Western New York

NY To Sue IJC Over Lake Ontario Flooding

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, has directed the state Department of Environmental Conservation to sue the International Joint Commission for mismanagement of Lake Ontario water levels.

The state contends the IJC failed to respond appropriately to record high lake levels in 2017 and 2019 which exacerbated flood damage to residences and businesses. Cuomo said the state suffered more than $4 million in property damage that it has still been unable to fully repair and the IJC should be responsible for damages.

The governor said the body’s failure to act compelled the action.

“We have pleaded with the IJC to attend to the New York side of the issue. We have sent numerous pieces of correspondence. There have been meetings. There have been dialogues. There have been phone calls. The congressman (Joe Morelle) has been meeting with them. All sorts of officials have been meeting with the IJC. They have been wholly unresponsive and have taken no actions that has made the situation any better,” he said during a Wednesday announcement in Rochester.

In a June press conference, Cuomo indicated the state was looking into legal action. He gave Republican state Senator Rob Ortt credit for the idea.

Ortt, who is now running for Congress, was conspicuously missing from the executive press release Wednesday. The state senator did release his own statement though.

“Today’s announcement that New York State would be suing the International Joint Commission for damages caused by flooding connected to Plan 2014 is long overdue,” he said. “Although the Attorney General’s office declined to act on my proposal to sue the federal government for damages caused by Lake Ontario’s flooding back in May, I am pleased to see they have had a change of heart and will now seek financial compensation for the residents, localities, and businesses along the lake’s shores.”

Specifically the complain asserts the IJC was negligent in breaching its duty to protect the interest of New York property owners. It also claims the mismanagement was a nuisance because the body “should have been substantially certain that its conduct would cause an invasion of the State’s interest in the use and enjoyment of its land.”

Finally the state said the failure of IJC to increase outflows constituted trespassing or an invasion of NY property.

Erie County Legislature Asks For More Information From OTB On ‘High Rollers’ Program

The Erie County Legislature has asked Western Regional Off-Track Betting to provide more information about its “high rollers” program following a meeting Thursday with OTB representatives.

To this point, OTB has refused to provide several media outlets with information about who has received perks like tickets to professional sporting events and hotel stays, despite Freedom of Information Law requests. Legislators expressed skepticism the corporation was allowed to deny those requests and has asked for OTB’s attorney to return a legal opinion.

Erie County, which co-owns the public benefit corporation with 14 other counties and the cities of Rochester and Buffalo, also asked for a list of just OTB employees and their family members who have used the perks. Marketing Director Ryan Hasenauer said the corporation to this point had not release the list to protect customer privacy and proprietary information.

“Until today, just now, no one has ever actually asked for the names of the staffers so we will go back and we will compile those things and I will bring that to the Legislature in due time,” he said.

Sources say uses of company perks and resources appears to be part of at least one part of an ongoing federal probe. Spectrum News previously reported the U.S. Attorney’s office recently empaneled a grand jury and issued subpoenas.

Erie County’s representative on the OTB Board, Beverly Mazur, said she didn’t know anything about the investigation but would potentially learn more following a board meeting next week. Hasenauer also denied knowledge of the probe.

“I know nothing,” he said. “The only thing that I know is what I read in the paper. So I don’t have any other knowledge about any sort of investigation. I personally have not been subpoenaed to appear or talk to anybody so at this time I know what you guys know.”

Hasenauer said he would bring the Legislature’s request to the legal team to discuss it’s next steps. Government Affairs Committee Chairman Kevin Hardwick, D, asked the information be delivered within a week.

If OTB fails to cooperate he said he and his colleagues would need to have more conversations about potential legal action or other steps.

“After that, obviously there are things we can do. Will we do them? I think we’ll have to, all of us, discuss it together,” he said.

Hardwick said in any given year, Erie County receives between $500,000 and $750,000 in revenue from OTB. Hasenauer said the corporation is having one of its best years and returned more profits six months than it did all last year.

He also pointed out the state Comptroller’s Office continues to review OTB records and has been doing so since the beginning of August. OTB said it is transparent and heavily regulated by the state Gaming Commission.

DNC Chairman Perez Talks WNY Politics

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez weighed in on a few Western New York races during a Wednesday evening visit to Buffalo.

Perez, who grew up in the Queen City, helped Democrat Nate McMurray make a late push for New York’s 27th Congressional District in 2018. McMurray ultimately lost to incumbent Republican Chris Collins by less than half a percentage point.

