- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

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The Times Union of Albany on a former lawmaker’s county land deal

Dec. 13

Ah, the good old days, when a politically connected person could pick up 65 acres of publicly owned land without the hassle of pesky things like appraisals and competitive bids. This nostalgic moment is brought to you by the Albany County Legislature, of course.

Now, the county may have worked out a fair deal in the proposed sale of a property in Knox to a former minority leader of the legislature, but no one can say for sure, considering how it was handled. And that’s the bigger issue here: the missing transparency.

As the Times Union’s Amanda Fries reports, the land at 22 Hammond Road had been foreclosed on by the county earlier this year after the previous owner failed to pay taxes. Normally, under a 2015 policy approved by county legislators, the land would be transferred to the Albany County Land Bank, which was created to help insure that abandoned or seized properties don’t just lie around unused, unkept and unproductive, potentially turning into blights on their communities.

There are some exceptions to the process. Land acquired by the county can be conveyed to a party other than the Albany County Land Bank if the county itself will use the land; if it goes to another government entity or nonprofit for preservation; or if it will be used for economic development by “properly vetted third parties.”

In this case, however, the legislature on Dec. 4 simply approved selling it to John Graziano Jr., a former Republican minority leader of the legislature who is now president of a lobbying firm. Though a Republican, he has been a generous campaign contributor over the years to the legislature’s Democratic majority leader, Frank Commisso Sr., and also donated to the chairman’s son, Frank Commisso Jr., in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in Albany’s mayoral race this year. County officials say they understand that Mr. Graziano, of Colonie, wants the land for hunting.

All this came together quite quickly - Mr. Graziano made an offer on the property in a letter to the legislature’s chairman, Sean Ward, on Nov. 9; within six days a committee cleared the sale, and at the Dec. 4 meeting the legislature approved it 21-17.

The sale comes with no appraisal, and the $60,000 price tag is considerably below the town assessor’s full value for the land of almost $97,000. The county budget office, though, puts the market value at $50,000. The sales price is more than double the back taxes owed on the lot.

All that misses the issue, however. There should have been an appraisal. There should have been an open bidding process so that people with a potential interest in the land - such as its two adjoining landowners - could make their own offers. And all this shouldn’t be some seat-of-the-pants process that only those in the know are privy to, but rather should be part of a clear, written policy.

County Executive Dan McCoy should make good on his plan to veto this sale, as 18 legislators urge, and send a message that this odd deal is not how good government works. It’s a throwback to the bad old days.

Online: http://bit.ly/2CcHJrp

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The Utica Observer-Dispatch on homeless veterans in the U.S.

Dec. 12

No U.S. military veteran should be homeless. But despite ambitious efforts on many fronts, the battle to make sure that doesn’t happen is fought every day.

It must be.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acknowledges that due to the transient nature of homeless populations, a flawless count is difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, HUD estimates that nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.

This is a national tragedy. Veterans are the breadwinners for our nation. They have put their lives on the line for us, and we must not turn our backs now.

Kate McClure didn’t.

McClure, of Florence Township, New Jersey, ran out of gas on an Interstate 95 exit ramp late one night recently. A homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., walked several blocks and bought her $20 worth of gasoline with what little money he had. She didn’t have money to repay him at the time, she told the Associated Press, but visited him a few more times to bring food and water. McClure and her boyfriend later created the online fundraiser page as a thank you and to try to help him get back on his feet.

As of last week, they had raised more than $397,000.

Bobbitt is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and worked as a paramedic in Vance County, North Carolina, before becoming homeless, according to the AP report. Details on how he wound up on the streets of Philadelphia are sketchy, although Bobbitt attributes it to a mix of “bad decisions and bad situations.”

Whatever the reasons, Bobbitt’s story is not unlike thousands of U.S. veterans. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, homelessness might be attributed to a variety of complex factors, including an extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care. Also, the coalition notes, many displaced and at-risk veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.

Last month, the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report that said the number of homeless veterans in the state dropped 78.4 percent between 2011 and 2016, the biggest drop of any state. But Vincent Scalise, founder and executive director of the Central New York Veterans Outreach Center in Utica, said that the level of homelessness among veterans locally seems to have held steady over the past few years.

In Oneida and Madison counties, homeless surveys that measure homelessness on one day in January each year have shown the number of homeless veterans falling from 26 in 2009 to none last year, said Scott McCumber, an associate planner with the state’s Continuum of Care program. But, he noted, those statistics and those in the comptroller’s report only apply to one day a year and they use a specific definition of homelessness - someone staying in a shelter, living in transitional housing or living on the street or staying in a motel room while waiting for space in a housing program.

Meanwhile, efforts continue locally to address the problem. In September, local officials gathered to celebrate planned renovations that will add 17 permanent housing units for homeless veterans on the third and fourth floors of the outreach center on Washington Street. The project will be paid for with $3.2 million in funding from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program. Scalise said he expects the project to take eight months to complete.

In addition to the Outreach Center, the Altamont Program specifically helps homeless veterans, providing studio apartments to 11 single men and providing services to help them transition back into the community. During his three years with the organization, Residential Director Robert Green said 15 men have moved into their own apartments. When one of the program’s studio apartments becomes available, it’s usually filled again within three weeks, Green said.

It’s a problem that cannot be ignored. U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, said last month that the federal government is working to address veterans’ issues, passing 14 bills in one week alone on all type of initiatives … to help veterans get jobs, take care of their families and to deal with mental health issues.

“But,” she said, “we have a long way to go.”

For sure.

As for Bobbitt, he used some of the money raised for him by McClure to buy a home. He also said that he plans to donate some of his money to a Philadelphia grade school student who is helping another homeless veteran.

Semper Fi.

Online: http://bit.ly/2iXOSn9

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The New York Post on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s avoidance of open press conferences

Dec. 12

What is Gov. Cuomo afraid of?

New York’s combative chief executive has never been one to shy away from a confrontation with his critics. But of late he seems to have turned tail and run from the press corps.

The threat: questions about such embarrassments as the FBI probe of his hiring practices, the upcoming corruption trial of his onetime right-hand man and the recent firing of a top official for sexual harassment.

Cuomo hasn’t held a formal sit-down with the reporters who regularly cover him since last June. And now he’s come up with something new: He only takes press questions in conference calls - with his aides choosing who gets to pose a query, and picking only reporters who agree on the topic in advance.

As one reporter noted, things are just one step away from the governor having his own staff interview him.

So much for the Andrew Cuomo who in his 2010 campaign vowed to “make the state government the most transparent and accountable in history.”

Since then, he’s been anything but, limiting his contacts to carefully controlled settings that must have President Trump green with envy. He’s cracked down on agency contacts with the press, restricted the release of information and even sent aides to monitor what records reporters are requesting from the State Archives.

Even Mayor de Blasio, hard as he tries to limit reporters’ questions, does answer.

The governor has instead retreated deep within Fortress Cuomo. Sure makes you think he’s got something to hide.

Online: http://nyp.st/2z9n3RZ

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The Gloversville Leader-Herald on the resignation of U.S. Sen. Al Franken and retirement of Rep. John Conyers

Dec. 10

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned on Thursday. He was following U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ lead. Conyers, D-Mich., “retired” earlier in the week.

So, the two members of Congress in the news recently for sexual harassment have left. Problem solved?

Hardly. The problem is not two sleazy men who preyed on women.

Instead, it is the belief among some men and women that political office or great success in the private sector is a license to push people around, sometimes harming them severely - and get away with it.

Too often, they are right about getting away with their crimes.

Franken’s offenses occurred years ago. Conyers’ date back decades. So do Harvey Weinstein’s, Matt Lauer’s, etc., etc.

Yet they got away with it for many years. Some in their industries covered for them.

This is nothing new. Think Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.

Neither are attempts by a predator’s supporters to cover up harassment, often for political reasons. For many years, the Jefferson-Hemmings connection was labeled a smear on a great man.

Forcing two or three - or even a thousand - powerful predators out of office or their jobs does not solve the problem.

Behavior such as that in the headlines involving Conyers, Franken and many others will not end until predators understand no one will protect them for any reason - simply because what they do is wrong.

Online: http://bit.ly/2iXa2Sq

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The New York Times on the $450 million purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”

Dec. 12

The big news in the art world the other day - and it was big - was the disclosure that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi heir who’s detained dozens of cousins and tycoons in an anti-corruption drive, was the mysterious buyer who paid a fortune for a distinctly non-Islamic Leonardo at an auction at Christie’s in New York City last month. The man who placed the bid on the crown prince’s behalf was a little-known cousin with a lot less money but a much longer name, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. There were companion reports that the painting would ultimately wind up in a museum in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital and the new challenger for culture bragging rights on the Persian Gulf.

All this was sourced to American intelligence officials and other unnamed persons who know a lot about the art world. It seemed consistent with the crown prince’s pattern of working through friends to make big purchases.

But hold on! Doubts have now arisen as to whether the crown prince was the true buyer, the man who actually shelled out $450.3 million for the painting, and for whom Prince Bader was a mere gofer. The Saudi Embassy in Washington said in a statement that the true buyer was the Ministry of Culture in Abu Dhabi, where the painting will hang in a newly opened branch of the Louvre, and that Prince Bader was, in fact, the ministry’s agent.

So what really do we know? One, the buyer at auction was Prince Bader, a close friend and associate of the crown prince. No one disputes that. Two, the museum in Abu Dhabi is definitely expecting to hang the painting on its walls. The unanswered question is this: For whom or what entity was Prince Bader acting? Another question: Why would the Saudis move so quickly to say the crown prince was not the moneyman?

One possible answer is the optics - the anomaly of the crown prince doling out $450.3 million for a painting, no matter how rare or wonderful, when he has so publicly and dramatically dedicated the first six months of his heir-apparency to imposing austerity measures and rooting out corruption.

Then there’s the fact that the painting’s subject, Salvator Mundi - Jesus Christ as the savior of the world - would seem certain to antagonize religious authorities in a stern Muslim kingdom like Saudi Arabia. Jesus is recognized as a prophet in Islam, not as God, but Islam bars making images of prophets. Prince Mohammed has been trying to loosen the imposition of strict Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, but it is hard to imagine that this would be the way to go about it. Then, finally, is the curiosity of a Saudi heir doling out close to a half-billion dollars on a painting for a museum in a neighboring emirate.

The architecturally striking Louvre Abu Dhabi opened last month to great fanfare (it leased the name from the Paris Louvre for 30 years), hoping to challenge the longstanding pre-eminence on the gulf art scene of Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. A bona fide Leonardo would be an indisputable prize - especially when it easily beat the record Doha had held for the most ever paid for a painting, roughly $300 million for a Gauguin. (It may be worth noting that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are currently locked in a vicious feud in which the United Arab Emirates supports the Saudis.)

So if one mystery has been solved - the identity of Prince Bader, agent extraordinaire - more have been raised. Was this a game of gulf one-upmanship, with more to follow? Can the royal wunderkind of Saudi Arabia square his spending with his reforms?

Online: http://nyti.ms/2C1LE9S


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