Reformer: June 2015

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A Message from Our Executive Director


Though I have seen a lot over my 25-years of political activity focused on change and reform in New York, I was still stunned about the alleged brazenness of our two state legislative leaders - now former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos - in the conduct of their public duties from which they profited personally. That both of them were forced to step down from their leadership posts within months of each other because of political corruption is unprecedented in our state’s history.   

Citizens Union was born out of citizen outrage at the corruption of Tammany Hall and it has remained one of our key pursuits – honest and effective government free from corruption.  But it is a never-ending process that keeps us on our toes and fighting for reform - successfully.   
 
With 29 state lawmakers forced from office over the past 16 years because of misconduct and corruption, it is easy to come to the conclusion that all politics is corrupt and Albany a lost cause. But there is hope that the tide is turning. 
 
More corruption is being exposed because of stronger enforcement and better ethics laws.  What was once unethical but nevertheless legal in NY ten years ago is changing.  Citizens Union’s work in pushing for change is paying off.  And though more corruption will be exposed soon, more change is coming too.  And then, we will have a better political system that attracts better and more honest elected officials.
 
Stay connected with CU and our work. Help us in our efforts to lessen corruption and strengthen our ethics and campaign finance laws by making an added gift to CU or renew your membership.  We are making a difference because of you and your support.

Sincerely,
Dick Dadey
 

State Policy Updates

CU Joins Attorney General Schneiderman for Big Ethics Push


Citizens Union members stood on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse on May 27, 2015 with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as he unveiled a much needed and comprehensive legislative package of ethics and campaign finance reforms aimed at rooting out corruption in New York.  The bold proposal raises legislative pay while banning outside income and gives needed power  to the Attorney General to prosecute corruption. Speaking at the courthouse, Dick Dadey reminded the gathered crowd that 33 legislators have been forced from office or indicted since 2000 and that small steps of reform over the past five years have been helpful but not enough.
IN THIS ISSUE
June 2015
IN THE NEWS
CITIZENS UNION

Capital New York - De Blasio claims consensus with Cuomo on mayoral control

Long Island Exchange - A.G. Schneiderman Porposes Sweeping Legislation to Reform New York State Government

Capital New York - City B.O.E. takes open data step with special election results

Times Ledger - Pork barrel spending has outlived its time

Gotham Gazette - Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate

NY Times - New York State Elections Board Retains a Corporate Donation Loophole
 
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Arrest of Dean Skelos Takes Down Two Men in the Room

Coming on the heels of the indictment of former Speaker Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos's arrest on corruption charges was unsurprising but nevertheless disturbing.  Though they are still allegations, the indictments again show how an increasing number of our state lawmakers are using their public posts for private gain.  When both were arrested, Citizens Union quickly called upon them to resign their legislative posts.
 
The Skelos complaint displays how legislators’ outside employment is used to extort money in exchange for contracts and favorable state action.  The complaint also shows how campaign gifts made through LLCs skirt contribution limits, funnel massive amounts of money into our political system and how certain lobbyists under-report their activity on the state’s lobbying disclosure  forms.  In the wake of Skelos’s arrest, we called on the governor and legislators to put ethics back on the agenda as a top priority as the session draws to a close.

When Silver was caught, Citizens Union pushed for a major overhaul of the state’s ethics laws that went beyond Governor Cuomo’s original modest proposal. The enacted ethics strengthening law passed in March significantly enhanced the disclosure requirements of outside business activity but failed to address the root of the corruption problem - too much money in the system either earned by legislators in form of outside income or raised by them in the form of campaign contributions.
 

CU Pushes to Close the LLC Loophole 


Abuse of the limited liability company loophole is a common denominator in the criminal complaints against Silver and Skelos. (About the loophole:  the  state Board of Elections deems LLCs people, not corporations, and applies individual, not corporate, campaign limits to LLCs.  Contributors can set up an unlimited number of LLCs and make contributions through them all).  

With the LLC loophole on the Board of Elections’ April meeting agenda Citizens Union immediately contacted the commissioners to urge them to close the loophole through administrative means, but the commissioners deadlocked, leaving the loophole in place. Citizens Union then took the battle to the legislature helping Senator Daniel Squadron, (D, NYC, 26th S.D.), get a bill closing the loophole out of the Senate Elections Committee.  Unfortunately, the Senate leadership blocked attempts to let it go any further. The bill, which defines LLCs as corporations rather than people, was overwhelmingly passed with bipartisan support by the Assembly in May.

 

Spending in the Shadows” Report Highlights Unaccountable State Spending


One aspect of the state’s corruption scandals receiving little attention is elected officials ability to steer large sums of state funding to favored entities and capital projects of their choosing, with very little transparency of where the money is going. To shed light on this dark area of state government, Citizens Union released an updated version of the report it first issued to the Moreland Commission in 2013 – “Spending in the Shadows.”  CU issued a version in March analyzing the Governor’s proposed budget before the final budget passed, and an update in April analyzing the final budget. 
 
The final budget includes nearly $3 billion in spending by elected officials' in 65 different “lump sum” pots which are authorized in the budget, but give little information about their intended recipients and purposes.  This included 14 brand new pots of money totaling $70 million.  These slush funds are being increasingly used, in spite of supposedly there being no new “member items."

 

 

Lights On: Government Transparency


FOIL Bill: Citizens Union backs a bill this session offered by Senator Michael Ranzenhofer (R, upstate, 61st S.D.) to shorten the time agencies have to appeal a court-ordered FOIL disclosure.  The Assembly has already passed the bill.  Right now, the law allows agencies to wait nine months to appeal a loss of a FOIL battle.  When the delay is over, it’s often too late for the disclosure to be of any use to the person who made the FOIL request.  The bill shortens the time limit to two months.

Email Retention: With little fanfare that later fueled an outrageous backlash, the governor  instituted a policy to automatically destroy emails after 90 days, arguing he was only continuing a past practice.  Citizens Union joined others to vigorously oppose the policy and support legislation introduced by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D, Bx, 81st AD) to require the retention of all government emails for at least seven years for all state employees (the federal standard), and to require all state employees to use state-issued email accounts to conduct state business.  Meanwhile, last week, the governor’s office announced that the state is abandoning its automatic 90-day e-mail deletion policy.  CU and our good government colleagues issued a statement welcoming the move and calling on the governor to now issue an Executive Order requiring agencies to save emails for seven years.
 

RESEARCH: Click below to see the recent capstone research projects produced to help inform our good government work.

 

City Policy Updates

 

Making Community Boards Stronger and More Representative


While Citizens Union has been busy working on state ethics issues, the New York City Council has held several hearings on local issues of interest to reform-minded New Yorkers. At a recent hearing, Citizens Union testified, supporting a package of reforms  to improve and strengthen community boards, including proposed legislation to put in place term limits for board members.  CU and other groups such as NYPIRG, Common Cause NY and Transportation Alternatives oppose grandfathering in current community board members from term limit, arguing that it delays making the boards more representative of the communities they serve. The video and materials from the hearing are available on the City Council’s website.
 

Implementation of the City’s Webcasting Law


In December 2013, Citizens Union succeeded in getting an important new city law on the books that requires city agencies, boards and commissions to webcast their meetings live, and put up video on their websites.  Implementation of the law however has been slow.  At CU’s urging, Public Advocate Tish James, who recently reconvened the Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) – a commission mandated to be chaired by the Public Advocate – has taken a leadership role in ensuring that there is full compliance with the webcasting law.  Its members include key administration staff from the Law Department, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Department of Records, and NYC Media, who work to ensure that the law is fully implemented. CU   testified at the last meeting of COPIC, at which plans for ensuring compliance with the webcasting law were set into motion, and   offered its own review of city agencies’ compliance to date.  The meeting was webcast, and video is available of CU’s testimony.
 

Events and Programs

 

Spring for Reform 2015
 

On May 27th, CU friends, members and newcomers came together at 7 World Trade Center to honor six city-wide individuals whose work embodies the theme of “building communities and strengthening neighborhoods.”  The honorees included Jack Doyle of New Settlement Apartments, Jessica Lappin of the Alliance for Downtown New York, Luna Ranjit of Adhikaar, Tucker Reed of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Alexa Sewell of the Settlement Housing Fund, and Ben Wellington of the open data blog, I Quant NY.  The evening included a lively panel discussion led by Errol Louis, and the event itself provided a wonderful way for participants and guests to connect through a shared interest in New York civic life and government reform.

                    
             
           
Want to more pictures?  Check them out on our Facebook page!

CU's Civic Conversation on Ethics Reform at New York Law School

CU held the first in our  2015 series of civic conversations on Monday, March 16th titled, “Can New Yorkers Fix the Culture of Corruption in Albany,” at New York Law School.  As our featured speaker, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made news by presenting a bold and far-reaching package of reforms that challenged every elected official and went beyond proposals put forward by other statewide elected officials.  The ensuring discussion included a stellar panel of former New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and CU Board and State Affairs Committee member Richard Briffault. This timely discussion was an excellent opportunity for Citizens Union to engage the public in an important conversation on how to affect real, comprehensive change to combat public corruption in Albany. The event received wide media coverage, including mentions from the Times and the Daily News. We thank CU board member Anthony Crowell, Dean and President of NYLS, for hosting this important event. Missed it? Watch it on YouTube.

    
 

CU Helps Bolster Civics Education and Voter Engagement on Student Voter Registration Day

Citizens Union staff and volunteers participated in the city-wide pilot program Student Voter Registration Day (SVRD) on March 20, 2015. This single-day program aimed to educate New York City high school students about the importance of voting and civic engagement. Citizens Union collaborated with the SVRD Coalition, comprised of NYC Votes, Council Member Helen Rosenthal, City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, the New York Immigration Coalition, the League of Woman Voters, and a number of other city council members and community groups to make this day a huge success. Over 2,000 students from 25 schools across the city were register to vote. Citizens Union will continue to work with the coalition to make SVRD a permanent program and we aim to have every school in the city participate in the future.

