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Albany Times/Union

Small cigarette wholesalers accuse large companies of violating state tax laws

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY — A lawsuit filed this week accuses five of the state's largest tobacco wholesalers of giving secret rebates to customers to drive down competition as part of an alleged scheme which may have violated state laws that set minimum prices on cigarettes.

Five tobacco wholesale companies, many family-owned, filed the lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Kings County. Their complaint accuses the larger wholesalers — some based out of state — of "systemic violations" of a 1985 law that was intended to stabilize the cigarette industry and allow New York agents and dealers to compete with out-of-state companies that were able to sell cigarettes for much less.

The defendants are Harold Levinson Associates, Core-Mark Midcontinent, McLane/Midwest, McLane/Eastern, Plainfield Tobacco and Candy Co. (also known as Resnick Distributors), and Consumer Product Distributors (also known as Polep Distribution Services).

The companies that filed the lawsuit — Amsterdam Tobacco Co., Donohue Candy and Tobacco, Kingston Candy & Tobacco, Mountain Candy & Cigar, and Sunrise Candy & Tobacco — allege the larger wholesalers have "repeatedly violated (state law) by giving secret rebates to customers ... with the intent to harm competitors or destroy or substantially lessen competition."

Randall M. Fox, a Manhattan attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients have complained to state lawmakers about the allegedly illicit practices they contend have crushed their businesses. At least one state legislator relayed the complaints to the state tax department, he said.

"As far as I know, nothing's happened," Fox said. "Certainly nothing public has happened and nothing visible within the industry. It will be a good question to pose to the tax department."

Officials with the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. Officials for the five companies named as defendants in the complaint could not be reached for comment.

Fox said the fallout has been dramatic for the smaller wholesalers, who sell cigarettes mostly to convenience stores, gas stations and small grocers.

"It's been pretty horrific. They've lost large numbers of customers," he said, adding one of the companies, Amsterdam Tobacco, was forced to give up its New York cigarette licensing agent. "They could not stay in that business anymore. This is a company that's been around since 1924 ... and they're just getting squeezed."

Categories: State/Local

Defense assails Todd Howe as serial liar, con man

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

NEW YORK — Todd Howe snapped at the attorney for Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on Wednesday, saying he's "a bit insulted" to be accused of lying under oath to land a sweetheart deal as a government witness.

The now-disgraced former Albany lobbyist appeared reserved but clearly annoyed while being grilled by Barry Bohrer, the lawyer defending Percoco, as he and three co-defendants stand trial on corruption charges in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

"You became an honest man right around the time you signed that agreement, correct?" Bohrer asked Howe, who took the stand Monday.

"It was a time to step up and take responsibility. I have done nothing but tell the truth since I had my come-to-Jesus moment," Howe fired back. "I'm telling the truth because I have made horrible mistakes. I wrecked my career. I damaged my family. I lost my associates that are in this room."

Howe added: "I find it a bit insulting that you say the only reason I told the truth was for a get-out-of-jail-free card because that's not true, counselor."

"Finished?" Bohrer responded.

Bohrer was the first of four defense attorneys who plan to demolish the credibility of Howe, a key prosecution witness against Percoco and three businessmen who allegedly paid him more than $300,000 in bribes.

Bohrer questioned Howe about emails he altered. The lawyer continually suggested to Howe that he altered the emails to make himself look better, which rankled Howe. Still, he admitted altering many of the emails; other times he said he could not recall whether he did.

In one case, Howe admitted altering an email to make it appear to his boss that Percoco told him Cuomo wanted him to read the "riot act" to someone.

"That just wasn't true?" Bohrer asked.

"Correct," Howe responded.

Howe admitted he altered emails involving correspondence with Cuomo, the governor's since-deceased father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Bill Mulrow, secretary to the governor.

Howe, whose connections to the Cuomo administration made him a valuable tool for companies with business before the state pleaded guilty in September 2016 to eight felonies related to his role in the crimes alleged against the defendants as well as embezzling from his former employers, the Albany-based law firm Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, and committing tax fraud.

Bohrer seemed to mock Howe's prior account of his having the "come-to-Jesus moment" in which he recognized the need to become an "honest person," plead guilty to his crimes and assist in the prosecution of his alleged co-conspirators — "the best thing for me and my family," Howe said.

Prosecutors have noted that if Howe lies on the stand, he'll himself at risk of both perjury charges and the shredding of a cooperation agreement that could reduce his eventual sentence. The crimes he pleaded guilty to carry a cumulative sentence of 130 years.

Bohrer wasted no time in establishing Howe's years of lying to friends and employers, and living well beyond his ample financial means.

"Mr. Howe, are you an honest man?," Bohrer asked.

"I am today," he said.

Bohrer hammered away at Howe's lengthy history as a deadbeat, recounting at least a dozen cases in which he was sued by creditors — including mortgage lenders, relatives, lawyers, a health club and tradesmen hired to do renovations on homes he later lost to foreclosure. Howe confirmed that he stiffed even the family dog walker.

Wednesday's testimony revealed that Howe's wages were garnished after creditors with court judgments couldn't get him to pay up.

Bohrer also questioned Howe about answers he gave in a 2003 bankruptcy case, accusing him of concealing information and giving "a false answer ... under oath" in a deposition. He asked whether Howe had disclosed his testimony in the bankruptcy case to the U.S. attorney's office in 2016 when negotiating his cooperation agreement.

"Did you tell them you committed perjury in 2003?" Bohrer asked.

"I didn't even remember the deposition," Howe responded.

"Did the oath not mean anything to you, Mr. Howe?," Bohrer said, prompting an objection from prosecutors that the judge sustained.

Percoco is on trial alongside Peter Galbraith Kelly of Competitive Power Ventures and two executives at Syracuse-based COR Development, Steve Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, for allegedly trading official favors for bribes.

Much of the information Howe provided during his questioning by the prosecution was supported by emails and other documents that showed Percoco's appeals to Howe to find a source of income for his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco. Prosecutors say the $90,000-per-year salary provided to her by Competitive Power Ventures, which was developing a gas-fired plant in Orange County, was nothing more than an attempt to camouflage the illicit payments.

Bohrer noted Howe downloaded an app to delete texts from his cellphone after authorities raided his home and took another one of his phones. And he asked Howe if his lawyer threatened Howe's former employer, Whiteman, Osterman &  Hanna, with "grave reputational consequences" after the firm fired him from his lobbying job.

"You had lived a life over the past decade or more of telling lies, right?" Bohrer asked.

"Yes," Howe said.

Categories: State/Local

Photos: Hearst Media Center roundtable with lawmakers

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

The Hearst Media Center hosted Capital Region lawmakers and Times Union journalists for "Capitol Confidential Issues Roundtable: State Lawmakers," an evening of fast-paced small group discussions on state policy issues Tuesday in Colonie.

Categories: State/Local

Chief judge: State courts are getting more efficient

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY — New York’s courts are getting more efficient and are experimenting with new ideas, or the renewal of old ones such as sending opioid addicts to treatment rather than prison.

At the annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced a series of court reforms and gave an update on her Excellence Initiative, an effort to grapple with the perennial problem of heavy caseloads and the resulting backlog in the state’s criminal court system.

The state’s judicial administration went after the goal by reworking court processes and reassigning judges to expand our trial capacity, DiFiore said.

“I am pleased to report that outside New York City our cases are being resolved more efficiently and promptly, and our backlogs are shrinking rapidly,” she said. “In New York City, we have made significant progress in many of our highest-volume courts, and our leadership team has made operational changes to set the stage for further improvement in those courts where we need to do better.”

Outside the five boroughs, the number of misdemeanors in backlog fell 28 percent. In New York City’s court system, the number of old misdemeanors awaiting resolution fell 61 percent.

There was similar progress in old felony cases, with the backlog outside of New York City falling 53 percent. The system in the city is still weighed down by the sheer number of cases, DiFiore said, but it did fall in some boroughs.

Much of the credit to the reduction in the felony caseload is due to the use of Superior Court "informations," in which defendants waive their right to prosecution by indictment, DiFiore said. In those cases, the district attorney essentially lays out the evidence against the defendant and the defendant can either take a plea deal or go to trial.

The state also saw a drop in the number of civil and family court cases awaiting resolution.

DiFiore used the speech to advocate for criminal justice reform, calling it, “an absolute imperative” for the state’s courts. She praised the changes Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed during last month's State of the State address to overhaul the state’s bail and speedy trial laws.

But she also said any changes must not compromise defendants’ rights or public safety.

DiFiore highlighted new ways of dealing with opioid addiction. In May, the state opened an opioid intervention court in Buffalo where defendants who are identified as having a high risk for opioid overdose can agree to go to an intensive 90-day treatment program rather than prison. Their prosecutions are suspended while they’re in treatment.

Since the program began, only one of the 204 defendants died from an overdose, DiFiore said. The next step is to form a statewide plan to guide the state’s courts in more effective responses for addicted defendants, she said.

"Here in New York State we are adjusting our court processes to reflect our belief that justice without compassion can be unacceptably cruel," she said.

There is a similar program in the Bronx for misdemeanor offenders at high risk for overdose. In that program, prosecution is suspended for defendants who enter treatment; if they complete the program and don’t commit any other crimes while in treatment, the original case is dismissed.

The approach is eventually going to be expanded to the entire city, DiFiore said.

DiFiore also touched on the state’s approximately 18,000 16- and 17-year-olds who will be tried in family court rather than criminal court under the recent "Raise the Age" initiative.

“We are pleased and excited that New York is finally putting the focus where it should be: ... Helping young people stay on track for productive lives,” she said.

Categories: State/Local

Senate Democrats unveil anti-gun violence package

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY — State Senate Democratic leaders unveiled a series of bills Tuesday they said are intended to help combat gun violence, including prohibiting the possession of equipment such as bump stocks that increase the firing capacity for certain weapons like the one used in last year's mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The legislative measures would also ban people convicted of even low-level hate crimes from purchasing firearms; allow courts to order the seizure of guns from individuals who are at risk of harming themselves or others; strengthen background checks for people who are authorized to sell firearms, and prohibit possession of firearms that cannot be detected by security screening devices.

"Just over one month into the New Year and there have already been 30 confirmed mass shootings in America ... we have to say that enough is enough and that this madness really has to stop,” Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, referring to shooting incidents that involve more than one victim. "Studies have proven that states like New York, with strong firearms safety laws, have fewer gun-caused deaths. We should be an example to the nation."

The coalition of Democratic senators called on the Legislature to immediately pass the bills and for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign them into law. A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, said one of the proposed bills would close a federal loophole that allows the sale of a firearm to someone prior to completion of their background check if it's not completed within three days. Gianaris said the measure would extend that deadline to 10 business days.

"There have been over 300,000 instances in this country, last year, where people did not get the background check completed, and that is a glaring loophole in the law," Gianaris said. "What is so urgent that someone needs to have a gun in a 10-day period?"

The legislative package would also call for the creation of a Firearm Violence Research Institute to study causes of gun violence and develop preventative strategies. Another bill in the package would criminalize the failure to properly store a weapon that is unintentionally used to cause the death of a person.

Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, said incidents of gun violence in Brooklyn are a daily occurrence, "and something that is not getting better over time."

"This conference supports the Second Amendment," he said. "We understand that there is a long tradition of hunting and shooting ... but we certainly understand the morale obligation that we have as a Democratic conference to address the needs of safety."

Categories: State/Local

Todd Howe details efforts to funnel money to top

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

NEW YORK — Tuesday's testimony at the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was all about the ziti.

"Need 7500 boxes of ziti," Percoco wrote in a 2012 email to lobbyist Todd Howe, using a euphemism for money that Percoco borrowed from the HBO crime drama "The Sopranos."

The $7,500 referred to the monthly salary his wife, a former schoolteacher, gave up when the family moved from Staten Island to an elegant home in suburban Westchester County.

Peter Galbraith Kelly of Competitive Power Ventures — dubbed "fatso" by Howe and Percoco — became the ziti source they were looking for: Kelly arranged a $90,000-per-year job for Lisa Toscano Percoco without any sort of job interview, Howe testified Tuesday in federal court.

Lisa Percoco’s job was sealed over dinner in November 2012 when Kelly was eager to secure a power purchase agreement from the Cuomo administration his firm believed was needed to get financing for its controversial gas-fired power plant in Orange County.

Howe and Percoco referred to their collaboration as "Operation Fat Man."

Howe, who is cooperating with the prosecution after pleading guilty to eight felonies, was back on the witness stand to answer questions from prosecutors in the federal corruption trial of Percoco and Kelly as well as two Syracuse businessmen, Steve Aiello and Joseph Gerardi of COR Development. The defendants are charged with paying Percoco to monetize the influence he wielded as the governor's executive deputy secretary.

The prosecution introduced a November 2012 email in which Howe wrote that Percoco was "freaking" over the slow pace of the lobbyist's efforts to find a second stream of income for his household through a job for his wife. Prosecutors have introduced evidence showing the Percocos were at the time facing serious financial problems after moving to Westchester in 2011.

When his wife's salary didn't appear by the middle of December 2012, Percoco appealed to Howe, who wrote back, "Ziti gets cleared on the 15th ... Merry Christmas."

"Down to the wire Herb," Percoco wrote back, using their nickname for one another that had its origins in their early careers as members of Gov. Mario Cuomo's administration.

When the money didn't show up by Dec. 18, Percoco wrote back to Howe: "Nothing in the mail Herb."

