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

Heastie Went With His ‘Gut’ For Majority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

When it came time to decide who would be the new Assembly majority leader, Speaker Carl Heastie said he contemplated plenty of candidates.

Ultimately, he went with his “gut” in selecting Assemblywoman Crystal People’s-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, as his second in command. Heastie, during an interview this week on The Capitol Pressroom, said the long-time legislator felt like the right choice.

“Not only has she done extraordinary legislative work, but Crystal and I have been friends since before I was elected to the Assembly, when I first met her back in Buffalo when she was in the county legislature. So we have a very long relationship. It was a tough decision because, like I said, there are many colleagues who would do a fabulous job in this position. You know, but it is difficult sometimes when you gotta pick the best of the best,” he said.

Heastie said he was not asking anybody to be former Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who is now in Congress. However, Peoples-Stokes will have to take on the role of chief advisor and member liaison to the speaker.

“Members go to the majority leader a lot of times before they even come to me on their legislation or things that they want and need. It’s member management, deciding how the calendar works. So it is a tremendous responsibility and as I’ve said I’ve now brought the majority leader in to discuss and make policy decisions and even when we have budget negotiations I have the majority leader right there. And this should be no different with Crystal as well,” Heastie said.

While the role of majority leader has traditionally gone to a member from Upstate, the speaker insisted every part of New York is important to him regardless of his choice. Still, he admitted there is an added benefit that Peoples-Stokes is from Buffalo.

He said he hopes it gives constituents “north of Westchester” confidence the Assembly is not just focusing on New York City and Long Island.

Reed’s ‘Problem Solvers’ Applaud Senate Prison Reform Passage

From the Morning Memo:

The U.S. House of Representatives has yet to pass the legislation yet, but Republican Rep. Tom Reed and the Problem Solvers Caucus he co-chairs, reiterated their support for the FIRST Step Act.

The Senate passed the criminal justice reform bill overwhelmingly on Tuesday. Among other things, the bill expands job training and early release programs, and modifies sentencing laws.

The House has vowed to pass the bill this week. It is being touted as a bipartisan victory.

The bipartisan Problem Solvers point out they have championed the legislation for months.

“The Problem Solvers Caucus was proud to put our full weight behind the FIRST Step Act more than six months ago. This bill betters our communities, improves the lives of thousands and saves taxpayers money. Congress must continue to craft and pass more bipartisan legislation like the FIRST Step Act,” Reed and his co-chair Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ-5, wrote in a joint statement.

The president has also signaled he will sign the legislation, a sentiment he reiterated Tuesday night on Twitter.

“This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!” he wrote.

Panepinto Sentenced To Two Months For Attempted Cover-Up

Former State Senator Marc Panepinto has been sentenced to two months in prison for attempting to cover up unwanted sexual advances toward a former legislative staffer.

Federal judge Michael Roemer also gave the Democrat one year supervised release and a $9,500 fine. In June, Panepinto pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of making a promise of employment, compensation or other benefit for political activity.

He admitted to making a series of unwanted advances toward the female staffer in her hotel room while the two were in New York City for a fundraiser for him. After the young woman resigned and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics opened up an investigation into the situation, Panepinto sent another staffer to offer money and/or another government job in order to buy her silence.

Panepinto called a sudden press conference to resign his post after that attempt apparently fell through. During that March 2016 press conference, he gave several reasons for his decision including an unspecified situation with staff turnover but denied any ethics investigation.

The judge said he received 80 letters as part of the pre-sentencing process; one from the defendant, one from the victim, and 78 on behalf of the defendant. He said many of the people wrote that they were disappointed with Panepinto’s behavior but felt it was out of character and discussed the many charitable things he did for friends, family and the community.

Both Panepinto and his attorney addressed the judge directly, saying he was remorseful and took full responsibility for his actions. In asking for only a fine, they asked the judge not to minimize the action but to weigh the defendant’s other good deeds and the potential impact on his family and the people he employs.

