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

EC Dem Chair Believes Clinton Still Has A ‘Huge Role’ To Play In 2020

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Democratic Party has a long history of supporting the Clinton family.

The committee was one of the first political organizations in the country to endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. The prevailing wisdom among party members was that Clinton would not make another run at the nation’s top office this year, although she didn’t make it official until this week.

Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner hadn’t ruled out another endorsement before Clinton officially uttered the words “I’m not running” during an interview with News 12, a cable station in her home state of New York.

“I can’t speak for the party,” he said. “I know that I wanted to talk about it if she was interested. I’m a big supporter of hers and the president’s (Bill Clinton). So I was looking for that conversation, if there was one to be had.”

However, Zellner is not taking Clinton’s decision not to run as a sign she’s stepping away from the Democratic spotlight. He pointed out that she said she doesn’t plan on going away, which he took to mean that she intends to play a part in the national discussion in the coming election cycle.

“I think that she’s going to have a huge role to play going forward in the state and also nationally,” he said. “I think you’ve seen that with Governor Cuomo having her at a few events and some of our other legislative leaders. I think that she’s going to have a very big impact in 2020.”

Zellner has said he wants to speak with New York party leaders, including Clinton, before deciding who in the crowded field of would-be Democratic candidates to support to take on President Donald Trump.

Outgoing Niagara Falls Mayor: Seneca Dispute Among Biggest Challenges

From the Morning Memo:

An arbitration panel sided with the state in January in connection with a long-running dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians over casino revenue sharing.

Although the panel said the Senecas owed New York roughly two years worth of payments, the exact dollar amount still needed to be sorted out between the two sides. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said he believes that reconciliation process is finally over.

He said the arbitrators will set a date for transfer of cash from the tribe to the state, and then his city will receive the portion of the money it’s due – likely within two weeks after it arrives in state coffers.

“I don’t have a dollar amount yet at this point, but I’m optimistic with regard to the amount that maybe it’s going to be a little more than people had anticipated,” the mayor said.

Of the three municipalities that get a portion of the casino slot machine money, Niagara Falls gets the largest piece. However, it has not been a reliable revenue stream during Dyster’s tenure as mayor.

The Democrat is stepping down at the end of this year, and said the ongoing disagreements over casino cash have been one of his administration’s biggest challenges.

“Six out of the 12 years I’ve been mayor, we’ve been involved in a fiscal crisis involving the dispute between the Senecas and the state of New York over casino revenues, and I think that created a sort of a dark cloud always hanging on the horizon,” Dyster said. “I hope we’re past that now.”

He said all sides should start looking toward 2023 when the current compact expires. Dyster said even though he will no longer be mayor by then, he would like to be a part of the discussions between the state and the Senecas.

He said not being a candidate or public official might actually make it easier for him to be in an “honest broker” to help work toward a beneficial agreement for all sides.

House Judiciary Committee Requests Documents From Fmr. Trump Staffer Caputo

Former Donald Trump campaign staffer and Western New Yorker Michael Caputo is among the 81 agencies, entities and individuals the House Judiciary Committee is requesting documents.

It is part of an investigation, the committee announced today, into obstruction of justice, public corruption and other abuses of power allegedly committed by the president, his associates and members of the administration. New Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, said over the past two years the Republican-led Congress has refused to conduct responsible oversight.

“We have sent these document requests in order to begin building the public record,” Nadler said. “The Special Counsel’s office and the Southern District of New York are aware that we are taking these steps. We will act quickly to gather this information, assess the evidence, and follow the facts where they lead with full transparency with the American people. This is a critical time for our nation, and we have a responsibility to investigate these matters and hold hearings for the public to have all the facts. That is exactly what we intend to do.”

Caputo, who worked for the campaign from November 2015 to late-May 2016, has previously testified before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and did an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also contacted his attorney requesting information and possibly testimony.

In a letter, Nadler asked Caputo for documents that have already been produced in other proceedings to be provided to House Judiciary by March 18.

