Albany Times-Union. March 27, 2021.
Editorial: JCOPE’s corrupting power
It was always a reasonable guess that appointees of various top politicians on the state’s ultra-secretive Joint Commission of Public Ethics were protecting their patrons and their patrons’ cronies from investigations. Now the speculation is over.
The public got a firsthand look last week at exactly how Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees on JCOPE are able to shield his administration from even a whiff of scrutiny. They were able to fend off an investigation even though they don’t hold a majority on the panel.
Add that to the already conclusive case that JCOPE is a sham of an ethics enforcement body, a commission of politicians, by politicians, and for politicians.
At issue was a request to have JCOPE issue a subpoena seeking information about unpaid volunteers who are involved, sometimes in highly influential ways, in the state’s COVID-19 response. Under an executive order signed by Mr. Cuomo last year, the volunteers are exempt from the usual ethics disclosure forms that would reveal any conflicts of interest they might encounter in their public service. The subpoena, proposed by JCOPE Commissioner Gary Lavine, would have looked at who has not filed disclosures, and whether they had recused themselves from any matters that might pose a conflict of interest. A fair good-government question, especially on a matter of such critical public interest involving untold millions or billions in spending of public funds.
It’s worth noting that the Times Union had filed a Freedom of Information request for such information, but the Cuomo administration says it has no records to that effect. That’s pretty sloppy — so sloppy it’s hard to believe.
The vote for the subpoena was 7-6, with Mr. Lavine, a Senate Republican appointee, and six other legislatively appointed JCOPE commissioners voting for the subpoena, and all of Mr. Cuomo’s six appointees voting against it. But under the panel’s intricate voting rules, the subpoena needed eight votes to be approved. There might have been an eighth vote if only Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had filled a vacancy on the commission, but she hadn’t for over two years as of the time the vote was taken Tuesday. So, no subpoena. These 7-6 defeats turn out to be not unusual.
Mr. Cuomo’s appointees argue that JCOPE has no jurisdiction over volunteers, another claim so tenuous that they also voted down a proposal to ask the attorney general for a legal opinion on it.
It’s enough to make a person wonder what Mr. Cuomo is so determined to hide.
But even more, it underscores how JCOPE is a decade-long insult to New Yorkers that Mr. Cuomo and legislative leaders continue to try to pass off as good government.
Surely Ms. Stewart-Cousins knows this, having had to search for years for someone willing to serve on the board — a task she finally accomplished only last week.
Surely Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie knows this, having been made well aware that the governor has a pipeline — a possibly illegal one — that allows him to keep tabs on JCOPE’s supposedly secret deliberations.
And surely Mr. Cuomo knows it, having enjoyed for years the get-out-of-probes-free card that comes with having such inordinate control over JCOPE’s operations.
If Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature want to accomplish one good-government reform this year, it needs to be this: Get rid of JCOPE, and replace it with a truly independent ethics watchdog. The current panel is not an antidote to corruption. Its brazen manipulation makes it the embodiment of it.
Advance Media New York. March 28, 2021.
Editorial: Assembly has enough Cuomo scandals to impeach the governor now
The Assembly Judiciary Committee conducted its first hearing Tuesday into the impeachment of Gov. Andrew Cuomo over allegations of sexual harassment and the cover-up of nursing home deaths. The hearing confirmed our worst fears.
The investigation is going to last months, not weeks, buying time for Cuomo to downplay his burgeoning scandals and for lawmakers to lose their nerve.
The Assembly could have — should have — drafted articles of impeachment weeks ago with the considerable evidence it has at hand. By choosing to throw the investigation to the Judiciary Committee, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie squandered considerable momentum in Albany for holding the governor accountable for his alleged abuses of power.
That included calls for Cuomo’s resignation from powerful Democrats in both houses of the Legislature an in Congress, up to Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
With the governor politically wounded and support in his own party evaporating, it was now or never. Heastie chose … some unspecified time in the future.
