As Cuomo negotiates ethics reforms, Albany proposals ignore warnings of former JCOPE commissioner Ravi Batra

Albany keeps proposing incremental reforms, which have enforcement mechanisms that deliberately lack independence, charges attorney Ravi Batra

By LOUIS FLORES

Inundated by a tsunami of corruption scandals overtaking Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) has been scrambling to keep his administration afloat in credibility.

Albany’s culture of corruption has an escape ark in the machinations of the Cuomo administration, but it was found to be lacking enough lifeboats when, just one day after Governor Cuomo’s most recent showboating State of the State speech, the ark struck the stealth iceberg known as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.  A few had been jumping overboard prior to the collision, and a few others have jumped over after.  Most people made it, except one certainly did not make it.

U.S. Attorney Bharara ordered the arrest of one of Albany’s three political co-captains, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), sending an apoplectic Albany on it’s present collision course with destiny.

On February 2, Governor Cuomo outlined a five-point plan for ethics reform that included fully disclosing outside income, stripping retirement pensions for convicted officials, regulating per diem reïmbursements, ending the use of campaign funds for personal use, and closing campaign finance loopholes.

(Of Governor Cuomo’s five-point plan, he has been flouting three of his own recommendations, but that is another parable.)

Since then, the Editorial Board of The New York Times warned Governor Cuomo that his minimalist reforms fell short of the deeper ethics advancements needed, asserting, in part, that, “Tinkering at the edges will no longer be enough.”  The normally pro-Cuomo Editorial Board issued this criticism when it praised ethics recommendations made by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York), which went further than Governor Cuomo’s ethics reform proposal. 

This is the same Editorial Board, however, that is now shaming Governor Cuomo after it had endorsed his reelection campaign last November.  This was after a team of the newspaper’s own reporters produced a bombshell report demonstrating that officials in the Cuomo administration had hobbled the corruption fighting work of the Moreland Commission, triggering reports of a possible federal probe into the Cuomo administration.  No matter that Governor Cuomo had been, as governor, the captain, who had been steering the fateful ark, The New York Times advocated that voters should keep him in the bridge.

Thus far, Governor Cuomo’s proposed ethics plan has already been watered down following a closed-door negotiation with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx).  The compromise would still allow elected officials to use funds from the campaign committees to pay for legal fees to defend officials from corruption charges.

Some see Governor Cuomo’s “Two Men In A Room” agreement with Speaker Heastie as a further contraction in the Albany power axis, down from the widely criticised modern-day Roman triumvirate known as “Three Men In A Room” that includes State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Governor Cuomo’s plan may either be further watered down or may be amended by pushback or alternate demands made by State Senator Skelos, who is already demanding that the ethics reforms Governor Cuomo is proposing should also apply to the Executive Branch in an effort to block a sneaky escape hatch Governor Cuomo had reserved for himself and his Democratic Party allies.

State Senator Skelos has also demanded that outside income disclosure should also apply to the live-in partners of public officials and that term limits should apply to legislative leaders.

Requests made by Progress Queens to the offices of each of Governor Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and State Senator Skelos for comment for this article were not answered.

Against the backdrop of the shifting ethics negotiations between the “Three Men In A Room,” some state legislators and even Attorney General Schneiderman have for the first time exerted some independence by calling for deeper reforms than has Governor Cuomo -- by proposing their own plans, in stark contrast to last year’s controversial ethics negotiations that led to the premature closure of the Moreland Commission, when everybody wanted to avoid any binding reforms, infuriating U.S. Attorney Bharara, and setting the collision course that may have more likely than not led to former Speaker Silver’s dramatic arrest.

Prior to last year’s budget negotiations, there were revelations that a new ethics panel, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, created under Governor Cuomo's first term as governor was just a farce.  Launched to be, in Governor Cuomo’s own words, a “true independent monitor to investigate corruption,” JCOPE has come under repeated fire for being asleep in the bridge as torrents of ethics scandals have submerged the careers of several corrupt state legislators in the last few years.

