Schneiderman Tackles Corruption

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Earlier this week Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed a sweeping set of reforms to New York’s byzantine and minimally ethical election and campaign finance regulations. What you should pay attention to is this detail: every year, your candidates for state legislature promise to clean up that city’s political cesspool. They punctuate this all of this with caricatures of indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and indicted former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. They call Skelos a “RINO”, or they promise to free the Assembly from Silver’s corrupt fingers.

When they actually get there, however, none of this happens. A couple of exceptions include current Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, both of whom refused to back Silver as speaker. When Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed milquetoast pseudoreforms in 2014 and 2015, the few that mattered he negotiated away with the other men in the budget negotiation room. In fact, he went so far as to simply shut down the Moreland Commission he created to examine corruption and make recommendations to end it.

There exists no political will or serious push to undertake the sorts of reforms that Albany needs to become a little less like a dictatorial junta and a little more like a deliberative representative legislative entity.

When your state capital has to rely on the U.S. Attorney who handles a completely different geographical jurisdiction – the Southern District of New York – to prosecute corrupt politicians, you know your problem is more than just trivial.

Attorney General Schneiderman’s proposal, therefore, provides Albany with a way to fix itself before it’s too late. But there’s a weak link here – all of those Albany pols who promised you they’d clean up the state house if you elected them to – what, their 20th term of office – are the ones who would need to propose, debate, and pass any such legislation. It’s not a sexy law that results in any ribbon-cuttings back home, so don’t hold your breath.

Schneiderman outlined his proposal in an op-ed published on May 26th. Noting that 30 state officials and legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical breaches since 2000, he notes that the indictments of Silver and Skelos should serve as an acute wake-up call. Schneiderman notes that he and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have prosecuted 60 electeds and their “cronies” in just the past four years – an untenable and frankly outrageous figure. His proposed law, the…

End New York Corruption Now Act — dramatically lowers contribution limits, sharply restricts contributions by lobbyists, closes donation loopholes so big you can drive a Mack truck through them, and provides matching funds for small contributions to offset the power of mega-donors.

It expands the tools available to state prosecutors to investigate and prosecute public corruption.

It ends a system that allows outside employment income for legislators, who should have no “clients” other than the people of New York. In turn, they would be paid like the full-time professionals they are and get a salary increase. I have also proposed a constitutional amendment to change the period between legislative elections from two to four years, to create at least some time for members of the Assembly and Senate to focus on governing first, and politics second.

These are reforms worth considering. Why this, and why now?

“Every year, more or less, for the past five or six years there have been ethics reform packages introduced and passed in Albany,” he said. “And every year or so there’s a press conference and they say, ‘We have made fundamental reforms; we have cleaned this up.’ And then there are more scandals and there’s more outrage, and it’s clear that they didn’t work.”

“I’m done with advocating for incremental reforms — it’s time for us to be bold,” he said.

If you need any more proof, consider that the new Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan recently said that his conference wasn’t going to bother looking into ethics reforms. Shrug.

One of the Schneiderman’s proposed reforms would close what’s called the “LLC loophole”. This legal defect enables politicians to raise massive sums of campaign cash that is difficult, if not impossible, to trace. For donors, it’s an easy way to (a) donate cash without leaving easily identifiable fingerprints; and/or (b) completely bypass and ignore the mandatory maximum donation. It costs just $200 to file and create an LLC, and each LLC can donate as a separate individual. One New York City developer has used the LLC loophole to pour over $13 million into campaign coffers since 2000. Fixing this loophole is simple – in fact, Brooklyn Democrat Dan Squadron proposed a bill to do just that, but it was upstate Republicans in the Senate who effectively killed the effort, including the chair of the Corporations Committee Mike Ranzenhofer (R-East Amherst).

So much for the tired upstate memes about corrupt downstate legislators, right?

Squadron’s bill would

…treat LLCs like corporations or other joint-stock entities, which have $5,000 annual donation limits. Under a current state Board of Elections ruling, each of a developer’s LLCs can give up to $150,000 each annually, the same as a single individual.

The Assembly passed a bill similar to Squadron’s earlier this May, and you can watch Ranzenhofer’s committee stall the Senate version on YouTube.

