Editorial Roundup: New York

Albany Times Union. April 17, 2022.

Editorial: Corruption? That’s a shock.

Brian Benjamin’s resignation as lieutenant governor was more than a political scandal for Gov. Kathy Hochul and her administration. It was a case study in so much that is wrong with New York government and politics.

The lack of independence in government watchdogs. The failure of every law enforcement and government watchdog in this area to spot alleged corruption going on right under their noses. The gaming of the campaign finance system. The abuse of public funds to further political interests.

The charges of bribery and other offenses against Mr. Benjamin are, of course, just allegations so far. He says he’s innocent. We will see.

But red flags were there well before Ms. Hochul picked Mr. Benjamin as lieutenant governor last August. It was reported months earlier how, during his unsuccessful run for New York City comptroller, some people listed as campaign donors had never heard of him, and he returned the money. There were also questions about whether he double-billed his campaign and the state for travel costs and used campaign funds for personal expenses.

Ms. Hochul says she thought all this had been vetted, and that Mr. Benjamin assured her nothing was amiss. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams says Mr. Benjamin repeatedly lied during his vetting process.

Assured? Lied? Was this an interview or a background check — which is supposed to root out things a job candidate doesn’t want people to know.

Then came the arrest in November, after Mr. Benjamin’s appointment, of Gerald Migdol, a real estate developer whose charity received a $50,000 state grant, thanks to then-state Sen. Benjamin, allegedly in exchange for the developer raising donations — in some cases fraudulent ones — to qualify the Benjamin campaign for matching funds through New York City’s campaign finance program.

We called in March for Mr. Benjamin to explain his questionable uses of campaign funds or resign. Crickets from him and the administration, until the indictment this past week.

Where to begin?

How is it that State Police, with all their resources and investigative talent, apparently missed all this?

How is it that none of the watchdogs in this part of the state — the New York State Board of Elections, the Justice Department’s Northern District, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the Legislative Ethics Commission, the Albany County district attorney’s office — appear to have looked deeply into this if at all, leaving it once again for the Justice Department’s Southern District to pick up the slack?

Why, in 2022, after all the sordid history of the abuses of legislative “member items” and attempts to clean that system up, are we learning of yet another lawmaker being able to steer tens of thousands of dollars to a political benefactor?

What implications do the alleged abuses of New York City’s public campaign finance system have for the statewide system New York is about to launch? What is the state doing to protect tens of millions of taxpayer dollars against similar fraud?

If Ms. Hochul is shocked by this alleged corruption — and the sudden blow to her political prospects as she runs for re-election — she should not be. She and her fellow Democrats, after all, just thumbed their noses at all the good government activists who were calling for an independent ethics body to police state government. Instead, they created another commission made of their own appointees. That affront to public integrity came just days before Mr. Benjamin’s arrest eroded a little more of the public trust in government that Ms. Hochul has vowed to restore.

___

Adirondack Daily Enterprise. April 16, 2022.

Editorial: NY’s 2023 budget: The good, the bad and the questionable

It’s no surprise that the state’s budget for the next fiscal year is enormous.

With a windfall of federal money, unexpectedly high tax revenue — and no doubt a big political incentive for Gov. Kathy Hochul to carve out some voter-friendly policy wins ahead of the next election — the legislature passed a whopping $220 billion budget this month.

Let’s take a look at some of the good, the bad and the questionable things in the new budget.

The bad

As per usual, there’s a lot to unpack. Included in this package is not only a complex web of spending, but a variety of policy changes — everything from criminal justice reforms to the extension of restaurants’ ability to offer to-go cocktails. Members of the state Legislature did try to separate Hochul’s non-budget related policy proposals out of the budget, according to the Gothamist, but not all of them were removed.

Stuffing politically-difficult policy issues — especially complex ones like criminal justice reforms — into budget negotiations just isn’t the right way to do things. We believe that policy issues should be dealt with separately, not shoehorned into budget negotiations.

Another point worth mentioning: the budget was late. Though a few days may not seem like a big deal, it could translate to delayed payments to state workers.

