Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Cuomo on Paladino: ‘I Don’t Know What’s In His Soul’

For a moment it felt like 2010 again.

During a press conference Friday, Capital Tonight’s Nick Reisman asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo about a questionable email sent out by Buffalo developer Carl Paladino.

Of course, Cuomo knows Paladino well. He ran against him in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

And he knows Paladino’s penchant for sending racy, and for many people, racist emails to his large list of contacts. The outspoken Republican came under fire during the campaign, nine years ago, for forwards that included pornographic images and a derogatory joke about Barack Obama.

As for the most recent controversial email, a purported story about a European traveler chronicling how Muslims and immigrants, almost exclusively black and brown, were destroying Paris, Cuomo said he’s not as familiar yet.

“I haven’t seen the emails but if anybody was shocked by anything that Carl Paladino says, I just think they don’t know who Carl Paladino is,” the governor said.

Paladino has insisted he’s not a racist and believes the media and some elected leaders, like Assembly Member Sean Ryan, are unfairly coming after him. Cuomo said he doesn’t know if Paladino is a racist.

“I don’t know what’s in his soul,” he said. “I’ve only read what has come out of his mouth.”

Ryan, during a Thursday press conference, called for Western New York businesses, banks and civic groups reconsider their relationships with Paladino and his business Ellicott Development. The assemblyman acknowledged lawmakers may also have to look at the business’ associations with different levels of government and government agencies.

It’s not clear how many various economic development awards or subsidies the developer has right now, although Paladino acknowledged Thursday the business has a wide reach. According to the State Comptroller’s Open Book website, Ellicott LLC has leased to a number of state agencies including the Office of Children and Family Services, the Workers’ Compensation Board, and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Cuomo was initially asked if the state should reconsider contracts with the company, but did not answer that portion of the question.

Schumer Addresses Mueller, McCain, Gillibrand 2020 While In Buffalo

From the Morning Memo:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took questions on a number of national issues during a Thursday trip to Buffalo.

At the top of the list was President Donald Trump’s veto after Congress rejected his national emergency declaration to build a wall along the U.S. Mexico border. If funding, is taken from the part of the budget that deals with building new military facilities, it could affect the Niagara Falls Airforce Base.

A project to build a new workout and recreational center for soldiers could be threatened. However, even though the two-thirds majority vote required for a veto override seems unlikely in the Senate, Schumer doesn’t seem worried at this point.

“I am quite confident that that will not happen because it won’t stand up in court,” he said. “The president doesn’t really have the power to do this. He’s attempting to. It will be challenged in court and unlikely to prevail.”

At the same time, Schumer criticized the president last week for posthumously attacking former GOP Senator John McCain. He said he thought the comments were awful.

The Minority Leader is planning to introduce legislation to re-name the Richard Russell Federal Building after McCain.

“He was one of my dearest friends. He was a great American. He was a hero who devoted himself to public life and there could be nothing more fitting than naming one of the three Senate office buildings after him, so I will be introducing legislation to rename the building and I hope it gets broad bipartisan support,” he said.

As for the special investigation into Russia’s interference and possible collusion during the 2016 election, which is expected to be submitted very soon, Schumer, like the president is calling for it to be made public. He said a small bit could be redacted if it reveals intelligence sources, but that’s it.

“I think there’s an imperative to make it public and I hope that the Attorney General will make it public,” Schumer said, “I was gratified to see that President Trump said he wanted it made public yesterday and so I hope the Attorney General will listen to both the Congress and what the president said. The public has the right to see this. When you’re talking about the interference in an election by a foreign power, whatever Mueller says about it, we should know about it.”

Finally the Democrat was asked if he plans to endorse his fellow New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as the nominee to challenge Trump in 2020. He was not ready to wade into those waters yet.

Instead, he said she’s a “very good senator” and they work well together buthe’s watching to see how things unfold right now.

NFTA Thanks Gov, Senate For Focus On WNY Transit Systems

From the Morning Memo:

The state Senate Democrats will hold a hearing in Buffalo today regarding New York’s transit network – the fourth of five such hearings being held statewide.

Meanwhile the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is already thanking the chair of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, state Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, and the governor for an increased focus on the authority this year.