After a call from Howe, Kelly arranged for the check to be hand-delivered to the Percoco's house the next day.

Lisa Percoco was paid by CPV through a Connecticut-based LLC run by Chris Pitts, ostensibly to assist in the company's educational initiative. Prosecutors, however, have called it a "low-show" job intended to mask the company's efforts to bribe Percoco.

After Cuomo's Director of State Operations Jim Malatras canceled a meeting with CPV and handed company officials off to a lower-level official, Howe asked Percoco to soothe the businessman, reaching out to him in an email with the subject line "Don't Burn the Ziti."

By the summer of 2014, Percoco — who had resigned from the Executive Chamber to run Cuomo's re-election campaign — was once again pressing Howe to find him fresh sources of income.

Percoco responded to an email from Howe who was on vacation by saying "Enjoy your vacation. I will send my kids in the back yard with the garden hose."

By that time, Howe was allegedly working to tap the COR Development executives for payments. Prosecutors claim $35,000 was provided to Percoco from COR via checks sent to Howe's side company, Potomac Strategies LLC.

Howe was facing his own cash crunch after years of living beyond his means and embezzling from his employer, the powerful Albany-based law and lobbying firm Whiteman Osterman & Hanna.

Howe hooked up with COR after former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young, who is close to the Cuomo family suggested on election night in 2010 that he could help the developers get state assistance with projects they wanted to do, including redevelopment of the city's Inner Harbor area.

The company wanted to avoid a labor-peace agreement, with construction unions that Empire State Development officials said was needed to get grants.

Howe said he convinced COR to hire him to advise the company how to best use campaign contributions, which are legal, as "leverage" in getting government help.

He noted that COR, as a well-known development firm, was constantly besieged with requests for donations from politicians across the state.

Howe's strategy was to reward helpful elected officials with contributions and punish those who opposed their projects by withholding money, he said.

COR also worked to curry favor with the Cuomo administration, putting on a fundraiser in a garage full of Corvettes owned by a COR partner, Jeff Aiello. A cousin of Steve Aiello, Jeff was a Corvette enthusiast as is Cuomo.

Howe also had Aiello make donations through limited liability corporations that were hard to trace and didn't have COR's name on them. "I didn't want the press to look at the contributors list and see COR," testified Howe. Such donations are legal in New York State although reformers have tried to ban the use of LLCs.

Howe also worked to shield from view the payments that Joe Percoco got working with COR by having checks made out to Percoco's wife for "labor assistance," although he said she didn't actually do that.

After Howe's testimony for the prosecution, defense attorneys in their cross-examination are expected to question him closely about the crimes he has admitted to and his years of lying about them and exploiting friends and colleagues for profit.

Categories: State/Local

AG files lawsuit over non-delivery of Niskayuna baseball photos

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY — State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has filed a lawsuit against a Capital Region sports photographer accused of collecting thousands of dollars from Niskayuna parents for youth sports -league photos but never delivering them.

The lawsuit alleges that Robert Dungan, doing business as GND Studios LLC and Big League Pics, took team and individual player photos for the Niskayuna baseball and softball leagues last May, but never provided the photos or refunds.

After Dungan failed to deliver the photographs, he provided several assurances to the attorney generals office –in addition to league officials and other parents – that he would deliver the photos or give refunds. But Schneiderman's office said Dungan did not follow through on his promises.

Big League Pics allegedly collected thousands of dollars from parents for a variety of photography packages ranging in price from about $18 to $49.

The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Albany, seeks restitution, as well as a permanent injunction against Dungan from engaging in the photography business within New York until he files a $25,000 performance bond.

Dungan, whose company based in Scotia remains in business, issued a statement late Tuesday saying his small business relied on an outside vendor to create the specialized photos but that company went out of business after he shot the photographs.

"Big League Pics has not photographed any sports league since this situation, we are a small business that got in over our heads when we lost our vendor," he said. "Please note that anyone that requested a refund from their credit card company received it, no charge backs were contested and Big League Pics donated trophies, raffle tickets and bicycles to Niskayuna baseball costing over $1,000 during the season."

Dungan, who has done freelance work for the Times Union and photographed numerous local sports teams, said he has "located another vendor and is working to get the photos processed."

Schneiderman's office said consumers who believe they have been victimized by Dungan or GND Studios, may file a complaint online with the attorney general's office or call (800) 771-7755.

Categories: State/Local

State Assembly passes DREAM Act

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY — The state Assembly on Monday passed its version of the DREAM Act, which provides college financial aid for children of undocumented immigrants.

"The Assembly majority recognizes that immigrants are a vital thread in the social and economic fabric of our state," Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement released before the chamber began to vote on the measure. "It is fundamentally and economically misguided to deny students who were educated in our state's public school system the tools they need to reach their academic potential and fully contribute to our state's economy."

The DREAM Act is touted as a way to help ease the cost of higher education for children of immigrants in New York by eliminating obstacles to obtaining state financial aid for undocumented students.

Under the proposal, those students would be eligible for general awards, performance-based awards, or the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funds if they meet certain criteria — such as having attended an approved in-state high school for two or more years, graduated from such a school and applied to an in-state college or university within five years of receiving their high school diploma.

Students who received a qualified state high school equivalency diploma, or were otherwise eligible for in-state tuition at SUNY, CUNY or community colleges would also be eligible.

"Today we stand with the DREAMERs, these students, many of whom were brought here through no fault of their own and know no other home than this country, are being denied access to the most basic resources they need to climb the economic ladder," Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa said.

The measure passed 89-42.

Assemblyman Brian Miller, R-Oneida County, was among those who opposed the bill. "The state's tax burden is due to the fact that New York has become the land of the handout," Miller said in a statement. "I cannot and will not accept this practice and neither should our residents."

Ballston Republican member Mary Beth Walsh, another no vote on the bill, said Democrats had "yet again chosen to prioritize the needs of illegal immigrants over legal residents."

While the Democrat-dominated Assembly has passed the measure regularly, it has only been voted on once in the Republican-controlled state Senate, where it was defeated in 2014 by two votes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement late Monday praising the Assembly Democrats and urging the Senate to also approve the bill.

"While Washington takes aim at immigration and holds DACA recipients hostage, it is more important than ever that New York protects our immigrants and upholds the values embodied by the Lady in Our Harbor," Cuomo said.

Categories: State/Local

Howe: Percoco 'a brother,' and a business ally

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

NEW YORK — Todd Howe called Joe Percoco "the closest thing to a brother I ever had," and an ally whose influence over state government proved beneficial to Howe's lobbying business.

So when Percoco called him in 2012 and asked if Howe could think of any clients who might be interested in hiring his wife, Howe reached out to an executive whose company had extensive business before the state.

