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

Bellavia Reflects On What Receiving The Medal Of Honor Means To Him

It all started relatively innocuously.

Staff Sergeant David Bellavia was contacted in October 2018. Someone at the Pentagon wanted to talk with him.

It didn’t really register with Bellavia at the time.

“That could’ve been anything from, ‘We’d like you to give a talk to an army base” or “We found a Zippo in Fallujah with your name on it, would you like it back?’ I didn’t think it was anything of any significance of all,” he said.

It ultimately turned into a bit of a frustrating chain of events for the veteran. He knew he was supposed to get in touch with a senior member of the Department of Defense, but getting that person on the phone was a pretty difficult task.

The reason, as it turns out, was that senior member of the DOD was the most senior member of the department – the commander in chief. Even when he finally heard President Donald Trump on the other end of the line, he wasn’t sure it was real.

“The president of the United States is probably the most famous person in the entire world and everyone has been impersonating him forever and so you think to yourself, is this just an army guy busting my chops?” Bellavia said.

It was real. Trump told the Western New York native he would receive the Medal of Honor – the highest and most prestigious decoration bestowed on a member of the U.S. military.

Bellavia will be the first living recipient who served in the Iraq War.

The Power of Christ Compels You

Bellavia has recounted the night in November 2004 so many times at this point.

He is hesitant to go into to many details Tuesday, even as he was prodded by reporters to do so again. The veteran mostly wants to talk about the actions of other members of his platoon that helped him and others get out alive.

“I probably never thought that I would spend the rest of my life in that moment but I was fighting for my life and, you know, it’s what happened,” Bellavia said.

The platoon had been ordered to clear a 12-house block on the streets of Fallujah where a group of insurgents were hiding. At first they found nothing.

Finally, Bellavia remembered being lured into one building and upon opening a secondary door, the enemy opened fire with belt-fed machine guns. In the close confines of the house, it was like a seen from a movie.

“Everyone’s bleeding. Everyone was hurt,” he said.

Bellavia’s actions after that in which he killed four insurgents – one in hand-to-hand combat – and mortally wounded another, earned him a Silver Star Medal. He said during the time, he was thinking of his baby, his wife, his parents and reaching out to a higher power.

“My only real thought process was, I need God. I need a prayer. I need some sort of peace. I was trying to think of all these songs, I grew up memorizing, verses, and in the moment I needed a verse and I couldn’t think of any one,” Bellavia said. And I saw the Exorcist movie and that’s the only thing that popped into my head… that stupid movie.”

Time reporter Michael Ware, who was attached to the platoon, was the first to tell the story of how the soldier “single-handedly saved three squads of his Third Platoon that night risking his own life by allowing them to break contact and reorganize.” In 2007, Bellavia recounted it himself in his book House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.

It’s Already Changed Everything

Tuesday, the veteran sits in front of microphones from eight different television stations.

Reporters from Rochester and Buffalo have made their way to the U.S. Army Recruiting Station in Cheektowaga – his first public event since news broke his Silver Star would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. It’s about seven more microphones than he is accustomed.

“I feel like Kavanaugh, this is not something I signed up for or was expecting,” he said as he gestured to the mics.

Bellavia has talked plenty about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary hearing before he was officially confirmed, as well as many other hot-button political issues. He is the co-host of a Buffalo drive-time conservative talk radio show.

The position has earned him plenty of fans to the right and some critics on the left. However, in the past several days he has seen an outpouring of support and congratulations from people on both sides of the aisle.

He said the award has already changed his outlook on life.

“Sir, it’s already changed everything,” Bellavia said. “There are things that I did for a living. Sometimes, you know, you think you’re funny. Sometimes you want to make a point. Sometimes you think your opinion is important and you don’t think about other people. You don’t think about people that have a differences of opinion of you but your job is to just stir the mud. Your job is to get a reaction. I just, this award, I have so much respect for the men who have worn this.”

He said it is important to him, moving forward, to represent the Iraq veteran, who despite what some people may think about the war, “has nothing to apologize for.”

Way To Go, Man

The White House officially announced Tuesday, Bellavia would receive the Medal of Honor – it would’ve been his father’s 75th birthday.