The court room was nearly full with Panepinto’s family and colleagues, many of them teary-eyed. Panepinto got emotional himself as he discussed how the case has affected his three daughters.

However, the U.S. Attorney’s office said the way the defendant described his conduct led it to believe he still didn’t fully appreciate the “wrongfulness” of his actions. In particular, prosecutor Paul Bonanno noted Panepinto called his offer to the former staffer a “settlement” when in fact it was an illegal quid pro quo.

He also said Panepinto already attempted to use monetary payment to avoid consequences and a simple fine would not be sufficient.

“The defendant essentially sought to purchase this young woman’s silence,” U.S. Attorney J.P. Kennedy said in a statement. “In so doing, he placed his own interests above those of his staff and his constituents; he sought to use his position to benefit himself above all others. His abuse of power cost him his office and bought him a federal criminal conviction.”

The judge said he gave long consideration to not incarcerating Panepinto and believed he was, in fact, remorseful. Still, Roemer called the actions “wholly inappropriate” and a “flagrant abuse” and worried that no prison time would be seen as a slap on the wrist by the public.

In one of the more poignant moments, the judge said he understood Panepinto’s concern for his own daughters but said “every woman is someone’s daughter.” He also noted that Panepinto has been convicted of two previous misdemeanors, the most recent an election law violation.

“He should have learned his lesson that time,” Roemer said.

The victim herself was not in the courtroom. The prosecutor said he spoke with her this week and she felt it would be very difficult and painful to appear and she also wanted to protect her anonymity.

Bonanno said she did not want anybody to think that meant she didn’t care what happened to Panepinto. The attorney repeatedly pointed out the devastating effect the situation had on her life and that she has since moved out of state and no longer works in politics.

The judge initially recommended Panepinto voluntarily surrender himself after the New Year but the defense asked for 60 days in order for him to take care of things with his law firm. Roemer granted that request.

It’s unclear at this point if Panepinto will be able to continue to practice law in New York State moving forward.

Buffalo Bills Great Advocates For Cashless Bail

From the Morning Memo:

Tonight, the documentary Thurman Thomas: A Football Life aired for the first time on the NFL Network.

The show doesn’t focus on Thomas’ friends in Buffalo or Houston, who needed the Bills Hall of Famer’s help to make bail or payoff bonds, but it could have. So often, he said, many people without means – young African American men in particular – have struggled to pay their bills or remained in jail despite non-violent offenses.

“I have seen families destroyed because of this,” Thomas said.

It’s an issue Thomas said he has been aware of for years. However, it wasn’t until recently he took up the cause in an official capacity.

In Philadelphia, Eagles defenseman Malcolm Jenkins, a co-founder of the social justice advocacy group the Players Coalition, made bail reform a focus. Thomas cited his efforts several times as an influence as he began to study the issue himself.

“I went through it about a week ago, called somebody and asked him a question about, ‘hey how can I get involved with this?’ This is something I feel strongly that a lot of the players are doing around the National Football League in the cities that they play or in the cities that they retired in,” he said.

The former Bill said NFL players have a huge platform to affect change. Yesterday, he voiced his opinion during a meeting of an Erie County Legislature committee. The full Legislature plans to vote on a resolution in favor of “cashless bail” next week.

Ultimately, the state Legislature needs to pass the reform. Thomas, who works closely with the governor on the state’s Tourism Council, said he’ll likely bring his story to Albany as well.

“I probably will. This is like the first step for me, coming out and speaking in front of the Legislature and hopefully I’ll continue to do that,” he said.

Legislators in Erie County said they’re in favor of reform, but want the state to consider all the costs of a cashless bail system or any other proposal.

WNY Members Of Congress Applaud New Farm Bill

From the Morning Memo:

Both Democrats and Republicans from Western New York applauded Congress’ passage – after a long delay – of the Farm Bill.

The $867 billion dollar package received overwhelming support with a 386-47 vote. It passed the Senate earlier this week, and the president is expected to sign it into law soon.

