Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No More Gotcha Games

The governor and the legislative leaders are having a hard time finding people willing to serve on the new integrity panel. And it’s no wonder why. The last panel, the Commission on Public Integrity, ruined several careers and tarnished others. (See Feerick, Teitelbaum, Cherkasky and Ginsburg.)

This is a difficult situation for the governor and the leaders. They want people who have solid reputations for integrity, but they also want people who are sensible and won’t engage in the kind of gotcha games for which the old panel was famous. (Remember the ridiculous hors d’ourves decision?)

The answer? Change the focus and change the people.

First, it is not necessary nor desirable that everyone on the new panel be a lawyer. Having some smart people from other walks of life, including former journalists and public officials, would be an improvement.

In this regard, I believe the new panel should actually be more journalistic than prosecutorial.
The old panel was set up by Spitzer as a Star Chamber. The commissioners were empowered to pass judgment on people and that’s what they did. There were no evidentiary standards, and no real recourse for anyone to challenge the system.
One minute the commissioners were throwing the book at someone for trivial offenses and the next they were looking the other way or worse tipping off the targets. They did it all in private, and they didn’t have to explain themselves.
All of that must change.

Maybe that was the product of a commission made up of former prosecutors and staffed by lawyers that wanted to be prosecutors. I’ve never been a prosecutor nor would I have the first idea how to be one but the old lobby commission did just fine with commissioners who were not lawyers much less prosecutors. It worked because they had a wide diversity of experience and for most of them a commitment to do what was right.

The new panel should strive for better and conduct almost all of its activities in the open. Investigations should be conducted privately, but they are only a small part of the larger mission of information collection and publication. The panel should publish all of its data and findings in real time and on the web.

This was another problem with the old commission. It supposedly looked into matters, but often never said what it found. And after it was revealed to have leaked information to the governor’s office about an inquiry, every action by the commission was suspect.

Instead of trying to be integrity G-men the new panel should focus on building a staff of motivated individuals that understand the value of information, how to get it and what to do with it. The best integrity officials let the facts speak for themselves, and there is always plain logic to their actions – not suspense or intrigue or surprise. The best integrity officials do not play gotcha games.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Insider X

One of the key goals we have for the new blog is to give a voice to people on the inside who want to tell their story but are afraid to do so because of the possibility of retribution. Our hope is that informed people will, with the assurance of confidentiality, use this blog to relay information that is in the public interest.
We’re pleased to report that just such a person contacted us and asked if we would publish his/her comments on Governor Cuomo’s new Citizens Connect website. Without editorial comment on our part, here is the account of “Insider X:”
“On the surface, the website might look like a great thing, but the truth is that the administration is only providing information they want people to see. The administration is not releasing the governor’s actual schedules, which show everyone he met with. Previous governors always did this -- albeit with redactions.

The reporters who cover the capitol know this, but they seem to have concluded there’s nothing they can do about it. But there is. There is another way for them to figure out who is meeting with the governor. There’s a sign-in book on the second floor of the State Capitol. The previous administration set it up. At the time they did it, it was hailed by the NY Post as a reform. It was called a “lobbyist registry” and it was supposed to reveal the names of everyone a lobbyist would meet with in the governor’s office -- not only to the governor but senior staff members as well.

This information was and is FOIL-able. All a reporter has to do is ask for it. If reporters get this sign in book and compare it to the scheduling information postedon the Citizen Connect site, they’ll find out what the governor and his people are hiding.”

The views expressed by “Insider X” are not necessarily those of the “I for Integrity” blog. We make no claim as to the veracity of the insider’s comments. Our goal here is to provide a forum for others. Hopefully Insider X will spawn Insider Y and Z.

“Aw, Come On, Dave”

I get this comment a lot. People say: “Why do you get so worked up about things. Does it really matter?”

