Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holiday Presents from Two Insiders

Santa brought me not one, but two interesting new insider accounts. (I guess I was good boy last year!)
The first account concerns NYRA and the controversy over its “takeout.” The second concerns the development of a new engineering school in New York City.
Both matters have received a lot of media attention recently, but in neither case have reporters gotten to the bottom of things.
With regard to NYRA, a retired insider who was involved in setting up the pari-mutuel takeout rates many years ago, posed some fascinating questions. This individual took note of how state budget director Robert Megna recently slammed both NYRA and the State Racing and Wagering Board for failing to catch the mistake in the takeout rate. Megna wrote to officials at both agencies saying that they had failed “the most basic accounting task.”
Megna’s overblown response, the insider says, was curious because the primary oversight for NYRA’s takeout is not the Racing and Wagering Board, which focuses primarily on harness tracks, but another entity called the Franchise Oversight Board. NYRA reports directly to this board on takeout and other matters.
“Why no mention of the Franchise Oversight Board?” the insider asks. “Who is in charge of that board and where was he over the last 15 months when NYRA was charging bettors and extra 1 percent takeout and accruing $7 million in overpayments?”
Well, it turns out that the chair of the board is none other than Mr. Megna himself.
So, what gives? Why would Mr. Megna, whom most people regard as a straight shooter, be so disingenuous? Maybe reporters will ask and we’ll all find out.
With regard to the new engineering school in NYC, everyone is now marveling at how Cornell miraculously came from behind to win the competition to develop the facility. The New York Times and others are citing brilliant strategic moves by Cornell to outmaneuver Stanford in the competition.
“BS,” says an insider close to the process. “Mayor Bloomberg is an engineer. It was his vision to create the school, and he wanted Stanford, which he regarded as the premier engineering school in the world. He and Schumer, too, were solidly behind Stanford and it was a done deal.”
So what changed? The insider says that people close to Governor Cuomo intervened. They first had to kick the Cornell folks in the pants. “Cornell wasn’t going to buck Bloomberg or Schumer. They didn’t have the stomach for it.”
It was Cuomo’s people who rallied the higher education community in New York on the issue of “brain drain.” Their pitch: “Do you really want Stanford to get established in New York? First an engineering school, then a law school, and a medical school. Why don’t you just say goodbye now to all of our best talent? ”
The insider says powerful alums of New York schools start making calls to Bloomberg and Schumer, and it didn’t take long for both men to realize they’d be disappointing a lot of influential people. Stanford was then told it wasn’t going to happen, and they pulled out.
The end result, the insider said, is the right one. New York City gets a first rate new engineering school, and higher ed in New York is strengthened instead of weakened.
My thanks to these two insiders. As always, I provide the same caveat: I cannot vouch for the veracity of their comments. My only claim is that I think their viewpoint is worthy of consideration especially during a week that is light on news.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The deal for the new executive director of JCOPE

As I write this, the new staff leadership of JCOPE is being decided. Barry Ginsberg is gone, and two long-time bureaucrats --Jeanine Clemente and Terri Schilacci – are providing guidance to the chair as needed. My guess is Terri wins the cat fight and is named acting executive director. And like everything else about JCOPE it will be done in secret behind closed doors.

Neither Clemente or Schilacci will be named executive director. That position – despite the claims of the JCOPE chair that she will select a group of commissioners to undertake the search that is underway and will be completed within 21 days (all in secret behind closed doors)– will go to someone who is known and acceptable to the governor and the legislative leaders.

I suspect a deal is being cut right now. It could occur in a number of ways, but one possibility is that the administration will get to place the executive director, but the Senate and Assembly will each get a counsel slot or co-deputies. This will allow the leaders to keep tabs on the commission.

My current thinking is that Jeremy Creelan won’t get the nod. He’s still too hot as the author of the famous Brennan Center report that laid bare the dysfunction of the legislature.

The nod will most likely go to a Cuomo associate whom the legislative leaders can live with. I’m sure this individual will be a competent attorney and solid administrator. The person will be a step up from Barry, but he or she won’t’ be truly independent.

This is a concern for me and ought to be a concern for everyone. (I’d say it ought to be a concern of the goo-goos, but, as usual, they are off somewhere with visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads or in Dick Dadey’s case visions of Cuomo attending his annual fundraiser.)

No, there’ll be no outsider brought in to serve as executive director of JCOPE. There’ll be no “follow the facts without fear or favor” person. And no, the stalwart meter maid committed to equal enforcement of the law won’t get the job either.

To be sure, the appointment of the new executive director will be portrayed as the carefully considered choice of the JCOPE commissioners acting independently, but the reality will be that the new person has “connections.”

When this happens it will be another cause to question JCOPE – along with its largely status quo appointments and flouting of open meetings and FOIL laws.

It really hasn’t been a good rollout for the new ethics panel. But I’m still hopeful. Perhaps it’s the holiday spirit, but I really want to believe that despite the initial missteps of this panel, it will finally get down to the business of ethics enforcement and it will do a good job.

That’s my sincere hope for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who should lead JCOPE?

Who would I select as the new executive director of JCOPE?
Well, I’d vote for the Albany meter maid who slapped a ticket on the SUV parked outside the JCOPE offices this afternoon. The SUV was the vehicle of the Westchester County District Attorney, who, as we all know, is the new JCOPE chair. It had an official Westchester County District Attorney Office parking placard displayed on the dashboard and a very serious looking man seated behind the wheel.
Why the meter maid? Because she’s clearly committed to holding everyone accountable to the same standard under the law. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Could there be a more fundamental rule?
If only the chair and rest of the commissioners understood this. Alas, I have my doubts after the first meeting of panel.
There was Barry Ginsberg sitting next to the new chair just like the old days. And Barry is explaining why JCOPE doesn’t have to abide by Open Meetings Law just like the old days. Some of the commissioners seemed hesitant to go along with the private executive session but they did.
This is Ginsberg’s approach: JCOPE doesn’t have to abide by Open Meetings Law. Nor does it have to abide by the Freedom of Information Laws.
Those laws apply to every other government body, but not the state ethics panel.
Tell me again why that is? Tell me how that inspires confidence in government? Tell me how it sets a standard for others to live up to? Tell me how it represents good government?
Never mind. Just give me the meter maid. She makes sense to me. Nobody else does.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I told you so

I posted the following on my blog November 29th lets see how they did

Do it right the first time

The new Joint Commission on Public Ethics (J-COPE) is supposed to be fully operational by December 12th.

But let’s be real: Two weeks isn’t much time to get organized.

