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Prosecutors to push for fourth trial for Cal Harris

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:07am

SCHOHARIE (AP) — An upstate New York man accused of killing his estranged wife could be headed back to court for a fourth murder trial.

On Wednesday, prosecutors are expected to press for another trial in hope of securing a conviction against Calvin Harris. Schoharie County Judge George Bartlett scheduled the conference after declaring a mistrial in May after a four-month trial.

Jurors deliberated for more than 50 hours over 11 days and could not reach a unanimous verdict on whether proof existed to convict Harris of killing his wife, Michelle, nearly 14 years ago.

Prosecutors say Harris killed her when she returned to the home they shared with their four children. Her body has never been found.

Two previous convictions against Harris were thrown out.

Categories: State/Local

Ruling reopens casino plan review

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:07am

Eight months after a small Finger Lakes farm town was recommended for one of three New York casino licenses, the battle over the $425 million development is ratcheting up again.

A recent appeals court ruling involving state environmental review law has suspended site construction in Tyre, between Rochester and Syracuse along the Thruway. Lago Resort & Casino supporters say the ruling was based on a procedural misstep that is being addressed by restarting the review.

But local casino opponents see the town's do-over as another chance to push for a broader environmental review, this time with funding for lawyers from Lago's competitors.

"The process has to be redone, it is a New York state-mandated process that must be done properly. And now we have eyes on it," said Desiree Dawley, a member of Casino Free Tyre.

Lago was recommended for a casino license by a state siting board in December along with the Montreign Resort Casino in the Catskills and the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady. Final license decisions could come from the state this fall.

The Lago proposal — with its tony hotel, slots and fine dining — has the enthusiastic backing of local officials and trade unions. They see more than 1,800 permanent jobs, tax reductions and a contemporary attraction that will draw millions of tourists to this thinly populated corner of the Finger Lakes.

With about 900 people, Tyre's prominent features now are a Thruway truck stop and the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. It's the sort of modest, rural town where the supervisor works from a spare room at home and one judge holds court at a converted dog kennel.

"We need this project," Supervisor Ronald McGreevy said. "We just can't continue to go the way we're going."

Dawley, who lives next to the Lago site, said there are many residents, including the local Amish community, concerned that the outsized development would ruin the town's rural character.

Opponents notched a win last month when a state appeals court faulted the way the town board determined that the project would have no significant adverse environmental impacts. The court said the board in 2014 failed to provide a clear, written record for its "negative declaration" and voided the site plan approval.

So now the town is repeating its environmental work from last year, including board meetings.

"We're doing everything possible to follow the letter of the law, which we did last year," McGreevy said.

Board members could consider whether to issue another negative declaration by mid-September.

The declaration would mean there was no need for a potentially complex environmental impact statement to be prepared, clearing the way for a state license this fall.

Opponents want an impact statement prepared, believing it would highlight issues being ignored by local leaders.

Categories: State/Local

Fast food pay raise sparks push

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

If fast-food workers are going to make $15 per hour, county employees should, too.

For Ulster County Legislature Chairman John Perele, that's as good a rationale as any to explain why he wants to set the minimum pay for county employees at $15 an hour. Such a proposal appears to be a novel idea among New York's county governments in the wake of a state wage board's July recommendation to raise the pay for fry cooks, cashiers and other staff at chain fast-food joints.

"I think it's time to send a message out that people need to be compensated fairly," Perele said by phone earlier this week. "Quite honestly not just the food service folks, but the people that work in infirmaries cleaning bed pans and all the other folks."

Raising the wage for county employees isn't quite the minimum wage proposal it might sound like. While oftentimes increases of the minimum wage are considered for all employees or certain industries — that's to say government considers raising the pay of those in the public and private sectors — Perele's proposal essentially amounts to a company deciding how much its employees should be paid. Thus, home-rule legislation does not need to be passed by the state Legislature to approve a higher wage.

That said, $15 an hour is the so-called living wage that progressive activists have called for all workers to make and is what ultimately fast-food employees will be paid should the state labor commissioner accept the board's recommendation. The commissioner is expected to accept the recommendation.

Perele said the idea was spurred by testimony that Ulster County Executive Mike Hein gave before the board during its Albany hearing earlier this year. He said he has followed the $15 wage fight as well.

Should Ulster raise its base pay it would affect an extremely limited number of employees — estimated to be between six and 10 employees, Perele said, adding that more research is ongoing.

At least one dissenting legislator told the Kingston Daily Freeman he opposes the proposal on general principle.

Ulster would appear to be the first, if not the only, county to consider such a proposal.

Suffolk and Westchester counties have laws on the books mandating that certain outside contractors pay their employees a living wage, though those wages are less than $15 per hour. Suffolk's is fluid based on the Consumer Price Index. Westchester's was set at $11.50 per hour plus health insurance or $13 per hour without health insurance as of Jan. 1, 2006.

It would not appear minimum-wage legislation has reached the desks of county-level lawmakers in the immediate Capital Region. Spokesmen for Schenectady and Rensselaer counties said no legislation has been proposed, and Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matthew Veitch said in an email that the county hasn't considered a raise for its employees. A representative for the Albany County Legislature's majority conference did not respond to an email last week.

Veitch said most employees already make above the minimum. Four employees who are part of a Workplace Investment Act program and 81 summer youth employees make the minimum, Veitch said.

