it should have.

The panel was shuttered after Cuomo struck a deal with the Legislature on new ethics and anti-corruption measures in the state budget last year.

Stewart-Cousins this afternoon said the panel’s closure was beside the point.

“I always say had we as the Legislature taken up that charge when it was clearly before us, there would be no need for a Moreland Commission,” she said.

Updated: Senate Republicans weighed in.

“Rather than issue press releases and grandstand, Senate Republicans are working with the Governor and the Assembly to get real results and real reforms that improve our state’s ethics and disclosure laws,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Senate To Take Up Port Authority Reform Bill

The state Senate today will consider a revised version of the Port Authority reform bill that would enact some of the changes being sought by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last year.

The bill is not a version of the measure vetoed by the two governors late last year, who in turned embraced alternative changes to the legislation.

The bill would subject the authority, which manages infrastructure shared by New York and New Jersey, to the Freedom of Information Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law of New York.

Backing the legislation could stave off a potential override of a broader authority reform bill that is concurrently making its way through the state Legislature.

Lawmakers re-introduced the bill that had been vetoed late last year by Cuomo and Chrsitie.

That measure was re-introduced in New York as lawmakers in New Jersey consider an override of the veto next month.

The theory for New York lawmakers would be to wait and see if Garden State lawmakers can override the veto first and then back the broader reform bill, which passed last year unanimously.

Senate Dems To Push Ethics Legislation

From the Morning Memo:

With public corruption and ethics once again moving to the front burner in Albany, Senate Democrats in the coming days plan a renewed push of a their package of ethics legislation in the chamber.

Measures the conference will highlight this week include bills aimed at restricting outside income and disallowing the practice of funneling unlimited funds through limited liability corporations.

The conference plans to back measures that would strip public employees convicted on corruption charges of their pensions, as well as new regulations for the use of campaign funds.

The legislation comes after the arrest of longtime (and now former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, resigned his post last week, paving the way for Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie, who has vowed to reform the chamber, to become the first African-American speaker in New York history.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, of Queens, was convicted last week on charges that he sought to bribe his way onto into the 2013 NYC mayor’s race on the GOP ballot line.

Smith lost his seat last year after losing a Democratic primary to former NYC Councilman LeRoy Comrie.

Still, a cloud hangs over both chambers — and political parties.

Democratic Assemblyman Bill Scarborough is under indictment for the misuse of campaign funds.

Republican Sen. Tom Libous faces a charge of lying to the FBI.

Democratic Sen. John Sampson, who was tossed from his conference, is awaiting trial for allegedly siphoning funds from a escrow account he controlled.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, is reportedly under investigation by the US attorney for his outside income, as well.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on lawmakers to pass his own five-point ethics package, which focuses on restricting outside income. Cuomo has said he would hold out for a strong ethics package, even if it meant the passage of a late budget, which would be his first during his time as governor.