Albany’s failure to admit to and deal with the fact that JCOPE had been neutralized by officials, who had appointed its lockstep commissioners, is emblematic of Albany’s inability to police its own self on ethics -- but not just recently, but over the last several decades, going back to when Governor Mario Cuomo (D-New York) appointed his own corruption fighting panel that failed to lead to any revolutionary improvements in state ethics.

Ravi Batra resigned in 2012 as a JCOPE commissioner after he claims officials exerted outside political influence on the ethics regulator.  Source :  CBS6 Albany/YouTube Screenshot 

Ravi Batra resigned in 2012 as a JCOPE commissioner after he claims officials exerted outside political influence on the ethics regulator.  Source :  CBS6 Albany/YouTube Screenshot 

Revelations that JCOPE’s independence had been compromised came to light in the lead up to the resignation of one of its commissioners, Ravi Batra.  An attorney, Mr. Batra was appointed to serve as a commissioner by New York State Senator John Sampson (D-Canarsie) in 2011.  The appointment was announced by Governor Cuomo.

Mr. Batra resigned from JCOPE less than one year later after events had been “cascading into a crescendo,” which included, Mr. Batra said, the need to “effectuate honest and independent ethics enforcement.”  Later, Mr. Batra would accuse JCOPE of not having the public’s confidence, “not when it’s controlled and not when it’s a political tool,” he said during an interview with WRGB Channel 6 News, the local CBS affiliate in Albany, adding that JCOPE also failed to be transparent and was acting illegally.

In an interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Batra was asked several wide-ranging questions about the current reform proposals being made by Governor Cuomo.

“It would be unfair not to welcome and applaud every new incremental ethics reform in Albany, as its uncivilized after a Broadway performance not to stand and applaud. It is the length of the applause that separates civility from true appreciation and gratefulness. In a self-determined republic and state, ‘we the people’ elect our representatives to do the peoples' business using their best fiduciary judgment. If we are lucky, every generation or two, we are blessed to have among the overwhelming honest politicians a statesman, or statesperson to be gender neutral, who can lead us towards a ‘more perfect union,’ a mandate worthy of perpetual effort,” he told Progress Queens in an interview conducted by e-mail, adding, in part, that, “Albany has had more than its share of personal gain motivated misconduct, ripping off the public ; but, it pales in comparison to the ethics regimes that were corrupted and did illegal acts in broad daylight.”

Mr. Batra, who uses colorful language and analogy in his descriptions of betrayal by public officials, expressed skepticism of Albany’s latest interest in ethics reforms, given his experience with JCOPE and what followed with the Moreland Commission.

“A series of ethics reform regimes have been setup with great pomp and self-congratulations -- none more than PIRA, that created JCOPE in August 2011,” Mr. Batra said, referring to Public Integrity Reform Act, which begat JCOPE, adding, “Then after corrupt defalcation of JCOPE's necessary independence and purpose-mutilation, the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption was launched in 2013, with each member deputized by the Attorney General -- only to be shutdown unilaterally after it too was remote-controlled to become a corruption tool. If it wasn't for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's righteous indignation for being used as a prop to sell the public a farce by Andrew Cuomo, there would be no Shelly Silver indictment or the latest hyperventilated reform proposals by a control-infected Albany.“

Firm in his concern over the lack of an Albany-based, independent ethics enforcement mechanism, Mr. Batra told Progress Queens that, “While I've referred to this as a Kabuki Play since 2012, Attorney General Schneiderman just last week called it a charade. Take your pick :  either way, the public is played with by these minor tweaks inflated to be major -- and then the ethics enforcement is remote-controlled to be corrupt.  Shameful.”

Mr. Batra went to on to describe how politicians in Albany deliberately set out to undermine the independence of ethics enforcement bodies, saying, “Imagine, not John Lennon's, but a judge, any judge, that was ordered to fix cases or had a gun to his/her head to sign an unjust order -- the public would riot in the street -- because the noble judiciary has always protected its core independence so as to fashion merit-based justice in each case and the public respect that order. That's not Albany,” Mr. Batra said, adding that, “Albany purposefully consumes core independence for puppet-like control, so as to rig the system to manage outcomes. If that's not enough, Albany makes sure to make these ethics-bodies starve on skinny-budgets. Between corrupt control and no gas in the tank, enforcement bodies do little or nothing. The public only sees the Photo-Op stories and not the fine print of control and starvation.”

As if validating Mr. Batra’s point on regulatory budget starvation, a report published by The New York Times in the midst of the Progress Quens interview with Mr. Batra, showed that JCOPE’s budget had been cut by 4 per cent. over the last two years.

REGISTER TO ATTEND THE 2015 LEFT FORUM.  SOURCE :  LEFT FORUM  (SPONSORED)

REGISTER TO ATTEND THE 2015 LEFT FORUM.  SOURCE :  LEFT FORUM  (SPONSORED)

A search was conducted by Progress Queens of JCOPE’s online database, specifically for filings by the Committee to Save New York, a lobbying group that was funded by big business interests.  The Committee to Save New York raised millions of dollars to pay for expensive TV advertisements that acted to both sway public opinion in favor of Governor Cuomo’s big business agenda and influence local TV news operations with a deluge of political TV commercial revenue.

After the online JCOPE search returned information about the Committee to Save New York, the hyperlink(s) for further information failed to open any new Web pages.  When Progress Queens contacted JCOPE for assistance, an employee in the technical department refused to speak to a reporter.  A message left by Progress Queens with a public information officer of JCOPE was never returned, giving the impression of credibility to Mr. Batra’s assertion that JCOPE fails at its mission to be a vehicle for transparency.

The tale of the Committee to Save New York is all the more worrisome to many government reform activists, because it was structured to mask the identity of its big money donors.  The Committee to Save New York was reportedly formed at Governor Cuomo’s urging, according to The New York Times.  A few of the group’s donors and the size of their contributions have been identified in some press reports, but the group’s complete donor information has not been made public.

Moreover, the undisclosed nature of the group’s funding has raised questions about the influence that the group’s donors may have exerted on the Cuomo administration’s agenda.

Two significant donors to the Committee to Save New York were the New York Gaming Association, a group of gambling interests, and Genting, a gambling company.  The industry group contributed $2 million to the Committee to Save New York, whilst Genting contributed $400,000, according to a report published by The New York Times.  The contributions were made in 2011.  Genting is also a member of the New York Gaming Association.

A message left with a spokesperson at the Real Estate Board of New York, a real estate lobbying group that was another principal supporter of the Committee to Save New York, was never answered.  The request sought a list of donors to the Committee to Save New York.

Before the New York Gaming Association made its large contribution to the Committee to Save New York, a top gambling executive and representatives of Genting lobbied Governor Cuomo in October 2011 to support a proposed $4 billion development project at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens, that included a new convention center, which would be a boon to Genting’s racino operations if they could have been scaled up to an all-out casino.  One month later, the New York Gaming Association made its $2 million contribution to the Committee to Save New York.  According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “By December, Mr. Cuomo was fully supportive of casino gambling. By January, the heart of Genting's plan was the splashiest feature of his economic agenda.” 

Government reform activists raised immediate concerns at the revelations of the lobbying that took place during a fundraiser, the subsequent $2 million contribution, and the sudden support by Governor Cuomo of a major gambling project in New York City.  When The Wall Street Journal learned about the fundraiser, its reporters found that the fundraiser had not been disclosed on Governor Cuomo’s official calendar.

Meanwhile, for its part, Genting was awarded by the state the lucrative contract to operate a racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens, about the same time that the state, under the supervision of Lawrence Schwartz, a former secretary to both former Governor David Paterson (D-New York) and Governor Cuomo, ordered the closure of the New York City Off Track Betting Corp., making Genting’s racino contract at Aqueduct Racetrack all the more valuable by eliminating Genting’s local competition in the state’s regulated gambling market.

At the time of the revelations about the New York Gaming Association’s contribution to the Committee to Save New York, a good government group leader, Susan Lerner, told The New York Times that the contribution would be “guaranteed to raise questions about purchasing influence.”

State Assemblymember Thomas Abinanti (D-Westchester) similarly told The New York Times at that time then that, “The public should be concerned when big money contributors have greater access than the normal voter.”