"We do evaluate the need for a higher wage as they come up on an as-needed basis," he said. "For example, we just raised the wage to $12 per hour for part-time Board of Elections workers from minimum wage since we were not getting enough interest, and the BOE needs an increase in personnel for the upcoming election season."

Schenectady County Legislature Clerk Geoffrey Hall said about 3 to 3.5 percent of county employees — excluding student workers and summer youth employees — make less than $15 per hour.

Down in Ulster, the legislature's Ways and Means Committee has not ruled on the proposal yet. The county is preparing its budget, making it an opportune time to calculate in a wage increase, Perele said.

"If you want to save the world, you've got to start with your own family to make sure they're secure," he said.

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

Categories: State/Local

Secular education at Jewish yeshivas probed

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 9:07am

Albany

There was no science, no geography and no math past multiplication at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish school Chaim Weber attended. And the only reference he ever heard of the American Revolution was when a seventh-grade teacher introduced it as "story time."

Naftuli Moster said he never learned the words "cell" or "molecule" at the ultra-Orthodox schools he attended, where secular subjects were considered "unimportant or downright going against Judaism."

Now young adults, the two yeshiva graduates echo complaints critics have made for years about the rudimentary level of secular education at private schools serving New York's Hasidic communities. Now, for the first time, the city Department of Education is investigating more than three dozen of the schools to make sure their instruction is up to the most basic standards.

But even the advocates who called for the investigation question whether the city will be able to pierce the close-knit, insular Orthodox community to force meaningful change.

"These schools have been operating for a very long time," said Weber, one of 52 former students, parents or former teachers who signed a letter requesting the investigation into 39 yeshivas. "They have kind of perfected their method for pulling the wool over the eyes of authorities."

The investigation itself is shrouded in secrecy. The names of the yeshivas targeted have not been released because of fears of retaliation. And aside from Weber and Moster, who agreed to speak out, the names of those who called for the probe have also not been publicly released.

"I'm worried for my kids. They could be kicked out if I named the school," said Weber, who said his 10-year-old son has learned addition but not subtraction.

What is known is that 38 of the 39 yeshivas are in Brooklyn, the center of the city's Hasidic community.

State law mandates that the instruction in private schools must be at least substantially equivalent to what can be found in the area's public schools.

Categories: State/Local

NY stages topless parade with 60 cities worldwide

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:07am

NEW YORK — Broadway put on a very different kind of Sunday matinee: bare-chested women and men parading down the Great White Way.

The GoTopless Pride Parade took to the streets of midtown Manhattan to counter critics complaining about topless tip-seekers in Times Square.

Appearing bare-breasted is legal in New York. But Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner Bill Bratton say the body-painted women in the square who take photos with tourists are a nuisance.

Sunday's parade was among dozens of such events staged in about 60 cities on the worldwide GoTopless Day.

GoTopless spokeswoman Rachel Jessee says the goal is for gender equality when it comes to baring one's chest.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Inmates frozen to a fence

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:07am

It was between 5 and 10 degrees in the prison yard at Bare Hill Correctional Facility, north of Malone in Franklin County, when staffers heard that one inmate had slashed another in the face. Corrections officers moved quickly to investigate.

They stopped a group of inmates walking near the scene of the attack, which took place on Feb. 7, 2013. They ordered the men to remove their hats and gloves and place their hands on a chainlink fence to be searched for weapons. None were found.

According to internal prison documents and lawsuits, the officers then told the inmates — who had been on their way back from dinner — that they would stay in that position until someone offered information on the assault.

Accounts differ on how long the men remained at the fence. Inmates claimed the incident went on for 30 to 45 minutes, while guards and an internal investigator said it lasted about 15 minutes.

By the time it was over, at least 10 of the men had contracted frostbite, lawsuits allege. Inmates said they had to peel their hands away from the cold metal. Internal records indicate the men suffered swelling, blistering and pain that in some cases persisted for weeks. At least one lost all his fingernails. In court documents, some said they had permanent nerve damage and chronic discomfort. One inmate, Laqwan Thompson, said his right hand turned "black and it was kind of stuck bent." Another went to a hospital emergency room a week later for "circulation concerns," according to a prison memo.

The men filed grievances with the prison, but after an internal investigation all were dismissed. Instead, the injuries were ascribed to "Failure to properly dress for the weather."

The case, which has not been previously reported, offers a glimpse into the backlash inmates say they face behind prison walls even when they are not found to be involved in wrongdoing.

After the recent escape of two prisoners from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County, inmates reported they were beaten and tortured by corrections officers who pressed them for information about the breakout. In a separate instance, inmates who witnessed the April death of a prisoner at the hands of officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County were reportedly put into solitary confinement and threatened after speaking with lawyers, reporters and the dead inmate's family. State corrections officials have said they will investigate and discipline anyone found to be involved in misconduct or abuse.

"I have never witnessed a significant disturbance at a prison that was not followed by allegations of collective punishment and abuse," said Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, a group that provides legal representation for inmates in the state's prisons.

The details of the Bare Hill search are revealed in lawsuits that were filed in state and federal court after several of the men contacted New York attorney Elmer R. Keach. Keach said one inmate handed him what the man claimed was an envelope full of his skin, which he had been saving as it peeled from his fingers to maintain as evidence. One man who didn't file a grievance has also sued.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees Bare Hill, declined to comment on pending litigation.

There is a history of tension between inmates and staff at Bare Hill. In 2008, the Correctional Association of New York, a state-sanctioned prison watchdog agency, visited the Franklin County facility. The group eventually published a report saying inmates there reported higher rates of physical confrontations and verbal harassment compared with other medium-security facilities in the state.

