Waltergate

scandal

On Tuesday – on the eve of the WNED debate between incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz and his Republican challenger Ray Walter, City & State published this article:

That was it. Multiple sources were telling City & State that there was an ongoing investigation involving your typical western New York brand of petty corruption – bid rigging for road work projects. The article as it first appeared – reproduced above – didn’t go into many details, except to pre-emptively exonerate Poloncarz and his administration of any misdeeds.

The Republicans, however, pounced so quickly and so heartily, you’d almost suspect they knew it was coming.

Frantically trying to gin this up a bit more? Yep. But also giddy. They were giddy. Can you blame them? Whether you like or hate Poloncarz, his honesty as a political leader is his stock in trade. If he’s not likeable, he’s competent, and to poke holes in that perception would certainly help the Republican candidate, who is running to be County Executive of WBEN’s listenership (which is, on a good day, around 10% of all people listening to the radio at any given time). 

Literally within minutes of the City & State story being published, Ray Walter’s campaign was busy readying the hay, complete with an allusion to Watergate!

Ringing alarm bells isn’t serious leadership. It’s grasping for headlines and an effort to manufacture controversy and relevance. The meme was carefully crafted within moments of the City and State article’s appearance. Poloncarz is a crook! Poloncarz’s administration is under investigation! Why is Poloncarz covering up this investigation into his administration? Why won’t Poloncarz speak publicly about an investigation being conducted by the Attorney General’s office? Why all the secrecy? Why the cover-up? What is he hiding? 

City and State later updated its original story several times, resulting in this newer, more complete version that includes quotes from various and sundry people, including Poloncarz and a spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

Getting Schneiderman’s office to respond must have been quite the feat, you’d think at first blush. After all, it has a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. The trick here is that there is no ongoing investigation. It’s over. So, knowing what we know now, let’s examine the Republican quick-memes, and judge how well they’ve held up in under 24 hours’ worth of factual scrutiny: 

 

Poloncarz is a crook!

No, he’s not. 

 

This administration runs a clean administration,” Poloncarz said. “We became aware of certain potential improper actions leveled during the final years of the Chris Collins administration. We performed an internal investigation and we turned that information over to the state attorney general’s office for them to perform a more definitive investigation to determine whether inappropriate actions were taken in the Department of Public Works in 2010 and 2011.

 

 

Poloncarz’s administration is under investigation!

No, it’s not. 

 

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Tuesday responded to a report of an ongoing probe, saying that the only investigation into the county Department of Public Works he was aware of stems from actions during 2010 and 2011, which predate his administration.

 

 

Why is Poloncarz covering up this investigation into his administration?

He’s not. It’s not. 

 

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office has confirmed that it investigated alleged bidding irregularities at the Erie County Department of Public Works, but Schneiderman’s office also said that its probe of the county agency is now closed. 

 

 

Why won’t Poloncarz speak publicly about an investigation being conducted by the Attorney General’s office?

Easy! Because (a) the investigation didn’t involve anything that happened during Poloncarz’s administration; (b) because Poloncarz is not the Attorney General and has no business commenting on or publicizing an ongoing investigation being conducted by a state agency; and (c) it’s not being conducted because it’s closed. 

 

Why all the secrecy?

 

Poloncarz, reached by phone, said his office began its investigation into bid processing shortly after he took office in 2012 and turned over the results of the probe to Schneiderman’s office in January 2013.

 

 

Why the cover-up?

 

On Tuesday afternoon after this story was published, the attorney general’s office said it had investigated the matter but had closed the case.

 

“In January 2013, County Executive Mark Poloncarz requested that our office look into alleged past issues related to competitive bidding for projects at the Erie County Department of Public Works,” the Schneiderman spokesman said in an email. “After a thorough review, and with the full support and cooperation of County Executive Poloncarz, our office closed the case with no further action.”

 

 

What is he hiding? 

 

Poloncarz, reached by phone, said his office began its investigation into bid processing shortly after he took office in 2012 and turned over the results of the probe to Schneiderman’s office in January 2013…

…On Tuesday afternoon after this story was published, the attorney general’s office said it had investigated the matter but had closed the case.

