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Another Scandal Rocks the Capitol

Posted by NYPIRG on September 26, 2016 at 10:02 am
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Another week, another scandal.  Once again, it was U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who brought the charges.  What’s different is that the focus of the investigation was the governor’s office, not the legislature. According to the U.S. Attorney, “It turns out the state Legislature does not have any kind of monopoly on crass corruption in New York.”

Among the nine individuals charged were a former top aide and close confidante to Governor Cuomo, as well as the head of the State University of New York’s efforts to expand technologies.  Eight of the nine have said that they are not guilty; the ninth has admitted guilt and is cooperating in the ongoing investigation.

Bharara’s described his investigation as shining “a light on yet another sordid side of the show-me-the-money culture that has so plagued government in Albany.”  According to the U.S. Attorney, a former top aide to the governor accepted more than $315,000 in bribes and other perks, including a Hamptons fishing trip, in exchange for using his official position to perform valuable favors for an energy company, and $35,000 more in bribes from a Syracuse-based developer.

Also among those charged was the former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, who has been suspended without pay.  According to the allegations in the complaint, the now-former head of the Institute and a lobbyist with close ties to the governor conspired with executives at two companies to rig the bidding process for a massive state-financed redevelopment project known as the Buffalo Billion.

In addition, the governor’s former aide and the lobbyist allegedly shook down companies seeking government contracts for large campaign contributions to the governor as part of their scheme to get contracts for the contributors.

Governor Cuomo has stated that he was unaware of these activities.

Yet, the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney are devastating political blows for the governor.  It was Governor Cuomo who ran for office in 2010 vowing to clean up Albany and now, according to the allegations, appears to have surrounded himself with allies who were exploiting his Administration for their own personal gain.

Of course, these are only allegations, but even if half of them turn out to be true, actions must be taken by the governor in order to begin to restore the public’s trust.

The U.S. Attorney’s complaint should offer a roadmap to the governor and the legislature on how to proceed.

First, end the secrecy surrounding the state’s economic development plans.  What is clear from the complaint is that the governor’s management style of surrounding himself with a handful of trusted aides, and then making decisions largely in secret, is flawed.  Such an approach relies on the trustworthiness of those aides.  Apparently in these cases, that trust was misplaced.

As U.S. Justice Brandeis once remarked, “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.”  While openness can make decisions harder to implement, it makes it far less likely that people get away with dishonesty.

Second, empower the state’s fiscal watchdog, the state Comptroller, to examine contracts more closely.  Early in his term, the governor approved a law that removed state comptroller oversight of contracts through the state SUNY system.  Removing such oversight made it less likely that contracts would get the independent scrutiny they deserve.  It’s clear from the complaint that independent oversight may have deterred wrongdoing.

Third, advance campaign finance reforms.  Through the U.S. Attorney’s complaint there are allegations that the schemers were using the state contracting process as a way to shake down bidders for government contracts in order to obtain huge campaign contributions for the governor’s reelection effort.  New York’s campaign finance system should eliminate campaign contributions from those seeking – or receiving – government contracts, the campaign finance limits should be much lower, and a voluntary system of public financing should be established.  Such a voluntary system would help electoral challengers mount serious efforts, thus helping to hold incumbent elected officials more publicly accountable.

As the governor said in his first inaugural, “You have nothing without trust.  And we are not going to back it up until we clean up Albany and there’s real transparency and real disclosure and real accountability and real ethics and real ethics enforcement. That’s what the people have voted for. That’s what the people deserve.”

Sadly, what has become increasingly clear is that the governor has failed in his pledge to clean up state government and to ensure that it operates openly.  But he still has time.  The governor must fulfill his pledge.

New York’s Attorney General Continues to Battle ExxonMobil

Posted by NYPIRG on September 19, 2016 at 10:20 am
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New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been battling with Texas based oil giant ExxonMobil for nearly a year.  Last year, the Attorney General launched an investigation into whether ExxonMobil had deliberately ignored its own research about the dangers of global warming and instead set about a campaign to mislead the public – and investors – about the dangers caused by burning fossil fuels, one of which is oil.

The AG’s investigation seemed focused on whether the company, as well as other oil businesses, had taken a page from the tobacco companies by twisting and mischaracterizing research to manufacture doubt and undermine the legitimate scientific evidence showing that human activities are warming the planet.  Moreover, the AG was looking to see if ExxonMobil’s actions to undermine the science misled investors about the financial threats the industry faced from possible global regulatory efforts to curb fossil fuel use.

After initially looking at whether the company misled investors about the risks of climate change, the New York Attorney General is reportedly looking at the potential impact on the valuation of ExxonMobil‘s assets from a global crack down on carbon pollution.

The valuation of a company’s assets is an accounting practice used to determine the worth of the resources under its control.  In this case, oil is the key asset for ExxonMobil.  Yet, the company reportedly is the only one of the major oil producers which has not reduced the value of its assets despite a 60 percent drop in oil prices.

Whether that allegation turns out to be a threat to the company remains to be seen, but the fact that New York’s AG is widening his investigation is not good news for the nation’s biggest oil company.  Over the past two years, as the price of oil has dropped, so has the value of Exxon’s stocks.  An AG investigation adds more pressure.

