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Gaming Commission moves to toughen thorougbhred racing rules on drug use

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 11/29/2015 - 2:07pm


The state Gaming Commission is proposing a set of sweeping new rules aimed at combating what the group's executive director described as the "entrenched drug culture in horse racing.''

The proposals would essentially ban drugs given to horses except for medical reasons. They also would require trainers keep logs of drugs given to their horses and instruct veterinarians to prescribe medication solely on medical grounds.

The recommended rules, announced during the Gaming Commission's meeting on Monday, stemmed from their own review of an undercover investigation that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, conducted in 2013 at Saratoga Race Course.

The commission concluded that 10 of the 14 allegations lodged by PETA weren't founded, but four of them were.

Much of PETA's inquiry focused on a well-known trainer, Steven Asmussen, whose stable, PETA charged, was allowing a number of abuses.

Some of the allegations, such as accusations that a jockey working for Asmussen used a special whip that administered electric shocks, were dismissed as untrue, according to the commission. It also dismissed charges that Asmussen's team used pain-masking drugs.

But it did determine that PETA accurately found Asmussen had, in violation of the rules, given a horse thyroxine within 48 hours of a race.

Thyroxine is a hormone that regulates metabolism.

The commission also concluded that one of Asmussen's veterinarians, Joseph Migliacci, allowed the filling out by a third party of incomplete forms for the use of furosemide, also known as Lasix.

Used to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, or ruptured bloods vessels in the lungs, Lasix has been controversial. It is a diuretic, meaning it causes the horses to lose fluids, which can lower their blood pressure.

One of the new rules proposed would call for horses exhibiting pulmonary hemorrhages to be pulled from competition. Such ruptures are often signaled by nosebleeds.

Asmussen was fined $10,000 for the violations.

PETA welcomed news of the proposed tougher rules.

"The New York State Gaming Commission has taken significant and crucial steps to eliminate the suffering we documented, not only in Steve Asmussen's barn, but also for all horses used in New York racing. We applaud this progress." Kathy Guillermo, PETA's senior vice president, said in a prepared statement.

"Horses shouldn't be fed thyroid hormones with their evening meals, and they shouldn't be anywhere near a track if they're in pain,'' Guillermo said. "We support the proposed new rules and urge the industry nationwide to back them as well.''

Adopting the rules nationally though, could be a long shot, given the state-by-state nature of racing regulations.

PETA conducted a similar undercover investigation at Kentucky's Churchill Downs, but that state's Horse Racing Commission found no wrongdoing by Asmussen.

The commission in New York is seeking input from the racing world before it puts the proposed regulations into the state register, which brings on its own comment period.

"Several of these recommendations may be controversial," the gaming commission's executive director, Rob Williams, said. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 30

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 11/29/2015 - 12:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

After a quiet Thanksgiving weekend, New York politics springs back into action Monday. As the week gets going we're watching as discussions continue around the mayor's rezoning policies, which have been seeing some significant pushback from community and borough boards. The mayor has acknowledged that pushback, saying it has not been unexpected and that tweaks will be made to the plans before they head to the City Council early in 2016. The Manhattan Borough Board votes Monday, the Brooklyn Borough Board, Tuesday (Queens and the Bronx have both voted against the plans, Staten Island has not scheduled a vote yet). Community and borough board votes are advisory.

We're also watching for the latest fallout in the de Blasio-Cuomo feud, which has continued to escalate recently. It's just over a month until Governor Cuomo delivers his January 6 State of the State speech, which will outline his priorities and policy plans for 2016. After de Blasio said he couldn't wait for the state any longer and announced his own supportive housing plan, Cuomo and his team have criticized the mayor's management of the city's homelessness crisis and indicated Cuomo will include related plans in his State of the State. For his part, de Blasio has pointed to the state and the city, then under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, cutting rental subsidy programs in 2011 as integral to the increase in homelessness seen since.

We're awaiting word from the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, which is in jury deliberations, and the trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, which continues to see the prosecution present its case against Skelos and his son, Adam. [Read our new look at the top moments from the two trials thus far]

At 11 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will host a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall (details below). At 12:30 p.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks at the Department of Transportation Recognition Ceremony for FDR re-paving crews, who are completing the first full resurfacing of the FDR since it was first built." On Tuesday, de Blasio will participate in a tele-town hall around climate change, which coincides with the Paris climate conference, at which de Blasio's recovery and resiliency director, Daniel Zarrilli, is participating.

Also, Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the grand jury decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter activists plan a series of events, "Actions will take place in Manhattan & Staten Island," according to a Facebook event page.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

On Monday at 9 a.m., Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a Manhattan Borough Board vote on the de Blasio administration's proposed zoning changes: Zoning for Quality & Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.

Read about those zoning changes and the controversy around them through our coverage:
Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote
East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own
De Blasio Housing Chief Looks to Allay Fears, Build Support for Rezonings
Rezoning Discussion Shifts to Food Access

At 11 a.m. at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio will hold public hearings for and sign Intros 898-A, 890-A, 900-A, 914-A, and 915-A, which strengthen and modify existing requirements related to open government data; Intro. 743-A, creating an Office of Labor Standards; Intro. 783-A, related to interest rates on emergency repair bills for residential buildings; Intro. 956-A, extending the Biotechnology Tax Credit; and Intro. 982-A, extending the current rate of hotel room taxes. The Mayor will also hold a public hearing for Intro. 314-A, related to establishing the Department of Veterans Services." Then, at 12:30 p.m., the Mayor will speak at the aforementioned FDR repaving ceremony.

At 10 a.m. Monday, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressional Reps. Jeffries and Rangel, and Assembly Member Wright will hold a press conference announcing anti-gun violence initiatives.

Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Applebee's in Times Square, city Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett will make a "sodium warning label announcement."

On Monday at the City Council:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will hold a hearing on Introduction 554-2014, in relation to training for certain employees of the city of New York on runaway and homeless youth and sexually exploited children, and Introduction 993-2015, in relation to changing the date of an annual report related to sexually exploited children.
  • At 10 a.m. at Johnson Community Center in Manhattan, "The Committee on Public Housing will hold an oversight hearing examining the Mayor's plan to address violent crime in public housing." City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito is set to participate.
  • At 10 a.m., "The Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations and the Subcommittee on Libraries will hold a joint oversight hearing on six day service at public libraries." [Read our preview of the hearing with a lot of key info: Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost]
  • At 1 p.m., "The Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will hold an oversight hearing on the resiliency of New York City's electricity transmission and distribution systems."

At 12:45 p.m. Monday, Whoopi Goldberg, George Takei, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Corey Johnson, and the Council's LGBT Caucus will acknowledge this year's World AIDS Day by "flipping the switch" to light the Empire State Building in red in honor of World AIDS Day.

At 6 p.m. Monday Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will host a workshop at the Queens Borough Parents Advisory Meeting about how to be more supportive of schools.

On Tuesday the Brooklyn Borough Board, led by Borough President Eric Adams, will vote on the de Blasio administration's two rezoning proposals.

On Tuesday at noon, Joe Domanick of John Jay College will speak about his new book Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing, which details NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's work transforming "the police department of America's second largest city—a period which saw Los Angeles's violent crime rate, including homicides, drop by double-digits" 2002-2009. The event is hosted by the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 1 p.m. the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet.

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the City Council will host a Diwali celebration - Diwali is the Indian festival of light.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio, City Hall representatives, and activists on climate change will take part in a tele-town hall on sustainability. Participants will include Nilda Mesa, Director, Mayor's Office of Sustainability; Bill Lipton, State Director, New York Working Families Party; and Eddie Bautista, Executive Director, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday: "Bail Reform - Federal and State Courts Wrestle with Options for Change" will be hosted by the New York City Bar's Criminal Advocacy Committee. Panelists include: Karen Friedman Agnifilo, Chief Assistant District Attorney, New York County District Attorney's Office; Elizabeth Glazer, Director, Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice; Scott Hechinger, Staff Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services; Joan Loughnane, Chief Counsel to the United States Attorney, Southern District of New York; Jerold McElroy, Executive Director, New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc.; Marika Meis, Legal Director, Criminal Defense Practice, The Bronx Defenders.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Riders Alliance will host "Discount Fares for Low-Income NYers: A Conversation."

