State and National Transparency Groups Call on Cuomo to Save State Emails At Least 7 Years

The letter embedded below was emailed to senior Cuomo administration officials on January 29th, 2015.  The letter was months in the making, and the twenty  groups signing the letter did not release it to the public, because we did not want to put the governor on the spot publicly, and our goal is not to give the governor negative press, but to change a bad policy. We hoped our groups could stand with the governor as he announced a new email retention policy as part of Sunshine Week in March. However, an intrepid reporter started calling around after obtaining a recent Cuomo administration memo about new email deletions and our letter was subsequently leaked. (See Cuomo Administration Begins Large-Scale Email Purges in Capital NY.) As of today, the Cuomo administration has not acknowledged receiving our letter or otherwise responded to our request. Download our brief on email retention, and the following Cuomo Administration memos:

  • NYS Information and Technology Services General Counsel Karen Geduldig’s June 18 2013 memo to NYS Agency General Counsels
  • NYS Department of Health Deputy General Counsel Jean O. Quarrier’s July 30 2013 memo to DOH Employees
  • NYS Chief Information Officer Maggie Miller’s February 20 2015 memo to NYS Commissioners and Agency Heads
  • NYS Department of State Director of Business Solutions William D. Cross’s February 23 2015 memo to DOS Employees

http://reinventalbany.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Save_Emails7yrs-to-Cuomo-1.29.15.pdf

An End to Serving Two Masters: Cap Legislator’s Outside Income Like Congress Does

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 12.15.02 PMAlbany is in the midst of a long ethical meltdown. In just a few years we have seen a governor, comptroller, senate leaders and an assembly speaker arrested or deposed because of scandal. Most recently Sheldon Silver was indicted in part for hiding secret payments made from a law firm which employed him as a consultant. After Watergate, Congress passed major, lasting reforms. This is New York’s Watergate moment. The legislature needs to show it is serious, and a first step is capping outside income as Congress did decades ago.

Today, Reinvent Albany, NYPIRG, and Common Cause NY urged the governor and state lawmakers to agree to cap the outside income of state legislators at 15% of the highest salary paid to any sitting legislator. The groups bolstered their call for reform with a report, titled Serving Two Masters: Conflicts of Interest in Albany, which found that an overwhelming majority of state lawmakers already restrict their outside income. The report quotes the US House of Representative’s explanation of why they capped outside income:

“Many citizens perceive outside earned income as providing Members with an opportunity to ‘cash in’ on their positions of influence.  Even if there is no actual impropriety, such sources of income give the appearance of impropriety and, in so doing, further undermine public confidence and trust in government officials.”

Serving Two Masters: Conflicts of Interest in Albany

Two-thirds of state lawmakers reported outside income of less than $20,000. This includes 35 of 53 state senators and 97 of 134 assembly members.

Recommendations

  1. Disclose all outside income. (Per Congress.)
  2. Cap outside income at 15% highest salary of sitting legislator. (Per Congress, by lower % to reflect NYS per diem, Congress does not have per diem.)
  3. Eliminate leadership stipends except majority and minority in each party. (Per Congress.)
  4. Adopt Code of Ethics.
  5. Adopt disclosure provisions based on Alaska and District of Columbia.

 

 

Can Real Estate Businesses Succeed in New York Without Making Big Political Contributions?

The real estate industry makes the largest campaign contributions to New York politicians. This makes sense, because the state can make them rich with tax abatements, economic development aid, and regulations on rent. Big real estate political donors are at the center of the ongoing Sheldon Silver scandal, the end of the Moreland Commission, and further investigations by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Today there was a routine story in Crains about the Empire State Development Authority’s (ESD) selection of the Simone Development Companies for the construction of a $16m mixed-use project in The Bronx. We do not know anything about Simone, but out of curiosity decided to do a quick look at their owners’ and senior management’s contribution to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the ESD.

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Source: nyopengovernment.com

It appears that the owner of Simone and senior managers have given $32,997 to Governor Cuomo and the State Democratic Fund that he controls. The governor has raised around $50 milllion, so this is not a lot for Cuomo. But it is a lot more in campaign contributions than all but a tiny percentage of New Yorkers have given the governor. Is this why Simone got the job? We do not know. Do real estate businesses have to donate something to even be considered for a state contract? We do not know, but judging from how much they contribute, they seem to think so.

When Transparency Is Not Enough: Disclosing Lawmakers’ Outside Income Won’t Do Much

New Yorkers who want to reduce corruption in Albany should read The Trouble with Disclosure: It Doesn’t Work by Jesse Eisenger, which was published this week by Pro Publica and also appeared in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal. Eisenger makes the case that the disclosure* of various things hasn’t led to any reductions in bad behavior, and “if lawmakers want to end a bad practice, ban it. Having them admit it is not enough.”

Governor Cuomo has proposed the disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income as a major reform in response to the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges. Unfortunately, disclosure of that income is not enough and will do little or nothing to change behavior. If the governor wants to shut the loophole that allows legal bribery via payments to a lawmaker’s employer, he should support restricting or banning outside income.

Sadly, truly meaningful reforms are not on the table in Albany. Even if outside income is banned, it will remain extremely easy for deep-pocketed special interests to give large amounts of money to lawmakers via the LLC loophole, the housekeeping account loophole, and various other scurvy methods that have made Albany synonymous with corrupt state government. So far, systemic reforms have remained a fantasy in Albany. This includes the very simple and intuitive reform of banning contributions from anyone with contracts, subsidies, or tax abatements from New York State.

* We will let Eisenger off the hook for conflating deliberately opaque disclosures – like credit card and product disclosure statements – with real transparency. But, as advocates for increased transparency, we agree that while transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy, it is often not sufficient.

 

Federal FOIA Advisory Committee “Listens to” Reinvent Albany

In June 2014, we published Listening to FOIL,  a short report that used an analysis of the FOIL logs of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to show that FOIL requests can be used as a tool to identify what data the public is seeking – and which should be published online as open data. At DEC, a handful of data sets contain the information being sought in a whopping 55% of FOIL requests. Our report created a stir in open data circles and was widely shared and caught the attention of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee, which adopted and endorsed our Listening to FOIL report.

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The Advisory Committee interviewed us to discuss our research. They also noted the federal General Services Administration has trialed similar practices: surveying frequent parties who file frequent FOIA requests, and asking requestors what data they would like to see opened.

The Committee attempted to examine the Environmental Protection Agency FOIA requests, but found fewer than 4,000 requests available to examine since January 2008. Nonetheless, they identified high-value data sets such as hazardous materials storage, permits, oil spills, superfund locations, water and air quality, and asbestos remediation records.

The next step for the FOIA Advisory Committee is to examine the process at one single agency, and get a comprehensive look at all FOIA requests. To date, they have relied on public information in the same way Reinvent Albany’s studies have. While it’s clearly still possible to perform this analysis with the public versions of FOIA logs, the actual FOIA logs in use at agencies may be more descriptive. Additionally, agency FOIA officers will simply have more familiarity with the kinds of data they work with day-to-day than we do.

Once agencies have begun looking to their FOIA requests, we recommend the “Willie Sutton” approach: you publish the data that people ask for most often, however they ask for it. In our post last March, we identified web site visits, phone calls, 311 requests, etc. as strong indicators that data is important to the public. Agencies should look at what web pages visitors gravitate to, what information 311 requestors most often seek, and then open the most-requested data. FOIA is just the first step.