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by Jay Gallagher

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Paterson passes on rapping Parker

Gov. David Paterson today passed up a chance during an interview on a radio show to criticize Brooklyn Sen. Kevin Parker for calling some of his colleagues in the Senate “White supremacists.’’

Susan Arbetter, host of the “Capitol Pressroom’’ show. pointed out to the governor that he had served for 20 years in the Senate with some of those Parker criticized, including Sen. John DeFrancisco, Dale Volker of suburban Buffalo and Thomas Libous of the Southern Tier.

When she asked if he had considered any of the whites to be racists, he drew his answer carefully.

“Not against any of those three individuals,’’ he said.

He said Parker just may be frustrated that minority-owned businesses got only two-thirds of one percent of the contract work from state agencies, even though they accounted for 9 percent of the firms cleared for state work.

He also wouldn’t get into the middle of whether Parker, who has a history of blowing up at people and just a year ago called the governor a “coke-snorting, staff-banging governor,’’ should be censured by the Senate.

“I’ll leave it to the Senate to decide that,’’ he said.

He also said he was glad that Mark O’Luck, the man appointed to the Power Authority whose nomination sparked an exchange between Parker and DeFrancisco, was confirmed by the Senate.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From bad to worse in Albany

The New York State Senate has not yet quite become the Ukraine Legislature, where fistfights broke out this week over whether to allow the Russian Navy access to Black Sea ports and members carry umbrellas to protect themselves from raw eggs being thrown at them. But it’s getting there.

While no blows have been exchanged yet, words like “white supremacist,’’ “nuts,’’ and “political assassination’’ have been thrown around as the indictments keep flying and the lack of progress on a new state budget continued.


- Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, already facing a criminal complaint for assaulting a newspaper photographer, went after Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, on a New York City radio station today.

“There’s only one kind of racism that’s functional in the world and that’s white supremacy. And that’s what John DeFrancisco, and a lot of the Republicans are, and frankly, quiet as it’s kept, some of the Democrats,” Parker said. In a committee meeting yesterday, DeFrancisco had been asking some questions about the qualifications of an African-American to serve on the state Power Authority.

Republicans were not amused.

“I am calling on Sen (Democratic conference leader John) Sampson and every member of his conference to repudiate Sen. Parker’s comments,’’ said GOP leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County. “Sen. Sampson should immediately discipline or formally censure Senator Parker or our conference will be forced to pursue our own action.’’

Sampson tried to find a middle ground.

“Enough with the finger-pointing, name-calling and heated rhetoric,’’ he said. “New Yorkers want results. I need members in both parties to step back and focus on what’s important: balancing the budget, creating jobs and providing property-tax relief.”

-- The “political-assassination’’ comment came from Sen. Pedro Espada, D-Bronx, who faces two lawsuits from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo - the latest for allegedly exploiting janitorial workers at the family's health clinic business by classifying them as "trainees," so they could be paid a small fraction of what state law would otherwise require.

“I repeat, this is a political assassination or an attempt at a political assassination delivered in installments and deliberately so designed to keep you from asking him the tough questions about when he announces (his candidacy for govenor) and what his view and vision, leadership would mean to the budget process, again to the hard questions that face all New Yorkers,” Espada said of Cuomo, who had no immediate comment.

-- The “nuts’’ remark came from Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest state-worker union. Paterson had asked the union to agree to a day-a-week furlough to help the state close a $9.2 billion budget gap. He has also asked them previously to forego a scheduled 4 percent raise and accept a delay in a paycheck.

Donohue’s remark called to mind the answer of Gen Anthony McAuliffe in 1944 when Germans who surrounded the American troops at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II to surrender. The Americans ultimately prevailed.

“Now, this was a group that was really sacrificing during World War II when they were asked to surrender by the Germans,” Paterson said today. “They were about to commit the ultimate sacrifice and [Donohue] chooses the same words in what was a historic moment in American history," the governor said.
“But this group not only doesn’t want to do anything, but they want to compare themselves as if they are making some historic sacrifice as if they are on the battlefield,” Paterson said.