The new commissioners, have to be named soon and they will need all the help they can get. And in that spirit, I offer the following tips:

1. You’ll be in a rush to get going, but first things first. One of the easiest ways you’ll trip up is by failing to disclose everyone’s potential conflicts of interest. Such conflicts are inevitable. In most cases they aren’t a big deal, but before someone (like me) points out the conflicts and they become a news story, do it first along with a plan to address the situation through recusals. The previous ethics agency was riddled with conflicts and it showed, they even had commissioners that were part of lobbying firms. DON"T SAY I DIDN"T TELL YOU

2. You are the ones who should name the executive director, not the administration. You won’t be doing yourselves or the Governor any favors if you rubber stamp his selection. Your predecessor commissioners made this mistake and they were all tarnished (Teitebaumed) as a result. And take your time it is the single most important decision you will make as commissioners. The executive director will make or break this new agency. TO BE DETERMINED

3. In this same vein, you need to make a clean break with the current E.D., Barry Ginsberg. Keeping him on as an acting or advisory staffer would compromise you. Remember his role in Troopergate – as exposed by the Inspector General, and remember his rogue activities over the last several months when the Public Integrity Commission was supposed to have been suspended. The reason the Public Integrity Commission was a complete failure and embarrassment was the people, Barry represents all that was bad before. DON"T SAY I DIDN"T TELL YOU

4. There are some good people left at the agency who can form the nucleus of a new team. These individuals want nothing more than to restore the reputation of ethics enforcement in New York. But don’t take Ginsberg’s word on who should be hired or retained. Make your own determination based on an individual’s record. Anyone in a policy making position that did not stand up and try to make the old Public Integrity Commission do the right thing should be let go and quickly. You don't need institutional memory from the top staff, they are the ones that will tell you to do it the wrong way because thats the way they have always done it you need a fresh start and the top staff needs to be terminated before they have a chance to shape policy in a new agency. TO BE DETERMINED

5. Most importantly, be open about your official deliberations, and do everything you can to adhere to the clearest and highest standards of law. Your predecessors were a complete joke because they did everything in secret and because they made up the rules as they went along. This isn’t just my opinion. Everyone in the ethics community was shocked by the commission’s actions. You can and must operate differently. I'll be sending you requests for opinions and complaints that heve been ignored by the old regime, that will be my test to see if its a new era of ethics enforcement in Albany or just more rhetoric. DON"T SAY I DIDN"T TELL YOU

6. And finally listen to the non lawyers on the panel, they have a unique perspective that will serve the new commission well it’s called common sense something TO BE DETERMINED

So far they are 0 for 3 with 3 left to be determined. This wasn't a surprise to anyone that has some experience in the field and decent instincts

JCOPE Day 4: Secret Meetings and Gag Orders?

This is becoming a storyline. Another day; another set of strange and disconcerting actions by JCOPE.

I’m the one who insisted that JCOPE be given some time and the benefit of doubt, but now I’m having my doubts.

As Mike Gormley reports today, JCOPE held a secret meeting. And ever since that AP story moved, I’ve been inundated with insider tips about what happened. I’ll get to the details in a minute, but first, why is JCOPE having secret meetings? Is this the way to start the tenure – with less transparency than the previous ethics commission?

And while we’re at it, was it appropriate for an employee of the Westchester County DA’s office, presumably Ms. DiFiore’s secretary, to arrange the meeting? Apparently, this individual sent around an email to commissioners to arrange a conference call.

While this might not seem like a huge deal, just think about the consequences moving forward. You can bet there’ll be a case in upcoming months in which a government employee is accused of misuse of public resources. Deputy Commissioner X will be called to account for his actions in directing his secretary to arrange a teleconference call for his friends who are part of a fantasy baseball league.

Guess what? The law does not distinguish between an activity like this and the arranging of a JCOPE meeting. Both activities are unrelated to the secretary’s official duties and the person who ordered her to do non-official work might be in violation of the law.

Now back to the details of the meeting as related to me by anonymous insider tips and published reports:

In a bizarre exchange, the Chair apparently tried to get the commissioners to authorize her to act on their behalf. The only problem: She wouldn’t tell the commissioners what the issue was or provide any details of why it was necessary. Other commissioners were put off, and they rightfully refused the request.

It apparently went downhill from there. The chair then notified the other commissioners that she and her spokesperson would speak for the commission – no one else. This, too, went over like a lead balloon. In this regard, the appointees of other branches of government cannot be gagged by such a directive from the governor’s appointee. In addition to violating the spirit of openness, this is wrong and cannot be enforced. Politically it is tone deaf, the last thing I would think the governor’s office would want is the inevitable comparison to how Spitzer ran COPI.

It’s hard to imagine what the new chair could possibly be thinking with these two actions. It’s been reported she’s getting advice from Barry Ginsberg who reportedly also participated in the call and after the fact acted as JCOPE’s spokesperson. You know my opinion of Barry’s coup de tat of JCOPE. And you can’t unring the bell by having him resign at the end of the payroll period; he doesn’t have a position to resign from.

If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s been reported that the JCOPE Chair used her Westchester County DA’s public information officer to answer reporters’ questions about the JCOPE meeting. As noted above, JCOPE activities have nothing to do with DA office work.

As I said yesterday, this is not a good start for JCOPE. And it’s getting worse. These aren’t just rookie mistakes. These are serious problems that show a total lack of understanding of ethics law enforcement.

I want JCOPE to succeed, I’m rooting for the chairwomen to do for JCOPE what she has done for her constituents in Westchester County, and I know there are solid people on this commission, but . . .

Somebody needs to do an intervention, and quick.

As Justice Potter Stewart said "ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do"

Thursday, December 15, 2011

JCOPE: Day3 – Ms. DiFiore’s Challenge

I’ve sat back and watched for the last three days as JCOPE officials have struggled with a series of awkward issues.

It began with a less than enthusiastic reception for the announcement of the appointees. Then, the continuing involvement of Barry Ginsberg became an issue. And now the new chair is being scrutinized for her status as an elected official and as head of an organization that lobbies.

This was not a textbook rollout.

Let’s analyze each issue.

The Governor has admitted difficulty in getting people to serve on the commission. I guess that’s why it took so long to name the panel. But you know what? I don’t believe in conventional wisdom. I don’t believe in resumes and perceived reputations. What I believe in is actions.

And in this regard, one appointee who has stepped right up already is Ravi Batra. This is a guy whom some people questioned, but he’s showing himself to be independent and engaged from the start, and that’s really encouraging.
Batra spoke out yesterday about the urgent need to remove Barry Ginsberg from what is now an occupy JCOPE movement, and he couldn’t have been more right.

This commission, for obvious reasons from recent history, needs to follow the letter of the law and not fudge things. It cannot simply say that the old executive director will continue to serve until a new executive director is designated. Barry Ginsberg has no authority to act. None. He should be gone. It’s as simple as that.

The issues with the new chair are less clear cut.

When asked about a potential conflict of serving as both elected official and JCOPE Chair and specifically about her campaign accounts, Ms. DiFiore said: “That’s a good question… Honestly, I haven’t thought about that yet."
While, I admire her honesty, I would have hoped that everyone involved would have thought through this issue before she was appointed.

Serving as chair means she’s truly under a microscope. She is obligated to do a number of things, such as disclosing all donations she has received from lobbyists or their clients, as well as disclosing any and all connections to entities regulated by JCOPE.

In addition, she needs, asap, to sort out potential conflicts in serving as the president of the District Attorneys Association. If the association meets the registration requirements as a lobbying entity (and it sure appears that way) it must register and disclose immediately.

Ms. DiFiore must state that she will not engage in activity that would require her being listed as an additional lobbyist for the association.

I think she should go a step further and order an investigation of the association’s past activity and registration status and then recuse herself from any further discussion or action related to that investigation.