Schneiderman’s proposal revives Squadron’s effort, and bans legislators from earning outside income, turning them into full-time professional legislators. The current salary approaches $90,000, plus per diems, and as much as we in New York hear from short-sighted tea partiers about how veteran teachers who earn similar amounts are dramatically overpaid, I’m sure we can dispense with any potential complaints about legislators’ earnings. Issues surrounding putside income helped put handcuffs on Sheldon Silver. The Attorney General’s proposed law would go further still, making it a felony to use one’s public power for personal gain. He would abolish “housekeeping accounts” that are ostensibly used for campaign overhead, but have no contribution limits and are ripe for abuse. It would also tighten rules on campaign consultants’ ability to then lobby the people they helped elect.

The glaring thing missing from Schneiderman’s proposals is something that New York needs to very carefully consider – abolition of our corrupt and needless system of “electoral fusion”. New York is one of only eight states that still allow multiple parties to cross-endorse the same candidate for office. It just shouldn’t be – whether we’re talking about the so-called “Independence” fusion Party, whose raison d’etre is patronage, and also to trick unawary voters who intended to register as what New York calls “unenrolled”; the “Conservative” fusion Party, whose platform planks are as set in stone as the party’s options for patronage and advancement, or the “Working Families” Party, which largely promotes the interests of organized labor.

While each fusion party claims that it serves some legitimate electoral purpose, the Independence fusion Party is almost laughably corrupt. It bears repeating that electoral fusion is awful. It is the root of very many evils. It allows candidates and other connected individuals to manipulate elections in order to maximize political power and monetary return through patronage for hangers-on. There are just over 13,000 Erie County voters registered in the Conservative Party – there is no rational way that party’s Erie County committee chairman Ralph Lorigo should wield the power he does. There was no way a barber from Springville – Tony Orsini – should have been a kingmaker. The statewide Independence Party was so angry about being manipulated by Democrats who were using it to trick low-information voters who thought they were voting for a small-i “independent” that they decided to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the state Republican Committee.

Electoral fusion is constantly being manipulated by bad people for bad reasons. It is used as a shield against some fantastical electoral rigor whereby a (R) will never color in the box for a (D) and vice-versa. It is used as a sword against people who don’t play ball with very petty people. Schneiderman’s proposed bill is worth advocating for and supporting. Even piecemeal reform is an improvement over our untenable status quo.

Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican in Albany – that’s not remotely what matters. The only thing that matters is money, power, and control. Who owns or owes whom is the name of the game, whether it’s big donors with multiple LLCs or some microscopically small party line that lends the words “independent” or “conservative” to a candidate’s effort.

We know what the problems are, and we even know how to fix them. It’s time that our Albany pols become a bit more self-aware and actually – for once – think of the greater good.

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The Tragic Pointlessness of Sheldon Silver’s Fall

Read this. Then ask, when do they go after the rest of them?

SHELDON SILVER, the defendant, has engaged in and continues to engage in a secret and corrupt scheme to deprive the citizens of the State of New York (the “State”) of his honest services, and to extort individuals and entities under color of official right, as an elected legislator and as Speaker of the New York State Assembly (the “Assembly”). […] These representations were and are materially false and misleading. In truth and in fact, SILVER has obtained millions of dollars in outside income as a direct result of his corrupt use of his official position to obtain attorney referral fees for himself, including from clients with substantial business before the State, and not as a result of legitimate outside income SILVER earned as a private lawyer.

There’s no doubt that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is widely reviled by people who pay even light attention to Albany politics, and likewise no doubt that Albany politicians fear or begrudgingly respect him. He rules the majority Assembly caucus with an iron fist, ruthlessly punishing dissidents and has survived a couple of pretty serious coup attempts. He has a long memory and doesn’t forget past insults or slights. He is, in short, a political survivor who wields extraordinary power within a dysfunctional, third-world style of governing that New York’s electorate has tolerated for years.

Netroots website “The Albany Project” was recently brought back from the dead, and it’s no zombie. The writers there have been relentless – just crushing the details and repercussions of the Sheldon Silver downfall. Here is the federal complaint:

US v Sheldon Silver Complaint

We can start with the obvious – the powerful Speaker of the Assembly was indicted on federal corruption charges last week, and the FBI took him into custody. There wasn’t a perp walk, but there’s a now-iconic picture of Silver – hands cuffed behind his back – seated in the back of an FBI agent’s car. He looks frail and elderly in the picture – nothing like the criminal monster, as his critics describe him. The outcry demanding his resignation – as speaker and from the Assembly – came quickly, but New York being New York, some people came to Silver’s defense. All of it is tone deaf. New York Mayor Bill deBlasio said Silver is a good man. The “Working Families” fusion Party praised Silver and reminded everyone of the presumption of innocence our system guarantees. Even Republican former Senate President Joe Bruno, who spent a decade fighting off corruption charges, came to Shelly’s defense.

After all, Silver was perceived as being a progressive check on what many on the left consider to be Governor Cuomo’s center-corporatist tendencies. Without Silver there as one of the all-powerful three men in the budget negotiations room, deBlasio and the WFP are somewhat adrift.

The charges against Silver share the same common denominator – that he misused his power, and used his official position to corrupt ends. Turn back to Joe Bruno – the problem isn’t necessarily that Bruno broke any laws, but that the things with which he got away were completely legal. But the federal prosecutors hone in on “honest services” fraud. 

SILVER agreed with others known and unknown, including a co-conspirator not named herein (“CC-1″), to use the power and influence of his official position to induce certain real estate developers with significant business before the State of New York to retain the law firm of CC-1 in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret bribes and kickbacks paid to SILVER by the law firm, which were masked as legitimate income earned by SILVER as a private lawyer.

In addition, Silver failed to report other outside income including fees from unnamed law firms and referral fees from physicians. At least one physician who had side deals with Silver received state grants arising out of the 9/11 attacks. Silver’s law firm’s dominance as a plaintiff’s asbestos/mesothelioma firm is astonishing. The feds seized about $3.8 million from Silver around the time of his arrest.

Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on public corruption was looking at outside income when it was disbanded, and Albany politicians spent $1 million quashing subpoenas seeking to uncover that income.

The arrest of Sheldon Silver, alas, is not the win New Yorkers need. Sheldon Silver isn’t the disease – he’s a symptom. The disease is a corrupt and corruptable system that puts too much power in too few hands. The disease is a state government that does not operate so much as a deliberative democratic representative body as much as a three-man junta. Everything bad about Albany flows from that fundamental structural, systemic dysfunction.

Sheldon Silver’s conviction – if it ever happens – won’t fix anything. On the contrary, it now serves as a handy distraction. Zephyr Teachout literally wrote the book on public corruption, and she calls on New Yorkers to seize the Silver arrest to fundamentally reform the way campaigns are funded in New York State. After all, corruption is the natural outgrowth of greed and power, and she calls our current system “legalized bribery”. Within that system, Silver is masterful. Literally millions of dollars flow to his campaign committee.

Silver’s arrest has, at long last, disgraced Assembly Democrats who called last night for his resignation as Speaker, as opposed to the temporary step-down he offered. It’s now safe for Assembly Democrats to fight back. That’s swell.

But Silver’s downfall only treats one of the symptoms, rather than curing the underlying disease.

Albany is broken, and the boffins at NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice have spent over a decade laying out the ways in which New York’s government is undemocratic and dysfunctional, and has set forth specific reform proposals to help return the government to the people. Everything from Sheldon Silver to three men in a room to the NY SAFE Act – whatever your specific complaint might be – is a symptom of that underlying disease.

The people we elect to state government – regardless of party affiliation – have done little, if anything, to address the root causes of the symptomatic problems on which they run their campaigns. They have a vested interest in keeping things opaque because we’d probably be aghast at what really goes on. Full disclosure of campaign financing, limits and full disclosure on independent expenditures, public financing, and redistricting reform should be on the table. Furthermore, the Brennan Center went into great detail about the fundamental lack of any semblance of deliberative democracy taking place in Albany.

Arresting Shelly Silver is a start. As malefactors go, he’s a big fish. But until Albany politicians re-discover the fact that they are there to serve the people, rather than their own personal greed, power, and ambition, we will have more dysfunction, more graft, more theft of honest services, and more Sheldon Silvers time and time again.

As New Yorkers, it behooves us to recognize and differentiate between the symptoms of the disease, and the root cause, and direct our energy at the latter.