“In January 2013, County Executive Mark Poloncarz requested that our office look into alleged past issues related to competitive bidding for projects at the Erie County Department of Public Works,” the Schneiderman spokesman said in an email. “After a thorough review, and with the full support and cooperation of County Executive Poloncarz, our office closed the case with no further action.”

 

What did Poloncarz know and when did he know it? He knew that a Collins appointee had acted improperly when it came to roadwork contracts, and he knew in 2012. He then contacted the proper authorities – the Attorney General’s office. Not just because it was a matter for law enforcement, but because it would be unseemly for Collins’ successor and rival to investigate these specific allegations. 

Every single allegation – every attempted smear – turned out to have been completely false. But not only was it all false, but the overheated, reflexive over-reaction from Walter and his surrogates seems nothing less than childish now. In less than 24 hours it went from them screaming bloody murder to Bob McCarthy explaining that it was a Democratic-led probe into misdeeds under the previous Republican administration, with which Walter was closely aligned

 

The attorney general’s statement contradicted the Walter claim that a state investigation was currently in progress, which he based on a Tuesday report in City and State magazine.

“We know an investigation is going on; it’s been reported,” Walter claimed at a hastily called news conference Tuesday afternoon in Erie County Republican Headquarters.

When asked if he knew for sure an investigation was ongoing, he replied: “I know what I read in the article.”

Walter also suggested Schneiderman was working with Poloncarz to cover up a probe he said had been kept “secret.”“Is he protecting a political ally?” Walter said. “He very well may be.”

 

and 

 

Poloncarz said he didn’t further pursue the investigation himself, or publicize it, because he didn’t want to influence or compromise the Attorney General’s investigation, he said, and he didn’t want it to appear as if he was “kicking dirt” on defeated Republican incumbent Chris Collins.

Poloncarz noted that he changed the top leadership of the Department of Public Works after he took over, though the change was not precipitated by the probe.

To his knowledge, he said, no one in the department has been disciplined or fired for improprieties related to the Eden Evans Center Road project because the Attorney General’s Office has issued no finding of criminal conduct, and the county did not have definitive proof of wrongdoing.

 

It is a palpable testament to the competence and professionalism of the current administration that the best Walter can do is jump the gun and falsely accuse Poloncarz of a Watergate scandal before the facts are in; to reflexively try and make up a controversy where none exists.

 

It’s not so much Watergate as it is Waltergate – a scandal only in his mind. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Republicans Push-Poll

propaganda

Households throughout western New York have received calls from area code 315 purporting to be an opinion poll from an organization that has “Liberty” in its name. The first question had to do with whom you would vote for if the Presidential election was held today: Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton?

An easy way to identify your voter, I suppose, and the choice of Rubio over, say, Trump, is notable.

A push poll is defined as “is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll.” In other words, it’s a campaign advertisement masquerading as an opinion poll.

It would appear that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Opinion polling is a valuable tool for campaigns, politicians, and the general electorate. It’s a tough and competitive business that oftentimes comes under exquisite scrutiny and partisan condemnation. Push-polling, on the other hand, is little more than propaganda; rumor-mongering.

The push-poll that countless Erie County voters have received in recent weeks is Republican propaganda generally, and more specifically a negative campaign tactic against incumbent Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and in support of his challenger, Republican Assemblyman Ray Walter. Walter denied to me that his campaign had anything to do with it, and Nick Langworthy says his committee knows nothing about it. Some people on Twitter speculate that this might be the work of the Casale Group, a pro-Republican campaign communications firm, which is located in the 315 area code. DIsclosure reports reveal that Walter hasn’t paid Casale yet this cycle, but he’s spent $60,000 on their services in his 2011 Assembly race. but there’s no confirmation yet that it did the call. If Walter and Langworthy are telling the truth, the culprit may be some right-wing political committee; perhaps the state Republican committee.

How do we tell a push poll from a legitimate opinion poll?

For starters, this one was a dead giveaway because it refered to Poloncarz as the “Democrat Party” candidate, rather than “Democratic Party”. After asking me about my Rubio/Clinton preference, it went on to set up a question about Walter’s city vs. suburbs tax proposal by lavishing praise and slathering it with a schmear of undeserved equity before asking me if I agreed.

Here’s how it sounded, using a hypothetical example: “Ray Walter believes that kale is a disgusting, malodorous plant that tastes like poison, causes cancer, and should be eaten by no one. Do you support or oppose the eating of cancer kale? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.”