The fact-finding process by the Judiciary Committee’s hired-gun Albany law firm is an unnecessary delaying tactic. The Assembly could start impeachment proceedings today with the public admissions from the governor’s staff that they obscured the number of nursing home deaths from Covid-19, including an episode where they scrubbed a report of numbers that made their boss look bad. Then, Cuomo’s “vaccine czar” called county executives to gauge their political support, walking right up to the ethical line of trading vaccine allocations for loyalty. Now, the Albany Times-Union reports that Cuomo’s family and associates got special access to state Covid testing at a time such tests weren’t available to the general public.
As for the sexual harassment allegations, eight women inside and outside the administration are on the record with their complaints against Cuomo involving inappropriate touching, groping, questioning about sex and other lecherous behavior. The governor denies making physical advances but offered a weak “if I offended anyone” apology. Attorney General Letitia James has appointed two independent investigators to look into the incidents. There already are complaints that the administration is interfering with the probe.
Heastie and Judiciary Chairman Charles Lavine both argue the Assembly investigation is necessary to protect Cuomo’s right to due process. Yes, the governor is entitled to due process. He would get plenty of it during a public impeachment trial in the Senate, where he could face his accusers and make his case for retaining office.
And what about a fair hearing for the women who allege they were sexually harassed by the governor? Why should they trust this opaque and secretive investigation? Lindsey Boylan, a former Empire State Development executive who accused Cuomo of an unwanted kiss and inviting her to play strip poker, vowed not to cooperate with the Assembly’s “sham” investigation.
There are other problems with Judiciary’s probe. It will not be transparent. Meetings and testimony will happen behind closed doors. There is no deadline for completion, though Lavine said to expect it to take months, not weeks. Outside counsel Davis, Polk & Wardwell is under fire for a perceived conflict of interest; a former partner is married to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, whom Cuomo appointed. The Judiciary Committee is stacked with lawyers, yet they outsource the investigation to insulate themselves from the governor’s wrath.
We praised Cuomo’s initial handling of the pandemic but were under no illusions about the governor’s long and well-earned reputation for bullying, controlling and sometimes corrupt behavior (see Moreland Commission, Joe Percoco, the Buffalo Billion). The editorial board endorsed his Republican opponent, Marc Molinaro, two years ago, citing corruption under the governor’s nose.
Calling for Cuomo to resign is a hollow gesture. He has no intention of quitting and no one can make him – except through a swift and transparent impeachment process.
If the Assembly has the guts to do it.
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. March 27, 2021.
Editorial: Sign bill to end long-term solitary confinement
Long-term solitary confinement is torture.
That was the first sentence of a D&C editorial two years ago calling for New York state to end an inhumane and counter-productive practice in New York state prisons.
It is also the first sentence of today’s editorial because long-term solitary confinement remains in effect. The difference now is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature is all that’s needed to relegate long-term solitary confinement to the dustbin of history in New York.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act would put strict restrictions on when solitary could be employed. It has been passed by both the state Assembly and the state Senate.
Gov. Cuomo should waste no time in making the measure state law.
What the bill would do:
— put a 15-day limit on solitary confinement.
— ban the use of special diets as punishment.
— require a mental health screening before solitary is assigned.
— mandate a heightened level of care for prisoners in segregated confinement or residential rehabilitation units.
— and limit inmates from being in segregated confinement not only for no more than 15 days straight, but no more than 20 out of 60 days.
Why does this matter? For one, current practice violates the United Nations’ “standard minimum rules” for the treatment of prisoners. The United States loses credibility in promoting human rights elsewhere in the world when our own practices are cruel and inhumane.
For another, The Legislative Gazette on Friday cited a Columbia University study that associates long-term solitary confinement with “a number of potentially irreversible mental conditions.” These stem from sensory deprivation, lack of interaction with others and seemingly endless idle time in a space about the size of an elevator.
These research findings are deeply concerning. They indicate such confinement leads to lifelong harm for a prisoner who’s been kept “in the box” for lengthy periods of time measured in weeks, months or years. And it signals that the public itself can be harmed upon that prisoner’s release because the mental conditions can lead to aggressive behavior, the research shows.
The Legislative Gazette article also details a Zoom video call conducted last week by the bill’s advocates, among them religious leaders. One speaker was a sibling of a former prisoner who spent extended time in solitary.
“His mindset is so boggled, it’s like everyone’s against him,” the speaker said. “He’s afraid to be around people.”