I always respond by saying that ethics in government does matter, and it starts with those who enforce the laws. We need aggressive and fair enforcement to keep people honest. Unfortunately, we have nothing. That’s right, as I’ve written before and will continue to write, there is no functioning state integrity panel at this time.
And what difference does it make? Well, each and every day there are meetings and other interactions between government officials and those who want to influence their decisions. This process is supposed to proceed according to certain rules and regulations, but it is not happening properly.

In this regard, I recently reviewed Governor Cuomo’s new “Citizens Connect” website and guess what I found? Many of the people who met with the governor and his staff aren’t registered as lobbyists, and yet they appear to have been engaged in lobbying activity.

Here’s one example:
On June 13, the Governor met with Brian Ellner of the Human Rights Campaign, Mark Solomon from Freedom to Marry and Cathy Marino-Thomas of Marriage Equality NY. None of these individuals is registered as a lobbyist. Now it is possible that their activities did not meet the threshold necessary to lobby, but someone needs to check. (Key questions include: What subsequent meetings did these individuals have? Did they make the rounds with lawmakers?)

This particular meeting in the governor’s office also included Jennifer Cunningham from SKD Knickerbocker. I remember Jennifer telling the media she would not be lobbying this governor. Now maybe she was just present at the meeting and didn’t “advocate,” but, again, someone needs to check.

Why does this matter? Because the law is the law. It is there for a purpose and that purpose is to reveal the forces seeking to influence the decisions of elected officials. The law does not differentiate between lobbying for historic civil rights for gays and lesbians and lobbying for a tobacco company.

To the contrary, the law holds (or should hold) everyone accountable to the same standard. But this isn’t happening in New York. As a result, we may have a situation in which the lack of proper oversight and enforcement has opened the door for “special interests” being placed ahead of the public interest.

I can hear my friends in the Cuomo administration now: “Aw, come on, Dave. You’re talking about us. We ALWAYS adhere to the highest ethical standards.”

Yes. The Spitzer people, who all hailed from Harvard, Princeton and Yale (and made sure we all knew it), said that, too. And look how that turned out.

“Dave, you’re getting worked up again.”

Yes, I am. I spent just 20 minutes on this website and found several potential violations of the law. This makes me wonder what else is going on? What other violations are occurring? It also reinforces something I’ve learned since I left the old Lobby Commission -- sometimes people just make an innocent mistake. When they do, it’s up to authorities to differentiate between the innocent oversight and the intentional violation.
No, I don’t think the gay advocates and Jennifer are bad people. Nor do I think they meant to do anything wrong, and they may not have. But their conduct needs to be reviewed along with everyone else.

It is imperative that the governor and legislative leaders move as soon as possible to establish a new integrity panel. The lack of such a panel is undermining the integrity of state government.

This matters. It really does.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mamound and Andrew

What does the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran have in common with the governor of New York?

Well, if you write out the name Mamound Ahmadinejad on a piece of paper fold it in half and turn it upside down and look at it in a mirror, it will spell Andrew Mark Cuomo. (and if you tried that please stop reading the blog and run for office)

The other thing is that the both Ahmadinejad and Cuomo have in common is a real penchant for overstatement.

Mamound declared the other day: “Iran is a model for the rest of the world!”

And Andrew proclaimed with similar passion: “I said my administration would be the most open and transparent in history, and with this effort we’re showing that we are!”

The effort Cuomo was referring to is a new website that purports to disclose all sorts of information about the governor’s office that has “never been revealed before.”

Pause. Catch breath. Continue.

Ok … the governor is doing a good thing here. The website is rather promotional, but it is informative. But I do have a few questions. If the administration is sooooo open:

Why was it such a hassle to get the administration to reveal the names of the financial backers for the Committee to Save New York?

Why was the entire budget process conducted behind closed doors by the governor and the leaders?

Why has there been a blackout on information about appointments to the new state integrity panel?

What was the big deal over records on the use of the state aircraft?

Why are all the reporters who cover state government complaining about the way they are treated?

No, Cuomo is not Ahmadinejad. He’s no despot. It’s just that he’s been laying it on really thick of late, and nobody seems to want to challenge him.

Here’s my point: Not challenging elected officials is a bad thing. It’s bad for the public and bad for the official. It’s what produces people like Amandinejad.

No matter how good a politician is doing in the polls, it’s no excuse for the media and the rest of us not to challenge him. And in that regard, maybe the governor will answer this additional question: “What second floor meetings with disgraced soon to be former PIC Executive Director Barry Ginsberg did you leave off the list that was published on the new website?”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Missing in Action: State Lawmakers

The function of the state legislature is to provide oversight of the executive branch and its administration of state government.

I read this recently in my son’s social studies textbook and it got me thinking: Are our state lawmakers really providing meaningful oversight of the administration?

A few years ago, it seemed that public hearings were being held on just about everything that Spitzer or Paterson was doing, but now there’s almost nothing.

I actually checked the public hearing schedule for the Senate and Assembly and didn’t find much at all. There’s some activity with gaming and fracking, but it seems like redistricting is the main issue for lawmakers. Numerous hearings are planned on that next month.

But what about all the other program areas that are so critical to ordinary New Yorkers in their daily lives? What about economic development, education, ethics, and health care?

Well, there doesn’t appear to be much happening. And this is despite the fact that the governor has implemented sweeping changes in each area. For example: In economic development, the governor scrapped existing job creation programs in favor of the regional council approach. In education, the governor implemented the largest school aid cut in history. In ethics, he eliminated the scandal-plagued Public Integrity Commission, but hasn’t constituted a replacement. In health care, he redesigned the entire Medicaid system.

To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a recent public hearing or community forum on any of these topics, nor is there anything scheduled.

So are state lawmakers doing their jobs? Are they closely monitoring developments and checking to see that these new policies are working?

We’d all like to think that they are, but I don’t see much evidence of it.

Sooo…. How does one explain this situation to a young student? How does one do it without sounding awfully cynical? If you can’t explain it to your children it’s time to change it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Grandeau: “Mr. Nicey Nice”

I’m going to try to write this post with calm detachment and the utmost professionalism.
Understand, of course, that I want to curse up a storm. I want to savage the hypocrisy and incompetence of some of the people involved.
But no, I’ll be Mr. Nicey Nice.
I woke up this morning and read a very interesting article. It was about the salary of the CEO of a not-for-profit founded by Governor Cuomo and closely associated with the Cuomo family. It turns out that this CEO received a good salary, well above half a million dollars. In the non-profit world, this is rather generous, but it is not illegal and may not even be improper because the entity involved is a large national organization that has been quite successful in its mission.
And yet, something must be amiss because the CEO – who is related to Cuomo by marriage -- resigned abruptly, and nobody seems to want to defend him or his salary.
I don’t know why this is the case, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Cuomo administration is investigating excessive non-profit executive salaries. Whatever.
The thing that surprised me about this article was a quote from Barry Ginsberg, the soon to be former head of the Public Integrity Commission. Mr. Ginsberg said this: “There is nothing under the ethics section of the Public Officers Law that specifically speaks to the situation of a public officer having a relative as an official for a not-for-profit.”
Where to begin? Well, let’s start with this. The chief ethics enforcement official in the state should not be commenting on matters that have a possibility of becoming a subject of investigation by his office.  And they certainly shouldn’t do so in a way that appears to sanction the conduct in question.
If they do comment on a matter, they should have their facts straight. In reality, Mr. Ginsberg’s comments are wrong. There are several sections of the public officers law that would give his office the right – and perhaps the obligation -- to review this matter.
Moreover, before commenting, Mr. Ginsberg might want to consider the relevance of his statements to any number of ongoing cases, not the least of which is the Pedro Espada matter.
Think about this strictly hypothetical situation: What if Andrew Cuomo, as governor or as attorney general, did not recuse himself and was actually involved in decisions that benefitted his family’s non-profit.  Wouldn’t the Public Integrity Commission have to investigate?
For all these reasons and more, I think Mr. Ginsberg’s comments were unwise.
There, I did it. I was thoughtful, fair and ever so polite. And now I think I’m going to puke.
Whoa Whoa stop the clock! What is really going on here? Could it be that Barry is trying to curry favor with Cuomo? He is known to be trying to get another job in the administration. Is he showing the administration how “helpful” he can be on matters of ethics? Does he now expect them to return the favor? Or have they already found Barry a new job and Barry’s comments are just another installment on the debt he believes he owes?
Here’s another set of concerns: Barry’s wife is part of an organization regulated by the commission. A while back, she failed to timely file the required registration disclosure to the commission. Was her organization fined like so many others? Nope.
Given the fact that he is looking for or has received a job with the administration, and given his wife’s situation, Barry’s comments would appear to raise the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Barry could be guilty of the same ethics law violation that he charged so many others with – a failure to recognize the appearance of conflict of interest.  And who is left to investigate?  Only the Inspector General and they are already investigating Barry’s role in SUNYBRUNOGATE.  At least that prevents Barry from taking a job with the IG, could you imagine?
There now. I’ve said what I really think. I feel better now, but don’t you, dear reader, feel sick?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grading the Watchdogs

Summer vacation is over and the Labor Day weekend is past. Now it’s time to get back to work in earnest. But first, we should take stock of everyone’s performance during the last political cycle in Albany. I’m not talking about politicians, but the people who are supposed to monitor the politicians.

Let’s start with the good government groups. I love my goo-goo friends, but, honestly, they just haven’t been the same since Blair Horner departed. Blair was their Pope, Rabbi, Sachem and Guru. Without him, they lack direction and cohesiveness. Case in point: The state is currently without any ethics enforcement capability thanks to the continuing failure of the Governor and leaders to appoint commissioners to a new ethics panel. The response from the groups: Silence from some, and from others a soothing “Don’t worry. Self policing works.”

Let’s turn to the Fourth Estate. There is only one word to describe the LCA – jaded. Reporters rely on the public officials they cover to make their jobs easier by providing them leads and story ideas. The end result is the media is afraid to bite the hand that feeds them. As a result, the unbiased truth resulting from honest investigative journalism has become a rare treat.

Now let’s consider the official watchdogs one by one:
The Feds: Yes, they are plodding. Yes, the Bruno case got complicated. Yes, when it comes to information they eat like elephants and crap like mice, but they are the only real cops in town. The Kruger/Boyland/Seminerio/Leibell cases and the AEG case are evidence of that.

The Attorney General: He hasn't come roaring out of the gate. But neither did Spitzer or Cuomo. Casework being done now will result in headlines next year. So it’s really too early to tell. That said, I’d like to see Eric Schneiderman be more visible and more aggressive in using the bully pulpit.

The Comptroller: Everyone I know regards Tom Dinapoli as a kind and decent man, but no one I know regards him as aggressive. His integrity unit has had personal integrity problems of their own. There is a tremendous opportunity to be an ethics watchdog in this office but it has gone unutilized. The office reflects the man who occupies it.

The State Inspector General: Something tells me she's not Joe Fisch in a dress, but, again, it is too early to tell. She needs time to prove herself. I do have this major personal issue with the way she is being repeatedly characterized in the media as a former top staffer and close aide to the governor. If I were her and saw a characterization like that, I would call an immediate news conference to say the following: “I want you all to know that my former association with the Governor means absolutely nothing. My obligation is to the people of New York and if I find evidence of wrongdoing I will pursue it relentlessly no matter where it leads.” And then I’d back it up with actions.

COPI: What can I say that I haven’t said already many times. Oh wait, how about this: I recently received a tip that at least one member of the commission may have been acting a lobbyist while still serving on the commission. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it is. From the beginning, this commission has made a mockery of ethics enforcement. They gave us the dubious distinction of being the only ethics panel in the nation to be cited for unethical conduct by not one but two law enforcement officials. (I’ll also be keeping a close eye on where Barry Ginsberg lands. If the Cuomo administration provides him a soft landing, one would have to question if it was a quid pro quo for his prior work on integrity issues related to the governor’s close friends and confidants.) And while I’m thinking about COPI, can someone explain how they are still performing audits when the new bill prohibited any investigatory action? I wondered why the auditors were not laid off. This is a complete waste of state resources.

This brings me to me. How should I be graded in my role as a watchdog and advocate for ethics in government? Well, perhaps you’ll give me a small amount of credit for speaking my mind. Not enough people are willing to do that nowadays, especially with regard to the new administration. I also think it can be fairly said that I’m an equal-opportunity critic (some say crank). I play no favorites. I don’t believe that ethics is a partisan issue. This said, I feel as though I’ve failed in an important respect. I just haven’t been able to get enough people to care, to really and truly care, about ethics. Despite my best efforts, there’s no sense of outrage at the abuses that have occurred and are still occurring. In fact, a lot of people, including many reporters, just yawn. Perhaps my fixation on getting rid of COPI and its leaders caused me to take my eye off the ball. Alas, if nothing else, I’m stubborn and I will continue to try to change this unhealthy situation.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ensuring the Integrity of Gaming in NY

The redoubtable James Featherstonhaugh made a presentation to a Senate committee recently and pleaded the case for “enhanced” gaming at the state’s existing racinos. His main point was that it makes no sense for New York to prohibit table games and other forms of gaming that are currently legal in neighboring states and Canada. He said New York is losing more than $5 billion a year as New Yorkers travel to those other venues to gamble.

It’s hard to argue with his reasoning, especially given the sorry state of New York’s economy, and yet…

We need to keep in mind the dubious history of this industry. It’s a sector that has been linked at times with organized crime. It’s a sector associated with various social ills. And it is a sector that has had far more than its share of scandals involving elected officials.

Thanks to very tight regulation and aggressive oversight bodies, some states, such as Nevada, have controlled these problems, but ethical breaches still occur. That’s why New York needs to think carefully about how it can better monitor its gaming industry.

Here’s an idea for New York policymakers to consider:

Why not create an entity in New York that would be an analog of the famed Nevada Gaming Commission? This body’s mission would be to ensure the integrity of gaming in New York. This responsibility is now split among various state agencies and oversight bodies without a single, bright-line set of rules for gaming interests to follow.

Establishing such a panel wouldn’t be difficult. You could draft someone from the State Police, the Comptroller’s Office, AG’s office and Racing and Wagering Board to staff it. You would then charge the panel with conducting a periodic reviews of the entities involved in gambling activities in New York.

Heeding the lessons that should have been learned by recent history in New York, we should ensure that the members of this review panel aren’t the friends and associates of prominent politicians, that they follow accepted oversight practices, and, most important, that they conduct themselves in the open.

I haven’t talked to Feathers about this, but I would think that he and his industry colleagues would welcome the concept, reasoning that anything that levels the playing field for honest business operators is a good thing. In fact, they probably ought to get together and pitch in the resources to adequately fund the panel.

Now some might say: Is this really needed? In answering that question, I would point to the glaring example of Aqueduct, where we are still awaiting the fallout from federal investigations of the whole AEG mess.

For these reasons and more, I think a rigorous oversight panel could help make casino gaming a better bet in New York.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The New “I for Integrity”

Today marks the beginning of a new phase for the “I for Integrity” blog. For some time, I’ve been toying with notion of broadening its subject matter. A number of people encouraged me to do this, but I was a little hesitant. The reason is simple. When I was involved in ethics law enforcement, I always sought to avoid commenting in ways that might be construed as partisan. That served me well for a long time. People may have disagreed with me, but at least they didn’t think I was being “political.”
I don’t want to do anything now to jeopardize that standing, but I do want to speak more generally about matters of ethics, accountability and state policy. I think it will make the blog more interesting.

I also want to do something else. I want to work in tips and suggestions that often come to me from people in government and from ordinary citizens. People tell me things because they think I’m independent and not afraid to ruffle a few feathers. I appreciate their faith in me and I don’t want to disappoint them.

To help me with the expanded blog, I’ve recruited some friends and former associates to participate in a kind of informal advisory board. They’ll help me with the subject matter, and also with my tone, which I know can be a little edgy at times.

I’m very excited about our new effort. The goal is to be a kind of plain-spoken “conscience of Albany.” No, I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers, but I do want to weigh in constructively and say things that need to be said.

I hope you enjoy the blog.

“Delay of Game”

Our new governor has done many things right, but his handling of ethics law enforcement is an open question.
Think of the Governor as the quarterback on a football team who has called a new play. He abolished the old state ethics panel and established a new one. This is a good move that was announced with a lot of fanfare. It was called the “Clean Up Albany Act” and the New York Post proclaimed that “Crooked pols are running for the exits.”

The problem isn’t the play itself, but its execution, or rather the lack of execution. It’s been nearly four months since the new panel was announced and it hasn’t been constituted yet. In the meantime, the predecessor Public Integrity Commission has gone out of business. And so, as I write this, there is no ethics law enforcement in New York. That’s right – there’s no one to investigate a violation, no one to follow up on a tip regarding potential wrongdoing.
Supposedly, the governor and his people are busy trying to find the right appointees to the panel – but there’s been no word on how the process is proceeding and that’s a concern in its own right.

Given the storm clouds that surrounded the Public Integrity Commission, doesn’t it stand to reason that there should be more openness and transparency regarding appointments to the new panel? For the new panel to do its job properly, we need people of real integrity and independence. And in this regard, the best thing the governor could do is appoint people with whom he has no prior relationship and no connection. He should do so right away and set an example for the legislative leaders who also have appointments to the panel.
I really hope the governor avoids the typical politician’s mistake of appointing people who are friends and associates. That may work in the short term, but, later, when judgments are made on controversial cases, there’ll be an appearance of a conflict. That is inevitable.
The issues I’ve raised here can certainly be resolved, but the governor needs to focus on the matter and get it done. He needs to do it now. It’s simply outrageous that the State of New York has no working ethics panel.

Back to the sports metaphor: I’m not prepared to say that the governor has fumbled the ball on ethics, but he and the legislative leaders should be called for delay of game.

Tell the Truth, Tell it All, Tell it Now

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come under fire in recent days for the way he handled the departure of his deputy mayor for operations, Stephen Goldsmith.
When Goldsmith resigned last month, the Bloomberg administration (and Bloomberg himself) said he was leaving to pursue other professional opportunities. But the real reason involved a domestic altercation with his wife.
Much has been made of the misleading comments at the time of the resignation, but, to my mind, the real problem came two days earlier. That’s when Goldsmith was arrested and held for 24 hours. This development should have been disclosed immediately by the administration. It is certainly news when the mayor’s top aide has been jailed.
Instead, Bloomberg and his people apparently tried to “manage the media,” a strategy that almost always backfires. It was sure to backfire given the nature of the incident, which is reminiscent of the situation involving Governor Paterson’s top aide David Johnson in 2009.
Domestic abuse is a scourge with devastating effects on the adults involved and their children. Our society still struggles to address this problem, and looks to its elected officials to make sure that law enforcement agencies and social service providers are doing all they can to recognize it and prevent it. In his role as one of the mayor’s top aides, Goldsmith oversaw the city’s police department, which plays an enormous role in the city’s response to domestic violence.
For all these reasons and more, the mayor should have recognized the need for full and timely disclosure of the arrest. Had that occurred, the Goldsmith’s subsequent resignation would have resolved the matter without the need for further comment by the mayor. But because that didn’t happen, the mayor’s adversaries can now (with cause) draw out the process of investigation and fault finding.
The way to avoid these dramas is to follow the dictum: “Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it now.”