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

Green Light Law Reverberates In Local Government Politics

From the Morning Memo:

The lawsuits are beginning to pile up against New York state’s new “Green Light” Law which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

A day after Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns filed a civil action in federal court, the Monroe County Legislature authorized its county executive, Cheryl Dinolfo, to bring her own suit.

The Legislature voted 17-10 to authorize Dinolfo, a Republican, to move forward, asserting specifically that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment “by putting citizens and non-citizens on unequal footing under the law.”

Dinolfo thanked county lawmakers following the Tuesday night vote.

“Our goal is simple: to challenge and stop Albany from implementing this policy that would put state law at odds with federal law by giving licenses to those who are here illegally,” she said. “I’m especially proud to be among a group of county officials, both Democrat and Republican, who are standing tall against Albany on behalf of our residents, who have made their opposition to this law heard loud and clear.”

Dinolfo said Kearns and other county clerks situations are different than hers because, since the subject is directly connected to their statutory obligations, they are empowered to bring lawsuits on their own. Democratic Monroe County Clerk Adam Bello, who is running against Dinolfo for county executive, has expressed concerns about the new law but also indicated he will enforce it.

“Cheryl Dinolfo is taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook – using government resources to bolster her campaign and distract from her record,” Bello said.

“We have real challenges facing our community that warrant the immediate attention of county government and its resources. Unfortunately the County Executive would rather spend money and scarce resources pursuing a lawsuit against legislation that is already subject to litigation. This unnecessary, duplicative lawsuit is nothing more than political grandstanding by the County Executive to aid her re-election campaign at taxpayer expense.”

Dinolfo said the lawsuit will have no “net cost” to taxpayers and has directed the law department to file a complaint as soon as possible. Her office said it is also reviewing Kearns complaint and has not ruled out consolidating suits.

The Rensselaer County Clerk has also said he plans to file his own lawsuit.

Erie County Clerk Discusses “Green Light” Lawsuit

Several elected leaders across the state have threatened legal action in response to New York’s new “Green Light Law,” which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

This week, Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, a registered Democrat who was endorsed by Republican last election, officially filed his lawsuit in federal court. He believes he is the first person to take such action.

“Basically what we said is the Green Light Bill that was passed by the New York State Legislature, one, was unconstitutional according to the Supremacy Law in the Constitution,” Kearns said. “Federal law always trumps state law and that’s fact.”

The clerk said the state statute conflicts with federal law on several fronts. He said by allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses, and not sharing the information with federal immigration authorities, New York is actually complicit in harboring people here illegally.

Kearns also pointed out in the suit, that part of the reason given for granting licenses, is so undocumented immigrants can get to work, which is federally illegal. He said it ultimately puts him and other clerks in the position of deciding which laws to follow and which to break.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said. :That’s where we’re at.  We’re stuck in the middle of this thing and that’s why we’re going to the courts”

Kearns has been among the laws most vocal critics and has been steadfast that Erie County Departments of Motor Vehicles won’t process the licenses. He said the Trump administration has been clear its willing to prosecute local officials who stand in the way of immigration officers.

However, he also noted Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the power to remove him from office, and has not affirmatively said he will not. The suit also seeks an injunction which would prohibit the governor from taking that action.

“I have to commend the attorneys in the County Attorney’s office. They’ve been very professional. They’ve been easy to work with and I’m very thankful that we’re able to work together to get a resolution.”

The new law doesn’t go into effect into December, but Kearns, expecting the process could take some time, has also asked for an injunction to stop implementation. He said he’s willing to bring the issue all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

The suit names three plaintiffs: Cuomo, Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner (and Kearns’s South Buffalo neighbor) Mark Schroeder, and Attorney General Letitia James.

“The Green Light law is well crafted and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, my office will vigorously defend it,” James said in a statement.

Like Kearns, Republican Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo is also looking to challenge the new law. Her office said she needs authorization from the County Legislature and the body is meeting to discuss the issue tonight.

A spokesperson for Dinolfo said various local actions could potentially be consolidated and her office is currently reviewing the suit Kearns filed.

Kearns said he also discussed the issue with other county clerks during a Monday meeting in Syracuse


Schumer Says Lawmakers Working To Keep CBP Officers At Northern Border

From the Morning Memo:

The federal government continues to shuffle Customs and Border Patrol officers from the Northern to Southern border.