William Bellavia passed away last year. David said his father was his hero.

At the press conference, he talked about how William would type up play-by-play of the Buffalo Bills games while he was deployed. He had access to the scores, but he would read these play-by-plays no matter where in the world he was.

“We just talked about the Bills,” Bellavia said. “No matter how bad the day was, it was about the Bills. How are we doing? We could complain about that and my Dad would always tell me something and I always thought he was just uncool because he was my dad but he would always say, ‘Way to go.” He’d say, ‘Way to go, man.'”

During that phone call with Trump, he said at times it was so surreal he wasn’t even listening, but at the end of the conversation the president said those words: “Way to go, man.” It brought Bellavia right back down to earth.

“To me it was my Dad saying that to me and it really touched my heart.”

Ryan Gratified By Senate Leadership Support, No Decision Imminent

From the Morning Memo:

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said he’s gratified top state Senate brass is hosting a fundraiser for him next week as he considers a run for the 60th state Senate district – a key upstate swing seat that will be open as incumbent Republican Sen. Chris Jacobs turns his sights to Congress.

The assemblyman says support from lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris are key, but he’s also interested in seeing what kind of money he can bring in on his own.

“People have reached out right away saying we want to help,” Ryan said. “We want to make some donations and that’s part of the exploratory committee. I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have a successful event next week and once I get to that point we’ll make the next step.”

The next step probably will not be any kind of official announcement. While he has made clear he is “very interested” in the seat, the Democrat has also vowed to take a methodical approach in his decision.

With the 2020 general election still roughly a year and a half away, he can take his time. Ryan said he plans to spend the summer talking to political, governmental and business leaders around the district.

“I think I’ll be a strong candidate but we have to see if the rest of the district agrees with me,” he said.

Buffalo State Sen. Tim Kennedy is also co-hosting next Tuesday’s fundraiser, which is taking place in Albany just as the session is reaching its end.

Cuomo, Ortt Gang Up On IJC

Few things can bring Democrats and Republicans in New York together these days like the International Joint Commission and Plan 2014.

The plan which regulates outflows for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River has been a frequent target for politicians across the state – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, and state Senator Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. chief among them.

Ortt, considered a rising star within the party and a potential congressional candidate, regularly criticizes Cuomo about myriad of policy positions but Lake Ontario is not one of them. In fact, when it comes to the IJC , they are working together, with the governor even tossing a little credit the Republican’s way.

“I called up Senator Ortt a couple of weeks ago and I said, ‘Senator Ortt, I think we should look at the legal liability of the IJC because I think there may be a potential legal case here. Okay, it didn’t happen that way. Senator Ortt called me and said I think there may be, but Senator Ortt is right,” Cuomo said during a press conference Monday in Rochester.

This weekend the governor wrote a letter to the commission demanding immediate action in correcting its water management protocols to avoid flooding along the state’s Lake Ontario shoreline, reimbursement to New York for the mitigation costs its already incurred, and make additional funds available for resiliency projects and other protective measures “made necessary by the IJC’s acts and omissions.”

He said, historically, it’s part of the commission’s responsibility.

“Not only were they supposed to balance, they were responsible for the mitigation of the water and potential damage,” Cuomo said.

Late last month, Ortt asked Attorney General Tish James to file a lawsuit against the federal government to recover money the state has spent. Cuomo threatened that legal action against the IJC, whose American commissioners are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“I don’t like to do that. People say, ‘Oh, you’re harsh to the poor IJC.’ I don’t think I’m harsh to the poor IJC. I think the IJC is harsh to the people in New York state who’ve been suffering along the shoreline of Lake Ontario,” Cuomo said. “That’s what I call harsh, saying to people who just went through a flood in 2017, ‘Whoops, we’re going to do it again two years later.’ That, I think, is harsh. Not being financially responsible for the damage that they do, that, I think, is harsh.”

Monday, Ortt said it was actually the governor who reached out to him following the letter he wrote to James. Either way, he said he is pleased they are on the same page.