Ms. DiFiore is now the face of ethics law enforcement in New York. Everyone needs to understand that, especially her. She has stated that she will “familiarize herself with the commission’s code of conduct and recusal rules and follow them to the letter.”

Again, that’s good, but…

What exactly are the commission’s code of conduct and recusal rules?

I actually FOIL-ed for the code and the rules a while back and the old COPI – in a move that was hypocritical at best and most likely corrupt -- refused to disclose them. (Does it even exist?)

Think about that one. COPI would not tell anyone what its own policies were with regard to compliance, and yet COPI stood in judgment of others on compliance.

Some people say I’m too harsh in my assessment of COPI. Really?

The point, in the end, is that I hope Ms. DiFiore really wants to set a new course and have the commission succeed where predecessor organizations failed so miserably, but to achieve that she needs to do things differently than COPI. No more secret meetings and undisclosed conflicts. Think of FOIL as a floor not a ceiling. And follow the rules no matter how petty you may think they are, they matter.

Follow the rules

Does anyone know if this statute applies to what Barry Ginsberg is doing?

§ 190.25 Criminal impersonation in the second degree.
A person is guilty of criminal impersonation in the second degree when

3. (a) … falsely expresses by his words or actions that he is a public servant or is acting with approval or authority of a public agency or department; and (b) so acts with intent to induce another to submit to such pretended official authority, to solicit funds or to otherwise cause another to act in reliance upon that pretense.

I’ve never worked as a prosecutor but there seems to be enough of them on the new JCOPE to explain what Barry Ginsberg is doing at JCOPE today and if the statute set forth above is applicable.

Be careful folks it was Plato that said “The beginning is the most important part of the work”

It was the new chairwomen who said ““That’s the way I lead my life, playing by the rules.”

It was the governor’s young spox Josh Vlasto who said “You can’t do better in terms of credentials than a sitting district attorney who is sworn to enforce the law and has an impeccable track record in doing so,”

It was Justice Potter Stewart who said “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

It was me who said “I’ve always believed actions speak louder than words.”

Well I’m sure someone famous said it before me, heck I KNOW my mom said it but you get the point.

Enough words it’s time for some action.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

JCOPE day 2 is anyone in charge?

Who’s in charge? Who’s calling the shots?

Things are changing at JCOPE. Someone took down all the old PIC logos from the doors. And someone ordered the phones to be answered differently. No more “Commission on Public Integrity.” Now it’s “Public Ethics, may I help you?”

Hey, it’s a start.

That’s said, Barry Ginsberg is still in the office. According to the new statute, he can have no official role or title or job without the new commission authorizing it.

This begs the question of who will be signing off on payroll this week? It’s also raises the prospect of the first potential violation of law by the commission. See various statutes about individuals impersonating a public official to receive a benefit.

The new chairwomen was quoted as follows in today’s Daily News “That’s the way I lead my life, playing by the rules.”

I’ve always believed actions speak louder than words.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The JCOPE Start Day one and things need to change

How do I write this and be fair and constructive? Hmm. Double hmm.

I think the first point is that we ought not to rush to judgment. Let’s give JCOPE a chance. We should all want it to succeed.

Thinking positively now: Some of the appointments are very good. For example, Pat Bulgaro is one of the most honorable guys in Albany. If he’s on board, it’s a real insurance policy against the kind of shenanigans we saw in the past. He simply wouldn’t tolerate that. Gary Lavine is cut from the same cloth and an additional guarantee that the old Spitzer days are a thing of the past.

That said several of the commissioners have issues from conflicts to past associations.

These issues need to be handled properly – through a clearly-defined policy of disclosure and recusal. (Cherkasy operated for months with a host of conflicts he never fully disclosed.)

JCOPE must follow the rules right from the beginning. And in this regard, here’s another important issue: There is no provision under the law for the old executive director to continue to function under the new commission, but that is what appears to be happening this morning.

What does it say about the new commission that its first action is to flout the rules and fudge it? Isn’t that what previous discredited ethics panels did? Not good.

Fortunately, there’s a way to address all of these issues. The new chair of the commission must act today. Step one: Pick up the phone and tell Barry Ginsberg, who was linked to so many past problems, that he has no more right under the statute to be sitting in his chair than Pedro Espada does. Step two: Convene a meeting and appoint one of the commissioners to act in a caretaker role until such time as a search for new ED is concluded. Step three: Develop a protocol for internal conflicts. Before any substantive, non-organizational votes can be taken, this is imperative. In this regard, people need to know that the new panel is committed to handling internal ethical matters appropriately and not making expedient decisions.

The noted philosopher Lao Tzu stated “expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder”

Hopefully, JCOPE will take Tzu’s advice to heart and do all of this as soon as possible. If it does, it will get off to a legitimate start. If it doesn’t it will prove T. S. Elliot’s point that “In my beginning is my end”

Don’t you love Google quotes?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blasto flexes his muscle

Aggressive young spox for the governor Josh Vlasto was quoted today saying the following on the subject of new employees for JCOPE “those still on the payroll will remain in place and begin working immediately”

Read more:

I am sure Josh meant all the employees except the executive director Barry Ginsberg. And not because I have and will continue to blog about the ramifications of keeping Barry but rather because the law doesn’t allow it. That’s right the statute sets forth how an executive director must be selected and it doesn’t say by Josh Vlasto or even the governor. In case the powers that be or are to be haven’t read it (and btw I’m told new commissioners have not been provided a copy of the statute yet) it states as follows:

“9. The commission shall: (a) Appoint an executive director who shall act in accordance with the policies of the commission. The appointment and removal of the executive director shall be made solely by a vote of a majority of the commission, which majority shall include at least one member appointed by the governor from each of the two major political parties, and one member appointed by a legislative leader from each of the two major political parties. “

Just trying to be helpful I don’t want to see the new commission step on its teitelbaum before it gets up and running.


Insiders have told the blog that the new commissioners of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) will be announced today. I’m sure some people will want to say that ethics reform has been accomplished, but the reality is that the task has really just begun.

The governor and the legislature have provided a mechanism to change the status quo, to change the perception of a corrupt state and usher in a new era of integrity.

It took leadership to put the pieces in place – and I commend everyone involved, especially the governor. But now the governor has to take a big step back, and JCOPE leadership must emerge.

What kind of leadership exactly?

First, consider what we don’t need or want. We don’t need a Feerick, a Cherkasky, a Teitelbaum or a Ginsberg-type leader. These were all people who acted as though they were appointed by God. They made up the rules as they went along. And their decisions, as this blog pointed out for months, completely undermined ethics enforcement in New York.

What is needed now to give JCOPE a good start is sound judgment. I know that sounds simple, even trite, but it’s the key. So much of being an integrity official involves looking at a situation and asking fundamental questions:

What is the real nature of the situation in question?

For example:

Is there a clear conflict of interest involved?

Is the person enriching himself or herself?

How strong is the evidence?

What do we know for sure, and what do we surmise?

Are we handling the matter in a way that is tailored to the specific facts and circumstances?

This last point is important. Each case should be handled almost in a vacuum. I know that will sound strange to some. They’ll want JCOPE to come out like gangbusters and make cases that send a message to all of Albany. This is a recipe for disaster.

The new commissioners need to resist the temptation to seize on sweeping cases that send messages. The best message they can send is that there is a new ethics panel that will handle each case in an aggressive, but fair way.