Oh yes, and the Legislature failed today to heed Paterson’s request for a vote on the budget, instead heading home for the weekend. When they return for the next scheduled session on May 3, the budget will be more than a month late.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Setback for campaign-finance reform

Campaign-finance reform, a key priority of the league, suffered a rough day today in the Senate Elections Committee, with many important bills stalled, possibly for the rest of the year.

Also today, Gov. Paterson said he wants to furlough state workers one day a week until there is a new budget and also intends to ask lawmakers to stay at the Capitol for five days a week, rather than three, until a new spending plan is in place.

Measures that would have strengthened campaign-finance enforcement cut campaign-contribution limits, allowed public financing of campaigns, prohibit contributions by businesses that have been awarded state contracts and required the identification of “bundlers’’ who aggregate small contributions into large ones all failed to pass the Senate Elections Committee

Measures that did pass include making it easier for members of the military to vote, prohibiting candidates from authorizing more than one political election and requiring the identification of the sponsor of political ads.

“Clearly the important bills didn’t pass,’’ said League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti.

Committee chairman Sen. Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, said some of the measures “needed more public input.’’ But Bartoletti said league representatives have testified on them several times around the state.

Another bill limiting the personal uses of campaign funds passed, but Brian Foley, D-Suffolk County, who faces a tough reelection race this year, just voted present, meaning other “marginal’’ Democrats also may not support it, Bartoletti said.

Paterson asked for a up-or-down vote tomorrow on the furlough plan. There was no immediate comment from legislative leaders, but they're expected to resist the idea.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another group seeking reform

The stage is getting crowded with good-government groups, which may bode well for their agenda this year.

Just two days after former New York City Mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani and former Gov. Mario Cuomo announced the formation of a political-action committee called New York Uprising to try to get candidates and elected officials to support non-partisan reapportionment, 26 good-government groups (including the League) today
Announced another reform coalition.

This one, called Reinvent Albany, plans to hold a session for the public in Albany on May 5 that will be shown on the Internet as well. (League members should check with their local leagues about free bus transportation to the event.)

“Albany has serious ethical problems,’’ League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti said. “The more people involved in reforming the problems in Albany, the better.’’

“New Yorkers are fed up,’’ the groups said in a letter to Gov. David Paterson. “Scandals have driven from office Gov. Spitzer, Comptroller Hevesi, Senate Majority Leader Bruno and a growing number of state legislators. Some elected officials are currently under investigation. Many of these abuses of power are rooted in the absence of effective and independent ethics and fiscal watchdogs, tough ethics laws and transparency in government.’’

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, is the only elected official so far to agree to attend. Word is still being awaited from Paterson, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and the other legislative leaders.

But Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group said he thinks most will show up.

“The place (the Capitol) is a mess and we didn’t do anything,’’ Horner said, reflecting the positions of top elected officials running for office this year. “That to me is a losing argument.’’

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cuomo: Bronx senator ripped off taxpayers

How do you know it's Earth Day in Albany? When more dirt keeps getting shoveled on politicians.