"We were very concerned that people were being treated very harshly," said Jack Beck, director of the association's Prison Visiting project, which documents prison conditions across the state. "Bare Hill was a problematic place."

At Bare Hill, which sits about 10 miles from the Canadian border, prisoners aren't provided with gloves but could buy them for 40 cents at the time of the 2013 incident. Inmates are given a winter coat, a sweatshirt and six pairs of socks, and receive additional gear, including gloves, for special work assignments, the corrections department said.

The onset of frostbite can be hastened by certain conditions, said Dr. John Janikas, the director of emergency medicine for Albany Memorial Hospital and Samaritan Hospital. "Touching metal would essentially act like wind chill, because it literally whisks away heat from your body," he said.

Nine of the men allege they had to remove their hats and gloves for the entire incident, and some say they were threatened with violence if they did not comply. Officers said in depositions that the protective wear had to be removed only during the brief pat-down, and no one was threatened.

Lt. Terrence White, a prison staff member who was assigned to investigate the grievances, reviewed commissary records and concluded that the 10 men all had neglected to buy or wear gloves that night, making the injury their fault.

"I've been here four days," one inmate, Rashid Evans, told Lt. White during the investigation, internal memos show. "I had no money for gloves when I came in."

Another, Jamel Weaver, said he had just been transferred from another prison, and his commissary account hadn't yet caught up with him. Other inmates said they had gloves, even though there was no record of their having bought them, or had borrowed them or claimed they were stolen by corrections officers. Several said they had never before needed gloves.

While the officers did not dispute that the inmates got frostbite, several said in depositions that no one complained or asked to move his hands during the incident. They defended the decisions as necessary to maintain security.

"I thought this situation over many times," the ranking officer at the scene, Sgt. Craig Demmons, said in a deposition. "This was ... the best way in the situation to be able to maintain a vigilant observation of the whole group of inmates as this was being conducted."

A spokesperson for the state Attorney General's office, which is representing the officers, declined comment. Attempts to reach White and Demmons through their union and at their homes were unsuccessful.

Officers said in depositions they had never received training on conducting pat-downs in the cold. Demmons said an employee with the corrections department's Inspector General's office, which investigates prison incidents, contacted him, but other officers involved said they were not contacted by investigators.

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for its newsletter at www.themarshallproject.org, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Categories: State/Local

Mayor: Gas explosion at New York school caused by lit match

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:07am

School explosion caused by lit match

NEW YORK — An explosion that blew a gaping hole in the side of a high school just days before classes were to begin was touched off when a worker tested a gas line by lighting a match, the mayor said Friday.

Three workers were badly burned in the Thursday evening blast, which blew the walls and windows off several classrooms on the sixth floor of the John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. "I do not believe this is standard procedure," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday. "I believe it was a mistake, and obviously a very costly one for the three workers involved."

Officials are working to find alternative classroom space for students who will be unable to start the year in the badly damaged building.

Two charter schools that use the building were scheduled to start class Monday.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Approval of $15 fast-food salary looms

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

A New York state proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour could be formally approved any day.

The increase would apply to fast-food workers in restaurants with 30 or more locations — about 200,000 people — and would be phased in over three years in New York City and six years elsewhere in the state.

The current wage of $8.75 an hour already is set to automatically rise to $9 for all workers at year's end.

The $15 proposal was endorsed by a state Wage Board last month.

A mandatory public comment period has expired and the proposal now awaits approval by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's labor commissioner. The commissioner has until Sept. 14 to act.

Cuomo supports the hike, and it is expected to be approved.

Thousands of fast-food workers submitted letters supporting the increase, with many saying the current minimum wage of $8.75 has fallen far behind the cost of living.

Alexsandra Candelaria works at a Rochester-area McDonald's where she makes $9. She also works two other part-time jobs to help make ends meet and to support her family. Candelaria testified at a Wage Board meeting this summer.

"Anything over what I'm making now would make things that much easier," she said. "Everybody told us we were crazy, that we wouldn't get $15."

Franchise owners submitted formal objections to the state protesting the increase. Restaurant owners are considering whether to challenge the increase in court.

Categories: State/Local

Judge wants more information on Paul Smith's College name change request

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:07am

Students at Paul Smith's College can move into their dorms starting this week.

What they don't yet know, however, is whether they'll eventually graduate from Paul Smith's or from a re-named Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College.

Representatives of the Adirondack-based school were in court earlier in the week, seeking permission to change the name, which would result in a $20 million donation from longtime supporter Joan Weill, who is married to former Citigroup Chairman and CEO Sandy Weill.

But before making a decision, State Supreme Court Justice John Ellis said he wants more information about the school's financial condition.

Additionally, a lawyer for a group of alumni who oppose the change has submitted a motion to join in the case and argue against it.

"The judge invited me to file a motion to intervene,'' said Plattsburgh lawyer Mark Schneider.

Should the judge allow Schneider's clients to intervene, or become a party to the case, the lawyer said he plans to argue that the school is not in such bad financial shape that it needs the money for survival.

He noted that Paul Smith's President Cathy Dove recently stated in a college publication that the school is in good shape.

Dove and college officials including faculty members, though, argue that they need more money to deal with looming demographic changes and other pressures that pose serious challenges in future years.

Located north of Saranac Lake, the school focuses on forestry and ecological studies as well as hospitality and culinary arts. It was created with a gift from Phelps Smith, who wanted to honor his father, Paul.

Paul Smith was a well-known guide who also built a popular hotel on what became the campus.

With about 1,000 students and an isolated location, Paul Smith's has had some struggles including a round of layoffs last year. Joan Weill is a former trustee and chair of the board for the school. She already has raised millions for Paul Smith's. She and her husband have a home on nearby Upper Saranac Lake.

The question before the court is fairly narrow — it asks whether the restriction on Phelps Smith's will that says the name should be permanent can be removed.

According to their federal tax-exempt filings, the school in 2013 had an approximately $25.2 million endowment.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

'Desnudas' spur New York state senator to push ban on topless men, women

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

If you're a man or boy who has ever mowed the lawn or played a pickup basketball game without a shirt on, one state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would force you to cover up. And women are to blame.

Responding to the summertime controversy over the "desnudas" of Times Square — topless women who paint their breasts and pose with tourists for tips — state Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, on Friday released a statement saying that the densely packed part of midtown Manhattan had become a haven for "naked cowboys, topless women doing business and taking photos — accosting and molesting tourists, a cursing Elmo, and people pissing in the streets."

Court rulings have made it legal for both genders to go topless, but a state law still bars female toplessness in public for commercial purposes.

Diaz's proposed legislation, provided to reporters in draft form, would make penal law gender-neutral on its prohibition of toplessness, defined as the display of "that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola."

The law would not apply to "the breastfeeding of infants," a performer in "a play, exhibition, show or entertainment," or to anyone at a beach or pool.

"In a city where millions of people are drawn to Times Square, we need to push against the immorality that has taken root there once again so families can enjoy New York," wrote Diaz, a Pentecostal minister who is one of the chamber's most conservative ideologues on social issues. "If equality laws are in the way, let's push for equality so neither men nor women can go topless in our streets."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has convened a task force to find a legal way to shut down the desnudas' activity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this week said in his opinion the women's display was illegal and harmed nearby businesses.

Diaz's bill faces an uncertain future. It will likely make no progress before the Legislature returns to Albany in January, when the figurative and literal climate surrounding toplessness in Times Square could have shifted.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

New York state, municipal emails tied to website for cheating spouses

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

News that data on users of an adultery-facilitating website was hacked and released online has certainly made a lot of people nervous.

That would apparently include a handful of New York state and municipal employees.

A trove of hacked data from the website Ashley Madison ("the most famous name in infidelity and married dating") includes email addresses of members that come from places like the state Power Authority and Education Department, the Office of Mental Health and other state agencies.

Operated by Avid Life Media, the site -— which claims more than 36 million accounts worldwide — advertises itself as a resource for married people seeking extramarital affairs, although men reportedly outnumber women more than seven to one.

In July, the site was informed that it had been hacked by an organization calling itself Impact Team that wanted Ashley Madison taken down.

When Avid Life Media refused, the hackers released a trove of data about Ashley Madison members complete with registration information including names and email addresses. The data has been posted on the "dark web," obscure and hard-to-find corners of the Internet.

But other third-party websites have posted the information in more accessible locations.

Pastebin, for example, offers lists of alleged members organized by their domains or suffixes on email addresses.

A quick search turned up numerous email addresses using the domains "ny.gov" and "nyc.gov," including small numbers from the Thruway Authority, the Department of State, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and the state Energy Research and Development Authority.

None of the addresses are verifiable as connecting to genuine Ashley Madison memberships — something only Ashley Madison could confirm. And even then it's not certain that a membership belongs to the email's owner.

Avid Life Media stressed that the hack was illegal.

While adultery is not a crime, the wisdom of signing up for a website to initiate an extramarital affair could entail some poor judgment.

At home, it could cause considerable marital strife. But if you employ a work email account, it could lead to a professional disciplinary process.

When asked if any rule prohibits using a state email account for such a purpose, state Civil Service spokesman Ed Walsh referred the question to the state Office of Information Technology Services — an agency that, according to the data posted to Pastebin, was not among Ashley Madison's patrons.

An ITS spokeswoman said access to Ashley Madison is blocked on state networks and that using government email in connection with the site is clearly inappropriate and may be a violation of the state's acceptable use policy. The agency is reviewing the facts.

Steve Gosset, a spokesman for the state Power Authority, said there is a need for basic common sense in the use of work email.

"NYPA email accounts are intended for business communications only," he said in a prepared statement. While some personal use of work email is accepted, he added, "use of our email system requires good judgment.''

To be clear, the most-used email domain for Ashley Madison users is the far more anonymous Google mail. And the handful of state and municipal email addresses that appear to be involved is barely a drop in the bucket of New York's large public workforce.

But the episode is just another case in which public employees were tripped up by their online activities.

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, for example, achieved no small measure of infamy as "Client 9," the monicker he used with a web-based service which procured high-priced hookers.

Online anonymity proved to be hard to come by in the real world.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

State Constitutional Convention: Holy Grail or Pandora's Box?

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 1:00am

photo: @NYSenDems

With a legislature now routinely shaken by major indictments, pressing issues left perpetually unresolved, and voter dissatisfaction with state government on the rise, some see a constitutional convention as perhaps the only way to bypass the legislature and institute serious reform. It just so happens that in 2017 voters will get to decide whether to have such a convention.

"A lot of the reforms people want to see don't need a convention to be instituted, but political will on the part of the legislature," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group, who was involved in the last conversation about holding a constitutional convention.

"The constitutional convention becomes a vessel that some pour their hopes into," says Horner. But, as supporters of a convention discovered in 1997, public support for conventions has proven to be unreliable when it comes time to vote to hold one.

This summer, a July 15 Siena College poll found 90 percent of New York voters feel government corruption is a serious problem. The same poll found that 69 percent of voters surveyed supported having a constitutional convention, which could reconfigure the state's governing document.

The poll results have boosted the hopes of those who see a constitutional convention, which would occur in 2019 if approved by voters in 2017, as the only real chance to fix state government. And yet the poll also contains chilling, bad news for those advocates: 75 percent of voters surveyed say they haven't heard anything about a constitutional convention.

Delegates could examine an untold number of changes to the constitution, but some of the areas advocates express interest in are better balancing the power between the executive and legislature; changing term limits; creating a full-time legislature; making pay-to-play politics illegal; and changing the redistricting process.

It's a familiar position for advocates who were involved the last time the topic came up in a serious way. Public support for constitutional conventions has proved to be a fragile thing in the past. "I think in general there was a lot of public discontent with state government not meeting budget deadlines; the business community was more upset then about taxes, as the government was less responsive to their concerns, and there was deep concern about local government issues," said professor Gerald Benjamin, who was appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo as Research Director of the Temporary State Commission on Constitutional Revision during the last discussion of a constitutional convention.

"There was a broad, but not deep, willingness to have a convention--but it dissipated when groups who were opposed to it for various reasons attacked it," Benjamin says.

State law requires that voters be asked every two decades whether they want a constitutional convention. The last such vote was in 1997. If the voters' answer is yes, they elect delegates to represent them at the convention, and any convention-negotiated changes are then put in front of voters as ballot referendums.

The last convention occurred in 1967 and was actually called by the legislature. Voters at that time said no to the proposed changes. The last voter-called convention occurred in 1938; voters rejected conventions in 1957, 1977, and 1997.

In 1997 initial public support for a convention was dissolved by the efforts of groups that were concerned measures they favored in the constitution would be done away with by conservative delegates. The League of Women Voters led opposition, attacking the delegate selection process for being accessible only to politicians and other connected individuals. "The League successfully argued that the convention would essentially be run by the same people who run the capital," said Horner.

But the League wasn't the only group opposed. Public labor unions poured considerable cash into the opposition movement, fearing pension guarantees could be stripped away. Environmental groups joined the opposition movement in fear that provisions that keep state parks "forever wild" would be excised. That fear stems in part from the fact that convention delegates are elected based on state Senate districts, which are drawn in favor of Republicans (the Assembly has Democrat-friendly lines).

"Some view the constitutional convention as putting state parks and other constitutional issues at risk," said Horner. "Last time there was public support, as Mario Cuomo created the rationale for a fourth term around a convention. And [Governor] Pataki later supported it, but it went down in flames because of the efforts of those who opposed it based on what they could lose over the efforts of those who had hopes for what they could gain."

Former Assembly Member Richard Brodsky, now a senior scholar at Demos who calls himself "the last surviving progressive supporter" of a constitutional convention, said that the fears of many of these groups are well founded. "Those issues should weigh very heavily on the conversation," said Brodsky. "There is a lot of good stuff in the constitution we don't want to lose. However, voters in this state are by and large thoughtful and educated. Those issues are likely to be supported again."

Horner said it is far too early in the current process to tell if the pro-convention side will have funds that match those of the opposing sides.

New York City voters have historically had the most say over whether there is a constitutional convention as mayoral elections fall at the same time as the ballot question is put to voters. That makes it easier for those for and against the convention to target the city's generally liberal voting base in the lead up to a convention vote. This time the vote will likely coincide with Mayor Bill de Blasio's re-election bid.

Convention supporters like Brodsky have proposed legislation that could alleviate concerns about delegate selection. One Brodsky-backed measure would have created a public financing system for delegates so that average citizens could run. It also would have changed the way voters selected delegates, making voters select individual delegates rather than a ticket.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, has advocated banning delegates from being elected officials or lobbyists. "Our first priority must be to eliminate politics from the delegate selection process," said Kolb in a statement. "My "Peoples Convention To Reform New York Act" would require any elected or party official to vacate their office in order to serve as a delegate; and prohibit delegates from accepting contributions from PACs or party campaign committees. It is imperative that political influence is removed."

Horner said he expects a spike in debate over the convention in 2016 as reformers introduce bills to change the delegate selection process. "The problem some see is regular people--a teacher, a cop--would lose their career track if they ran as a delegate. They don't have the flexibility of a lawyer or a career politician. And who has the apparatus to run as a delegate other than an elected official?"

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said her group is focused on public education and has yet to take a position this time around. Her organization and other groups are teaming with the Rockefeller Institute for a series of public forums to inform New Yorkers about delegate selection and what issues are likely to come up.

"We want to make this more a people's convention than a politicians' convention," said Bartoletti. "I've lost a lot of faith in what the legislature will do. So we want to make sure we capture the public's imagination on how important this is. The more the public is involved, the better checks and balances we will have on the governor and legislature."

Many scholars and good-government groups are currently working on formulating proposals on how to reform the delegate process and how best to revamp the constitution, but many groups have yet to take a firm position.

"What we are really looking at is citizen education and at the end of 2016 we will come up with a position if we think enough changes have been made around the delegate selection process," said Bartoletti.

Brodsky said that voter education is key at this stage in the process and is encouraged that it has begun so early. "We have to start with very basic things, instead of focusing on ethics or reform of government. What is really important here is the social content: the rights of working people, the right to wilderness, a bill of rights - things that have a tremendous impact on people's daily lives."

Brodsky said that unlike the federal constitution, which is a "how-to document," most state constitutions are "what-to-do documents."

"The public needs to become aware of the social impact, the daily-life impact of the constitution," Brodsky argues. "We need to focus on questions like: 'Are the state's privacy laws adequate,' 'Should there be a right to higher education,' 'Should the state be able to use authorities to give public tax dollars to private corporations?'"

Brodsky says these are issues that may galvanize public interest, rather than questions of process and procedure.

Kolb stressed that while delegates would set the agenda, he would "hope that a Constitutional Convention would address areas such as ethics reform, government spending, debt accumulation, and unfunded mandates – just to name a few."

Meanwhile, many interested parties are watching to see how much energy Gov. Andrew Cuomo expends on the issue of holding a convention.

"Reformers were remarkably reticent due to concerns about who might be elected as delegates," said Professor Benjamin of efforts related to the 1997 ballot question. "The legislature was presumptively hostile, was hands-off, but the one thing we did have was the great advocate for constitutional change in Mario Cuomo. Had he been re-elected I believe we would have had a larger conversation, as gubernatorial involvement has been shown to make the question of a convention much closer."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed support for a convention during his 2010 run for governor but has been quiet on the topic recently. Benjamin points out that most governors are opposed to the status quo, but this time reformers have Cuomo's budget powers in their sights.

In an interview earlier this year, Brodsky told Gotham Gazette that he thought one of the prime questions facing a constitutional convention would be the governor's considerable budget powers, which basically allow the governor to enact the executive budget through extenders, without legislative approval.

Cuomo spokesperson Richard Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo still supports a constitutional convention.

Talk of a possible convention started earlier than normal this cycle as advocates began calling for a convention in light of the 2009 Senate coup, which was enabled in part by Gov. Eliot Spitzer's abrupt resignation. State law did not specifically allow for Gov. David Paterson to name his successor as Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor would have theoretically been able to break the coup by voting with Senate Democrats. Paterson eventually did name Richard Ravitch to the position at the urging of good government groups, and the appointment held up in the courts. Regardless, the drama did lead to conversation about a convention.

Mario Cuomo suggested in 2009 that rank-and-file legislators could support a convention as a means of regaining credibility with the public. "Why are people afraid of fundamental change?" Cuomo asked The New York Times rhetorically. "You don't like three men in a room, or three women in a room? Then change it."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Escape, contraband charges for David Sweat

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/25/2015 - 1:07am

Plattsburgh

A convicted killer serving life behind bars when he staged a daring escape from a maximum-security prison was arraigned Thursday on new criminal charges in his first court appearance since his capture after more than three weeks on the run.

David Sweat, shackled and with his right arm in a sling, was brought to court in Plattsburgh from the Five Points Correctional Facility, where he's been kept in a solitary cell for 23 hours a day. A judge entered not-guilty pleas for Sweat on two felony counts of first-degree escape and a felony count of promoting prison contraband for possessing hacksaw blades.

Sweat escaped June 6 from Clinton Correctional Facility with fellow inmate Richard Matt, also a convicted killer. Matt was shot dead June 26, and Sweat was shot and captured two days later, ending a 23-day manhunt.

During the brief court appearance, Sweat gave one-word answers to the judge's questions and said nothing as he was taken back out to a waiting corrections department van. Each of the charges carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Sweat, 35, is serving life without parole for the killing of a sheriff's deputy. Matt, 49, was doing 25 years to life for the kidnapping and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.

When asked why Sweat is being charged even though he is already locked up for life, Clinton County District Andrew Wylie said, "He committed a crime in this county, and I'm prosecuting him for that crime. To the county it won't be a great expense."

The prisoners used power tools to saw through steel cell walls and several steel steam pipes, bashed a hole through a 2-foot-thick brick wall, squirmed through pipes and emerged from a manhole outside the prison to find that their getaway driver didn't show up.

Authorities said the escapees had planned to drive to Mexico but ended up walking toward Canada when prison worker Joyce Mitchell backed out of giving them a ride at the last minute.

Sweat was captured in the town of Constable, about 30 miles northwest of the prison. He had a bag containing maps, tools, bug repellent and Pop Tarts when he was caught.

Mitchell, who worked in the prison tailor shop with the inmates, has pleaded guilty to first-degree promoting prison contraband, a felony, and fourth-degree criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor, for the help she gave the inmates, including smuggling hacksaw blades to them in packages of frozen hamburger.

A prison guard who authorities have said unknowingly abetted the escape plot by giving the hamburger to the inmates has pleaded not guilty to a charge of promoting prison contraband.

Corrections officer Gene Palmer told investigators he gave the convicts tools, art supplies and access to a catwalk electrical box in exchange for paintings by Matt. But he said he never knew of their escape plans.

Wylie said Thursday that his office is in plea negotiations with Palmer's lawyer.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo: I'll bridge regional divide

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/25/2015 - 1:07am

Utica

New York's two top Democrats were separated on Thursday by about 90 miles, and by their divergent messages about state government's support for upstate.

On the eastern end of the divide was Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who wrapped up the Capital Region portion of his upstate tour with visits to Cohoes, Waterford, Troy, Albany and Altamont. His journey, which has hit other parts of the state in recent weeks, has been an effort to fight the notion that the New York City-dominated Assembly majority doesn't care enough about what's going on north of the five boroughs.

