May 2nd - 3:45 pm
As first scooped by The Wall Street Journal today, Joint Commission on Public Ethics Executive Director Ellen Biben is leaving the post for a job in the private sector.
News of her departure was made official this afternoon in a statement from JCOPE Chairman Daniel Horowitz.
“We are grateful to Ellen for the excellent work she has done helping to build this agency and for leading it to great accomplishments in its first year including historic disclosure requirements for lobbyists and their clients and the first independent ethics investigation involving the legislative branch resulting in the report that was issued to the Legislative Ethics Commission in February,” he said in a statement released by the commission. “We also recognize and appreciate her extraordinary commitment to integrity through her career in public service.”
Her resignation is effective by the end of this month.
Biben, who has worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the past, joins Janet DiFiore, the former chairwoman, in leaving the recently formed ethics watchdog. Cuomo’s office announced in April DiFiore would step down to focus on her re-election campaign as Westchester County district attorney.
The reviews of JCOPE under the tenure of both Biben and DiFiore were not kind. The commission has been criticized for lacking transparency and being too closely aligned with Cuomo’s office.
It is unknown for now which non-government job Biben is pursuing.
Apr 29th - 10:36 am
Democratic Sen. Brad Hoylman believes he’s found a way around the state constitutional argument against ending pension benefits for those lawmakers convicted of corruption.
Hoylman today introduced legislation that would tie the acceptance of per diem expenses for legislators to an agreement that would require pension forfeiture upon conviction of felony corruption.
The move closes what some are describing as a loophole in the 2011 ethics law that provides for end to pension benefits of state officials convicted of felony corruption, but only those elected after the law was approved.
At the same time, the bill would expand the 2011 law to include officials convicted in federal court, where many of the corruption cases have emanated from in recent years.
The debate over pension benefits for corrupt officials has been reignited in Albany in the wake of back-to-back bribery scandals resulting in the arrests of both Sen. Malcolm Smith and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.
“We must take every opportunity available to help restore public confidence in state government, and I hope my colleagues in the State Senate will join me in supporting these two straightforward and common sense proposals,” Hoylman said in a statement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have been skeptical of pension forfeiture proposals, suggesting they may be unconstitutional.
Lawmakers have introduced an amendment to the state Constitution, but the process is a lengthy one: The measure must pass both houses of the Legislature by two separately elected sessions and then approved by voters.
Apr 22nd - 12:48 pm
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told the Citizens Crime Commission today he doesn’t have a formal opinion on corruption remedies.
But he does have a number of informal ones, ranging from better govrnment transparency, a more engaged electorate, enacting serious reform legisaltion and a stronger press corps.
In sum, it was a speech that Bharara, the prosecutor who this month announced arrests in not one, but two, high-profile state and city corruption scandals sought to lay out fixes to public corruption even without staking out a formal endorsement of the ideas.
Pointed at times, Bharara criticized “transparency” proposals that provide data, but with very little explanation. Bharara cautioned not to applaud everytime a new transparency initiative is announced.
A database that is accessible only by physically going to a city office building to access through an outdated computer portal does not accomplish its intended purpose. A government website that is so difficult to navigate that it is nearly impossible to piece together any real-life understanding of the information it purports to convey or that offers millions of rows of data but without any context or meaningful ability to conduct analysis is not that much more helpful than keeping the information locked away in a filing cabinet. We should perhaps hold our applause for certain transparency measures until we’ve scrutinized whether they truly reveal anything about the workings or behavior of government and public officials.
He also criticized a system that allows elected officials to “lawfully moonlight” as consultants or lawyers while simultaneously holding public office.
We believe in the old adage: Follow the money. But that is so much harder to do when the money trails are hidden. When every state or local elected official is able to lawfully moonlight as a lawyer or accountant or consultant and may lawfully withhold deep details of that work, prosecutors face substantial challenges. Again, I don’t have a formal view on these things. I’m just sayin’.
Bharara called for state officials to “act seriously and earnestly” to reform the political system, though he would not endorse a legislative proposal. Bharara said there was no “single fix” to stop corruption.