Ginsberg and the others never understood that. They were more concerned about their image and their connections to people in power than doing the right thing.

Now is the time for a fresh start, a new approach that focuses on restoring the integrity of ethics enforcement one step at a time.

And that first step must be to tell Barry Ginsberg that he is not a part of JCOPE.

The statute that created JCOPE is silent on the transfer of employees, and I think there is a good reason for that. Upon creation JCOPE has a blank slate and no employees.

There will be a temptation to just transfer everyone to the new agency. I hope the new commissioners resist that temptation.

Sure you could transfer all the non policy makers there is no harm in that and you can always cull the herd after a new executive director is selected.

But if you allow the top policy makers to remain it will take a strong executive and a ton of political dynamite to pry their cold bureaucratic fingers from the controls.

And should you allow Barry Ginsberg to remain for even one second you will have provided those of us that pay attention to this stuff all the proof we need to know the new boss is just the same as the old boss.

And that would not be ethics reform by anyone’s measure.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Drink the cool-aid and eat the pizza

Well well well Barry finally got the call I referenced in twas the night before JCOPE. "Tell your employees to come to work until further notice" I wonder who called you Barry? And are they right? Come on Barry you're a smart NY lawyer how do you read the statute? And now do you change your website that says you are defunct on Monday?

I am laughing so hard I don't know if I can finish the blog.

But here comes the best part.

After 4 months of silence, when he failed to communicate with PIC staff about their future Barry did not even have the class, skill or talent to call a staff meeting and announce this news in person. He wasn't available to answer questions, he just told a couple of supervisors and left it to them to spread the "good"? word. Thats how Barry spells leadership. Let those passengers on the Titanic know we have a leak.

I guess I'm not surprised he could'nt sack up and face the rank and file but he did tell them to pass the word that he might buy everyone pizza today. Free ice for everyone on the ship just collect it from the deck chairs. Hey Barry here's a free hint next time do it yourself it has more meaning.

BTW I think the pizza is a great idea make a list of who eats the pizza and give it to the new executive director so he/she will know who to fire immediately.

If you are afraid to lose your job in an integrity agency you don't deserve to have it to begin with.

Speaking of drinking the cool-aid look at what Dick Dadey the googoo leader said in todays Wonkster "Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union (Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation the sister organization to the Citizens Union) Said that he is not concerned if there is a small gap between the 120 day deadline and the start of JCOPE. “I expect the governor will apply the law and meet the required deadline,” said Dadey adding. “A couple days won’t hurt.”

Compare that to Dadey's comments made several months ago:

“There is no reason to believe at the moment that the deadline will not be met,” said Dadey. “There are weeks to go. There is a strong argument for the appointments to not be rolled out in phases but announced as one. I don’t think piecemeal announcements make sense. We are not concerned, because this governor has kept to his commitments and he will keep to this one. He owns it all. All eyes will be on him. He has to make sure it is fully ready.”

“We were satisfied, but we didn’t have any great expectation that this would be pulled together much prior to the 12th,”

Dadey says the rationale behind the delay was that the agency had to be built from the ground up. “CPI was essentially a merger between two state agencies into one. This effort is essentially tearing down a house and starting from scratch. We accepted that explanation and we look forward to seeing a strong new house.”

Hey Dick about that house I think you are going to need a tent at this point because the closing is next week and nothings built.

And when it comes to missing deadlines do you think the new JCOPE will let the lobbyists be a couple of days late with their filings? remember when it comes to ethics “A couple days won’t hurt.”

Too funny the GOOGOOS are doing a pretty good Charlie Brown impersonation.

A Zombie Agency

Zero hour is less than 10 hours away. COB today is effectively when the state Commission on Public Integrity will cease to exist. At least that’s what the Commission says on their website, but as regular readers of the blog know sometimes the Commission has been known to use math that only they understand.

And what will happen if the commission's math is correct?

My guess is nothing.

This is Albany so deadlines are transactional.

But, barring the extraordinary action of ignoring the statute and just saying JCOPE starts when we say it does and therefore PIC can live on as a zombie agency, one thing that will happen is that 30 or so employees of the commission will no longer have jobs, which is a pretty lousy thing to do to people during the holiday season.

Another thing that will happen is that there’ll be no place to report an ethical violation, no place to file a required report, no place to seek a legal opinion on ethical matters.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been warning about this very situation for months. And now it looks like it’s going to happen, and I’m stunned.

Will someone please explain this to me: Why couldn’t the Governor and the Legislature get together and constitute a state ethics panel after more than six months?

This is absurd. Don't they care about ethics?

And making matters worse is the cavalier attitude of the current executive director of the commission. Barry Ginsberg could care less about his staff. He’s busy giving interviews to media outlets in which he touts his stellar achievements as head of the commission.

Ginsberg should have crept away months ago, but he’s hung around and is telling people that he’ll have a prominent role in the next ethics panel if and when it is constituted.

This is chutzpah to the max. Ginsberg’s “leadership” brought us embarrassment after embarrassment.

It started with Inspector General Joe Fisch’s damning Troopergate report about Barry’s “leadership”.

Ginsberg also brought us the ridiculous hors d’ourve decision. He gave us the hard line PSA announcement rules. He gave Paterson and his people a pass for leaking private documents about Caroline Kennedy. He ignored numerous conflicts of interest on the commission (see Mike Cherkasky.) He even stood by as certain commissioners law firms were directly involved in lobbying. And in one case prevented the records from being disclosed on the commission website for months.

Does anyone remember when the new legislation passed it was Barry’s “leadership” that allowed the commissions spokesperson to state that legislators would now be allowed to fill their bellies with Scotch.

I could go on, but you get the point: The commission and it “leadership” was a travesty and it is now being followed by another travesty.

At a minimum the governor and the legislature should appoint the commissioners as soon as possible, terminate Barry and his “leadership”, tell the employees that they will continue until a new executive director is selected and usher in a new beginning.

As a fan of the ends justify the means style of government we've seen lately I can even accept the twisted logic that says let PIC continue until JCOPE is ready (even though an ethics agency is the last place you should play fast and loose with the rules) as long as the end result is a new agency without Barry and committed to excellence.

Fail to do so though and this new commission will begin right where the old one ended. As the walking dead.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Twas the night before JCOPE

In what has become a holiday tradition on the blog we present an insiders version of Twas the night before christmas. For those readers who do not know the employees of PIC mentioned, trust us they know who they are. For those who say we should not digress to the old mean spirited blog we say sorry but get over yourself its comedy if you don't like it don't read it.

Twas the night before JCOPE

Twas the night before JCOPE was set to begin
No commissioners yet named and that was a sin

120 days had gone by in a flash
Hope for an orderly transition had been thrown in the trash

Top staffers were busy featherbedding their nest
As long as they kept their jobs to hell with the rest

Barry was nervous he had lost all his hair
Would the 2nd floor keep its promise did they really even care?