The congressman was facing federal charges related to insider trading then and still is, with a trial currently scheduled for February 2020.

“The fact that he has refused to resign, that’s not in the best interest of that remarkable district,” Perez said.

The chairman, also a former federal prosecutor said he believes Collins will be convicted. He said phone records of Collins speaking with family members about the state of pharmaceutical stock they owner will be the “star witness” in the case.

“He’s dishonest and he will get convicted and I think he’s using his office as leverage for a plea negotiation,” Perez said. “That’s what it’s about and that’s shameful.”

Collins has yet to announce whether he will run for the seat again in 2020 while a stable of Republicans are lining up to primary him. He has flatly rejected the insinuation he’s using his seat as a bargaining chip and has maintained his innocence.

Meanwhile, McMurray is the only Democrat to announce so far, but Perez did not totally commit to him Wednesday.

“I am all in for whoever the nominee is,” he said. “We will not get involved in the primary process. We will leave that up to the great voters but I think voters want leaders with integrity and that’s what I love about Western New York.”

The DNC chairman also brought up this year’s Erie County executive race, connecting Republican-endorsed candidate Lynne Dixon to the indicted congressman.

“What’s equally remarkable is that the campaign manager for Mark Poloncarz’s opponent was the right-hand person on the Collins campaign. So if you think Chris Collins was good for Buffalo, well they’re trying to bring Chris Collins back to Erie County as well, so I’m all in for Mark.”

Poloncarz’s campaign has repeatedly questioned, including in a recent tv ad, why Dixon is employing Collins’ associate Chris Grant. But Dixon’s campaign said Grant was never campaign manager and rather has consulted.

Bryan Fiume, who said he’s actually been campaign manager all along, returned fire.

“Mark should be revisiting his campaign team, not us, he’s the one having a tough time,” Fiume said. “We aren’t worried about his comments, we remain focused on an infrastructure in disrepair, lead paint on playground equipment, high taxes and politics, like this, infiltrating Erie county government. Lynne Dixon isn’t Chris Collins and unfortunately for Mark, he’s not running against Chris Collins this time.”

Federal Grand Jury Empaneled In Western Regional OTB Probe

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York has empaneled a federal grand jury to look into the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation.

Sources familiar with the situation said at least one person has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury in October. The attorney representing OTB confirmed knowledge of the probe Thursday.

“Western Regional Off Track Betting has received grand jury subpoenas requesting documents. My instructions from the company are to cooperate and produce the records that have been requested.” attorney Terry Connors said.

One source said the subject of the investigation appears to be multi-pronged with a focus on the use of OTB perks and resources, potential retaliation against an employee who was cooperating with federal investigators and a contract with Growth Marketing Group, a company headed by Rochester-based businessman Arnie Rothschild.

In April, Spectrum News reported the Federal Bureau Investigations had interviewed multiple people connected to OTB with questions pertaining to contracts with several vendors including Growth Marketing Group. Sources said Rothschild has close ties to OTB Board Chairman Richard Bianchi, a member of the Monroe County Conservative Party Executive Committee.

However, a separate source said it is unclear at this point if there will be any indictment and does not believe the federal government has notified any individuals they are a target of the investigation. OTB President Henry Wojtaszek did not issue a statement this week but has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and called any allegations against the corporation or him “baseless.”

In February, former state Senator George Maziarz, a Wojtaszek ally-turned-foe, released discovery materials from his own corruption trial which he said suggested the OTB president previously conspired to rig the bid for a Niagara County contract. He said he believed similar things may be happening at OTB.

As for the potential misuse of things like event tickets and hotel rooms, OTB actually announced it was expanding it’s “high-rollers” program earlier this summer – noting State Gaming Commission inspectors had reviewed it and had not raised any issues.

Western Regional Off-Track Betting is a public benefit corporation that is owned by 15 counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.

Cuomo Seeks Compromise In License Plate Plan, Lawmakers Are Skeptical

From the Morning Memo:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to find a way out of the license plate replacement controversy, but state lawmakers are not buying into the compromise his administration proposed just yet.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the last week have shared similar questions about the administration’s plan to require motorists with license plates ten years or older to purchase new ones for $25.

Cuomo’s office on Thursday released a statement from Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder that floated a potential end to the controversy: Motorists with plates 10 years old or older could keep their plates pending an inspection to determine their condition.

Schroeder said the Cuomo administration was willing to work with lawmakers to develop the inspection plan before the replacement program begins next April.