Lawmakers say its creating issues in places like Buffalo, where there is now a shortage creating longer wait times at places like the Peace Bridge. Canadians and Americans cross back and forth daily to do business, shop and travel.

“It hurts commerce,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said. “It hurts many things. Even in the fall it hurts the Bills games because people on the other side don’t come.”

Schumer said Congress is working on legislation that will be part of the upcoming appropriations bill to solve the issues. He said part of that will be hiring more officers, but he also wants language restricting the administration from moving people from the Canadian border.

“We’ve already gotten a requirement in the previous bill that they have to tell us how many, when and where, which is an impediment to them but in the new appropriations bill, we’re going to say they can’t do it,” he said. You’ve got to put more people on, not rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Schumer said the shortage can be worse in the summer months, but there are other peak times during the year when it also becomes an impediment, so funding for more staff is important.

Kearns To File ‘Green Light’ Challenge Tuesday

Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns plans to file a federal lawsuit Tuesday, challenging New York State’s new law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

In an advisory, the Clerk’s Office said he will sue Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and the Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder in U.S. District Court in Buffalo. He said in enacting the “Green Light” law, the state is substantially facilitating “illegal aliens to remain in the United States” and shielding them from detection by immigration enforcement officials.

“The law compels County Clerks across the State to be an instrument to violate federal law,” the advisory reads. “The federal lawsuit seeks a declaration as the law’s constitutionality and will also be seeking an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect prior to a final decision from the courts.”

Kearns has been one of the biggest critics of the new law, consistently maintaining his office will not process the licenses. He announced his intention to sue a day after it was officially signed, and has the assistance of the county attorney.

Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has supported the county attorney assisting Kearns in seeking clarification on the law. However, he said he expects all county officials to follow the law if a federal judge determines the new law is appropriate.

Kearns was traveling Monday for a meeting of county clerks from across the state.

NY-27: Another Republican Eyes Collins’s Seat

From the Morning Memo:

Another potential candidate has entered the fray in New York’s 27th Congressional District.

Attorney Beth Parlato says she has been exploring a campaign for several months and will make a decision about whether or not to run soon. Parlato has technically campaigned before as a former judge in the small town of Darien.

She also occasionally does commentary for Fox News, typically on issues involving women, moms and family.

“I have a voice and it’s a new voice,” Parlato said. “Conservative women are underrepresented in Congress.”

She said right now there are only 13 conservative women in the House of Representatives and that number is dwindling. When it comes to fighting for “traditional family values” and against issues like abortion, she believes it’s important to have women who are not liberal in the room.

Parlato said she wants to lead the fight against the socialism movement in America, currently pushed by new members of Congress like New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I’m the antithesis of AOC,” she said.

So far only current Republican state Sen. Chris Jacobs has officially entered the NY-27 race. Parlato said in the state’s reddest district, she believes whoever wins the primary will win the election, and she fully expects state Senator Rob Ortt, Erie County

Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, and potentially Assemblyman Steve Hawley to enter, as well.

“My goal is to set myself apart from however many men jump into this race,” she said.

Parlato said a potential primary won’t impact her decision about whether or not to run but she paused briefly when asked about recent Medal of Honor recipient David Bellavia who has not decided if he wants to be a candidate.

“I respect his service, but at this point no (it won’t affect my decision). If I enter this race I’m going to be in 115 percent,” she said.

Parlato also serves on the board of Moms for America, a conservative leaning 501C-3 organization. The group is holding a rally for Gold Star Moms on Independence Day with actor Jon Voight as the keynote speaker.

Higgins Vows To Fight For Infrastructure Funding For Sewers, Wastewater Plants

From the Morning Memo:

The city of Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant is getting some much needed federal aid to upgrade its facility.

However, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-NY-26, said the funding is just a tiny fraction of what the federal government should be spending on infrastructure across the state and the country. The money is coming from the FEMA Hazardous Mitigation Grant program, which provides for communities to eliminate long-term risks from future disasters.