The old commissioners thought they were off the hook now
They hadn’t held a meeting all year, something the law did not allow

When out on the web there was a growing emotion
The Goo Goos had screwed up again; it was more than a notion

What would happen on Monday, Barry wouldn’t say
He was on his knees to the administration begging to stay

In the past year Barry’s minions had became so unruly
Mitra fired them all, with help from yours truly

No more Ralphie or Bridget but somehow she missed Terri
Jeanine is still there but not Bob, Scott or the wooden Indian named Larry

When asked by his staff should we keep working or just pout?
Barry said let’s have a staff meeting to figure this out

With their heads filled with nothing cause their dopes one and all
Jeanine and Deb said not us we’re taking a long lunch at the mall

When all of a sudden the phone it did ring
It was a reprieve the caller did sing

Whatever do you mean, Barry exclaimed
The date on your web site is wrong the lawyer explained

Add a day And a day they hollered at Barry
The gov needs more time, his water you must carry

I heard Barry muttering as off he went to join the long line
For all that I’ve done they are still going to make me resign

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Word about Openness (updated)

Revising the state tax code might be a very positive thing. The deal announced today by the governor and legislative leaders certainly sounds encouraging.


Is this the way government is supposed to work? Two weeks ago, nobody had heard a thing about reforming the tax code. Yeah, there was talk about the millionaire’s tax, but if there was public dialogue on reforming the tax code, I must have missed it.

Like everyone else, I’m looking at it right now and I thinking that might have good news for me if I'm a middle income person, but I don’t know whether this is a well-conceived plan or not. I assume it is, but I don’t know.

I’m surprised, and pleasantly so. But still, what’s going on here? Where did this issue come from? Why are lawmakers returning in December to take it up in special session? Isn’t this the type of issue that normally is taken up around budget time?

A few years back there was outrage and indignation from the reporters, columnists and editorial boards, as well as all the goo-goos, about state business being conducted behind closed doors.

Remember that time? Everyone was demanding more transparency in the way state government functioned, and there was a positive response – public leaders meetings, public conference committees, public hearings, more news conferences.

Think about that time and think about now. Isn’t anyone else concerned by current events? Not even a little?

Just think about the magnitude of what is happening – a complete overhaul of the state tax code that will affect every single resident of the State of New York.

Aren’t major policy shifts supposed to be the subject of careful review and vigorous and informed public debate?

While I admire the Governor for being bold and creative, and while I’m encouraged that state leaders are trying to get things done, I have real concerns about how this is going down.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Odds on Integrity

This is going to be another one of those posts that upsets some people.

Legislators will think I’m being unfair. The administration will think I’m taking a shot at the Governor. And other observers will say my critique is too harsh.

To each I say: Too bad. Take a step back. I’m trying to be helpful here.

At issue is William Boyland, Jr. I just read the new indictment of the young Assemblyman. It’s truly fascinating. It turns out that the feds ran a sting operation against him. They posed as businessmen and offered sizeable campaign contributions in return for assistance with a development project. And guess what? Boyland and his staff were only too eager to help.

Is anyone surprised by this scenario?

Now comes the part that will offend the lawmakers: If the same sting operation had been run against all 211 New York state lawmakers (and who is to say that it’s not), what do you think the results would be? How many lawmakers would take the bait? Be honest now.

Do you think a quarter of the lawmakers would do it. Half? More, perhaps?
I actually believe the majority of lawmakers could easily fallen prey to this sting. No, I’m not saying that they are all evil people. What I am saying is that there is a culture in Albany that perpetuates this sort of thing. And I’m also saying that the failure of state leaders to set up an aggressive independent ethics panel only worsens the problem.

Why? Because when Andrew Cuomo was elected, ethical transgressions did not suddenly cease. In fact, violations of varying severity are occurring every single day and no one, except the Feds, seems to care.

Once again, I make the point that not having a functioning ethics panel is an outrage. And it’s the state legislature itself that should be most upset about this situation. The feds are only filling the ethical vacuum. By failing to constitute a proper investigatory panel in New York, lawmakers have invited this level of federal scrutiny.

In fact, I’ll bet the Feds are salivating. They read the papers. Boyland is just one type of problem; there are many more categories of abuse.

For example, lawmakers are also abusing the “per diem” system. Does anybody doubt that? (BTW, where is DiNapoli or Schneiderman on per diem abuse. Either one could investigate.)

Another abuse involves “bundling.” John Liu is the current poster child for this problem, but it also has been linked to City Council member (and former top Cuomo operative) Bill DiBlasio.

Do the mental exercise again. What if all 211 lawmakers were scrutinized for their per diem claims and bundling practices? How many of the lawmakers would have issues?

It’s not often you can bet on a sure thing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Season’s Greetings

About this time every year – back when I was head of the state Lobbying Commission – I would do something special to get me in the holiday mood.

No, I wouldn’t bake cookies or hang mistletoe.

Instead, my staff would create a file on the hot topics for the New Year and begin the process of keeping tabs on who was lobbying for whom on all sides of an issue. As part of this effort, I’d collect interesting news articles and make notes on what I might have heard on the street.

I was reminded of this old habit of mine the other day when I read an article in the New York Times about the efforts of energy companies to influence the Cuomo administration on the matter of fracking for natural gas.

As I read the piece, something triggered a mini alarm in my mind. The article was all about the gas companies and how they were outspending the enviros. But it occurred to me that most of the ads I’d seen on the fracking issue in previous months were anti-drilling. In fact while I was writing the blog I heard on ad for the following group

Keep in mind that as an enforcer of ethics laws, you’re supposed to be impartial on the policy questions. That is, you’re not supposed to take a side pro or con on an issue.
What I would have done back in the day was look into the matter to see if all the groups sponsoring ads were properly registered to lobby.

Here’s the key thing: I always tried to avoid the “gotcha game.” I really didn’t want to come down on people for missing a filing deadline. I tried to use good judgment in these situations. Was it an honest mistake? Or was someone actually trying to avoid their responsibilities under the law?

On this point there’s an odd dichotomy: The natural assumption is that big bad industry group’s act in insidious ways while do-gooder groups make innocent mistakes. Maybe, and maybe not. To my mind, the only way for an ethics enforcer to proceed is to be skeptical, but not cynical, about everyone.

Back to the environmental groups. I don’t know that anyone has done anything wrong, but as an ethics enforcer, I’d check it out. I want to know who exactly was funding all the ads on this issue and whether everyone associated with the cause was properly registered.

Why does it matter? Because disclosure is the flu shot of government. Does it always work? No but your chances of staying healthy increase dramatically.

Now if there was a functioning state ethics and lobbying panel today, its executive director would be proactively looking at the big issue areas for the New Year. Who’s lobbying for whom? What is the nature and extent of lobbying activities on drilling, gaming, the millionaire’s tax, redistricting, etc.

This is what should be occurring, but, for the hundredth time, it isn’t because there’s still no state ethics and lobbying panel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do it right the first time

The new Joint Commission on Public Ethics (J-COPE) is supposed to be fully operational by December 12th.

But let’s be real: Two weeks isn’t much time to get organized.

The new commissioners, have to be named soon and they will need all the help they can get. And in that spirit, I offer the following tips:

1. You’ll be in a rush to get going, but first things first. One of the easiest ways you’ll trip up is by failing to disclose everyone’s potential conflicts of interest. Such conflicts are inevitable. In most cases they aren’t a big deal, but before someone (like me) points out the conflicts and they become a news story, do it first along with a plan to address the situation through recusals. The previous ethics agency was riddled with conflicts and it showed, they even had commissioners that were part of lobbying firms.