Newly-minted Democratic Rep. Joe Morelle, elected in a special election last month to fill the vacancy left by the death of Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, of Rochester, was among those who supported the bill.

“I am proud to cast my vote in favor of this bipartisan legislation which effectively and comprehensively addresses the needs of farmers, strengthens our rural communities, and ensures vulnerable families have access to critical SNAP benefits programs,” he said. “In addition, it takes important steps to support the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of our agriculture economy in the global marketplace.”

Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who was re-elected to represent NY-27 in a narrow victory that came despite the federal charges he faces of insider trading and lying to the FBI, has said passing a Farm Bill was one of his main priorities after winning that close race. Congress had failed to pass it in September before the previous package expired.

Specifically, Collins said, the new legislation included important dairy policy that will strengthen the economy for WNY’s struggling farmers.

“The agriculture industry is the backbone of New York’s 27th district,” Collins said. “Protecting Western New York farmers will always be a priority of mine, and I’m committed to doing what is best to help them succeed. While we still have a lot of work to do to turn this industry around, H.R. 2 is a huge step in the right direction, and I’m pleased to see it pass today.”

Southern Tier Republican Rep. Tom Reed, who easily won re-election last month, also expressed the importance of the dairy policy for his district.

“This farm bill not only supports our hardworking farmers we care about, but also ensures our families are given a fair hand up when they fall upon hard times,” he said. “And as always, we are proud to continue our efforts to ensure increased funding and standards for rural broadband access.”

Reed said other important components included the legalization of production of hemp, funding for organic farmers and specialty crop research, and improvements to the crops insurance program.

Cuomo Urges State Department To Maintain Buffalo Resettlement Sites

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, sent a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on the state department to maintain refugee resettlement sites in Buffalo.

The governor expressed concern the Trump Administration will close sites after it announced it plans to cap the number of refugees allowed in the United States to 30,000 next year. It is the lowest number set by a president since the program was created in 1980 and represents a 15,000 person reduction from 2018.

“It is my understanding that the State Department is now considering reducing the number of refugee resettlement sites in Buffalo after the Administration’s unconscionable move to lower the refugee cap to record lows,” Cuomo wrote to Pompeo. “It is critical that all four of these existing resettlement agencies are kept open to continue the essential work of welcoming refugees to our community.”

The four agencies are Jewish Family Services, Journey’s End, the International Institute and Catholic Charities. Cuomo said over the past five years 6,298 people have resettled in Buffalo, more than one-third of the total refugees who have come to New York State.

“The resettlement agencies have helped thousands of refugees find jobs and provided the training to help refugees establish dozens of new businesses. They have also helped newly arrived children enroll in a number of Buffalo schools, adding to the diversity and richness of our education system,” he wrote.

In addition, he said the organizations have cultivated volunteer networks, “including many people who welcome refugees as an expression of their faith.”

Assemblyman Hawley Criticizes Outside Income Limits

From the Morning Memo:

As of yesterday afternoon, Assemblyman Steve Hawley, a Batavia Republican, was holding out hope the state pay commission’s official report would somehow contain different recommendations than it initially indicated last week.

He had no such luck, as the commission not only moved forward with a significant raise for legislators, but also a cap on outside income at 15 percent of the salary.

That leaves Hawley facing a difficult decision.

He’s been a legislator since 2006, but has owned his insurance business for nearly three decades. That business, he said, generates several hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, which he uses, at least in part to pay dozens of employees.

Hawley said he would give serious consideration to giving up control of the day-to-day operation, but that doesn’t appear to be allowed for in the commission’s ruling. If divestment is his only option, he said that will be a tougher decision.

“I think I’d have to take a look at the specifics of it, see if there’s a way for me to support my clients and my staff who have been so good to me over the years,” Hawley said.

The Republican said the Legislature should vote on the pay commission’s report, even though the original vote forming it did not call for a final approval. He also noted did not vote for creating the commission in the first place.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that he believed Democrats, who will control both the Senate and Assembly as of January, will support the commission’s report if it does go to a vote.