Apart from refraining from breaking the law, the single most important thing they can do to restore public trust is to act seriously and earnestly to reform the system and the culture of our government and our politics. There have been a lot of proposals offered in recent days, and every New Yorker should applaud the effort. And we prosecutors applaud any effort that makes our jobs easier. The proposals are wide-ranging—there are measures to limit contributions, to limit spending, to limit terms, to limit discretionary funds. There are measures to repeal certain laws and mandate more transparency and compel the reporting of crime. I am not in a position to offer opinions on particular proposals—but I do agree with those who say no single fix will get us far down the road to reform. And nothing will really change until people undertake a fundamental reform of a corrupt culture.
Bharara, knowing that his audience also included reporters, decried the depletion of local newsrooms and investigative journalists.
My chief lament about the decline of the local newspaper is that with each outlet that closes, opportunities to ferret out fraud and public waste and abuse are lost. Just as we and the FBI are adding resources to fight public corruption, if you run a newsroom, I would hope you would think of adding reporters and resources to the investigative side of the business. I bet it’s as fun a beat as a reporter can have. So all of you press folks back there, tell your editors I said that.
As for punishments, Bharara said “people lose faith” when a state lawmaker convicted of corruption can retain a pension. There are numerous proposals now to strip corrupt officials of their pensions, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that could run into legal challenges.
Bharara’s office has said he has no plans for running for public office in the near or short term though the speech appears calibrated to light a fire under nearly every possible constituency in the state.
Apr 10th - 3:15 pm
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office today unsealed the 2009 three-count perjury indictment of now ex-Assemblyman Nelson Castro.
The case had stemmed from a voter fraud lawsuit that stemmed from when Castro, a Bronx Democrat, was running for his first term.
As now know, Castro post-indictment agreed to work with Bronx DA Robert Johnson and later U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office to act as an informant.
Flipping Castro would eventually pay off for the prosecutors after they landed Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who alleged had been part of a bribery scheme that involved writnig favorable legislation for developers who wanted to build an adult day care center in the area.
Castro resigned in the wake of the arrests of Stevenson and several others. In resigning, he revealed he had been acting as an informant for law enforcement for virtually his entire time in office.
Apr 9th - 2:14 pm
Gov. Andrew Cuomo just unveiled Step One in what will be a multi-pronged reform proposal in the wake of last week’s back-to-back corruption cases: Empowering local district attorneys to better ferret out and prosecute wrongdoing by dirty elected officials at all levels of government in New York.
Cuomo said he had decided to start here because the DAs are essentially the first line of defense in busting bad pols. Increasing penalties and creating new crimes – like making it a misdemeanor to fail to report bribery – through the Public Trust Act, as the governor has dubbed it, is also arguably the low-hanging fruit when it comes to getting legislative support.
The governor has said he wants to strike while the iron is hot, and believes state lawmakers are ”receptive” to approving reforms in light of recent events. But more political efforts, like doing away with fusion voting and creating a publicly funded campaign finance system, could still be a tough sell.
Notably left off Cuomo’s law enforcement proposal today was any mention of the state attorney general, who has repeatedly asked for more power when it comes to investigating public integrity cases.
Most notably, the AG lacks subpoena power in corruption cases, which hamstrings him considerably – so much so that AG Eric Schneiderman has resorted to teaming up with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who does have suboena power, to prosecute the misuse of public funds.
Asked (by NY1′s intrepid Zack Fink) why the AG isn’t part of his proposal, Cuomo said his quest is to “maximize all political offices” when it comes to corruption busting, adding that the attorney general has “an important role” to play.
That’s a very different tune than the one Cuomo himself was singing back when he was AG.
In the wake of the so-called Troopergate scandal, in which Cuomo issued a scathing report on then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s botched attempt to use to the State Police to smear his political rival, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, Cuomo’s top aide, Steve Cohen, said the following at a Senate GOP hearing:
“This is one of those problems that the more you look at it the more you realize that this is a glaring hole in our arsenal, and the more you realize that, unlike in most cases, the fix is not that complicated…What you really want is to have one regulatory body, or more, but at least one, that has the ability to pursue cases wherever they think it’s necessary. It would seem to me that the appropriate place to vest that power…is in the statewide attorney general’s office.”
