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Restoring ethics to politics

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will introduce a bill containing his proposals to clean up Albany's endemic public corruption woes — including a ban on all outside income and a counterbalancing pay raise for what would become a full-time legislature.

The attorney general announced the measure in an op-ed piece in Wednesday's Times Union.

After reviewing the events of the year so far, especially the toppling of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos after federal corruption arrests, Schneiderman strikes a frustrated tone as he refers to the most recent Capitol meeting between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and new-minted legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

"Remarkably, after the Governor and the new leaders of the legislature met on May 13, it became clear that ethics and campaign finance reform are not even on the agenda as the legislative session draws to a close," Schneiderman writes. "This glaring omission — if not corrected – would do a disservice to the lion's share of elected officials who are honorable public servants, tainted by the misconduct of the few."

Schneiderman, a Democrat, writes that his End New York Corruption Now Act would lower contribution limits, restrict contributions by lobbyists, close donation loopholes "so big you can drive a Mack truck through them," and create an opt-in public matching system for campaigns. He's also seeking a constitutional amendment that would lengthen lawmakers' terms from two years to four years to prevent what critics see as an endless cycle of campaign fundraising at the expense of governing.

Many of the concepts were laid out by Schneiderman in a March speech. Versions of several of the ideas — including loophole closure and the creation of a public financing system — were introduced by Cuomo in his executive budget proposal, though they fell off the negotiating table in favor of a more modest package of reforms.

"No one can claim the ideas in this bill are radical or partisan, or that they require exploration and inquiry that exceeds the time remaining before legislators leave Albany for the year," Schneiderman writes.

Lawmakers and the governor might have other ideas.

Flanagan said two weeks ago he "would be surprised if there were further (ethics) changes before the end of session." And neither the governor nor Heastie have placed additional reforms on their lists of agenda items for the rest of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end June 17.


Categories: State/Local

New York state audit: Canal safety imperiled by lack of checks

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


Boaters take heed: An audit from state comptroller's office finds that the state canal system has hundreds of structures, including critical dams and locks, that haven't been inspected in years.

No one is saying the system is unsafe but the audit by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli concludes that the Canal Corporation, which is part of the state Thruway Authority, has failed to conduct crucial inspections.

Breakdowns could potentially endanger not only boaters but flood-prone communities along the canal.

"There are significant canal structures that have not been inspected in many years – and some not at all, possibly elevating risks to the canal system, canal users and those who live by it," DiNapoli said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "Because the canal system depends on aging hydraulic structures and includes many other structures that are exposed to the elements, regular inspections are essential."

Canal officials didn't dispute the audit's finding and said they would secure the money for needed inspections.

The canal system has a total of 2,065 "structures," including 408 that are deemed "high" priority — such as dams or locks.

If any of those failed, loss of life or injury could result as well as serious damage to surrounding communities.

Among the structures that have never had underwater inspections were the Fixed Crest Dam at Lock C1 in Waterford as well as one of the gates — known as a Taintor Gate — and the earthen embankments at Lock E4 in Waterford, according to records examined by auditors.

Of the 1,068 structures requiring below-water inspections, 832 (or 78 percent) have not received one within five years.

Systemwide, there are 339 "intermediate" and 1,318 "low"-priority structures such as ditches or parking lots which are less crucial, according to the audit.

All told, 792 (or 38 percent) of the system's structures lacked an above-water inspection within the last five years, and 163 of these (8 percent) have never been examined.

Auditors also found that 430 high- and intermediate-importance structures (58 percent) have not had an inspection in the last two years, as required by the system's guidelines.

Canal officials said they will be stepping up inspections.

"We will be working closely with the Thruway Authority to further enhance the way we manage and conduct inspections and to ensure that all available resources are used to maintain our canals," said canal system spokesman Shane Mahar.

Additionally, the Canal Corp. has allocated $28 million for dam rehabilitation and will install an $8.5 million web-based flood warning system.

The Canal Corp. was created in 1992 to oversee the waterway as part of the state Thruway Authority, which primarily runs the Thruway. Former Democratic Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton was appointed Canal Corp. director in 2011.

The Canal Corp's manual calls for inspections every two years.

The audit found that canal inspections had seemingly been made without any overall plan, or reason why one would take priority over another. Auditors also cited ongoing cash shortages in funding the inspections.

Adding to the trouble were the double whammies of tropical storms Irene and Lee which swept through large parts of the canal's upstate regions in 2011.

The cost of rebuilding after those storms ate up $120 million of $279.6 million that had been earmarked for regular repairs and improvements.

Despite that, auditors found the Canal Corp. officials could have used their resources more efficiently.

Auditors also found a lengthy lag time from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was supposed to help rebuild after the storms.

While FEMA approved $86.3 million for the Canal System, they've only paid $6.6 million, with the parent Thruway authority making up most of the payments in the meantime,

Auditors urged Canal officials to set up a more coherent system for setting and carrying out inspection priorities.

The auditors said the Canal Corp. should seal an agreement with the state Department of Transportation in which DOT could assume responsibilities for inspecting bridges and roads linked to the system.