Another question asked whether I supported a spending cap for Erie County. Another accused Poloncarz of personally transporting hundreds of Syrian refugees to basically live next door to you, go directly on welfare, and pose a “security threat” by throwing Sharia Law firecrackers at your head or something. It asked if the county does a good job maintaining roads, and whether I support towns getting more sales tax revenue, thus lowering my town taxes. It asked me my opinion of common core and testing of students.

The people or committee(s) behind this push-poll was not disclosed at the end; state law doesn’t require it.

In 2000, John McCain was the victim of vicious push-polls that George W. Bush and Karl Rove set up in South Carolina after McCain shellacked Bush in New Hampshire.

The rumors [about McCain] were spread through push polls—“really not polls” at all, according to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion and president of the National Council on Public Polls, but “more of a telemarketing device, where you’re actually calling people in the guise of a poll and you’re not gathering information as much as you’re disseminating it.” A push poll is further defined as solely intended to spread false, damning information; a pollster who asks your opinion about something negative but true in a candidate’s record is not push-polling. Tige Watts, a Columbia consultant and pollster who considers push polls unfair and doesn’t do them, said he understood some of the calls went like this: “They’d ask who you’re voting for. If you said Bush, they’d say, ‘That’s great. Be sure to vote.’ ” You’d hang up thinking it was just a normal get-out-the-vote (G.O.T.V.) call. “But if you said McCain, they’d ask a litany of questions: ‘Would you vote for McCain if you knew … ?’ Basically, they just threw the book at him.” Watts could tell when the calls peaked—about a week before the vote—“because everybody started talking about it. It was like a waterfall.”

Push-polling is cheap and easy to get away with. Watts estimated it runs “about a 10th of the price of a truly scientific” poll—as little as 25 to 30 cents a call—since what the voter says isn’t recorded or tabulated. “I doubt they even train the interviewers,” added Warren Mitofsky of the highly respected Mitofsky International polling firm. “They give them a script and tell them to read it.” Some states have laws regulating push-polling, but to little effect, and the American Association for Public Opinion Research investigates public complaints but can rarely trace who’s behind it. People who get push-polled seldom ask who’s calling or get a call-back number, and, Mitofsky says, “none of the campaigns ever admit” to push-polling.

All of this highlights one of the many problems with New York State election law – that campaign propaganda can be released anonymously. That’s a shame, because people have a right to know who’s trolling them. The fact that I don’t know who was behind that push-poll is a problem, in and of itself.

If we want transparency in campaigns and how they’re financed, we need to not only strictly enforce the laws we already have on the books, but also begin treating the whole issue as a consumer protection issue. If I have a right to know whether something posing as health food is actually packed with high fructose corn syrup, or whether a product actually accomplished the task it’s advertised for, then I deserve to know who is funding campaign propaganda, how that organization got its funding, and from whom and in what amount. Anything less than that serves to protect malfeasors and harm the electorate.

One way to combat poor name recognition and a popular incumbent opponent is to lay the propaganda on thick. Question now is: who’s behind it?

As it turns out, it appears from my social media timelines that people know when they’re being push-polled, and they don’t like it. I sure hope this year’s Erie County Executive campaign can be run on issues rather than negativity and subterfuge.

Groanfest ’15

PoloncarzWalter

We thought that Ray Walter taking on Mark Poloncarz would be fun, right? They’re each of them snarky, smart, partisan, and combative. But it’s already become supremely annoying.

Nothing substantive has been debated or discussed yet, and I doubt anything ever will be. Walter can hit Poloncarz on issues at DSS, and Poloncarz can hit Walter for a lack of accomplishments as a minority member of the legislatures he’s been elected to, and they’ll each try to string that out as much as possible. In the end, though, Poloncarz’s tenure has been deliberative, fiscally responsible, intelligent, inclusive, and – above all – looking to the future rather than skulking about the past.

Not to say Ray Walter would make a bad County Executive – just that Poloncarz hasn’t committed any act or omission that would adversely affect his overwhelming re-election.

What’s annoying about it is this: rapid campaign response is important; I get it. You can’t simply let some lie or nonsense stand, hoping it will just go away.

But did we really need a biting rapid response to each candidate’s campaign kickoff? In terms of setting the tone, it doesn’t bode well.

