- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Post-Star of Glens Falls on government ethics reform.

March 21

One of the ironies of the current debate over ethics reform in the state Legislature, which has focused on outside income, is that most legislators earn little outside income or none at all.

According to a coalition of state government reform organizations, more than two-thirds of state lawmakers reported either no outside employment income or less than $20,000 in outside income on financial disclosure forms filed in 2014.

The biggest problems, as with so many things, are being created by a small number of legislators, particularly those in leadership positions. We have seen with former Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, what an enormous mess one powerful and corrupt legislator can make and how deeply his actions can compromise the entire institution.

That is why reform that goes beyond the agreement between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the new Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie is necessary. Their proposal focuses on transparency. It would require lawmakers to disclose outside income that exceeds $1,000 and require those who work as lawyers or real estate brokers to identify clients who pay more than $5,000 and list the services provided.

It’s a promising start, but it falls short of the fundamental reform necessary when legislators, including the leader of the Assembly, have been getting indicted by the limo-load.

Outside income should not only be revealed but limited, as it is for members of the U.S. Congress and for elected representatives in many other states. All the details of Silver’s earnings have not been revealed, but he was making far more money from outside sources than he was from his job in the Assembly. That is a formula for warping any worker’s priorities.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wants a ban on all outside income, along with a boost in legislators’ salaries, which are now $79,500. We wouldn’t go that far.

But outside income should be low enough that legislators remain devoted to their public job. The U.S. Congress limits outside earned income to 15 percent of the highest salary paid to any sitting legislator. We think no New York legislator should earn more than a third of his or her annual income from outside sources.

The deal between Heastie and Cuomo would also reform per-diem payments, requiring legislators to swipe an electronic card to prove they spent at least part of the day in Albany before collecting their $172 travel and accommodation stipend. We support that reform, but again, it seems like a bare minimum.

Per-diem expenses vary. If you’re Dan Stec or Betty Little driving down from Queensbury, you’re going to spend a lot less than if you’re Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes driving in from Buffalo. Receipts should be required, as they are in the business world, and reimbursement made for actual, documented expenses.

The current figure - $172 - seems like a fair maximum to us, but if a legislator drives in for the day from Queensbury and spends $20 on gas, $4 on coffee and $13 on lunch, then she should get back $37 and no more.

The reaction to the Heastie-Cuomo deal from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is unfortunate. Rather than taking seriously the state’s urgent need for ethics reform, he has responded with a snide suggestion that the governor’s girlfriend, Sandra Lee, should be required to reveal her income because she lives with Cuomo.

If we lived in a state that had already grappled with the basics of ethics reform, it would make sense to dig into gray areas, such as household income contributed by unmarried partners. But we live in New York, the untamed frontier of public ethics, and we need to start with the areas where most of the abuse is taking place.

Transparency is an important part of this crusade, but it’s not enough. Sheldon Silver was revealing some of his outside income on financial disclosure forms but disguising it as legitimate. In reality, the money came from “bribes and kickbacks,” according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

More detailed disclosure will help, but we need limits, too. Those who want to make lots of money, perhaps by representing unsavory legal clients, are free to do that in the private sector. But we need to make it harder for our public servants to be corrupted by greed, and the most effective way to do that is to limit the amount of money they can make outside their public salaries.

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Online: https://bit.ly/1B4LMOn

Newsday on the state’s grand jury system.

March 22

A judge who refused to release the evidence presented to a grand jury that returned no indictment in the death of Eric Garner, ruled there was no legal justification for the public to know what led to the conclusion that no crime was committed.

If the public’s need to know in the case of an unarmed black man who died at the hands of police doesn’t meet the legal test for lifting the shroud of grand jury secrecy, then the law must be changed. A similar shroud hangs over Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s failure to charge a Nassau County cop who shot a taxi driver in Huntington Station. Confidence in the justice system is essential, and it’s diminished when the public is left in the dark.

That’s true generally, but particularly when the strained relationship between blacks and police is involved. A video of Garner grabbed in an NYPD-banned chokehold, wheezing “I can’t breathe” and being pressed to the ground by cops arresting him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, is at odds with the determination that no crime was committed.

Most grand jury presentations are quick and spare. The one in Garner’s death lasted from Sept. 29, 2014 to Dec. 3. That seems like a mini-trial. Issues raised by public disclosure wouldn’t have been insurmountable. It’s done in many other states. The identity of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who grabbed Garner around his neck, is already public. Witnesses’ names could have been withheld while disclosing their testimony, the charges sought, physical evidence and how the law was explained. Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan previously summarized the grand jury’s investigation in a statement that disclosed no testimony. But a summary from the prosecutor whose office presented the case to the grand jury just doesn’t cut it.

In rejecting requests for the grand jury minutes, the judge ruled those seeking them had no “compelling and particularized” need since they only wanted them to guide reform. But reform is a compelling need. State law that so guards secrecy needs to change. Secrecy isn’t sacrosanct. Public confidence that justice is done is more important.

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Online: https://nwsdy.li/1BnjnmL

The New York Post on Palestinian-Israeli relations.

March 24

President Obama admitted the obvious Tuesday: Prospects for establishing a Palestinian state are “very dim.”

With his talking of a “real policy difference” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on that goal, Obama was plainly blaming Bibi.

Netanyahu infuriated the president on the eve of Israel’s election by himself ruling out Palestinian statehood any year soon.

But why is Obama furious with Bibi for in effect saying that John Kerry was right?

On April 17, 2013, Secretary of State Kerry warned Congress that the chance to establish a Palestinian state would be “over” within “two years.”

He told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “The window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time - a year, a year-and-a-half, two years - or it’s over.”

Kerry then spent a year trying to relaunch talks - but the Palestinians refused to negotiate without preconditions.

By Kerry’s timetable, the window has now shut. Bibi’s election-eve words merely closed the circle on what Kerry had warned of two years before.

Of course, Kerry was optimistic. As veteran diplomat Elliot Abrams notes in National Review, Palestinian boss Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 rejected an Israeli offer that would’ve given him 96 percent of the West Bank, some Israeli territory and shared control of Jerusalem.

“If he rejected that offer,” writes Abrams, “he will reject them all. They will never get any better than that.”

All of which suggests Obama’s pique at Netanyahu really has little to do with Bibi’s remarks on Palestinians and everything to do with his warnings about the global dangers of the president’s pending nuclear deal with Iran.

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Online: https://bit.ly/18XlrKw

The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on football player head injuries

March 22

Last week’s unexpected retirement of a healthy first-year NFL player - San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland - may have little immediate impact on football’s claim as the top American spectator sport, but it’s probably sending shock waves through the game’s establishment, at both the professional and amateur levels.

And well it should.

Borland, a 24-year-old who had just completed a stellar rookie season, was positioned to make tens of millions of dollars over the next decade. Instead, he used his head, reasoning (while he still could) that all the money in the world can’t buy a cure for depression, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s or other serious neurological diseases that playing even one more season would have subjected him to.

So he walked (another thing retired football players have trouble doing later in life), joining four other NFL players under the age of 31 to have announced premature retirements this off-season.

Borland suffered a single concussion as a rookie - during a training camp practice, not against a full-tilt opponent. He was fine during the regular season, but said he knew enough about the effects of repeated head trauma and concussions, both of which remain part of the game in spite of efforts to reduce them, to know that continuing to play would be a gamble that he couldn’t justify.

Even at the high school level, an estimated five to 15 percent of all football players (and 5 percent of all soccer players) suffer at least one concussion every year. Even riskier is having a second in short order; that’s when most lasting brain injuries are believed to occur.

The rules for pro and college players have been stiffened over the years, and hits to players’ heads are far less tolerated than they used to be. Likewise, players with concussive symptoms are supposed to be immediately removed from games and can’t play for 24 hours. In New York, high schoolers who suffer concussions must also get a doctor’s permission to return.

These are all good measures as far as they go, but to a degree, they rely on self-policing. Players will often try to hide symptoms to stay in a game - gladiators have to be tough! - and the pressure to win at all levels poses a conflict of interest for any coach.

And then there’s the game itself. Violence seems to be an inherent part of it, and to some degree integral to its popularity.

Thus the NFL, with earnings of $10 billion a year, has tended to tread lightly when it comes to making changes. And when it approved a $765 million settlement for 4,500 retired players a couple years ago, it even refused to acknowledge that contact had anything to do with the players’ brain-related injuries.

While the league has been moving in the right direction, it’s still been too slow for the likes of Borland, Jason Worilds, Jake Locker and Cortland Finnegan.

How many more top NFL players like them will have to retire in their prime, and how many more parents of amateur players will have to forbid their kids to play, before the message gets delivered and the game is made quantifiably safer?

Or maybe that’s not even possible.

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Online: https://bit.ly/1bmHmwi

The Poughkeepsie Journal President Barack Obama and immigration reform.

March 23

A federal judge’s ruling blocks certain executive actions that President Barack Obama wants to take on immigration, but it far from settles the matter.

In fact, the judge’s decision merely highlights the need for Congress and the president to do what has been needed all along - pass sweeping immigration reform that realistically deals with the approximate 11 million illegal immigrants in the country and also shores up our borders.

Instead, Congress has dithered. Federally elected officials have argued the various points of legislation for years but have accomplished nothing.

Think this has little to do with New York? Think again.

Recently, New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton was in Washington to reinforce his organization’s support for comprehensive immigration reform. As the Journal’s Washington Bureau reported, plenty of farm owners who rely on immigrant workers say they need legislation to let those workers stay in the U.S. year-round - and to create a flexible guest-worker visa program for seasonal employees.

Agriculture is an important part of New York’s economy, providing billions of dollars each year; New York ranks at the top or near the top in producing everything from yogurt and milk, to apples and grapes.

Fed up and running out of time in his presidency, Obama ordered changes to the U.S. immigration system aimed at protecting nearly 5 million people from deportation. This was being done in phases, with an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 - and who have lived in the country for at least five years - being eligible to apply for legal status soon. An additional 4 million or more who came to the United States as adults would become eligible in May.

But, sitting in Texas, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen has ruled aspects of Obama’s plan were not handled properly, including intending to have the Department of Homeland Security carry out the policies without public comment.

The Obama administration is appealing the ruling and next it will head to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and likely eventually to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the country’s broken immigration policies will continue.

The country needs a clean, clear immigration policy. It can’t afford to wait around for a court ruling that will take years and that can, at best, address only a component of the issue. The policy should strengthen border patrols and require U.S. business owners to use federal Internet-based programs to check the immigration status of all new hires. But it also should provide a way for those here illegally to come out of the shadows and begin what would be a years-long process to legal recognition.

The country doesn’t win with a political stalemate, one that sees no progress but plenty of lawsuits.

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Online: https://pojonews.co/1EEfhrj


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