Both the executive budget and the Senate one house budget resolution call for an increase in operating assistance. The Senate’s measure also calls for an 18.7 percent increase for NFTA, $6 million for preliminary work on the Buffalo Metro Rail’s expansion into Amherst, and $100 million for improvements to light rail systems outside of the downstate MTA service areas.

“We appreciate Senator Kennedy for recognizing the critical role that Metro bus and rail service has in our community and how important it is in the re-development of the city of Buffalo and Western New York,” NFTA Executive Director Kim Minkel said. “Adequate funding for public transit is an absolute necessity for our entire community and for the thousands of riders who count on us each day.”

As the state looks to invest to fix New York City’ crumbling subway system, upstate lawmakers have vowed to make sure their communities get their fair share of funding, too. Kennedy said he has fought for capital funding for Buffalo’s Metro Rail – currently the only light rail system outside of the MTA – for years.

“The Senate’s proposed budget makes a strong statement as we enter negotiations with the Executive Branch and the Assembly on our final budget,” Kennedy said. “It makes it clear that the Senate Majority is making Upstate and Western New York a top priority. As negotiations move forward, I’ll fight to maintain the highest levels of funding possible for our local transportation needs.”

Minkel plans to speak at today’s hearing. Leaders will take other testimony on transit in Western New York as well.

Fmr. State Senator Serving Federal Sentence At Massachussetts Facility

Former state Senator Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo, will serve his two-month prison sentence at a federal facility in Massachussetts.

According to the Bureau of Prisons Database, Panepinto is at the Federal Medical Center Devens. The prison specializes in long-term medical and mental health care but also houses inmates of various security levels.

The U.S. attorneys office said Panepinto was scheduled to report on Wednesday. A judge sentenced him in December after he pleaded guilty to an attempted coverup of unwanted sexual advances toward a female staffer.

Panepinto announced in late 2016 that he wouldn’t seek re-election, citing the health of his since-deceased law partner, but it was later revealed that he was accused of the sexual advances. He admitted to sending a senior staffer to offer the woman money or a job in exchange for her not to cooperate with a Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is against the law.

The court also fined him $9,500 and separately, state ethics regulators ordered him to pay another $10,000 for the coverup. The judge gave him several months to get things in order with his family and law firm before starting the sentence.

Notable former prisoners at FMC Devens include Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, before he was transferred to a Supermax prison to await the death penalty, and former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who is now at a re-entry center in New York City.

Fmr. Rochester Judge Discusses City Council Race, Struggles On Radio

From the Morning Memo:

As she has often been known to do, former Rochester City Court Judge Leticia Astacio spoke very candidly on conservative talk radio host Bob Lonsberry’s program yesterday.

The two discussed a number of topics, including her current attempt to run for the City Council, the circumstances surrounding her drunk driving conviction and her upcoming trial for illegally attempting to purchase a shotgun while on probation.

Astacio said even if she is convicted of the felony charge, she does not believe it would have any bearing on the Council race.

She also said she’s not entertaining any plea deals to lower the crime of which she’s accused to a misdemeanor, and doesn’t believe prosecutors can prove she was actually trying to buy a firearm.

Despite her legal predicament, she said petitioning for Council is going well and she enjoys a lot of support from the community, and noted she’s not the first person to be convicted of a crime or feel wronged by the judicial system.

“The reality of the situation is that government is supposed to be by the people for the people, and although some people don’t like me, I resonate with a lot of people as being a normal person,” she said.

Lonsberry also asked Astacio if she had ever explored whether she had a substance abuse problem. She admitted she was drinking heavily at the time of her DWI arrest, which led to her entering – and successfully completing – a substance abuse program, even though she said she was told she didn’t need it.

Rather than alcoholism, Astacio said, it was situational depression that drove her to drink. The conviction ultimately cost her judgeship.

Astacio said she remains on probation and is prohibited from drinking alcohol. However, she said, the regular random testing has ceased since she left office.

Erie County Executive Not In Favor Of Making Tax Cap Permanent

When the governor’s office sent out a press release yesterday with quotes from county executives across New York in favor of his plan to make the state’s tax cap permanent, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, was conspicuously missing.

