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

Erie County Democratic Committee Lapsed On Workers Comp, Disability Coverage For Employees

The State of New York Workers’ Compensation Board placed a stop-work order on the entrance of Erie County Democratic Committee headquarters earlier this month, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The same person provided a photo of the notice, which was issued on April 3, just a day before the deadline to submit designated petitions. It’s one of the busiest times of the year for the party. According to the notice, the employer, ECDC, had failed to secure Workers’ Compensation coverage and had outstanding penalties for failing to secure both Workers’ Comp and Disability Benefits coverage.

According to state records, the committee’s Workers’ Comp policy through the State Insurance Fund was canceled on November 9, 2018. A new policy with Security National Insurance Co. began on April 4, a day after the stop-work order was issued.

ECDC attorney Margaret Murphy said the situation came about because a disgruntled former committee employee stopped opening mail at headquarters. The committee didn’t find out until after that employee had stopped working there.

Murphy said ECDC also was not aware its insurance had lapsed because it never got a notice and received a new policy premium of a little more than $1,000 in February. It paid that bill in March and she said the check cleared and came out of the committee account.

In total, there appears to be a 146-day lapse in which the committee’s two full-time employees and one part-time employee did not have coverage. Murphy said no employee was injured or filed a claim during that time.

The state requires employers to maintain a policy, with limited exceptions, and can impose fines of $2,000 for every ten-day period of non-compliance. The attorney for the Dems said the penalty they’re facing is not that harsh but is substantial for the party.

“It’s a shame because we could use that money a lot better to get a candidate elected than paying it to the State Insurance Fund,” Murphy said. “I am negotiating with the Workers’ Comp board to try to bring it down, but ultimately, we will pay what we are required.”

State records also indicate ECDC went without Disability Benefits Coverage and Paid Family Leave for more than five years. Its previous policy ended at the end of March 2014 and a new one did not begin until April 4, 2019 as well. The Workers’ Comp Board website notes there are more fines associated with failure to provide disability benefits, but it is also a misdemeanor.

Murphy said she is still investigating and doesn’t know all the details about that particular situation yet.

However, when it comes to Workers’ Comp, she said the committee immediately hired a payroll service and secured private coverage. Another local attorney who deals with workers’ comp and asked not to be named, said the board can negotiate with businesses when it comes to fines but is typically less lenient to repeat offenders.

It does appear the committee is a repeat offender. The State Insurance Fund policy lapsed once before, with the committee without coverage from October 2013 to June 2014.

In its most recent BOE filing in January, ECDC reported a more than $170,000 balance. It also shows the committee spent more than $10,000 while it was without Workers’ Comp coverage, including more than $6,000 on a holiday party.

Stop Work Order

Erie County Legislator Proposes Law To Address ‘Always On’ Microphones

Have you ever had a conversation in person with a friend, later to find an advertisement that seems specifically tailored to the subject you discussed?

It’s become a familiar scenario for many people and recent reports have confirmed, your phone and smart speaker devices are listening to you. Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo, C, has introduced a local law to curb the practice.

The Internet Devices Privacy Act is aimed at protecting consumers from unknowingly having their private information recorded and stored. Lorigo said that’s typically the scenario with otherwise simple-to-set-up devices, like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple products.

“Unfortunately, many people are unaware they are constantly being recorded by these popular devices,” he said. “With the rise in technology, this becomes a growing privacy concern. Once signed into effect, the law would force companies to be more transparent with consumers who often unknowingly submit to having their information recorded and stored. I am hoping we can have the necessary conversations at the Legislature in order to move forward with this measure to protect the public.”

The bill would require manufacturers to disclose that the microphone in the digital device would be turned on or enabled and what command or action triggers it. Companies would also have to disclose any sounds that trigger recording, the third parties to which the information gathered may be available, and the terms under which any personally identifiable information may be retained by a private entity.

Lorigo suggested the law be enforced by the Department of Weights and Measure or the new Consumer Protection Office proposed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz in his State of the County address. Fines would be $1,000 for first offense, $5,000 for the second, and no more than $10,000 for all other offenses afterward.