But lawmakers were skeptical.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat who represents Schenectady, knocked the proposal.

“It seems to me that NYS DMV Commissioner Schroeder missed the point. Drivers are not taking issue with replacing damaged plates but the governor’s program FORCES drivers to replace plates, regardless of condition,” he said.

The license plate plan over the several days has led to lawmakers criticizing the proposal as a “cash grab” that could net the state up to $75 million in the coming years.

GOP state Sen. Chris Jacobs said there is no reason anybody should have to pay to replace a plate that is in reasonable condition.

“We get buckled and dimed so much in this state and this is going to generate a lot of money for this state,” he said. “That’s why they’re doing this.”

The governor has stated the reason for the replacement plates is that the older generation does not register correctly with new cashless tolling technology, soon to be instituted across the Thruway system.

However, Democratic Assemblyman Sean Ryan said he has been doing his own research and found the technology already in place on the Grand Island bridges and the new Mario Cuomo Bridge seem to be functioning fine.

“I’m trying to figure that one out, but I haven’t heard any real research or information from the current people who run those cashless tolling programs if there’s an actual problem,” he said.

Jacobs is on the Senate Transportation Committee and called on its chair, fellow western New Yorker Tim Kennedy, to hold hearings about the issue. Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco of the Capital Region also wants hearings on the issue.

Kennedy said, in essence, that’s already planned.

“As always, the Senate and Assembly will hold joint hearings during the state budget process, which will allow for further examination of this proposal,” he said.

Kennedy said his committee will also review any legislation that seeks to address the issue.

Cuomo, meanwhile, has also lashed out at lawmakers, blaming them for the $25 fee set 10 years ago before he was governor. He’s challenged lawmakers to return to Albany for a special session and lower it themselves.

The measure approved in 2009 allows the DMV to set the fee that is “not to exceed” $25 — suggesting the DMV could simply lower the fee now without lawmaker input.

JCOPE Settles Cases Connected To Two WNY Political Scandals

State ethics investigators have settled cases involving two Western New York political figures embroiled in scandals.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics announced Thursday it reached a settlement with a man who previously worked for former State Senator Marc  Panepinto. The Democrat served two months in federal prison for trying to cover up unwanted sexual advances he made toward a female staffer.

Another staffer Christopher Savage admitted he tried to dissuade her from cooperating with the Commission. He also admitted to offering her a job set up by Panepinto in exchange for her non-cooperation.

Savage chose to work with ethics investigators, leading to  Panepinto’s conviction last year. JCOPE’s investigation had been deferred pending the federal criminal investigation into Panepinto’s conduct.

JCOPE also reached a settlement Thursday with former  Cheektowaga Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak. She was admonished by the Assembly Speaker back in 2016 for retaliating against a former staffer she admitted to having an affair with.

Wozniak chose not to seek re-election– and said at the time she wanted to focus on her family.

Two WNY Congressional Districts Among ‘Worst For Black Americans’

A new report names two Western New York congressional districts among the top ten worst for black Americans.

New York’s 25th District which includes the city of Rochester and the 26th District which includes the city of Buffalo place second and ninth, respectively. Financial news and opinion website 247wallst.com conducted the study which created an index to measure socioeconomic disparities between black and white Americans based on U.S. Census data. It looked at seven factors including poverty rate, home ownership rate and unemployment.

Only Minnesota’s 5th District did worse in the study than NY-25. The website said segregation leads to disparate outcomes, and Rochester schools are highly segregated with only 10% white students in the district.

“Currently, over 94% of white adults in the congressional district have a high school diploma, compared to just 78.4% of black adults,” the report continues. “Education is closely linked to income, and more than one in every three black district residents live below the poverty line, compared to 8.2% of white residents”

Democrat Rep. Joe Morelle represents NY-25. He is currently serving his first full term.

24/7 Wall St editor Douglas McIntyre said there are a lot of contributing factors and the point of the study is not to place blame on a single person.

“One of the things we don’t want to do is put our fingers on the scales about that for two reasons. The first one is I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that but the second one is we in particularly don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

NY-26 also had a nearly 24 point chasm in poverty rates between white and black people who live in the district. Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins’s office said he is well-aware of the data as there have been numerous reports over the years.

“Congressman Higgins has a clear understanding of the challenges Western New York faces and his work in Washington is centrally focused on fighting for opportunities to help our communities thrive and put people to work,” spokesperson Theresa Kennedy said.

