Western New York

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.

Schumer Says Lawmakers Working To Keep CBP Officers At Northern Border

From the Morning Memo:

The federal government continues to shuffle Customs and Border Patrol officers from the Northern to Southern border.

Lawmakers say its creating issues in places like Buffalo, where there is now a shortage creating longer wait times at places like the Peace Bridge. Canadians and Americans cross back and forth daily to do business, shop and travel.

“It hurts commerce,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said. “It hurts many things. Even in the fall it hurts the Bills games because people on the other side don’t come.”

Schumer said Congress is working on legislation that will be part of the upcoming appropriations bill to solve the issues. He said part of that will be hiring more officers, but he also wants language restricting the administration from moving people from the Canadian border.

“We’ve already gotten a requirement in the previous bill that they have to tell us how many, when and where, which is an impediment to them but in the new appropriations bill, we’re going to say they can’t do it,” he said. You’ve got to put more people on, not rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Schumer said the shortage can be worse in the summer months, but there are other peak times during the year when it also becomes an impediment, so funding for more staff is important.

Higgins Vows To Fight For Infrastructure Funding For Sewers, Wastewater Plants

From the Morning Memo:

The city of Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant is getting some much needed federal aid to upgrade its facility.

However, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-NY-26, said the funding is just a tiny fraction of what the federal government should be spending on infrastructure across the state and the country. The money is coming from the FEMA Hazardous Mitigation Grant program, which provides for communities to eliminate long-term risks from future disasters.

In 2013, a rainstorm which brought 3-1/2 inches of water to Niagara Falls in just a few hours, ended up causing more than $10 million in damages and resulted in flooding at 1,100 properties. The upgrades made with the FEMA aid are aimed at avoiding damage from a similar weather event in the future.

Higgins said it is estimated that every dollar spent through the program will save $4 in future expenses. For Niagara Falls, it’s a start as the water board has identified a need for $27 million in upgrades.

“They are not alone. There is an immediate need across this community and throughout our country for infrastructure improvements including roads and bridges, as well as the infrastructure you don’t see, water and sewer infrastructure,” Higgins said.

The congressman said the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated $271 billion in current and future wastewater and sewer infrastructure needs throughout the country and $36.2 billion in New York alone. He said one in every four facilities in the state are operating beyond their 30 year useful life expectancy and 30 percent of New York’s sewer system is operating beyond its 60 year useful lifespan.

Higgins said he will continue to “fight for a major federal infrastructure bill that addresses the needs” of communities like Niagara Falls in a comprehensive way.

Invest Buffalo Niagara Will Roll Out ‘Attraction Strategy’ Soon

From the Morning Memo:

The Seneca One Tower, formerly known as the HSBC Tower, has long been a symbol of what’s wrong with Buffalo.

The city’s tallest building has been lacking tenants for years now and most recently, for all intents and purposes was vacant. Now city and economic development officials are holding it up as a positive symbol with the announcement M&T Bank is moving at least 1000 jobs into it and opening a new technology hub.

Where businesses like M&T, which headquarters in Buffalo already, might have looked to take those jobs out of town in the past, now Invest Buffalo Niagara President Tom Kucharski said companies want to come in.

“This has happened kind of quickly,” he said. “It’s been a long time in the works but it says to site selectors and corporate real estate guys and companies that that place is changing.”‘

Kucharski said there are a lot of attractive things about Buffalo, like the labor market and resources. They are relatively inexpensive compared to larger cities.

But Invest Buffalo Niagara said the much publicized renaissance hasn’t been fully realized yet.

“Now’s our time where we’ve got to bring this together and really prioritize it and look at things differently and look at best practices,” Kucharski said.

He said IBN will soon be rolling out its talent attraction strategy. It will include ways to take advantage of things like Buffalo’s educational institutions and other amenities.

“We’ve looked at place that have traditionally had a hard time recruiting folks but are now being successful and you can imagine where those, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis and a number of places that are now seeing an influx of new folks, well they’ve done some specific things,” Kucharski said.

Peoples-Stokes Blames Long Island Lawmakers ‘Particularly’ For Failure To Legalize

This year’s legislative session has been touted as one of the state’s most progressive in terms of policy.

Perhaps the one stain for Democratic lawmakers focusing on a new agenda, was the failure to legalize recreational marijuana. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes has been pushing an “adult-use” bill for years now and was disappointed a Legislature controlled entirely by her party, couldn’t get it done.

“In a lot of ways, New York is not is progressive as it thinks. It’s only as progressive as the people who it’s willing to elect to speak for it,” Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said. “And right now there are a number of people who are elected, particularly on Long Island, who are not progressive. I shouldn’t say they are not progressive but they are not progressive on this topic.”

Some parents, law enforcement and health officials raised concerns throughout the process, but Peoples-Stokes placed the blame mainly on lawmakers who she said needed to get better educated. She pointed out polling continually showed the majority of New Yorkers supported legalization

“I think it’s people’s personal opinions. They were not speaking for the constituents that they represent. They were speaking for themselves and how they feel about a drug that’s been, I will say not only criminalized but almost villainized for the last 30 years and there’s lack of understanding. Hopefully their voters will speak to them,” she said.

However, Peoples-Stokes did not want to classify the decriminalization bill the Legislature did pass as a compromise. Rather, she felt it was a good first step.

She said the component of the legislation to expunge many marijuana arrests records was a major component of her legalization bill.

“They’re not going to legalize a product and put it into a market when there are people who still had records. So this is an important piece of that,” she said.

The majority leader would not venture a guess as to when New York will legalize recreational marijuana but believes it will happen or New York will “be standing alone as the lone state” that doesn’t allow it.

Buffalo Teachers Union Says Kennedy Will Have To Answer For Supporting Election Day Change

Despite opposition from the Buffalo Teachers Federation to a bill moving the district’s school board election to November, it passed in both houses of the state Legislature.

Now the union says the legislation’s sponsors will have to answer for their support next election.

“They only thing I can say is that all of our candidates are interviewed by a panel of teachers,” BTF President Phil Rumore said. “Then it goes to our political action committee, to our executive committee and to our council of delegates and from what I’m hearing right now, is that many teachers are really angry.”

Most of that anger seems to currently be reserved for state Senator Tim Kennedy who Rumore said pushed for the bills passage this year. He also said it would be difficult for the Assembly sponsor, Crystal Peoples Stokes to get the union’s endorsement, even though both lawmakers have had it in the past.

Kennedy’s office had no comment on the union’s criticism Friday.

“It’s something that he’s going to have to answer to when the election comes up,” Rumore said.

He would not rule out the possibility BTF could endorse or even draft another candidate to challenge Kennedy in a primary.