Of course, this issue isn’t exclusive to Erie County and to some extent has already drawn the attention of Congress.  A similar bill to Lorigo’s was recently introduced in the Illinois General Assembly, as well

Assembly Members Promote Petition For ‘Gold Star’ Expansion Bill

From the Morning Memo:

A number of upstate Republican lawmakers are asking constituents to sign an online petition demanding the Assembly move bill A.2991 to the floor for a full vote.

That legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Hawley, a Batavia Republican, would expand full SUNY and/or CUNY scholarships to spouses, children and dependents of veterans killed or permanently disabled while serving in any official military capacity – not just in combat.

Last week, the Assembly Higher Education Committee did not allow the bill to move forward, with Chair Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat citing budget concerns. The inaction has received significant traditional and social media attention across the state and the country.

“Gold Star families have heard the herald of bipartisan support from state lawmakers in both parties, along with Gov. Cuomo and even President Trump, following the defeat of my bill in committee last week,” Hawley said.

“I will continue leading the effort to see that our military receive the benefits they deserve as they carry the tremendous sacrifice of losing a loved one in the line of duty. I am confident we can get this legislation passed this year and hopeful that this is the beginning of an era where veterans’ issues transcend political divides and we all can play a part in honoring our brave service members and veterans.”

Others promoting the petition include lawmakers from the Finger Lakes region, like Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, Assemblyman Peter Lawrence and Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

“A handful of liberals in Albany are standing in the way of a well-intentioned, common-sense bill that helps the children of disabled and fallen heroes,” Kolb said.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of support from people in every corner of the state. We know there is bipartisan support for this bill in Albany. This petition will demonstrate that this conversation is not over; that the bill is important to New Yorkers and Americans; and that the public has a place to voice their opinion.”

The Democrat-controlled state Senate, however, appears to be taking a different approach.

Sen. Rob Ortt, the original bill’s GOP sponsor, has agreed to co-sponsor a new bill carried by Veterans Committee Chair John Brooks, a Democrat.

Ortt said substantively the legislation remains the same as the original proposal, but there are minor legal changes and a stipulation that would keep the bill from going into effect until 2020, squelching any concerns about current budget impact.

It is unclear if the Assembly would introduce a same-as bill or try to reconcile the differences between Brooks’s and Hawley’s proposals.

Schumer Again Calls For Few Redactions In Mueller Report

From the Morning Memo:

With the Justice Department planning to release the Mueller Report to Congress on Thursday, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is once again urging the attorney general to make sure as much of its contents public as possible.

Schumer has made similar public statements numerous times over the last three weeks since AG William Barr released his own summary of the report, including leading a non-binding resolution that was blocked by Senate Republicans. Yesterday in Niagara Falls and Rochester, he repeated the call a few more times.

“When Russia interferes in an election in America, that’s a big deal,” Schumer said. “And to find out everything that happened and make it clear to the public what happened so we can take action so it never happens again is imperative.”

Although the senator sometimes seemed to slip in urging the release of the “full report,” he also said he recognizes that’s nearly impossible.

“You can’t have no redactions because there are a few that are in danger, national security,” Schumer acknowledged. “In other words, if they had a source who’s undercover, you don’t want to reveal that. But the benefit of the doubt should be given to making it public in every instance.”

It’s not clear, at this point, how much of the report the attorney general plans on redacting. However, he has vowed to be as transparent as possible and let lawmakers see some of the information he’s not revealing publicly.

WNY Assemblyman Won’t Move Forward Organ Donation Registry ‘Opt-Out’ Legislation

When freshman Assemblyman Pat Burke, D-Buffalo, announced legislation this weekend to make New York’s organ donor registry an “opt-out” program rather than an “opt-in” one, he expected it to be controversial.

However, Burke said over the past several days he’s received even more backlash than expected on social media and via calls to his office. Monday, he said he did not plan to index the legislation in the Assembly and would not move forward with it, for now.

“The public reaction, it certainly wasn’t scientific, but I think the overwhelming response to people to my office was that they weren’t comfortable with it,” Burke said.

The assemblyman believed many people misunderstood the finer points of the proposal. He said perhaps it was his fault for being too vague on the original press release.