In addition the committee is requesting documents related to the following:

  • a) The June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting (the “Trump Tower meeting”), including but not limited to contacts or communications about the meeting involving one or more of the following individuals: Donald Trump Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Emin Agalarov, Aras Agalarov, Goldstone, and/or Rinat Akhmetshin.
  • b) Any contacts, direct or indirect, from January 1, 2015 to January 20, 2017 between or involving the Russian Federation and its officials, agents, intermediaries, and/or instrumentalities and any of the following: Donald Trump, the Trump Campaign, the Trump Organization, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Thomas Bossert, Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Konstantin Kilimnik, K.T. McFarland, and/or Erik Prince.
  • c) Any contacts, direct or indirect, from January 1,2016 to the present between Paul Manafort and/or Rick Gates and any of the following individuals: Konstantin Kilimnik, Serhiy Lyovochkin, and/or Rinat Akhmetov

Nadler said the staff would work with Caputo and his attorney on a “mutually agreeable schedule” for those documents. The political operative has complained often that the legal proceedings have been very costly for him and a GoFundMe and trust fund were even started in his name.

Caputo said he needed to discuss the latest developments with his attorney before making any comment.


Niagara County DA Requests Special Prosecutor To Investigate Accusations Against Her Husband

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek is requesting a Special District Attorney to investigate bid-rigging accusations involving her husband.

Earlier this week, former state Senator George Maziarz, R-Newfane, alleged discovery material he obtained during his own political corruption case, indicated others were committing crimes. Among those crimes, he said he believed former Niagara County Republican chairmen Michael Norris and Henry Wojtaszek rigged the bid so a “sham company” Four Points Communication could secure a grant writing contract with the county.

Henry Wojtaszek, currently the head of Western Region Off-Track Betting, rejected the accusations as “incoherent rambling by a disgraced former politician” with a score to settle. He said Maziarz already made the same complaints to the New York State Attorney Grievance Committee which dismissed them.

The district attorney also said she was confident the accusation were fully reviewed by federal and state authorities, as well as, the grievance committee. However, she said, as a matter of protocol, whenever a complaint is made against a family member of someone working in the DA’s office, it is turned over for outside review.

“To provide for public peace of mind and another layer of full transparency I am asking that a Special District Attorney conduct his or her own review of the matter so that it can be dealt with once and for all through the legal system. I do not want anyone to question the integrity of the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office and all the hard work that is done here,” she said.

An attorney for Norris also pointed out authorities were aware of all of the information Maziarz released Wednesday and chose not to pursue charges. Maziarz was charged with five felony counts connected to a money pass through scheme, but ultimately pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor, he said, because the prosecution could not prove he had done anything wrong.

Fmr. Erie County Social Services Commissioner Convicted of Raping County Employee

The former commissioner of Erie County’s Department of Social Services has been convicted of raping another county employee.

A jury in Albany convicted Al Dirschberger on one count of third degree felony rape and one count of third degree felony committing a criminal sexual act. The trial, including jury selection lasted roughly five days with deliberation beginning Friday morning.

The Albany County District Attorney’s office said Dirschberger engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex with a woman who was known to him without consent. It happened in a hotel in Albany while the two were attending a conference in early December 2017.

“This victim was forced in to sexual contact by a person with power over her, despite repeatedly telling him “No” and being too intoxicated to legally consent. We are proud to deliver justice to her and to those who have supported and believed her,” DA David Soares said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, said he learned of the serious allegations about his commissioner and a female subordinate less than a month after it happened and asked Dirschberger to tender his resignation.

“Today’s verdict confirms my administration took the correct course of action in performing an immediate investigation of the incident upon learning of it and asking for the defendant’s resignation after confirming that he had violated numerous Erie County policies,” he said. “Independent counsel retained by the Legislature also confirmed that my administration acted quickly and appropriately in this case and cooperated fully with investigators and law enforcement as the case moved forward.  Additionally, it should be noted that Erie County declined to provide a defense or indemnity for the defendant upon learning of these charges as his actions did not fall within the scope of his public employment or duties. I do not tolerate any form of sexual misconduct, especially the abhorrent conduct in this case, and my thoughts are with the victim at this time.”

Poloncarz’s opponent for county executive and current County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I, also released a statement.

