India Cummings Death Was Ruled A Homicide. She Deserves Justice.

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Today, Erie County Legislature Majority Leader, April Baskin, held a press conference calling on Acting Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, to commence an investigation into the death of India Cummings.  This comes after the Commission of Corrections reported in July of this year that India’s death was a homicide. It takes a lot of guts to take on an issue like this, and, as someone who has done a fair amount of research and work in the area of prisoners’ rights, I applaud the Majority Leader’s call for justice.  Well done, April!

Keep reading for a refresher on the India Cummings case and an analysis of the Commission on Corrections’ report.

When I ran for office last year, one of my platform issues was auditing the Sheriff’s department. I felt this was absolutely critical, as this department faces scrutiny from state and national officials due to its extremely high number of deaths since Sheriff Howard took office. It seemed vital to me that we avoid subjecting members of our population to unacceptable, inhumane treatment. It goes without saying that treating our community members with the proper protocols would also avoid the litigation costs that inevitably occur as a result of such treatment.

The case of India Cummings clearly underscores why this was worth focusing on, and why Erie County’s current Comptroller should strongly consider following through with this recommendation.

The Commission of Corrections issued its final report on the completed investigation of India Cummings’ death this past week.  For those that may not know, India Cummings died in February 2016 while in the custody of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department after being brought to the hospital for a medical emergency.  The report concluded that her death should be ruled a homicide as she was found to have died of medical neglect of the injuries that ultimately led to her demise. In other words, India’s death was totally preventable.  

I read the report, which can be found in this article.  It was clear from the moment that the Lackawanna police got the call that India Cummings was exhibiting signs of serious mental distress.  According to the report, she was not appropriately evaluated for mental health problems for the entire 16 days that she was in custody, despite clear signs that something was not right.  Instead, she was placed in solitary confinement, had the water shut off to her cell, and was left to sit in squalor as she urinated on herself and ripped up her bedding.

You may be wondering what an audit from the Comptroller’s office could have done.  A procedural audit could have uncovered what the Commission of Corrections did with one investigation, namely that Sheriff Howard did not have the proper policies to ensure that India Cummings had the care she needed. Indeed, the Sheriff’s office didn’t have the proper policies in place to assess whether a mentally distressed woman should be placed in solitary confinement—such policies are mandated by New York State Corrections law.

The investigation also uncovered that the County’s medical and mental health staff responsible for those in the holding center failed to do their jobs.  Again, this is something that may have been uncovered, had the Comptroller’s office conducted a meaningful audit of the sheriff’s policies. Instead of having a system that is regularly audited to ensure compliance with these important policies, we have a system that has caused the death of twenty-four people, with no indication that there will be a review of whether the Sheriff’s office (or Erie County’s medical staff) will comply with the recommendations set forth in the report.

Stephan asked Erie County to elect him to another term as Erie County Comptroller, and they decided to do so.  Therefore, I strongly recommend he use his procedural audit power to ensure that the County is employing the proper protocols necessary for law enforcement to appropriately interact with our mentally ill population, so that we can avoid further costs of the County’s failure to do so.  

Kavanaugh Hearing: What Buffalo Should Know

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Like much of America, I was closely watching Day 1 of the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing.  Here are some of my takeaways.

Last Minute Document Blasting? Seriously?

Reportedly, the Democrats received 42,000 documents late Monday night.  Democrats objected to this and Senator Klobuchar (Minnesota) rightly pointed out that in no court would a party be expected to proceed with a trial if the same scenario had happened.  Senator Grassley claims his staff had plenty of time to review the documents, and, therefore, no reason Senate Democrats shouldn’t have been able to do the same, but I’m going to call bullshit on that.  If the Federal government runs anything like the New York State government, the party in the majority has greater control over information and the access to that information than their minority counterparts.  Besides, it is unreasonable to expect Senators to be properly prepared to give their advice and consent (as is constitutionally required) in such a situation. Again, to Senator Klobuchar’s point, no court would allow such thing, because it violates the principles of due process that our democracy is founded upon.  Why would a senate hearing confirming a life-long judicial nominee be held to any other standard?