The legislation would not have immediately put all New Yorkers who have not opted out, on the organ donor registry. Rather, anybody 18 or older, applying for a drivers license or license renewal would then have to say they did not want to be on the list.

Burke also acknowledged, under current state law, it’s mandatory to answer the registry question but he said his legislation would change the wording to “encourage” more donors. If he were to do to it again, he said he would include a copy of the current form and a specific example of the question he wants instead.

“I am not going to push a legislative proposal that my constituents are not comfortable with,” Burke said. “What I’m going to do is continue to work with them and engage with them because it’s about saving people’s lives.”

April is Donate Life month, and Burke said he wanted to start a conversation about a serious problem in the state. There are currently 9,500 people on New York’s wait list.

“Currently there are people on a wait list who will die because there are not enough donors,” he said. “We need to fix that. If people aren’t comfortable with that (opt-out) program, then I need to hear their ideas on how to fix that.”

Burke did not rule out introducing the same legislation or a revised version later this year, but said he needs to do more community outreach first.

Former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Sentenced To Five Years For Rape, Criminal Sex Act

Former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger has been sentenced to five years in prison and ten years post-release supervision.

A jury in Albany County Supreme Court convicted him in March of rape and committing a criminal sex act. Both charges are Class E felonies.

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.

The DA’s office said he has been in custody since the verdict and was continued on remand today. He will be sent to the State Department of Corrections.

A few weeks after the incident occurred, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he learned of the allegations and asked Dirschberger to tender his resignation with the Department of Social Services. The County Legislature also retained independent council to investigate whether the county acted appropriately.

The county executive referred to the statement he made in March following the verdict.

“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. 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,” Poloncarz said then. “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.

Legislator Lynne Dixon, I, who is challenging Poloncarz for county executive, released a statement on the sentence.

“Today, former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger got what he deserved,” she said,.  This story has bothered me for more than a year now.  The whole culture that allowed a Commissioner to invite a junior level staffer to a conference so he could prey on her is troubling.  Beyond troubling, is the finding in the Special Counsel’s report that the victim he raped had previously complained to management about his behavior toward her and it went unchecked. A grand jury of his peers indicted him, another jury convicted him, and now he knows his punishment.  It is my hope that his victim somehow finds peace, and my thoughts and prayers are with her and her family at this time as well as Mr. Dirschberger’s family.”

Dirschberger’s maximum sentence for the charges was eight years in state prison.

ECDC Names Replacement For County Leg Nomination

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Democratic Committee moved quickly to fill a vacancy made when County Legislature Chairman Peter Savage declined his nomination to seek re-election at the beginning of the week.

Of course, it didn’t have much of a choice, with a replacement due to be submitted by today. Last night, the committee chose Town of Tonawanda Council Member Lisa Chimera as the party’s endorsed candidate.

The committee solicited applications this week, but ultimately Chimera was the only person to make a presentation.

“The duly elected 3rd District @ecdems members voted to unanimously endorse Councilmember Lisa Chimera tonight ECDC Chairman Jeremy Zellner tweeted. I am excited to have such a wonderful community minded candidate as our Endorsed Dem!”

Former state Senate candidate Amber Small was considered a front runner to replace Savage, but she announced yesterday that she had pulled herself out of the running.

Small said she didn’t need to be in public office to focus on public service.

“As a committee member in North Buffalo, I helped pass petitions for our slate of candidates this spring: including Legislator Peter Savage,” she said. “At that time many reached out to me about running for office. However, with recently opening a small business and pursuing my law degree, I simply did not have the time earlier this year, and that has not changed.”

Two other Democratic candidates, David Amoia and Cindi McEachon, also petitioned for the 3rd District, making it likely there will be a primary. Savage is reportedly seeking a city judge appointment.

Could Buffalo Get Its Own Elevated Park?

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo’s waterfront has seen a major a renaissance over the last decade, thanks in large part to significant state and federal investments.

However, a large structure still casts a shadow over the Canalside attractions downtown…literally.

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo summed it up: “The classic mistake was building a highway along the waterfront.”

Cuomo wants a plan for the city’s Skyway, and he wants it ASAP. The governor, during a stop in Buffalo yesterday, expanded on a national contest looking for new concepts for the elevated highway connecting I-190 and Route 5.

Cuomo said he wants the contest completed in the next six months. He also announced a panel to decide the winners, including Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

“I’m sure many of the ideas will say keep the skyway,” Cuomo said. “There are cities that have kept the skyway. Develop underneath the skyway. Develop other access. So, there is a very good possibility that the skyway may remain or be converted into an alternative use – like the High Line.”

The governor is not part of the panel, but sounded like he had his own vision for this project. He gushed about New York City’s High Line – a repurposed rail line that was turned into an elevated walkway and park.

“When I first heard of it, I thought it was almost implausible,” he said. “I could not have been more wrong. It has turned into a phenomenon of tourism activity.”

These kinds of parks may actually be becoming a trend in the state. Albany is in the process of finishing its own Skyway Park, repurposing an old I-787 ramp on the waterfront.

And the Walkway Over the Hudson, which repurposed an old train bridge across the Hudson River connecting Highland and Poughkeepsie, has proved enormously popular. At 1.28 miles from end to end, it’s the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge.

Erie County Legislator Urges Sheriff To Continue Releasing Mug Shots

Erie County Legislator Minority Leader Joe Lorigo, C, has sent a letter to the Erie County Sheriff, asking him to continue to release mug shots to the press and public.

The state Legislature passed a new law as part of the budget, prohibiting the release of booking photos unless there is a specific law enforcement reason to do so. However, discretion on what that reason might be, appears to remain in the purview of police agencies.

Sheriff Tim Howard, R, has not yet commented publicly about his stance on the new rules. Lorigo cited an Oneonta Daily Star article though, in which other Upstate sheriffs have said they plan to continue with the same policies they have always practiced.

“Preventing media and the public from having access to mug shots is a clear infringement on First Amendment rights. This practice should remain at the Sheriff’s discretion and considered on a case by case basis. I’m urging Sheriff Howard to continue releasing mug shot photos, as they are public information that often helps in the apprehension of criminals and protection of the public,” Lorigo said.

The law is due for action by the governor this week. New York State Police have already preemptively begun withholding mugshots.

‘Placeholders’ – A Theme In Erie County This Election Cycle

From the Morning Memo:

In Erie County, it seems clear that the advanced timeline for the election petition process this year had an impact on how the local parties did business.

In January, the state Legislature voted to move primaries from September to June in order to coincide with the federal election schedule. That moved the dates to collect signatures up from the summer to February.

“We were forced to take our recruitment period from three months to three weeks, and in some cases, we did have to put placeholders on the ballot, and things, by the end of this week, will be shaking out with the actual candidates coming forward,” said Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy.

The Board of Elections has seen a slew of declinations this week. Assuming the petitions for those candidates are authorized as sufficient, committees to fill vacancies will be able to substitute new candidates by the end of the week.

In some cases, the candidates who declined were not intentional placeholders. Democrats had a number of high-profile declinations – including the chairman of the Erie County Legislature, Peter Savage.

Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said the party fully expected Savage to run until late last week. The same was the case with several other races.

However Zellner said the party did put a placeholder of sorts in one of its Legislature districts as a byproduct of the accelerated schedule.

“We didn’t have a candidate so one of our committee members from the Town of Concord. Jerome Janik said he would make the run if we couldn’t find anyone else to because he felt as though we shouldn’t let the seat go uncontested,” he said.

Zellner said a candidate did come forward, and Janik declined, to clear the path for the new candidate. Langworthy believes that given the challenges his committee faced, he did a good job making sure the GOP had candidates for the 150+ offices on ballots this year. But there is a downside to the placeholder method.

“I’d rather have the candidate out there, carrying their own petition, asking supporters for a signature,” Langworthy said. “In this case, we went into survival mode.”

The GOP chair, who has been traveling New York and is believed to be eyeing a potential run for state GOP chair, said that he has heard from members of both parties across upstate who struggled with the new schedule this year. He believes the burden did not have to be thrust upon committees and boards of election all at once.