The questionable

If any taxpayers out there are wondering if the state is really going to spend $600 million in public funds to help construct a new Buffalo Bills stadium — after billionaire Bills owner Terrence Pegula threatened to move the team elsewhere — the Legislature has answered. Yes. The state has agreed to spend not just $600 million toward construction, but another $250 million over the next 30 years for upkeep of the stadium. That’s not to mention the additional $250 million contribution from taxpayers in Erie County. There’s clearly a public benefit to keeping the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo, but the question is worth asking: Why are taxpayers footing the bill for a private project, especially one where a billionaire is involved? We’ve yet to hear a real answer.

The good

The new state budget sets aside $400 million for the Environmental Protection Fund, which this year includes $8 million to address the impacts of hiker traffic in wilderness areas in the Adirondack and Catskills parks. The state has also earmarked more than half a million dollars for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to put together a “visitor use management framework.” That’s good news in theory, but we hope to learn much more about what, exactly, all of that money will be spent on.

A $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air and Clean Jobs Environmental Bond Act made it into the budget this year, though voters will have the final say on this in November.

Also included in the budget is $7 billion to be spent over four years to help subsidize child care for families who earn up to $83,000 per year, the New York Times reported last week. Again, this seems like good news in theory — child care funding is certainly needed, but should be spent carefully to ensure those who need it most see a real benefit.

___

Jamestown Post-Journal. April 19, 2022.

Editorial: Keeping Benjamin On Ballot Forces Hochul To Own Up To Her Poor Choices

New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin resigned last week after being charged with allegedly taking part in a scheme as old as politics, itself: trading his influence as a state senator for a campaign contribution. The development is more than just an embarrassment for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration — and another shameful chapter in the history of state politics — it stands the chance of taking who becomes the next lieutenant governor out of the hands of the voters.

The Legislature has an opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen, and we urge lawmakers to make sure that it doesn’t.

The problem is that Benjamin is currently on the primary election ballot to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in November, and although he has resigned the office and would presumably not serve under any circu0mstances, the only way for a person to be removed from a ballot in New York is if they die, move out of state or run for another office in the same election cycle.

Common Cause/NY last week spelled out a sensible change to state election law that would allow Benjamin to be removed from the ballot without any of those things happening, and we agree that the law should be amended to add “exceptional circumstances” such as criminal indictment to the short list of ways top remove a candidate’s name from a ballot.

Without that modification, Benjamin could win the majority of votes in the primary and then decline the nomination. At that point, the Democratic Party would get together and pick whomever they choose to run in the general election, leaving 6.4 million registered Democrats out of the decision-making process.

There’s already a list of reasons that would allow a person to be removed from the ballot, so nobody is asking lawmakers to break new ground here, and this situation has shown that this list is simply too narrow. Federal bribery, fraud and conspiracy charges are solid reasons for adding criminal indictment. It would be a commonsense change that would help foster better government, and we urge the Legislature to pass it.

___

Jamestown Post-Journal. April 19, 2022.

Editorial: Keeping Benjamin On Ballot Forces Hochul To Own Up To Her Poor Choices

Gov. Kathy Hochul will have some explaining to do to voters in the wake of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin’s resignation last week.

The problem isn’t the allegations about Benjamin. The former state Senator and candidate for New York City Comptroller hasn’t broken rules during his time as the state’s second-in-command.

This problem is one of politics — namely, not cutting bait with Benjamin when it became apparent there was significant heat from an investigation into Benjamin’s fundraising for the New York City comptroller race. The Albany Times Union first reported on allegations in November (three months after Benjamin was named lieutenant governor) that real estate developer Gerald Migdol had been arrested in connection with a campaign finances scheme that allegedly used fraud to secure millions of dollars in public matching funds for Benjamin’s comptroller bid. Benjamin’s indictment last week came after Benjamin was accused of steering a $50,000 grant to a charity run by Migdol in exchange for campaign contributions, including some allegedly given fraudulently in the names of other people.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Benjamin repeatedly lied about the situation when asked about it before becoming lieutenant governor, though it makes one wonder if Hochul or anyone on her executive team read the Times Union report But there is little reason why Hochul stood by Benjamin for an additional four months after the original indictment against Migdol was filed.

Hochul admitted to the Times Union she believed Benjamin over New York City news reports about the allegations and investigations — a pretty strong indictment given Hochul’s husband is a former U.S. Attorney who, we have a feeling, saw through Benjamin’s flimsy excuses.

Hochul wants four more years as governor, but her extraordinary lapse in judgement means she likely faces a much tougher road to re-election. To make the road easier, Democrats want to make it easier to remove a candidate from the ballot. We disagree with such posturing.

Hochul made a bad choice sticking by Brian Benjamin. She should have to live with that choice by seeing Benjamin’s name linked with hers on primary election ballots — and voters should be reminded when they cast their vote of Hochul’s lack of judgement.

___

Newsday. April 17, 2022.

Editorial: NY residents should get ready for voting changes

New York has never been much of a leader in conducting easy, efficient elections, but there are a few ways that this year’s June 28 primaries will finally be a little simpler for voters — timely, as parties make their picks for big races like governor, lieutenant governor, and Congress.

There is now an online statewide tracker that will allow New York voters to check the status of their absentee ballots, so they can be assured their mailed-in vote reached its destination. This is the same portal where they can check their poll sites — voterlookup.elections.ny.gov. The tool even alerts you about fixable problems with absentee ballots, like a missing signature.

Many states have offered this kind of monitoring for years so it’s a nice if overdue change in an era when you can follow online every step of a toothpaste shipment.

You can request an absentee application now at absenteeballot.elections.ny.gov. You can also start the process by mail, fax, or in person at your county election board. It won’t be sent your way yet, though — not all candidates seeking to run are yet certified.

COVID-19 remains a valid reason for voting absentee. If you are issued an absentee ballot, though, it’s crucial to remember that you can no longer change your mind and vote on a machine in person on Election Day. That’s due to a change in state law made last year, part of an effort to speed up the vote count. Election officials will now start processing absentees as they arrive, so many of those ballots will be ready for counting on Election Day. Hopefully, that will help speed the counting process in some races that aren’t exceptionally close. Recently added rules letting people fix small absentee mistakes early could save time by preventing challenges later.

And don’t worry. Even if you are issued an absentee but change your mind and want to vote in person, you can register your preference with an “affidavit” ballot, which will be reviewed for validity later.

Another plus: There will be more early voting sites and some expansion of early voting hours, according to the Nassau and Suffolk county election boards, although the exact details aren’t finalized.

Albany has made other election process revisions in recent years in the interest of fairness, including changes to the way candidates and parties can play technical games at various points, strategically challenging absentee votes for inane reasons. It’s past time that New York moves beyond antiquated, Byzantine election laws that were designed to protect the parties in power.

This year and its big races will be a key test to see whether election boards can digest all the changes and run smooth elections, but perhaps we are beginning to get with modernity.

___

New York Post. April 20, 2022.

Editorial: Brian Benjamin reaches for the ‘de Blasio’ defense

It looks like disgraced ex-Lt. Gov Brian Benjamin’s defense will resort to the “get out of jail free” card that worked for then-Mayor Bill de Blasio: a claim that it’s not bribery if the pol doesn’t personally profit.

Back in 2017, recall, Acting US Attorney Joon Kim declined to charge Blas for his various pay-to-play ploys because the payoffs for various political favors had gone to the mayor’s pet nonprofit the Campaign for One New York and other cutouts. Kim deemed it hard to prove “criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit.”

Now Benjamin’s lawyer is arguing that the charges against his client are based “solely on political contributions” and not “personal benefits” to Benjamin.

But de Blasio was actually careful not to have his own campaign funds reap the benefit, and the donations themselves met the letter of the law.

By contrast, Benjamin’s own campaign funds reaped the benefit of what prosecutors allege were tens of thousands in illegal “straw” donations arranged by a real-estate developer (widely suspected to be Harlem bigshot Gerald Migdol). The nominal donors weren’t even aware of the “gifts.”

The feds also allege the payoffs were part of a quid pro quo that saw Benjamin steering state money to a charity run by that same developer, among other favors.

Indeed, US Attorney Damian Williams says it all looks like “bribery, plain and simple.” That the feds have already charged Benjamin shows confidence they can win a conviction, where their colleagues never charged de Blasio (even as they slammed his practices).

That Benjamin’s defense is still trying the “no personal benefit” dodge suggests it doesn’t have anything better — and that Gov. Kathy Hochul and her vetting team were utterly asleep at the switch when they tapped him as her No. 2.

Oh, and the fact that Benjamin apparently thought he was in the clear right up until his arrest is a prime sign that schemes like his are rampant in New York state politics.

END