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Economic Development will meet on "Community planning boards receive an annual report submitted to the mayor with regard to projected and actual jobs created and retained in connection with projects undertaken by a certain contracted entity."
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss a number of bills regarding bicycle safety in the city, including founding a bicycle safety task force, seizure of abandoned vehicles, and a number of bills on walking away from and not reporting incidents and accidents.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet to discuss a bill that would exempt licensed plumbers from registering with the business integrity commission.

At the State Legislature on Wednesday: an 11 a.m. meeting of the Assembly Standing Committee on Correction for "Oversight and Investigations of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision."

On Wednesday at 8 a.m., City & State NY will host an event on the impact of raising the minimum wage. Speakers will include state Senator Jack M. Martins, Chair of the Labor Committee; E.J. McMahon, President at the Empire Center for Public Policy; and Hector Figueroa, President of 32BJ.

On Wednesday at 6 p.m., Open Society Foundations and Vera Institute of Justice will hold "Policing and Public Health: Advancing Harm Reduction Strategies in Law Enforcement Practices," bringing together health specialists and law enforcement representatives for a discussion on how to "protect the rights and foster the health of the most vulnerable members of society."

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Cannabis and Hemp Association will host "Open for Business," a panel discussion on the subject of medical marijuana in New York City. State Senator Diane Savino and Dr. Julie Netherland, Deputy State Director for Drug Policy, are among those who will speak.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet.
  • At 11 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will meet for an oversight hearing on alcohol abuse in New York City.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Community Development will meet to discuss establishing an urban agriculture advisory board.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Parks and Recreation will meet: "Oversight - An Examination of the City's Parks Without Borders Initiative."

At the State Legislature on Thursday: a 10 a.m. meeting of the Assembly Standing Committee on Transportation to discuss the Department of Transportation two year capital program.

On Thursday the New York Justice League and Black Lives Matter will hold "#ChokeHoldOnTheCity," remembering the one-year anniversary of the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner and continuing the push for policing reform and accountability. "Actions will take place in Manhattan & Staten Island."

At 4 p.m. Thursday the Center for Bronx Non-Profits and South Bronx Rising Together will host "Voter Engagement in the South Bronx," a panel discussion on non-partisan attempts to increase civic participation, a discussion of tools and ways to involve the populace in shaping policies that they feel are important.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a town hall event for New Yorkers to discuss concerns and learn about what the Comptroller's Office can do to help.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday: the Committee on Courts and Legal Services will meet at 1 p.m. on "Client satisfaction surveys for city-funded indigent legal services."

At the State Legislature on Friday: a 10:30 a.m. hearing of the Assembly Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions jointly with the Assembly Standing Committee on Energy and the Assembly Subcommittee on Infrastructure to evaluate natural gas safety efforts by utilities.

At noon Friday, Crain's New York Business will hold its annual "Best Places to Work in New York City Awards" luncheon.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, BetaNYC will hold "Hack for Heat" in response to the fact that 230,000 heating complaints were filed by New Yorkers because their landlords would not turn on the heat.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson is hosting another "Begin Again" event, allowing New Yorkers with outstanding summons warrants to resolve them without being arrested. [Read our look at the efforts by DAs, led by Thompson, to hold such events, including pledges from two incoming DAs, elected in early November, to hold them and the declaration by Queens DA Richard Brown's office that he does not intend to join the movement]

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Konstantine Beridze and Ben Max

Categories: State/Local

Commission Considers Raises, Reforms for Elected Compensation

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 11/29/2015 - 12:00am

The Mayor, Speaker, & Council members (Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Attendance was notably sparse at the first public hearing of the commission charged with making recommendations around compensation for city elected officials.

Fewer than fifteen people, about half of whom were journalists, went to Brooklyn Law School on November 23 for the Quadrennial Advisory Commission hearing to collect input from the public. Four people testified to urge the commission to make compensation-related reforms in their recommendations: two leaders from good government groups and two other concerned citizens. No elected officials were present, though Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified at the second public hearing held at CUNY Law School in Queens the next night. City district attorneys had previously sent a letter to the commission arguing for an increase in pay.

None of the three citywide elected officials, other four borough presidents, or 51 City Council members have publicly expressed an opinion about compensation levels.

In September, in a move required by law, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a three-person commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials. Those salaries are supposed to be reviewed by a commission comprised of private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation every four years, but out of reluctance by mayors to make a move that is generally perceived by the public as an attempt to give themselves and their colleagues a raise, the salaries of New York City’s elected officials have gone unchanged since 2006.

At the hearing, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, reiterated the good government group’s support for salary increases for the city’s elected officials provided that they are accompanied by other reforms. Dadey’s testimony was well-received by the commission and its chair, Fritz Schwarz, Jr., who asked Dadey several questions. Citizens Union argues that salary increases should be prospective, only taking hold in 2018 - after the next city elections; come with elimination of “lulus” (stipends) for chairing City Council committees; and with a cap on outside income to no more than 25 percent of one’s city salary, with full disclosure.

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, echoed Dadey’s calls for reforms, saying that any compensation increase must also be tied to meaningful restrictions on outside income, ending the practice of awarding lulus to Council committee chairs, and prohibiting retrospective salary increases.

The commission includes Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc. It will likely release its recommendations around compensation levels for the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, City Council members, and district attorneys by the end of the year, though the commission is already passing the initial timeline set in the mayor’s announcement. Public comment is open until December 3.

The mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, sending recommendations to the City Council for a vote on any new salaries before they head back to the mayor for approval into law.

At the hearing, Dadey pointed out that a large majority of Council members said that they think the raises should be prospective in their earlier responses to a Citizens Union questionnaire - a change which Mayor de Blasio also supports.

“37 out of 51 Council members said they support our proposal that any future increase in Council Member salary should only apply prospectively to the next elected class,” Dadey said (there has been some fluctuation in Council membership, but the numbers largely apply to the current Council).

Also noting that no Council members were there to testify and none have publicly voiced an opinion about raiss, Dadey said, “So why give them something that they haven’t asked for, and why give them something that they oppose?”

Schwarz confirmed that no Council member testimony had been received by the commission.

“You have this opportunity to actually come out with your recommendations and change a process that has been flawed for 28 years,” Dadey told the commission regarding the notion that raises should only be for the next class of elected officials. Many current officials will be heavily-favored incumbents running for re-election in 2017, but the point is one of principle and appeared to resonate with the commission.

Though some have said that issues with Council members and the mayor voting on their own salary increases could be avoided by simply pegging salary adjustments to one of a couple of economic measures, like the cost of living, Schwarz expressed dismay with the idea of proposing automatic COLA increases.

“What worries me about that concept are two things: one, ordinary citizens are not guaranteed COLA increase; and two, if a government official’s future raises are automatic, it removes any democratic accountability - so they get their extra pay but they don’t have to go through the rigor and sometimes hard public position of saying there should be more pay for my office,” Schwarz said. (COLA increases were not recommended by Citizens Union or NYPIRG.)

At the second hearing, Borough President Brewer also supported making any salary increase prospective. In the testimony she submitted to the commission, Brewer said, “I believe this commission should strongly urge the Mayor to do two things: First, commit now to empanel another pay raise commission in 2019; and second, to introduce legislation that contains an effective date of January 1, 2018 -- the first day of the next term of office for all New York City elected offices.”

