Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat (old school style)

Just when you think the folks at the public integrity commission are dead and buried they rise up like zombies to bite themselves and anyone associated with them in the ass.  Take a look at this item:

I know Richard Emery and his partner Andrew Celli. Both were PIC commissioners at one time or another (at the same time for a while).
And while I have disagreed with them on occasion I believe both genuinely wanted to follow the law when it came to ethics. So to learn that Richard Emery’s firm was registered as a lobbyist while he was a commissioner of the public integrity commission came as a bit of a shock.

To learn that Richard thought he no longer was a commissioner when his name was still on the letterhead 3 months after he registered must have come as a bigger shock to Richard. To learn that the Chairwomen Mitra Hormozi had no knowledge of this at all is also shocking.

So who is to blame for all this shocking information? I think the executive director Barry Ginsberg is to blame. He is the day to day head of the agency; he should have known one of his commissioners was a partner in a lobbying firm. He should have counseled Mr. Emery about the conflict it presented. After all this wasn’t the first commissioner that was part of a lobbying firm (I’ve blogged about all the commissioners with conflicts before). He should have informed his chairwomen so that she could have been prepared for the press inquiry.

And he should tell the public why Mr. Emery’s lobbying registration is still not available for public review some 3 months after the registration.

Why is it being hidden?

I hope the Cuomo administration knows what they are in for if they give Barry a job in their administration, either he doesn’t know what’s going on in his agency or he does and is purposely trying to hide the information, either way it spells trouble for those involved.

But don’t worry NYPIRG in the form of Russ Haven will come riding in to rescue us all. They’ve called for Richard’s resignation. Here’s a hint Russ if you are going to call for the resignation of PIC commissioners that are part of organizations regulated by the PIC the list has more than one name on it.
Count on Russ to come late to this party.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rhetoric on Rhetoric

Nobody gives a good speech anymore. Nobody addresses the broad challenges of the times. Nobody tries to inspire people. Today’s rhetoric is all about moving swing votes in elections, which in the US seems to be getting more and more polarized and trivial.
It’s not just that nobody gives a good speech anymore; it’s that nobody tries. Think about it: When was the last time somebody in public life in New York stood up to give an important speech?
The person I’d really like to see try is Andrew Cuomo. I am absolutely convinced that he could do it, and do it well, but he seems to have avoided anything resembling a policy address. The only possible exception came four days into his administration when he delivered his State of the State remarks. Remember? He skipped out of the Assembly Chamber, and did it in the convention center. The tone was quite unusual. He had video props that included caricatures of himself and the other leaders as ships passing in the night.
One reason Cuomo might shy away from traditional speechmaking is probably because of the incessant comparisons to his father. That has to be annoying for him. And perhaps in the back of his mind, he’s thinking that it’s better to get results than to make speeches. I agree, but I still can’t help thinking that he could and should do more.
For example, he could explain the new Cuomo-ism, which is anything but the policy approach of his father.
He could lay out a plan and strategy for dealing with the economy. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” was supposed to be the focus, but, recently, the administration has been spinning the line that the states can’t do anything about the economy; it’s all about national trends. By that reasoning, we shouldn’t care about education because it’s all about the example set by parents.
He could address the whole Wall Street thing. Some 82 countries are now protesting (in a sense) New York and New Yorkers. Shouldn’t someone come to our defense? Why not our most prominent and articulate native son?
There’s actually any number of topics for the governor to chose, including ethics. And it’s not like the governor is the only articulate leader we have. Other statewide elected officials have become even less visible than Cuomo. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman comes to mind. He’s a sharp and well-spoken person. He was never shy as a state senator, but he’s been invisible as AG.
I’d also include Speaker Silver in the category of people who should speak out more often. I know people don’t often think of him as an orator, but over the last several political cycles, he’s been the one with the clearest and most consistent political philosophy. I want to hear his reasoned views and I think others do as well.
I guess what I’m arguing for – and giving something of a speech to propose – is that New York again be a place where rhetoric, in the highest sense of the word, is respected and encouraged. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pick Thy Neighbor

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb announced that he has sent the name of his nominee to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to the Governor’s office.

Hmm. I suppose I should be encouraged that there is a little movement toward getting a new state ethics panel up and running, but I have this there-they-go-again feeling.  
Why?  It’s something that Kolb said in commenting on his appointment. He didn’t give the individual’s name, but he described him simply has an attorney.  "We chose a gentleman who is a lawyer because we feel it would be helpful to know the law while serving in that role," Kolb said.

