Money in Politics in NY: July 25 Edition

New York Times Investigation Sheds Light on Moreland Commission’s Operations

According to an extensive investigation by the New York Times, the office of Governor Cuomo allegedly tried to control the operations of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, by steering its investigations away from groups that were politically connected to the governor. For example, when commission investigators sought to review political donations and communications by the Real Estate Board of New York—a trade group whose members include some of Cuomo’s biggest donors—in an effort to connect the dots on a valuable housing tax break, the governor’s secretary reportedly instructed commissioners not to subpoena the organization. Ultimately, the commission declined to do so, gaining information from a voluntary request instead.

In addition, although the investigation of independent expenditure groups was part of the commission’s mandate, the governor’s staff allegedly told commissioners not to mention a pro-Cuomo organization, the Committee to Save New York—which spent more than $16 million on lobbying and elections without fully disclosing the source of its contributions—in their final report. Governor Cuomo’s office released a statement contesting the characterization of events by the Times, arguing that since the commission was created by and reported to Cuomo, he could not “interfere” with it. Federal prosecutors are investigating the governor’s decision to shut down with commission. Before it was shuttered, the Moreland Commission recommended public campaign financing and other campaign finance fixes to address Albany’s culture of corruption, but the legislative session ended without meaningful reform. Read more…

D.C. Puts FOI Online Following New Open Gov Order

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 3.52.12 PMMayor Vincent Gray of Washington, D.C. issued a sweeping “Transparency, Open Government, and Open Data” executive order earlier this week. Under the order, agencies will be required to use a new centralized FOIL system, proactively publish whole categories (data sets, presumably of frequently-requested records) online, and make their data available in open formats.

Civ Source Online describes the portal:

At its launch, more than 50 District agencies will be included. Additional agencies will be added to the system in the next fiscal year.

The new DC Government Public FOIA Portal will allow requesters to submit public records requests for any of the participating agencies through a centralized website. The requests will be assigned a unique tracking number, and users will be able to track the status of the request. The system will also permit the District to generate reports to determine whether agencies are meeting their FOIA obligations in a timely manner. Other documents and data sets will be published to an online reading room.

We hope NYC follows D.C.’s lead, and surpasses it by passing the NYC Open Law and launching an even better FOIL website.

We should cut D.C. some slack, given the launch was just three days ago, but we do have to note that a quick glance at the DC FOIA portal’s “Reading Room” shows that the City is not following the Mayor’s Executive Order.

For instance, D.C.’s high-profile “Shotspotter” data is online in as non-machine readable, 1,666 page .PDF document instead of a .CSV or .XLS. This non-open format means two things: the file has to be processed, or “scraped,” before it can be analyzed or mapped, and the file is a whopping 550 megabytes which requires broadband to download. The data could be stored in a CSV file of less than a hundredth that size, and be usable in a spreadsheet.

As long as we’re talking D.C. Shotspotter, the data set bizarrely fails to provide a latitude for each gunshot incident; it only lists longitudes, which makes it impossible to determine where the incident occurred.

Reinvent MTA Transparency

In a series of letters and meetings over the last two years, Reinvent Albany and our colleagues in the NYC Transparency Working Group have been pushing the MTA to become more transparent through a slew of specific recommendations. Yesterday, Reinvent Albany asked the newly convened MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission (TRC), to recommend to the MTA that that agency “adopt transparency as a core value.”

Our testimony noted that the MTA’s public image and coffers have suffered from its historical lack of fiscal and spending transparency. When the public does not know how public money is being spent, it is less supportive of proving more funding. We outlined where the MTA needs to improve transparency, and how it can do so.

The MTA does not make available in a machine readable or “open data format” crucial information on:

  1. Their extensive real estate holdings, sales, purchases and leases.
  2. Details of professional fees, including legal and consulting services and bond underwriting.
  3. Contracts are in a 13,000 page pdf format that is difficult to use or analyze.
  4. Financial and budget briefings, voluminous documents converted from spreadsheets to non-usable pdf formats.
  5. Payments. State agencies report each payment online, the MTA does not.