“This was a tragic event no matter the outcome of the trial of Al Dirschberger, but I am satisfied to see that a panel of his peers listened to the evidence and made a determination that he is guilty and should be punished for his actions. Rape by its nature is intentionally designed to produce psychological trauma. It will forever be with the victim and those close to her,” Dixon said. “My thoughts are with the victim and her family. I applaud the bravery and courage they have shown throughout this process. Erie County has an obligation to protect our employees, and we failed this young woman.”

Dirschberger was remanded to jail and faces up to four years in state prison for each count. His sentencing is April 12.

Cuomo Still Believes Marijuana Legalization Will Be Addressed This Year

From the Morning Memo:

Despite speculation that the legalization of marijuana in New York could be detached from the budget and perhaps not even pass this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still believes the issue will be decided this session.

Cuomo included a marijuana legalization measure in his executive budget proposal, and has also included revenue expected to be generated by that legalization in the congestion pricing/MTA overhaul deal he announced earlier this week in conjunction with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The governor would not say for certain that the issue would necessarily be decided by the April 1 budget deadline, but he’s holding out hope that it’s still a possibility.

“We want to make sure if we go this direction that it’s only people of the appropriate age, that safeguards are in place, that it’s regulated,” he said during a press availability in the Buffalo area yesterday. “So it’s something the state, I believe should do but should do correctly.”

The governor has said he and legislative leaders are continuing to have discussions about the details of how legalization would work.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who has championed this bill for years, recently said there was still a long way to go to reconcile her proposal with what the governor has put on the table.

There’s also an anti-legalization effort that has been growing across the state in recent weeks, as opponents suggest the state is rushing to a conclusion on a very thorny issue. They cite potential problems with driving-while-high, and the negative impact marijuana can have on the developing brains of teenagers.

Cuomo pointed out this is the first year he has taken on the issue of legalization for recreational use in earnest, and indicated he’s in no rush. (It wasn’t all that long ago that the governor said pot is a gateway drug and shouldn’t be legalized beyond highly regulated medical use).

“This has only been an idea that has been broached this year,” he said. “So it’s not going slowly at all. Some people would say it’s going too quickly, frankly. But it is an issue that I believe will be decided in this cycle.”

State Senator Cathy Young Stepping Down

State Senator Cathy Young, R-Olean, is stepping down from the Legislature next month.

In a press release, Cornell University announced she has been named director of the New York State Center for Food and Agriculture. Her start date is March 11.

“It was a very challenging decision to leave my service in the New York State Senate because I care so deeply about the people and issues facing my district,” Young said. “However, this new role will provide me with more direct opportunities to make progress in one of the industries that is closest to my heart.”

The Republican said she grew up on a dairy farm and knows firsthand the challenges the food and agriculture industry faces.

“I am thrilled to continue making a difference in this new and enhanced statewide capacity,” Young said.

She has been a member of the state Senate since 2005. The 57th district covers Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and portions of Livingston County.

Young was the first woman to serve as the chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee. She also served in the Assembly for six years and the Cattaraugus County Legislature prior to that.

“Agriculture and food manufacturing are two of upstate New York’s largest job creators, and Catharine Young has significant experience integrating farm business with food processors and championing initiatives that support the food and farming sector to push our region’s economy forward,” Jan Nyrop, associate dean and Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech, said. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Sen. Young’s caliber to step into this role with a strong vision, statewide network and proven track record of growing businesses.”

Young also previously served as chair of the state Senate Agricultural Committee. However, she was conspicuously absent from GOP leadership this session.

Reed Pushes To Clawback Executive Emergency Power

From the Morning Memo:

Southern Tier Republican Rep. Tom Reed is among the cosponsors of a bill aimed at limiting the president’s power to declare a national emergency.

This comes after President Donald Trump used the power in an attempt to divert funding to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border after his push to secure the cash through Congress failed.

Reed, who has long been a Trump supporter, has proposed amending the National Emergencies Act so Congress would have to approve any emergency declaration within 60 days, which is similar to the War Powers Act. He insisted the legislation is not a rebuke of Trump’s action, necessarily, and the crisis at the border speaks for itself.

