- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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

May the SoulCycle Boycott Make Democracy Better

The New York Times

Aug. 8

It has been an unsettling week for some of President Trump’s political contributors.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Stephen Ross, the billionaire real estate developer whose firm owns SoulCycle and Equinox gym, was hosting a big-money fund-raiser in support of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee on Friday, with ticket prices running as high as $250,000. This news did not sit well with many patrons of Equinox and SoulCycle, who took to social media to call for a boycott.

Lower down the donor ladder, 44 residents of San Antonio who had contributed the maximum legal amount to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign found themselves in the spotlight, after their names were tweeted out on Monday by Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, who declared himself “Sad to see so many” of his constituents “fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”

The particulars of these two episodes differed, as did the public reactions. But both touched on broader questions about the advantages and challenges of promoting campaign finance transparency in the age of social media.

Scrambling to contain the fallout from the fund-raiser news, Equinox and SoulCycle tried to draw a bright line between corporate policy and the personal politics of Mr. Ross. The companies posted statements on social media, dismissing him as “a passive investor” and assuring members that the companies are not involved with his fund-raiser, that “no company profits are used to fund politicians” and that they “believe in tolerance and equality.” Mr. Ross issued his own defense, insisting that he had always been “an active participant in the democratic process” and had “never been bashful” about airing points of disagreements with the president.

Such distinctions appear to have done little to placate critics, who contend that the companies’ profits fatten Mr. Ross’s bottom line - and by extension Mr. Trump’s campaign coffers.

A popular form of protest, boycotts more often serve to draw public attention to an issue than to effect concrete change. With Mr. Ross, critics may or may not manage to inflict any financial pain. They nonetheless are publicly demanding that he answer for - and perhaps ultimately rethink - his political giving. In the process, they’re sending a signal to other major contributors to carefully consider their choices lest they face a similar accounting.

Public shaming seemed to be at the core of Mr. Castro’s tweet as well, though the outcry from Republican officials was much louder. The Texas congressman was accused of “inviting harassment” and “encouraging violence against” his own constituents. “People should not be personally targeted for their political views,” warned Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, noting that he knew “firsthand” that “lives are at stake.” (Mr. Scalise was shot by an apparently politically motivated gunman in 2017.) Donald Trump Jr. equated Mr. Castro’s tweet with the “hit list” kept in high school by the perpetrator of Sunday’s mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. There were calls for Mr. Castro to resign, and the hashtag #ImpeachJoaquinCastro trended on Twitter. (Note: Constitutionally speaking, impeaching House members is not a thing.)

There is rich irony in Republican self-righteousness about public attacks on people’s political donations. Prominent Republicans routinely assert that the billionaire George Soros, a major donor to progressive candidates and causes, secretly controls the Democratic Party. Mr. Trump and his supporters spent over a year publicly smearing members of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team as “13 angry Democrats,” based on their voter registrations or political giving, or both.

Thus far, Mr. Castro and his defenders have refused to back down, noting that the information he tweeted was public and readily available to anyone who cared to do a quick internet search.

This is true. But it does not mean his move shouldn’t give people pause.

A key legal rationale for campaign finance disclosure laws has long been that they help prevent corruption by letting people determine whether donors seem to be influencing recipients on policy. What Mr. Castro did was to “unlink” disclosure from policy, said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime crusader for campaign finance regulation. Such public shaming, devoid of context and redolent of politics, threatens to start “a very dangerous game,” Mr. Wertheimer said.

Mr. Castro has insisted he did not intend for the donors to be harassed. Whatever his intent, posting the names on Twitter - a platform not known for inspiring users’ better angels - was like tossing an injured sea lion into a shark tank. The results were certain to be bloody.

As with all political tactics, there is also a high risk of escalation, to the point where each side routinely sics the dark furies of social media on their opponents’ donors.

“It is not the purpose of campaign finance disclosure to create political warfare in which the donors become the targets per se,” said Mr. Wertheimer, noting that such a turn could nudge more contributors into dark-money channels - or be used as a weapon in future legal challenges to campaign finance laws. “The other side always argues that disclosure laws encourage harassment and chill speech,” he said of court cases, cautioning that, if angry Twitter users wage online campaigns against random donors, that argument could carry considerably more weight.

When it comes to political money, transparency is vital to the health of our democracy, and contributors, be they billionaires or bus drivers, should have no expectation of privacy. The challenge is to get the public to pay attention to the flow of political money without the situation devolving into partisan blood sport. There are searchable databases, like opensecrets.org, many of them maintained by advocacy groups. But capturing people’s interest can be hard unless they are focused on a hot policy topic like guns or reproductive rights - and sometimes not even then.

For now, one basic step may be for media outlets and other advocates for transparency to keep working to ease access to and promote interest in donor data more broadly, so that it is more about public education than partisan enmity.

Americans have not only a right but also a duty to be informed about whose money is influencing their political system and its leaders.

Online: https://nyti.ms/2MfVMow


Questions about death of Jeffrey Epstein demand answers


Aug. 13

The case of Jeffrey Epstein is odious and troubling. That did not end with his apparent jail-cell suicide.

New questions now are layered on top of the many distressing truths - both known and not yet uncovered - surrounding the disgraced financier who has been accused of sexually abusing hundreds of young girls in New York and Florida.

Getting answers is critical.

How is it possible that Epstein died in federal custody in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan? He had tried to kill himself in jail in July, officials have said, but was taken off suicide watch on July 29. He was supposed to have a cellmate after that but did not. He was to be checked frequently by guards but was not on the night he died - two of those guards were on overtime shifts, one for the fourth or fifth straight day. The decision to remove Epstein from suicide watch was problematic. So, too, was the failure to sufficiently monitor Epstein, whether the neglect was accidental or intentional.

Attorney General William Barr cited “serious irregularities” at the jail and ordered the FBI and Department of Justice’s inspector general to conduct thorough investigations. That was the right call, and Barr should be vigilant in shepherding the probes.

As questions swirled, damaging conspiracy theories took flight. It was particularly unhelpful that President Donald Trump retweeted one such theory that has no basis in fact - that former President Bill Clinton had some involvement in Epstein’s death. Similarly, Rep. Lee Zeldin was irresponsible to tweet that there is a “100% chance” that additional wrongdoing not yet public contributed to Epstein’s death. If Zeldin knows something, he should say it. Otherwise, he should wait until the investigations produce results.

At the least, Epstein’s death highlights long-standing problems at the Manhattan jail and throughout the Bureau of Prisons. Auditors have found serious staffing and maintenance issues. Charges of understaffing and inefficiency, as well as indifference, neglect and hostility among officers in Manhattan and elsewhere, are common. Former Boston mobster Whitey Bulger was beaten to death by fellow inmates in November after a questionable transfer to a federal prison in West Virginia. The federal Brooklyn Detention Center had no electricity or heat for days of single-digit temperatures last winter, leaving 1,600 prisoners freezing in darkness and in lockdown. These problems must be fixed.

Even as Barr vowed accountability for Epstein’s suicide, Epstein’s victims will not see him held personally accountable for his abuse of them. That’s frustrating. The well-connected Epstein skirted previous attempts to punish him for sexual and financial misdeeds, including a sweetheart plea deal to a 2008 Florida sex crimes prosecution that was so lenient it forced the resignation last month of the then-U.S. attorney who negotiated it, Alexander Acosta, Trump’s labor secretary.

Online: https://nwsdy.li/2z2cdfn


Let’s bypass politicians to make our community safer

The Post-Star

Aug. 10

Gun control and Second Amendment rights can be an emotional and volatile issue in our communities, and we would be the first to admit we have tiptoed around the issue because of that.

After the killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook in 2012, we took a more aggressive approach and responded with a series of four editorials that looked at all sides of the issue as we urged our community to come together for solutions.

We believe that spurred dialogue.

We wrote at the time:

“We have to change, we have to compromise, and we have to agree the current path is not working and is not the world we want to leave for our children, if they survive. And politics should not get in the way.”

Sadly, politics has continued to stand in the way.

The National Rifle Association, of which there are just 5 million members in a country of 249 million adults, continues to lead politicians around by their noses.

One-hundred people a day die in gun-related shootings, two-thirds by suicide

Over 90 percent of Americans believe there should be universal background checks before purchasing a firearm.

The House of Representatives passed a measure earlier this year to require universal background checks - Rep. Elise Stefanik voted against it - but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked the bill from coming to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

We have no faith that politics will provide a solution.

The good news is that New York continues to be one of the safest states when it comes to gun violence.

The passage of the SAFE Act in 2013 remains a contentious issue for many in our communities, but we urge you to look deeper at its impact.

In New York, universal background checks are required to obtain a firearm.

Penalties were stiffened on those who have illegal firearms, and in the six years since the SAFE Act was passed, we have seen firearm-related crimes go down.

High-capacity magazines and assault weapons were banned under the law.

Ammunition dealers were required to conduct background checks.

Mental health professionals now have to alert officials if they have a patient they believe might harm others.

The vast majority of infractions against the law are in New York City, where prosecutors have repeatedly secured felony convictions that lead to longer criminal sentences.

So while the law continues to be maligned, especially upstate, statistics show it has made the state safer, and most importantly, we see no evidence of the feared grab for legal firearms, while the Second Amendment appears as strong as ever.

New York could eventually be an example for the rest of the country.

Over the weekend, 31 more people died in mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.

In Dayton, the shooter got off 41 rounds and killed nine people before he was taken down 30 seconds into the attack.

It is a reminder there is no security measure that can stop a madman intent on conducting mayhem. We’d like to see the rest of the country enact laws that mirror what we have here in New York, but we have little faith in any of the politicians.

We wonder if the solution lies within each and every one of us. We think there are things we all could do.

Obviously, the hate speech at all levels of political discourse is out of control and needs to be tamped down. Let’s demand better from the politicians and each other.

Stop with the tweets.

Stop with the name calling and nicknames.

Each and every one of us needs to rededicate ourselves to civil discourse, to listening to each other.

Stop with the name-calling and accusations on Facebook. If you want to participate in democracy, spend the month researching issues from reliable sources and write informed letters to the editor.

Stop reading the opinion blogs.

Turn off talk radio.

Watch a good movie on cable instead of an opinion show.

Take a deep breath.

On Thursday, protests and counterprotests were held in Glens Falls and six were arrested.

Let’s take a break until the temperature is cooler.

If you need to do something, how about coming together to make our community even safer.

We have great faith that this is a moral community that can get past the politics and the hate to do whatever it takes to make our world in upstate New York safer.

We are a big believer in gun safety and believe no one should be allowed to buy a firearm before first going through a safety course. There are currently no laws that require this.

Many of the local gun clubs already provide such services, but they could go further. Perhaps they could make these safety classes mandatory to club members as a way to set an example to the community at large? They could hold annual refresher courses for members.

We wondered if the gun clubs could partner with firearm dealers around the region to ensure that new gun owners will be provided an opportunity to get the safety training they need. Maybe each new gun owner could be assigned a mentor.

This could be a project for the Chamber of Commerce as part of a “Make our community safe” project. Rotary, the Elks and the Kiwanis could be involved as well, along with any of the many veterans’ organizations.

We recently heard about a gun give-back program in Plattsburgh. We’d like to see this become an annual tradition in each of our counties so residents can dispose of firearms they do not want. We’d like to see law enforcement jump all over this.

We all can play a role in preventing the next accident, in heading off a suicide by a loved one or taking steps to prevent a tragedy.

Online: https://bit.ly/2yVx6ZP


Syracuse makes police discipline more local, responsive, transparent


Aug. 4

The balance of power between municipalities and public employee unions in New York has long tilted toward the unions, often to the detriment of taxpayers. Local governments, school districts and police agencies seeking to lower costs and gain efficiencies often are stymied by laws and arbitration rules that make it difficult and expensive to change staffing levels, reduce overtime and discipline employees who misbehave.

Last week, the city of Syracuse seized some of that power back, taking steps to make police and fire personnel more accountable and the disciplinary process more transparent to the public.

Corporation Counsel Kristin Smith said the city would no longer allow police officers to appeal to an arbitrator when they disagree with discipline meted out by the police chief. Smith cited a 2017 ruling from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, which held in a Schenectady case that the outcome of a police or fire disciplinary hearing is not subject to contract negotiations. The way Smith sees it, the court’s decision nullifies a provision in the police contract allowing officers to request an arbitrator to decide disciplinary appeals.

Based on that ruling, the city is rewriting its police discipline procedure. From now on, appeals will be decided by a hearing officer appointed by Mayor Ben Walsh. Hearings will be held in public - a welcome change to the secrecy that shrouds police discipline.

No surprise, the police union is not happy with the new approach and is looking for ways to fight it. There also is grousing about Police Chief Kenton Buckner’s stiffer approach to disciplining officers. Taken together, the message from City Hall to police officers is clear: Follow the rules or face the consequences.

The public has reason to question the ability and willingness of the police department to police itself.

Multiple juries have returned police brutality verdicts against officers who had been cleared of wrongdoing by the department. Until he was finally fired, Syracuse police officer Chester Thompson weathered several accusations of forcing women to have sex with him over 18 years, while internal affairs conducted feeble or nonexistent investigations. Officer Ahmad Mims was not disciplined after he fired five shots at the fleeing driver of a minivan that carried three young children in the back. Mims later resigned after three domestic violence arrests in three months. In short, the department has a lot of work to do to regain the public’s trust.

Who can say if a hearing officer would make better decisions than an arbitrator? Well, he or she certainly couldn’t do worse. Remember the Onondaga County jail deputy who was paid tens of thousands of dollars for overtime he didn’t work, a take-home car he didn’t drive and perks he didn’t receive while being on suspension from his job? Or the Syracuse firefighter who got his job back, despite leaving a pedestrian to die in the street after being struck by a drunk driver? Both decisions were a rebuke to the local officials in charge, and an insult to local taxpayers and residents.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has tried multiple times to undo the court’s ruling and shift the power back to police and firefighter unions. Multiple governors wisely vetoed the bills. In the last session, the state Senate passed a bill unanimously to return to the old days, including “yes” votes from political polar opposites Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, and Sen. Bob Antonacci, R-Onondaga. The Assembly did not take up the bill this time, as New Yorkers awaited a decision from the New York City police commissioner regarding discipline in the custody death of Eric Garner. It’s politically popular to support the police, and politically lucrative to support public employee unions. But who’s looking out for the taxpayers?

Syracuse’s aggressive approach should be an example to other local governments to demand more accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility in their dealings with public employee unions. The ultimate goal should be a discipline process that is fair to both public employees and taxpayers.

Online: https://bit.ly/301a67t


Free speech comes with responsibility

Utica Observer-Dispatch

Aug. 9

Rep. Anthony Brindisi pretty much summed it up.

“Social media has changed the way people communicate and has opened a Pandora’s box for abuse and harassment in ways we could not have anticipated. This case is an example of that and we must be better.”

The case the congressman referred to is that of Bianca Devins, a 17-year-old Utican who was killed last month. Graphic, violent photos of her body were posted online by the man charged in her death, and those photos accompanied messages sent to her family via social media.

Brindisi met Wednesday with Devins’ mother and grandfather, at which time he said, “The pain of losing a child is unimaginable, but to have that pain exploited, mocked and shared on social media is a trauma that no family ever should have to go through.”

Brindisi said Instagram and other social media sources must be more vigilant in policing their sites. And if they can’t stop such horrific things from being posted, he said the Federal Trade Commission needs to step in and find a way to prevent this kind of behavior in the future.

Brindisi, of course, is right. No family should ever have to endure such an awful thing. But stopping such heartless horror puts us on a slippery slope. Covered by an umbrella known as the First Amendment, it becomes a constitutional conundrum whenever we begin talking about censorship.

Who draws the line on what’s allowed or not?

Before social media, restrictions on what to print or what not to print were pretty much decided by publishers and editors. Responsibly. Reporters - trained journalists - were charged with digging out facts and writing stories, which were checked and doublechecked by various editors along the way before being delivered to the public. That’s still pretty much the way it works. Libel and slander aside, often the question isn’t CAN we print this, but SHOULD we print it.

One celebrated case back in 2005 involved a series of 12 Danish political cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons enraged the Muslim world, and also stirred fiery debate in this country over whether newspapers should be able to publish them. No debate. Of course, they should.

But the bigger question is: Should they?

Our answer then - and now - is no. We obviously have a great respect for the First Amendment, but it’s important for journalists - and everyone, really - to understand that just because free speech is protected, it still boils down to three things - decency, respect and responsibility. Without that, we’re no better than the heartless people who pass along graphic images, fake news or other such bluster that has become social media’s calling card.

Make no mistake, social media has its place and is here to stay, like it or not. But finding a way to weave responsibility into the context is a formidable challenge. Anyone with access to technology - that’s just about anyone - can send out whatever.

We wish Congressman Brindisi luck.

Online: https://bit.ly/2OQrRp0

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