And while the investigations of possible illegality will play out in the courts, what is clear is that ExxonMobil used its knowledge of global warming not as a tool to educate the world on the rising dangers to the planet, but instead to confuse the public and muddy the debate – in order to continue to maximize its profits.

According to media reports, Exxon was well aware of the dangers caused by the burning of fossil fuels at least as early as the 1980s.  According to corporate documents a obtained by the Los Angeles Times, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991, greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels. Nobody disputes this fact.”  The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.

Yet at the same time, the company was telling board members concerned about climate change that it had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company said that its “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Why would a company with well-documented research hide its conclusions and publicly argue the opposite? According to the Times, it was that Exxon feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies. And Exxon saw an upside to a warmer climate: Less expensive exploration and drilling in the Arctic.

According to the Times, top officials proposed “a plan for the ‘Exxon Position’: In order to stop the momentum behind the issue, Exxon should emphasize that doubt. Tell the public that more science is needed before regulatory action is taken and emphasize the ‘costs and economics’ of restricting carbon dioxide emissions.”

And they succeeded.  So much so that national political figures still argue that global warming is a hoax.

Exxon now argues that their internal science led them to make statements that at the time they believed were the truth.  The AG’s investigation may well shed light on the truth of that statement.

But what cannot be ignored is that climate changes are occurring due to global warming – and that such warming is primarily the result of human activity. The world has lost valuable time due to the tactics of the opponents of that scientific fact. As a result, millions worldwide will suffer.

Setting the record straight about what Exxon knew and when it knew it is important to moving forward decisively on climate change in 2016. Exxon fully understood that denying climate science was influencing not only investors and members of the general public, but the lawmakers and regulators who had the power and responsibility to craft policies to act by clamping down on climate pollution.

The world cannot ignore this rising threat. As one of the world’s leading contributors to global warming, the United States must take the lead in curbing the damage that is due to come. And it must do so by the following the advice of the world’s leading scientists: leave fossil fuels in the ground and rely on safe, non-polluting, energy sources.

The Sad State of Voting in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on September 12, 2016 at 12:28 pm
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This week, New Yorkers will vote again – for the third time in six months – in primary elections. Yup, that’s right, New Yorkers vote in, and pay for, two primary elections, and this year a Presidential primary as well.  In June, New Yorkers enrolled in political parties, voted in Congressional primaries and this week they voted for state legislative candidates.

And people wonder why New York has such a lousy voter participation record.

The multiple primaries are just an example of a system that has gotten twisted for the benefit of the two major parties and not the public’s best interests.  Here’s another example of a rigged system: If a voter wanted to switch parties to vote in last April’s Presidential primary, they would have had to do it by October 9, 2015 – 193 days before the primary and the earliest voter registration deadline in the nation.

There are more examples of voting roadblocks: New York State prohibits citizens from registering to vote a full 25 days before a general election – one of the earliest in the nation.

New York is one of eleven states that have “closed primaries” – primaries that only allow voters of the political party to participate.

The stories go on and on; from the purging of over 100,000 voters in Brooklyn, to tiny fonts on the ballot, even policy gridlock at the state Board of Elections (which is run, incidentally, by the two major political parties).

As a result of these, among other, restrictions, New York State ranks near the bottom of the nation’s barrel in terms of voter participation. In the Presidential primary, New York had the second lowest turnout.  In the 2014 general election, the Empire State also ranked 49th among the states in voter eligible turnout.

Why does a state that prides itself on its openness have some of the nation’s worst voting laws?

Part of the problem rests with politicians themselves.  In order to win elected office, you have to convince your voters to show up.  Newly registered voters are political unknowns and could throw a monkey wrench into a candidate’s campaign.  The fact that New York legislators have benefited from the noncompetitive nature of elections and the status quo may have helped.  If the few voters who do vote keep reelecting the same politicians —even though the public at large claims to be endlessly frustrated with status quo representation–why would you change the rules?

Given that dismal picture, what should be done?  The most obvious step is to encourage widespread voter participation–no matter how awful the current system itself is.  The jolt of this year’s Presidential primary season may help.  According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, its Spring registration effort was “very encouraging.” During its drive to register eligible 18-year-old high school students, the Board saw a big jump in interest.  Before the drive, there were 16,000 18-year-olds registered to vote.  Around 8,500 students were newly registered during its drive, about a 50 percent increase. “These students are willing and hungry to get involved,” the Board said, “but they simply want to be asked to participate.”

The rest of the adult voting population has to be asked too.

In an effort to get the ball rolling, here is some voting information.  For those who are not registered, forms are available online at the state Board of Elections website (see http://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/download/voting/voteform_enterable.pdf).  If you want to register, you must do so before October 14th – the deadline.  You can download and print the form and mail it in or complete an online form if you have or create a state DMV account.

For those who are registered, you can verify your registration and also find out your polling place through the Board’s website too (it’s a little tricky, but use the term “look up voter information” available at: https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx).

If you’re not sure who your state or federal representatives are, the Board has information on that too at http://www.elections.ny.gov/district-map/district-map.html.  If you want some background on each legislator, you can get it on the website of the New York Public Interest Research Group and go to the “legislative profiles” option (available at https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx)

Of course, policy changes are needed.  Voter registration is a right, not a privilege.  But it’s also our responsibility to vote and improve the work-in-progress that is our democracy.  Public policies should center on making it easier, not harder, to vote.  Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers must do a lot more to fix New York’s voting crisis.