2. You are the ones who should name the executive director, not the administration. You won’t be doing yourselves or the Governor any favors if you rubber stamp his selection. Your predecessor commissioners made this mistake and they were all tarnished (Teitebaumed) as a result. And take your time it is the single most important decision you will make as commissioners.  The executive director will make or break this new agency.

3. In this same vein, you need to make a clean break with the current E.D., Barry Ginsberg. Keeping him on as an acting or advisory staffer would compromise you. Remember his role in Troopergate – as exposed by the Inspector General, and remember his rogue activities over the last several months when the Public Integrity Commission was supposed to have been suspended. The reason the Public Integrity Commission was a complete failure and embarrassment was the people, Barry represents all that was bad before.

4. There are some good people left at the agency who can form the nucleus of a new team. These individuals want nothing more than to restore the reputation of ethics enforcement in New York. But don’t take Ginsberg’s word on who should be hired or retained. Make your own determination based on an individual’s record. Anyone in a policy making position that did not stand up and try to make the old Public Integrity Commission do the right thing should be let go and quickly.  You don't need institutional memory from the top staff, they are the ones that will tell you to do it the wrong way because thats the way they have always done it you need a fresh start and the top staff needs to be terminated before they have a chance to shape policy in a new agency.

5. Most importantly, be open about your official deliberations, and do everything you can to adhere to the clearest and highest standards of law. Your predecessors were a complete joke because they did everything in secret and because they made up the rules as they went along. This isn’t just my opinion. Everyone in the ethics community was shocked by the commission’s actions. You can and must operate differently. I'll be sending you requests for opinions and complaints that heve been ignored by the old regime, that will be my test to see if its a new era of ethics enforcement in Albany or just more rhetoric.

6. And finally listen to the non lawyers on the panel, they have a unique perspective that will serve the new commission well it’s called common sense something most lawyers in government have lost a long time ago.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Being Thankful

I’ll be taking some time off this week, but before I do, I want to take note of some things we can all be thankful for.
Start with a familiar question: Are you better off now than you were last year at this time?
Before you answer, think about context. If your criteria for being better off is hitting a lottery jackpot, then you’re probably going to answer in the negative. But if you consider the calamities that were avoided, you’ll probably answer in the affirmative.
Case in point: If getting a raise is the deciding factor, then the average state worker will say he or she is not better off. But if retaining a good job in struggling economy when so many others are out of work is the test, then you’ll be thankful indeed.
Context is everything.
As regular readers know, this blog offers pointed commentary on policy issues, particularly with regard to matters of ethics and accountability. Given my focus and edgy tone at times, people might assume that I’d answer the question negatively.
Not so. I actually think we’re much better off overall than we were this time last year.
Sure, I’d like to see the Cuomo administration move faster on establishing a new state ethics panel. I want the goo-goos to be more independent and aggressive. I want to see more openness and accountability throughout state government.
But remember where we were a year ago. Think of how far we’ve come. State government is actually functioning again. There is a renewed sense of discipline and competence in the governor’s office. Excessive partisanship has been toned down, and the leaders of state government are actually working together on problems.
This is a major improvement from just a year ago.
Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to get soft and cuddly. For example, I’m certainly not going to relent in my belief that Barry G. and the others who ran ethics enforcement into the ground in New York should be tarred and feathered.
No, I will continue to be skeptical – skeptical, but not cynical – about state government.
But for a moment at least, I think we can all pause and be thankful for the progress that has been achieved. In this regard, I commend the governor and the leaders for their efforts, and I wish (almost) everyone a happy Thanksgiving.

It’s the People Stupid

Back in June I posted a list of COPI employees I thought should be let go after the new legislation passed.  Most of them were on the list of those employees laid off in September.  Now I can’t lie it wasn’t a coincidence.  I had very frank conversations with people in a position to make those decisions.  I’d like to think they valued my opinion then I hope they do now.

With that thought in mind and a huge rebuilding job ahead of whomever is selected to build the new integrity agency let me suggest that s/he not take the easy way out and just continue on with the existing staff.  It would be a colossal mistake.  While I’d be happy to share my opinion of who should be retained privately with the new leadership (if I did it publicly the bad ones that remain would certainly try to target them, they have before) I am willing to point out some of the remaining employees that I think should have no part in the new agency.  One need only look at the June list.

But recently some events have occurred that show me other names need to be added.  Back in June I thought Kate Burgess was the best of a bad bunch of lawyers and I said so.  However she has now become the records access officer for the commission and has gone out of her way to prevent certain records from being provided under FOIL.  I know the records are embarrassing but you have an obligation Kate to do the right thing.  You’ve failed and your name must be added to the June list.

Also someone at the commission has begun to change over COPI documents to now read Joint Commission on Public Ethics.  Now it’s trivial but it displays a bureaucratic attempt to control the actions of a group that has not been selected much less be in a position to make decisions.  I’ve seen the type of bureaucrat that maneuvers unsuspecting commissioners into a position where they have no choice and decisions are made for them and submitted as a fait accompli.  Find out who was responsible for the change on those documents and you will have another one or two to add to that June list although I would bet they are both on it already.

As always feel free to call me if you end up on this commission you may not like the tone but you can rely on the knowledge.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Cuomo could learn from Spitzer

We are closing in on the end of the Commission on Public Integrity. (See our handy, dandy count-down clock at the top of the page.)

There’s never been a more ironically named entity. In fact, I think that history might record this experiment in ethics enforcement as the single worst idea of Eliot Spitzer.

Yeah, I think it is actually more egregious than using the state airplane to travel to Washington to bump uglies with a whore.

Think about it. Spitzer’s downfall was a lesson in what? Hubris? Probity? Morality?

Oh, come on. That’s a lot of after-the-fact, holier-than-thou BS.

Spitzer could have survived his sexual indiscretion if he had people willing to defend him. But in the end, he had nobody. He had alienated too many people with too many ill-conceived actions.

This includes me. I lost respect for Spitzer in early 2007. Why? There were functioning state ethics and lobbying panels in early 2007. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was more than passable. In fact, I like to believe that, while I was in charge, there was aggressive and independent enforcement of lobbying laws.

But then Spitzer ushered in the era of Feerick, Teitelbaum and Ginsburg. A short while later New York was a national joke regarding ethics and lobbying enforcement.

Only in New York could a state Commission on Public Integrity become the subject of a scathing report by the state Inspector General for repeated breaches of public integrity.

That was ’08. Fast forward to today, Feerick and Teitelbaum are gone in disgrace, but the third Musketeer is still at it. That’s right, Barry Ginsberg, cited in the Inspector General’s report for his Troopergate transgressions, is carrying on Spitzer’s ethics legacy.

Get this: Since the governor signed legislation abolishing the commission and placing a stop work order on all investigations, discipline and opinions, Barry and the remaining staff have been thumbing their noses at everyone.

Without any authority to do so, they’ve continued actions like auditing lobbyists. They are sending threatening letters and emails to people demanding that they comply with their directives. The only problem, again, is that Barry has no authority. The commission is supposed to be engaged in ministerial duties only -- not enforcement activities.

I know for a fact that Barry and his crew are engaged in such activities because they’ve been harassing some of my clients.