With Poloncarz’s kickoff, Walter pounced. The County has experienced some very good years lately, so Walter’s third sentence, “Myself, who understands the reality and challenges facing Erie County, its taxpayers and its businesses; and the incumbent who ignores reality and twists numbers for political gain“, is as eye-rollingly overaggressive as it is awkwardly worded. Furthermore, Walter is making an issue of horrible road conditions literally a month after one of the coldest and snowiest winters in WNY history. He is right that the DPW was unable to click its collective heels to fix all the roads instantly.

Likewise, when Walter held his campaign kickoff, during which he had to assail Poloncarz because Walter has little name recognition outside of Amherst, and because Poloncarz is running on a strong record, the Poloncarz camp sent this:

Poloncarz Campaign Counters Republican Claims

ERIE COUNTY, NY – Today, as a Republican announced his candidacy for Erie County Executive, many exaggerations and untruths were stated in an attempt to misrepresent and distort Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s proven record of job growth, fiscal discipline and strong leadership for the people of Erie County.

Not as aggressive as Walter’s, but also completely unnecessary.

Mark Poloncarz is proud to run on his record of accomplishments from the past four years, and is looking forward to a fact-based, spirited campaign that leaves aside petty political attacks while focusing on the issues that matter most to the people of Erie County.Poloncarz will detail his accomplishments, the issues that matter to the people of Erie County and his goals for the future when he announces his candidacy for reelection on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Then ignore the taunting. We all want a spirited, fact-based campaign, so if your opponent is making stuff up, deal with it with rebuttal, not simply by making the accusation.

This campaign has only just begun, and it’s already cringeworthy. Sometimes I wish political campaigns would tell it like it is, and that every ad was replete with profanity. At least then, this sort of hypersensitive overreaction would be fun.

We’re about 3 days in, and I’m already getting the sense that if one said the sky was blue, the other would blast the media with a press release heavy on insults, light on facts, insisting that the sky was red and anyone suggesting any differently was just repeating right-wing Koch Brothers / left-wing Soros talking points.

Make it stop.

 

Winter Storm “Re-election”

walter

A few weeks ago, the Poloncarz camp did some internal polling regarding its chances (they were good) against a potential challenge from Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw or County Clerk Chris Jacobs. The latter’s numbers were better than the former’s, but Poloncarz still held a commanding lead. We can presume, based on Mychajliw’s and Jacobs’ rapid-fire exits from the County Executive’s race, that the Republicans conducted similar polling, and that its results were not dissimilar from Poloncarz’s own.

In their stead, it appears that Assemblyman Ray Walter is going to challenge Poloncarz. Jacobs sort of let the cat out of the bag yesterday by pledging his support for Walter, who hasn’t announced yet. Walter released a statement yesterday, indicating that he’s still thinking about it, but that he thinks it’s a winnable race.

(By way of full disclosure, I consider both Walter and Poloncarz to be friends, and I have donated money to both. The firm where I work defends Erie County in lawsuits, and Poloncarz recently appointed me – with unanimous legislative approval – to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library board of trustees.)

I don’t think Ray has much of a shot, and he’s taking one for the team. Both Jacobs and Mychajliw enjoy more crossover appeal, yet neither of them are ready to mount a countywide challenge to Poloncarz. When he was in the legislature, Walter played the role that Joe Lorigo has now – that of snarky right-wing eye-roller. Ray’s nickname among Democratic legislators was “Rush”, as in Limbaugh. He’s more of an outspoken doctrinaire conservative Republican than Mychajliw or Jacobs, each of whom has carefully crafted an image and perception of being above partisanship, regardless of the reality.

For sure, Ray is well-known and liked in his Amherst home-base, but outside of there, he doesn’t come close to the name recognition that Mychajliw or Jacobs enjoy, nor has he really taken on an issue in the Assembly in such a way that gets him a lot of attention outside his district. Think DiPietro and guns. In recent weeks, Walter has been heard on WBEN and seen on his Facebook page taking on Governor Cuomo’s dubious education reforms, but the wheels are still spinning, and there’s not a lot of traction yet.