Erie County Bans Smoking In Bus Shelters, Cars With Kids

From the Morning Law:

The Erie County Legislature has passed a far-reaching bill that will dictate where people can both smoke and buy tobacco products.

The Public Health Protection Act Of 2018 has three separate parts. The Democratic conference said it’s the county’s most substantial anti-tobacco bill since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1996.

First, the legislation will make it illegal for anybody to smoke in a vehicle with a child under the age of 18 present. Breaking the law would come with a $50 fine, and that penalty will increase by $50 for each additional offense.

The same penalty would apply to a stipulation banning smoking in or near Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus shelters.

“I am proud to sponsor this legislation,” said Erie County Legislature Chair Peter Savage. “We have known about the dangers posed by tobacco and tobacco related products for years. This law is the next logical step.”

“Public transportation users should not be forced to endure second-hand smoke. Protecting children’s health has been a prime motivation behind smoking regulation and they deserve to be protected in vehicles.”

Finally, the bill bans the marketing and sale of products containing tobacco or nicotine in pharmacies and other healthcare institutions. The provision includes e-cigarettes.

The bill passed unanimously although some legislators expressed concern parts of it could be considered government overreach. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has indicated he’s likely to sign the legislation, pointing out he proposed a portion of it in his 2016 State of the County.

Whole Foods Developer Sues Errigo

From the Morning Memo:

Problems just keep piling up for outgoing Republican Assemblyman Joe Errigo.

Already facing charges for accepting a bribe, the developers of the project he’s accused of trying to hinder in exchange for that illicit cash are now suing him as well. Daniele Family Companies, which is building a Whole Food complex in Brighton, filed the federal lawsuit this week.

The suit also goes after a former Monroe County government staffer and nine other people for their alleged roles in trying to stop the development from happening. That staffer, Joe Rittler, is accused of coordinating the bribe in exchange for a bogus bill at the state legislative level, to at least slow the project.

Rochester lobbyist Robert Scott Gaddy was also arrested in connection with the scheme. According to court documents, the FBI was aware of the scheme and never let the legislation move beyond the preliminary stages.

However, the developer is seeking more than $650,000 in lost business damages.

Attorneys for the developer, Errigo and Rittler did not respond to Spectrum News Rochester’s request for comment.

Errigo was ousted in the September Republican primary for the 133rd Assembly District by Marjorie Byrnes, who went on to win the general election in November, defeating Democrat Democrat Barbara Baer.

(Errigo ran on the Independence and Reform Party lines in the general election, despite the federal bribery charges, and came in a distant third).

Collins Calls Higgins A Liar

Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27, has not been shy about talking about the double standard he believes the media has when reporting on him versus his Democratic colleagues, specifically fellow Congressman Brian Higgins.

Collins has argued Higgins didn not get the same criticism as him for not debating his opponent this past election. That’s perhaps a false equivalency considering Higgins race was not as competitive as Collins’ nor was his opponent as aggressive in calling for a debate.

But the Republican is now pointing to another instance where he believes his neighboring congressman got a pass. Last month, Higgins said he would support Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker, backtracking on his previous public position.
“I’d put it differently,” Collins said. “I would just say liar, liar, pants on fire and that’s how you should report it.”

Higgins said he was being pragmatic, with no viable option to replace the longtime Democratic leader. In exchange for his vote, he said Pelosi promised to bring two legislative priorities, an infrastructure bill and a Medicare buy-in plan, to the floor.

Collins called the so-called bargaining chip a “joke” because neither then Senate nor the president will support either plan.

“To say he’s now going to get a bill on the House floor that has zero chance of being passed mean he will have accomplished nothing other than he lied from Day One,” he said.

The congressman contrasted Higgins about-face, with downstate Democrat Kathleen Rice who maintained her opposition to Pelosi even as it became clear she had the requisite votes.