Sooooo, what should be done now? Well, this is Governor Cuomo’s watch, and he needs to do two things.

First, he ought to slam dunk Barry. Enough of his rogue activity. COPI has no authority to act, so Ginsburg’s activities must stop.  And any thoughts of providing Barry a soft landing should be shelved, the appearance would be one of buying his silence, let him talk after all what could he say?  That he failed to fulfill his responsibilities?

Second, Cuomo needs to understand the Spitzer lesson. (No, not that lesson.) He needs to fully comprehend that he is responsible for ethics and lobbying enforcement. It’s his legislation, his panel. As such, it is imperative that he picks the right people to staff it, and the right people to sit on the board.

And I know the Governor and the Legislature want to coordinate the naming of their respective appointees to the new panel.  But learn from the past, having a big press conference and ceremonial first meeting like Spitzer, Feerick and Teitelbaum did will not solve the problem.  It only provides video footage that the media can run every time there is a story about the latest scandal involving the appointees.  There is a lot of work to be done in a very short period of time (has anyone thought of what you need to do to build a new agency?) Pick some normal, non lawyer, non controllable ordinary citizens to be commissioners, find a fearless aggressive leader to appoint as the Executive Director and then take the moral high ground and hold them accountable to one commonsense standard of “do the right thing”.

As much as I’ve been pressing for action to constitute a new panel, I know that it has to be done right. Hopefully, the governor will appoint qualified people who are truly independent.

Fail to do that governor and you will repeat the Spitzer experience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More on Whistleblower Protection

Where are the so-called good government groups on whistleblower protections? (See previous post.) Surely, Russ, Susan and Dick (hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil) know the critical importance of protecting those in government who come forward to report problems. This is true at any time, but especially now. Without a functioning state ethics panel, and no prospect of such a panel becoming operational before the end of the year, whistleblowers may be the only way to expose wrongdoing in state government.

Where is Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, with great fanfare, recently proposed a measure that encourages whistleblowers to expose health care fraud and abuse? The measure was geared mainly toward the Medicaid program, but shouldn’t it apply to other state programs and all vulnerable populations? Do we somehow value people in nursing homes more than those in centers for the developmentally disabled?

Where are the Assembly Republicans? In response to the Penn State situation, Assemblyman Tedisco has already proposed legislation that would require coaches to report abuse of young people. But what about people who report abuse without being compelled by the law and who then face retaliation for doing the right thing? Where’s the righteous indignation for them?

Where are the whistleblower attorneys? This is a major practice area in the law. There are scores of attorneys who specialize in Qui Tam cases. They pop up whenever there’s a contingent fee to be made, but none of them wants to take this case?

Where are other reporters who cover state government? With a mere hint of partisan political scandal, they behave like a pack of baying hounds and chase down each others stories. But with a crisis in care for the developmentally disabled, they say: “That’s his story. I don’t want to follow it.”

Where is the Columbia Journalism Review? Why doesn’t it take up the cause of protecting the sources the Times used to expose wrongdoing?

What is going on here? Why isn’t anybody willing to stand up for honest people in state social services agencies who saw abuse and tried to stop it? Is this a conspiracy of silence? Doesn’t anyone care?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Joe Pa could learn from Danny Hakim

The first order of business is to acknowledge this man’s work. Pick your superlative. They all apply. Quite simply, Danny Hakim of the New York Times may be the best reporter covering state government.
The second order of business, which I think he’d appreciate far more than any compliment, is to act on the problems that he has identified with his reporting.
In this regard, Hakim wrote this weekend about state officials failing to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers in a state agency that provides services to the developmentally disabled.
I believe the proper response to this scandal is to investigate and prosecute. That’s right. There should be a thorough investigation of the agency’s ombudsmen program, and any individual who knowingly and intentionally violated confidentiality policies should be held accountable.
Think about the consequences of this particular conduct. Instead of having their identity protected, the whistleblowers were ratted out by the ombudsmen. And at least one individual then faced retaliation as a result.
At a minimum, such actions discourage whistle blowing. More troubling is the prospect that abuse was perpetuated. And remember what we’re talking about. This isn’t your typical ethics problem involving self-dealing or conflict of interest.  We’re talking about physical abuse of helpless people.
Think of the Penn State situation. At Happy Valley, people who knew about abuse stood by and did nothing. In Albany, people who knew about abuse and actually tried to report it were, in effect, harassed for their efforts.
These facts should give everyone pause, but there’s even more at stake.
Think of the chilling effect this story has on potential whistleblowers throughout state government. Who would now step forward knowing that they could face exposure and retaliation?
Clearly, this situation cries out for action. But as I’ve said so many times before, there’s no functioning state ethics panel. If there was, the panel would find, at a minimum, that state officials had failed to fulfill their duties and failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
This matter could be referred to the state Inspector General, but I don’t think the administration should go that route. Why? Because the administration’s handling of the matter is in question as well. The Hakim article makes clear that administration officials gave conflicting and misleading statements to the Times and we all know where the directives in dealing with the media originate.
Given this situation, it is imperative that the Governor seek a thorough and independent review of the matter.  Now is the time for the Governor to live up to his promise “to run the most open, accountable and ethical government in history.”
This is a serious problem with wide ramifications. The Governor must act in a way that reassures whistleblowers throughout state government. The way to do that is with an independent review that holds people accountable for their actions.  

Friday, November 11, 2011


Looking for a model of integrity? Consider E.J. McMahon.

He’s a former reporter and government official who now serves as the lead fiscal analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Reporters frequently consult E.J. when they are trying to make sense of the complicated details of state budgeting.

He has a way of making the complex seem pretty simple, like he did yesterday. EJ called out the Cuomo administration for its failure to adhere to one of the disclosure requirements of the state budget process.

The administration has refused to provide a mid-year budget report, citing turmoil in the world economy.

EJ stood up to say that turmoil in the world economy was nothing new and that the governor was using it as an excuse not to make required disclosures.

What will probably happen next is that the administration will take shots at EJ. Maybe Blasto will call him a partisan.

While EJ has an ideological mooring, he’s not a partisan. He is neither cheerleader nor cynic. When Cuomo does something good in his view, he praises him. When he does something bad, he isn’t afraid to offer constructive criticism.

(I like to think that I follow a similar code. I actually want to see the administration succeed, but it doesn’t mean I won’t disagree at times.)

EJ’s example also underscores the degree to which the good government groups have totally abandoned their charge. In this regard, they are supposed to hold the administration to account to the highest standards of openness and accountability. Instead, led by Russ Haven, Susan Lerner and Dick Dadey, they now offer excuses for the secrecy of this administration.   

Here’s to EJ. There should be more like him.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Changes to the look of the blog

Some of you might have noticed some changes to the look of the blog in the last week or so. Yes, we now have advertisements. But before you conclude that we’ve “sold out,” let me explain.

My oldest son is 15 years old, and convinced he is a better businessman than me. He told me I was missing an opportunity in terms of advertising, which is ubiquitous on the gaming web sites he frequents. I had my doubts about doing this on our site, but I wanted to engage my son in a way that we both would remember. So I told him if he wanted to try it he had to buy the advertising rights from me.  He offered a 50/50 revenue split but I told him 50% of 0 is 0, as it was after Halloween and I didn’t want to take his $ which he gets from me anyway I offered him the rights for a large Hershey’s chocolate bar.

You now see a rotating series of ads that have been placed by a company that analyzes both our content and the perceived demographics of our audience. This, in itself, is a source of great interest for me. Who exactly is the audience for this blog? I’d always assumed that it was people with an abiding interest in public policy.

Several thousand people actually visit the site each week, and I surmise that the typical profile is that of a middle-aged person, well-educated, perhaps a professional, perhaps associated in some way with state politics and government. But I really don’t know for sure who the audience is precisely.

It’s going to be interesting to see what products and services are advertised. Could we see a political ad?  

Rest assured that we’re not selling out. And for those that care about winning and losing, in under a week the ads have generated far more revenue than that candy bar would have cost.

The other change is the countdown clock at the top of the page.  It’s counting down the number of days that the Public Integrity Commission and its disgraced Executive Director, Barry Ginsberg, have left.  To those that wish to purchase sponsorship rights to the clock email me but I’m done with chocolate for the time being.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

I want to talk about economic development. This topic might seem a bit afield for me, as I’m known more for my work in ethics law enforcement. For a long time, however, I was a city manager, a job that touches on all aspects of administration, including job retention and creation.

What I know from that experience is that there are people in the world who try to take advantage of the intense desire of politicians to be perceived as doing something about our state’s dire economic problems. These people are often well-intentioned. They are often highly-educated, and very well spoken. But when you look closely at their track record, you often find that there’s no clear success, no big hit.  

This observation on my part is by way of commenting on an article today by the Albany Times Union’s Jim Odato. In a very, very understated way, Jim wrote about a development at the massive chip fab project in Malta. The people behind the project want to sell tax credits to generate cash – a clear sign that they might be having some financial problems.

This project is generally regarded as a tremendous coup for the state. It’s believed to be the capital region’s best hope for a prosperous high tech future. But for the longest time, I’ve had the suspicion that this particular project, which is being supported with billions in tax dollars, might be … well, I might as well just come out and say it … a giant boondoggle.  

I’ve expressed this notion to some smart people I know, and nobody really wants to believe it. “No, no, it can’t be. There’s a lot of activity up there in Malta.”

Only once did I hear something to the contrary, but it wasn’t direct. I was a friend-of-a-friend type thing that was fascinating, but unsubstantiated. This person told me he knew of a senior R&D guy from Virginia who insisted that Malta’s proposed product line was already antiquated and that there’s no way this plant will ever become operational. 

Now, again, I can’t vouch for this person’s harsh assessment of the project and the underlying technology. I really don’t know what the true situation in Malta is, but I know this: Based on the Odato article alone, people in government need to start asking some hard questions. 

And while they are at it, they should look closely at the celebrated nano-tech center as well. Again, billions of dollars have been invested in the center. Maybe it’s money well spent. Maybe there are all kinds of spin-off benefits. Maybe it’s the smartest investment our state has ever made.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s a situation in which the payoff from the investment of tax dollars doesn’t quite match up with the promises that were made to obtain the money. And if so, should the state continue to invest? I think these are fair questions for both Malta and the nano-tech center. I really hope the answers is yes, but either way, we need to know what the truth is.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Loose Ends

Where’s the Woodword and Bernstein of today? Where’s the journalist whose credo is never trust a politician of any stripe? Where’s the reporter willing to do a little bit of work to expose wrongdoing in government?

Insider X contacted me again. S/he posed these and other questions.
Insider X got me thinking, and so I engaged several LCA reporters I know. All of them commended me for my recent blog posts, but none was willing to take up Insider X’s challenge.
Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors. Chief among them is the effectiveness of the Cuomo administration’s hard-line media approach. But this is a topic for another day.
The point I want to make now (in agreement with Insider X) is that there are a lot of stories waiting to be written if LCA members would just be willing to dig a little.
Take Dickergate. Yeah, I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world. In fact, it’s almost trivial, but it really does say something about the state of ethics enforcement and journalism today.
Start with Fred. A high-level administration source -- and I’ve been told by numerous insiders that they believe it was the Governor himself -- told Fred that an explosive new audit would show that Port Authority head Chris Ward was guilty of “extravagant spending” and other malfeasance. Fred accepted this version of events. He wrote his column based on what he was told.
A few days later, I posted a blog item with an insider account that questioned the propriety of the administration’s leak of the audit information. (The post compared Troopergate’s alleged leak of public travel records with the leak of the purported Ward audit.)
Fred got a little angry at me for doing this, and I wrote about that fact. It was then that reporters in Albany picked up on the story. But they weren’t delving into its substance.In fact, nobody got Mr. Ward’s side of the story.  As a result, it looked like nothing would come of the matter.
But then Ward gave an interview to an obscure New York City publication, and he said in no uncertain terms that there was no audit and that claims made against him were false.

I followed with a separate insider’s account that made the same points – that there was no audit and Mr. Ward was, in fact, smeared.

I got plenty of calls from insiders and the media, all asking the same question: Do you have evidence about the leaker or the audit?  I repeatedly told folks that I did not have any evidence. I stressed that I, myself, was not making the allegation. I was practicing my own brand of reporting. It’s what I call “blackboard journalism.”  My blog provides the blackboard for insiders to scrawl whatever they want (within reason.)
Subsequently, I was told by reporters that my blog had stirred things up. The reporters said that the governor’s people were explaining that the Ward audit wasn’t completed. It was underway, having been launched by board members who were deeply concerned about Mr. Ward’s fiscal stewardship of the authority.  They even pointed to a press release dated September 30 announcing the management review.
At about this time, yet another insider stepped forward and told me to read the minutes of the last Port Authority board meeting on October 20. I did it last night. It took ten minutes to find it and read through it.
Now, based on this tip, I was expecting to see something about the Ward probe. I thought there’d be some discussion at this board meeting about the apparent crisis at the authority. I thought I see some reference to fiscal irregularities mentioned in the Dicker article.
Take a guess what I found in the minutes? Remember, this board meeting is occurring just three days after the Dicker article appeared. This is a time when a subcommittee of board members is supposed to be very upset about Mr. Ward’s malfeasance and actively engaged in a probe.
Instead of discussing the supposed crisis, the board passed a resolution with the highest praise of Mr. Ward’s stewardship of the Port Authority.  Here’s part of what that resolution said:
 “… Chris Ward has managed the agency’s finances by maintaining zero growth operating budgets for three consecutive years and reducing the agency’s staff headcount to its lowest levels in over 40 years in order to allow for continued capital spending to advance the agency’s priority projects and maintain the agency’s facilities in a state of good repair during a period of significant economic downturn and uncertainty.” 

Soooooo, how does this square with the audit results Fred reported and the account from the administration that board members had launched a management review?
Well, it just doesn’t jive, and its further evidence of the shenanigans that occurred here.
I’m certainly no Woodward or Bernstein, but I  think that a reporter might want to ask the Port Authority board members responsible for the management review which story is true.  When it comes to the Authority’s money is Chris Ward a rogue? Or is he an outstanding administrator?
At the end of the day, I’d just like to know what really happened here.  I hate loose ends especially those at the end of an ethical noose.