Today, Poloncarz said he is, in fact, not in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal. The county executive is typically a Cuomo ally and was appearing at an announcement with him in Buffalo.

“We don’t have to agree on everything and I think that’s an example where I would like to see it being a strict two percent but that’s not exactly what it is today and not what the law would be in the future,” he said.

Poloncarz said the problem is the so-called two percent tax cap on property tax levy growth for local governments is not strictly a two percent cap, which he would support. Instead it is either two percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower.

“There have been years in which it has not been two percent. It’s been the CPI which has been .5 and .6. If it was two percent I’d 100 percent support it but the CPI sometimes is a problem. We have increasing costs on an average basis of two to three percent,” Poloncarz said. “So to go and say I’m going to reduce my revenue below what my increasing costs are by an arbitrary number is a problem.”

Regardless, he said the county has regularly stayed under the cap. However, he said the majority of property taxes comes from school and special districts which often vote to override the cap.

He is pushing those districts to share more services.

Embattled Ex-Rochester City Court Judge Running For City Council

From the Morning Memo:

Embattled former Rochester City Court Judge Leticia Astacio says she is running for the City Council.

She confirmed the news in a Facebook live video yesterday while thanking supporters. Rumors surrounding Astacio’s run for office started last week when she requested a list of all Democrats registered in the city from the Board of Elections.

While in the B of E office, she reportedly told workers she was considering a run for her old seat as city court judge or perhaps the Northwest district council position. She said she’s making an effort to return to public life on behalf of the community that has long supported her.

“You’ve gotten to see some of the worst times in my life, and you just love me in spite of it and support me in spite of it and have, in instances, carried me through it and been like, ‘No, we see your heart and see your passion is for the community, and we want you to feel loved and supported,’ and so I do,” Astacio said. “I do very much.”

Astacio has been in and out of court, generating many local headlines since her initial DWI conviction in 2016/ She is facing attempted criminal purchase or disposal of a weapon charges.

Astacio is also accused of attempting to purchase a shotgun from a Henrietta sporting goods store while on probation.

The New York State Court of Appeals granted a change in venue in January, moving her criminal case to Syracuse. That trial is set for April 1.

Astacio was formally removed from the bench in October after the Court of Appeals upheld the Judicial Conduct Commission’s recommendation to oust her. New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct Administrator Robert Tembekjian confirmed Astacio is not eligible to hold judicial office again, but said she can run for another position.

“A judge who is removed from office can never be a judge again. There is no bar however to a removed judge ever running for other public office,” said Tembekjian. “If a judge is removed from office for misconduct, that judge or former judge may run for city council, state senate, state assembly, mayor or any other non-judicial office.”

Tembekjian says the constitution is subject to legal challenge, but in the 40 years the commission has been in existence, a removed judge has never tried to return to judicial office.

Astacio’s sister, Felicia, also intends to run for Rochester City Council in the east district.

Erie Co Legislature Reappoints Embattled Water Board Commissioner

From The Morning Memo:

The chairman of the Erie County Water Authority board has been appointed to another three-year term.

The move represents a reversal for the Erie County Legislature, which called for Jerome Schad’s resignation just last summer. That resolution, passed in June by a 6-5 vote, was in response to a scathing state Authorities Budget Office report that criticized the ECWA for a lack of transparency and recommended the removal of all commissioners who served in 2016 and 2017.

Schad was the only commissioner still serving from that time period.

However, several things have changed over the last eight months. Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who voted in favor of the resolution last summer, has since decided to caucus with Democrats in the Legislature. This time around, he cast the swing vote for the chairman’s reappointment.

The water authority, meanwhile, has taken steps to correct the criticisms from the ABO report, including more timely public access to its agenda. Schad has promised more changes as well.

Legislature Chairman Peter Savage said he’s been satisfied by these steps.

“So, we’re talking about commissioners,” he said. “Their chief responsibility is to manage the policies and with this administration with Mr. Carney and Mr. Schad, now have an Open Meeting Law policy.”

However, the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government actually criticized the process for the commissioner’s reappointment, which drew only one other applicant. It called for an extension so the opening could be publicized more – something the Legislature’s minority caucus supported.

But the proposal for a 45-day postponement failed.