At the time, the Senate Republicans were calling on Spitzer to make Cuomo a special prosecutor with the subpoena power so he could take a deeper dive into investigating Troopergate.
They even drafted legislation that would require the state inspector general to refer cases to the AG, and confer subpoena power to that office in the process, any time a conflict of interest arises in a case – as it did in Troopergate, pitting the executive and legislative branches against one another.
Needless to say, Spitzer did not heed that call, and the bill in question never went anywhere.
Apr 9th - 4:15 am
Just a week after three state lawmakers were implicated in two separate criminal corruption investigations, some in around state politics appear to be looking for a scapegoat. Monday Morning it appeared that could be Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
“The things that have happened in the last several days have nothing to do with the Speaker,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.
A report in the New York Post suggested the Governor and his top aides were looking to use last week’s scandals to oust Silver and replace him with Morelle. Cuomo denied the report later in the day.
“Any report that uses your name is unfortunate but I didn’t give it any credibility,” Morelle said.
The Irondequoit Democrat was promoted to Majority Leader in January and is considered by many an ally of the Governor. Morelle defended Sliver and other state lawmakers, who he believes, are being unfairly judged.
“We don’t choose the members. When they’re elected we can’t give them a psychological profile or look into their hearts and souls,” said Morelle.
State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer says 99 percent of those elected to public office are there to serve the public. The Amherst Republican told YNN’s Katie Cummings while he understands the reaction to these allegations; he doesn’t believe party leaders are to blame.
“Both parties have individuals who are charged with being crooks. The Republicans are charged, the Democrats are charged. This is one of the most bizarre and dumbest things I have ever read. This entire episode is just ridiculous.”
Others say these cases of alleged corruption highlight the need for campaign finance reform. While the recent cases appear to detail criminal activity, Assemblyman Sean Ryan , D-Buffalo, believes more subtle ethics violations are flying under the radar.
“Under our current laws it’s not cheating. You can hand someone a $2,000 contribution on the street and then walk into their office and say let’s talk about a piece of legislation I’m interested in. By our campaign rules, that’s ok and I don’t think that’s ok,” Ryan said.
Ryan isn’t the only one suggesting that ethical problems in state government need to be addressed. State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson is accused of accepting $22,000 in bribes. Federal prosecutors say Stevenson is accusing other elected officials of breaking the law without getting caught.
“It’s like when a person gets pulled over and gets a speeding ticket and then says ‘well everyone was speeding.’ I don’t put much stock into what he says,” Razenhofer said.
While some say campaign finance reform is an appropriate response Ranzenhofer doesn’t believe either alleged case of corruption can be blamed on the current campaign laws.
“They’re all avoidable. Just don’t commit any crimes. This has nothing to do with campaign finance reform,” Ranzenhofer said.
Morelle calls these recent allegations disappointing, but he says the only elected officials who should be under the microscope are the three currently under investigation.
“None of the solutions currently being talked about will tell us what’s in somebody’s heart or soul. We had a few rogue members. I don’t think these charges reflect on the Speaker or the majority of our members,” Morelle added.
Apr 5th - 10:34 am
(Yes, the headline was completely ripped off from a tweet by The Daily News’s Bill Hammond, but the rhyming is fun).
From the morning memo, which you can subscribe to on the left-hand rail of the blog.
More than a century ago, a former state assemblyman named Theodore Roosevelt was appointed president of the New York City police commissioners board.
To the chagrin of many in positions of power, but to the delight of the press at the time, Roosevelt was an activist member of the board, rooting out vice in the city and would walk officers’ beats at night to ensure they were on duty.
In the end (after a detour as a Rough Rider), his work would lead to Albany as governor and then, well, you know the story.
Yes, New Yorkers are generally considered a liberal lot.
But they also seem to like law enforcement types who play adequate heroes to the appropriate villains. And they tend to elect them to higher office.