In his testimony, Dadey pointed out that eliminating stipends for Council committee chairs is supported by 31 members of the Council. These stipends, known as lulus, currently range from $5,000 to $25,000 and, Dadey says, have contributed to the creation of unnecessary committees. With 38 committees, six subcommittees, and two task forces, nearly every Council member receives a stipend in addition to their $112,500 salary.

The large number of committees, Dadey said, allows “the speaker to use the lulus as a way in which to extract loyalty on particular issues which they would not otherwise do.” Only truly senior leadership positions like the Speaker and Majority Leader should receive stipends, Dadey added.

“We have more committees in the City Council than in the House of Representatives in the US Congress,” Dadey said, adding that the number of committees Council members serve on restricts their ability to focus on certain issues. These points raised Schwarz’s eyebrows.

In her testimony, Brewer, who was a Council member before being elected borough president, also expressed support for eliminating stipends. “Lulus should be abolished,” she wrote. “I think lulus have become a way of giving all but the least favored Council Members added compensation.”

Schwarz agreed that the lulus “can completely mislead people.” Due to public pressure, eleven Council members have refused to accept lulus this year, according to the Daily News editorial board.

During her testimony, Bronx resident Roxane Delgado pointed out that “City Council members voted against an amendment eliminating lulus as recommended by the commission in 2006.”

Since being a member of the City Council is only considered a part-time job, Council members are permitted to earn outside income. Citizens Union recommends outside income should be capped to no more than 25 percent of the elected official’s salary, with full disclosure, since eliminating outside income altogether would detract from the goal of attracting candidates with varied private sector experience, the good government group says.

Currently, fewer City Council members earn income from an outside job than at any time before.

Russianoff also supported meaningful restrictions on outside income, testifying that NYPIRG “strongly favors a congressional model which allows members of the federal government to devote 15% of their time to outside activities.”

Brewer, however, suggested that the job of a City Council member should be considered a full-time job.

At the first commission hearing, Schwarz pointed out the merit in keeping the position part-time, saying “A lawyer who joins the government brings something valuable, as does a community organizer, as does a businessman or woman - it’s important to have people in the Council who have varied life experiences.”

During the hearing, Commissioners Schwarz and Bright gave some insight into their process.

“We’re looking at the benefits, pensions, and compensation relative to the citizens that elected officials represent,” Bright said. “We are looking at the cost of living as a factor, not only the consumer price index, but also how much it costs - rent, food, utilities - what it actually costs to live here for the average citizen.”

“We are considering median household income,” Schwarz said, but added, “I don’t think we are likely to look at the percentage increases for the city’s regular workers in collective bargaining as” a target, referring to new union contracts signed between the de Blasio administration and city workers.

“If we went beyond those for the elected officials, I think we would be in trouble. To me, what they’re relevant to, is to make sure that we’re not going beyond them,” Schwarz clarified of the union contract increases.

According to New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission must consider the duties and responsibilities of each position, the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change, and any change in the cost of living, as well as a number of other factors.

The salaries of New York’s 64 elected officials has gone unchanged since 2006, though only 27 have held office for more than one term, and 22 were first elected to their posts just two years ago.

The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a 25 percent salary increase for Council members (up to the current $112,500 per year base)  and a 15.4 percent increase for the mayor, from $195,000 to $225,000.

This year, Brewer has called for a 15 percent increase for all offices. Dadey and Citizens Union also support salary increases, given the demanding responsibilities placed on New York City’s elected officials, and the fact that they have not received a salary increase since 2006.

“The offices of the city’s elected officials need to be well compensated in order to attract individuals to public life who are talented, committed, and well qualified to carry out their jobs as successfully as they can,” Dadey said in his written testimony.

Some elected officials, however, have been seeking raises much higher than what good government groups support. According to the Daily News, a handful of Council members have been discreetly supporting a 71 percent increase. It’s something Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called “ridiculous” and that Dadey, among others, have also panned. Mark-Viverito has not expressed an opinion about raises and says she wants to see the results of the commission's work.

Earlier this November, the Daily News also reported the city’s five district attorneys - who currently make $190,000 annually - wrote a letter to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission requesting a 32 percent increase to their salaries, up to $250,000.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio has indicated through a spokesperson that he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.

Though the Council and the mayor have approved the commission’s recommended salary increases in the past, recommendations for reforms have gone unheeded.

In its report, the 2006 quadrennial advisory commission suggested “limiting the ability of government officials to raise their own salaries and receive them immediately would improve the integrity of the government and public confidence in it.”

The same commission also called lulus “ripe for reform,” and recommended that either a future Charter Revision Commission or the Council should consider reforming the practice of awarding extra stipends to Council members. 

Yet no changes have been made in nearly the decade since, and as a result, good government groups are demanding that any recommendations for salary increases this year hinge upon the Council’s agreement to enact relevant reforms.

As Russianoff of NYPIRG points out, “the Council has unfettered discretion to act. The Council’s unfettered power remains to pass local laws dictating compensation for City officials." 

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Categories: State/Local

Former OMIG official settles case

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 11/27/2015 - 11:07pm


Joseph Flora, a former senior manager with the state Office of the Medicaid Inspector General, will pay a $14,000 fine and admit to violating Public Officers Law when he "sought a job offer with a signing bonus and accepted other gifts from a company that was contracting with his employer ... to recover improper Medicaid payments on the state's behalf," according to a Monday release from the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Flora's hiring by Health Management Systems of Texas was first reported by the Times Union in April 2014.

At the time, New York's OMIG was HMS' biggest client. The company helps OMIG find third-party insurers that should be billed for medical payments that might improperly be charged to the state's Medicaid system.

According to the settlement, Flora admitted to violating Public Officers Law during his oversight of the state's multimillion-dollar contract with HMS, which began in 2009, both through his acceptance of the job offer and his receipt of multiple smaller gifts, including meals and libations.

Flora's signing bonus was ultimately canceled.

"Mr. Flora was charged with protecting the state's interest in a contract involving millions of dollars," said JCOPE spokesman Walter McClure. "Instead he abrogated that responsibility in order to benefit HMS and himself."

HMS settled with the watchdog panel in June by agreeing to pay a $75,000 fine and cooperate in JCOPE's investigation of Flora.


Categories: State/Local

Terror attack drill in NYC

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 11/27/2015 - 10:07pm

New York

Hundreds of New York emergency responders simulated a coordinated terror attack Sunday, days before one of the city's biggest public events: the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The long-planned drill at a Manhattan subway station got a last-minute update in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris. Officials added an "attacker" wearing a suicide vest.

"In New York City, we are, at this time, very well prepared and continually improving that preparedness," Commissioner William Bratton said outside the abandoned Bowery station in lower Manhattan.

The three-hour active-shooter exercise took place in the pricey SoHo neighborhood populated by art galleries and boutiques. Members of the police, fire and federal Homeland Security departments went into action after a mock call reporting a gunman on the station platform.

Of about 30 simulated straphangers in the station, a dozen suffered "critical wounds" from weapons firing blanks. Firefighters removed them on thick yellow plastic sheets and law enforcement personnel took on the threat.

For first responders from various emergency departments working as a team, communication and coordination between agencies is an important goal.

"There have been very significant improvements in that capacity since 9/11, also the coordination with the fire department," Bratton said.

The Department of Homeland Security used the exercise to test technologies including GoPro-like cameras worn by first responders and acoustic gunshot detection systems designed to give police and firefighters information to coordinate their responses. Such systems are being developed for surveillance of the subway system, the commissioner said.

Sunday's drill was funded by Homeland Security, and Bratton said there would be more such practice runs he says are "vitally necessary" and provide valuable response lessons.

Bratton said New York law enforcement authorities, together with Homeland Security, are working closely with Paris investigators studying details of the Nov. 13 attacks there, aiming to prepare for similar suicide-bomber terrorism that New York has never experienced.