“I am glad Gov. Cuomo has heeded my call to hold the IJC and Plan 2014 responsible for the flooding that is occurring for the second time in 3 years. While we do not often agree, we agree that New Yorkers alone cannot nor should not, bear the cost of the IJCs disastrous Plan 2014,” Ortt said.

He said he looks forward to Cuomo continuing to join him in the push to modify Plan 2014 and thanked him for his commitment to assist residents impacted by flooding.

Two WNY Democratic Assembly Members Oppose ‘Green Light’ Bill

Two Assembly Democrats from Western New York have come out in opposition to the state allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers’ licenses.

In a joint statement, legislators Pat Burke and Monica Wallace said the “Green Light” bill is flawed legislation they can not support and they will not be voting for it when it comes to the Assembly floor. They said immigration is federal problem that requires a federal solution and the state is not in a position to solve every “failed policy” of the federal government.

“In the meantime, we will continue to focus our energy on addressing state issues to find solutions that improve the lives of our constituents and all New Yorkers,” Burke and Wallace said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said the controversial legislation will be brought to the floor for a full vote next week. With 106 members in the conference, the measure is not likely in danger of failing, even without Burke and Wallace who represent two of WNY’s more conservative Democratic districts.

Their announcement comes after news Thursday the measure may not have support in the state Senate, as state Dem Chair Jay Jacobs, concerned about political fallout, confirmed he has been urging some senators to vote against it.

Seneca Nation Files Federal Motion To Vacate Casino Arbitration

The Seneca Nation of Indians wants a federal judge to vacate an arbitration panel ruling from earlier this year, requiring it to continue to share casino revenues with New York State.

Upon receiving the decision, which also determined the Nation owed more than $255 million in back pay, it asked the federal Department of Interior to conduct a review. The Senecas believe the arbitration panel made what amounted to an amendment to a 2002 compact in ruling the Senecas owed the state money despite the fact payments for the final seven-years of the 21-year deal were not explicitly spelled out in the document.

This week, however, the Department of Interior notified the Senecas it could not review the arbitration without a joint submission from the Nation and the state. In response, the Senecas filed a motion in federal court Thursday asking a judge to either vacate the arbitration or delay enforcement until the Department of Interior does conduct a review.

“You cannot simply skip past the fact that the arbitration decision and amendment must concur with federal law, and, right now, the amendment and the law conflict with one another,” Seneca President Rickey Armstrong, Sr. said. “The only other alternative to resolve the matter would be for the Nation and the State to come to some agreement and jointly submit it to the Department of Interior for review. The Nation is open to those discussions.”

Furthermore, Armstrong said the Nation did reach out to the Interior Department which agreed it did not have an obligation to pay the state after year 14. The Senecas made their last payment in March of 2017.

“The only other alternative to resolve the matter would be for the Nation and the State to come to some agreement and jointly submit it to the Department of Interior for review. The Nation is open to those discussions,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, unless the Governor is willing to sit down with the Seneca Nation leadership to negotiate a mutually agreeable resolution that we could submit to the Department of Interior together, I am concerned that this litigation will continue for the foreseeable future, leaving the Seneca Nation and the local governments who benefit tremendously from our gaming operations in legal and financial limbo.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca have all budgeted this year in expectation of receiving a portion of the casino payments once the state receives them. The Senecas have indicated they don’t plan to pay that money at least until they’ve exhausted legal avenues.

“This is nothing more than another stall tactic from the Seneca Nation as they continue to move the goal posts to avoid paying their obligations under a process that they signed on to. The arbitration panel ruled in favor of the State months ago and the Seneca Nation needs to start paying what’s owed to these local communities without any further delay,” Jason Conwall, a spokesperson for the governor, said.

Former Erie County Executive Taking The Wheel At Taxi Company

From the Morning Memo:

At the peak of New York’s ride-hailing debate, former Republican Erie County Executive Joel Giambra provided his knowledge and expertise to Buffalo’s largest taxi company. And now he’s taking on a larger role.

In 2016, Giambra worked as a consultant for Liberty Cab, acting as a spokesman and advocating for a level playing field for traditional cab companies with ride-hailing heavyweights like Uber and Lyft.

In 2019, he’ll be leading the way in trying to help Liberty compete with those companies as the new chief operations officer of the company.