That is simply tragic. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, long-term solitary confinement is tearing them down and reducing substantially the likelihood those prisoners will become productive members of society after serving their time.
A punishment with such dire impact has no place in our prisons or our society. For one, the general public has no way of knowing if decisions made to place a particular prisoner into long-term solitary are made for arbitrary and capricious reasons.
For another, our corrections officers will be safer, and their jobs made easier, if the state Department of Corrections simply invests more into mental-health treatment.
As the D&C’s 2019 editorial stated, “prisons in Mississippi, North Dakota and Maine experienced marked declines in violence when they reduced the population in solitary confinement.”
So will New York’s. Sign the law please, governor.
Newsday. March 24, 2021.
Editorial: State needs to boost vaccines
Continued changes to vaccine eligibility in New York bring promise for those who qualify — but leave those who don’t with more questions than answers.
This is easily solvable. At this point, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should be able to provide a schedule that shows how and when the state plans to open eligibility to other categories. State officials said they expect everyone who wants a vaccine should have their first shot — and a second one scheduled — by the end of May. It’s best to provide a timetable now, by age or other category, that tells people when their turn likely is coming.
Cuomo said Wednesday he doesn’t want to open up eligibility too wide, too quickly, given that dose availability might change. But as other states have widened their criteria successfully, New York should be able to do the same.
This is particularly important in light of how New York has shifted its eligibility standards. While the state started its vaccination effort by opening to certain essential worker categories, officials have now begun to focus on age instead. As a result, some considered essential workers in the first categories are eligible while those in subsequent ones are paused. If the state is going to continue to base eligibility on age, it has to open the spigot more quickly. Helpful to that effort: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised New York will be getting 1.65 million doses a week on average through the end of April.
Now, time is of the essence as more people need to get vaccinated to stop the spread of more contagious mutant strains.
As vaccination continues to ramp up, officials should start to redistribute appointment availability and doses across the state based on need and demand. Some of the large state-run locations, including SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Oneonta, had thousands of appointments available at various times this week, while New York City and Long Island’s state sites had none. When thousands of appointments are going unbooked, state officials should redistribute vaccine availability to where it’s needed most. Similarly, if upstate counties and retail pharmacies also have substantial supply, the state should ask the federal government to redirect those doses as well.
As so many Long Islanders scramble for doses, vaccine hesitancy is still deeply embedded in pockets across the region and the state, and that might explain some of the vast availability tranches. To help civic leaders understand where better communication and outreach is needed, the state should make public its vaccination rates by ZIP code. Even after eligibility expands to all, those targeted efforts will have to continue.
As the infection rate starts to tick up again, the race to get shots into arms must outpace the pandemic and its variants. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said we’re at the corner, but haven’t turned it yet. The state must be ready for the sprint to the finish line.
New York Daily News. March 29, 2021.
Editorial: Better math for charter schools: State limits and unused zombies make no sense
New York State law limits to 460 the total number of charter schools, which are free public schools that are independently run and funded by tax dollars. But whether that number, set more than a decade ago, is too low or too high, no one knows because of a barrier written into the law that separates the five boroughs of New York City from the other 57 counties of the state. That nonsensical wall must be torn down.
Even though all of these schools must meet the same academic standards set by the state Education Department and the Board of Regents, and even though their charters to operate are issued either by the Department or the Trustees of the State University, both statewide entities, New York City is treated differently.
Some charter schools are excellent at educating children, while others aren’t and are properly shut down. New York is fortunate that the number of failures has been small. But due to a foolish restriction written into law, when a charter school closes down, that slot cannot be re-issued to a new school that may prosper. Thus even though the failed school is dead, its charter lives on with no students, no teachers, no buildings (or even Zoom sessions) and no funding, giving them the name of zombie charters.
There are 20 of these zombies in the state, not helping anyone. Gov. Cuomo reasonably proposed that the 20 be re-animated to allow existing charter networks that want to expand to apply or new startups to try. Doing so would give more kids a chance at a good education.
Central Queens Academy is doing a great job but can’t grow. Neither can the Bronx’s Classical Charter Schools.
Another sensible change, which leaves in place the statewide cap of 460, would be removing the divide between the city, which has hit its artificial limit, and the rest of the state, which has dozens of available charters that no one is using.