The commissioner said New York would send a law enforcement team to Paris when that probe was completed to learn as much as possible from those operations.

Mayor Bill de Blaiso watched the three-hour drill, later calling it "an impressive display of the capacity of this city to respond."

The Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks has said it would target the U.S., especially Washington and New York.

Bratton noted that there is no specific threat against the city. But security in the subways, Times Square and other prominent sites has been bolstered.

On Thanksgiving, thousands of officers — including 1,300 counterterrorism officers — will patrol the parade route and watch over millions of spectators, Bratton said. The parade passes through Times Square.

Categories: State/Local

High schools teaching 'yes means yes'

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 11/27/2015 - 9:07pm

Belmont, Calif.

This is the new look of high school sex ed: A roomful of teens, 14-year-olds mostly, is told that a girl and boy meet at a school dance. The boy drives her home. They kiss. What happens next, over the girl's protests, leaves him confused and her crying, no longer a virgin.

"Raise your hands if you think this was rape," health educator Justin Balido asks the Carlmont High School freshmen, drawing them into a debate that has preoccupied college administrators, lawmakers and the courts.

Sex education in American schools is evolving beyond slideshows on reproductive biology and lectures on avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The new focus: teaching students communication skills, such as the "yes means yes" standard for seeking and giving consent during intimate encounters.

After taking hold on college campuses, "yes means yes," also known as affirmative consent, is trickling down to high schools and even some middle schools, as educators seek to give students tools to combat sexual violence.

"Yes means yes" means sex is consensual only when both partners are sober and clearly state their willingness to participate through "affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement," every step of the way.

Are high schoolers ready for this?

Many groups that promote an abstinence approach to sex education think not. They worry the effort to prevent sexual assaults is giving too many teens the idea sex is OK.

"In the midst of this conversation, are the root causes being addressed? I would argue that they really aren't," Valerie Huber, president of Ascend, formerly called the National Abstinence Education Association, said. "This discussion is getting reduced to a palliation rather than a solution."

The impetus for redefining mutual consent was pushed on college campuses by activists who reported being raped by fellow students. But younger teens and children are by no means immune: The U.S. Education Department is currently investigating 53 sexual violence cases at 51 elementary and secondary schools in more than two dozen states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and Texas.

"I have seen a crying need for students to be safe and prepared, and for their schools to ensure that all students on a campus understand what is acceptable at the school and ways to be made safe," said Catherine Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights.

Sexual violence was the top policy focus among the 163 sex ed-related bills introduced in statehouses this year, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council. Nearly two dozen bills covered instruction in healthy relationships, communication or consent.

California is the first U.S. state to require "yes means yes" instruction in public high schools, starting next year. Lawmakers in Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma have introduced similar legislation, and at least 19 states require some kind of training on healthy relationships, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Young boys and young men, I don't think they get to a college campus and all of a sudden start acting out sexually irresponsible behavior. It starts way earlier than that," said California Senate President Kevin de Leon, the author of the state's college and high school affirmative consent laws.

California and New York are the only states requiring affirmative consent on college campuses, but many colleges nationwide have voluntarily adopted the same standard to better handle sexual violence.

Categories: State/Local

Working Families Party reaches outside New York City to support local politicians

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 11/27/2015 - 9:07pm


New York's liberal-leaning Working Families Party is working to broaden its reach with a new emphasis on local, down-ballot races around the state.

The labor-backed party is best known for its involvement in statewide races and political campaigns in New York City, but in this month's election, it recruited and supported 111 candidates in local races. Seventy-one of them won.

It's part of a long-term effort by the liberal party to cultivate political talent at an early stage.

"Some of these candidates are our future state legislators," the party's state director, Bill Lipton, said of the city council, town board and county legislative candidates. "If you encourage honest people to run for office, then give them a path, that's the way you can change Albany."

New York election law allows candidates to run on multiple party lines. The Working Families Party, a coalition of activists and labor unions, faced an identity crisis last year when it endorsed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's re-election over liberal activist Zephyr Teachout, who went on to mount a surprisingly strong though unsuccessful challenge to Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

"A lot of people were taken aback by their decision," said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. "I think they need to regroup, recover and rebuild, and this strategy could help."

The party's assistance can include advice on running a campaign and raising money and campaign workers for the critical final weeks before an election.

One candidate backed by the party was Molly Clifford, who was elected to the Rochester City Council. Clifford, who had never held public office before, said the party's focus on economic issues affecting average New Yorkers can resonate throughout the state.

"Rochester has a lot of need. We have a very high poverty rate," she told The Associated Press on Friday. "The party is focused on issues of fairness and equality. Those are progressive issues, and they're local ones, too."

Categories: State/Local

Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 11/27/2015 - 12:00am

CM Van Bramer celebrates expanded library service (photo via @JimmyVanBramer) 

This June, officials added $43 million in funding for New York City’s three public library systems to the fiscal year 2016 budget, allowing for expansion of branch operating hours and a return to six-day service for the first time in nearly a decade.

At an oversight hearing on Monday, November 30, City Council members will seek an update on the libraries’ progress implementing six-day service, with particular focus on staffing and how the added funds are being allocated, as well as outreach efforts to inform the public of the newly expanded hours.

Just as the added budget funding was much-applauded when it was announced, the hearing will likely be a celebratory affair - according to interviews and information obtained by Gotham Gazette, expansion is moving quickly across the systems. This includes more six-day service, hiring of new staff, and more.

The historic funding increase comes after a push by advocates, City Council members, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others. The city’s three public library systems, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library (which has branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx), operate 217 local library branches and served 37 million visitors in fiscal year 2014 - more than all of the city's professional sports teams and other major cultural institutions combined.

Today, New York’s public libraries are far more than a place to take out a book - they play a critical role in the lives of New Yorkers who are most in need of the services that libraries offer, like early childhood education, job training, technology classes, free tax assistance, and English classes.

As Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer told Gotham Gazette, “Libraries are really the first line of defense when it comes to bridging the information gap and technology gap. Folks who are working class, working poor, they're working during the week, and so many of them can’t get to libraries during the week. Saturdays and Sundays are the only times they can get to the library.”

Which is why, Van Bramer says, it is “really imperative to have libraries open on Saturdays. It’s absolutely essentially to reach every New Yorker and it is essential for every New Yorker to have access to library services, programs, and materials.”

At the upcoming hearing, Van Bramer, Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations, said he “will ask how the three library systems have ramped up, whether every library is at expanded hours at this point, and if not, when will they be expanded?”

Making a few calls ahead of the hearing, which was postponed from an earlier date, Gotham Gazette was able to pull together some of that information.

Since October 19, all of the Brooklyn Public Library’s local branches are now open at least six days a week, while the Queens Public Library’s branches began six-day service November 15. The New York Public Library’s branches already had six-day service, so the added funding is being used to extend hours, bringing the total number of NYPL branches open on Sundays from three to seven.

Van Bramer said he also intends to ask “how their hiring is going - obviously a large part of the funding we allocated to expand days of service goes toward staffing - so how many new librarians and new library workers have been hired? Have they hired everyone they need to hire, or are they still in the process of hiring to get to that staffing level they need for full six-day service? I want to know how much more do they have to do.”

The added funding has “meant a big uptick in hiring,” Queens Public Library Interim President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey told Gotham Gazette. “We’ve hired over 100 positions.”

The New York Public Library, meanwhile, has “hired 60 new librarians,” George Mihaltses, head of government affairs at NYPL, told Gotham Gazette. “And we’re planning to hire 36 more.” 

Even one new librarian can make a significant impact. According to the NYPL, in fiscal year 2015, the library used added funds to hire a children's specialist for a branch in the Bronx. As a direct result of the librarian's arrival, NYPL says, children's programming attendance at that branch increased by about 60 percent.