The Borscht Belt Debate

Courtesy WNED and CBS2 New York

Despite Brian Meyer’s desperate efforts to keep the format tight and moving, it was unwieldy. With four gubernatorial candidates being provided with equal time, it seemed at times that Cuomo and Astorino were afterthoughts. After all, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Libertarian Party candidate Michael McDermott threw some good ideas at people last night at WNED’s studio.

McDermott liked to cut through the BS and had one of the best answers about fracking; that his philosophy was that it was important to wait and see what it does to the environment, because you’re allowed to do on your property whatever you want unless it harms someone else. For his part, Hawkins gave super-liberals the red meat they crave – single-payer, a hard no on fracking, social justice, funding for mass transit. 

Alas, Hawkins and McDermott don’t have a credible chance. 

The format gave candidates one minute to answer questions that often seemed to run on for twice that time, and then occasionally a 30 second rebuttal. One of the problems with contemporary political speech is that we’re too reliant on dopey ads and sound bites, and this sort of debate-by-one-liner exacerbates the situation. No one watched that and learned anything. It treated us like dumb assholes, and yet again we’ll get the Albany government we’ll deserve. 

Take my wife, please. 

Republican Rob Astorino came out swinging at Andrew Cuomo, and didn’t get an opportunity to tell us very much about what he’d do. Cuomo gave as good as he got. It was a good time, but not at all a substantive one. 

Where did you get your haircut, the pet shop?

Here’s how it went, as it went along. 

Teachout, Cuomo & the Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy

When I think of Zephyr Teachout, I am specifically mindful of the fact that she’s a protest vote for the liberal wing of the statewide Democratic Party.  Most of them in and around the 5 New York City Boroughs. When I think of Zephyr Teachout, I think of this classic scene from Annie Hall: 

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu are bright and, as far as anyone can tell, beyond reproach. Both of them are Manhattan intellectuals, and Teachout has adopted statewide political corruption as a platform plank, and Wu is known for his work on behalf of net neutrality.  Indeed, he coined the phrase. 

Andrew Cuomo has disappointed a lot of left activists. While the right assail him for the mild additive restrictions on guns via the “NY SAFE Act”, the left is sick and tired of continued Albany corruption, the constant, unchecked abuses of power, the power of incumbency, the insidious poisoning of the process by money and electoral fusion, and – above all – the comical overnight dismantling of the Moreland Commission just as soon as it started really doing its job. 

The New York Times declined to endorse Teachout due to her rookie non-credentials and her ignorance on anything going on north of Poughkeepsie and west of Nyack. It also declined to endorse Cuomo because of his fumbling of corruption. I think this is something of a cop-out. 

I have no idea whether Teachout can win the primary – I highly doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

Here in WNY we have a unique position unlike other parts of the state. There’s no Billion for Binghamton; no Assets for Albany, no Riches for Rochester or Silver for Syracuse.  Yet Buffalo and WNY have come under special Cuomo attention for two reasons: 1. he lost to Paladino here in 2010, and he wants badly to win; and 2. if he can show the world that Buffalo underwent a turnaround under his watch, he can sell that to the rest of the country in some future run. Fix Buffalo and the world is your political oyster. 

So, it’s tough to ignore the attention that the state has heaped on our fair city and region and simply dismiss Cuomo out of hand. Indeed, it’s about damn time an Albany pol tried to un-fuck Buffalo. 

But from a less selfish point of view, Albany politics are just as ugly and problematic as they’ve ever been. Efforts to change that have not only been stymied – Cuomo has actively prevented them.  Our Democratic governor, whom gun nuts liken to Karl Marx, actively supported the notion of a Republican majority in the feckless State Senate. It took Teachout to get him to actually support the idea that Democrats should win elections. 

Last night, I received a call from a Cuomo phone bank asking for my support. I bluntly told them, “ordinarily I would, but this Moreland thing has really thrown me for a loop”.  She marked me down as “undecided”, but seriously – it’s tough for me to support a governor who so casually dismisses the root of all state evils – Albany dysfunction and corruption.  This is especially true given the clean mandate that Cuomo has had to do just that. Cuomo’s inaction and outright refusal to address these issues is disappointing to me as a Democrat, but should be disappointing to all New Yorkers. 

Bluntly put, you can take your “REPEAL NY SAFE” sign and shove it, because the size of your magazine isn’t the assault on liberty you should be concerned about.