Categories: State/Local

Fired aide pays $4,000 in Sandy scandal

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


A former top official with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will pay $4,000 for directing an emergency response crew to his Long Island home to clear away part of a fallen tree in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Steven Kuhr, who at the time served as head of the Office of Emergency Management, was summarily fired from the $153,000-per-year job after the Oct. 31, 2012, incident came to light. As part of the agreement, posted Tuesday by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, he admitted to violating the prohibition on state employees using their position to "secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions."

A source familiar with the matter said Kuhr redirected a work crew, originally assigned to clear roads for emergency vehicles, despite the fact that his house was unoccupied at the time: Kuhr was in Albany and his family was elsewhere. The investigation, the source said, included testimony from a regional director who said he felt pressured by Kuhr to shift the workers.

The investigation of Kuhr's actions was conducted by the State Inspector General's office. That office referred the case to JCOPE and will not release any report detailing the investigation, as is common for many other cases involving state employees who cross ethical boundaries.

"An individual in a disaster response leadership role who squanders the public trust for his own self-interest must be held responsible," Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said in a statement. "Mr. Kuhr's swift dismissal from state service and the Joint Commission's findings of wrongdoing send a clear message that the State will not tolerate a top public servant compromising the mission of his office for his own personal gain. I am pleased that as a result of my investigation, Mr. Kuhr has been held accountable, and I appreciate the Commission's handling of the matter."

Kuhr was close to former DHSES Commissioner Jerry Hauer, who quietly left the administration in December. He currently works at Colorado Springs Utilities in its office of emergency management and business continuity.


Categories: State/Local

Mixed martial arts backers throw a final punch

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


Needing a handful of votes in the state Assembly, proponents of a bill that would legalize professional mixed martial arts bouts in New York have launched an end-of-session campaign to sway about a dozen legislators — including Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy.

The campaign, consisting of robocalls hitting the phones of thousands of residents in each district, seeks to change New York's status as the last state in the nation where pro MMA bouts are illegal.

The Assembly remains the final barrier: Though the bill could easily get the 76 votes needed for passage if allowed to go to the Assembly floor, the majority of the Democratic conference is still not on board. Speaker Carl Heastie personally supports the measure but is said to be unwilling to allow a floor vote without sufficient Democratic support.

The robocalls, funded by the leading MMA promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship, make a pitch for MMA, then allow constituents to connect with the office of their Assembly member. "New York is the only state in the nation where professional MMA is illegal," the caller states. "Even crazier is the fact that amateur MMA is legal but unregulated, unlicensed and dangerous. In Albany, they're close to a solution, but we need your voice to be heard."

Steven Greenberg, UFC's Albany spokesman, said, "It is fair to say that calls are being made to about a dozen Assembly Democrats who are either undecided or 'soft' no's."

Greenberg declined to identify the dozen, but Fahy's office confirmed she is among them. Still, a Fahy spokesman said she is opposed to the MMA legislation and "continues to have serious reservations about brain injuries and the financial impact (health care costs) that may afflict MMA combatants."

The bill hasn't yet gotten though the Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee, where its prospects of passage are also far from certain. Its chair, Margaret Markey, opposes the bill.

Neal Kwatra, a strategist for the anti-MMA effort, panned the robocalls as an ineffective ploy that won't influence anyone.

"After spending millions on propaganda and campaign contributions, without enough support in the Democratic conference, and far below a majority in committee, cage fighting proponents still don't have the support they need," Kwatra said. "But we welcome the robocalls, since everyone in politics knows they are the political equivalent of a technical knockout. You only do them when you know you have already lost, but you need to show your client you are still fighting."

A substantial part of the opposition to legalizing MMA comes from organized labor, which has a longstanding dispute with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta over unrelated casino issues in Las Vegas. A number of female legislators in New York have also come out against the sport because of misogynistic statements or incidents involving MMA athletes.

New York banned MMA in 1997, but the state Senate has consistently voted to legalize the sport, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is open to legalizing it as well.

The Daily News recently reported Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Democrat who favors the legalization, was looking to amend the bill to make it more palatable to fence-sitters, such as requiring more long-term insurance to cover serious injury.

Categories: State/Local

Siena poll: Incumbents get pass amid corruption scandals

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


Almost all voters agree that government corruption is pervasive in New York. And nearly two-thirds think corruption among lawmakers from their area is a serious problem.

But that doesn't mean they're ready to dump their local officials over alleged shady business at the state Capitol.

A new Siena College poll released Tuesday shows that while 90 percent of voters statewide think corruption is a serious problem and 62 percent say it's serious among their legislators, only 37 percent said they're less likely to re-elect their representatives because of recent scandals that have rocked Albany.

Overall, 49 percent of voters said the scandals won't affect their votes come 2016, while 11 percent said they're actually more likely to re-elect their incumbent legislators.

Seventy-two percent said they would be more likely to vote in an effort to be part of the solution to government corruption, while 16 percent said scandal doesn't have them fired up to hit the polls.

Whether voters follow through won't be answered for another 16 months.

"If we would have gone into the field and done a poll the day after Election Day last year and asked voters, 'Did you vote yesterday?' we would not have seen that 40-some-odd percent said yes and the rest said no — which was the actual turnout," Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg said. "What we would have found was that 60 or 70 or 80 percent of voters would have said, 'Of course I voted yesterday.' Voters don't like to admit that they don't vote."

The results come just weeks after Sen. Dean Skelos abandoned his Republican leadership post following his arrest on federal corruption charges. Skelos' arrest not only marked another downfall in the scandal-scarred recent history of Senate majority leaders (the last five have been charged with some sort of wrongdoing), but it made history as the first time in memory that legislative leaders from both houses have been arrested in a single year.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested in January on corruption charges. Both men have pleaded innocence.

The poll shows a cynical view of their arrests: Fifty-five percent of voters said the downfall of both men won't move the needle on corruption, while 35 percent said they should help clean things up.

On the man who has spearheaded the cases against Skelos and Silver, voters appear to be scratching their heads. Seventy-one percent of voters said they haven't a clue who U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is. Of those who do, 18 percent view him favorably.

The poll was of 695 registered voters statewide. The margin of error is 3.7 percent. 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Charter nears deal for Time Warner

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

Charter Communications Inc. is close to buying Time Warner Cable for about $55 billion, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.

The people spoke on condition of anonymity Monday because of the private nature of the deal talks.

One of the people said the deal will be announced early Tuesday morning.

Charter had wanted to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. earlier, but Time Warner Cable chose a $45 billion offer from Comcast Corp. instead.

Comcast walked away from the Time Warner Cable deal after regulators pushed back against it. Regulators had concerns that the two companies would undermine online video competition. The combined company would have served more than half the country's broadband subscribers. Consumer advocates said a merger would limit choices and lead to higher prices.

Time Warner Cable representative Ellen East and Charter spokesman Justin Venech both declined to comment on the talks.

Cable companies are losing cable subscribers and facing more pressure from online services such as Netflix and Amazon for consumers who watch TV over broadband connections.

Consumer advocates were waiting to learn more details but seemed initially to regard it with less hostility than the failed Comcast bid for Time Warner Cable, which would have created a behemoth much of the Internet access in the U.S.

"I can't say that we're a big fan of industry consolidation, but realistically this doesn't really raise the same level of concern," said John Bergmayer, a Public Knowledge lawyer.

Categories: State/Local

Hunting season changes proposed

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


The state Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting public comments through June 29 on regulatory proposals for hunting and trapping of wild turkey, deer and fisher.

The agency is proposing to adjust fall turkey hunting seasons by limiting the season to two weeks with a bag limit of one bird of either sex for the season. The change is in response to long-term declines in turkey populations.

DEC is proposing modifications of antlerless deer hunting seasons in portions of western and southeastern New York and Long Island, and changes to the Deer Management Assistance Program procedures statewide.

The agency proposes reducing the fisher trapping seasons in northern New York and opening a limited new fisher trapping season in central and western New York.

The proposals are detailed on the DEC website ( ).

Categories: State/Local

Forgotten soldier finally honored

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


Carroll Heath didn't have it easy growing up in the Great Depression. His father wasn't around, his mother was a patient in a mental hospital and he kept largely to himself. Soon after graduating high school, he enlisted in the Army and wound up in the Philippines, where he's believed to have died sometime in 1942.

It was a short life that went largely unnoticed, even in Pvt. Heath's western New York hometown of Gowanda. For 70 years, he was the forgotten soldier, his name not listed among the town's war dead, not inscribed on a World War II memorial in the middle of town.

And that's likely how things would have remained had it not been for one of Heath's high school classmates, a now-92-year-old WWII vet who enlisted his son to track down fading recollections that Heath went off to the Philippines to fight the Japanese and never came back.

"The guy had a pretty tough life," Robert Mesches said by phone from his retirement home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. "This man should be remembered."

Late last year, Alan Mesches, 66, who grew up in Gowanda and now lives near Dallas, began trying to find out what happened to Heath. "I'd like to complete the story. I'd like to see him get recognition."

It hasn't been easy. Heath wasn't married and had no children. Little was known about Heath when he attended Gowanda High, and only a handful of his classmates are still living.

Alan Mesches, an Air Force veteran, spent the past several months tracking down every bit of information available on Heath, from census listings to school records to military documents. He learned Heath was born in 1919 and was shuffled among relatives living in several rural communities around Gowanda, 30 miles south of Buffalo.

Heath's name appeared in the 1940 census as living with an aunt and uncle on a farm near Gowanda. The same census listed his mother as a patient at the Gowanda State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. His mother apparently remained a patient at the hospital until her death in 1962.

Heath didn't enter the Gowanda school system until 1936. He was already a few years older than his classmates, which may have accounted for his relative anonymity in a group that had known one another since first grade.

"With all the bouncing around, he was probably in and out of school," Alan Mesches said. "It wasn't unusual in the Depression era for kids not to go to school all the time."

Heath's senior picture appears in the 1940 edition of the Gowanda High year book. Unlike most seniors, he didn't list any school activities. The yearbook staff's description of him reads: "Quiet, curly locks, good natured."

Heath enlisted in the Army in late February 1941. By December of that year, he was serving in the Army's 1st Signal Training Battalion on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. On Dec. 8, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese warplanes bombed U.S. air bases on Luzon. Days later, Japanese troops began landing. The battle for the Philippines would last into early May 1942, when American forces finally surrendered.

The U.S. military listed Heath as missing in action as of May 7, 1942. His remains were listed as "unrecoverable" and his date of death listed as Dec. 31, 1942.

Alan Mesches said he has been unable to find any living relatives of Heath's. Nevertheless, he's still trying to learn anything else he can about his final months.

In the meantime, the Gowanda Historical Society recently said it will add Heath's name to the community's World War II memorial later this year after repairs of damage from a 2009 flood are complete. His name will be accompanied by a star, designating Heath as one of about three dozen locals who died in the war.

Categories: State/Local

Rensselaer remembers fallen veterans

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

The Rensselaer Memorial Day Parade was held Sunday.

Categories: State/Local

Blank tests defy core

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

Washington, D.C.

New York is not alone on the educational battleground. Parents, teachers, unions and politicians can't seem to find common ground over what's best for kids, as states across the country struggle to implement Common Core standards and the tests that go with them.

The battle has led some parents to engage in protest — by opting their kids out of testing. Some of those parents are also teachers.

According to advocacy group United to Counter the Core, almost 200,000 New York students refused the English language arts tests in April, with just 76 percent of districts reporting. The state Education Department enlisted the help of regional BOCES offices to assemble opt-out numbers for grades 3-8.

Opt-outs are "a significant phenomenon within New York," said Richard Longhurst, executive administrator for New York Parent-Teacher Association. "Our membership is really divided, and represents both camps ... (but) we urge parents to make their own decisions based on what they believe is best for their child."

Heidi May, head of media relations for the National PTA, said her organization does not take a position on opt-outs, but "believes that assessments provide valuable information to parents, teachers and school leaders about the growth and achievement of their students."

Developed by state school chiefs and governors, the 2010 Common Core State Standards Initiative is not a federally mandated program, although the Obama administration has offered heavy financial incentives to encourage participation. It is intended to standardize English and math education for students in grades K-12 nationwide, that hasn't been the outcome. Testing looks different from state to state — some adopted standards verbatim, others added their own twists and some refused.

Thirty states incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, but only a few weigh scores as heavily as Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to see in New York. His "education overhaul" ties awards, tenure and dismissals to scores. He asked the state Education Department to count scores for half of a teacher's assessment.

SED's blueprint is due at the end of June, and the current plan calls for districts to put them in place by November. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has said she would like a one-year extension for districts that might face hardship from that timetable.

The New York PTA also asked for a delay, petitioning the state Legislature to separate funding from standards adoption and postpone implementation of new teacher evaluation programs until September 2016.

"We need a timeout," Longhurst said. "We're in too big a rush to get something too big in place."

But no such timeout has been granted, although the heightened emphasis on test scores continues to generate concern among parents and teachers.

Jessica Wilk is one such concerned parent and teacher: "It's one test that you're using to grade me on a year's worth of teaching. How is that fair?"

A fifth-grade teacher at Watson Williams Elementary in Utica, Wilk said she already knew the tests' subject matter, phrasing and vocabulary were developmentally inappropriate, but Cuomo's call to boost scores from 20 to 50 percent of evaluations raised the stakes.

"That was the clincher for me," said Wilk, a teacher for eight years. "Judge me based on my students' growth in my classroom ... on my principal's observations. Come and see the projects we do. Grade me by a test in September ... a midterm in January, a final in June."

She and her husband opted their 10-year-old daughter out of this year's exams, but only he signed the letter: "I was afraid as a district employee to have my name on it," Jessica Wilk said. "I was afraid of retaliation."

"I completely, wholeheartedly agree that teachers should get evaluated ... and that students should be tested. But this is not the way," she said.

Her sentiments are echoed across state lines.

"I've learned enough to know that opting out my sixth-grade daughter was the right choice," said Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, an eighth-grade English teacher at Welsh Valley Middle School outside Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core in 2010, only to repeal it in 2014 and institute a revised program known as the Pennsylvania Core, which includes additional requirements like science testing.

Arnold-Schwartz said her three daughters – ages 12, 14 and 16 – understand the impact these new standards are having on their education, although only her sixth grader is eligible for state testing. Explaining the debate to her 12-year-old wasn't necessary, she said: "She was aware of how much instructional time was lost (and) the stress of the test. Opting out made sense to her."

But opting out in Pennsylvania is an elaborate process, and the only acceptable reason for test refusal is a religious one.

Arnold-Schwartz, who has been teaching since 1994, said that her own students will spend 10 days taking state tests this year. Their results will make up 15 percent of her evaluation. Another 15 percent will come from how well the overall student population does at her school – something she can't control.

The tests aren't written so students can show what they've learned, she said, because "every single multiple choice answer is a plausible answer."

"Let's say there's a gifted student who's an out-of-the-box thinker, they might choose D. But test designers chose B, and so (the student is) wrong," Arnold-Schwartz said. "The student is thinking in a way that's valued by society, but not valued by standardized tests."

Just like any other parent, Arnold-Schwartz is trusting schools with her kids' well-being: "I worry that there may be some well-intentioned people in positions of power who don't really understand the impact this is having on human beings."

And that impact is far from insignificant, according to longtime educator Matt Jablonski, an American history teacher at Elyria High School in Ohio. After what happened last year to his now 11-year-old son, Jablonski said, the opt-out decision was a no-brainer.

Following "wave after wave" of practice tests, his son was complaining of "headaches, blurry vision, dizziness." Doctors couldn't find a cause. The symptoms vanished after he took the state math and reading tests.

"He's a smart kid, he's in the gifted program," Jablonski said. "So his intelligence isn't the issue."

Mitchell Robinson believes the Michigan tests are employed in a way that is "highly focused" on identifying ineffective teachers. "We didn't want our kids to be used like that," he said.

This is the first year that Robinson, who chairs the Music Education Department at Michigan State University, will opt his 12-year-old son out of testing. "We finally came to our senses and realized it's not an appropriate use of standardized tests."

Michigan law requires that half of a teacher's evaluation come from testing data related to student growth. A bill before the state legislature would reduce that to 40 percent.

A former high school music teacher in Oswego County, Robinson said he pays attention to what's going on in New York, noting, "I don't know if there's quite as much of a groundswell yet in Michigan, but it's building."

Kentucky doesn't tie test scores to teacher evaluations.

"Teachers feel supported in their use of Core standards here," said Diana Crescitelli, who works prepares teens in 10 counties for college. "We don't use the test to bludgeon them."

Her youngest daughter, 13, will test in May for five straight days. And Crescitelli won't be opting her out.

She stands by the new core standards. Even though they might seem scary to parents because they're different, Crescitelli said, they're great for teaching kids concepts.

"I taught in a non-core state before I came to Kentucky," she said, "and it's night and day."

Mary Cirincione is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. @mccirincione

Categories: State/Local

Local man leads N.H. police on chase

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

WALPOLE, N.H. (AP) — A Clifton Park man was arrested Saturday after being wanted in Colorado and leading New Hampshire police on a chase.

New Hampshire police say they pursued 37-year-old Robert Leibensperger through multiple towns before using a tire-deflating device to bring the vehicle to a stop.

Lebanon police first spotted a truck, that was reported stolen in Black Hawk, Colorado, just after 8 p.m. Saturday. Leibensperger refused to stop and then sped toward the direction of Plainfield.

Claremont police spotted the truck and pursued it into Charlestown, where police there picked up the chase while state troopers deployed a tire-deflating device.

The pursuit ended in Walpole, when the truck's damaged tires gave out.

Leibensperger will be arraigned Tuesday on charges related to the pursuit.

Categories: State/Local

State shuts off 90-day email deletion policy

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration announced Friday it would switch off a controversial email policy that automatically deleted emails stored by state agencies and the executive chamber after 90 days unless they were actively retained.

Deletion will now be "entirely manual," said Cuomo's Counsel Alphonso David, one of six participants in a meeting Friday morning at the governor's offices in Manhattan. David made sure to distinguish between emails that could be described as general communication and "records" as defined by state policy.

Also on hand were representatives from the offices of Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Calling in via speakerphone was Republican Assemblyman Andy Goodell, the only representative of a legislative conference to take part.

Cuomo's Secretary Bill Mulrow presided over the meeting, and said the governor would "shortly" introduce legislation that would make the application of state Freedom of Information Law uniform across all state entities.

Under the current statute, many categories of documents produced by the Legislature are presumed to be exempt from FOIL, inverting the presumption for disclosure that applies to every other state body.

David said Cuomo's proposed FOIL bill "would bind the Legislature, the Executive, the Comptroller and the AG's office to one standard," David said.

"It seems inexplicable to me that the Legislature is not (more broadly) subject to FOIL," said Mulrow. " ... I find that simply outrageous and inexplicable. I was disappointed that members of the Senate majority, the Assembly majority and the Senate minority would not come to the meeting today and essentially are boycotting a meeting on transparency."

With just 12 session days and an already packed agenda, it's highly unlikely the Legislature will act on such a measure even if it's introduced in time — setting aside any reluctance on the part of the majorities' to cracking the door open wider on their inner workings.

Cuomo called for the transparency meeting in mid-March after weeks of withering criticism for his expansion of the 90-day deletion policy, which became comprehensive across agencies in February. Maggie Miller, the head of the state Office of Information Technology Services, struggled to justify the policy in a subsequent appearance before a joint legislative budget hearing.

The governor's proposal for the meeting came just hours after Schneiderman's office announced it would suspend its own 90-day automatic deletion policy, which had been instituted in 2007 by then-Attorney General Cuomo.

The Comptroller's office never had an automatic deletion policy. Nancy Groenwegen, DiNapoli's general counsel, said the administration's decision to suspend the 90-day policy would assist in its audit work.


Categories: State/Local

Demilitarizing cops through culture change

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

Burien, Wash.

When prosecutor Dan Satterberg used to visit Washington state's police academy, the seas would part before him. Recruits would snap to attention, backs to the walls, and allow him to pass.

Now, they greet him and start a conversation.

"It takes a lot longer to walk down the halls," said Satterberg, the elected prosecutor in Seattle's King County.

The friendlier attitude reflects a campaign underway here and elsewhere around the U.S. to "demilitarize" the police and produce officers who think of themselves as guardians of their communities, not members of an occupying force.

Calls for demilitarizing law enforcement began a few years ago but gained urgency after the violent protests over the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer.

The philosophy was endorsed this week by President Barack Obama's 21st Century Policing task force. As part of that change in thinking, Obama curtailed the government's practice of supplying armored vehicles, heavy weapons and other military-style equipment to police departments.

But it isn't just about the gear.

While some critics say that good officers already consider themselves protectors and that police need the best equipment to defend themselves and the public, many law enforcement leaders see a need for a broader change in police training and culture.

That includes getting cops to use their wits rather than their weapons whenever possible, as well as instilling a strong moral compass. Supporters say the approach could reduce cynicism, corruption and maybe even suicides among officers.

"We are at this moment where we have to re-engineer how we recruit, how we train and how we supervise," said Chuck Wexler, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum.

"De-escalation, crisis intervention, better communication skills — all of these things are what the 21st century police officer needs to have in any situation, whether it's talking to a citizen you may have stopped or trying to defuse a situation where a mentally ill person has picked up a rock or a weapon."

Categories: State/Local

Judge: Release testimony in Rosenberg spy case

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

New York

A judge has ordered the unsealing of key grand jury testimony from 1950 that may give new fuel to suspicions that Ethel Rosenberg was unjustly convicted of espionage and put to death for conspiring to give nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

In his ruling this week, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein noted that the testimony of Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, was crucial to the case and that he claimed in interviews that prosecutors pressured him into falsely testifying against his sister.

The judge said the testimony could be unsealed now because Greenglass died last year at 92.

The government could still appeal the ruling. A government spokeswoman declined to comment.

"The requested records are critical pieces of an important moment in our nation's history," Hellerstein wrote. "The time for the public to guess what they contain should end."

In what was called the crime of the century, Ethel and her husband, Julius, were convicted of espionage conspiracy and executed in 1953. The sentencing judge blamed their treason for the Korean War and the deaths of at least 50,000 people.

Greenglass was the star government witness at the 1951 trial, testifying that he had given the couple data obtained through his wartime job as an Army machinist at the Los Alamos, N.M., headquarters of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

He said he saw his older sister transcribing the information on a portable typewriter at the Rosenbergs' New York apartment in 1945. That testimony proved crucial in convicting Ethel along with her husband.

Hellerstein noted that Greenglass told a journalist with The New York Times in 2001 that he lied at trial about his sister to protect his wife, Ruth Greenglass, because it was likely that she, rather than Ethel Rosenberg, typed up notes that were passed to the Soviets. Hellerstein said Greenglass claimed government attorneys were threatening to prosecute Ruth Greenglass unless he testified against his sister.

Georgetown law professor David C. Vladeck, representing historians, archivists and writers in the litigation, said those researching the espionage case for decades would be "like a bunch of ravenous wolves" once the Greenglass transcript is released, especially since he has said in interviews that he implicated his sister in the conspiracy at trial but not during his grand jury testimony.

"This is the last piece of major evidence that has yet to be made public," Vladeck said. "I think another chapter will be written about the Rosenberg case, and I think there's going to be a lot of soul searching about what happened to Ethel Rosenberg."

Vladeck said historians are pretty firm in believing Julius Rosenberg fed secrets, especially after KGB documents were released. He said the belief is that Julius Rosenberg not only gave the Soviets nuclear technology but also military secrets that helped them immensely in the Korean War.

Transcripts of the testimony of 43 of 46 grand jury witnesses have already been released. In 2008, Hellerstein ruled that one nonprofit institution, four national associations of historians and archivists and one journalist were entitled to transcripts of all witnesses who were dead, had consented to release or were presumed to be indifferent or incapacitated because they failed to object.

Three remaining witnesses — Greenglass, Max Elichter and William Danziger — objected and their transcripts were not released.

Hellerstein said he was ordering the release of testimony by Greenglass and Elichter because they had since died.

The judge said Danziger's testimony remains sealed because archivists have not been able to determine whether he is still alive.

Categories: State/Local

Trio of beluga whales spotted off 'Gold Coast' region of Long Island

Albany Times/Union - 26 min 17 sec ago

A trio of beluga whales was spending the start of the Memorial Day weekend in the waters off Long Island's "Gold Coast" region.

Mendy Garron, a marine mammal expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, based in Gloucester, Mass., said Friday that it is rare for beluga whales to be seen in the region.

"This is the first time we have seen three together, so it's unique," she said.

The whales, which were first spotted in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island on May 10, showed up Friday more than 100 miles west in Manhasset Bay, in the suburban New York. The area is known for its multimillion-dollar estates and was the setting for the 1920s novel "The Great Gatsby."

Mallory Nathan, the town of North Hempstead's chief bay constable, said he started getting calls about the whales around 6:30 a.m. When he went to investigate, he found the whales in deeper waters far from shore, headed north toward Long Island Sound.

"They seemed to be swimming freely and appeared healthy," said Nathan, who said he was excited to encounter the mammals. Each of the whales appeared to be less than 8 feet long, so they are considered to be juveniles. "I hope they're not in distress."

Garron said the whales turn white when they become fully grown at 13 to 20 feet long. They're not related to the sturgeon of the same name, famous for its caviar.

She said they are believed to have come from the St. Lawrence River region in northeast Canada, and swam down the Atlantic Coast.

Garron said boaters were encouraged to stay at a safe distance of more than 150 feet and noted they are particularly inquisitive and will approach vessels. "We want to minimize the risk of injury from a propeller," she said.

Categories: State/Local

Brooklyn cemetery exhibit marks 150th year after Civil War

Albany Times/Union - 10 hours 26 min ago

New York

Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery, last resting place for thousands of Civil War veterans, is opening an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the end of the nation's bloodiest conflict.

The exhibit, titled "To Bid You All Good Bye: Civil War Stories," opens Saturday and runs through July 12 in Green-Wood's Historic Chapel.

The exhibit uses photographs, letters, artifacts and other items to tell the stories of 19 men and one woman who played a role in the Civil War and are interred among the cemetery's more than 550,000 burials. Several of them died during the war, including Horatio Howell, a Pennsylvania chaplain who was shot on the steps of a hospital in Gettysburg.

The 478-acre cemetery opened in 1838 in what was then a rural section of Brooklyn. Some of the first New Yorkers to die during the Civil War were brought back home for burial at Green-Wood, including Clarence MacKenzie, a 12-year-old drummer boy who was accidentally shot by a fellow Union soldier soon after the war started in April 1861.

The lone woman in the exhibit is Quaker abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons, a nurse and conductor on the Underground Railroad that led escaped slaves to freedom in the North.

Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman said the exhibit focuses on a few of "the more poignant, dramatic, heart-rending stories" among the thousands of Civil War-related burials. Richman and a team of volunteers have spent the past 13 years identifying the graves of 5,000 Civil War veterans buried at Green-Wood.

Categories: State/Local

New details of Attica brutality

Albany Times/Union - 10 hours 26 min ago


It was one of the darkest episodes in modern New York history: a violent prison uprising and ensuing four-day siege broken by an overwhelming assault. By the time the clouds of tear gas had cleared at Attica Correctional Facility, 43 had died — 10 of them correction officers.

In the aftermath, witnesses from both sides of the prison walls described inmates beaten by vengeful officers with nightsticks, burned with cigarettes and denied medical treatment.

More than four decades after the events of September 1971, new details were made public Thursday through the partial release of two previously sealed volumes of the Meyer Report, a 1975 account and analysis of the incident.

The disclosure was announced by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who in 2013 petitioned state Supreme Court to unseal the materials, which had been locked away in a Buffalo office building. Last year, the court agreed to the release with the stipulation that any material related to or derived from grand jury testimony be redacted.

Thursday's release involved just 46 pages of new material out of 348 pages. The redactions — rendered in the released files as white blanks — make the material hard to follow at times: A section titled "The Factual Basis for the Conclusions" is thereafter blank for 47 pages.

What's visible on the page augments the often stomach-churning record of violence during and after the siege. The partial report recounts how after the prison was overtaken by the authorities — primarily State Police and National Guardsman, augmented by correction officers — inmates were beaten as they lay on stretchers or marched through a gauntlet.

It repeats testimony from a young National Guardsman who saw inmates "poked in the groin and rectum with nightsticks." Referring to one of the most brutal attackers, the witness said he "might have been able to identify through photographs if he had been interviewed immediately."

The report criticizes the state investigation for failures to follow up with other potential witnesses who could "detail specific acts of brutality."

Included on that list is Jacques Roberts, an inmate who told investigators that after the siege had ended he had been beaten with clubs and forced to run a gauntlet, and heard "a shot fired immediately after an officer in an orange raincoat said, 'This n___ ain't dead yet.'"

The report, assembled by Special Deputy Attorney General Bernard S. Meyer, was commissioned by Gov. Hugh L. Carey "to inquire into and evaluate charges related to the conduct of the investigation into the retaking of the Attica Correctional Facility and related events subsequent thereto."

The previously released volume of Meyer's report found ample evidence of errors made by authorities during and after the siege, but no evidence of a widespread cover-up.

Marty Mack, Schneiderman's executive deputy attorney general for regional affairs, said the office hoped the newly uncovered portions of the report "can bring the families of Attica uprising victims closer to closure and help future generations of Americans learn from this tragic event."

The documents will be preserved in the State Archives.

Over the past 15 years, New York state agreed to some $20 million in separate settlements with Attica inmates beaten after the raid and the families of guards killed during the retaking of the prison.


Categories: State/Local

Medical marijuana company eyes location for business in Perth

Albany Times/Union - 10 hours 26 min ago


Buildings that once housed thousands of juvenile offenders in rural Perth may soon have scores of new tenants kept under lock and key: marijuana plants.

Empire State Health Solutions officially announced Thursday its plans to locate a medical marijuana production facility in the small Fulton County town at the Tryon Technology Park, formerly a juvenile detention center. Those plans are contingent on the company winning one of five licenses to grow and distribute the drug that the state will dole out later this summer.

The company's top officials are hoping a science-first focus will be a major selling point that helps the Capital Region score a facility they say has the potential for upward of 100 jobs when it's fully operational.

They have until June 5 to finalize their pitch.

"The thing I like about the New York law is that this is going to require you to be a scientific or medical organization to have any chance of success in getting this license," Empire State Health Solutions Founder and CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley said. "Just the quality of scientific requirements in the regulations are going to really bring the cream of the crop of this new industry to New York."

The company is no stranger to strict programs like New York's. Empire's sister company operates in Minnesota, which has placed similar restrictions on the production and use of marijuana, as New York has. Among the key similarities is the fact that patients cannot smoke the drug in either state, but are restricted to using oils, vaporizers and other ingestible forms.

The main differences in the laws are the conditions included among those that qualify patients to get medical marijuana. Unlike Minnesota, New York includes Huntington's and Parkinson's diseases, but excludes glaucoma and Tourette syndrome.

Empire is not the first company to eye a Capital Region production and distribution location, and it's just one of numerous companies expected to submit bids for licenses.

Fulton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ralph Ottusso said a win for the company would be a major boost for an economically depressed area.

"They should look at the impact that it's going to have (and) what areas need more economic growth," he said of state regulators. "I believe Fulton County is one of those areas."

The company has gotten a jump start in Perth, and plans to build out its greenhouses there before the state grants its licenses, Kingsley told the Times Union last week.

"It's the only way you can clearly meet that goal," he said.

If selected as one of the state's marijuana operations, Empire State Health Solutions would employ upward of 100 people, including pharmacists, chemists, horticulturalists and manufacturing engineers, Kingsley said.

"We seek medical, scientific and horticultural experts — not cannabis enthusiasts," he said.

Claire Hughes contributed 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Legislature, with adoption by Senate, is now in paperless mode

Albany Times/Union - 10 hours 26 min ago


State senators have opted to use Apple tablets as their electronic bill-tracking devices about a month after their colleagues in the Assembly began using Hewlett Packard tablets to keep track of legislation.

"As of Wednesday, the New York State Senate is officially paperless," Senate GOP Majority spokesman Scott Reif said in an email. "We have purchased Apple tablets and they are in place on the members' desks. Members have been trained and will continue to receive assistance as necessary."

Lawmakers for several years have talked about switching from the reams of paper to an electronic system for tracking the progress of bills they are working on. The change required the approval of voters through a constitutional amendment, which passed last November.

The idea is to cut down on the clutter and sheer tonnage of paper and ink consumed in the bill-making process.

The use of tablets so far is on something of a trial basis, with lawmakers still able to request paper copies of bills, amendments and other documents.

As is the case with the Assembly, the tablets are linked only to the Legislature's internal bill tracking system — meaning members can't peruse Amazon or Facebook on the devices.

The tablets provide a contrast to the ornate Senate chamber, which like the Assembly remains remarkably similar in appearance to the way it was in the 19th century.

The Assembly has modernized a bit faster: It has a large electronic tote board to show how members are voting on bills.


Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - 10 hours 26 min ago

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the award-winning coproduction of WMHT and the Times Union. Highlights include:

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler talks with newly installed state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan about his priorities for the end of the legislative session, and what his father taught him about public service.

WMHT's Matt Ryan reports on new funding for a program that helps train the next generation of loggers.

Glenn Blain of the Daily News offers analysis on a week that saw one-house legislative action on rent control and the state tax cap.

"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

Meeting rescheduled

A meeting on transparency issues convened by Gov. Andrew was shifted to 10 a.m. Friday from its initial afternoon start time.

The new time complicated matters for at least one participant: Assembly Republican Andy Goodell, who lives in Chautauqua County, said he would attempt to take part by phone or via Skype.

The three other legislative conferences have declined to send a representative.

Cuomo's Counsel Alphonso David will join representatives of the attorney general and the comptroller to discuss email retention policy and the state Freedom of Information Law. The governor has been hammered with criticism for his decision to adopt a broad system that automatically deletes emails after 90 days unless they're actively retained.

The meeting will be webcast on the Capitol Confidential blog:

Categories: State/Local
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