Council Member Andy King, Chair of the Subcommittee on Libraries, co-hosting Monday’s hearing with Van Bramer’s committtee, told Gotham Gazette that the committees want to find out specifics about “how the libraries plan on rolling out six-day service. How are they going to be doing programs in the libraries, what services will be provided on that sixth day? What kind of outreach is being made to ensure people know about six-day service? Will we be having events to promote the rollout together? With the...millions that have been allocated to the library system, how will this money be spent?”

In addition to increasing libraries’ hours of operation and hiring more librarians, those added millions will be used to bring more programs, books, and materials, to the NYPL’s branches, Mihaltses said. For the Queens library system, the added funds will be used enhance early literacy and afterschool programs, and to increase the library’s budget to purchase books, videos, e-books, and other materials by 30 percent, a library official told DNAinfo.

Council Member King told Gotham Gazette “making sure the libraries’ outreach is successful” is what he believed is the most important factor to consider when allocating resources to the many branches of New York City’s library systems. “We need to let people know that our libraries are open,” King said, “and we need to be prepared to receive them as they come into the doors.”

As far as outreach goes, David Woloch, executive vice president of external affairs at the Brooklyn Public Library, told Gotham Gazette that much of their outreach would occur “over the next few weeks. We’re going to be communicating to our patrons at all of our branches, we have a very big email list and we’ll be communicating the new hours to our entire email list, and using social media. There’s a lot of pieces to it - basically on every front we want to be getting the word out there.”

The Queens Public Library system took a more festive route to let the community know about the expanded hours, holding celebrations at about two dozen of its branches on Saturday, Nov. 21. “It’s all about making a big splash,” Quinn-Carey said. Scheduled events included meet-and-greets by eleven City Council members, as well as programs like face-painting, arts and crafts, storytelling, science labs, documentary screenings, and live music and dance performances.

“There will be a lot of promotion,” Quinn-Carey added, “not just this Saturday, but ongoing. We’re encouraging our branches to do a lot of local outreach.”

Overall, Monday’s hearing is a chance for city officials to “get some sense of accountability,” King said, adding he would like to know “what the plans are for the upcoming year, and how we all will profit from libraries being open six days a week.”

For many, the expanded hours of service comes as a much-needed relief, giving struggling New Yorkers with hectic work schedules a chance to utilize helpful programs offered by libraries that they simply couldn’t make it to before.

“Whenever we would go out into the communities to see people,” Quinn-Carey said, “they would always say, ‘We really want Saturday service or Sunday service - we need another day.’ Especially for two-parent working families or single-parent families, there really weren't many opportunities to get to the libraries. it just wasn’t convenient for them.”

“More and more people are relying on the library to be the sole source of their internet connection, they rely on us for basic education classes, or preschool classes, or ESL classes. They have a fundamental need to get into the library and it needs to be convenient for them,” Quinn-Carey continued.

“They want to get help for their children's homework. I think that's what so important - that, thanks to support from the city, we are now open doors for the community. This is one of those things where you think to yourself, ‘the government is working for me,’ because it's a service they can see is being provided by public money.”

Although the $43 million in funding added to this year’s budget has rightfully been lauded by library advocates, Council Members, and others, as Van Bramer points out, “six-day service should be the bare minimum. This should be baselined [in the budget] right away and not subject to any further cuts.”

Large funding deficits to the three library systems beginning in fiscal year 2011 required the City Council and the administration to restore funding, which the city began to do in fiscal year 2014. Van Bramer himself played a key role in securing the increased funds for this fiscal year.

“We need the administration and Mayor de Blasio to baseline this funding,” Van Bramer said. “I do think libraries would love to see some additional funding, but I think, at a bare minimum, we need to baseline this funding and then we can talk about potential increases.”

Even with the newly expanded hours, New York City still lags behind other major cities and even other New York counties in terms of how many hours per week public libraries are open, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future. In Suffolk and Nassau counties, libraries are open 64 hours per week. In Rockland County, 60 hours per week; in Westchester, 54 hours per week; and in Onondaga County, 53 hours per week. Public libraries in San Antonio are open 57 hours per week, while those in Los Angeles are open 53 hours.

Woloch said that by adding hours throughout the system, most Brooklyn Public Library branches are now open at least 48 hours a week. Mihaltses said the New York Public Library’s branches “will be open, on average, 50 hours a week per branch, up from 45 hours.”

The eventual goal, City Council sources say, is to expand to seven-day service.

To Jeanette Estima, a researcher from the Center for an Urban Future who helped put together the report on library hours, this much is clear: “Libraries are used more than ever today. They’re used by people who are learning how to do computer programming, people who want to brush up on skills to make themselves more marketable, and when libraries are open for more hours, they are able to reach more people.”

“Libraries are tied to the development of human capital in New York City,” Estima continued. “Today’s market is a knowledge-based economy, and this is the only free resource to build these skills for New Yorkers.”

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

De Blasio, Bloomberg make peace at planting

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 11/26/2015 - 10:07pm

New York

They shared laughs about supermodels, Big Bird and the governor. And they planted a tree.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, made a rare joint public appearance on Friday, ostensibly to plant the 1 millionth tree of the Million Trees NYC program, a quality-of-life initiative started by Bloomberg and continued by his successor.

The photo op, which drew intense media coverage, was also the latest move in a carefully considered effort by de Blasio's team to improve relations with Bloomberg, whom the mayor fiercely criticized during his 2013 campaign yet is still quite popular among many New Yorkers and could prove to be a powerful, if somewhat unlikely, future political ally.

"The visionary was Michael Bloomberg and we're here to give him a lot of credit for what he saw," de Blasio said. "He has a lot to be proud of today."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in some way, actually helped bring the two mayors together.

De Blasio has waged a public fight with the governor, a fellow Democrat, over much of his agenda and has found a sympathetic ear in Bloomberg, who also struggled at times with Cuomo. While de Blasio's conflict with Albany shows no sign of abating, aides to the mayor believe it made sense to declare a truce with Bloomberg instead of trying to fight wars on two fronts.

That is a sharp break from the rhetoric de Blasio used during his campaign and during the early months of his administration, in which he frequently criticized the billionaire for presiding over a city pockmarked with racial and economic injustice. Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent who served three terms, has largely avoided publicly criticizing his successor but a number of his allies have taken swipes at de Blasio.

Categories: State/Local

This week on 'New York Now': Judge Lippman's exit interview

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 11/26/2015 - 10:07pm

Highlights of "New York Now," airing 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11:30 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17:

Retiring Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman talks with TU state editor Casey Seiler about his years leading the state judiciary, and his vision of the courts as society's ERs. See Sunday's Times Union for more.

Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio and Michael Gormley of Newsday join the Reporters Roundtable to talk about the week's news.

Categories: State/Local

Officials: Watervliet Arsenal security always a priority

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 7:07pm

Bolton Landing

State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico on Thursday said law enforcement and anti-terror officials have long viewed the Watervliet Arsenal and Fort Drum as potential targets. And they had upped security at many locations in the wake of last week's Paris attacks by ISIS, even before news of a video warning about the arsenal being named as a possible target.

Earlier in the week, a video from the hacking collective known as Anonymous was released that purports to name both the arsenal and Fort Drum as being on an ISIS list of U.S. military targets.

"If you look at some of their publications that have been online they always talk about military targets," D'Amico said. "Have we stepped up? We take every one of these threats seriously.

"Fort Drum and Watervliet Arsenal have always been on our radar," he said.

D'Amico's remarks came during a brief news conference at the seventh New York State Intelligence Summit.

The meeting at the Sagamore resort allows participants to discuss terrorism threats and crime trends. They also received training in such topics as crime analysis, cyber threats and narcotics trends.

The overall conference was closed to the public and press due to security concerns.

At a news appearance, D'Amico was joined by state Homeland Security Commissioner John Melville, the FBI's Albany Special Agent in Charge Andrew Vale and Maj. Daniel Cooney of the State Police Criminal Intelligence Section.