When Walter last ran he was challenged by Steve Meyer, a young newcomer Democrat who evidently gave him enough of a scare that Mike Caputo excoriated Meyer as a kid who should get a job. Another website, which has a habit of being wrong, wrote that Meyer had a real shot and that the race was a toss-up. In the end, however, Walter’s win was lopsided, as the incumbent received 20,852 votes to Meyer’s 14,641 – about a 60/40 split. Still, Walter’s not a charismatic cross-over candidate with crazy name recognition or deep pockets, and Poloncarz’s tenure has been, if not warm and fuzzy, then careful, responsible, and competent.

With the understanding, then, that Ray is a substitute for Chris and Stef – choice 3 of 3 – bullet-taking such as this can, for instance, earn people cush promotions like judgeships. I know that Ray has to say it’s a winnable race, but that’s unlikely. It’s a steep climb, and Ray has less than $5,000 in his campaign account against Poloncarz’s $422,000. Ray’s climb is also steep because he can’t – at this time – attract Democrats like Stef or Chris. We can’t really assess what Walter might do substantively as County Executive as compared with Poloncarz, mostly because the incumbent’s tenure has been effective and people are generally satisfied with the results he gets.

On Twitter last night, people were joking:

That seems about right.

But here’s a thought: where’s Ed Rath? He’s got money, and his name is already hanging out on the county shingle.

Things to Ask the New York State Thruway Authority (Update: Ray Walter Asked Some)

(Assemblyman Ray Walter posted this to Facebook on Thursday…

Transportation Budget Hearing today. Tweet or FB me your questions for DOT and Thruway and I’ll try to get them in.#Budget2014

…Here are the questions I “Facebooked”): 

1. Why do we need a Thruway Authority? In other words, why can’t the State DOT assume the duty to maintain the roads over which the Thruway has jurisdiction? 

2. Assuming there is a satisfactory answer to #1, why can’t the Thruway Authority automate toll collection? This would save money for the Authority, and lost productivity and time for motorists. 

3. How much does the Thruway Authority cost to operate every year as a separate entity, and how much of that is paid through tolls? 

4. Similar to #2, but even if not fully automated, what reason exists to employ actual human beings to act as a middleman between a ticket dispensing machine and a motorist? Is there some magical forcefield that prevents motorists from taking a ticket themselves? 

5. The toll barriers in Williamsville, Lackawanna, and at the PA border are inadequate for the amount of traffic they get during peak times in the summer. Will the TA institute a process to let motorists through toll-free during bad back-ups to alleviate traffic, and to prevent the poisoning of the air for nearby residents? 

6. The TA operates the I-190, which handles most Canadian traffic. Why are the only tourism offices located at the Angola and Clarence plazas? Why is there no rest area / tourism office serving Canadians arriving on the Q-L, Rainbow, and Peace Bridges to spend money in WNY? 

7. Also related to #2, EZ-Pass has the capability to collect tolls while traffic moves at highway speeds. Why is there no “EZ-Pass only” lane that lets vehicles go by at highway speeds at the major barriers in WNY? 

8. It is my understanding that the tolls at Williamsville cannot be expanded due to lack of space. There has been a big push by certain towns (especially Vill of W’Ville) to move the barrier (if one needs to exist) back to somewhere between Clarence and the Pembroke exit. Why hasn’t this happened? What is the hold-up? 

9. EZ-Pass transponders are operating throughout Manhattan. Why?

10. Is there any other system that might be implemented for the collection of tolls on the NYS Thruway that the TA has looked into? For instance, payment by mobile phone, payment of an annual, daily, or weekly pass to use the road, etc? 

11. Will the TA raise the speed limit on the Thruway in rural areas between Albany – PA Line to 75 MPH? 

12. The numbering scheme for exits on the Thruway is counterintuitive – many exits have been added and instead of re-numbering the system to accommodate them, the TA has just slapped an “A” at the end of the exit. Other states have implemented a system whereby the exit numbers correspond with the mile markers. When I wrote to the TA 10 yrs ago about this, they claimed that they couldn’t make this change because the road actually follows the I-87 and then the I-90, but this makes no sense. After all, the exit numbering scheme sequential along these two roadways, and the mile markers begin at 0 at the Deegan/Yonkers line and ascend along the I-87, continuing to the I-90. The Transit Road exit in Depew should be 415. 

That’s all I’ve got for now.

UPDATE: Assemblyman Walter got to ask some of them. Here’s what the Thruway guy said: