Pre-primary financial disclosures; continuing ed for DC attorneys

For elected officials and candidates who will be on the primary ballot this year, August 11th was the filing deadline for the 32-Day Pre-Primary financial reports. Here is a brief rundown of the disclosures.

Mayor of Buffalo

The September 12th Democratic primary, which will effectively determine who will be the next mayor, is a contest among incumbent Byron Brown, City Comptroller Mark Schroeder, and County Legislator Betty Jean Grant. While all three are actively campaigning, the financial reports indicate a rather lopsided race. A recent Spectrum News/Siena College poll also shows Brown with a two-to-one lead over Schroeder.

Mayor Brown has a balance of $582,168, having raised $112,964 since the previous July 15th report. His committee spent $49,623.

Comptroller Schroeder reports $130,526 in his campaign account. He has collected $50,265 since July, with $37,854 in spending.

Legislator Grant does not have a campaign account for mayor. Her county legislative account shows $11,986 cash on hand as of the August 7th cut-off date of the report. She took in $6,200 and spent $1,441.

With a month to go before Primary Day none of the mayoral committees shows any spending on TV and radio ads. That’s somewhat unprecedented for a major primary.

Erie County Clerk

While there is not a primary for this office, the Republican candidate, Mickey Kearns, did file a report. He has a balance of $45,604, having raised $21,974 since mid-July.

Erie County Sheriff

Neither Republican incumbent Sheriff Tim Howard nor his Democratic opponent Bernie Tolbert have primaries. Howard did file a report showing that he has $110,211 available for his campaign. His committee purchased $10,000 in radio ads.

Erie County Comptroller

There are no primaries for Comptroller and neither candidate filed a new report.

Judicial campaigns

Democrat Susan Eagan is unopposed for the office of County Judge. She raised an additional $550 since July. Democrat Surrogate Court Judge candidate Acea Mosey, who is also unopposed, collected an additional $350.

Incumbent Republican State Supreme Court Justice Erin Peradotto did not file an update on her July report. Democratic candidate for Supreme Court, Lynn Keane, has created a campaign committee. The Supreme Court candidates, expected to be cross endorsed by Democrats and Republicans at the September Judicial Nominating Conventions, are not required to file financial reports at this time.

That’s four major judicial offices without competitive races. While the nomination process for Supreme Court limits competition to whatever the Nominating Conventions produce, having no competition for the Erie County judgeships is a hard-to-understand development. This all seems to give new meaning to the term “nolo contendere.”

Amherst Town Board

The Republicans have a three-way primary for the Amherst Town Board. Candidate Erin Baker’s reported expenses include a “transfer out” of $5,500 to the Erie County Republican Committee, which is chaired by Baker’s husband, Nick Langworthy – an interesting transaction. That is about half of the total amount raised by her endorsed Republican running mate, Joe Spino. Baker’s committee has a balance of $43,897. The third candidate in the primary, Christopher Drongosky, hasn’t even created a campaign committee, which it would appear violates the Election Law.

The Republican candidate for Amherst Town Supervisor, Marjory Jaeger, has a balance of $32,923 in her account compared with the $10,677 in the treasury of Democratic candidate Brian Kulpa.

Continuing education training for DC attorneys

Attorneys, like other licensed professionals, are required to keep current with their line of work by attending courses and programs that provide information on the latest developments in their respective fields.

One of the major impacts of all the mess that the Trump administration has created in the Russian fiasco and other matters is the sudden increased demand for personal legal services that has resulted. It almost seems like people from the White House housekeeping staff up to the president of the United States are lawyering-up.

What better example of the consequences of this than the District of Columbia Bar Association’s recent continuing education announcement:

Witness to History
As turmoil roils the current White House administration, the D.C. Bar begins a series of interviews with members who played a role in investigations of former presidents.

Representing the President

 

Robert S. Bennett, the personal attorney for President Clinton in the Paula Jones case, offers his personal view on the challenges of representing a sitting U.S. president facing investigation.

Getting to the Truth

 

W. Neil Eggleston reflects on his experience as deputy chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal.

Planning to spend money you don’t have

An “Another Voice” article in a recent edition of the Buffalo News poses a serious, important and often overlooked view about the grand scheme of public issues: what is being proposed would be great, but where would the money come from?

The subject in question is the proposal from local thinker Kevin Gaughan to redevelop the Delaware Park Golf Course, relocate the golf course in South Park and restore the South Park Arboretum. Both parks were part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s grand design for an inter-connected park system in Buffalo.

Neither of the parks look like what Olmstead envisioned in the nineteenth century.  Both parks undoubtedly could use some improvements. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is focused on that.

Gaughan’s regionalism efforts in the nineties did not lead to anything significant. His local government downsizing efforts, particularly when he suggested in some cases going down to three member legislative bodies, saved little money but added political confusion and potential ethical issues for the local governments that signed up. A past blog post noted those issues in the Town of Hamburg, which subsequently decided to go back to a five member town board.

The Gaughan proposal for the parks promotes the idea that Jack Nicklaus’ golf course design firm would come to town, at cost, and redesign the two golf courses. That’s all great except for the fact that someone has come up with a number for the total cost of the projects — $42 million.

The “Another Voice” article, written by Anne Harding Joyce, former chairwoman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, outlines how she views Gaughan’s park plans. The emphasis in the following excerpt from the article is mine.

As a member of the Long-Range Planning Committee of the conservancy, I was present at the meeting with Gaughan and the representatives of Nicklaus Golf last fall. Everyone present was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities – they are all pieces of the conservancy’s master plan…

At that meeting last fall, Gaughan was informed by the conservancy that there was absolutely no money – zero – available for it to pursue this project and that the conservancy was not in a financial position to jeopardize the current local funding streams that allow it to do its primary job – maintain and protect Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks and Parkways.

Gaughan unequivocally stated that he would raise the entire amount needed to complete the project from sources outside of Western New York. It appears that Gaughan has begun a public campaign to make it look as if the conservancy has stalled the development of these projects by refusing to identify local funding sources. This is absurd.

I would suggest that Gaughan show the conservancy his financial commitments and then perhaps the conservancy would have more confidence that he is holding up his end of the original conversation.

Kevin Gaughan is a very bright and articulate advocate for the projects he promotes.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Kevin, but $42 million doesn’t grow on trees.

He claims to be able to raise that amount of money from out-of-town interests. History plus observations about how the world works show that proposition to be silly. Why would out-of-town interests want to provide millions of dollars to re-design a couple small golf courses in Buffalo? In the meantime local cultural organizations are already in the hunt for millions of dollars in capital funds for their particular projects.

The lack of reality about funding options for noteworthy projects that have been discussed in Western New York shows that Gaughan’s park plan is similar to other grandiose ideas. That doesn’t mean that any of them make sense. They include:

  • The expansion of NFTA’s Metrorail line into Amherst up to the University of Buffalo’s North Campus, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion for construction and countless millions more for the expanded operating costs of the line. The state has committed $5 million to studying this idea. The line would extend the system an additional six-plus miles, with half of the stops on the UB campus. Great for UB! The construction money would proposedly come from the federal government (which has no plans for any substantial infrastructure work); the state government (that has already provided the Buffalo Billion); and the county and town governments (that are not about to get out their checkbooks for this).
  • The capping and landscaping of a small portion of the Kensington Expressway in an attempt to restore some of the lost ambiance of the neighborhood that was destroyed when the Expressway was built. The state has already spent money on preliminary environmental/design/engineering work on this idea, which is seen as costing $170 million. Repeat here the comments in the first bullet point about where the money would come from.

I guess it is my life experiences that include county budget director and member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority that lead me to a scrooge-like view of the proposed public works projects noted here. All of them, in and of themselves, are exciting and could improve the area in various ways. But where does the money come from? Does it make sense to spend time and money studying things that rational and realistic planners would conclude are never going to happen?

If someone drives around the City of Buffalo and the first-ring suburbs it is easy to identify many very ordinary but very important needs for public money. Think Main Street in Buffalo and Maple Road in Amherst, both of which are badly in need of repair. Think taking down the Skyway and improving access to the outer harbor with a ground-level bridge. Add community facilities of all sorts. These are projects that already sit on drawing boards somewhere, with nowhere near the amount of money that would be needed to complete these very mundane public works. If any of the above noted big projects were to move along the ordinary day-to-day infrastructure necessities would fall further down the list of funding priorities.

This community has made some great strides in re-orienting the job mix in the area and in developing great facilities such as Canalside, but only by being realistic will that progress continue. Think big, but think clearly.

What does Pigeon’s Federal Court re-scheduling and the entrance in the matter of a Washington DOJ attorney suggest?

Steve Pigeon, for his entire life, has been totally immersed in politics, from his childhood campaign activities in Missouri to work in the seats of power in Albany and Washington. The past two years, however, have not been fun.

Allegations of election law violations have swirled for many years, finally boiling over with state and federal legal actions. The raid on Pigeon’s home by state and federal authorities two years ago was followed by state bribery and extortion charges and the 2016 guilty plea by the state judge caught up in those matters.

Then came additional state complaints related to Pigeon’s infamous 2013 WNY Progressive Caucus political committee and its questionable fundraising and campaign spending activities. Formal charges have not yet been placed in that matter.

Finally there was the federal criminal complaint lodged against him on April 28, 2017. The complaint in USA v. Pigeon, as listed in federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) documents, concerns “conspiracy to defraud the United States” and “contributions and donations by foreign nationals.”

The complaint was unsealed and Pigeon had his first court appearance in the matter before Magistrate Michael Roemer on May 8th.  Paul Cambria and Justin Ginter represent Pigeon.  Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney Paul Bonanno from the Western District of New York represents the United States.  On May 9th John Dixon Keller from the DOJ’s Criminal Division Public Integrity Section in Washington joined the case on the government’s behalf.  More on Keller below.

On May 15th a preliminary hearing before Magistrate Roemer was scheduled for June 15th.  On June 6th, however, the hearing date was changed to Monday, August 7th.

On July 27th PACER records show that the hearing was re-scheduled again, to October 6, 2017.

The proceedings to-date raise questions about the reasons for the delays. I hope the lawyers and judges reading this post will forgive this non-attorney for some speculation, but it seems to me that this has nothing to do with giving everyone involved a chance to enjoy the summer sun.  It seems more likely that there is some serious case building, defendant squeezing, and prosecution coordination going on.

The court Order Setting Conditions of Release concerning Pigeon which was signed by Magistrate Roemer and Pigeon on May 8th lists as one of the conditions that “the defendant shall appear for any other local or state court proceedings and abide by any conditions imposed, as so ordered by the jurisdiction of that court.”  So whatever occurs in state court relating to the Pigeon indictment and additional campaign finance issues will proceed while Pigeon awaits the October 7th federal hearing.

Former State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek pleaded guilty in June 2016 to the bribery charges involved in Pigeon’s indictment. The sentencing of Michalek, however, has been continuously postponed.  Pigeon is currently scheduled to go on trial in the bribery case on September 5th.

So, just wondering, is everything teed up for a Pigeon plea deal in October?

Now back to the note about the second DOJ attorney who is referenced as joining Pigeon’s federal case in May, John Dixon Keller.

A Google search indicates that Keller is a bit of a “have law books, will travel” DOJ attorney. A DOJ press release from October 2014 reports that Keller was a prosecutor in a case where a Mississippi man pleaded guilty to paying bribes to employees at a military base for freight business.

More recently, and perhaps of greater note, Keller represented the United States government in the case of USA v. Arpaio.  Joe Arpaio was Sheriff of Maricopa County Arizona for 24 years until his defeat in last November’s election.  This past Monday Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt of court, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.  Arpaio is notorious for the harsh conditions in the jail that he ran and for his campaign against undocumented immigrants.  He has been an active supporter of Donald Trump.

The re-scheduling of Pigeon’s hearing to October 7th and the involvement of a DOJ Public Integrity attorney from Washington in the matter might indicate that his legal problems, combining both the state charges and the federal complaint, are closing in on him.

The system of justice in the United States, despite the oft-cited dictum of “justice delayed is justice denied,” sometimes moves at a very slow and deliberative pace. But each case has a conclusion and USA v. Pigeon seems to be drawing to its end.

ECC’s challenges; ECMC’s challenges; a major Erie County financial issue; Chris Collins’ view of Trumpcare; Flynn’s promise-made promise-kept

Here is a short run-down of a variety of issues that impact Western New Yorkers.

ECC

Erie Community College has a new president, Dan Hocoy. His resume is appropriate to the job in-hand. The job in-hand is very challenging.

The College has some very well-known financial issues that will test Hocoy, his staff, and the Board of Trustees including:

  • Declining student enrollment, which has been an on-going concern for several years. Reportedly this summer’s session had an enrollment drop off in the low double digits, and another drop is anticipated for the fall semester. The school is heavily dependent on tuition payments to support its budget. State aid is calculated based on enrollment, so even though there have been some modest increases in per-capita aid from Albany, the actual dollars coming to ECC have declined because of enrollment drops.
  • The school has signed on to a new technology program designed to bring school record-keeping into the 21st century. The program comes with a substantial annual cost increase for such purposes.
  • The school has continued to eat into its financial reserves, which could at some point impact accreditation.
  • The College has some substantial unmet capital needs spread out among its three campuses. The Quinn administration failed to produce the school’s share of the new STEM building, which was to be one-quarter of the $30 million anticipated cost.

The College’s long-time financial vice president, Bill Reuter, recently left for a position at Hudson Valley Community College. Reuter was able to keep financial things patched together for a long time, but over the years the school has been left with fewer options to deal with the issues going forward. Filling Reuter’s position will be a high priority for Hocoy.

The new president moved to set the tone for his new administration by reducing the size of his executive staff, laying off two, having one retire, and having a fourth person transferred outside of the executive team. Annual savings are projected at $500,000, which seems a bit on the high side if one of the jobs was just a transfer within the school.

One of the two layoffs involved Jeff Bagel, Vice President in charge of the ECC Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for raising outside funds for the school. Its operations were part of the subject of the State Comptroller’s audit released in early 2016, which called for reforms in the way the Foundation was run. Hocoy extended the duties of Executive Vice President Michael Piekiewicz to include supervision of the Foundation.

The change in staff leadership of the Foundation was not done in consultation with the Foundation’s Board of Directors, which oversees its operations and has an interest in the appointment of the Foundation’s executive. In protest, three-quarters of the Board resigned. No word yet on how Hocoy will deal with that issue.

Finally, some changes are coming to the College’s Board. Former member Len Lenihan is being reappointed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  There are a couple other Board spots in play, which could possibly strengthen Poloncarz’s hand in influencing management of the school if he chooses.

ECMC

The Erie County Medical Center went through a rather traumatic event in April – the takeover of its computer systems by a hacker. The Buffalo News reported last week that the hackers wanted the equivalent of $30,000 in Bitcoins as ransom. The hospital refused and instead has been working through the recovery process, improving security of their systems. Hospital management has totaled its losses in terms of added expenses and lost revenues at approximately $10 million. Increases in annual technology operating costs related to improved security are also expected to be substantial.

By coincidence, $10 million is also the limit of liability insurance coverage that the hospital purchased last year. How the hospital’s claim will settle out remains to be seen. It would not be unusual for the insurance carrier to offer something less than the requested $10 million. So it might be like those non-stop TV commercials we keep seeing – “CB law firm got me X million for my claim – ten times more than what the insurance company offered.” Which is why the hospital hired a major local law firm – no, not THAT one – to represent them in dealing with the insurance carrier.

Erie County’s financial challenge

As the time begins to draw near for the preparation of Erie County’s 2018 budget, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the County Legislature are about to face a new round of challenges. Among them will be the finances of ECC and ECMC.

Poloncarz has provided some limited increases in the county’s annual subsidy to the College, but the increases have not compensated for the school’s growing financial difficulties as enrollment declines. The County Executive proposed a joint county-college working group to study the school’s options for future operations, but the school was slow to respond. Perhaps that will change now.

A major on-going challenge to the county’s finances has been the hospital’s escalating expenses related to indigent care under a federal Medicaid program known as Intergovernmental Transfers, or IGT.

In 2016 the county was required to make millions of dollars more in IGT payments than originally budgeted. Already in 2017, per the county’s May Budget Monitoring Report, payments exceeded $34 million, or $11 million more than budgeted, with seven months remaining in the fiscal year. Total costs for 2017 will likely be on the high side of $40 million.

This issue is substantial and is not going away. It is part of the reason that an earlier post on this blog suggested that the county executive and the legislature will need to think about a county property tax increase in 2018.

The financial agreement worked out among the county administration, the legislature, the hospital, and the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (ECFSA) earlier this year to finance capital improvements at the hospital may factor into the county’s IGT payment obligations to the hospital. The amount of money saved by the county/ECFSA bond deal, when compared with what capital borrowing would have cost the hospital to do it itself, is likely to be credited to the county by the hospital in some form. That would provide some temporary – but only temporary – financial relief to the county.

Chris Collins’ take on Trumpcare

The bumbling, stumbling efforts of Republicans in the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to live up to their seven year commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare have been a failure of the highest order. While millions of Americans may, for the time being, breathe a little easier about their health insurance coverage, the issues are not in any way resolved. Let’s see how bi-partisanship works.

The “skinny” repeal bill that the Senate tried but failed to approve last week would have removed coverage from 15 million Americans and increased premiums by about 20 percent. Western New Yorkers would have been among the casualties of that proposal.

Here’s how Congressman Chris Collins weighed in with the New York Times last Friday about the “skinny” repeal:

Representative Chris Collins, Republican of New York and a key ally of Mr. Trump, said the stripped-down bill would be “better than nothing” if it became apparent that the Senate did not have the votes for a more ambitious bill. “It becomes a binary choice,” he said. “If it’s this or nothing, who wants to go home and say I did nothing? No one can guarantee anything,” he added, sending a message to senators wanting assurances.

Having 15 million people lose health coverage with 20 percent increases in premiums for others is “better than nothing”, Chris? Wow! Your constituents are so grateful for your efforts. You seem better suited for stock brokering than legislating.

Flynn keeps his promise

Last year’s race for Erie County District Attorney was a hard fought battle, both in the Democratic primary and in the general election. Things often get said and promised in the heat of a campaign that sometimes do not come to fruition when the winner takes office.

The election winner, John Flynn, committed himself to neither soliciting nor accepting campaign funds from employees of the District Attorney’s office if he was elected. In-house solicitation has been a common practice in the office.

Flynn scheduled a fundraiser for July 27th. He kept his promise.  The following is from the event invitation:

Friends of John Flynn is not soliciting or accepting contributions from employees of the District Attorney’s office or their spouses, partners, or significant others.