Updated: December 17, 2014 at 9:16 am
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The New York Post on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's income as a lawyer.
Sheldon Silver has been keeping a secret from the citizens of New York.
The Assembly speaker admitted for the first time that besides the hefty fees he commands as counsel to Weitz & Luxenberg, he also has his own personal law practice.
His admission came last Thursday, after a New York Times report that federal prosecutors determined he'd failed to disclose some of his outside law-firm income, which topped $650,000 in 2013.
As for what he specifically does to earn that money and for whom, Silver's lips remain sealed. "I can't tell you," said the speaker, adding that "I follow the law." Then again, this is a law he pretty much wrote himself and that does not require such disclosure.
Silver and other legislators with outside law-firm income stand on the profession's ethical code of confidentiality.
But the New York City Bar Association, in a 2010 statement, called on Silver and his colleagues to fully disclose their outside income, "including the identity of their clients, their fees and a clear description of the services rendered."
Moreover, "there should be no blanket exception for attorney-legislators."
But even the kind of full disclosure called for by the Bar Association doesn't cover all the possible conflicts of interests.
Consider: Silver for years has led the fight against tort reform in New York.
If tort reform passed and the lawsuit industry was reined in, of course, firms like Weitz & Luxenberg — whose name partners are, respectively, director of the state Trial Lawyers Association and treasurer of its PAC — would stand to be the big losers.
As things stand, our legislators need only state their outside work does not conflict with their state jobs. New Yorkers simply have to take their word for it.
But Silver & Co. have done nothing to demonstrate they've earned such trust. We say it's long past time to force pols to make all their earnings and their sources public — and let New Yorkers judge for themselves.
The Post-Star of Glens Falls on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and ethics reform.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is again negotiating with the Legislature for significant ethics reforms. This time, he is horse-trading a pay raise.
Since calling off the Moreland dogs, we have become far more suspicious of the governor's motives.
Is this an opportunity to right a wrong, or is it a chance to position himself on the right side of the corruption issue if federal indictments rain down from federal prosecutors?
In exchange for a raise, Gov. Cuomo wants extensive concessions that would handcuff lawmakers from tapping into what has become an overflowing trough of campaign donations.
That deal seems unlikely.
Cuomo would like to get the following from the Legislature:
— Restrictions on the personal use of campaign funds.
— The filing of supporting documents to show how legislators spend their $172 per day stipend while working for the state.
— Agreement to strip any legislator of his/her pension if they are convicted of corruption.
— Subjecting of the Legislature to the same type of Freedom of Information Law requirements as the executive branch (although this last one is laughable, since the executive branch regularly flouts FOIL).
While these negotiations were being reported, The New York Times concluded an examination of the Moreland Commission's unfinished work that included hundreds of pages of internal documents, emails, subpoenas, campaign-finance records and interviews.
It is clear from the Times reporting that much of the Albany corruption stems from perfectly legal ways of fund-raising that allow legislators to use money raised for campaigns for just about anything. It also raises the question: When does a campaign contribution become a bribe?
To even begin to battle corruption in Albany, elected officials must address the flood of money they benefit from. That does not seem likely.
Let's start with the LLC loophole.
Corporations are allowed to make no more than $5,000 a year in political donations. That seems harmless enough, except there is a loophole for a limited liability company.
LLCs are treated as people and allowed to donate up to $60,800 a year to a statewide candidate per election cycle. Often, big companies have many LLC subsidiaries and each of them is allowed to donate up to $60,800 per election cycle, which can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and some significant political influence.
According to The New York Times' examination of documents it reviewed, the Moreland Commission found corporations were strategically dividing up huge contributions to maximize their giving — and their influence — not only to the rank and file members of the Legislature but to the governor and others running for state office.
By using cloaked limited liability companies, the magnitude of the corporate gifts was concealed. There is no way to connect the dots to see if colossal campaign contributions led to special treatment for those doing business with the state.
Gov. Cuomo criticized the LLC loophole, but also continued to take advantage of it to raise money during his recent campaign.
When the donated cash was not used during the campaign, some legislators used it as their own private slush fund, according to the records the Times reviewed.
The difference between a legitimate campaign contribution and an outright bribe continues to be murky in Albany.
Some progress has been made. Elected officials now have to report the source of outside income and a specific range of compensation. Members of the leadership like Sheldon Silver, Jeffrey Klein and Dean Skelos receive big paychecks from law firms for which they work. The question that has not been answered is what they have done to earn those paychecks. The Moreland Commission was reportedly trying to find out. According to the Times, it issued subpoenas for card-swipe records and sign-in sheets to see how often the lawmakers showed up for work.
Considering the questions that linger and the gaping holes in how money is raised and accounted for during elections, it seems unconscionable for anyone in the Legislature to get a pay raise. They have a lot of nerve to even ask.
But we would be willing to double their current salary of $79,500 if the LLC loophole could be closed and legislators agreed to release detailed information on how much they make from outside employment.
"When pigs fly," you say.
This whole affair appears to be nothing more than posturing on the part of the governor as he tries to restore his image as a crusader against evil, while still reaping the financial benefits of the current corrupt system.
The New York Times on airfares going up despite the dip in oil prices.
Oil prices have fallen by about half since June, making it much cheaper just in time for drivers to fill up their cars for Christmas travel. But the decline in oil prices has had made no perceptible difference on the cost of flying. Fares are up from earlier this year, and many airlines are still levying significant fuel surcharges on the tickets they sell.
There are many reasons airlines have not lowered fares to reflect the decline in oil prices. Some of these companies are still paying high prices for fuel themselves because they have to abide by long-term contracts. But the biggest reason airlines are not passing on lower prices to consumers is that they don't have to.
Demand for air travel is strong, and a series of megamergers has significantly reduced competition in the industry. The four biggest airlines in the United States — Delta, Southwest, United and American — control about 80 percent of airline capacity, down from 11 companies as recently as 2005. For most travelers, that has meant higher prices and jam-packed planes.
After suffering through years of losses and bankruptcies, airlines are prospering. The International Air Transport Association says that the industry's profits will grow by about 26 percent, to a record $25 billion, next year. The association says North American airlines now have profit margins higher than in the late 1990s, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks devastated the industry. Airlines for America, a trade group, says its members are investing their growing profits in new planes, better amenities for passengers, employee profit-sharing and dividends.
As they have become more financially sound, airlines have increasingly flexed their political muscle in Washington. Earlier this year, airlines were pushing Congress to change how they are allowed to advertise fares. Under current regulations, airlines are required to tell customers the total cost of flights, including taxes. But the industry wants to advertise pretax airfares so that consumers would only see the total cost of a ticket at the time of purchase.
A measure, approved by the House in July, called the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, would do exactly this, making it easier for airlines to mislead travelers about the true costs. The Senate has not voted on it, but the bill has a chance of becoming law next year when Republicans take control of both houses of Congress.
Instead of trying to manipulate what customers see in ads, airlines should be making fares simpler by doing away with fuel surcharges. These fees are almost always questionable because they rarely respond quickly to changes in fuel prices. The cost of fuel should be reflected in the ticket price.
Fuel costs accounted for about 29 percent of airlines' operating expenses in the third quarter of the year, making it their largest single cost. On Sunday, Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, said the Departments of Justice and Transportation should investigate the unwillingness of airlines to reduce fares and remove fuel surcharges.
But it doesn't take an investigation to figure out that higher airfares are the direct result of reduced competition. Consumer advocates clearly warned that allowing mergers like the 2013 American Airlines-US Airways combination would harm consumers. This is exactly what is now happening.
The Times Union of Albany on the federal budget and Congress.
Maybe you hate compact fluorescent light bulbs. Maybe you like the idea of sleepy tractor-trailer drivers barreling down the highway with 40 tons of steel and cargo at their backs. Maybe you'd rather oil companies drill where they please than save the sage grouse from extinction. Or maybe you're of the opinion that there's nothing at all wrong with letting banks engage in the kind of risky business that helped wreck the economy six years ago.
If those are your positions, you probably think it's fine that Congress managed to slip all those issues into the federal budget in recent days.
But think again.
Under the veneer of compromise, Congress and many special interests stuffed the latest budget with a lot of policy issues that had no real business in a spending bill.
But in lumping them all into the budget, Congress effectively tamped down any serious debate of their merits and drawbacks. Anyone who dug in on any one issue could be branded a budget obstructionist and accused of wanting to shut down government.
It's efficient politics, perhaps, but it's bad governing.
No doubt many of these matters arguably have some vague connection to the budget. One part of the budget bill, for example, will allow certain pension funds to cut benefits for at least 1.5 million current and future retirees, helping not just funds that are said to be at risk of failure but the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., too — an entity, by the way, that is not funded by taxes. Was it necessary? Were there other options? Could the PBGC have withstood the failures? Was there mismanagement in the funds? Are there people or interests that stand to benefit big at the expense of retirees?
Any one of the mostly non-budgetary issues that were folded into this come with similarly thorny questions that deserve a public airing. But Congress squandered the opportunity for that, allowing all sorts of agendas to be served without the public really knowing why, and what the consequences might be.
What allows this is a cynical view that assumes that after years of frustration with Congress' political gridlock and brinkmanship, the public would be happy just to see the wheels of government moving and a government shutdown averted. And if a few bad ideas make it into the budget, so what? Doesn't compromise mean no one's happy?
Perhaps. Compromise is a political art form that's been virtually dead in Washington, D.C., in recent years. But compromise is not the same thing as giving Congress and lobbyists carte blanche to use the budget as a cover, under which they can sneak past the public all sorts of legislation that they'd rather not debate in the open.
This isn't about light bulbs. It's about sunshine.
The Poughkeepsie Journal on the federal government's disaster relief efforts.
When it comes to helping people and businesses deal with the sweeping ramifications of a natural disaster, federal officials have plenty of work cut out for them. And it's not just in making sure there is timely relief or an accountable process to aid communities in the arduous task of rebuilding.
When appropriate, federal officials must insist on the release of more information from insurance companies that play a big role in determining what is covered and how much financial assistance homeowners and businesses will be receiving.
In particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must take responsibility for ensuring certain insurance claims are being processed fairly, that homeowners and businesses are not being "low-balled," in the words of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.,
For instance, many claims have been processed since Superstorm Sandy slammed East Coast two years ago, but legitimate questions have been raised about some of the payouts.
FEMA officials now say they will force insurers to reveal more information about flood-insurance claims, so policyholders can better determine how their claims were evaluated.
Specifically, FEMA says all engineering reports that were secretly modified will be provided to policyholders, and the agency vows to designate staff from the office to help homeowners work through the steps in filing a claim and appealing a decision.
FEMA definitely has responsibility to act decisively here.
While FEMA covers losses incurred by the National Flood Insurance Program, private insurers service and write the policies.
The federal government should be clear: Private insurers wishing to enter into such contracts must understand that transparency is part of the equation.
Of course, the federal government also should be leading by example when it comes to providing assistance to those looking to rebuild their communities. For instance, while billions of federal dollars were allocated for the Superstorm Sandy recovery effort, bureaucracy often gets in the way of seeing that money filter down to municipalities, homeowners and businesses. Some rebuilding efforts will require more time and money, including improving dams and levies and strengthening other infrastructure to better deal with climate change and other changing weather conditions that are likely to lead to more powerful storms throughout the Northeast, especially along the coast and even the Hudson River. But there is no doubt that complaints and delays over flood insurance payouts are one of the biggest reasons why rebuilding has been delayed.
FEMA must follow through on vastly improving this process.