Money in Politics In New York This Week

1. New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics released its 2011 lobbying report this week, which found that the lobbying industry spent a record sum of $220 million last year in its efforts to influence state legislators. As JCOPE’s Executive Director Ellen Biben noted, “Apparently lobbying is recession proof.” The full report can be read here.

2. While JCOPE is an improvement on its predecessor, the ethics enforcement agency was criticized this week for neglecting to focus on legislators’ behavior in their home districts—for instance, Pedro Espada’s embezzlement scandal, which occurred not in Albany but in Espada’s home district in the Bronx.

3. Bill Mahoney of NY PIRG writes in Wednesday’s Times Union that in order for a public campaign financing program to succeed in New York state, it must be accompanied by an overhaul of the state’s current ineffective system. Comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York, Mahoney writes, must also include closing the loophole on “housekeeping” contributions to party committees, setting up regular audits of candidate’s campaign accounts, and giving stronger enforcement power to the state’s toothless Board of Elections.

4. Former Bloomberg aide and convicted felon John Haggerty still has friends in New York: the Daily News reports that three former aides to ex-Gov. Pataki have created a legal defense fund to pay his attorneys. While legal, the defense fund raises ethical questions concerning responses in Albany to illegal conduct by those working in government. Haggerty was sentenced last December to up to four years on charges of money laundering and grand larceny, for his siphoning $750,000 from election funds to buy a house in Queens.

5. US Representative Charles Rangel (D—NY), who was found guilty in 2010 of eleven ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee, is making headlines again. Rangel and his campaign have paid a $23,000 civil fine after it emerged that he used a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office, which effectively amounts to acceptance of campaign contributions beyond the legal limit.

Civic Technology

Surprisingly, there is no definition of “civic technology” on Wikipedia. Reinvent Albany and the, um, civic technology groups we work use the term “civic technology” to describe Information Technology (usually Internet based) that promotes more open and transparent government, makes government digital information more findable and usable by the public, encourages public participation and collaboration in civic affairs, and increases government accountability. These technologies are centered around improving communication and information flow between the public and the government, and government and the public.

The best civic technologies align the interests of the public and the government. They provide information that helps government managers make better decisions, government workers do their jobs more efficiently, and allow them to draw on public expertise and experience. The biggest consumer of government information is government. Yet government information is often as hard to find for government as it is for the public.  Simple civic technologies that make government digital information easier to find saves everyone time and money.  This can be as simple as an agency website that posts reports and studies, or a centralized open data portal like New York City’s.

Online, interactive maps for instance, can help government workers do their jobs more effectively, while also informing the public and promoting public participation and consensus.  The NY State Liquor Authority’s map of liquor licenses allows the public, its elected representatives, and even the SLA itself, to quickly determine whether a store or restaurant has a liquor license. The New York City DOT interactive bike share map allows the public to suggest locations for public bike share stations that the public, government, and community planning boards can see and consider. The popular online map has encouraged more people to go to community board planning meetings — it’s added to civic engagement, and contributed to a quicker, and less laborious, public consensus.

If you have thoughts or comments on the definition of “civic technology” write us at, or join us on the discussion page of Civic Technology on Wikipedia.







MTA’s Split Personality: Open Transit Data Innovator or Opaque Bureaucracy?

We set-off to write a post lauding the MTA on its technology leadership. The peg was the upcoming release of countdown clock data to apps developers, and a smart bureaucratic workaround MTA used to hire a cutting edge open source software developer to get the data out.  This innovative project was reported today on the always insightful Second Avenue Subway blog.  Unfortunately, our enthusiasm was dashed as soon as we went to find details in the March 28, 2012  MTA board briefing book.

So much for the happy glow of openness and transparency. The MTA’s 330 page board briefing book  is an unsearchable, pdf formatted, image.  The briefing book is not search able from the Internet, nor is the document itself searchable from the Adobe pdf search box.  Essentially, the MTA is hiding information in plain sight by making it extremely unwieldy to find.  The MTA should make the briefing book and all other information on its website web searchable (“machine readable”) and down-loadable in formats that common document and spreadsheet programs can read.  The MTA is shooting itself in the foot by playing games like posting giant documents as scanned, unsearchable images. This only serves to antagonize the public, and perpetuates the idea that the MTA has something to hide.


the to install cloud-based infrastructure and a web application that will allow the MTA to offer a real-time feed of train location data to the public.


New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News for March 23, 2012

1. The latest Newsday op-ed to call for public financing in New York state, by Make the Road New York member and community organizer Maria Magdalena Flores, explains why public financing is needed to combat apathy among working-class and minority voters. Flores offers some startling statistics: in the most recent state elections for New York assembly, state senate and governor, a mere 6% of contributions came from donors giving $250 or less, compared to a whopping 64% in the last city council elections. New York City’s public financing program has opened the door “for meaningful participation from working-class communities,” resulting in a city council that is not only more racially and economically diverse, but that is also better positioned to represent the interests of ordinary New Yorkers.