The list over the last century since Roosevelt is long: Tom Dewey was a federal prosecutor, as was Rudy Giuliani before he was elected mayor. Even our neighbors in New Jersey seemed to have gotten the hint and elected a U.S. attorney their governor after he threw a gaggle of corrupt politicians in jail: Chris Christie.
Eliot Spitzer came to office with high hopes after two terms of being a particularly effective state attorney general who transformed that office into an activist one that went after white-collar wrongdoing.
But the Spitzer story is the cautionary tale for anyone like Preet Bharara, who this week was compared to the mob-busting Giuliani of the 1980s and even Batman, for thinking steely-eyed law enforcement types would make good politicians.
In two news conferences this week, Bharara announced stunning back-to-back corruption arrests of state and city elected officials along with their accomplices.
The details of the cases — in one a state senator and city councilman allegedly conspired to steal the city’s mayoral election, in another an incumbent member of the Assembly has turned out to be an informant for the federal government since 2009 — are so outlandish and unbelievable they seem right out of Hollywood.
It helps that Bharara has a certain kind of charisma at these news conferences. He speaks in short, clipped sentences that seem tailor made for TV sound bytes, he’s wryly funny and enjoys the occasional pop culture reference.
But a good cop does not necessarily make a good politician.
Consider the case of Spitzer: He took office in 2007 with a clear mandate from New Yorkers, winning in a landslide against Republican John Faso.
Spitzer believed that mandate was for him to crush as many state lawmakers in his path as possible, ranging from giants like Joe Bruno to the relatively harmless like Jim Tedisco.
Spitzer even went after backbenchers like George Latimer, then in the Assembly, for signing off on appointing Tom DiNapoli comptroller.
In short, he didn’t get politics. Even Andrew Cuomo, a former attorney general himself who has an ex-cop as a his lieutenant governor, generally seems to know when not to pick a fight he can’t win with the Legislature.
Then there’s the practical limitations of where Bharara could go: Nearly every statewide office is held by an incumbent Democrat who appears to be on pretty firm ground. Unless Bharara, appointed by President Obama, would want to launch a devastating primary against Eric Schneiderman or Cuomo himself in 2014 his political moves seem somewhat limited.
Perhaps that’s why Bharara is often spoken of as the next U.S. attorney general, replacing Obama friend Eric Holder.
Teddy Roosevelt owed some of his upward mobility to the desire of some in New York — especially the machine bosses — to get him the hell out of town. Roosevelt was kicked upstairs to the vice presidency with the hope he would be made powerless.
Bharara doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave New York anytime soon, though one could bet there are a number of people in state and city politics today who hope he will.
Apr 4th - 10:29 am
When it rains, it pours.
A Bronx assemblyman has been charged this morning in a scheme to collect thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for drafting legislation that would benefit a co-defendants’ businesses, according to an unsealed federal complaint.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office later today is expected to hold a news conference laying out the charges against Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and several others accused of funneling money to the lawmaker exchange for official acts.
The charges include theft of honest services and bribery conspiracy.
The case comes as Sen. Malcolm Smith, Councilman Dan Halloran and four others were charged in a sweeping bribery scheme that federal prosecutors alleged this week was part of a plan to put Smith, a Queens Democrat, onto the Republican ballot for New York City mayor.
Apr 2nd - 2:35 pm
The federal criminal complaint against Sen. Malcolm Smith alleges that he was confident $500,000 in funds could be secured from a multi-modal transportation grant.
The complaint alleges the money ostensibly would have been used to improve a road near a real estate project that would have benefited a developer who in reality was an undercover federal agent.
Getting money for anything these days is tricky and state legislators since “new” member items are no longer approved.
According to the court documents, Smith had proposed the funding plan as late as March 21, at the height of the budget making process.
But the case and complaint highlights that while the flow of new money from earmarks or member items has been turned off, lawmakers do have access to other cash, including the program Smith alluded to.
Essentially, a project must be nominated by the governor or a member of the Legislature and are spelled out in memorandums of understanding.