The summit was scheduled before last week's ISIS attacks in Paris and D'Amico downplayed any changes that might have had on the agenda.

"The subject of an attack such as Paris was already on the agenda. Did we adapt to it? Absolutely," D'Amico said.

The attacks have, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has previously noted, prompted a heightened state of alert by police statewide.

That should continue and even ramp up next week as the Christmas shopping season moves into full swing, D'Amico said.

Overall, D'Amico said New Yorkers should continue to go about their business but be vigilant. And they shouldn't hesitate to report suspicious activities.

The full list of supposed military targets was read by a purported Anonymous member wearing the group's trademark Guy Fawkes mask on a video uploaded to the Internet.

Besides Watervliet, Anonymous also named the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

While previously known as a shadowy, renegade group of unidentified hackers, Anonymous has said it has launched cyber attacks on ISIS. Anonymous avoids acts of violence, and instead hacks into institutions such as government agencies and international banks.

Anonymous said ISIS' main targets are personnel on military installations.

West Point is a college rather than a base and the Watervliet Arsenal is where the Army makes gun barrels for cannons, tanks, mortars and other artillery. Arsenal spokesman John Snyder said security had increased since the Paris attacks. They learned of the Anonymous video on Wednesday when an employee told one of the guards he had seen it online.

Officials notified police, Army intelligence and other relevant groups, Snyder said. He stressed that the Arsenal also got calls about the video during the day, saying people reacted as they should — by letting officials know if they see or hear something unusual or learn of a possible threat.

"If you see something, say something. He did that,'' Snyder said of the employee who informed the guard. They even heard from Arsenal retirees who had learned about the Anonymous videos from their kids. "The community did what it was supposed to do,'' Snyder said.

The state tip line for people to report suspicious activity is 1-866-SAFE-NYS. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Schumer joins in Democrats' post-Paris anti-terror efforts

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 7:07pm

Washington, D.C.

Senate Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, rolled out their own "get-tough" approach to heading off potential terrorist threats in the U.S. in the wake of last week's devastating Paris attack.

The Democrat rollout Thursday came as the GOP-controlled House voted 289-137 to place major hurdles in the way of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. President Obama has threatened a veto, but 47 Democrats voted for the Republican bill.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, opposed it while Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, voted in favor.

"We have a proud tradition in our country of helping those around the world who suffer from terrorism and civil war," Stefanik said in a statement. "But as lawmakers, our foremost job is to protect the people we represent. This legislation would halt our refugee program until we are certain that no refugee from Iraq and Syria who is a threat will be allowed in the country."

The House bill would require FBI background checks and direct the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to certify each refugee "is not a threat to the security of the United States."

The Schumer-supported Democratic Senate alternative appeared to be an effort to retake the high ground on how best to combat the terrorist threat posed by ISIS, which took credit for the wave of violence in Paris on Nov. 13 that took 129 lives and wounded more than 350.

Included is a proposal to increase scrutiny of suspicious travelers arriving here from Europe without visas under the terms of agreements with 38 nations including France and Belgium.

A separate measure, already introduced in the Senate, would bar U.S. gun sales to anyone on the terrorism watch list.

Republican governors have declared their opposition to further resettlement of Syrian refugees. Other Republicans, including presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.

"If there were a religious test for refugees coming to this country, I wouldn't be here," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a Capitol news conference to unveil the Democratic initiatives. Blumenthal is Jewish, as is Schumer.

The Democrats criticized the Republican emphasis on denying entry to Syrian refugees, saying the 2,000 admitted so far have been subjected to rigorous screening and the vast majority are not young men of military age.

Of far greater importance, they said, are potential terrorists with passports from France, Belgium and other Western European nations who are able to reach the U.S. without visas. Most, if not all, of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks were of Middle Eastern descent but born in Europe.

"We need to have tough screening for every refugee from Syria who is coming into the United States," said Schumer at the news conference. "But if a terrorist is going to try to come into this country, they're much more likely to use loopholes in the visa-waiver program to do it, instead of waiting two years to go through the refugee screening process."

About 20 million foreign nationals are admitted annually to the U.S. under the visa-waiver program

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Senate bill's chief sponsor, said the measure would require anyone who had traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years to go through the U.S. visa process and have a personal interview at a U.S. embassy, as well as submit to fingerprinting. Tamper-proof passports with e-chip "biometric" data also would be required for anyone entering from nations for which the U.S. does not require visas.

The far-more controversial part of the Democrats' proposal would bar gun sales by federally licensed firearms dealers to anyone on the terrorism watch list. Under current law, firearms are denied to anyone convicted of a felony, or who is in the country illegally, or who is adjudicated mentally ill among other criteria.

Democratic senators cited a Government Accountability Office study that found between 2004 and 2014, persons on the list attempted to buy guns 2,233 times and the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System rejected only 190 of them. "(These are) indefensible, dangerous and frankly ridiculous loopholes that allow people on the terrorist watch list to purchase guns and explosives," said Schumer. "Senate Republicans are doing the bidding of their special-interest friends in the NRA, instead of keeping the country safe."

The National Rifle Association and congressional Republicans have opposed such legislation for years. An NRA spokeswoman said the list is over-inclusive — incorporating innocent parties such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. — and that the FBI already is made aware of any attempt by a suspected terrorist to purchase firearms.

"The National Rifle Association wants to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons and to suggest otherwise is offensive and wrong," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker. "It is shameful that they are exploiting the Paris terrorist attacks to push their gun control agenda."

Categories: State/Local

Court: State can't seize low-earner's lottery win

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 6:07pm


A former minimum wage employee from New York City hit the jackpot Thursday in a unusual labor case that two judges on the state Court of Appeals say could have damaging ripple effects.

The state's highest court ruled Thursday that Walter Carver, who won a $10,000 lottery prize but had to forfeit half his earnings to the state as payment for public assistance, is entitled to his full winnings.

In the lengthy and winding decision, the Court of Appeals held that Carver, a Work Experience Program employee who earned the minimum wage through a combination of cash compensation and food stamps, is entitled to federal minimum wage protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Therefore, because the public assistance helped add up to the minimum wage he received for his work between 1993 and 2000, the state is not entitled to the $5,000 it said it was eligible to take from the lottery prize under state law.

The law allows the state to take half of any lottery prize over $600 to reimburse itself for public assistance benefits paid to the prizewinner over the past decade.

Carver earned $176, plus food stamps, every two weeks, with that combined cash-assistance salary adding up to the minimum wage. He was required to leave the Work Experience Program in 2000, the same year his benefits were terminated.

In August 2007, Carver won the $10,000, half of which went to the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. Carver argued that if OTDA recouped $5,000 of his winnings, it would mean he was paid less than the minimum wage for his 35 hours of work per week.

Central to the court's decision, which four judges agreed to, is the definition of an employee. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote that the state's contention that work experience workers are not employees under state laws and regulations and New York City's employment process manual cannot override the Fair Labor Standards Act.

OTDA spokeswoman Kristi Berner said the agency plans to cooperate fully with the decision.

Carver's case certainly is unusual. However, it's not uncommon for OTDA to intercept lottery money won by recipients of various forms of public assistance or those who are behind on payments, such as child support. OTDA data show that nearly $35.9 million in lottery money has been intercepted since August 2007.

In terms of precedent, Berner said the case is applicable only to Carver, thus the agency does not expect it will have to return other intercepted lottery winnings.

But in terms of legal precedent, the two dissenting justices indicated that the decision could have repercussions well beyond this case.

"In its effort to fit the square peg of assistance into the round hole of employment under FLSA, the majority defies the will of Congress, ignores the teachings of the Supreme Court, and needlessly creates a split in authority between this Court and the Tenth Circuit," Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote in the dissenting opinion. "Because the majority's decision sows confusion in this important area of federal law, courts throughout New York and, potentially, the Nation must now struggle in vain to reconcile the majority's illogical holding with the relevant legislative scheme and common sense, and thus the majority's opinion will likely reverberate in unfortunate ways throughout the legal system." • 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

Government rests in Silver's corruption trial

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 6:07am

NEW YORK — The federal government has completed its case at the corruption trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Prosecutors' last witnesses on Wednesday detailed how Silver made hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments. Prosecutors say much of the money was illicit proceeds from bribery schemes.

The trial is off Thursday and Friday, so the defense is expected to put on a short case on Monday without testimony from Silver. Jury deliberations could start later that day.

The 71-year-old Silver has pleaded not guilty. The defense has said the once-powerful Democrat was singled out by overzealous prosecutors who were trying to criminalize business as usual in Albany.

The lawmaker quit his speaker post after his arrest but retained his Assembly seat.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Mayor and Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 12:00am

The Speaker & the Mayor (photo via the City Council)

Speaking at separate events over a two-day span, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito acknowledged significant community pushback against the mayor's rezoning proposals and said that those plans will be tweaked before the Council votes on them.

On Monday, de Blasio was asked about the largely negative reaction across the city to the zoning proposals at the center of his affordable housing plans. Many community boards are voting against the two rezoning proposals, which call for changes to how space is used, including allowing more retail and housing density as part of new development with market-rate and affordable apartments.

Both the Bronx and Queens Borough Boards - made up of community board leaders, City Council members, and the borough president - have voted against them. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Borough Boards are expected to vote next week, while a Staten Island vote is not yet scheduled.

De Blasio said Monday that he is "resolute," adding that he is not surprised community boards have objections. "Those objections should be heard and we should think about them," de Blasio said, "and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will."

"But in the end," the mayor continued, "the community boards aren't the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission. And that's where our process is set up, and that's how it's worked for years."

What de Blasio will need, of course, is City Council buy-in. As the mayor, top administration officials, and his city planning department consider feedback from local leaders and make "modifications" to the rezoning plans, they'll need to convince Council members representing the districts set to undergo the most change that they should vote in favor of the plans. These include representatives from communities like East New York, East Harlem, Flushing, and areas of the Bronx, among others initially targeted for the zoning changes and more housing.

The leader of the Council, Mark-Viverito, also happens to represent East Harlem and part of the Bronx. She abstained as the Bronx Borough Board voted against the mayor's plans and said she'll abstain when Manhattan votes on Monday, Nov. 30. While the community and borough board votes are non-binding advisory opinions, they are indicative of concerns throughout the city about de Blasio's plans. Those concerns include worries about rising prices and gentrification accompanying new development; that new housing won't be accompanied by new schools and transportation infrastructure; lack of parking; and more.

On Tuesday Mark-Viverito said that she is sure the plans will need to be changed in order to pass through the Council. Saying that Council members are listening to their constituents and that the plans will "obviously go back to City Planning," Mark-Viverito said, "The plan that has been presented originally, I can assure you, will not be stagnant and...will not be the plan that comes before us at the Council."

Some of the key changes that may be made based on community pushback include creating more flexibility within the proposals for how area median income (AMI) is determined - instead of using one set of figures for the whole city as the plans do now, AMIs would be set more by local geography so that apartments being labeled as "affordable" would truly be so for local residents, especially the lowest income earners. On the other hand, in some areas of the city, residents are looking for more units to be carved out for middle-income earners. There are also historical and neighborhood preservation concerns in some places.

Other possible tweaks relate to ensuring that affordable housing for seniors is made permanently so; that parking is protected; and that affordable units are required to be built among market-rate units, not off-site or even on separate floors.

"The land-use review process is extensive," Mark-Viverito said Tuesday. When it comes to the two rezoning proposals, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the speaker said, "We're at only the beginning stages of that debate and that conversation. So yes, community boards are taking a position, some borough boards have taken positions; but we're nowhere near engaging in that level of debate at the Council level."

She promised continued constituent engagement and figuring out how to "make additional improvement" to the plans. Calling some of the community concerns "legitimate," Mark-Viverito said "some communities want greater AMIs, some communities want lower AMIs. It's going to be a very, very heated conversation."

For his part, the mayor said "it's all part of a democratic process," and that the community boards "inform the process." He did remind, though, that community boards are indeed advisory and that the elected officials - who often disagree with community boards - make the final decisions.

"I'm listening. My whole team is listening to them," the mayor said Monday. "We're looking at if we think any of the points raised a need to make any changes." De Blasio and his team will continue to defend the plans, even if they're open to tweaks. They argue that the city desperately needs more housing, especially affordable units, which can only be built in most cases if new market-rate housing is also allowed. They also sell the plans as community development, highlighting new retail space that will created, and with it, employment and shopping opportunities.

"It does have an impact on our thinking," de Blasio said of community feedback. "It does help us figure out things we need to do better."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

New York commits $50 million to marketing state tourism

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 8:07pm

ALBANY — New York state will dedicate $50 million to efforts to market and promote the state as a destination for domestic and international tourism.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the funding Wednesday during a state "Tourism Summit" in Albany.

The money will go to tourism marketing campaigns like the long-running I Love NY campaign, and will feature television and online ads. The funds will also be used to promote transportation options for upstate tourism and on targeted international campaigns to boost tourism from Australia and Puerto Rico, two areas the state has identified as potentially key markets.

The state says tourism had a $100 billion economic impact last year and is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in the state. New York state welcomed 277 million visitors in 2014.

Categories: State/Local

Mayors sign on 'Fight for $15'

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 7:07pm


Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the mayors of Rochester and Buffalo on Wednesday as they announced their intention to increase the minimum hourly wage for municipal workers to $15 over the course of the next six years. The plan follows Cuomo's announcement last week of a similar increase for low-wage state workers.

Though it didn't result in a gubernatorial news conference, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said she's ready to sign on.

"Notwithstanding fiscal challenges, we've got to move toward a more livable wage," said Sheehan, who noted that she would need to work with the city's Common Council and various collective bargaining units to make it happen.

Sheehan, like Cuomo a Democrat, noted that the sort of wage increase announced by the governor for state workers wouldn't affect a large number of Albany city employees other than seasonal workers. Under Cuomo's plan, the lowest rate for state workers will jump to $9.75 at the beginning of 2016; Albany has no full-time workers making less than that sum, Sheehan said.

"It's the out years that we need to look at," Sheehan said.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner acted last month to immediately raise the wages of city workers who made less than $15 an hour, though the change only affected 61 employees.

"We are building momentum across the state for a policy that will change lives," Cuomo said in a statement, "and I urge the state Legislature to join us in raising the minimum wage for all workers."

A broader push to increase the minimum wage for all workers in New York is expected to be one of the governor's central agenda items for the legislative session that begins in January, when the 2016 election begins to heat up. Though the initiative has support among Democrats, Republicans have said the change could destroy jobs by driving up costs to business.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown served on Cuomo's wage board for fast-food workers, which recommended the same phased-in increase. Cuomo was able to implement that targeted boost through executive action; a broader increase for private employees would require legislative approval.

In Buffalo, Cuomo again criticized fast-food companies for perpetrating "a scam ... a joke" on taxpayers due to the fact that their lowest-paid workers require extensive public support to subsist.

"We subsidize over $2 billion a year" to chains like McDonald's, Cuomo said, adding that he'd rather see that money go to a tax cut.

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy didn't return a call seeking comment.


Categories: State/Local

Ex-Assembly candidate charged for not disclosing spending

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 12:07am


In an unusual move, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state Board of Elections Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman announced on Wednesday that Michele Adolphe, a little-known candidate who lost a bid in 2014 for a Brooklyn Assembly seat, had been arrested for allegedly failing to file campaign finance disclosure reports with the Board of Elections.

A complaint filed in Albany City Court charges Adolphe with three Class A misdemeanor counts stemming from her alleged failure to file three separate campaign finance disclosure reports during her unsuccessful run. She faces up to one year in jail for each count if convicted.

"My office will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the public trust is not undercut by candidates for public office who fail to properly disclose their campaign's financial activity," Schneiderman said in a statement.

Sugarman said her office would continue to pursue such cases, including with law enforcement partners, because the "public has the right to know who contributes to campaigns and how candidates spend those contributions."

Adolphe, who was arraigned Wednesday in Albany City Court and released, placed third in a four-way Democratic primary won by Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte.

For years, the Board of Elections has been criticized for being laggard in enforcing even the basic tenets of election law, complaints that helped lead to the creation of Sugarman's unit in the 2014 budget agreement that ended the existence of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Moreland Commission investigation of public corruption.

A 2012 report by the New York Public Interest Research Group found thousands of late- or non-filing campaign committees. Such cases almost never result in criminal prosecutions.

In July, Sugarman filed a civil lawsuit targeting another obscure former Brooklyn Assembly candidate, Shirley Patterson, for allegedly taking illegal limited liability company donations above state limits.

The matter, viewed as a test case of legal theories surrounding the LLC loophole in election law, was settled with a $10,000 fine.

Other higher-profile officials — including Cuomo, who appointed Sugarman — have taken LLC donations in patterns similar to those in Patterson's case.

Her attorney, Steven Alfasi, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday but told the New York Post, "Most candidates don't know anything about their filings."

"My client has been trying to reach her campaign treasurer and the attorney general's office has reached out to her and there's been no cooperation," he said. • 518-454-5303 • @chrisbragg1

Categories: State/Local

Stakeholders Urge Adams to Reject East New York Community Plan

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 12:00am

BK BP Adams at an event (photo via @bpericadams)

At Brooklyn Borough Hall on Monday, Borough President Eric Adams held a public hearing on the de Blasio administration’s controversial East New York Community Plan. After remarks from City Council representatives at the packed-to-capacity hearing, stakeholders from the affected area urged Adams to reject it.

“What I’m gonna stand here and talk about is you putting yourself in the position of these community members, young and old, who are coming to you and asking you to just look at the mayor’s plan and just understand that it’s crap,” Jasbir Singh, Brooklyn organizer for the advocacy group Faith In New York, said at the hearing, addressing Adams directly.

Though most opinions expressed were less harsh, only two people - officials from the City Planning Department who provided a powerpoint of plan details at the hearing’s start - voiced approval for the proposal, at least in its current form. The plan aims to create affordable housing units, protect existing ones, and strengthen the economy of the area proposed for rezoning, which contains East New York, Cypress Hills, and Ocean Hill.

The area has high poverty rates and is largely populated by people of color. There are limited work and transportation options. It is an area that could be upzoned to allow more retail space, as well as new housing development. The administration’s plan seeks to create new housing that will include “affordable” units, while also fostering new business and jobs as buildings are “mixed-use,” meaning retail on the ground floor with housing atop.

On Monday at Borough Hall, participants urged the city officials present to vote against the proposal. Though it has already been rejected by Community Board 5 (East New York, Cypress Hills, Highland Park, New Lots, City Line, Starrett City, and Ridgewood), Community Board 16 (Brownsville and Ocean Hill) could endorse it when it votes at the end of the month. These votes are advisory, though - the City Council is expected to vote on the plan in 2016. The Council typically follows the lead of the local rep(s), which is this case are Council Members Rafael Espinal and Inez Barron.

The East New York area is one initial proving ground for the de Blasio administration’s larger rezoning and housing plans - plans that are being met with resistance all over the city and are likely to be tweaked before they are presented to the Council.

Most of the concerns expressed Monday were about the proposal’s potential to displace residents of the rezoned area. Around 50 percent of the approximately 6,300 housing units created for the East New York Community Plan are slated to be affordable units. The remainder are market-rate.

During her remarks at the start of the hearing, Council Member Barron held up a sheet of paper with two pie graphs. One showed the current East New York community by percentage of income levels and the other showed the same statistics as forecast after the rezoning, she said.

If the proposal is implemented, Barron said, the majority of East New York residents will earn salaries of $75,000 and up, a group that currently composes only 18 percent of the neighborhood population. (It was not immediately clear where Barron’s data came from.)

“I also want to say that they don't tell you the size of the units. So, we need two and three bedrooms, some of us will obviously need four-bedroom apartments,” Barron said. “But we don't know, of the units that they're going to bring in that they call affordable, how many bedrooms there are going to be.”

Barron reaffirmed her stance on the proposal: as it currently exists, she does not support it. Council Member Espinal, who represents most of the area proposed for rezoning, expressed the same stance in his remarks.

Despite some concerns mentioned about the proposal’s economic plan, which does not require that businesses interested in East New York pay workers a “living wage,” most concerns voiced were about the plan’s potential to displace residents.

“We are deeply concerned about displacement and urge the city to study the impact of rezoning on displacement in other areas such as Park Slope [and] Williamsburg in order to develop an understanding of what rezoning will really mean to low-income East New Yorkers,” Jamal Burgess, Future of Tomorrow youth organizer and Cypress Hills resident, said. “Through the years, we have seen gentrification in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Harlem, covered up by urban renewal projects.”

In the plan, one of the strategies listed for the protection of existing affordable housing is providing free legal representation from the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force for people facing harassment by landlords. Several who spoke at Monday’s hearing reported that they had personally experienced this type of harassment, and doubted the capability of the legal representation strategy to fight it.

“I cannot accept a legal clinic at face value as being able to solve that problem,” five-year East New York resident Barbara Champion said.

Mayor de Blasio has personally guaranteed such legal help to tenants in any of the neighborhoods he plans to rezone and has dedicated budgetary dollars toward such aid.

East New York is one of 15 areas selected by the de Blasio administration for rezoning. The proposals are part of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, two main pieces of the mayor’s Housing New York plan that are being reviewed by community and borough boards now before some version goes to the Council.

Local reception to planned rezonings have been mixed, largely skewing negative. Community boards in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens have voted in favor of rezoning plans; due to possible overcrowding, a Long Island City community board voted against; and the Movement for Justice in El Barrio advocacy group recently interrupted a Community Board 11 meeting to protest against East Harlem’s proposed rezoning changes. The Bronx and Queens Borough Boards voted against the plans and other boroughs are set to vote soon. Again, these are all advisory opinions.

Brooklyn Borough President Adams did not give a verdict on the city’s proposal at Monday’s hearing. “I did not come into this room with my mind made up,” the borough president said. He encouraged community input, letting participants do the talking as he listened and eyes his Borough Board meeting on Tuesday, December 1, which will include a vote on the mayor's two larger rezoning plans.

As part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the borough president reviews the proposal and has the power to recommend it to the City Planning Commission, the final body that reviews it before the City Council.

Asked about neighborhood and board resistance to his plans on Monday, de Blasio said that it did not surprise him that there would be objections. “Those objections should be heard and we should, you know, think about them, and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will,” de Blasio said. “But in the end, the community boards aren’t the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission.”

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

This article has been updated to more carefully reflect Borough President Adams' comments at the town hall.

Categories: State/Local

Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 12:00am

DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews



In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of 1.3 million open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.

The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “Begin Again.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.

While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won a seventh four-year term, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.

“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at a November 17 press conference launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”

“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”

The success of Thompson’s first Begin Again event, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.

Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.

With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?

Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)

"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.

“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.

Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”

“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."

Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.

Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.

Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued each day in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of 359,432 summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.

That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!”

What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”

Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.

“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.

When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”

About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.

A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.

“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”

Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”

Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to what he has called “the peace dividend” approach he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.

“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.” 

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local
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