2. On Thursday, the Times Union editorial board strongly urged Gov. Cuomo to continue pushing for campaign finance reform, especially in light of its harsh criticisms of last week’s redistricting deal. New York’s campaign finance laws are “embarrassingly weak,” creating a regime that invites abuse and lets “the special interests overwhelm ordinary voters.”

3. The results of a nationwide State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity were published this week, giving New York an overall grade of D, ranking it 36 out of the 50 states (based on a numerical score of 65 out of 100), and issuing D or F grades for its handling of ethics enforcement, political financing, and state budget processes, among other areas. The full report card can be found here. The least corrupt state? New Jersey. In the wake of the investigation’s findings, the Times Union argues that a voluntary matching funds system, similar to New York City’s public financing program, remains “the only way to limit the power of big campaign checks,” and that Albany’s dismally low grade is simply “one more indication of the broken system of campaign finance in Albany that puts the interests of CEO campaign contributors before the interests of our communities.”

4. The state report accompanying New York’s report card singles out the ineffectual State Board of Elections for special criticism. The report card cites NY PIRG’s Bill Mahoney for the view that the Board is underfinanced, understaffed, and unable to enforce its regulations, and concludes that “the 19.5 million citizens of the Empire State can agree on one thing: Albany is defined by dysfunction and corruption.” The State Integrity Investigation also highlights another anti-corruption report, jointly published in February by the University of Illinois political science department and its Institute for Government and Public Affairs, finding that New York’s number of federal public corruption convictions since 1976—over 2,500 and counting—is the highest in the nation.

5. As if to illustrate the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, the federal corruption trial of former state Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., continued this week, with Judge Frederic Block excoriating Espada’s attorney for using questionable courtroom tactics, and with Espada characterized during trial as a “puppet master” for his alleged embezzlement of funds from the Soundview Healthcare Network. The Times reports that more than a dozen witnesses testified on Thursday that Espada had paid them for personal services with funds from a subsidiary of Soundview.

A New Transparency for NY State


A New Transparency for NY State


Use the Explosion in Information Technology to open NY Government

Citizens Union • Common Cause NY
League of Women Voters of NY State
Reinvent Albany • New York Public Interest Research Group

March 2012


We call on Governor Cuomo, legislative leaders Skelos and Silver, Attorney General Schneiderman, and Comptroller DiNapoli to use the explosion in affordable Information Technology to make New York State government vastly more transparent, more responsive, and more accountable.  

We join the State Committee on Open Government’s urgent call for New York State to seize the power of Information Technology to achieve the intent of the Freedom of Information Law. That law says “The people’s right to know is basic to our society.”

Today, we call on our state’s elected leaders to recommit themselves to this fundamental principle, and use the same affordable technology that New Yorkers use every day to shine a light on what our state government is doing and spending. Healthy, well-functioning democracies fully embrace transparency.

New York’s digital information is a form of public wealth. Sharing that digital wealth with the public will help spur the innovation economy, improve public services, and reduce the cost of government by increasing efficiency and reducing corruption.

The good news is that New York has pockets of progress, including the Attorney General’s Accountability/Money and Influence Site and the Comptroller’s Open Book NY. These shed light on political contributions, lobbying and state contracts. Governor Cuomo’s campaign promise to create an Open NY program is encouraging, as is the SAGE Commission’s NY Performs project and the State Senate’s “Open Senate” web page. State agencies are starting to use social media to alert the public to emergencies, public meetings and tax deadlines. The DOH’s Metrix program has an excellent statement of principles extolling the value of opening up digital information, innovation and public collaboration. It should be adopted by all state agencies.

The bad news is that overall, the governor, legislature, NY State agencies and authorities have done a poor job putting information online in easily searchable or useful formats, or employing online maps and social media. The state budget remains very hard to understand or analyze. Despite recent laws, vast areas of state spending by authorities, and via business subsidies remain hard to assess. Unfortunately, the state does not appear to have a plan, process, timeline, or guiding intelligence in place for getting the state’s massive wealth of digital information online, or spreading good ideas within government.

We expect New York to be a leader, not laggard. Abundant, affordable Information Technology — smart phones, iPads, apps, the internet, wifi, social networking, interactive mapping — is transforming the everyday life and work of New Yorkers. We urge our state’s leaders to use these same tools to launch a transparency revolution that will help New York government become more democratic, open, innovative, and provide better services at a lower cost.

Read the full report, A New Transparency for New York State, here. (PDF link)