More lawyers?!? Haven’t they learned anything from the fiasco of the last four years?  A panel populated with lawyers with ties to elected officials, to me, runs the risk of re-establishing the dynamic that undermined the Public Integrity Commission.   

To be sure, being an attorney doesn’t mean you will be a bad commissioner. In fact, there have been some very good commissioners who were attorneys. Peter Moschetti and George Carpinello come to mind. They were fair people.

What worries me is the mindset expressed by Mr. Kolb, that only a lawyer can do the job. Really? Why?  The commission is suppose to act like a jury, at least that’s what Jeremy Creelan told me when we discussed the new legislation.   A jury of lawyers, to me, and, yeah, I’m a lawyer, is a nightmare.

Anyone observing the last integrity commission or serving on it would have to admit that it was at best dysfunctional and it was comprised overwhelmingly of lawyers.  I think we need a state ethics panel composed of people from a broad cross section of society who are blessed with common sense. Professional staff can advise them about the law, if needed. (I’ll have another post on how to select professional in another blog entry.)

OK, now. I can sense what some people are thinking about my suggestion. “Ordinary citizens?  Well, it’s a nice idea, but it’s easier said than done.”

Actually, I don’t think so. There’s an easy way to find qualified non-lawyers who might be willing to serve. Walk down your street and ring a doorbell.
I say that literally. If you rang doorbells on my street you’d find a landscaper, a state retiree, a small business owner and a grandmother – any one of whom, I firmly believe, would make a fine commissioner because they are all decent and smart people who’d try to do the right thing

My message to Mr. Kolb, the other leaders and the Governor is: Pick your neighbor, not some wired lawyer your staff has suggested will “know the law.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Smear Campaigns

I need to revisit the matter of the Fred Dicker column that appeared on Oct 17. This was the column about Chris Ward, the former head of the Port Authority.

Fred’s column was about an audit, which was supposed to have revealed “extravagant spending” by Ward and other misconduct.

I subsequently had a post in which an insider claimed that the Governor and/or his people acted improperly in feeding damaging information from the unreleased audit to Fred.

Fred then called me to complain that I’d given an unnamed source the ability to disparage both him and the Governor. Out of respect for Fred, I subsequently wrote another blog post that underscored the fact that the insider’s account had not been substantiated.

But then, in a fascinating twist, I received another insider’s account on the same matter. The individual wrote to me to say in no uncertain terms that there was no Port Authority audit. To substantiate this claim, the insider directed me to the Port Authority’s website, which showed that an RFP for an audit had just been issued and it hadn’t even been awarded yet.

As you can imagine, I was surprised by this new information. In fact, it struck me as a real bombshell. Think about it: If there was no audit, how could Fred write that there was? Why would he do so? I couldn’t imagine Fred making up the story. To my mind, the only possible explanation was that someone misled Fred.

I didn’t print the insider’s account because I had no way to verify if the audit had occurred or not.

But I did begin to ask around to get to the bottom of the situation. It’s a bad habit I have of trying to get to the bottom of things.

In the meantime, Chris Ward himself has now come forward to say exactly what the insider told me – that there was no audit.

So what is one to make of this situation?

Well, I think there may be serious ethical problems here.
Spitzer and his people released accurate records (albeit recreated) on use of state aircraft by a variety of public officials and it was called a “smear campaign.”

What is it called when bogus information is provided?

I think someone should investigate, but now I’m going to sound like a broken record:

There’s no functioning ethics panel in New York to investigate.
Now I’m not sure that’s worse than a gubernatorial controlled panel that could whitewash it, but it is a fact.

There’s no opposition party to register a concern. (The Republicans get along just swell with Cuomo. He’s got their back on redistricting?)

There isn’t even an articulate critic of the governor to step forward and demand that he explain the situation.

But if there was this could be the next troopergate. We could call it Dickergate.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On “Proper” Protests

I don’t mind the Occupy Wall Street folks. They strike me as impractical and naïve, but if they want to demonstrate, I say: “Go right ahead.”
As I’ve blogged previously, I’m really not sure what they are protesting, and I’m rather disappointed that those who should be defending Wall Street (or State Street) are silent.

But if the protestors have fun doing their thing, or if they become unkempt in doing so, I’m not going to complain. Protests are like blogs: If you don’t like what is being said, don’t listen.

What annoys me more than the protestors is the fact that many people of my generation are now grousing so much about them. Why are we soooo offended by their antics? Since when is there a “proper” protest?

Is protest only ok when you agree with the protestors? Is it only ok where there’s a coherent message and attractive spokespeople? Is protest only ok when it’s convenient for the rest of us?

Think about this: There is no more hideously-offensive protest than the fervently-religious people who picket funeral services for fallen soldiers.

These people hold up signs that rejoice in the death of patriotic young men. They believe their deaths are God’s “payback” for our society’s acceptance of gay rights.

Only a sick, delusional and awful person would do such a thing, but guess what? We thankfully live in a society that guarantees free speech rights. The key word there is guarantee. In this regard, we don’t parse what speech is free and what isn’t.

By extension, I don’t think we should carry on so much about protest activities in a public park, either in NYC or Albany. (BTW, why was Governor Cuomo engaging Mayor Jennings and the State Police in this matter? Was his safety threatened? Or was it that he feels threatened politically? And if so, is it appropriate to engage the State Police on such “political” matters?)

“Oh, but, Dave, don’t you know these protests are becoming a health hazard! Aren’t you concerned about that?”

Well, um, no. I don’t really care if the protestors catch colds or have bouts of dysentery. (I will admit that the air was rather foul when I walked by Zuccotti Park a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve smelled worse at PIC meetings when the BS was really flowing.)

No, I’m just not very alarmed that park lawns have become muddy and litter strewn. I’m pretty sure the grass will grow in the spring, and I’m pretty sure the litter will eventually be picked up. One good rainstorm or cold snap and the cleanup can begin.

What can’t easily be restored when it’s curtailed is a free and open dialogue. That’s true of protests of all kinds. My little blog is in some ways a form of protest, and I wouldn’t want someone trying to silence me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Insider A Comments on Insider Z’s Account

The Insider series seems to have struck a chord. I’ve received a lot of positive and some negative feedback, including word from someone in the Fourth Estate who thinks that we might be developing a new form of journalism. I really don’t know about that, but what pleases me is that this seems to be the start of a more open dialogue. And in this regard, I have another installment in the series, this time from a new insider who wants to comment on our most recent post.

As always, I make the same disclaimer to readers: I can’t vouch for the veracity of the insider’s account, but I do believe the individual’s perspective is worthy of consideration. And if s/he has gotten something wrong that you have personal knowledge of let me know and I’ll post your comments as well.

We’ll go back to the beginning of the alphabet and call this new individual Insider A but after this entry all insider’s will be called Insider X. His account is as follows:
“Insider Z makes some valid points about the Cuomo people, but what’s missing is the background on why their relationship with Ward soured. It’s a heck of a story that involves the proposed Greek Church at Ground Zero.”

Some background is needed here: There was a small Greek Church on the ground of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. It was destroyed in the terrorist attack. The church’s leadership subsequently sought to rebuild the facility. However, their plans were quite controversial. They wanted to build a much larger church and do so at a sensitive site. Now back to the insider’s account.

“They (the Greeks) brought their plans to Spitzer, who rejected them, and they brought their plans to Paterson, who also rejected them. With all due respect to the Greeks, it was a boondoggle. It adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the construction costs and delays the completion of the overall project.”

“All of the development pros who looked at this plan were against it, but somebody convinced Cuomo and his staff to do it.”

More background: The insider said that allegedly (I’m following Fred’s advice and inserting allegedly when I don’t have personal knowledge or it’s not a direct quote) Dennis Meheil played a key role in helping to convince Cuomo to embrace the project. Meheil is a wealthy businessman who has long been involved in Democratic politics in New York. He was a contributor to the Cuomo campaign and now serves on the board of the Empire State Development Corp. He is a person of Greek heritage.

“Meheil got (top Cuomo aide) Howard Glazer and (former Cuomo ESDC aide and now Ward’s successor as MTA chief) Pat Foye to pressure Ward to move forward with the project. Ward didn’t want to do it. There was a lot of screaming and swearing. Mostly it was Glazer yelling at Ward.”

“Nobody acquitted themselves well in this. The Cuomo people were awful, and Ward was stubborn and difficult. None of the key players are sympathetic figures. And nobody involved in the redevelopment thinks there’ll be a good outcome.”

My thanks to Insider A for offering this account. As always, I make the same disclaimer to readers: I can’t vouch for the veracity of the insider’s account, but I do believe the individual’s perspective is worthy of consideration.

This space is always open to those who offer reasoned views on public policy matters.

Fred Dicker Comments on Insider Z’s Account

I just got a call from Fred Dicker. Fred says that Insider Z is wrong about him receiving a copy of a draft MTA audit.
Fred denies receiving any such audit, and I believe him. I promised Fred that I’d post a blog entry saying as much. And I have now done so.
Fred was rather irate and said some other things to me. He said it was wrong that I posted Insider Z’s account in the first place. He said I was wrong to rely on unnamed sources.
On this specific point, I’m a little taken aback. For Fred to chastise me for using unnamed sources is a little like … well, you can use your own metaphor here. The point is that Fred is famous for using unnamed sources.
Also, it struck me as rather odd that Fred would make such a big deal about the audit. If he didn’t receive a copy, and, again, I take him at his word that he didn’t, then he had the contents of the audit described to him in great detail. Otherwise, how could he write his column, which cited the findings of the audit?
The thing that really bothered me about Fred’s call was that he missed the entire point of my blog and the new “Insider” series.
In this regard, I’m trying to provide a blackboard on which people can write their opinions.
Now I understand that I, as the host, have an obligation here. And I won’t tolerate invective. I won’t run someone’s screed. But if a person with an interesting insider perspective wants to tell his or her story or theory, I will post it with my usual disclaimer that I neither support nor oppose their viewpoint, nor do I vouch for its veracity I’ll leave that to the mainstream media.
And here’s the key thing: My goal is to provide a truly open forum. I’m not going to back off of that commitment – even if some influential people don’t like it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Account of Insider Z

I recently got a call from a well-known reporter who, much to my surprise, questioned me rather aggressively about my focus on ethics enforcement. He said: “What difference does it really make if there’s a state ethics panel?”
At first, I thought the reporter was kidding. I simply couldn’t imagine a member of the LCA not recognizing the need for an independent, aggressive ethics panel in New York.
Someone later suggested to me that the reporter might have been simply posing a provocative question in the hope that I would give him a tip for a story.  And, indeed, the reporter did ask me whether I thought there were ongoing ethical transgressions that should be investigated.
I said there are several issues that should be investigated – not the least of which was a recent article about the Cuomo administration making unusual payments to certain unions. I also told the reporter to read my recent blog entry on that topic, and I also told the reporter to stay tuned for another installment of our “Insider” series.
In this regard, another individual has come forward with an insider account that raises some provocative questions.  The insider, whom I call Insider Z, said he believed that the Cuomo administration had violated state ethics law by engineering “a media hit” on Port Authority Chief Chris Ward.
Full disclosure: This particular insider is a prominent person in New York City who is close to Ward, and who is definitely no fan of the Cuomo administration.
Insider Z began by calling my attention to article about Ward that appeared in the New York Post on Monday.
“Ward was being slapped by the administration, and everybody who read that article knows it. But think about how they did it. The administration provided the reporter with a draft audit that hadn’t been released yet.”
“Is that proper? Go back to Troopergate. The Public Integrity Commission ruled that Spitzer’s people had used “government information for political purposes.”
“Isn’t that precisely what the Cuomo insider did when he gave the draft audit to the reporter?”
Insider Z cited “another level of irony” related to Cuomo’s role in Troopergate.
“In his original report on Troopergate, Cuomo said the Spitzer administration ginned up a negative story on Bruno. Isn’t that exactly what Cuomo and his people did with Ward?”
Insider Z claimed that the same people involved in writing Cuomo’s original report were involved in the “hit” on Ward. “And they went to the same media outlet they always use to undermine their perceived opponents.”
Insider Z even claimed that Cuomo, himself, was involved in the effort, and that the entire episode, if not a violation of law, was “an example of hypocrisy at its worst.”
My thanks to Insider Z for providing his account. As usual, I make no claims regarding the veracity of the account. I do, however, believe that this and other insider accounts point out the need for having truly independent and aggressive ethics enforcement in New York.
This space will continue to be available to those who want to make a reasoned argument on matters of ethics and policy, and I will continue to press for the establishment of a state ethics panel.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

With Apologies to James Joyce ... and Carl McCall

This blog post is a stream-of-consciousness record of what happened this morning as I read about H. Carl McCall being named chairman of the SUNY board. These are my exact, unedited thoughts. James Joyce, I'm obviously not. Nevertheless, I hope my candid cogitation will stimulate public dialogue:

“Carl McCall? Really? For Chairman? Isn’t that the most important position there is in higher ed? McCall seems like a decent guy, but does he have the background for it? Oh, it says here that he’s been on the SUNY board for a while. OK, but what about Cuomo’s talk of making bold, out-of-the-box appointments? Carl has been around for a long, long time. How old is he now? Good bless him, he’s 76. He looks good for 76. I doubt I’ll look that good when I’m that old. I wonder why Cuomo picked him? I would have thought that he wanted to get some young hot shot to remake the system. Who did he recruit for the Medicaid redesign team? Elgerson? Helgerson? Yeah, I wonder why Cuomo didn’t get the Helgerson of Higher Ed to help rejuvenate the SUNY system? Why McCall? Come to think of it, I’ve got to start planning for college for the boys. I’ll have two kids in college at the same time. That’s easily 100k a year. Damn. I sure hope SUNY is a good option – good schools at an affordable price. So I guess McCall would be ok. He was Comptroller. He knows the finance world. He’s probably a decent administrator. Then again, I don’t recall him being a particularly dynamic Comptroller. There was the occasional audit, but he didn’t do much to shake up the system. Hmm, it says here that McCall’s wife is the head of a SUNY school. He’ll have to recuse himself on any related issues. He must have been following a protocol on that already. It’ll be more expansive now. Could be little awkward, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. McCall, McCall -- there’s something else about him. What was it? What was the deal during the Spitzer days? Oh, yeah, McCall was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. He wasn’t named in the Spitzer’s suits, but he signed off on the exorbitant salaries. People said he was asleep at the switch. Isn’t Cuomo now looking at non-profit compensation? And there was something else about McCall. What was it? I remember: When Cuomo was investigating Hevesi and Dinapoli, people wondered why Cuomo didn’t look at McCall’s practices, too. There were rumors about that, but nothing ever came of it. Now it’s all coming back to me. Cuomo primaried McCall. It was a really divisive thing. Bad blood. Well, it certainly would have rekindled tensions if Cuomo had folded McCall into the whole Comptroller’s office probe. Then again, maybe there was nothing on McCall. They sure did make nicey-nice after that. McCall was stumping for Cuomo. They say McCall is now Cuomo’s point person in the minority community. It’s strange how one-time enemies can make up and be so close. OK, so maybe this appointment was some kind of reward for being a good ally. It’s politically smart by Cuomo. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with it. I really just hope McCall’s up to the job. I hope he’ll bring energy and creativity to the position. I hope he’ll be a strong and independent voice for education – like we need in ethics and a host of other areas. Well, I guess time will tell.”
Gotta go just got a call from Insider Z and this one could be big, gonna take all day to run it to ground so sorry Carl I got to get back to what I’m good at. Stay tuned for Insider Z coming soon to a prosecutor near you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Labor, Brass Balls and Fred

On Labor Relations

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Well, it wasn’t that long ago, nor that far away. It was the 1990s, and I was the city manager in Troy, N.Y. I was dealing with some daunting budget problems that required me to seek concessions from union representatives including reductions in salary increases negotiated by the previous administration in return for political support.

I was as honest about the financial situation as I could be. I told my negotiating partners that the city did not have the resources to pay the raises. I told them that we’d made significant cuts all across the board and that it was only fair that the unions share in the sacrifice by foregoing their “bargained” for pay raises.

The reply to my earnest appeal was silence. The union reps would not acknowledge the situation or move off their original position. They just sat there. Until we published the layoff list. Then I got the call from Senator Bruno’s office, please meet again with the union reps they want to make a deal. So I did big media story that the union was coming in to negotiate to avoid the layoffs. And in they came followed by the press. But it was more of the same old same old. I got so frustrated, I walked out of the meeting and picked up one of the decorative plants in the office. It was some kind of palm tree in heavy container. I lugged in into the lobby where reporters were waiting and said to the news crews: “It makes more sense for me to talk to this plant than the union reps.”

The next day the headline in the Troy Record was: “Grandeau Calls Union Reps Potted Plants.”

I relate this true story as a way of sympathizing with Governor Cuomo as he attempts to resolve the latest tweaked contract with PEF and bring it to a vote. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to insult union leaders. What I mean to convey is the stunningly uncomplicated, but nevertheless vexing position of the executive.

In this regard, you’d love to make people happy, but you simply cannot. You have to say no. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology – it’s about numbers. Your job is to balance the budget.

The union officials’ job is to get the best deal possible for members. That’s fine, but what bothered me then and bothers me now is a seeming disconnect with the fiscal facts.

Troy was really struggling at the time. I had no secret reserve of funds to pay for a salary increase. And neither does Cuomo now. The state and national economy continue to sputter and he simply cannot do more for state workers.

He may seem like Darth Vader to union members, but it’s the part he has play. And if I remember my Star Wars, doesn’t Vader turn out to be a good guy in the end?

Let’s see who wins the vote this time, the employees slated to lose their jobs or the potted plants.

Occupy This

Wall Street is the quintessential New York institution. That well-endowed bronze bull on Bowling Green says it all. It’s not just a symbol for the markets, but New Yorkers, too.

We’ve always been proud of Wall Street. Until now, apparently.

The demonstrations in lower Manhattan appear to have caused a lot of New Yorkers to question their great institution. It certainly has left our leaders speechless. In this regard, I keep looking for someone to say something meaningful about these protests, but I haven’t heard a thing. This is especially true of New York’s political and corporate elite. Where’s Chuck Schumer? Where’s Andrew Cuomo? For that matter, where’s Ken Langone, Hank Greenberg and all the other champions of Wall Street?

Now I’m no economist. I’m no social scientist. I have no illusions about having it all figured out. I know that Wall Street has had its excess and ethical problems. At the same time, I think the critique being offered by protesters is a little too pat. According to the protesters, Wall Street caused the recession. Wall Street blackmailed the government for bailout money. Wall Street profited obscenely. Wall Street is screwing us, again and again.

This might be a plot summary for the next Oliver Stone movie, but it’s not the full picture of world economic problems.

On this matter, I come back to something I know from ethics law enforcement. There are times when people accused of ethical transgressions will simply freeze. This posture inevitably gets read by the public as guilt, but it is not necessarily so. In these situations people need to stand up and say that sweeping criticism isn’t accurate or fair. When they do this, they have to have conviction, even some righteous indignation.
I walked by the protest last week when I was in the city handling audits for some of my clients. A women in the crowd noticed me and yelled “love your tie, quit your job”. Without much thought I responded “if I quit my job I couldn’t afford this tie”.
And in this regard, I have to wonder where are the tough, ballsy New Yorkers who run Wall Street, and why aren’t they defending themselves and the system?

Get it the Game, Gov

There’s a great journalist in Albany named Fred. He’s tough and smart. He has more institutional memory than anyone. And he’s a heck of a writer.

Yes, he can be a little quirky at times. He’s big on burn barrels and the rod and gun thing. And he’s way opinionated.

Of course, I’m talking about Fred LeBrun, the Albany Times Union columnist, who is one of the few people in the New York media who seems willing to provide some critical oversight of the powerful Governor of our state.

Fred wrote a column this weekend about something I’ve been pressing for some time – the fact that there isn’t a functioning ethics panel in New York, and there hasn’t been one for months. (Some say years.) The article quotes me expressing concern about the situation and refers to me as a “persistant cuss.” (I resemble that remark, although I always preferred being termed an equal opportunity prick)

As regular readers know, this is a matter that really, really bothers me. How this situation is tolerated, I’ll never know. Just think about it: If David Paterson or Eliot Spitzer or George Pataki eliminated the state ethics panel and then dithered in setting up a replacement, there’d be absolute outrage. But under Andrew Cuomo, it’s all ok. Not a peep from Susan Learner and the goo goo dolls. One meeting with Steve Cohen and the good government crowd turns moot? Trust me that weak attempt in the new statute to make you disclose your source of funding will never fly.

What is wrong with this picture? Why is this happening? Why isn’t there an articulate critic of the governor on any topic? More importantly, is this situation good for the state? Is this the way it is supposed to be?

I don’t have the answers to all of those questions, but I can answer the last one. A thousand times no. It’s not good when there’s no loyal opposition. Good leaders (and despite my concerns about Andrew Cuomo, I still think he’s been a good leader, maybe the best in a generation) need fair and constructive critics.

I think about this point a lot. I draw a parallel to youth baseball. When a young player who is afraid to swing strikes out, should you say: “Good job. You watched three strikes get called without swinging the bat, but you looked good standing there.”

No. That’s not what you should do at all. You tell the kid that he needs to be more assertive, that he needs to give it his all when he’s playing ball or doing anything else in life. You say, "Come on. Swing the bat"

But right now, Governor Cuomo is a very tentative hitter in the batter’s box of ethics enforcement. He’s standing there, but he’s not swinging the bat. He needs to listen to Coach Grandeau and Coach LeBrun and get in the box and take a rip at it. The worst thing that can happen already has (I’m pretty sure the Public Integrity Commission’s batting average is below the Mendoza line or in integrity speak the Teitelbaum, Ginsburg, Feerick, Cherkasky line.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Trust, but Verify

Remember the old Ronald Reagan line about the Russians and their adherence to nuclear weapons treaties? Reagan said he trusted that they were in compliance, but that he still wanted verification.

This is the attitude we should have regarding elected officials in New York. Any particular official might seem to be the most honorable person in town, but that doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t be checked out when issues arise.

That goes for administrations, as well.

Case in point: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that raised serious questions about the Cuomo administration and its relations with certain unions.

The article said that the administration had “quietly authorized a $50 million bailout of an insurance fund for 1199 SEIU health-care workers...”
This article cited union officials who said that this bailout was the “key to gaining union backing of a budget plan that shaved nearly $1 billion from the state's Medicaid program.”

If this reporting is accurate, then someone in the administration has a problem.

We all know that political deals get worked out all the time. We know that one side doesn’t agree to do something without a concession from the other side. But this appears to be different. This appears to be a situation where an inducement was offered. And the amazing thing about this situation is that some of participants in this particular deal are admitting as much.

Here’s another passage from the article: “Union officials said the benefit fund's cash problems were part of budget negotiations with the governor's office. “It was always on the table that we had to solve this problem," said Kevin Finnegan, the union's political director. Another person familiar with the budget negotiations said the bailout was key to (gaining) 1199 SEIU's support.”

The article goes on to explain how the $50 million was awarded without legislative approval or other review, and how people in the health care community are shocked by the move.

Now, again, it is possible that this is just an appearance problem. It is possible that the administration has a good explanation for all of this.
Unfortunately, the administration appears to be dismissing the article as baseless “conspiracy theory.”

Maybe the story is off base, but the administration needs to explain why.
This brings me back to Ronald Reagan and his notion of verification. Who is going to provide verification that the administration acted appropriately?

As I’ve written in the past, there’s no functioning state ethics panel to review this or other situations.
As I’ve written in the past, the Legislature seems very reluctant to assert its right to review the actions of the Executive branch.
As I’ve written in the past, the good government groups, without Blair Horner to guide them, appear willing to accept a self policing policy from this administration.
And as I’ve written in the past, the media– with it appears a few notable exceptions including the article’s author, Jacob Gershman -- doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds it. In this regard, no other news organization seems to have picked up on this significant story.

The person with the most to gain by a robust review of this matter is the Governor himself. The governor is too smart not to realize verification of what occurred is far more beneficial than brushing off the story and hoping no one pursues it.

So who will provide the verification we and the governor need?
Quién proporcionará tan la verificación nosotros y la necesidad del gobernador?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Insider Y

We’ve received another tip from a capitol insider. Call him Insider Y. This individual did not want to be quoted verbatim, but does want to relay a fascinating development, which, if true, has the potential of shaking up the moribund world of ethics enforcement in New York.

According to Insider Y, Governor Cuomo intends to name Jeremy Creelan as head of the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). Creelan, for those who don’t know, was the head of the Brennan Center when it issued its famous report on the New York State Legislature in 2004.

That report concluded that the legislative process in Albany discourages rank-and-file lawmakers from full participation in the governmental process and “deprives citizens of full representation.”

The report drew the ire of legislative leaders, most notably Speaker Silver, who said Creelan badly misunderstood and misrepresented the process. According to Silver, the party conferences are indeed democratic.

The Brennan Center issued a follow up report in 2009, which said that that the state legislature was “still broken” and “dysfunctional.”

Since January, Creelan has served as a senior aide to Governor Cuomo. He played a key role in developing the ethics reform legislation of 2011, which eliminated scandal-ridden Commission on Public Integrity and replaced it with JCOPE, which is still in formation four months later.

Insider Y said that the Governor is now urging legislative leaders to embrace Creelan’s appointment as a way of “inoculating” themselves against the charge that the new commission, over which they have considerable influence, lacks teeth.

The governor’s people are said to be assuring legislative leaders that Creelan will be a fair executive director of the commission.

What are we to make of all this?

I’ve had some fairly recent interaction with Creelan. He strikes me as a smart and capable individual. He’s proud of his background as a litigator, and proud of the reports he wrote indicting the system in Albany. I don’t believe he has changed his views toward the legislature. At the same time, I don’t think he will go out of his way to target lawmakers. In fact, I think he’ll strike the right balance.

An open question, though, is his ability to bring critical scrutiny to the Cuomo administration. Will he have the chops to take on his former boss if called upon to do so? Will he investigate Cuomo associates in and out the government?

Creelan’s appointment continues a trend by the governor of naming former close aides and advisors to key ethics positions. Unlike others for whom this is a major problem, I’m actually agnostic on the matter. My belief is that some people can do it, and others can’t, and you never really know until you see someone in action.

Still another concern is Creelan’s managerial skills. He’ll be inheriting an agency with major internal problems, not the least of which is morale. As we’ve written recently, the commission must break from the “gotcha game” approach that has trivialized ethics enforcement. In fact, Creelan’s first tasks will be restoring credibility to the agency, reorganizing the staff structure and recruiting new staff.

We’ll all be watching closely and I must admit it will be fun to see if one of the “good government” crowd can do more than just preach about ethics.

Our thanks to Insider Y for his tip.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On “Intellectual Consistency”

Let’s be honest: People for whom “intellectual consistency” is the most important thing in the world are usually pompous asses. Sure, it’s nice to be consistent, but it is better to be realistic – especially if you’re in politics.

I offer this observation as an introduction to a mini-essay with twists and turns. It’s an essay on: “Knowing when to say when,” which I believe is the mark of a good leader.

Case in point: Andrew Cuomo, who, in recent days, has quickly pulled the plug on two ill-conceived initiatives and carefully calibrated a third matter with dangerous potential for his administration.

I’m referring to his administration’s proposal to eliminate vision tests for those seeking renewal of their drivers licenses and another proposal would have provided taxpayer funding for sex change operations. Both measures struck most New Yorkers as wrong-headed – a fact that Cuomo immediately recognized and acted upon.

The third matter has to do with the PEF contract situation. This is where Cuomo has shown, I think, remarkable restraint. He knows the public mood, which, (fair or not) isn’t too sympathetic toward state workers. It would have been an easy thing for him to come out swinging after the union rejected the contact, and I’m sure one part of him really wanted to do that. But he didn’t. So far, Cuomo has been very, very careful with this situation and that’s a good thing. The matter is a long way from resolution, but his posture of trying to engage the union and keeping all his options open is smart.

Contrast this experience to that of Eliot Spitzer four years ago. Spitzer had an unerring sense of who he was for eight years as attorney general -- he fought FOR small investors. But when he became Governor, it seemed like he was fighting AGAINST everyone. He fought health care execs. He fought Republican lawmakers. He fought the Democrats. He fought the media. He fought his own people. He was as stubborn as could be -- the ultimate example of which was his proposal to provide drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens. He allowed this controversy, in which he defended himself with an “intellectual consistency” argument, to fester for months. And when he finally pulled the plug, even Jim Tedisco was tired of using him as a punching bag.

The point is that “knowing when to say when” is absolutely critical.

Despite my reputation as a tough enforcement official (I’ve been described as “dogged” as “a maverick” and a “a bull in a china closet,”) I always secretly prided myself on knowing just how far to push without being counterproductive. Yes, there were plenty of times when I knew I was pushing the envelope a bit, but when I’d reached the limit of what I could do given the constraints I faced, I moved on.

There is just one exception this, (proving my point about intellectual consistency): I continue to believe in my heart of hearts that I should fight for improved ethics law enforcement. To me, it’s a core value. Everything turns on having an aggressive, but fair enforcement officials who aren’t in the back pocket of the governor or anyone else. And in this regard, we’re now in our fourth month (some would argue four years) without a functioning state ethics panel in New York.

If only I could generate some public outrage on the fact that there’s ZERO ethics enforcement in New York.

Speaking of consistency, or, more accurately, the lack of it: Why is it that the media and the public can get soooo jazzed up about sex change operations, but not ethics?

Why indeed!