A former Albany insider now working as a groundskeeper at an Idaho golf course, Howe made his long-awaited appearance Monday on the witness stand at the Manhattan trial of Percoco, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's former executive deputy secretary, and three development executives charged with swapping cash for official favors.

Howe, who has already pleaded guilty to eight felonies, opened his testimony by taking questions about the hiring of Lisa Toscano Percoco to work on an education initiative run by Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), which has been developing a controversial gas-fired power plant in Orange County. Percoco's wife earned an annual salary of $90,000 for what prosecutors have described as a "low-show" job.

Howe said he made his 2012 outreach to CPV's Peter Galbraith Kelly, who told the lobbyist he was familiar with such arrangements, and had previously hired a union leader's daughter.

The three men — who had initially met on an August 2010 fishing trip off Montauk, Long Island —discussed the hiring during a dinner at an Italian restaurant in Danbury, Conn.

"My understanding was that (Kelly) wanted Joe to be an advocate — his eyes and ears in the governor's office," Howe said, noting that the company at the time was seeking state approval for a power purchase agreement that was key to the Orange County project's success.

At dinner, Percoco told Kelly he would "stay on top of the power-purchase agreement," Howe said.

That didn’t go smoothly, though, according to a series of emails that prosecutor Janis Echenberg showed the jury.

During the period before and after Cuomo’s 2010 election, CPV was making no progress in securing the power purchase agreement from the state, which Kelly had said was needed to get financing for the plant.

As the development slowly moved forward, Percoco sent Howe a series of increasingly insistent emails regarding the slow pace of Kelly's effort to find his wife a job to help pay for their new Westchester County home. Lisa Percoco had left her New York City teaching job when they moved from Staten Island; she was unable to find a job in Westchester.

Percoco initially wanted Kelly to help her land a teaching job in Connecticut, where Kelly lived and was politically active.

“Herb, nail down this issue,” Percoco urged in an email to Howe, using the nickname they used for each other. "Need to talk," read another.

“Joe was getting increasingly impatient,” Howe said of the note. Joe Percoco, though, wanted “to try and stay as removed as possible” from the efforts due to the appearance of a conflict.

Howe at the same time was consumed with financial problems of his own, due to what he said were years of living beyond his means despite a six-figure income managing a Washington, D.C.-based offshoot of the Whiteman Osterman & Hanna law firm in Washington D.C.

Howe also received a second secret retainer on his own through an LLC he created, Potomac Strategies, that he concealed from his bosses at WOH.

In this side agreement, Howe collected a $50,000 payment and a $9,000 monthly fee from CPV.

Howe disclosed he had several such clients — all hidden from WOH — over the years. “I had a dozen or so clients on the outside,” he said.

Howe also admitted that he had falsified emails from Percoco to Kelly to make it seem that Percoco, after Cuomo’s 2010 election as governor, was more focused on CPV than he actually was.

Eventually, it became apparent that Kelly couldn’t get Percoco’s wife a job in the Connecticut schools, despite his political muscle. “It was too rigid and too difficult to penetrate,” Howe said.

So Kelly ended up offering her a job with CPV.

Monday’s testimony pointed to the complicated but two-faced relationships that Howe maintained, especially with Kelly. As well as altering email chains, he referred to the executive as the “fat man” behind his back.

Lawyers for Percoco and co-defendant Steven Aiello at different points raised issues with emails that Howe had sent which included misogynistic and anti-Semitic remarks about various people. Stephen Coffey, who is representing Aiello, said he wanted those emails entered into evidence.

“We’re trying to prove that he’s deceptive,” Coffey said of Howe.

Judge Valerie Caproni, though ruled against that. “None of the defendants are women, none of the defendants are Jewish,” she said.

The three defense teams made it clear in their opening arguments two weeks ago that Howe's history of lies and corrupt business practices will be made plain to the jury during multiple cross-investigations. Howe acknowledged on the stand Monday that he was hopeful his cooperation with the prosecution would reduce his eventual sentence.

Prosecutors have noted that if Howe lies on the stand, his cooperation agreement will be invalidated.

Howe and Percoco’s relationship with one another as well as their ties to Cuomo go back to their work for the administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo. Howe said that Percoco, whose own father had died young, had an "intimate and personal" relationship with the elder Cuomo, who served as governor from 1983 through 1994.

"He asked for help, and I did whatever I could to help," Howe said of Percoco.

But Howe also said his efforts to find streams of income for the Percoco household was also intended to stay in favor with the Andrew Cuomo's right-hand man and 2014 campaign manager. "It was important for me professionally," Howe said.

Howe also described how he solicited $35,000 in payments to Percoco from COR Development, a Syracuse-based firm whose executives Aiello and Joe Girardi are defendants in the case. Howe said he passed along those sums as checks to Lisa Percoco in two increments, $20,000 and $15,000.

Howe said Percoco used the term "ziti" for the alleged bribes, borrowing the phrase from the HBO crime drama "The Sopranos."

Howe also explained the genesis of the nickname "Herb," which the two men used for each other in many of their email communications. The term began as a joke at the expense of 1990 Republican gubernatorial candidate Herb London, after Howe quipped that it was hard to take anybody with such a bad toupee seriously.

Howe said the term became an in-house joke among former members of Mario Cuomo's administration — although Howard Glaser, an association of Howe and Percoco who rose to become Andrew Cuomo's state operations director, was called "Herbert" because of his Harvard degree.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Todd Howe, crucial witness in Percoco bribery case, expected to testify this week

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

Disgraced lobbyist Todd Howe’s testimony at Joseph Percoco’s bribery trial may shatter a “house of lies” this week.

Exactly whose house depends on your point of view in the case.

Howe, a former well-connected lobbyist with a history of struggling to tell the truth and manage his own finances, is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness in the case against Percoco and three development executives. In the first day of the two-week-old trial, both the prosecution and defense attorneys painted a picture of a man whose credibility, or lack thereof, is at the crux of their cases.

Percoco, whose post as the governor's former executive deputy secretary came with a reputation as a political enforcer, is charged with taking $300,000 in bribes to secure contracts or state action that would advance projects.

Assistant U.S. District Attorney Robert L. Boone made it plain to the jury in his opening statement that Howe’s testimony, not his ethics, is what matters.

“(Howe) will take you inside both conspiracies and he will tell you exactly what happened,” he said. “We are not asking you to like Todd Howe. We are not asking you to approve of the way he has chosen to live his life.”

Percoco’s attorney, Barry A. Bohrer, didn’t hide his strategy either, playing up Howe’s unusual middle name, long history of defaulting on contractor payments and repeatedly calling the government’s case, “Howe’s house of lies.”

“…Todd Ransom Howe has a below zero interest in the truth,” Bohrer said. “Todd Ransom Howe lived by the expression, ‘A lie is as good as the truth, as long as you stick to it’."

