Money in Politics in New York: May 23 Edition

Big Donors Sign Letter Asking Gov. Cuomo and Legislature to Reform Campaign Finance
Nearly 140 major political donors, including more than 50 fund-raisers for President Obama, have signed a letter to support the public financing of campaigns in New York. In the wake of a series of corruption scandals that have tarnished Albany, the signatories are calling for immediate action by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The donors support the popular New York City small donor matching system as a solution to many of the problems that ail state politics. In New York City, contributions up to $175 are matched with public funds by a factor of six. The signatories include hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman, venture capitalist Alan Patricof, movie director Rob Reiner and Espirit clothing company founder Susie Buell, among others. All told, the donors have raised or contributed at least $50 million for federal candidates and parties in recent years. The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone. As Ellen Chesler, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute explained, “We know how the system works from the inside, and we know it needs change.” Read more…

Vito Lopez: Genius at Perverting Government

It’s no secret that Vito Lopez is much more than a garden variety pervert. For decades he has been one of the most powerful figures in Albany. In his own way, the man is a genius. If there was a Corruption Hall of Fame, Vito would be on the first team, up there with legendary names like Boss Tweed.  Vito is being forced out of public office because of public outrage over his persistent, grotesque sexual harassment of young female staff members — and he should be. But it’s worth recalling how little public outrage there has been at Vito’s ruthless perversion of New York’s generous social welfare system.  Lopez basically wrote the modern playbook on how to use a publicly funded social service agency  to build a political empire and reward friends with jobs and lucrative salaries. (Pedro Espada gets honorable mention in this category for his  systematic exploitation of Medicaid using his Bronx-based, Soundview Health System. )

The outlines of Lopez’s empire of influence peddling have been described many times, but for the unfamiliar, here’s a synopsis. In 1973 Lopez founded the non-profit Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. Under Lopez, the group used city and state contracts and grants to provide services to seniors, and to buy and rehabilitate abandoned or tax delinquent properties.  After he was elected to the state assembly in 1984, Lopez used the center as a power base to reward supporters, relatives and friends with high paying jobs and housing.  The center was notorious for the enormity of the city and state contracts and grants it received and Lopez’s blatant nepotism. Lopez’s campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher served as executive director and was paid $607,000 a year in 2010, before being indicted. Lopez’s long-time girlfriend Angela Battaglia, remains at the center as assistant executive director.

But despite being under intense scrutiny from the state and city, the center is still heavily populated by Lopez loyalists;  ten Ridgewood-Bushwick employees recently donated to Vito Lopez’s City Council Campaign, including Jeanne Laino, the executive director and Battaglia. Despite the scandal and investigations, Ridgewood-Bushwick also continues to be heavily funded by New York State and City tax payers. As of May 17, 2013, the center had $32 million in active city contracts and about $19 million in contracts with the state. But this may understate the size of Vito’s publicly funded empire. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism counts 80 separate legal subsidiaries of Ridgewood-Bushwick.
We’re glad to see Vito out of office, but we wonder what would have happened if Vito had kept his hands to himself and been content to simply pervert government, rather than be a pervert.

More on Vito Lopez’s empire of corruption.

White House Upgrades Open Data Policy

On Thursday, President Obama issued an executive order building off his earlier orders and OMB memos like the Open Government Directive, the Managing Government Records Directive, and projects like the Open Government Platform. It’s called “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information“, and it continues to push federal agencies toward meaningful open data. The OMB has placed a number of major requirements on federal agencies:

  1. Create datasets from collected information with the expectation that data will be used by other sources; keep information machine-readable.
  2. All agencies must internally catalog and index their datasets in both human- and machine-readable formats.
  3. Agencies must publish the portions of the indexes containing datasets which could be made public. (e.g. which do not contain Federal secrets or social security numbers or the like.)
  4. Agencies must create a forum for public dialogue, where members of the public to request certain datasets be prioritized over others.

These are all promising steps, and the White House has created a Github repository with best practices and policies for agencies to learn from and share their experiences, as well as case studies, tools, and various written resources for officials and open government advocates alike.

“Harshest critics of corruption and waste”

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman  seems  ready  to do more to fight corruption.

“And public confidence in government is very important to me. I’m a Democrat and I tell my fellow Democrats it is the party that tells voters the public sector can be a force for good, we have to be the harshest critics of corruption and waste and fraud in government.”

— NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, May 2012

Halleluiah Mr. Schneiderman. We couldn’t agree more. This why we hope that you use the powers you already have to help change things.  There are many things that Governor Cuomo and Comptroller DiNapoli can also do using their existing powers, and we’ll get to them shortly. But your remarks suggest you are motivated to take on a bigger role in this fight.

Things AG Scheiderman can do now to fight corruption

1. Convene an expert corruption risk task force and issue a report identifying state spending and processes vulnerable to abuse and pay to play, and how to reduce that risk with transparency, better reporting, and other safeguards. NY has a wealth of knowledgeable Albany hands across the ideological spectrum that you could draw on, for instance, Richard Brodsky, David Grandeau, Rose Gill Hearn, Blair Horner and EJ McMahon. Maybe they can be done in conjunction with the Comptroller’s Office.

2. Improve non-profit transparency by upgrading the AG’s Charities website and posting state disclosure forms for all charities that receive government funds in a machine searchable and readable format.

3. Upgrade the AG’s and Foster “Transparency Apps” using API software code. This will allow other government agencies and watchdog groups to easily combine political contribution data on the NYOG site with state and city contracting and public expenditure data.

Money in Politics in New York, May 6 Edition

Jerome Kohlberg Explains Why Business Leaders are Standing Behind Campaign Finance ReformIn a Crain’s New York Business op-ed, New York LEAD member Jerome Kohlberg explains why the business community supports campaign finance reform. New York was recently reminded how rampant corruption is in the state after the arrest of two state lawmakers in separate bribery scandals. Business leaders understand that honest and open government is necessary for a prosperous business climate to thrive. Public policy decisions and electoral outcomes should not be decided by who gave the biggest check. Dysfunction, backroom deals, and influence peddling are far too often the norm in Albany. This is why 72 percent of business leaders support creating a system that matches small donations with public funds, along with other comprehensive reforms that can empower average citizens to participate in state government. In New York City, these reforms have already allowed a more diverse range of candidates to run competitive campaigns and involved more constituents in the electoral process. It is time for New York State to follow through.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Editorial Asks Cuomo to Propose Reform Legislation or Endorse Assembly Speaker Silver’s Bill
In a Monday editorial, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicleencouraged Governor Andrew Cuomo to propose new laws that ensure greater accountability from our elected officials. The governor has endorsed campaign contribution limits and matching campaign donations less than $250 with state funds as key reforms for the future of New York. These measures can go far to help regenerate public confidence in our state institutions. Cuomo should propose his own legislation or endorse Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s bill for campaign finance reform. Campaign finance reform and early voting can help reduce the influence of well-heeled special interests and increase grassroots participation.

Daily News Editorial: Enforcement of Law is Key Component of Reducing Corruption
In late April, Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a new watchdog to enforce New York’s campaign finance laws. The indictments of former State Senator Malcolm Smith and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for bribery led the Governor to propose new ideas to combat corruption including harsher punishments for corruption, giving prosecutors greater investigative powers and cracking down on campaign finance violations. The Daily News editorialized in favor of enforcement this week. The Fair Elections campaign has consistently called for enforcement as one of four key reforms, along with public financing, lower contribution limits, and disclosure. Currently, the State Board of Elections has no staff committed to conducting investigations. With such lax enforcement, former Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada got away with failing to disclose his finances for 15 years. Politicians and donors routinely violate contribution limits and disclosure rules without any consequences. The Daily News advised Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to create an enforcement agency that is (a) independent of the State Board of Elections, (b) has investigative authority, (c) is equipped with subpoena power, (d) can prosecute offenders in civil and criminal courts and (e) receives adequate funds and staff.

Richard Davis: Matching Small Donations Can Change Albany’s Culture of Corruption
Richard J. Davis, a former Watergate prosecutor and a member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and New York LEAD, wrote anop-ed in Long Island Newsday advocating for the adoption of public financing in New York State. Although Governor Andrew Cuomo has unveiled legislation that will give prosecutors greater authority to punish corrupt politicians, without systematic changes to our campaign finance laws, Albany still remains the Wild West of money in politics. As a former prosecutor, Davis sees a connection between porous campaign finance laws and corruption. At a time when we should be enfranchising citizens so they can hold elected officials accountable, repeat scandals are tuning voters out of the political process. In the New York City small-donor matching-funds system, candidates can rely on their constituents for campaign expenses rather than a few wealthy special interests. By contrast, at the state level, sky-high contribution limits and a myriad of loopholes allow State legislators to fundraise outside of their home districts from lobbyists and special interests. A report last year showed that only three out of 575 donors to former State Senator Pedro Espada Jr.’s campaign – who faced federal and state corruption investigations – were residents of his district.

Public Financing Bill Introduced by NY Senate Independent Democratic Conference
The New York Senate Independent Democratic Conference introduced acampaign finance reform bill this week with Senate Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein as the chief sponsor. The bill includes public matching funds for small donations, restrictions on fund transfers between candidate campaign committees and political party committees, dramatically lower limits on contributions to campaigns and parties, ceilings on contributions by those doing business with the state, and greater disclosure of outside spending. The bill, S04897, would utilize unique sources of financing for the public matching component including transfers from the abandoned property fund to a campaign finance fund, an optional tax return check-off and a surcharge on securities fines that Speaker Silver’s bill also includes.

Hearings on Senate IDC Reform Bill
Hearings on the Independent Democratic Conference’s bill for campaign finance reform were held on Wednesday in New York City. A series of additional hearings are scheduled over the next month across the state. Before the hearing, the Fair Elections for New York coalitionheld a press conference with supporters to encourage Legislators to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. David Donnelly, Executive Director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, stated that “New Yorkers know that reforming the pay-to-play system in a way that lifts up the voices of everyday people is the best answer to the corruption scandals of the past months and years.” Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, also present at the conference said that “One too many corruption scandals have finally tipped the scales of decency, and the voters are crying out for campaign finance reform built around a system of public matching funds.” Representatives from more than 10 groupstestified at the hearing that followed. Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center, informed the lawmakers about the benefits of public funding systems as evinced by clean elections in states such as Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, as well as New York City. “At bottom, opponents of comprehensive reform are defenders of the status quo, champions of a system that works for lobbyists and special interests, but not every day New Yorkers,” Vandewalker stated.