Although the NYC Off Track Betting Corp., was losing money, its employees at the time had expected the state would make good on earlier promises to bail them out with the intention of saving approximately 1,500 jobs and maintaining the economic benefit to upstate horse ranchers.  However, the former gaming employees stood no chance against Genting’s influential campaign contributions and representatives, the latter which included Jennifer Cunningham, described as the most influential woman lobbyist in Albany.  Ms. Cunningham’s firm also represented the New York Gaming Association.

Jennifer Cunningham, a lobbyist with close ties to both Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, was a consultant for the New York State Gaming Association and Genting on a controversial $4 billion gambling and convention center project at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens.  Source :  Photo Illustration based on CUNYTV 75/YouTube Screen Shot

Jennifer Cunningham, a lobbyist with close ties to both Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, was a consultant for the New York State Gaming Association and Genting on a controversial $4 billion gambling and convention center project at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens.  Source :  Photo Illustration based on CUNYTV 75/YouTube Screen Shot

Today, Albany is shameless, dishonors our founding fathers, and has made sacred honor live in a spittoon.
— Ravi Batra

At a speech at New York Law School last January 23, U.S. Attorney Bharara expressed concerns about how public officials have exploited their office for financial gain, saying, in part, “Often, corruption is about greed, simple as that.  Greed on the part of elected or appointed officials, whose responsibility is the public and whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers.  Whether it’s by selling votes for cash or embezzling funds in their trust or otherwise, there are a spate of instances, where elected officials have sought to monetize their public position.  Money often seems to be at the core of the problem.”

Although the creation of JCOPE was Governor Cuomo’s answer to the years-long problem with ethics in Albany, JCOPE was being empaneled just as Governor Cuomo was embracing a spectacular pace of fundraising through the Committee to Save New York.  Before JCOPE was set to force the Committee to Save New York to disclose its donors, JCOPE mysteriously altered the effective date of the disclosure, giving the Committee to Save New York time to go dormant before disbanding, without ever having to make public its complete sources of funding.

Looking back, Mr. Batra gives Governor Cuomo little credibility on the subject of ethics reforms, quantifying it as, “Zero and incredulity -- that Gov. Cuomo dares to pull the same ploy, as he has done before with a straight face.  With JCOPE, he got it to illegally cloak CSNY donors from law-required disclosure,” he said, referring to the Committee to Save New York.

Once Mr. Batra began to sense outside political influence on JCOPE that was acting to compromise the panel’s independence, he recalled the barometer of political independence set by U.S. Attorney Bharara, as mentioned during his 2009 swearing in ceremony in which the then new top federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district said, in part, “the willingness to resign over principle ; the courage to resist even overwhelming public pressure to do the wrong or incorrect thing ; the independence to banish politics from all deliberation and decision-making...” were signs of independence.  In Mr. Batra’s resignation letter, he wrote, in part, “I feel compelled to resign over principle.” 

Mr. Batra explained to Progress Queens the actions that led to his resignation. 

“In August 2012, given JCOPE’s illegal vote to change a donor disclosure-date set by law, a power it didn't have, I announced my intention to either sue JCOPE or quit if JCOPE didn't correct its illegal behavior, and, in addition, I reached out to federal law enforcement,” Mr. Batra said, adding that, “Then on September 7, 2012, seeing Gov. Cuomo threaten JCOPE's remaining independence with Moreland, I released my public request to Gov. Cuomo to create a Moreland Commission to investigate JCOPE.  Hours later, upon hearing of a gubernatorial mocking by David and Andrew, I resigned immediately during the same evening citing Preet's resigning-for-principle.  To assist future criminal investigations and prosecutions, as well as to emphasize the seriousness of the Albany-misconduct I had seen, opposed and was out-voted by, I wrote a public letter to Gov. Cuomo explaining my resignation and swore to the truth of its contents before a notary public.”

The fallout over the accusation that JCOPE lacked independence is what influenced Governor Cuomo’s decision to create still yet another panel, Mr. Batra said, which press reports later indicated that the Cuomo administration would try to control.

“Albany's answer was in 2013 the creation of a sham Moreland Commission on Public Corruption,” Mr. Batra said.