At the western end was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came to Utica for the latest installment in his "Capital For a Day" initiative, an extension of his administration's efforts to prove that upstate is turning around — progress that's in no small part due to his own efforts to bend a downstate-minded Legislature to the needs of the collective good.

Their messages competed, but the goals of both men were the same: to spin themselves as friends to a vast region of the state that too often feels forgotten.

Talking with the Times Union editorial board on Monday, Heastie said the upstate-downstate divide was used for political posturing.

"If there was something that my upstate colleagues needed or wanted, (downstate lawmakers) supported — just the same way that they defer to us," said the Bronx lawmaker. " ... Internally, there was never really an upstate-downstate (divide). If anything, it was always a regional caring about what was important."

That "regional caring" is what Cuomo touched on as he touted his administration's steps to boost the upstate economy, albeit from a more negative angle. He highlighted the number of lawmakers from downstate districts whose agendas are driven by local concerns. He said upstate lawmakers could be similarly narrow in their focus.

"On a day-to-day basis, the normal inclination is a legislator does what's in his or her parochial interest," Cuomo said.

As a unitary executive, Cuomo suggested, he could rise above such things. "I have gone out of my way to put my thumb on the scale to balance the beam to make sure upstate New York gets its fair share," he said.

Cuomo said things had changed in recent years within both chambers — but made it clear who had served as the catalyst.

"We've actually organized the upstate legislators as upstate legislators. ... There was no unity among the upstate delegation. So you had all of this power in numbers in downstate, and upstate they were all fractured and separate," Cuomo said of the time before his election in 2010. "They understand now there is something to forming an upstate coalition. I told the legislative leaders straight out that I would not sign a budget unless it had significant economic resources for upstate New York."

While the truism that "all politics is local" remains a dominant force, both Heastie and newly installed Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who has embarked on an upstate tour of his own this summer, have tried to paint themselves as unifying forces in their respective houses.

"From my standpoint, the fact that I'm from Long Island has no bearing," Flanagan said shortly after rising to power in May. "I'm a colleague in the state Senate. What's good for Jamestown, what's good for Plattsburgh or Glens Falls or Utica or Syracuse or Rochester is good for the state of New York."

In Utica, Cuomo noted that upstate had suffered even though the Senate's GOP majority is composed of a majority of upstate members.

If the conference had been free of regional favoritism, the governor said, "then upstate would have gotten much more over the past years. ... They could have remedied it — everything takes two houses."

But "the only place that remedied it, really, was the Capital District region, where Sen. Joe Bruno really delivered for his district," Cuomo said of the former majority leader from Brunswick.

A Senate Republican spokesman defended the conference as being "a strong and consistent voice for upstate taxpayers and their families."

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

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo expects no federal aid cuts for high numbers of students skipping state test

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/25/2015 - 1:07am

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday said he does not believe there will be a drop in federal education dollars for the state after 20 percent of third- through eighth- graders opted out of taking state tests this year.

The governor's comments come a week after data released by the state Education Department showed that 900,000 of about 1.1 million students took the English Language Arts and math exams this year. But some districts had a majority of students not take the tests, skewing results on the local level and leaving some, like the state teachers union, to declare the test scores meaningless.

In releasing the data, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said it was possible the federal government could dole out less funding for schools with higher percentages of opt-outs, though it isn't a given that would happen.

Cuomo seemed confident it won't happen Thursday.

"I don't believe there are sanctions for opt-outs," he said at an unrelated event in Utica. "At the end of the day, parents are in charge and parents make the decisions."

Asked specifically about if a loss of federal funding would happen, Cuomo said no.

The opt-out movement in part was a response to Cuomo's push for a more stringent teacher evaluation system and the weight that students' test results hold in that evaluation system.

The governor's comments that it's up to parents whether kids take the test echo what he said in April as students were sitting out during testing. At the time, he said he didn't believe it had been communicated that Common Core-aligned test scores weren't going to be used in grade promotion decisions or put on students' permanent records.

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 08/24/2015 - 5:07pm

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

WMHT's Matt Ryan talks to Rep. Paul Tonko about the ongoing battle over the Obama administration's security agreement with Iran.

Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio and TU state editor Casey Seiler discuss the summer wooing of upstate and New York's high percentage of student test opt-outs.

Innovation Trail correspondent Jenna Flanagan talks to municipal leaders who worry that low inflation and the state's property tax cap could make for a fiscally challenging double-whammy.

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

Categories: State/Local

Skelos' daughter-in-law latest family arrest

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 08/24/2015 - 9:07am

ROCKVILLE CENTRE (AP) — The daughter-in-law of former state Senate leader Dean Skelos has been arrested following a dispute at her Long Island home.

An attorney for Ann Marie Skelos said Thursday that she pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges of attempted criminal mischief and criminal mischief in Nassau County District Court. She was released without bail.

Skelos is the wife of Adam Skelos.

He and his father pleaded not guilty earlier this year to federal corruption charges.

Attorney Dennis Lemke says Ann Marie Skelos was arrested outside her Rockville Centre home on Wednesday night following an argument.

She allegedly broke the eyeglasses of her 21-year-old nephew, David Hassett, during the scuffle.

Lemke says his client has no prior arrest history, and added Adam Skelos was in court to support his wife.