In 2013, a rainstorm which brought 3-1/2 inches of water to Niagara Falls in just a few hours, ended up causing more than $10 million in damages and resulted in flooding at 1,100 properties. The upgrades made with the FEMA aid are aimed at avoiding damage from a similar weather event in the future.

Higgins said it is estimated that every dollar spent through the program will save $4 in future expenses. For Niagara Falls, it’s a start as the water board has identified a need for $27 million in upgrades.

“They are not alone. There is an immediate need across this community and throughout our country for infrastructure improvements including roads and bridges, as well as the infrastructure you don’t see, water and sewer infrastructure,” Higgins said.

The congressman said the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated $271 billion in current and future wastewater and sewer infrastructure needs throughout the country and $36.2 billion in New York alone. He said one in every four facilities in the state are operating beyond their 30 year useful life expectancy and 30 percent of New York’s sewer system is operating beyond its 60 year useful lifespan.

Higgins said he will continue to “fight for a major federal infrastructure bill that addresses the needs” of communities like Niagara Falls in a comprehensive way.

New Revelations Regarding Collins Insider Trading Case Permeate Erie County Executive Race

Recently discovered court documents connected to federal insider trading case of Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27. claim Western New York political consultant Chris Grant sold shares of Australian biopharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics in June 2017, just before the stock plummeted.

According to the affidavit obtained by Spectrum News and first reported by WKBW, Grant avoided losing more than $11,000. Grant has worked both directly for Collins, as his congressional chief of staff, and later consulted for him through his company Big Dog Strategies.

The company currently consults for Republican-endorsed Erie County Executive candidate Lynne Dixon, a registered Independent.

“If you are going to run to be a representative of the people in any office, and I’m not just talking about county executive, I’m talking about any office, you need to be held to the highest ethical standards and your staff needs to be held to the highest ethical standards,” Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz

Friday, Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz called for Dixon and any other public official with ties to Grant to cut them. Spectrum News has been told Grant, who has not been charged with a crime, does not plan to leave the campaign.

“I don’t expect Chris Grant to resign but it’s not up to Chris Grant to resign. It’s up to Lynne Dixon to do the right thing,” Poloncarz said.

The county executive also pointed out Grant’s house was raided by federal agents in connection to allegations which ultimately led to the corruption convictions of Democratic political operative Steve Pigeon and a federal judge. Grant has not been charged in that investigation either.

Through Big Dog Strategies, Grant has served as Dixon’s primary spokesperson, but Friday the campaign released a statement from Bryan Fiume, who also serves as the associate Deputy Erie County Comptroller. Another Big Dog employee was listed as the media contact.

Fiume called Poloncarz “desperate” and his claims “preposterous” and pointed out the county executive has a history of disgraced hires himself, like former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger, who was convicted of raping another county employee.

Poloncarz said when he found out about those allegations he immediately launched an investigation and called for the commissioners resignation before he was even charged.

“Would I have hired him if I knew he was going to have a situation where he would have raped an employee? Of course not,” Poloncarz said. “We never would have hired him. He had a clean resume, a clean background and as I said, Lynne Dixon actually seconded his nomination at the Legisalture.”

According to the affidavit, developer Gerald Buchheit was also among the Collins associates who dumped Innate stock. Buchheit and his company have made campaign contributions to numerous politicians, including Dixon.

Since 2017, he’s donated more than $15,000 to Poloncarz as well.

“I’m going to return every donation that Mr. Buchheit has made in the last year,” he said.

State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs also called on Dixon to “denounce and disassociate” herself with Grant. He said a culture of corruption “permeates the Erie County Republican Committee.”

ECRC Chair Nick Langworthy is the incoming GOP State Party chairman.

Invest Buffalo Niagara Will Roll Out ‘Attraction Strategy’ Soon

From the Morning Memo:

The Seneca One Tower, formerly known as the HSBC Tower, has long been a symbol of what’s wrong with Buffalo.

The city’s tallest building has been lacking tenants for years now and most recently, for all intents and purposes was vacant. Now city and economic development officials are holding it up as a positive symbol with the announcement M&T Bank is moving at least 1000 jobs into it and opening a new technology hub.

Where businesses like M&T, which headquarters in Buffalo already, might have looked to take those jobs out of town in the past, now Invest Buffalo Niagara President Tom Kucharski said companies want to come in.

“This has happened kind of quickly,” he said. “It’s been a long time in the works but it says to site selectors and corporate real estate guys and companies that that place is changing.”‘

Kucharski said there are a lot of attractive things about Buffalo, like the labor market and resources. They are relatively inexpensive compared to larger cities.

But Invest Buffalo Niagara said the much publicized renaissance hasn’t been fully realized yet.

“Now’s our time where we’ve got to bring this together and really prioritize it and look at things differently and look at best practices,” Kucharski said.

He said IBN will soon be rolling out its talent attraction strategy. It will include ways to take advantage of things like Buffalo’s educational institutions and other amenities.

“We’ve looked at place that have traditionally had a hard time recruiting folks but are now being successful and you can imagine where those, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis and a number of places that are now seeing an influx of new folks, well they’ve done some specific things,” Kucharski said.

State Panelists In Buffalo For Skyway Reimagining Competition

From the Morning Memo:

Submissions for a reimagined Buffalo Skyway are due on Friday.

The governor announced the “Aim For The Sky” competition earlier this year as the state looks to transform the elevated highway along Buffalo’s waterfront.

“Western New York has gotten such international attention – last year, the New York Times, Washington Post, the Times of London. (Monday), People Magazine identified Buffalo as one of the best things about the United States in 2019 and so this is a real opportune time to talk about what’s next,” Cuomo Senior Advisor John Maggiore said.

The panelist began arriving in Western New York this week. Maggiore said some of them, for instance Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, are already familiar with the city and the oft-criticized structure, but others are just getting acquainted.

He said a number of submissions have already been submitted, but was hesitant to give a number because he has not yet reviewed them and didn’t know how many are “serious.”

“I would imagine most of the serious submissions are going to come in at the wire. If I was working on one, which I’m not, I would take every moment that I can to put together a quality submission,” Maggiore said.

Governor Cuomo has demonstrated significant interest in the project, which will like cost a significant amount of public money. He even suggested during one trip to Buffalo, the Skyway could be an elevated park like the New York City highway.

Maggiore cautioned though, the governor wasn’t saying that has to be the idea.

“I was afraid that people would try to read between the lines,” he said. “That’s not intentional in any way. The intent of that was try to stimulate diverse thinking about what can be done but absolutely the governor doesn’t have a dog in the race about the final outcome.”

The state gave guidelines but in many ways was intentionally vague an attempt to bring in a variety of different ideas. The winners will be selected in September but Maggiore said before any shovels hit the ground there will have to be an environmental impact study which will take a few more years.


Peoples-Stokes Blames Long Island Lawmakers ‘Particularly’ For Failure To Legalize

This year’s legislative session has been touted as one of the state’s most progressive in terms of policy.

Perhaps the one stain for Democratic lawmakers focusing on a new agenda, was the failure to legalize recreational marijuana. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes has been pushing an “adult-use” bill for years now and was disappointed a Legislature controlled entirely by her party, couldn’t get it done.

“In a lot of ways, New York is not is progressive as it thinks. It’s only as progressive as the people who it’s willing to elect to speak for it,” Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said. “And right now there are a number of people who are elected, particularly on Long Island, who are not progressive. I shouldn’t say they are not progressive but they are not progressive on this topic.”

Some parents, law enforcement and health officials raised concerns throughout the process, but Peoples-Stokes placed the blame mainly on lawmakers who she said needed to get better educated. She pointed out polling continually showed the majority of New Yorkers supported legalization

“I think it’s people’s personal opinions. They were not speaking for the constituents that they represent. They were speaking for themselves and how they feel about a drug that’s been, I will say not only criminalized but almost villainized for the last 30 years and there’s lack of understanding. Hopefully their voters will speak to them,” she said.

However, Peoples-Stokes did not want to classify the decriminalization bill the Legislature did pass as a compromise. Rather, she felt it was a good first step.

She said the component of the legislation to expunge many marijuana arrests records was a major component of her legalization bill.

“They’re not going to legalize a product and put it into a market when there are people who still had records. So this is an important piece of that,” she said.

The majority leader would not venture a guess as to when New York will legalize recreational marijuana but believes it will happen or New York will “be standing alone as the lone state” that doesn’t allow it.