“I believe Joel Giambra, with his experience as a chief executive and in politics as well as in business development, brings the right credentials to his new position with Liberty,” founder and President Bill Yuhnke said. “I am looking forward to working with him and my daughter, Lisa, in the coming days. It is an exciting time.”

Yuhnke said that over the past several years, even as the market has changed with the introduction of ride-sharing, his company has been able to “hold its ground,” thanks to modernization and deregulation efforts. Giambra assisted with that battle, and said it needed to be waged.

“It was very difficult given the money and the political influence wielded by the technology companies,” he said. “But under Bill’s leadership, much has been accomplished and many of the regulations holding down the taxi industry in the city have been removed, helping to level the playing field. I hope to build on that forward momentum and continue to improve the ground transportation industry.”

Last year, Giambra, a Democrat-turned-Republican announced a rather quixotic campaign for governor of New York.

After failing to gain traction with the Republican party, he attempted a third-party bid with the Reform party, but ultimately it was GOP candidate Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess Conty executive, who secured the line, running unsuccessfully against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the general election.

Giambra is also a staunch proponent for legalizing recreational marijuana, and has lobbied for legislation in the past. He currently owns a Buffalo real estate development company.

He said as COO of Liberty, he plans to pursue new business development opportunities and ways to improve the customer experience.

State Legislature Passes Bill Addressing ‘Golden Parachute’ Severance Packages

Legislation aimed at preventing public authorities from awarding “golden parachute” severance packages is heading to the governor’s desk.

Tuesday, the New York State Assembly passed the Severance Pay Limitation Act which limits the package allowable for at-will employees to no more than three months pay and ensured payments are not considered in calculating retirement packages.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, introduced the bill after reports last year showed the former Erie County Water Authority executive director’s contract guaranteed an estimated $300,000-$400,000 payout should he be forced out of his position for political reasons before his term ended in 2020. The news came less than two months after the authority raised its rates.

“As a ratepayer myself, I was angered by this news because it represents government at its worst,” Wallace said. “Erie County Water Authority customers expect that when their rates increase, the money will go toward addressing crumbling infrastructure and water quality improvements – not lucrative severance packages. I am glad that my colleagues in the Assembly and Senate have recognized the need to curtail future abuses, and I urge the governor to sign the legislation into law.”

ECWA fired Executive Director Earl Jann last year following a scathing report from the state authorities budget office which also criticized his “golden parachute.” Ultimately, the authority said Jann was not paid the severance as it was able to void his contract.

“Golden parachute severance packages might be appropriate in the private sector, but they have no place in a public authority whose mission is to provide a public service to its ratepayers in a fiscally responsible manner,” Wallace said.

The state Senate passed its legislation, sponsored by Leroy Comrie, D-St. Albans, earlier this year.

Erie Co. Clerk, Comptroller Join Forces Against Green Light Bill

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Comptroller’s Office will investigate the potential negative ramifications to the county if the state passes legislation to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The review comes at the request of County Clerk Mickey Kearns, a former Democratic assemblyman, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the proposal. Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, a Republican, said his office will look at the impact such an initiative might have on the county budget and potential cost of litigation – among other things.

“It is absolutely, positively unconscionable for out-of-touch politicians to ignore federal immigration laws to give illegal immigrants a ‘breeder document’ like a drivers license,” Mychajliw said. “It really does open up a Pandora’s Box.”

Kearns has maintained he will not process the licenses if the state Legislature passes the bill. He has cited numerous concerns, including his belief that the proposal is inconsistent with federal law. He’s also worried it could promote fraud, and would be taxing on clerks offices across New York.

“Unintended consequences that roll down from Albany, you know who pays for them? The Erie County taxpayers,” Kearns said. “So, taxpayers need to know to reach out to legislators, that there will be an unintended consequence, their tax bills will go up.”

The two elected officials promoted the investigation as a bipartisan effort, although it’s worth noting that Kearns won his seat with the Republican endorsement, and has been essentially excommunicated for the local Democratic committee.

Expecting the bill to pass, Kearns and Mychajliw also sent a letter to the governor imploring him to veto it when it reaches his desk, which is highly unlikely.