The target this time: State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, who was accused today of taking $14 million from his health-care clinic for his personal use, including $80,000 in meals and trips to Puerto Rico, Miami and Las Vegas.
The lawsuit was filed today by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo against Espada, who is president and CEO of Soundview Health Clinic in the Bronx, a largely taxpayer-financed facility.
Cuomo charges that Espada, D-Bronx, who switched parties last summer to give Republicans control of the Senate before switching back, of using the facility to secure a $9 million severance package for himself while running up $450,000 in credit card bills and $100,000 in campaign expenses.
"Taxpayer money was given to this not-for-profit to provide health-care services to underprivileged patients, but our investigation has found the funds flowed into the pockets of Sen. Espada and his supporters," said Cuomo, a likely candidate for governor this year. "Siphoning money from a charity would be egregious under any circumstances, but the fact that this was orchestrated by the State Senate Majority Leader makes it especially reprehensible.''
Espada refused to answer questions about the probe today, beyond calling it a “witch hunt’’ and saying Cuomo is retaliating against him for his role in last June’s coup that briefly gave control of the Senate to Republicans.
Cuomo seeks removal of Espada as president and CEO of the institution as well as the ouster of other employees and board members, several of whom are related to the senator, who approved the deals.
Among the findings of the probe, according to Cuomo:
-- Soundview gave Espada a severance package worth an estimated $9 million. The provision unconditionally guarantees Espada the payment of one year's gross pay for every year of service. If the clause were triggered, Soundview would be forced into bankruptcy.
-- Soundview paid about $80,000 in restaurant bills for 650
separate meals for Espada or his supporters. This includes more than 200
meals totaling more than $20,000 from two sushi restaurants.
-- Soundview paid for trips for Espada, his wife and his family to
such places as Las Vegas, Miami, and Puerto Rico as purported business
-- Soundview has provided Espada with what is essentially an unlimited
line of credit on a corporate American Express card. From 2006 through
mid-2009, Espada charged more than $450,000 in items he later identified
as personal.
-- Soundview gives Espada 14 weeks of annual leave on the first of
each year and allowed him to convert it to its cash equivalent to pay personal expenses. In this way, Soundview extended Espada more than $75,000 in credit, a violation of the New York State Not-For-Profit Law.
-- Espada created a company that offered janitorial services, put his
son, Pedro Gautier Espada, in charge of it, and then Gautier rigged the
bids to make sure it won the Soundview contract, which is worth almost $400,000 a year. In 2008, Pedro Gautier earned more than $150,000 from the for-profit company and from Soundview.
-- More than 150,000 pieces of Espada's campaign literature at a cost of $100,000 were paid for by or funneled through Soundview.
-- Soundview routinely pays for political campaign expenses put on Espada's American Express card.
-- Soundview provides Espada, who lives in Mamaroneck, Westchester County, with a housing allowance of about $2500 a month to pay for a Bronx co-op which Espada claimed as his legal residence for purposes of his 2008 Senatorial campaign.

Cuomo said the probe "is ongoing and developing.'' One Cuomo aide said he expected criminal charges will be forthcoming.

Monday, April 19, 2010

New reform group debuts

Some political heavyweights signed on today to the movement to clean up Albany.

Chaired by former Mayor Ed Koch and including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the group, known as New York Uprising, wants lawmakers and other candidates for office to pledge to support non-partisan reapportionment - a goal of the League for years that has never made it through the Legislature.

The group, which also includes the Citizens Union, wants candidates to support the creation of “an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission to draft advisory maps for the Legislature to review and approve.’’

The group also wants the candidates to pledge to veto any plan that does not create “contiguous, competitive, compact legislative districts.’’

The practice in Albany has for decades been for Republicans to draw lines for the Senate, which it controlled from 1965 until last year, and the Democrats for the Assembly, where they have had the majority since 1975. The two houses would compromise on U.S. House of Representatives districts. Redistricting is mandated by the federal government for the elections following each census.

The custom had has raised the stakes in this year’s state Senate races, where Democrats hope to cling to their thin 32-30 majority or expand it so they can draw lines starting in the 2012 elections that would assure their control for decades. Common wisdom is non-partisan reapportionment would favor the Democrats, since there are three enrolled Democrats in the state for every two Republicans.

Republicans, whose skill at drawing the reapportionment maps is widely credited with allowing them to control the Senate for decades even as their enrollment numbers slipped, are desperate to get back the majority to keep a hand on the knife that carves up districts.

Governors, who have to sign the bill, have never seriously challenged the system, usually setting for some quid pro quo with lawmakers in exchange for their signatures. The idea of New York Uprising, as well as the position of the League and other reform groups, is to get candidates on the record ahead of time.

Already signed up GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Rick Lazio, Carl Paladino and Steve Levy. Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, now far ahead in the polls but not yet an official candidate, signed a letter supporting the concept without specifically endorsing the Uprising position.

League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti welcomed the new group to the fray.

The League “welcomes New York Uprising to the reform movement,’’ she said. “Non partisan, independent redistricting has long been a League priority. We believe elections should be about an exchange of ideas not about the drawing of lines that benefit political parties and incumbents."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Voting bill passes Senate

The Senate today gave final legislative passage to a bill that will make it easier for citizens to vote, and has been a priority of the League for almost two decades.

The lawmakers voted 35-27 to allow people to vote by absentee ballot without presenting documentation why they couldn’t, or chose not to, show up at the polls.

“People shouldn’t have to climb through hoops to exercise this fundamental right,’’ said League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti, who said the League has been pushing for the change since 1993.