The TRC’s next step will be to compile a report of recommendations to submit to the MTA so that the MTA can make the appropriate considerations for its Capital Plan which will be submitted to the Capital Program Review Board by October 1. We hope that the TRC will strongly recommend what we and other members of the NYC Transparency Working Group have been advocating for years – that the MTA make transparency one of their defining values.


Public Authorities Complaint Against Environmental Facilities Corporation

Reinvent Albany and other environmental and good government groups lodged a formal complaint against the Environmental Facilities Corporation today. The complaint asks the Authorities Budget Office to investigate the State Environmental Facilities Corporation for potential violations of the Public Authorities Reform Act it engaged in while fast tracking the approval of a $256m loan for the Thruway Authority to pay for Tappan Zee Bridge construction .  This is the first such action by Reinvent Albany, but we agree with our colleagues that the EFC appears to have blatantly violated its own rules and procedures.

1. The application for the loan to the Thruway was made months after the established deadline and went through no public review or comment period.

2. The Governor issued a press release announcing the approval of the loan ten days before the EFC board vote and three days before EFC board members recieved briefing materials.

3. The application was made on May 30, 2013 and the vote taken on June 26, 2014, but all required application documents were supposed to be received by February 3, 2014.

PARA Complaint vs EFC on Bridge Loan 7.16.12

Five Questions from Times-Union About Clean Water Raid

Reinvent Albany is part of a coalition of environmental and good government groups that opposes Governor Cuomo’s attempt to use State Clean Water State Revolving Fund money to pay for the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge. ( Reinvent Albany is involved as part of our ongoing advocacy to keep dedicated funds spent for their intended purpose. ) There have been eight newspaper editorials opposing or questioning the raid on Clean Water Funds. Today’s from the Albany Times Union calls on the state Public Authorities Board to ask five questions before approving the raid.

Times Union Editorial
July 16, 2014

The Cuomo administration wants to borrow environmental funds to help build a bridge.

It’s fair to ask if this is an appropriate use of the money and how it will affect taxpayers and motorists.

The Cuomo administration had a flip response for Assemblyman Tom Abinanti when he dared question the use of $511 million in clean water funds to help pay for a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Rather than address the issue directly, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority declared that the Democrat from Greenburgh “must also be in favor of higher tolls.”

It was right up there with the sardonic “Why do you hate freedom?” retort that made the rounds during the Iraq War, when anyone who questioned the conflict — today widely viewed as an unnecessary and costly adventure — was subject to having their patriotism questioned. In this case, it’s a transparent attempt by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and the Thruway Authority to change the subject — though, curiously, to another topic they don’t want to discuss, namely, bridge tolls.

Yet perhaps the administration will not be so contemptuous or evasive when it goes Wednesday before the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, which will consider whether the Environmental Facilities Corp. should loan more than a half-billion dollars to the Thruway Authority.

Here, then, are five questions a board that is supposed to be looking out for the public’s interest should demand answers to:

1. Is this what the Environmental Facilities Corp. is for? The EFC normally deals with such things as clean water and drinking water projects, solid waste disposal, and sewage treatment. While the state says the funding would help the bridge project be more environmentally friendly, is loaning this money mainly to build a bridge in line with EFC’s mission?

2. Would this loan endanger federal funds? The EFC depends on annual federal grants. The state has been trying to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that, with a more than $600 million surplus on hand because communities haven’t been borrowing the money, this is a good use for the unspent money.

3. Why aren’t communities tapping these funds? Is it just the current economic climate and tight budgets? Or has the state made it more difficult to get EFC funds? Have state policies forced communities to tighten their belts so much that they can’t take on even no-interest loans for much-needed pollution projects?

4. Where is the money coming from to repay the loan? Any lender would insist on knowing this.

5. How will this affect tolls or taxes? The Cuomo administration and the Thruway Authority say this will keep tolls down, but they refuse to show hard numbers. What would the bridge tolls be, with and without the funding? How might tolls or even taxes figure in?

If cogent, comprehensive answers aren’t forthcoming from the administration, the EFC, and the authority, here’s one more entirely fair question to ask: Why do you hate sunshine?