When Mr. Batra was asked by Progress Queens whether he believed that Governor Cuomo’s mixed motivations in keeping the identities of the Committeee to Save New York’s donors secret were the cause of the breach of independence at JCOPE, Mr. Batra said, “That's what I used to think while I served on JCOPE ; but, I was wrong. After Shelly Silver's shocking indictment, it's clear that the same corrupt dot infected all 3 or 4 men in the room -- given how a single-house bill becomes law -- Shelly's 421-a benefit for Developer 1 in an Assembly bill needed equal support from Senate's 2, Dean and Jeff, and Cuomo signing it into law.  That's why my public motion to stop JCOPE's illegal disclosure date-change didn't even get a second -- no one else supported my objection that the law be honored -- and died without having been voted upon.  Such coordinated blockage shall taint JCOPE forever, while exposing their appointing authorities to necessary criminal exposure.”

Developer 1 was the government's code name for a real estate developer referenced in the criminal complaint filed by federal authorities against former Assembly Speaker Silver.  Many news agencies have identified Developer 1 as Leondard Litwin, head of Glenwood Management, a member firm in the Real Estate Board of New York, one of the principal backers of the Committee to Save New York.  Through a series of limited liability companies, Mr. Litwin has exploited a campaign finance loophole to become a prolific campaign contributor, having donated over $3 million to political candidates and state-level political parties in the last four years, according to a report published by Capital New York, of which approximately $1 million went to Governor Cuomo and to State Senate Republicans.  Over a longer period of time, $200,000 of Mr. Litwin’s money went to former Assembly Speaker Silver, according to The New York Post

Echoes of Mr. Batra’s warnings about how politicians exert “puppet-like control” to achieve “managed outcomes” can sometimes be heard in the speeches of U.S. Attorney Bharara.

At the January speech at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Bharara spoke of the downside of the concentration of power amongst the “Three Men In A Room” up in Albany, saying, in part, “You don’t tolerate dissent, because you don’t have to.  You don’t allow debate, because you don’t have to.  You don’t favor change or foster reform, because you don’t have to, and because the status quo always benefits you.”

For his part, Mr. Batra concluded his interview with Progress by saying, “Shame and honor are concepts well embedded in America, since Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and its choice and order of closing words :  ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’  Honor above all else.  Today, Albany is shameless, dishonors our founding fathers, and has made sacred honor live in a spittoon.”

As colorfully as Mr. Batra speaks, he does so out of a sense of pressuring Albany to change, something that more and more citizens, activists, and public officials are finding the courage to do, lately, partly due to inspiration many are drawing from U.S. Attorney Bharara, whose office has launched many corruption investigations in the past few years.  

U.S. Attorney Bharara addressed an anti-corruption forum earlier this month at Fordham Law School, saying, in part, “If you are spending your time trying to make places better and trying to make places more honest, that’s actually what it takes -- is going to help us to get to the place we want to be.”

The admonishment of Governor Cuomo by the Editorial Board of The New York Times, namely, that, “Tinkering at the edges will no longer be enough,” comes to mind.  Mr. Batra’s courage to speak publicly about his experience so that the public can see the “fine print of control and starvation,” comes to mind.  U.S. Attorney Bharara’s omnious warning to “Stay tuned,” comes to mind.  A new attitude amongst voters to embrace social media to directly confront Governor Cuomo, other public officials, and their media representatives, sometimes using the hashtag #DigitalArmy on Twitter, even after the election season is over, comes to mind.  How, even in a post-Occupy Wall Street world, government reform activists can still organize around the lack of independence in ethics enforcement mechanisms and the twin corrupting influences of money and lobbyists in politics, come to mind, too.

This and more evidences an altered political landscape, where business as usual corruption can no longer continue up in Albany.

As news breaks that the State Senate might be closing in on a compromise on ethics reforms that may be watered down to make them more acceptable, the real question is not whether the ultimate compromise on ethics reform in this year’s state budget will be worse than last year’s.

It’s whether Governor Cuomo will safely navigate his rescue dinghy from the tidal wave of ethics problems that still overrun Albany.