She said there is no singular solution to the issue but Higgins has helped bring in significant federal dollars for workforce training in Buffalo and voted in favor of issues like raising the minimum wage and increased education funding.

Rep. Collins Frustrated By Schumer ‘Blue Slip’ Of U.S. Marshal Nomination

The confirmation of a new U.S. Marshal for the Western District of New York remains stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27, recommended former Erie County Central Police Services Commissioner Peter Vito for the job and the Trump administration officially made the nomination in May.

“Trump did, with my urging, break precedent there,” Collins said.

The congressman acknowledged traditionally the Western District U.S. Attorney comes from the Buffalo area and the U.S. Marshal resides in the Rochester region. Rep. Joe Morelle, D-NY-25, and Republican Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo were among those who took issue with Vito’s nomination.

“The folks in Rochester raised a stink,” Collins said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, also disagreed with the nomination and delivered what is known as a “blue slip” to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham. The “blue slip” tradition allows home state senators to essentially veto a nomination.

Collins said Graham has been ignoring blue slips when it comes to Appellate Court judges but continues to honor it for district judge, u.s. attorney, and marshal appointments.

“We’re continuing to have discussions with the White House, with the Department of Justice, on what options we may have,” he said. “Certainly disappointing that Senator Schumer weighed in on this like he did. It has nothing to do with Pete Vito’s credentials. It’s because he lives in Niagara County and not Monroe County. I just think that’s wrong.”

Collins called the situation frustrating and pointed out nobody, including Schumer, has raised any issues about Vito’s qualifications. He said his office is addressing the situation on a “day-to-day” basis.

LG on Canadians and Cashless Tolling: ‘There Is No Free Ride’

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said Canadians who drive on New York state toll roads are required to pay and promised the state will take the necessary steps to collect money.

Currently, cashless tolling exists at the Grand Island bridges in Western New York. The system scans license plates as vehicles enter the bridge and for those who don’t have an EZ Pass, the state sends a bill to their house.

However, the Buffalo News reported Monday, the state still does not have an agreement with the neighboring provinces of Ontario or Quebec to obtain vehicle registration information for their drivers.

“We have to make sure that we are capturing the money from the Canadians,” Hochul said. “Yes they are obligated to pay. There is no free ride.”

The lieutenant governor said Canadians who have EZ Passes are being charged like anybody else. She said other foreign drivers without the pass are supposed to go to a website to make the payments, but without a way to bill directly, it’s difficult to enforce.

“In my opinion, this is an injustice for any person to think that they can get a free ride because they don’t think it’s going to be enforced,” she said. It’s unfair to our local residents who are footing the bill and we’re going to get this right. I guarantee that.”

Hochul said the state needs to sit down with the provincial governments soon to reach a deal. The administration aims to have cashless tolling at all fixed-price toll barriers on the NYS Thruway by the end of 2020.

 

Ortt Reiterates Need For Federal Government To Pitch In On Lake Ontario Mitigation

In the coming months, a new Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative commission will decide how to dole out up to $300 million state dollars to lakefront communities.

The funding was approved by the state Legislature last month in the Capital Budget. State Senator Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said the budget specifically dedicated $100 million to the initiative and he expects the remainder to come from a pot of $385 million approved for generic capital funding.

“My guess is that they’ll get the $300 (million) between the two pots and certainly it’s my job to make sure they do because that is what was said publicly,” he said.

Ortt is hopeful the state can potentially free up even more money, perhaps by funding state park needs along Lake Ontario from a different source, leaving more for municipal and private projects. Even so, he admits there will likely be more requests than there will be cash available through the REDI initiative.

“That’s one of the reasons I made a request to the attorney general and the governor to go after the federal government,” he said. “The federal government has to be a part of this because the state is not going to be able to just continue to fund this in infintum”

At Ortt’s urging, the governor did ask the state Attorney General to look into potentially suing the federal government to help mitigate extensive flooding both in 2017 and this year. The state Senator said the AG did reach out to him last week regarding the issue but they haven’t been able to connect yet.

Ortt said the governor meanwhile has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to have its legal department explore options, as well.

“I think they’re holding that, sort of see where we go,” he said. “Maybe the federal government comes up with funding.”

Ortt said under the International Joint Commission’s own regulatory plan for Lake Ontario, Plan 2014, it admitted there would be damages and financial impacts to New York State communities and has a responsibility to help foot the bill.