The chances for the measure to become law improved last year when Democrats seized control of the Senate for the first time since 1965. The politics of the situation are marginal voters - including those who may want to use absentee ballots - are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. So it has passed routinely in the Democrat-controlled Assembly for years but never came before the full Senate until today. ( A coup last year that briefly returned control of the Senate to the Republicans disrupted the bill’s chances.)

Republicans argued today that voting is a privilege rather than a right and that the bar should not be further lowered to casting a ballot.

But three Republicans - Betty Little of Warren County, Charles Fuschillo of Nassau and Thomas Morahan of Rockland - joined all 32 Democrats in voting yes today.

As part of a package to make voting more accessible, the Senate also gave final approval to measures that allow absentee ballots to be faxed and that will include voter-registration forms on absentee ballots.

Gov. Paterson is expected to sign all three shortly.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Like robbery without a gun"

Ever get tired of working Fridays? Or wondered why state government is so expensive?

Me too.

A couple of state watchdogs provided some potential answers today as to what happens when these two human traits collide.

Comptroller tom DiNapoli and Inspector General Joseph Fisch charged in a report that a former state official Howard Dean blew off working Fridays - each and every one - for 17 years, but got paid as if he were working, costing taxpayers almost $230,000.

Moreover, he also received travel reimbursements for which he was not entitled, improperly used state for improper use of vehicles, gas and tolls, faked claims for hotels and meals and otherwise ripped off taxpayers to the tune of a total of just under $500,000.

“The findings of this audit are breathtaking,’’ DiNapoli said. Fisch called it “an outrageous scam’’ and “like a robbery without a gun.’’

Dean was director of the Department of Corrections’ Food Production Center in Rome, Oneida County from 1992 until he retired in 2008 at a salary of $112,000 a year. He headed up the facility, which is staffed by 140 inmates and 80 employees and provides meals to the entire 60,000-bed prison system.

The state is trying to get the money back and has referred the case to the Oneida County district attorney, who could press criminal charges.

Current prisons commissioner Brian Fischer pointed out that the entire 17 years of Dean ripping the state off occurred under the reign of his predecessor, Thomas Coughlin. He said soon after he was appointed commissioner in 2007, his staff got a tip about the situation and that he had a deputy commissioner, Gayle Paponik, started to review it. Dean’s travel status was discontinued that November.

“Since I became commissioner in 2007, I have repeatedly reminded all managerial staff…that they will be held accountable for all of their actions and that they must adhere to the highest ethical standards,’’ Fischer said in response to the audit.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is this the time for reforms?

No doubt reporters were a little belligerent today when confronted with another package of budget-reform ideas put forward by Senate Democrats.

Their collective response was whoa! First you ignore reforms passed just three years ago, then you can’t reach a deal on a new budget, so you want to start talking again about making changes in the process?

The answer, when the verbal political underbrush was cut away, was, yup.

The budget was supposed to be passed by April 1, but neither the Assembly nor the Senate can come up with enough cuts to close a potential deficit of more than $9 billion.

Democratic conference leader John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, said “everything is still on the table.’’

But wait, said the AP’s Michael Gormley. You just got back from a seven-day vacation. Couldn’t you rule anything out in that period of time?

“I did a lot during my vacation,’’ Sampson said. “I reached out to a lot of individuals.’’

The new Senate Democratic plan includes, among other things, shifting the start of the state fiscal year to June 1, establishing budgets for two years instead of one, setting up an independent legislative budget office (like the Congressional Budget Office in Washington) and using the accrual method of accounting, which makes it harder to jigger the books.

In 2007, lawmakers approved a set of reforms that included mandatory open committee meetings to reach some spending decisions. But they didn’t do that either this year or last year.

So, Bill Hammond of the Daily News asked, since you just blew off those laws, why should we believe that you will live by these changes, even if they’re adopted?

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, argued that you could still pass a budget without, say, having open committee meetings. But once you change the fiscal year, “you have changed the fiscal year.’’

In other words, the new changes would be harder to get around. Not exactly a great moral standard, but it had the advantage of sounding at least a little candid. That’s the way progress is measured in Albany these days.

Thursday, April 1, 2010