Instead, get angry about Albany’s multipartisan conspiracy with the dictatorial bureaucracies to commit managerial and legislative malpractice. This perverse system ensures that state government works for the tri-state area and no one else. Manhattan’s own Teachout and Wu aren’t going to fix that. Neither is Cuomo from Queens or Rob from Mount Pleasant (really). 

There’s nothing new here. The Brennan Center’s blueprint for reforming Albany is a decade old. No one pushes it because it’s heady and complicated and not as shiny as a gun. 

You won’t do anything about it. Your village, town, city, Assembly, and state Senate won’t do anything about it. Andrew Cuomo won’t do anything about it, and neither will Rob Astorino. Zephyr Teachout is at least talking about the right things, but there’s zero chance that she would get elected in November.

So, suck it up, New Yorkers. No matter whom you vote for in September’s primary, you’re in for another 4 years of bureaucrats running the state for their own benefit.  Unfortunately, short of a governor with some balls or a Constitutional Convention, it’s never going to change. 

Carl Paladino: The Pride of Buffalo

Carl Paladino loves to send emails. Here’s one that went out Monday: 

I don’t really care about the substance of Paladino’s whining to his party’s state chairman. I couldn’t care less about Paladino’s political desires or expectations any more than I care whether Ed Cox is running that statewide gun dealer masquerading as a political party. 

What I care about here – aside from a licensed attorney not knowing how to spell “versus” – is Paladino’s endless hate parade against gay people in general, and State Senator George Maziarz in particular. In this case, he reckons Maziarz would be raped in prison, and wishes for him to be beaten by guards.

In 2012, Paladino stooge, liar (or criminal – one or the other), and perennial candidate for somethingorother Rus Thompson accused Maziarz of being gay, and that they would soon “open the closet”

Libeling George Maziarz ca. 2012

There was no closet to open, and there was never anything that these dummies could put forth except accusations and innuendo.  Maziarz may have a lot of faults – some of which are leading to his resignation from the Senate – but whether or not he’s gay is (a) irrelevant to anything he does in Albany; (b) not a bad thing, if true; (c) an accusation that Thompson and Paladino vomited in order to engorge the vicious gay hatred held by members of western New York’s tea party. 

Without a hint of irony, these malignant assholes don a mantle of good government purity yet throw around wild, false accusations and smear enemies based not on facts or policy, but on make-believe and hatred. Think: what is it about Maziarz that led Paladino to single him out as “not doing well in prison”? Why would Libous fare any better than Maziarz?

Paladino is harking back to his and Rus’ 2 year-old effort to smear Maziarz as gay. Not only is Paladino suggesting that Maziarz would be raped by other prisoners, he is reveling in that notion, going on to wish physical harm on Maziarz, hoping that he’ll receive “very special treatment”, whatever that means. Is Paladino just being a straight-up sadist, wishing not only imprisonment, but violent anal rape against Maziarz? 

What do you think Is the genesis of Paladino’s acute hatred and fear of homosexuals?

Paladino’s invocation of “Dannemora” refers to the Clinton Correctional Facility. Although conditions were found to have improved by 2004, in the 1990s, Clinton was notorious for extreme violence and brutality. Evidently, Paladino is not only hopeful that his foes be anally raped, but also that they be beaten by corrections officers for Mr. Paladino’s amusement. 

These are the twisted words of a sick, sadistic individual. Yet we in WNY treat him and his company like pillars of the community – at worst a crazy uncle, at best a point of civic pride. Check yourself, Buffalo – Carl Paladino repeatedly exposes himself for being unworthy of your respect.  

It takes a special kind of megalomania to demand “cleansing” of a statewide party committee that has to take into account not only the virulent homophobia of influential upstate millionaire emailers, but also of downstate moderates. 

It wouldn’t be a proper Paladino rant if there wasn’t a smidge of racial animus thrown into the mix. Yes, of course, Astorino should ignore leaders in the African-American community and only stick to the upstate fairs, this despite the fact that 4.6 million of New York State’s voters live within the 5 boroughs of New York City, while 7.1 million live everywhere else. Erie County, for instance, which has the biggest county fair in the state, boasts 612,000 registered voters – less than 10% of the 5 boroughs. The state’s largest concentration of minority voters is in New York City. 

Paladino lost to Andrew Cuomo dramatically in 2010.  Who is he to give Astorino advice? 

Corrections

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com