“This resolution speaks to the politicization of Congress and its failure to lead,” the congressman said. “Instead of proactively solving problems Congress has delegated our precious power away. We must take this power back. Otherwise, over time, Congress will be seen as an advisory body instead of the co-equal branch of government the country needs.”

The bill, while bipartisan, is not specifically led by Reed’s Problem Solvers Caucus, but he did release his statement in conjunction with the group’s co-chair, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

“National emergencies are no way to govern, regardless of party,” Gottheimer said. “The Constitution is clear about our authority and responsibilities.  By amending the National Emergencies Act, this bipartisan legislation will help Congress wrest back control and prevent further abuse of executive authority.”

The House voted earlier this week to overturn Trump’s national emergency, and the Senate still needs to take it up. It needs only a simple majority to pass but even so, the president could still veto the bill, and at this point, an override appears unlikely.

Erie County Dems Will Take Time On 2020 Prez Endorsement

From the Morning Memo:

Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner attended the high-profile McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner late last week.

The New Hampshire fundraiser, in its 60th year, has a reputation for bringing in major national party figures, including presidential candidates. This year was no different, as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, an announced 2020 Democratic contender, gave the keynote speech in her neighboring state, which just so happens to host the country’s first presidential primary.

Zellner admitted he has never been a major Warren backer, but said he found the senator to be very impressive. However, he also made a point to mention one of her main competitors.

The ECDC chair said he spoke with top staff for California Sen. Kamala Harris, another announced 2020 candidate, whose campaign already has gained significant momentum. I asked Zellner if he plans to endorse Harris, about whom he has tweeted several times since she entered the fray.

“Right now, it’s very early and what I want to do is I want to hear from our governor, I want to hear from our incoming state chair and I want to hear from Secretary (Hillary) Clinton,” Zellner said.

“She’s a fellow New Yorker. She’s someone who carried the torch for us last time and I’d like to hear her thoughts on it. So I’m not making any decisions or any recommendations or any endorsements yet.”

Clinton reportedly has been meeting with Democratic 2020 hopefuls, and though she doesn’t plan on endorsing a favorite, has plenty of advice for those seeking to follow in her 2016 footsteps. Already, her primary opponent from that year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has announced he’s going to take another shot at the White House.

There has been speculation that Clinton herself might make a third White House run, but that doesn’t seem likely.

This wait-and-see mode is a different tactic for Zellner and the EC Dems than the last presidential election, when they were among the first in the nation to endorse Clinton, the state’s former junior senator.

Western New York has long been known as “Clinton Country,” and Zellner said he doesn’t know this year’s crop of candidates – at least those who have announced to date – as well.

“It’s just a different scenario where we had known that this was coming with her,” the chairman said. “We had been in touch for a long time and we had a very strong relationship there.”

That’s an interesting statement, given the fact that Clinton’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, is among the 2020 Democratic hopefuls.

Zellner actually attended the 100 Club Dinner in 2016 as a member of Clinton’s finance committee.

Buffalo-Based Consulting Firm Announces New Partner

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo-based political consulting firm Big Dog Strategy is expanding its operation to Texas.

The firm announced Republican consultant Matt Langston as a partner, who will head Big Dog’s new Austin branch.

According to his professional page, Langston has most recently worked as a vice president for Axiom Strategies in Austin. He also was chief of staff for Texas state Sen. Don Huffines.

“I’ve been proud to work alongside some of the most hard-working men and women in politics for many years, and I am excited to have a chance to continue serving them as a member of the Big Dog team,” Langston said.

Big Dog was launched by Chris Grant, also a former Axiom consultant. Grant also served as chief of staff for Republican MY-27 Rep. Chris Collins until 2015.

Grant’s firm ran the much publicized re-election campaign last year for the indicted congressman, who beat his Democratic opponent, Nate McMurray, by a slim margin.

Grant said he is thrilled to add the experienced Langston to the team.

“Matt brings with him a proven record of national success, a team-focused work ethic, and a relentless focus on winning that will play an integral role in the future of our company,” he said.

Big Dog also has an office in Washington, D.C..