While most of the allegations at the trial have centered on the role of Percoco and whether he accepted bribes for state action, the other main character in the case is Howe.

The two men have a long history together, going back to the administration of former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Howe was the elder Cuomo’s ever-present “body man”and hired Percoco to work on the campaign. Howe then worked for Andrew Cuomo at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development before going in to the private sector, eventually landing with Whiteman Osterman Hanna, one of the largest and most politically connected lobbying and law firms in Albany.

Howe pleaded guilty in September 2016 to eight felonies and has been cooperating since then in the prosecution of Percoco, Peter Braith Kelly Jr., Steve Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, as well as another defendant who will face trial in the spring. Aiello and Gerardi are executives at COR Development, a Syracuse-based company. Kelly works for Competitive Power Ventures, an energy company.

His testimony is expected to bolster the prosecution’s theories because — according to the complaints — he arranged for connections, payments through shell companies and more.

Percoco is alleged to have helped Competitive Power Ventures — which has for years been building a controversial gas-fired power plant in Orange County. In exchange for Percoco’s help, Kelly Jr. allegedly paid more than $287,000 to Percoco in part by providing his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, with a "low-show" job developing an educational curriculum. Toscano-Percoco does not face charges.

Aiello and Gerardi were charged with arranging for about $35,000 in payments for help with economic development matters.

Both companies were generous donors to Cuomo's earlier campaigns. And both companies received their introduction to Percoco through Howe.

Cuomo has not been accused of any wrong-doing. When the criminal complaint against the defendants was unveiled in September 2016, Cuomo said that if the allegations were true, "I am saddened and profoundly disappointed."

Percoco's trial will be followed later this year by the trial of Alain E. Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic, and development executives from Syracuse and Buffalo. The eight defendants in both trials have pleaded not guilty.

Categories: State/Local

N.Y.C. mayor heads to Albany

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

Albany

In New York state government news, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio heads to the state Capitol, the race for governor gets off to a testy start and lawmakers mount another effort to rein in money in politics.

A look at stories making news:

De Blasio's journey

De Blasio will make his annual trip to Albany on Monday to testify at a legislative hearing on municipal government. Expect fireworks as legislative critics use the opportunity to criticize the Democrat, one of the Republicans' favorite political targets.

Last year, the mayor faced withering criticism for the city's plan — later blocked by lawmakers — to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags. The year before he was forced to come to Albany twice to defend the state law giving him control over his city's schools.

This year's questions are likely to focus on the city's contribution to its beleaguered subway system, which needs billions of dollars' worth of repairs and upgrades. Lawmakers, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio have all sought to avoid blame for the problem, which is decades in the making.

Campaign finance

It's deja vu for Senate Democrats, who will again call for an overhaul of the state's notoriously lax campaign finance rules. The proposals are likely doomed — again — in the GOP-led Senate.

The proposals would lower overall campaign donation limits, cap soft-money contributions at $25,000, create a public financing system for state campaigns and create new criminal penalties for public officials who steer government contracts to themselves, relatives or business partners. The Democrats say they'll also push legislation to close the loophole that allows wealthy interests to anonymously dump almost unlimited amounts of cash into campaigns by creating limited liability companies.

None of these are new ideas, and most have wide support among good-government groups that blame the state's porous campaign finance rules for much of its reputation for corruption. But they're still not likely to pass in the Senate.

Categories: State/Local

Contraband seizures up; guards say danger lurks

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

Albany

The union representing New York correction officers says new security methods are needed to reduce the amount of contraband smuggled into state prisons, while prison officials say more prohibited items are being seized than ever before.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said this week that the number of incidents involving contraband at the state's 54 prisons more than doubled over the last decade, from 2,540 incidents in 2008 to 5,231 incidents last year.

The agency said its efforts are helped by new technology, including a device that can detect small cellphones someone may be trying to smuggle to an inmate. It said the number of K-9 drug detection and interdiction units assigned to prisons has nearly doubled.

"Staff has done a great job at searching for and identifying contraband before it gets into a facility, and the department continues to invest in additional tools to battle the problem," Department of Corrections spokesman Thomas Mailey said.

But the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said the state's current contraband protocols aren't sufficiently curtailing attempts to smuggle drugs and weapons into correctional facilities. The union said "urgent measures" are needed, but it didn't provide any recommendations.

"Contraband introduced into prisons continues to be a growing issue and presents dangerous and even life-threatening situations for correctional staff," union president Michael Powers said.

On Tuesday, correctional officers inspecting inmate packages at the medium-security Bare Hill Correctional Facility in northern New York found 11 grams (0.4 ounces) of synthetic marijuana and 46 individually wrapped scalpel blades stuffed into green peppers, the union said. The discovery was just one of more than 300 contraband incidents last month involving incoming packages that were either mailed or taken to a prison by an inmate visitor, it said.

Categories: State/Local

Multi-year effort to increase broadband access is moving forward

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

ALBANY - By this time in 2019, just about every residence in New York should have the ability to receive broadband internet thanks in part to a $500 million project, funded by a series of state grants, that is entering its final stage.

Most should have fiberoptic cables. But even the most remote homes could be connected through an innovative program to bring satellite dishes to people as well.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier in the week traveled to Plattsburgh to announce the final $209.7 million in awards from the three-year old New NY Broadband initiative.

The plan is to make broadband available to those who don’t have it by putting up $500 million in state funds to help spur private investment. Telecommunications firms then competed for the grants, based on their cost to install the cables.

That along with private investments, and another $170 million in federal dollars, should pay for almost 99 percent of the state to be reachable by broadband.

The latest batch of grants will provide access for more than 122,000 homes in the so-called last mile, or areas that are far enough from existing broadband sources that telecom providers couldn’t historically justify the cost to connect.

Many of these people have relied on outdated DSL or dial-up lines through copper phone cables for their internet connections, or costly cell phone links.

Last mile customers are scattered across much of upstate, with a lot in the Adirondacks and other sparsely-populated spots like the Catskills.

And there are still plenty of areas around the Capital Region that remain unserviced, as evidenced by the companies receiving grants to put in broadband connections in the area.

That includes smaller, traditional local phone companies like Middleburgh Telephone and larger players such as Verizon, as well as those who serve vast rural areas like Slic Network Solutions.

That St. Lawrence County-based firm is planning to bring broadband to parts of Washington and Warren counties, said CEO Kevin Lynch.

For places where even a subsidized line isn’t feasible, state officials say the program will subsidize the installation of satellite dishes. One of the participants, Hughes Network Systems, plans to make more than 72,000 dishes available at a fraction of the cost, which usually runs several hundred dollars.

They have recently launched a new satellite that increases their speed to the minimum 25 megabits per second required for the program. Most connections are supposed to run at 100 mbps. For comparison, copper wire dial-up speeds run at a fraction of that.