The program was devised by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in the late 1980s as a means of paying for projects that do not fit under one category.
Smith has secured funding for these mutli-modal projects in the past, which never raised eyebrows.
This time around, Smith had directed the undercover agent to a fellow IDC senator, Sen. David Carlucci, to secure the funding. Carlucci was not involved in any dealings, corrupt or otherwise, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said today.
In a statement, Carlucci said he was “shocked and outraged” by the allegations, saying such cases were the reason why he was elected in the first place.
“I look forward to hearing the details of this wide-ranging investigation as they begin to unfold. As the United States Attorney had indicated, in no way whatsoever was I, or any member of my staff, involved in the alleged criminal misconduct and subsequent charges filed this morning. On the contrary, these actions speak to a broader, more fundamental reason as to why I ran for office in the first place – to clean up the culture of corruption that pervades our politics.”
Apr 2nd - 1:36 pm
In announcing the three-pronged bribery scheme that appears to have felled state Sen. Malcolm Smith, two local Rockland County officials and several NYC GOP leaders, US Attorney Preet Bharara today condemned – yet again – the culture of corruption in New York politics.
Bharara called for something other than the “blunt” prosecutorial tools of his office to be brought to bear in an attempt to finally clean up the system.
The US attorney didn’t make any specific recommendations about how to purge the state of dirty pols, but he did make clear that the growing list of cases against elected officials at the state and local levels brought by his office indicate that the problem is far from solved – despite claims to the contrary by any number of self-appointed “reformers.”
“(W)hat can we expect when there continues to be – even after a parade of politicians have been hauled off to prison – a lack of transparency, a lack of self-disclosure, a lack of self policing, a lack of will, and a failure of leadership?” Bharara said. “What can we expect when transgressions seem to be tolerated and nothing seems to ever change? New Yorkers should demand more.”
“…I think that any time you have a situation where something happens again and again and again, and it happens on the part of people who should know better, and it happens on the part of people who should be able to engage in a decent and reasonable calculus about whether or not it’s worth going to jail and being separated from your liberty for a few thousand dollars, that something is broken in the system,” he continued a bit later.
“…I think there are a lot of folks in and around the state who are people of good will and decency who are in a position to do something about the structure that exists in Albany and in other places.”
Smith has been in investigators’ crosshairs for some time, and speculation has run rampant for years now that he would likely end up indicted – although it must be said that the circumstances under which he was finally charged comes as something of a surprise (at least to me).
But Bharara’s blistering attack on politics, writ large, must sting a little for any number of people – including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, in his previous job as state attorney general, pledged to clean up Street State, much the way his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, had taken on Wall Street.
Cuomo did expose a massive pay-to-play state pension fund scandal that felled a number of high-profile individuals, including former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi and his long-time political advisor, Hank Morris. But he didn’t focus terribly much on the Legislature during his four years as the state’s top attorney.
Back in 2010, Cuomo chose to launch his gubernatorial campaign in front of the former Manhattan courthouse named for Boss Tweed, the corrupt political boss of Tammany Hall. At the time, he told supporters: “Unfortunately, Albany’s antics today could make Boss Tweed blush. Our message today is simple. Enough is enough.”
Since then, however, the parade of pols slapped with corruption charges has only continued, including yet another member of the Senate Democratic conference, Carl Kruger, (Cuomo called his case “unfortunate”); former Westchester Sen. Nick Spano (who pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges); and, of course, Brooklyn Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., whose case (his second time fighting charges) is ongoing.
(For the record, Bharara declined to say that the epicenter of corruption in Albany lies in the Senate, despite the fact that it has been home to the majority of fallen legislators, saying: “(F)rom what I understand in the papers, not every state legislator has this degree of criminality that’s been exposed.”
Part of Cuomo’s gubernatorial platform was an ethics reform pledge. The governor did accomplish that during his first year in office, scrapping the existing watchdog commissions in Albany and replacing them with JCOPE, which has had a troubled tenure almost since its inception.
UPDATE: Here’s a copy of Bharara’s formal remarks from this morning’s press conference, as prepared for delivery: