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Prison set to close, but not quietly

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

By the end of Saturday, Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton will have closed its doors for good, along with several other upstate prisons, as the state's inmate population continues to shrink.

The closing, in the works for more than a year, will come after several last-minute efforts by local lawmakers to keep the prison open as a source of stable and relatively well-paying jobs.

Inmates were moved to other prisons in April. The shutdown of the medium-security facility will follow a mandated year-long notice period designed to give employees and their unions time to make plans.

Many of the 322 people who had worked at the prison, including correctional officers, have been or are being transferred to other facilities: About 120 are headed to jobs at Comstock in Washington County, about 30 miles away; 29 have transferred to Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, Greene County, about 65 miles south, according to state data.

Employees also transferred to Hale Creek at Johnstown in Fulton County; and Adirondack in Ray Brook, Essex County, as well as to the Corrections Department main office and other state agencies, including the Office of General Services. Forty three others chose to retire.

Also closing on Saturday are Butler in Red Creek, Wayne County; Chateaugay in Franklin County and the Monterey shock facility in Beaver Dams, Schuyler County.

The Mt. McGregor facility's final days were not without a bit of drama. On Thursday, reporter Mark Mulholland of WNYT-TV was threatened with arrest after a correction officer said he shouldn't be filming from the prison access road.

The officer, a lieutenant, told Mulholland and his cameraman to leave because they didn't have permission to film on prison property.

Another prison guard tried to block the TV crew from entering Grant Cottage, an historic site on the prison grounds where former President Ulysses S. Grant died of throat cancer in 1885.

State officials said the station had earlier been denied permission to shoot video on the prison grounds for what officials said were "security reasons." They also cited prison policy.

But Mulholland said prison personnel went too far. "They called the State Police. They wanted us arrested," he said.

A State Trooper showed up but didn't arrest them,

The confrontation prompted The Associated Press to send a letter of protest. "We believe that the Channel 13 crew is owed an apology," read part of a letter from Ken Tingley of the Glens Falls Post Star, the current president of the New York State Associated Press Association.

WNYT News Director Eric Hoppel said Mulholland was reporting that the Grant Cottage site is scheduled to stay open after the prison closes.

Another crew from a production company was on the prison grounds that day, shooting exterior scenes for a drama. State officials wouldn't divulge details about the production.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Congressional race: Doheny drops third party run in bid for GOP unity

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

Congressional candidate Matt Doheny shut down his third-party run in the 21st Congressional District on Friday, a month after losing to Elise Stefanik in the Republican primary.

Doheny lost the GOP line by 22 percentage points in the June contest, but picked up the Independence Party ballot line in the race to replace Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who is not seeking re-election.

Doheny made the announcement in Watertown, where he noted, "I'm not Doug Hoffman."

In 2010, Hoffman lost the GOP primary to Doheny but continued to run on the Conservative line.

Hoffman ended up dropping out a month before the general election, but his name remained on the ballot, siphoning votes away from Doheny and allowing Owens to squeak out a slim victory.

Stefanik said that she was grateful for Doheny's decision, which allows the GOP's forces to unite against Democrat Aaron Woolf.

"Matt waged a hard-fought primary, and we respect and appreciate his decision to give Republicans their best opportunity to win back our seat for the North Country," Stefanik said in a statement.

During the primary, Stefanik and Doheny fought bitterly over over who was the more authentic resident of the sprawling district.

Stefanik was raised in Guilderland, attended Albany Academy for Girls and graduated from Harvard before working in Washington, D.C. as an aide to President George W. Bush and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

In a statement, Rep. Greg Walden, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed the need for unity.

"Throughout his career, Matt Doheny has always done what is best for the North Country," Walden said.

Matt Funiciello of Glens Falls is running on the Green Party line.

Categories: State/Local

Filing deadline dustup in state Senate race

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

As Democrat Brian Howard challenges Republican state Sen. Kathy Marchione in the 43rd Senate District, he's raising the issue of campaign finance.

"If we don't reform it, it's such a corrupt system that we're not going to have one person's vote be equal to another person's vote," Howard told WAMC in June.

Perhaps trying to throw the issue back at the candidate, Saratoga County Republican Committee Chairman John Herrick took Howard to task this week for not submitting a campaign finance filing to the state Board of Elections by the July 15 deadline.

"One week past the filing deadline and Howard still hasn't done it," Herrick said. "His campaign finance disclosure statement is a mystery, which begs the question: What is Brian Howard trying to hide? Howard gets a well-deserved 'F' in the critical subject of transparency."

Howard's defense was a simple one: Until late last week, he didn't have a campaign committee.

Howard started gathering support to challenge Marchione in late May, but created his committee to solicit donations on July 18 — three days after candidates were required to file itemized financial disclosures.

According to an official at the state board, Howard can't be sanctioned for failing to file a disclosure form for an entity that hadn't actually been set up during the filing period.

Though Howard has been talking up his challenge to Marchione, his campaign spokesman Randy Koniowka pointed out that the candidate only officially announced his run on July 8.

Koniowka said there were no campaign expenditures or contributions prior to the July 15 filing deadline. None of the campaign staff had been paid, and a volunteer designed Howard's website. The only expense incurred since the filing deadline has been for campaign signs. Koniowka said that cost would show up on the next report, which is due in early October.

"This is just the type of dirty politics that people are sick and tired of," Koniowka said. "People want to hear about the issues. ... With (Marchione), all you have is mudslinging."

Herrick was unmoved: "When you look at the filings after the deadline and see nothing is reported even though he has a website and campaign signs, you have to ask the question," he said.

Marchione's filing showing her with close to $265,000 in her campaign coffers.

Matt Hamilton contributed.

Categories: State/Local

Moreland Commission shut down as panel mulled Senate subpoenas

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was poised to issue subpoenas to the treasurers of several state Senate campaign committees when Gov. Andrew Cuomo abruptly shut down the panel at the end of March, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

It's unclear whether the governor or anyone in his administration was aware of the commission's plans to issue the subpoenas at the time he said the panel would be disbanded. Earlier that same month, at a meeting in Albany, members of the anti-corruption effort formulated a plan — at what would be their final meeting — to obtain the treasurers' records of various Senate campaign committees as part of a months-long investigation of the accounts.

Their discussion included a proposal to set up a law enforcement task force to refer any potential criminal cases of campaign-finance violations to the appropriate prosecutors across the state, according to interviews with two former members.

"All (the commission's nine) district attorneys were going to get together and review these cases, subpoena records from the treasurers and then have meetings with U.S. Attorneys and have a summit to determine where the best jurisdiction lies," said one of the former panel members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to an ongoing investigation of the panel's shutdown by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi declined to say whether the governor's office was aware of the commission's plans to issue subpoenas to the treasurers when Cuomo said on March 29 that he was ending the commission's work. By that time, the commission had subpoenaed dozens of financial records from various Senate campaign accounts, as well as the "housekeeping" campaign committee accounts of state political parties.

"It is correct that those subpoenas were discussed," said Onondoga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, who co-chaired the Moreland Commission and was part of the group that discussed issuing subpoenas to individual senators' campaign treasurers.

On Wednesday, The New York Times published a story alleging an effort by Cuomo's office to control the commission and limit subpoenas that it sought to issue as part of its mandate to investigate public corruption. The governor's office responded to The Times in a 13-page statement, saying the administration acted appropriately in guiding the commission's investigative efforts.

The governor had touted the panel as an independent body when he appointed its members a year ago.

Former commission members or employees interviewed by the Times Union in recent months expressed concerns about what they viewed as interference by Cuomo's office, and apparent attempts to manipulate their probes of state legislators and especially companies with ties to Cuomo or his campaign accounts. Cuomo's office has denied the allegations and said the commission was formed by the governor to push his agenda for campaign finance overhaul.

One of the former members said the commission's former executive director, Regina Calcaterra, allegedly tried to dissuade their efforts to meet during a three-month stretch between January and March — a critical time when Cuomo was negotiating the state budget with legislative leaders who were eager to see the panel shut down.

In February, the commission's former chief investigator, Danya Perry, prepared a detailed report outlining questionable campaign expenditures by 28 state senators that was shared with the panel.

Damien LaVera, a spokesman for Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, on Thursday said that Perry's files were not turned over to the Attorney General's office when she left her position in February. It's unclear whether Schneiderman's office will pursue any of the Moreland Commission's investigations.

"Our office cannot comment on ongoing or potential investigations arising out of the Moreland Commission, whether being pursued by our office or other prosecutors," LaVera said.

In the months leading up to the internal report prepared by Perry, members of her investigative team used subpoenas to sift bank records from the campaign accounts of the 28 state senators whose campaigns had credit card or unitemized expenses that exceeded $10,000. Sources familiar with the findings, but not authorized to comment publicly, said the information showed large amounts of money flowing from campaign accounts into the hands of elected officials, their staffers and campaign workers. In many instances, the money flowed from the accounts through unitemized payments made from debit cards, ATM withdrawals and checks made out to "cash" — with no explanation of where or how the cash was spent.

The Moreland Commission's members discussed the need to subpoena the various bookkeeping records of the senators' campaign treasurers to decipher whether any of the expenditures were potential criminal violations, or simply a result of shoddy record-keeping.

"There was not much more, really, other than subpoenaing the treasurers' reports and then tracking down the expenditures to determine if they were political in nature," one of the former commission members said in an interview last month.

Bharara, whose office took the Moreland Commission's records in April, has pursued the Senate campaign finance investigation initiated by the Moreland panel. In May, his office began issuing subpoenas to campaign workers and now-former staff members of state Sen. George D. Maziarz, who unexpectedly said two weeks ago that he would not seek re-election after nearly two decades in the Senate. A spokesman for Maziarz, a Republican whose district includes Niagara and Orleans counties, denied knowledge of the subpoenas three weeks ago.

None of the senators examined by the Moreland panel had more unitemized expenditures than Maziarz, whose campaign expenditures are being investigated by the Justice Department.

Fitzpatrick, who co-chaired the commission with Milton L. Williams Jr., a former assistant U.S. Attorney, said the panel discussed how to handle criminal cases, including referrals to Albany County District Attorney David Soares.

"We devised a plan to have David Soares with the (Attorney General's) assistance review all our potential cases and either retain them or refer them out to appropriate state DAs," Fitzpatrick said. "That plan was superseded by Milt Williams and I deciding the cases needed to be referred to Preet immediately."

Soares declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the governor's disbanding of the commission is murky. Its members received neither written notification of the panel's demise or a letter of appreciation from the governor's office for their work. The Times Union requested the records, if they exist, under a Freedom of Information Law request filed June 12. The governor's office has asked for extensions to respond to the request.

"I honestly don't know what the procedures are for that," said Azzopardi, Cuomo's spokesman, when asked if the administration had documented its disbanding of the commission. He said he would check, but could not get clarification by press time on Thursday.

blyons@timesunion.com • 518-454-5547 • @blyonswriter

Categories: State/Local

Remains of soldier killed in '53 identified

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Malone

Lawrence Jock's surviving relatives in northern New York knew next to nothing about the Army combat veteran who was declared missing in action at the end of the Korean War more than 60 years ago.

Now that his remains have been identified and will be brought back to the North Country for burial, his relatives have learned that he was decorated veteran of World War II who enlisted before America entered the conflict in December 1941.

"He was a patriot even before the Japanese attacked us. That was something I could tell the family," said 1st Sgt. Ronald Spanton of the New York Army National Guard.

Spanton, a casualty assistance officer in northern New York, researched Jock's military background after his remains were identified on June 25, the 64th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. He learned that Jock joined the service in the 1930s, served as an infantryman in Europe with the 100th Infantry Division during WWII and was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor. Jock also served with U.S. occupation forces in Japan.

The 37-year-old master sergeant was serving as a forward observer with a field artillery battery in the 8th Army when his position was attacked on July 15, 1953, by Chinese forces in Kangwon Province, North Korea. A day after the battle, Jock was listed as MIA, and a year later, he was declared dead.

Military officials said his remains were among those of 350 to 400 U.S. servicemen turned over by North Korea between 1991 and 1994.

Categories: State/Local

GOP jumps on Moreland scandal

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

Republicans have wasted no time slamming statewide officeholders over what is perhaps the juiciest piece of news they've had to run on during this election cycle: the unfolding Moreland Commission meddling scandal involving the governor's office.

But while Rob Astorino, John Cahill and Robert Antonacci already are using on the campaign trail the revelations printed Wednesday in The New York Times, polling of voters about corruption and specifically the Moreland Commission seems to point toward a small impact.

Only 1 percent of likely voters statewide — and 1 percent of upstaters — said government corruption and ethics is the top issue on their minds when choosing a gubernatorial candidate to support, according to Monday's Siena Research Institute poll, taken before the Times story was published.

An April Siena poll showed the term "Moreland Commission" was the antithesis of a buzzword, with 72 percent of voters saying they had heard not much, if anything at all, about the disbanding of the panel and 68 percent saying they weren't following the news about the commission closely, if at all.

"Voters are much more focused on their everyday lives than they are on what's happening in Albany, particularly so given that there is this jaded view of elected officials and politicians," Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said. "Over the last several years, with great regularity, they read about or hear about an elected official being convicted or indicted or arrested."

Despite the data, Republican statewide candidates are pushing to get out their message about cleaning up Albany. Astorino and Cahill have been making the media rounds, with both doing multiple radio interviews over the last two days. Astorino also held a Wednesday afternoon conference call with reporters and said the governor is "knee-deep in scandal."

Comptroller candidate Antonacci also has gotten in on the action, lambasting in a statement Thursday state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for not auditing the commission.

All three Republican candidates trail the incumbents and are unknown by a relatively large number of voters, something Astorino has admitted about his own candidacy.

Greenberg said it's too early to tell if the Times story and the continued follow-up coverage will change public opinion and knowledge about corruption. But will the issue have the longevity to turn into something voters think about in the booth?

"Certainly Rob Astorino and the Republicans are going to do everything they possibly can to ensure it has legs," Greenberg said. "The governor and the Democrats are going to try to do everything they can to try to make this a one-day or at least a very short-lived story. Who is successful? We don't know that yet."

Greenberg said the wild card is U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara and where his investigation into Moreland-related matters takes him. Bharara's take on corruption is the one spot where voters tend to voice a stronger opinion. Sixty-one percent said in April that they agreed with the federal prosecutor that the commission should have been allowed to continue its work.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

New York Now looks at 'zombie properties'

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the state Emmy-winning co-production of WMHT and the Times Union. This week's highlights:

"Innovation Trail" correspondent Jenna Flanagan looks at how the state and municipalities are using technology to combat the scourge of blight caused by "zombie properties."

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler gets a guided tour of what lies beneath the Capitol complex, and the elaborate system that keeps it cool in summer and warm in winter.

Seiler is joined by the TU's Matt Hamilton to discuss the controversy over a New York Times report on the Cuomo administration's meddling with the Moreland Commission's corruption investigation.

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

1,803 public workers paid more than Cuomo

ALBANY — The Empire Center for Public Policy reports 1,803 local government employees outside of New York City have been paid more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $179,000 salary in the past year.

The report from the fiscally conservative group for the year ending March 31 shows 47 of the 50 highest-paid municipal employees working for police departments or sheriff's offices and each taking home more than $250,000.

According to the report, topping them all is Charles Ewald, a jail warden paid $414,527 by Suffolk County.

The 22 police officers of the village of Kings Point are the highest-paid group of local government employees in the state, with average pay of $196,143.

Westchester County employees show the highest pay on average, with $184,865 for police and $76,652 for other workers.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Vacant restaurant at Plaza gets face-lift

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

The former site of the Sign of the Tree restaurant, vacant since 2006, is getting a face-lift in the hopes of attracting a new eatery.

The space, just south of The Egg on the Empire State Plaza, has been empty since the state Office of General Services evicted restaurateur Michael LoPorto for not paying rent amid a long-standing dispute over parking.

OGS had solicited bids for a new establishment in the space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a picturesque patio without success.

Now that contractors have removed the "Cheers"-era bar, pulled out a nicotine-stained ceiling and ripped up carpeting, prospective operators will have what OGS spokeswoman Heather Groll called a "vanilla box" to work with. The agency's investment makes it easier for new management to put its own mark on the location, she said.

Restaurateurs who had previously looked at the space were put off by the inconvenient location, but it has direct access to the concourse and the P3 lots where a number of parking spots would be allocated for customers.

Almost 75 percent of Sign of the Tree's sales came from catering.

OGS will begin seeking bids for new proprietors in a few months, after the refurbishment is complete.

On Thursday, all that was left of the old haunt's former look was a Bass Ale sign leaning against a newly painted wall. It will be auctioned off on the state's eBay site soon.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo panel to mull tip issue

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

A panel representing unions, business and government will try to determine how much workers who rely on tips should be paid per hour.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through a minimum wage hike to $8 from $7.25 per hour at the start of the year, but pay for workers who get tips, such as waiters and waitresses, remains at $5.

At the time, Cuomo said he would address increases for tipped workers administratively through the Department of Labor. On Thursday, he convened a department wage board to examine the issue.

Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera will oversee the board, whose members are Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of the state Business Council; Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trade Council; and Timothy Grippen, retired Broome County executive.

They will hold public hearings and issue a report by February.

Advocates had high hopes for the board.

"The new wage board assigned by Governor Cuomo has a historic opportunity to address income inequality in New York, which is the worst in the country," said Claudia Leon, a tipped worker and member of Make the Road New York, a non-profit group that advocates on behalf of Latinos and working-class communities.

"As we push for the state to set a higher minimum wage for workers that accounts for regional costs of living, it would be unacceptable for some workers to be left behind," said Michael Stewart, executive director of UnitedNY, which advocates for low-wage workers.

While restaurant workers get a $5 minimum wage, hotel workers who get tips get $5.65 per hour.

There are about 229,000 such workers in both categories in New York, according to Make the Road.

Under the deal worked out by the governor and lawmakers last year, the regular minimum wage will rise to $8.75 on December 31 and to $9 on Dec. 31, 2015.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Did Cuomo cross line?

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

Following a New York Times report on the Cuomo administration's meddling with the Moreland Commission panel on public corruption, one question could prove crucial: While the governor has the legal right to involve himself in the workings of a Moreland panel, do he or his staffers face steeper legal peril because this panel was also empowered as deputy attorneys general?

The Times story detailed attempts by the second floor to steer the panel, including efforts to wave off subpoenas to entities with connections to Cuomo's campaign. It described attempts by Cuomo's Secretary Larry Schwartz to block one subpoena issued to a media ad-buying firm used in the past by the governor, and commission Executive Director Regina Calcaterra's efforts to put the brakes on a subpoena to the Real Estate Board of New York City, a group that includes many generous Cuomo donors.

Wednesday brought a barrage of criticism for Cuomo from both left and right.

The good-government group Common Cause called the behavior described in the story "a shocking rebuke to the principles of our democracy," while Cuomo's Republican gubernatorial opponent Rob Astorino told reporters the administration was "knee-deep" in scandal.

Cuomo's camp contends his office had the right to guide the panel under the language of the 1907 Moreland Act, which allows the governor to investigate any executive branch agency or related entity. While past governors have used the statute to examine the inner workings of government and specific industries, it does not give the governor power to directly investigate the Legislature.

But Cuomo's public corruption panel, created a year ago and scrapped in March in exchange for a reduced package of ethics reforms tucked into this year's state budget deal, was special: By allowing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to give the lawyers who served as commissioners the powers of deputy attorneys general, Cuomo argued that he had created a body that could look into the scandal-scarred Legislature.

It's a tactic that legal scholars and others contend effectively stripped the executive branch of its lawful ability to steer the panel.

"This entity was never a Moreland Commission — it was a hybrid," Richard Brodsky, a former assemblyman and senior fellow at the public policy organization Demos. "Part of it was a Moreland Commission; part of it was an attorney general investigation. ... These folks had a legal obligation to make independent judgments and not do what they were told."

In a 13-page response to the Times' questions for its story, the governor's office insisted no Moreland Commission could ever be independent from the governor's office. "It is purely a creation of the governor's power under the law, which vests subpoena power in the governor or his designee," the statement reads.

The question yet to be answered is if a share of oversight power would have gone to Schneiderman because of his ability to deputize commission members. The attorney general's office has stayed away from Moreland-related work since Schneiderman deputized the select commissioners when the panel was convened.

Former Republican Attorney General Dennis Vacco said it was "improper" for Schwartz to get involved in the commission's activities, and believes Schneiderman should have played a more involved role.

"It appeared to me at the time (the panel was announced) that Schneiderman was a partner in this and had appointments on it in order for them to have the clout of a prosecutor," Vacco said Wednesday. "... Because these were his deputies, Schneiderman had a greater responsibility to the investigations than just a passive appointee to the Moreland Commission. He had an obligation to effectively manage them and their investigations. ... If they were being thwarted, he had an obligation to speak up."

Schneiderman's office declined to comment.

Even considering the hybrid nature of this Moreland panel, Albany Law School professor Vincent Bonventre said Cuomo and his aides likely won't face legal repercussions for simply trying to steer its work.

"Politics is a lot about giving and taking and compromising and making deals," Bonventre said. "If we're talking just about that, there's no criminal conduct. If on the other hand what the evidence shows is that a politician made a deal to cover up evidence of political corruption that is criminality, then you'd have sufficient evidence for an obstruction of justice charge and other kinds of charges having to do with political corruption."

Distinguishing between the two acts can be difficult, he said.

What isn't currently up for legal interpretation is the fact that U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara is looking into Moreland-related matters. While it's unclear if he is eyeing possible manipulation of the panel's work, Bonventre said the prosecutor's interest is not something to shrug off.

"That's probably the most prestigious federal prosecution office in the country," he said. "They don't bring charges lightly. They have a history of an extraordinary office with extraordinarily capable people."

Casey Seiler contributed.

Categories: State/Local

SED will put out school data early

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

It's only July, but state Education Commissioner John King Jr. says he wants to help schools get a jump on the upcoming academic year by releasing in early August the "instructional reports," or detailed breakdowns, of this year's English and math exams for grades 3 through 8.

They would normally come out at the start of the school year.

That doesn't mean the aggregate test scores are being released, so it's still too early to say if scores as a whole are going up, going down or staying the same.

Instead, these reports, which will be sent to regional data centers affiliated with BOCES, offer granular views of individual test questions and students performance.

Aggregate test score results will be released later in the year.

"We heard from teachers, principals and superintendents who asked us to put these reports out as early as possible," King said about the exams. "We listened, and we acted. These reports have been available in prior years, but by releasing the instructional reports early, we're giving educators more time to use the assessment results in their planning for the next school year.''

While most teachers are on summer break until the new school year begins around Labor Day, superintendents and curriculum supervisors who work during the summer will be able to start analyzing the data.

"Having that information going into the new school year is important," said Terry Pratt, a lawyer and lobbyist for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "They'll have some extra time now."

"The department's early release of the grades 3 through 8 math and ELA instructional reports is very beneficial,'' said Jackie Starks, superintendent at the Madison-Oneida BOCES.

Doing so allows strengths and weaknesses as reflected by the test scores to be pinpointed.

If students in a particular school, for example, did poorly on a fifth-grade math question about decimals, educators will know they need to spend more time on that area or examine how it's being taught.

The early release comes in response to criticism of the tests, which are tied to the new Common Core learning standards.

Teachers, administrators and parents have complained that they haven't gotten adequate guidance on how to get kids ready for the new tests.

With those complaints in mind, the state Legislature intervened earlier this year, pushing through a delay in the use of exam results for evaluating teacher performance.

This week, the Education Department said it would give out 50 percent of the questions and answers from the 2014 exams. In the past, the department released 25 percent.

Released test questions will include detailed annotations that explain correct and incorrect responses.

King and the Education Department had requested funding that would allow them to release virtually all scored test questions, but that money didn't end up in the budget.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Hopes harnessed to casino sites

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

While the state Gaming Commission focuses on siting four new upstate casinos, investors who want to bring a new harness track and video lottery terminal parlor to the North Country are waiting. It's a condition that could last for years.

Mark F. Bohn and his partners want to build a track, a video lottery terminal parlor and an off-track betting facility on 660 acres outside the Jefferson County village of Alexandria Bay, though that deal is contingent on winning state licenses. In order to qualify for a VLT license, a bidder must have some sort of racing license as well.

Legislation passed in 1940 initially set the number of harness racing tracks in New York at seven. After World War II, legislators created another license to accommodate the surge of interest in the sport. The eighth harness track license that Bohn is seeking has been up for grabs since 2006, when the Syracuse Mile track stopped running parimutuel races.

Three different bidders tried and failed to win the license in 2011, including one proposal on the same tract of land — roughly 30 minutes from the Canadian border — on which Bohn would like to develop the gaming center along with an outlet mall, 128-room hotel and 500-seat convention center.

The state's harness tracks are preparing for changes to the regional gaming landscape. This fall, the state is expected to award four licenses for upstate full-gaming casinos, a competition that several experienced racino operators — including those behind Saratoga Casino & Raceway and Tioga Downs in the Southern Tier — have jumped into with proposals.

It remains to be seen what effect the new competition will have on racino business once the new gaming halls open.

Even as the national gaming industry worries about flagging revenues, Bohn thinks his project can appeal to the cross-border market; the closest harness racing competitor would be 200 miles south at Vernon Downs.

"The location really is the key to us," said Bohn, a Rochester businessman with roots in the North Country.

Alexandria Bay falls within the St. Regis Mohawks' exclusivity zone around the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino in Hogansburg. That zone was negotiated by the tribe and Cuomo last year in exchange for the renewed flow of revenue payments to the state, which had been suspended during a long-standing dispute.

"The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe would oppose any development that may jeopardize our established gaming operations," said tribal spokeswoman Allyson Doctor. "As for development in Jefferson or St. Lawrence counties, we would of course be concerned with substantiated discussion of development — however, to our knowledge these proposals do not yet have political support."

According to an official at the Gaming Commission, the state's agreement with the Mohawks doesn't prohibit a harness track or VLT facility from operating.

According to Bohn, the proposed project would cost $89 million, create 500 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs in hospitality, gaming and entertainment once the facility is completed.

Bohn wouldn't name the other members of his development group except to say it includes heavy hitters in the financial, gaming and horse racing industries. An outside consulting firm performed a market study for Bohn and his partners, and that data makes them think there's room for another harness track in New York.

Bohn isn't alone in his desire to tap into the destination-tourism potential of the area: Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that a lodging and conference facility 30 minutes away from Alexandria Bay would receive $3 million in funding from the Regional Economic Development Council initiative.

The state Gaming Association, the trade group that represents harness racing facilities, said 2013 data show the racinos contributed $878 million in revenue to education funding.

Joe Faraldo, president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, said that if this bid can bring in enough VLT revenue, it could offer sizable purses.

"When there's money involved," Faraldo said, "horsemen will go anywhere."

He said the proposed track could also attract riders who race in Ontario or Montreal. Still, he didn't necessarily believe that this track's location would keep consumers from crossing the border to the nearby Canadian casinos.

Right now, Bohn can only hope for a swift decision on the four upstate casinos. And even then, it's unclear how quickly the Gaming Commission will begin the procurement process for the eighth license.

"We'll be more than ready for the day when (the Gaming Commission) gets to the Request for Application," he said.

boreskes@timesunion.com • 518-454-5619 • @boreskes

Categories: State/Local

Husband in murder rap

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

A New York mother and daughter whose bodies were found in different states and remained unidentified for 19 years were killed by a close relative who is now in custody and will face murder charges, authorities said Wednesday.

Seventy-year-old Robert Honsch, of Dalton, Ohio, faces murder charges in the death of his wife, whose body was found in Massachusetts in 1995, and the death of her teenage daughter, who was found dead in Connecticut that same year.

Authorities allege Honsch shot 53-year-old Marcia Honsch in the head. Her body was found by a hiker in October 1995 near an entrance to Tolland State Forest in western Massachusetts. A week earlier, the body of a young female was found in a parking area behind a strip mall in New Britain, Conn. She also was shot in the head.

New Britain police said Wednesday they and Massachusetts State Police have separate arrest warrants charging Honsch with murder.

According to a 2009 Times Union story, a series of developments in the case led police to the Capital Region. Three pieces of evidence — a sweatshirt, a New York state tobacco tax stamp issued in or around the Albany area and a chemical hair analysis — prompted detectives to suspect the campground victim was in the Albany area in the months before her murder.

The first lead came after the victim in western Massachusetts was found on Oct. 6, 1995, eight days after the Sept. 28 discovery of the other body in Connecticut. Massachusetts investigators tracked her Trends brand sweatshirt to a New York City-area distributor, who told them the clothing was sent to just three locations in the Albany area -- the now-closed 9.99 Stockroom stores in Schenectady, Wilton and Colonie.

Several rounds of DNA testing determined they were mother and daughter, but they remained unidentified until a woman from Virginia Beach, Va., contacted New York State Police in June looking for relatives unaccounted for since 1995.

Troopers began a missing-persons investigation into the disappearance of a mother and daughter from the New York City suburb of Brewster, and collaboration with authorities in Massachusetts and Connecticut determined the victims were Marcia Honsch and her daughter Elizabeth, 16. They had last lived in the Putnam County town of Brewster with Robert Honsch.

Authorities said examination of items found near Elizabeth Honsch's body connected him to the scene.

Categories: State/Local

State fine for pet theft raised to $1,000

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

New York on Wednesday raised the fine for trying to steal someone's pet to $1,000.

The amendment to state law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo was effective immediately. The old maximum fine of $200 was set in 1970, according to the governor's office.

"For many New Yorkers, a pet can be an extension of their family, which is why pet theft is a particularly heartless offense," Cuomo said. "Increasing the penalties for stealing or harming dogs, cats and other animals is an important way that we can crack down on this crime."

It's a crime under the law to remove a collar or identification from a pet without the owner's permission, to seize an animal under its owner's control or to transport one without authorization in order to sell or kill it.

The American Kennel Club says it tracked from news and customer reports more than 590 pet thefts last year, ranging from puppies stolen from pet stores to purebreds snatched from parked cars and shelters.

Other New York legislation signed this week makes shining a laser light at an airplane that can disorient the pilot a crime. It's already illegal under federal law.

A new statute against aggravated harassment, defined as communicating threats of physical harm against people or property by computer or other means, replaces one struck down this year by the state Court of Appeals as unconstitutionally vague. Sponsors cited 7,600 open cases statewide where it was the most serious charge.

Other new laws expand the definition of criminal stalking to include the unauthorized use of a GPS or other electronic device to track someone and increase the penalty for public lewdness when an adult intentionally exposes himself to a child under 16.

Categories: State/Local

Gender identity to aid services

Albany Times/Union - 58 min 24 sec ago

Albany

State agencies have begun adding gender identity to their data collection, part of an effort Gov. Andrew Cuomo said will help the state better meet the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.

A new report Wednesday identified eight agencies, including the Department of Health, collecting or updating their data systems to gather those demographics.

"New York Ssate has a long history of advancing progressive ideals," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "By being more inclusive with how state agencies monitor the demographics of those they serve, we can address health and financial disparities, safety concerns, and a myriad of other issues that impact LGBT New Yorkers."

New York's Office of Mental Health in 2011 began including sexual orientation and gender identity questions on admission forms at state mental health facilities, using it in a training curriculum for clinicians intended to improve treatment for LGBT people.

In 2012, the state Office for the Aging updated its system to ensure including LGBT seniors, whom research indicates are likelier to live alone and lack vital support systems.

Jonathan Lang, director of governmental affairs and community projects for the Empire State Pride Agenda, said the information "will allow us to create more tailored approaches to effectively reduce the well-documented health disparities adversely impacting our community."

The advocacy group said transgender New Yorkers still face disproportionate disadvantages for basic needs and services, most have been mistreated on the job, half have been harassed in public accommodations, and many have been denied a home or apartment.

Rochester this week clarified its local law against transgender discrimination, while 10 others statewide now have similar measures, Empire State Pride Agenda spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said. Others are New York City; Albany, Tompkins, Suffolk and Westchester counties; and the cities of Buffalo, Binghamton, Syracuse and Ithaca.

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - 1 hour 58 min ago

State Fair tickets sold online for first time

SYRACUSE — Tickets for the New York State Fair can be purchased online for the first time.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the new system will make it easier for people to visit the Syracuse fairgrounds during the event's 12-day run.

The State Fair has launched a new online purchasing page on its website that offers tickets at a 40-percent discount over the price at the gate. It also includes deals for frequent visitors, midway rides and daily parking.

The fair's online site joins a network of grocery and drug stores that sell fair tickets.

A link to the site can be found at www.nysfair.org

This year's fair runs from Aug. 21 to Labor Day, Sept. 1.

— Associated Press

Rabbi in Brooklyn convicted in scam

NEW YORK — A Brooklyn rabbi has been convicted of tax fraud and ordered to pay more than $520,000 for soliciting donations for phony charities.

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says 53-year-old Yaakov Weingarten and his wife, Rivka, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities that supposedly benefited healthcare and other causes in Israel.

But Schneiderman said the Weingartens used much of the money for personal expenses such as car loans, dentist bills and home improvements.

The judgment signed Wednesday in Brooklyn state Supreme Court bars Weingarten and two associates from any fundraising activities in New York state.

Approximately $360,000 of the funds from the civil judgment will go to Israeli charities that carry out programs similar to those that Weingarten pretended he was raising money for.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Left, right meet to attack Cuomo

Albany Times/Union - 1 hour 58 min ago

Albany

Don't expect them to team up again anytime soon, but for at least one Tuesday morning, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino and left-leaning Democratic primary candidate Zephyr Teachout were on the same page.

The candidates held a joint news conference on the steps of Manhattan's Tweed Courthouse — a symbolically chosen location — to call out Gov. Andrew Cuomo over what they called the "growing corruption crisis in Albany" under his watch. According to a transcript provided by her campaign, Teachout assailed Cuomo's various 2010 campaign vows to clean up Albany as broken promises.

"Instead of transparency, openness and accountability, he uses BlackBerrys to communicate with aides so that their communications can't be found by reporters," she said. "Instead of a responsive government, there are more corruption scandals now than four years ago."

The scandal-scarred Legislature took its lumps again during the past legislative session, with state Sens. Tom Libous and George Maziarz, both top Republicans, becoming the latest elected officials to either be indicted (Libous) or resign amid an investigation (Maziarz, though he said earlier this month that the timing is coincidental). The candidates called for Cuomo to identify which members of his administration have been subpoenaed to testify as part of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's investigation into the shuttering of the Moreland Commission. An administration spokesman did not respond to a request for information.

The New York Times reported last week that Cuomo's counsel Mylan Denerstein has agreed to be interviewed early next month by federal prosecutors about her involvement with the commission.

Politically, the news conference offered a chance for both candidates to appeal to any voters who might be against supporting the incumbent. Teachout represents Cuomo's left flank, and Astorino is trying to appeal to as many conservative and moderate Republicans as possible — and has been making attempts to appeal to all voters on issues like Common Core and corruption — in an effort to raise his statewide profile.

Teachout did not get backing from the state Working Families Party at its May convention and will have to primary Cuomo in September to be on the ballot in November. She isn't a direct threat to Astorino on any ballot line. Both candidates were complimentary of each other, though they admitted they don't agree on much. "She's a bright woman," Astorino said in a TALK 1300 radio interview. "She obviously cares deeply about this state. We don't agree on the methods to change it, but that's OK. We certainly agree that Andrew Cuomo's corruption has reached a new level."

Democratic officials said the conference was about taking the focus off New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's comments that he'd consider campaigning for Astorino.

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Did editing taint report?

Albany Times/Union - 1 hour 58 min ago

Albany

The leader of a business group opposed to New York's Scaffold Law offered edits to an academic analysis of its impact on construction costs and worker injuries — an $82,800 study that was funded by the same group.

Tom Stebbins, the leader of the state Lawsuit Reform Alliance, and officials at SUNY's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government insist that their communications during the preparation of the report had no impact on its data or conclusions. But labor groups who support Scaffold Law say it deepens their belief that the study — including a controversial chapter the institute has backed away from — amounted to advocacy camouflaged as research.

Scaffold Law, which places "absolute liability" on employers for gravity-related workplace injuries, is supported by labor unions but opposed by business groups that claim it needlessly drives up construction costs. Opponents would like to see New York move to a "comparative negligence" standard that would make workers proportionately responsible when their actions contribute to an accident.

The Rockefeller Institute report, made public in February, included a statistical analysis that concluded construction injuries in Illinois dropped after the state repealed its version of the Scaffold Law in 1995 — a finding that was highlighted by the law's opponents as they renewed their legislative combat.

But the director of the Albany-based institute, Thomas Gais, subsequently made public what he described as flaws in the study's Illinois analysis — conducted by a Cornell University researcher — and the fact that the report was released to its funders before a final round of vetting had taken place.

After that dispute came to light in April, advocates on both sides filed Freedom of Information Law requests to find out if pressure had been placed on the institute, either during its research or after the report's release.

Stebbins' suggested edits were among the emails released to a pro-Scaffold Law group, the Center for Popular Democracy, in response to its FOIL request for communications between the institute and the alliance, which sponsored the study through an offshoot called the New York Civil Justice Institute.

The 56 pages of documents begins with pro forma material such as the alliance's initial request for research proposals — including the requirement to participate in "a biweekly teleconference ... with the client(s) to discuss the approach, the resources and the progress of the project" — and the institute's proposed outline for its work.

The correspondence that followed the February 2013 contract for the report is dominated by emails between Stebbins and the research team, including project director Michael Hattery. As the work continued through the spring and summer, Stebbins wrote a handful of emails asking questions and offering supplemental ideas or material.

At one point, Hattery asked him for information about a legislative reform proposal.

"Attached is the bill and sponsor memo," Stebbins wrote back. "But note that your study is not a lobbying document in support of any solution. The goal of your work is to really assess the problem."

On July 12, 2013, Stebbins submitted two pages of "comments on the study for your consideration" in response to the final draft of the research — a document the Rockefeller Foundation has so far refused to provide in response to the FOIL request, pending an appeal.

While many of his comments are mere copy editing, others go to the substance of the study, including its disputed contention that Scaffold Law "blunts employers' incentives to invest in worker safety" and thus "makes construction in occupations to which it applies more dangerous."

In a suggested change to part of the section that includes the Illinois-New York comparison, Stebbins writes, "Suggest we expand this to include workers (sic) own negligence and abuse, or say that a more complete causation hypothesis requires further study. As of now, it seems that the data confirms the presence of the scaffold law increases injuries, but I don't think we have any data to show the reason why."

In an interview Tuesday, Stebbins said that his suggestions were nothing more than minor tweaks or attempts to get clarification.

"Whether or not they incorporated the edits was completely up to (the report's authors)," he said. "They reached the conclusion that the Scaffold Law causes injuries on their own, and I asked them to clarify how they got there."

Without the draft copy of the report, it's impossible to tell how many of Stebbins' recommendations were incorporated into the final version.

Hattery, the report's project director, said it was hard to place Stebbins' involvement on the spectrum of participation by a funding entity that he's experienced. State or federal sources, he noted, tended to be more hands-off.

"Is this normative? I can't tell you that," Hattery said. " ... For this kind of sponsor, I've had this level of interaction."

He declined to estimate the percentage of Stebbins' suggestions that ended up in the final report. "I know there were issues that he raised that we didn't make changes on," Hattery said.

He insisted that the study's authors "tried to do an honest piece of research."

Josie Duffy from the labor-backed Center for Popular Democracy took the opposite view: "The FOIL results confirm what we already knew: This discredited report was paid for and guided by business groups lobbying to weaken common-sense worker safety laws that protect thousands of New Yorkers every day."