Categories: State/Local

David Sweat arraigned on prison break charges

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 08/24/2015 - 1:07am

ALBANY — David Sweat, the surviving prisoner who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in June and led police on a three-week manhunt, was arraigned on escape and contraband charges Thursday morning.

Sweat, who was being held at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, was brought to Clinton County court Thursday in Plattsburgh for arraignment on an indictment that accuses him of the June 6 escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Fellow escapee Richard Matt was shot and killed on June 26 by border patrol officers who found him in Malone.

"They committed a crime in Clinton County," District Attorney Andrew Wylie said. "It's my job as a prosecutor to prosecute people who commit crimes in Clinton County."

Wylie said Sweat was given no advance notice that he was being brought to Clinton County on Thursday. He was simply loaded into a prison van and brought north.

It was Sweat's first court appearance since the escape that captivated the country. More than 1,000 police officers and correction officers took part in the manhunt, searching for the two men's in the rugged Adirondack Mountains. The state believes the three-week manhunt cost over $20 million.

Sweat was arraigned by Judge Patrick R. McGill. He was represented by Joseph Mucia, a court-appointed lawyer. He was charged with two counts of escape in the first degree, and one count of promoting prison contraband in the first degree, according to court papers.

Wylie told reporters that Sweat, who was shot twice after a State Police sergeant spotted him near the Canadian border on June 28, seemed to still be recovering from his injuries. One of Sweat's arms was in a sling.

Previously, Wylie charged two prison staff.

Joyce Mitchell, a 51-year-old sewing instructor, has admitted providing tools that Matt and Sweat used to cut their way out of the Clinton Correctional Facility. She faces 2 1/3 to seven years in prison at sentencing Sept. 28.

Correction officer Gene Palmer has been charged with promoting prison contraband, accused of bringing Matt and Sweat tools that Mitchell hid in frozen meat. He has pleaded not guilty.

Sweat is already serving life without parole for killing a Broome County deputy.

Categories: State/Local

Man held in hoax bomb threat

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 08/24/2015 - 1:07am

New York

A man who used the name of a 1993 World Trade Center bombing conspirator and threatened to "blow up" the Statue of Liberty in April, forcing the evacuation of Liberty Island, has been arrested, federal authorities announced Wednesday.

Jason Paul Smith, who said in a 911 call he was Abdul Yasin, was arrested in Lubbock, Texas, where he's charged with conveying false and misleading information and hoaxes, authorities said.

Smith, of Harts, W. Va., who is not actually Yasin, identified himself as the only conspirator not to be captured in the 1993 bombing, and said he was an "ISI terrorist" when he called 911 from his iPad to say "that 'we' were preparing to 'blow up' the Statue of Liberty," FBI special agent Alexander Hirst wrote in a complaint filed in federal court in New York.

Smith, 42, could face up to five years in prison if convicted. A federal public defender hasn't returned a message seeking comment on the case.

More than 3,200 people were removed by boats following the April 24 call, and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to make a sweep of the island before officials determined there were no explosives. The statue reopened the next day.

Smith, who attended a school for the deaf and the blind, used a service for the hearing impaired to place the emergency call, Hirst wrote. Another 18 emergency calls were made Jan. 29-31 from an email address on his iPad, Hirst said.

On May 18, two other emergency calls made via the calling service for the hearing impaired — one threatening to "blow up a bridge at Times Square" and another threatening to kill officers at the Brooklyn Bridge — were made from an iPad at Smith's West Virginia address by a user who identified himself as an "Isis allah Bomb maker," Hirst wrote.

Smith has a history of making threats and was convicted in 2001 and in 2006 in Virginia on related charges, the complaint says. Authorities in Texas asked a federal judge on Monday for permission to search his girlfriend's single-story trailer home and his black Apple iPad, accoring to court papers.

Abdul Rahman Yasin was questioned extensively after the 1993 World Trade Center blast, which killed six people and injured 1,000 others, but a week later he fled to Amman, Jordan. He was indicted in August of that year and has been placed on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists.

Six Islamic extremists, including mastermind Ramzi Yousef, were convicted of carrying out the 1993 bombing, with Yousef defiantly proclaiming at his sentencing: "Yes, I am a terrorist and am proud of it." Yousef is the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo: Hudson tunnel a necessity

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 08/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that while there's consensus on the need to build a new Hudson River rail tunnel, the federal government needs to agree to pay "the lion's share" of the estimated $14 billion price tag.

Speaking on NY1, the Democratic governor said he is trying to "provoke" a conversation at the federal level about the need to pay for the tunnel. Recent delays on the existing century-old rail lines under the Hudson have highlighted the need for a new tunnel.

The New York governor did not attend a meeting about the tunnel Tuesday between New Jersey leaders and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. He said Wednesday that New York will pay its fair share, but only after Washington commits to paying most of the cost.

Foxx's spokesman, Jon Romano, noted the office has made it clear it would do "everything we could" to move the project forward. But he added that the only way to do that is through "the equitable distribution" of funding responsibility.

Romano added Cuomo has "made it clear" he has no interest in meeting with the agency.

"As the governor knows, the federal government doesn't just issue grants without a fully defined scope, project and applicant and at the present time, there isn't a fully defined project or applicant we can event grant the money to," Romano told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

"As commuters continue to endure serious daily challenges in this region, it's disappointing that this meeting hasn't happened yet," Romano said. "However, Secretary Foxx remains committed to meeting with Gov, Cuomo if and when he's ready."

Categories: State/Local
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