There are some caveats to the project, though.

Even though participants are supposed to finish wiring homes by the end of 2018, they can seek waivers giving them another year, noted Robert Puckett, president of the state Telecommunications Association. It wasn’t immediately clear if or how many waivers have been sought so far.

People who live in rural areas say they are hopeful that the improvements will come sooner rather than later.

“I would call me cautiously optimistic,” said Kim Grethen of North Chatham in Columbia County, 22 miles south of Albany where people still rely on dial-up service.

She had previously been on an advisory committee to look at how to bring faster internet service to her community. 

Rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Adirondack Park Agency OKs compromise for Boreas Ponds Tract

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:07pm

SARANAC LAKE — After years of public debate, the Adirondack Park Agency voted 8-1 on Friday to approve a classification for the Boreas Ponds Tract that splits it into two main categories, Wilderness and Wild Forest.

Most environmental groups applauded the decision, characterizing it as a compromise that will protect the ponds, streams, wetlands and mountain slopes on the 20,543-acre tract while giving the public reasonable access.

With the decision, the lands north of two former logging roads — all told, 11,412 acres — will be Wilderness. The lands south of the roads, 9,118 acres, will be Wild Forest. The main difference between the two classifications is that motors and bicycles are banned in Wilderness but allowed in Wild Forest.

The Boreas Ponds themselves will be managed as motor-free Wilderness. However, the agency also approved a Wild Forest corridor (along a dirt road) that ends just a tenth of a mile from the ponds.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation expects to build a small parking area at the end of the corridor. This will enable the disabled (and perhaps others) to drive in almost seven miles on the old logging roads.

The parking area would accommodate only a half-dozen or so cars. The main parking area will be farther from the ponds. Its exact location will be determined by DEC when the department drafts a unit management plan later this year.

In addition, the APA classified eleven acres near the south end of Boreas Ponds as Primitive. This will allow DEC to drive to the dam at the foot of the ponds for maintenance.

Except for the Wild Forest corridor and the Primitive Area, the classification is similar to proposals supported by most of the Adirondack Park's environmental groups, including the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and Protect the Adirondacks. All three groups say they are satisfied with the agency's decision.

"Sometimes compromise is a dirty word. In this case, it's not," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of ADK.

Spokesmen for Adirondack Wild and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, however, criticized the decision. Both groups wanted the APA to classify the entire tract as Wilderness and forbid all motorized access.

Addressing the board after the vote, Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild called the decision "a historic compromise for the wrong reason." He asserted that most people who attended or spoke at public hearings in 2016 favored full Wilderness, and he chastised the agency for failing to consider this option.

His message to the many young people who advocated for Wilderness: "Don't give up. These lands can be reclassified."

The lone dissenter on the board was Chad Dawson, a nationally recognized expert on wilderness management. He also faulted the agency for not putting a full-Wilderness option on the table.

Dawson said he felt obligated to speak up for people who value wilderness even if they will never visit it. Many people, he said, take comfort in just knowing wilderness still exists in some places on the planet. "If there's something that gives people hope, I'm for it," he said.

After the meeting, Dawson clarified his position: "I'm not in favor of the all-Wilderness idea, but I'm in favor of reviewing it."

Also Friday, the board voted unanimously to approve classifications for 99 other parcels scattered around the Park, most of them fairly small. Three of the larger parcels are the MacIntyre West, MacIntyre East, and Casey Brook tracts. Like Boreas Ponds, all or most of these three tracts will be incorporated into the High Peaks Wilderness.

DEC plans to combine the High Peaks and Dix Mountain Wilderness Areas. The merger was made possible by the acquisition of the Casey Brook Tract, which abuts both existing Wilderness Areas. The expanded High Peaks Wilderness will encompass about 275,000 acres, making it the third largest Wilderness Area east of the Mississippi River.

The state purchased Boreas Ponds, the two MacIntyre tracts, and the Casey Brook Tract from the Nature Conservancy.

Phil Brown is the editor of the nonprofit newsmagazine Adirondack Explorer. Read more at adirondackexplorer.org

Categories: State/Local

N.Y. Attorney General sues fentanyl maker over deceptive sales practices

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 5:07pm

ALBANY — A maker of a strong opioid medicine approved for excruciating cancer pain is being sued by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for allegedly deceptive marketing practices.

The company is accused of downplaying the drug's addictive properties, bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys and lying to healthcare insurance companies to evade their authorization processes.

The lawsuit against Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics seeks penalties against the company as well as up to $75 million in what the attorney general claims was illegally earned revenue from its fentanyl-based drug Subsys.

The complaint, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, alleges that Insys deceptively promoted Subsys in New York for unsafe uses and illegally downplayed the risks of becoming addicted to the powerful drug.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Subsys is an “extremely powerful and addictive opioid,” according to the lawsuit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it for “breakthrough pain” for cancer patients – severe pain that flares up even while someone is on another painkiller.

Insys “recklessly marketed” the drug for more uses than it was approved for, the attorney general’s office claims.

“At a time when the opioid epidemic was ravaging New York, Insys Therapeutics allegedly marketed a drug illegally by blatantly disregarding the grave risks of addiction and death that opioids pose,” Schneiderman said.

Fentanyl is perhaps best known as the white powder, sold illegally in a mix with heroin, that is driving an alarming number of overdose deaths in the state and the nation. But the manmade painkiller is administered legally by doctors during some surgical procedures or, as with Subsys, for severe breakthrough pain.

The FDA approved Subsys in 2012 specifically for treatment of breakthrough cancer pain in patients who had developed tolerance to other opioids. Insys, however, broadly marketed the drug to many types of patients and doctors, not just cancer specialists, as appropriate for episodes of mild pain, according to the attorney general.

The company also downplayed the drug’s addictiveness, directing its sales representatives to urge doctors to prescribe Subsys in high doses, which cost more than lower doses, according to the lawsuit. A 30-unit prescription of the lowest strength version of Subsys costs about $700; for the higher-strength version, the cost is over $3,500.

Sales reps also targeted medical offices with prescribers who had already been arrested for illegal distribution of opioids.

Another tactic used by the company, according to the attorney general, was to create a business unit devoted to securing prior authorization from health insurance plans for Subsys. The company trained its staff to imply that patients seeking authorization for insurance coverage had cancer pain, even when they did not.

Additionally, Insys allegedly bribed doctors to write prescriptions for Subsys by paying  company paid them $3,000-$5000 to act as “speakers” at sham promotional events, the lawsuit states.

Categories: State/Local

Businesswoman Chele Farley to challenge Gillibrand

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 3:07pm

ALBANY — Republican Chele Farley, who most recently served as New York City finance chair of the state party, on Thursday launched a run against U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is up for re-election to a second full term this fall.