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Lancman on Chokeholds, NYPD: 'Going to see a whole series of bills'

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 11:14am

City Council Member Rory Lancman, of Queens (William Alatriste)

"We're introducing both," Council Member Rory Lancman said by phone Friday morning of two bills aimed at stopping the use of chokeholds by members of the NYPD.

After outlining the proposals in an op-ed for New York Law Journal, Lancman said that legislative requests have been put in on the bills that would make the use of chokeholds illegal in New York City and create a "new municipal offense of criminally negligent infliction of physical injury." This means that Council bill drafters will work on the language of the bills, including through dialogue with Lancman's office and assessments of any concerns around constitutionality, conflict with state law, and perspectives of other experts and affected parties. Lancman said that he is not sure the bills will be ready by the Council's next full-body stated meeting in August: "These are complicated legal issues," he said, "we must get it right, if we don't we aren't moving the ball forward."

Lancman, who is a trained attorney and has practiced law for years, also said Friday that he is looking at introducing a third chokehold-related bill and that he expects to "see a whole series of bills that council members put in."

"After Vanessa [Gibson, the council's public safety committee chair] holds hearings, I'd be surprised if there weren't a whole package of bills introduced," he explained.

The third bill Lancman plans to file a drafting request for is modeled after a Los Angeles law "related to reporting requirements." This bill will require greater detail from the NYPD regarding physical interactions with people officers arrest, Lancman said. "LA has a more detailed, more helpful reporting scheme for its police department, which allows policymakers to track use of force incidents better."

Lancman said he always views the introduction of a bill as "the start of a conversation" and noted that he expects that with ongoing discussions with council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, additional council members, and other stakeholders, the bills he's proposing will be worked into effective law. Those other stakeholders, Lancman said, will include the NYPD and law enforcement unions, New Yorkers who have been affected by chokeholds, and advocacy groups.

The Garner Case
Of course, it is the death of Eric Garner that has spurred renewed scrutiny of the use of chokeholds by the NYPD - a practice which has been banned for over twenty years. In the case of the officers involved in Garner's death, which occurred during an arrest where a chokehold was used, Lancman expects legal action.

"I would be surprised if charges were not filed [against the officer] based on my review of the video and Commissioner Bratton's conclusion that a prohibited chokehold was used," Lancman said.

He added, "I'm not a cheerleader for prosecuting people, I'm just analyzing what I've seen and what I understand the law to be."

Lancman hopes that what he is offering through his article, which not only discusses planned legislation, but analysis of legal precedent around chokehold cases, will help the Staten Island district attorney's office in its investigation of the Garner case.

On the subject of other officers and EMTs on the scene where Garner died, Lancman said, "Everybody involved in the arrest has potential exposure to criminal liability. The criminal law doesn't penalize chokeholds per se, but rather the excessive use of force. Where the hammer might fall on individual officers, I can't predict, as you radiate outward from the officer who used the chokehold. But, I would think everyone on the scene there should probably get a lawyer, figuratively speaking."

***
by Ben Max, Executive Editor, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Review panel status: stalled

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Who's watching the watchers? In the case of the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, no one is.

That wasn't intended three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers passed the law creating JCOPE. The legislation also called for creation by June 1, 2014, of an eight-member review panel to "study, review and evaluate" the activities and performance of the commission. The bill says the review panel is supposed to issue a report in 2015.

But as of Tuesday, spokesmen for Cuomo, Assembly Democratic Majority Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos had no answers on the review commission's status.

That wasn't a surprise to David Grandeau, a former Lobbying Commission director and frequent JCOPE critic.

"No one has done it," he said of the review commission. "No one has been appointed."

Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the state Public Interest Research Group, said Cuomo and the legislative leaders "should obey the law."

JCOPE spokesman John Milgrim said he had no idea where the matter stood, and stressed that creating the review commission is up to legislative leaders and the governor.

JCOPE met on Tuesday, when members voted to move forward with a 90-day pre-election ban on elected officials appearing in public service announcements.

This doesn't mean there won't be political ads, or even mailers sent by lawmakers.

Nor does it impact ads paid for by the state, since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer enacted a ban on that practice at the start of his brief tenure.

Instead, this means that in the 90 days preceding an election, elected officials won't be heard or seen in announcements like radio ads against drunken driving or TV spots promoting energy conservation or organ donation.

The regulations were adopted on an emergency basis, so they would take effect as soon as they are sent to the State Register.

The vote was 8-2 with the two dissident votes coming from appointees of Silver. Marvin Jacob and Renee Roth wanted a 60-day blackout. "Ninety days seems to be inordinately long," Roth said during the brief discussion.

That prompted George Weissman, a Skelos appointee, to say, "So is the political season."

JCOPE's meeting came less than a week after an administrative law judge reversed the agency's earlier denial of an exemption to donor disclosure rules for four politically active organizations.

The groups — Family Planning Advocates, the Women's Equality Coalition, New York Civil Liberties Union and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms — had argued that their donors should remain hidden since disclosure laws allowed an exemption if donors might suffer "harm, threats, harassment or reprisals" from public knowledge of their support for certain causes. The threat of economic harm was also included.

JCOPE members on Tuesday voted to keep the exemptions for the four groups in place for two years, after which the groups would have to reapply.

It remained unclear how many additional organizations, if any, would seek to shield their donors. "The threshold is still really high," Stephen Hayford, a lawyer with the Constitutional Freedoms group.

At least one aspect of the exemption law has drawn concern: using the specter of economic hardship that might result from disclosing a donor.

"We said that shouldn't be the basis for exemption," said Kelly Williams, general counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. Her organization is looking at the donor-disclosure exemption issue.

Hayford, though, believes actions such as boycotts can unduly punish people for their political beliefs and should be protected.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local
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