Incoming State GOP Chair ‘Excited’ About Cuomo’s Plans To Seek Fourth Term

From the Morning Memo:

From his very first press conference as incoming state Republican party chair, current Erie County GOP Chair Nick Langworthy was very clear about his lofty goal.

When the next gubernatorial election comes around, it will have been two decades since the GOP has elected its candidate to the executive’s office. Langworthy is determined to end that streak.

“This is obviously the goal,” Langworthy said. “There’s one office that can transform this state, that can help liberate taxpayers, help put the state back in working condition, and that’s the office of the governor. It has extraordinary powers.”

This week, Langworthy got a clearer picture of who the competition will be. Though it’s still more than three years out from the next gubernatorial election, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fresh off his third term victory, has already indicated he plans to run again.

“I’m actually kind of excited about it because as I’m transitioning into this role as state chairman of the party,” Langworthy said. “we will work day and night to make sure the mission of our party is to defeat this governor in 2022.”

Cuomo hasn’t had much trouble with his Republican challengers in this increasingly Democrat-dominated state thus far. Langworthy conceded the power of incumbency is strong. However, he insisted there’s a historical path to victory for his party that he believes he can emulate.

Cuomo’s father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, lost when he ran for governor for the fourth time – a national figure taken out by a little-known state senator who was elevated to power by a select group of GOP power brokers.

“There’s a lot of shelf life,” Langworthy said. “I mean George Pataki versus a fresh-faced Democrat, that might have been a different situation back in 1994. But a governor that was reaching for a fourth term…people do grow tired of an incumbent elected officials, especially an executive.”

The chairman couldn’t resist taking a dig at the current governor Cuomo, saying he doesn’t have the “courage” to run for president like dozens of his Democratic colleagues across the country are doing. (Mario Cuomo rather infamously didn’t run for president, either, though he thought about it – and thought about it).

Langworthy predicted the governor will struggle over the next few years with the Dem-controlled state Senate he helped seize from the GOP, which will set the stage for a sea change in 2022.

Cuomo Announces Plans For Lake Ontario ‘Resiliency And Economic Development’ Investments

For the second time in three years, New York State is sending resources to Lake Ontario communities dealing with significant flooding along the shoreline.

As it continues to do so though, the state is also looking at more long-term solutions. On a conference call Thursday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, announced the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI).

He said high water levels on the lake are the “new normal” and people should expect it to continue.

“Once you accept that premise, then it’s a fools errand to continually rebuild to the same standard only to have another flood that does the same damage.”

The initiative’s goal is to redesign the shoreline to make it more resilient but also do so in a way that spurs economic growth for the communities. He said a council, co-chaired by Empire State Development President Howard Zemskey and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, will work with local governments to come up with projects.

“I think we can actually improve the economic advantage for the communities along Lake Ontario. It is a great asset. It is a great place to visit. Its a great place to fish. It is a great place to live and the floods are a problem today but I think we can actually find a silver lining in the storm cloud,” Cuomo said.

The governor pointed out in 2017, the state spent roughly $100 million in relief funding to the affected communities. It’s not clear how much damage there will be this year as the flooding has just started in earnest and the state has taken steps to try to mitigate the impact.

Cuomo did not say exactly how much Lake Ontario REDI would cost but he said he would rather spend a larger sum all at once. He said it would be significant and will require Legislature approval to fund.

As for when it will start, he said the state will begin meeting with local governments in the next couple of weeks about their visions.

“We can move as fast as the local governments can move but the long-term project requires thought and consultation,” Cuomo said.

The International Joint Commission which governs Great Lakes outflows, during a Tuesday visit to Western New York, said it doesn’t have enough evidence yet to say the high water levels are the “new normal” and not a multi-year anomaly. However, commissioners pointed out if it does decide to make changes to the plan which regulates Lake Ontario and Saint Lawrence River water levels, it would likely mean new regulations regarding where structures can be built.

The state said it has no plans to wait for the IJC to finish another study and is ready to act now. The Lake Ontario initiative will also apply to Niagara River and Saint Lawrence River shorelines.