Farley, a partner at the equity firm Mistral Capital, launched her effort with a video that borrowed an argument recently deployed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo: New York State pays roughly more in federal taxes ($40 billion in 2016, she noted) than it gets back in federal aid — money, Farley said, that could be used to rebuild state infrastructure and boost education, among other things.

"If you want further proof of the harm caused by Kirsten Gillibrand's self-serving priorities, consider the recently passed federal tax cuts," Farley says in the video. "Instead of cutting taxes for every small business and middle-class family, New York was one of the few states that was penalized. To me that's a clear example of how Kirsten Gillibrand's ineffectiveness is impacting all of us. And it's an insult to New York's middle-class families now struggling to find a good-paying job, afford higher housing costs and skyrocketing property taxes."

The tax plan, however, was crafted entirely by Republicans, and did not attract a single Democratic yes vote in either the House or Senate.

In the video, Farley accuses Gillibrand of boosting her national profile with hard-left rhetoric — an appearance on "The View" is prominently featured — at the expense of serving New Yorkers.

"Gillibrand has abandoned her moderate roots, and has moved as far left as possible to advance her own national political ambitions" Farley said in a statement that announced her launch. "She was known as Annie Oakley in the House and has turned into Jane Fonda in the Senate. People are fed up with the grandstanding, and the political opportunism. It happens on both sides of the aisle. It's hurting New York and needs to end now."

Farley's plans to challenge Gillibrand have been previewed for months; the New York Times reported that some in the party had urged her to think about running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though that idea was rebuffed.

Farley's husband, attorney Richard Farley, is a Democrat who proposed to her at a White House event in 2014, according to a narrative of their hurricane-challenged wedding that ran in Town & Country. She has extensive experience on the boards of several energy companies. A bio that accompanied her appointment as the GOP's New York City finance chair noted that her professional areas of expertise included energy and real estate.

Gillibrand, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, was appointed by former Gov. David Paterson to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2009, when Clinton was selected as Barack Obama's secretary of state. She held on to the seat in a 2010 special election and won her first full term in 2012, blowing out Republican Wendy Long (72-26 percent).

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo's payroll for income tax swap could alter Social Security

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 8:07am

ALBANY — Your Social Security payments may go down a bit, but you may also receive less upon retirement if a complex plan to deal with federal tax changes goes through in New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to offset the loss of federal tax deductions is still being finalized and is scheduled to be presented to lawmakers in the coming weeks.

By swapping employee-paid state income tax for a payroll tax funded by employers, the governor and his budget planners hope to circumvent the new $10,000 cap on federal deductibility of state and local taxes, including state income taxes.

The plan is complicated and has a lot of moving parts. And the latest twist may involve the impact of such a swap on the Social Security taxes that wage earners pay during their working years and collect in retirement.

It’s one of many factors to consider in such a tax swap and it shows how difficult that carrying out the plan may be.

Cuomo has repeatedly said that capping state and local tax deductions, known as SALT, would hurt the state budget. That’s because residents of areas with high local taxes such as Westchester, New York City and Long Island have long used deductions to offset those taxes. But the new cap on deductibility amounts to a substantial de facto tax increase for those downstate residents.

If wage earners had no state income taxes, that could go a long way to countering the loss of SALT. But to do that, employers would likely reduce their employees’ overall gross pay to fund their own higher payroll tax.

With lower gross pay, wage earners could also realize modest savings since they would pay lower proportionate Social Security taxes which are separate from federal income taxes.

But they would also collect less upon retirement.

“It’s going to hurt them a little bit when they start collecting,” said Charles Capetanakis, a CPA and tax attorney at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron.

A person earning the state median household income of $56,000, pays 6.62 percent in Social Security taxes, or $3,472. If gross earnings go down due to a swap, that could drop. While a welcome savings now, the individual could get less in their monthly Social Security check.

The precise amounts are subject to numerous variables and may not be life-changing for an individual.

Still, lots of people depend heavily on Social Security in their retirement years, Capetanakis noted.

Moreover, if one were to multiply it by millions of taxpayers, New York would be contributing less to the federal Social Security system. That, in turn, could invite scrutiny from Congress.

“In aggregate this is a much bigger concern and it just adds to the litany of policy questions that the Cuomo administration hasn’t answered,” said Nicole Kaeding, director of special projects at the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., organization that studies tax policies nationwide.

The Foundation has expressed doubts about the feasibility of Cuomo’s payroll/income tax swap due to its complexity.

Another wrinkle lies with New York’s vast public sector. A lower gross income to be offset by income tax changes could impact pensions. Public pensions in New York are based upon one’s wages and the number of years worked. Because the public sector is unionized, any decrease in gross pay would have to be collectively bargained.

“To the extent that employers would decrease (gross) wages all of those side effects would occur,” Kaeding said.

State budget and tax planners are aware of the issue and acknowledged it in their preliminary report from the Division of Taxation and Finance.

They acknowledge that it's "also important to note that any reduction in gross income could also affect eligibility for a number of governmental and non-governmental benefits and income-based calculations. These include pension benefits, Social Security benefits, and alimony and child support payments.”

The alimony part is notable, given that the recent Trump/GOP tax overhaul as of 2019 removes the deductibility of those payments for many people, said Barbara King, a matrimonial lawyer with the Tully Rinckey law firm.

“The spouse paying alimony will be unable to claim a deduction that could save thousands of dollars, and the spouse receiving alimony may receive less money as a result,” King said, adding that will likely complicate divorce settlements.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

State Rifle & Pistol group takes on New York's conceal-carry laws

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 6:07pm

ALBANY — The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of state regulations that prohibit many gun owners from carrying their firearms in public areas without judicial authorization.

Buoyed by a recent federal appeals court decision that dismantled strict gun-control laws in the District of Columbia, the lawsuit filed in Albany this week seeks to open up a court challenge on whether constitutional rights under the Second Amendment extend beyond the home.

"We’re going to try to get the courts, particularly in New York, to look at the Second Amendment as a right that extends to everybody no matter where they may be, with some restrictions," said Tom King, president of the roughly 35,000-member Rifle & Pistol Association.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Albany this week on behalf of Robert Nash, whose application for a conceal-carry permit was rejected two years ago by state Supreme Court Justice Richard C. McNally, Jr.

"A government restriction that limits the right to bear arms in public for the purpose of self-defense to only those few, favored citizens who can demonstrate that they face a special danger to their life effectively operates as a flat ban on the carrying of firearms by typical law-abiding citizens," the lawsuit states.

Nash requested his carry permit two years ago in a letter to McNally in which he cited a recent "string of robberies" in his Averill Park neighborhood.

"I have and continue to be a law abiding citizen of Rensselaer County," Nash wrote in the request to McNally in September 2016. "I have spent the last year and a half improving my proficiency with my pistol in a safe manner. My shooting continues to become more accurate the more I practice. My cousin Tim Osborn, a former marksman in the US Army, has been a big part of this working on handling techniques, sight alignment, stance, breathing techniques, and trigger control with me."

McNally, who gun owners say is very reluctant to issue conceal-carry permits, turned down Nash's application following a hearing that fall. He noted that Nash could still carry his pistol under limited circumstances, such as for hunting or in remote hiking areas.

"I emphasize that the restrictions are intended to prohibit you from carrying concealed in any location typically open to and frequented by the general public," McNally wrote.

Gun enthusiasts have criticized New York's conceal-carry laws as inconsistent and unfair. In some counties, judges routinely hand out the permits for qualified applicants while judges in other areas  grant very few. In New York City, conceal-carry permits are very rarely approved, and critics of the law claim those who do get them there usually have political connections.

"This is something that we’re very serious about," King said. "We’re prepared to move beyond the (U.S.) Second Circuit Court of Appeals if it’s not a decision in our favor."

In 2013, that same mid-level federal appeals court struck down a similar challenge to New York's conceal-carry laws. The U.S. Supreme Court declined a request to review the case, in which five New York residents filed a lawsuit after they had been denied permission to carry handguns in public. State officials said the conceal-carry laws are in line with the Second Amendment.

The Washington Post reported this week that "more than 800 people have asked the D.C. police for licenses to carry loaded concealed handguns" in the wake of the federal appeals court decision there.

McNally and State Police Superintendent George P. Beach II were listed as defendants in the lawsuit filed in Albany. Beach, as head of the State Police, "is responsible for executing and enforcing New York’s laws and regulations governing the carrying of firearms in public."

Categories: State/Local

NYSERDA now can sell Malta energy park piecemeal

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 6:07pm

ALBANY — State officials are now looking at selling off a Malta energy business park in pieces instead of  trying to find a buyer for the entire 280-acre site.

The Saratoga Technology + Energy Park (STEP) was created as a way for the state to turn a former federally operated weapons testing site into a high-tech business park geared toward renewable energy and semiconductor technologies. It is owned by the state Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which prior to the 1970s was known as the New York State Atomic and Space Development Authority.

STEP played an important role over the years as a landing spot for GlobalFoundries' first offices before it built its Fab 8 computer chip factory next door at the Luther Forest Technology Campus. It also served as the site of Hudson Valley Community College's Saratoga County satellite campus. But it has never lived up to the vision that NYSERDA and other state officials imagined for it.

Luther Forest, the 1,200-acre tech park that sits next to STEP, has failed to realize its initial goals of growing beyond GlobalFoundries. Both the land at STEP and at Luther Forest were once part of the Malta Test Station, a federal government rocket test bed created to assess technology developed or acquired in the wake of World War II and into the Cold War era.

Last spring, the NYSERDA board approved the sale of STEP through a state-run auction. But NYSERDA's general counsel, Noah Shaw, came back to the board earlier this month to ask its members to revise that decision and allow NYSERDA to sell off the park in pieces; Shaw also asked the board to grant the authority the power to negotiate directly with buyers instead of going through the state auction process.

"Some flexibility may be needed in order to maximize the return for the authority," Shaw told NYSERDA's board members.

Shaw didn't provide specifics, but NYSERDA board chairman Richard Kauffman, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's energy policy director, indicated that conclusion was based on "market feedback," likely from real estate or development professionals.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the change in strategy.

Three years ago, NYSERDA's board found itself embroiled in controversy over STEP when it was revealed that Cuomo's budget office had pushed NYSERDA to sell the tech park to SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany for the token sum of $1 to satisfy a multi-million-dollar state commitment to a SUNY Poly semiconductor research program that has since ended. At the time, STEP's appraised valued was $9 million.

In the past few months, the real estate market for land around GlobalFoundries, Luther Forest and STEP has appeared to warm up. One STEP building is used by the county's economic development arm, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, to land suppliers for Fab 8. There has also been talk that other parcels at Luther Forest and surrounding land could be redeveloped.

When Luther Forest was first developed for chip manufacturing, economic development officials imagined several companies like GlobalFoundries opening up factories at the site, with suppliers and related businesses also opening up offices at the park.

Since solar panel manufacturing and other semiconductor technology like LED systems are closely related to chip manufacturing, the state saw STEP as a logical landing spot for companies that could utilize the same suppliers. It was also anticipated that those firms would draw on a workforce trained at Hudson Valley Community College's TEC-SMART campus at the site.

Categories: State/Local

State workers have yet to collect money from $45M settlement

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 4:07pm

ALBANY — With little notice and no fanfare, New York State seven years ago agreed to a $45 million settlement with nearly 5,000 current and former African-American and Hispanic state workers who had alleged in a federal lawsuit that the civil service tests they needed for promotions were racially biased.

While most members of the plaintiff class received their share of the payout, there are still about 1,000 people who have yet to collect.

The list of those who can collect on the lawsuit, Simpson v. NYS Civil Service Commission, was recently transferred from the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who maintains an unclaimed funds account.

People can see whether they have any money coming at a website maintained by the Comptroller.

The uncollected funds are the latest chapter in a story that dates back more than two decades to when state employee Merton Simpson lodged a complaint regarding a test that state workers took for promotions. That led to the federal lawsuit.

Simpson, now an Albany County legislator, said he was surprised that so many plaintiffs have never collected their money.

“Oh, boy — I didn’t think there were that many,” Simpson said, referring those who have gone unpaid. “I’m surprised.”

Average payouts ranged between $7,000 and $20,000 depending on the civil service grade of the plaintiff before and after the tests.

Some received more if they had lost their jobs due to low test scores.

Under New York's civil service system, people can be hired into the state workforce on a provisional basis before taking the required exams or tests. But they are supposed to pass the test in order to remain employed.

The 11 main plaintiffs or class representatives, including Simpson, were to receive more than $100,000 each.

Simpson himself lost his job after filing the suit.

According to court papers, his bosses at the state accused him of trying to get information to which he was not entitled in order to augment his complaint.

The tests in question, known as "promotion test batteries," were given between 1996 and 2006.

The agreement was made at the end of Andrew Cuomo’s term as attorney general, before he took office as governor in 2011.

The state assumed no fault or liability, but agreed to pay $45 million over four years.

The annual payments of $11.25 million were to be split among 4,706 plaintiffs and their lawyers.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, Michael Sussman of Goshen and Willie Gary of Stuart, Fla.,  had urged the plaintiffs to settle.

Shortly before the agreement, they wrote that the proposed settlement is "the best we can obtain. The alternative of reaching no agreement poses substantial litigation risks, the prospect of years of additional delay and no guarantee of a better result."

They also added that the state at the time was under "uncommon economic distress” due to the aftereffects of the 2008 recession.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local