        

A Day of Advocacy for Voting Reform

A broad coalition of civic partners joined together on April for NYC Votes 2nd annual #VoteBetterNY Advocacy Day in Albany. CU Staff and volunteers, along with our coalition partners pushed for critical voting reforms such as early voting, improving ballot design, and modernizing voter registration. The day was incredibly uplifting as over 200 civic leaders, advocates and citizens alike band together to engage with approximately 100 Senate and Assembly members about these important reforms. Citizens Union looks forward to this trip next year as we continue to advocate for voting reforms that allow greater access to our democratic process for all New Yorkers. For detailed coverage of the day, see Gotham Gazette’s article, For 'A Better New York,' Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform.

                

 

Join Us!
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
6:00 - 8:15 PM
New York Law School
Featuring Eric L. Adams,
Brooklyn Borough President

More Details / RSVP Here

 

Who is Citizens Union?

 

Anna Lou Pickett

Anna Lou has been an active member of Citizens Union’s Municipal Affairs Committee for 7 years. She came to CU by way of a friend, who introduced her to the Committee, but she knew of the organization for many years and held it in high regard.
 
Anna Lou and her husband moved to New York City in 1963 just as the democratic reform movement was becoming recognized as a political force. They moved into the Upper West Side’s newly erected Lincoln Center Development, formerly the site of the San Juan neighborhood which was a cultural pocket for jazz and the arts during the early 1900’s but famously known for its crime and clashes between the Irish and African American residents. Although the Lincoln Center Development was hailed as another Robert Moses urban renewal success, Anna Lou describes the area at the time as, “a community looking for a soul – there was nothing there.”  They quickly became involved in local politics after a neighbor invited them to a coffee clutch hosted by a democratic reformers group named the Ansonia Club.
 
Anna Lou has a long history of political participation, advocacy, and public service. In 1968 she was elected Democratic District Leader and served for two years. In the 1970s she worked for the first woman to run and to be elected to a statewide office: Mary Ann Krupsak who won the seat for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1974. After working for Krupsak, Anna Lou then became the Director of Citizen Involvement in the Environmental Protection Administration during the Lindsay Administration. She also served on Community Board 5 for eight years; a large portion of her work on the board was focused on advocating to save the theatre district.
 
Anna Lou is also incredibly passionate about teaching (a position she held early on in her career), particularly children with disabilities. In the 1970s she worked on a campaign to pass a bill that required local school districts to open the public schools to children with disabilities. Due to her work on this campaign, Anna Lou eventually found her way back to education. She established an organization called the National Resources Center for Paraprofessionals at the CUNY Graduated Center which is now providing a variety of direct and indirect services to parents, students, and administrators throughout the country.
 
For over 50 years, Anna Lou has been a fierce activist and invaluable public servant for the city. She is passionate about the work of Citizens Union because, philosophically, she believes in the organization’s important reform and watchdog work. She states: “Citizen Union is conscious of the importance of getting people involved and committed; I’m impressed by the levels of involvement of the organization and its ability to bring together people who are committed and invested in the city... Having an organization like Citizens Union gives people the opportunity to say ‘we can do it!.’”

 

Gotham Gazette Updates


It has been a strong start to 2015 for Gotham Gazette. After a sharp spike in traffic in the September-November election months of 2014, Gotham Gazette has found post-election readership at a consistent level far higher than the average for corresponding months over the past several years. From Albany, David King has been covering the fallout from corruption scandals, reform efforts, and legislative negotiations, regularly producing the kind of contextual, explanatory pieces that make Gotham Gazette’s work unique and well-received. We've continued to cover New York City Hall, both the Mayor and the City Council, often focusing on key pieces of legislation or hearings that other publications do not pay attention to and providing substantive coverage.
 
Gotham Gazette continues to be recognized for in-depth pieces, for finding different, important angles in covering popular news storylines, and for identifying key storylines that others do not. Our weekly feature "The Week Ahead in New York Politics" continues to be well-read and much-appreciated among New York politicos. Our increased readership and profile can be seen through multiple metrics, one of which is that our 2015 Quarter One (January through April) page-views were up 60% from the year before.
 
Recent article highlights:

Preparing for New York's Next Constitutional Convention Referendum (Opinion)

SCOTUS Case Could Diminish New York City, Democratic Clout in Albany
 
Proven Homelessness-Fighting Program Loses State Funding, Faces Uncertain Future

Flanked by Business Leaders, De Blasio Continues Mayoral Control Push

Would Expired Rent Regs, Mayoral School Control Spell Doomsday for New York City?
 
Education Upheaval in Albany is Backdrop to DOE Budget Hearing
 
Does 2015 Offer Return of the Albany Big Ugly?
 
With Legislative Package, Schneiderman Challenges Lawmakers to Act on Ethics
 

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