Sunday, February 01, 2015

Meet the new Assembly Speaker, not much better than Silver? And what about those judges...

Well, Sheldon Silver is gone, but his replacement is no shining light. And continuing probes remind of Silver connections to judges who had roles in Atlantic Yards.

From the New York Times, Speaker Candidate Drew Ethics Panel’s Notice, 1/30/15:
ALBANY — Over $10,000 for car repairs. Hundreds of dollars in interest and finance charges on credit-card balances. Thousands of dollars in expenses for which no explanation was given.
Carl E. Heastie, a lawmaker and Democratic Party boss from the Bronx who has quickly emerged as the favorite to succeed Sheldon Silver as speaker of the New York Assembly, attracted the attention of the now-defunctMoreland Commission on corruption in Albany. It subpoenaed his campaign’s bank records to see whether he was using political donations for personal expenses, records show.
Mr. Silver faces federal charges of accepting millions of dollars in payoffs and plans to fight the charges. By contrast, Assemblyman Heastie has been accused of no wrongdoing, federal prosecutors have signaled no interest in him, and the potential violations of campaign spending rules flagged by Moreland investigators — who were halted before they could finish their work — were a far cry from out-and-out graft. Mr. Heastie’s spokesman has said he believed the campaign was in compliance.
From a Daily News editorial, Assembly Democrats are being too hasty about Carl Heastie, 1/30/15:
The raw power of New York City’s Democratic bosses has set Assemblyman — and, yes, Bronx party leader — Carl Heastie on track for coronation as Assembly speaker.
Never mind that Heastie is an expense-account hog, has been a no-show at roll calls, has pulled down $14,000 in bonus pay for no work, has a paper-thin legislative record, cuts corners on campaign finance disclosure and plays fast and loose with campaign funds.
These are frivolities to his fellow bosses: Frank Seddio of Brooklyn, Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens and Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan. But they should be matters of pressing interest to the Assembly members the bosses have cowed into backing Heastie without the slightest scrutiny....
It’s an open secret that many legislators milk the Assembly’s loosey-goosey expense accounts to pad their paychecks — by making extraneous trips to Albany to collect “per diems” for meals and lodging that are currently worth $182 a day.
Heastie stands out for claiming the third-largest expense haul of any Assembly member in 2014 — collecting mileage and per diems exceeding $22,000. (That’s on top of a salary of $93,500.)
A call to Heastie’s office seeking an explanation got us nowhere, no doubt because any attempt to portray him as a legislative dynamo would not fly.
Heastie missed votes on 173 bills — or 15% of the legislation the Assembly passed in 2014...When Heastie was present in the chamber, NYPIRG found that he spoke during debate on only four of the 1,138 bills that he didn’t sponsor. And the Labor Committee that he chairs — for a stipend of $14,000 — held just one announced hearing all year.
The real power, as the Observer reports, is a Bronx fixer named Stanley Schlein: A Seasoned Bronx Power Broker Looks to Rise With Carl Heastie:
Mr. Schlein, 67, is not an elected official or the leader of the Bronx machine, like Mr. Heastie. Rather, the canny attorney and lobbyist is the unseen architect of much of what does or doesn’t happen in Bronx politics, orchestrating coups when the Democratic elite ignores him or ensuring his well-heeled clients, like the New York Yankees, extract the best deal from an intransigent, or sometimes pliant, bureaucracy.
Along the way, he’s faced his share of scandals, including his ouster as chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission.
...The subtle Mr. Schlein helped Mr. Heastie, an accountant by trade, oust Assemblyman José Rivera from his county leader perch in 2008. Mr. Rivera, savvy in his own right, was accused of ignoring many of the factions of the borough that weren’t aligned with his Puerto Rican base. More importantly, perhaps, he snubbed Mr. Schlein.
Update: see Bill Mahoney's Capital New York article on Heastie's extensive and elastic spending from his campaign account.

The Silver legacy

Wayne Barrett reports in today's Daily News, Sheldon Silver's gang:
Silver has been the face of possibly the most diverse legislative caucus in American history, but his life is as dark and parochial as his fedora. The universe he truly cares about covers a few blocks on the Lower East Side, where he was born and still lives, and where a mountain of ambitions was hidden on a tiny stretch of Grand Street.
Even as he ruled a vast state, it was always Grand Street that was his capital. And it was the clan he met there whose code he embodies.
..It was the Met Council that caused these layers of insular overlap to blow up even before the Silver bust. The council's longtime CEO, Willie Rapfogel, took his fall in 2013, having squeezed $9 million out of his state subsidies for the poor, pocketing $3 million of it himself.
Rapfogel and his wife Judy, who remains Silver's chief of staff and joined Yates at the recent members-only conference, live in the same building as Silver. Willie and Silver had seats next to each other in the neighborhood synagogue, with [Judge Jonathan] Lippman's family long nearby.
Incredibly, Shelly and Judy insist that they did not know anything about Rapfogel's nest-egg — which included $420,000 in cash that investigators found in his homes and $350,000 he gave his son to help finance a new house. Sentenced to three-and-a-third to 10 years in July, Rapfogel raised $3 million from undisclosed "friends" to pay court-mandated restitution. The council's board was another who's who of Friends of Shelly.
Barrett goes on to describe how Silver "magically moved Lippman from chief administrative judge" to head the Court of Appeals, despite no record of practicing law.

He writes:
Silver also blocked affordable housing on a barren, city-owned, 20-acre development site close to the coops for nearly 40 years, preferring, as one critic put it, rats to minorities. Silver and Rapfogel wound up favoring a Costco on the site after the developer hired Rapfogel's son, gave a million to Met Council and picked the council as its community partner.
No one knows whether Silver's "Our Gang" network helped finance the secret defense fund that saved Willie Rapfogel from the 4-to-12-year sentence the judge said he'd give him if he didn't pay the restitution before the sentencing date.
Rapfogel rushed to raise the $3 million, but wasn't required to make the donors public.
Ah, that developer is Forest City Ratner.
So much for Daily News columnist Bill Hammond's 1/28/15 column, After Sheldon Silver, a new speaker, and a new speakership:
What the pols must do is fundamentally rethink the nature of the speakership itself, reducing whoever holds that title from all-powerful boss to a first among equals.
That sea change would not only protect against future shakedown scandals, but also restore more power to the rank-and-file members — which is where it belongs in a democratic legislative body.
Had he not held near-absolute sway over every bill that passed through his house — such as rent-regulation laws and tax breaks for landlords — he might never have prevailed on major developers to hire an obscure law firm that funneled him $800,000 in shared fees while allegedly doing no work.
Had Silver not had the ability to secretly and unilaterally dole out $250,000 grants, he might never have induced an asbestos doctor to refer patients to a trial law firm that cut Silver in for $3 million in legal settlements — again, with no real work on his part.
Silver’s power derived directly from Assembly rules that allowed him to control virtually everything in his house.
That means Silver could choose each member of the leadership team and committee seat, all of which offered from $9,000 and $41,500 a year. He controlled ethics penalties "and was known to bury reports rather than making them public," as with, I'd point out, Assemblyman Roger Green. And he could cut the office budgets of those on the outs.

The New York Post reports today, Feds probe civil court following Silver’s arrest:
The country’s most important civil court is under federal investigation, an insider says.
The probe is focusing on the state Supreme Court’s civil division at 60 Centre St. in lower Manhattan, where many tentacles reach to disgraced Assembly SpeakerSheldon Silver, the court source said.
Many of  [Silver-related] cases landed in the courtrooms at 60 Centre St., presided over by judges with ties to Silver and his lifelong pal, Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of the state Court of Appeals.
Both men grew up on the Lower East Side, and Silver has been Lippman’s political godfather, pushing him to reach New York’s top judicial post.
“The appointment of Sheldon Silver’s childhood friend, Jonathan Lippman, as the state’s chief judge based on his administrative experience made about as much sense as the Yankees making their accountant the manager of the team,” said Charles Compton, former president of the Supreme Court Officers Association. He added that Lippman was appointed “to protect and promote Silver’s interests.”
Lippman wrote the opinion upholding eminent domain for Atlantic Yards.

The Post reports:
Silver’s influence was also apparent in another part of the iconic civil courthouse on Foley Square..
Weitz & Luxenberg, the law firm where Silver was “of counsel” until he was dumped last week, practically rules a special section of the court dealing with complex asbestos litigation.
Critics say the firm gets the “red-carpet treatment” including a fast track, “better judges” and first dibs on jurors to hear its cases.
...Another judge, Joan Madden, consolidated unrelated asbestos cases, which resulted in huge increases in jury verdicts — from an average of $7 million to $24 million per plaintiff between 2010 and 2014, data collected by Bates White Economic Consulting show. In one consolidated case, Silver’s firm won a $190 million award.
Madden, we may recall, dismissed the challenge to the Atlantic Yards environmental review.

Of course there's no evidence these judges acted because of fealty to Silver, known to support Atlantic Yards. But surely those decisions did not displease Silver.

Update: On Judy Rapfogel

The Forward reported 2/2/15, Judy Rapfogel Is Woman in the Middle of Two N.Y. Scandals: Sheldon Silver's Chief of Staff Is Also Willie's Wife. It describes Rapfogel's 1997 race for City Council, initially a win, but a loss in the recount, and the disproportionate spending on automobile insurance from the same firm later unmasked as paying the kickbacks to her husband.

Calling Rapfogel "arguably been the most powerful woman in New York State politics," the article calls her an enigma with "almost no public profile," and a political style very different from her husband's suave style.. One source who knows both called Judy "more tell-you-like-it-is, and openly cutthroat.”

The article describes how Judy Rapfogel has been one of the Assembly's highest-paid staffers and the only Democratic staffer to get a state-owned car. There's a very interesting anecdote that explains how business gets done:

William Rapfogel’s Met Council received tens of millions of dollars in state funding through the state legislature — some of it in the form of so-called member items, allocations that lawmakers dole out to not-for-profit groups entirely at their personal discretion after Silver decides how much each lawmaker gets for this purpose. Member-item expenditures were effectively ended in 2011. But according to a September 2013 report in Newsday, when they were in force, Judy Rapfogel sat in on meetings of Manhattan’s assembly Democrats where they were discussed. Legislators there often decided to send funds to Met Council.
“Never did Judy or the speaker ask me to give money to Met Council,” an unnamed former assembly member told Newsday. “Now, did I, as a political person, think it was in my best interests to support Met Council? Sure.”

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