We talk a lot in the body about reforms and changing the culture over there, but when we have the opportunity to take substance over action, we fail. I’m disappointed. I was hopeful we could get some additional support to actually have some reforms,” Minority Leader Joe Lorigo said.

The minority caucus also proposed to eliminate the commissioner’s $22,500 annual stipend, but that, too, was voted down.

Gallivan, GOP Lawmakers Call For Cuomo To Lift North Carolina Travel Ban

State Senator Pat Gallivan, R-Elma, is asking the governor to rescind a 2016 executive order which banned non-essential state travel to North Carolina.

He said 13 student athletes from SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Brockport and SUNY Cortland are participating in the NCAA Division III Swimming Championships in Greensboro in two weeks. However, due to the executive order, they would not be able to stay in the Tar Heel State while they compete and would have to make accommodations and commute daily from a neighboring state.

“This is not only a distraction for the athletes and their coaches; it puts them at a competitive disadvantage and could have a negative impact on their performance,” Gallivan wrote in a letter to the governor. “The additional travel required will also add to the overall cost for attending the tournament.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, signed the executive order in response to North Carolina’s so-called Bathroom Bill or H.B. 2 which, in part, forced transgender individuals to use restrooms that corresponded to the sex identified on their birth certificates. The legislation also banned local governments from instituting and enforcing their own non-discrimination ordinances.

In March 2017, North Carolina lawmakers, facing pressure from the NCAA, repealed the transgender bathroom portion of the law. It was enough for the college sports governing body which lifted its own boycott of events in the state, however many gay rights activists called the compromise a “fake repeal.”

“In New York, we do not support blatant discrimination, bigotry and bias.” Cuomo Senior Advisor Rich Azzopardi said. “Standing up for equality is not a fad and as long as this anti-LGBTQ law remains in effect, New York tax dollars are not going to be spent there.”

Gallivan pointed out the governor said in reference to New York State’s deal with Amazon, that putting political interests first was innapropriate. He said it is also true in this case.

“It is unfair to make a political statement on the backs and lives of these student athletes who have worked so hard to reach this level of competition,” Gallivan said. “We should be celebrating their achievements, not punishing them for something they have no control over.”

Azzopardi pointed out the executive order does not ban competition in the state – just the use of taxpayer money. Three other GOP lawmakers, state Senators Rob Ortt and Daphne Jordan and Assembly Member Marjorie Burns, joined Gallivan at a press conference at the Capitol today.

Gallivan Letter by Ryan Whalen on Scribd

Caputo Attorney Says He Doesn’t Have Documents House Judiciary Requested

Former Donald Trump campaign staffer Michael Caputo will not send documents to the House Judiciary Committee in response to a request earlier this week.

In a letter to the committee’s chairman Jerry Nadler, D-NY-10, Attorney Dennis Vacco said his client, Caputo, is not in possession of any of the documentation. Specifically, he said they do not have any documents connected to a June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump tower between campaign members and a Russian lawyer who said she had damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“Notably, on June 9, 2016 Mr. Caputo was approximately 500 miles away in Cleveland, Ohio because he had been assigned by the Trump Campaign to direct communications at the 2016 Republican National Convention,” Vacco wrote.

He also responded to two other requests. Vacco said Caputo did not have any documents connected to contact between the Russian Federation and Trump or various members of the campaign or administration between January 1, 2015 and January 20, 2017. 

He also said there was no documentation of between Paul Manafort, Caputo’s boss on the campaign, or Rick Gates and several Russian nationals from January 1, 2016 to the present. Of the Russians named, Vacco said Caputo did have contact with political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik while working for the U.S. Government in Russia in the 1990s during the Clinton Administration. However, he said the two had not communicated since, including during the campaign.

Finally, Vacco said he was asked during a follow up call with the committee if Caputo would be willing to testify before the committee. He did not commit because his client has already testified under oath previously before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and did an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.

“Respectfully, there are only so many ways the same question can be asked of Mr. Caputo,” he wrote.

Vacco said they have already called for Caputo’s previous testimony to be released publicly and he sees no reason why the Judiciary committee can not obtain it. The letter did not address the request for all previous documentation his client has provided to various investigations.