Denying Time for True Review

Related to the proper access of documents, Senator Blumenthal started off the hearing with a motion that the hearing be postponed until all documents related to Kavanaugh’s record could be obtained and properly reviewed.  A significant amount of the documents related to Kavanaugh’s time at the White House under George Bush had not been released, and there is considerable concern that it will highlight the judge’s views on executive power. Again, given that the point of the hearing is to closely examine the record for any indication (including a failure to uphold the separation of powers and the rule of law), this seemed like a reasonable request.  However, Grassley denied to put the motion to vote despite the text of the rule commanding that the chair shall put it to a vote. Grassley claimed the committee was not in executive session, and, therefore, the rules did not apply. I don’t know the senate committee rules well, but I trust that Senator Blumenthal, a Yale Law graduate, long-time attorney, and former Connecticut Attorney General can discern whether a set of rules only applies in executive session.  Moreover, when asked, Grassley could not quote to Senator Blumenthal where in the rules this restriction was stated and instead told Blumenthal, rather, he should be responsible for finding the supposed restriction.  This response was unacceptable and speaks to an unfair process (no matter how much Republic Senators wanted to laud Grassley for conducting such a fair hearing).  

And General Hypocrisy...

Many Senate Republicans accused Democrats of unfairly stalling the nomination for the judicial candidate, claiming that no one could argue against his being supremely qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.  To these remarks, I found myself practically frothing at the mouth considering that the Republicans refused to give Merrick Garland, who had an equally impressive record, a hearing at all. And when comparing Republican reasons given in 2016 to the reasons the Democrats have in 2018 (i.e. an ongoing criminal investigation, multiple lawsuits claiming the President’s violation of the emoluments clause, and a seeming inability to uphold the laws of the land as our constitution requires—see tweet disparaging A.G. Sessions for charging two Republican Congressman so late in an election year), I find no reason why Kavanaugh’s hearing shouldn’t also be denied.  

I begrudgingly agree with Senator Graham that Democrats could not have expected Republicans to pick an ideologically left-leaning judicial candidate.  I do, however, take issue with his comment implying that if Democrats wanted a say with respect to the nominee they should have won in 2016. He also went on to make much of the fact that the American people had spoken and this is what they chose.  First, the current president lost the popular vote, so, actually, this is not what we chose. Second, the Constitution calls for the advice and consent of the senate, not the advice and consent of the senate members belonging to the majority.

Kavanaugh’s Introduction and Personal Comments

I found myself rolling my eyes as Condoleezza Rice introduced Kavanaugh by saying “he’s a great guy” among other things and recalling how great of a colleague he was.  I could only think, “I can’t believe this woman of color is endorsing this man for Supreme Court who it is predicted will do so much to harm other women of color.” Still, the testimony of both humanized Kavanaugh (which was obviously the point), who up to that point had been talked about in the abstract for over six hours.

Kavanaugh’s own remarks did more of the same.  He talked of watching his mother teach students who had grown up during segregation.  He talked of how much he admired his mother’s career as she became a lawyer and, later, a trial judge.  He spoke of how she had taught him that a judge’s decision affects real people with real lives. He also spoke of his daughters, coaching their sports teams as “Coach K,” and seeing how those experiences helped to shape their self-confidence and the self-confidence of the other young girls on the team.  He mentioned his service with Catholic Charities serving meals to homeless people on the streets of Washington D.C.

When hearing all of this, there was undoubtedly a part of me that said, “maybe all is not lost if he were to be confirmed.”      

Why This Matters.

Kavanaugh is not a monster just because he thinks differently than I do.  If everything he said is true, I would agree that he seems like a great father to his girls and he takes an interest in the welfare of others.  As the hearing goes on, we are sure to hear that a judge’s role is non-partisan and that his political leanings are irrelevant. And, again, that language is enticing.  But, the Janus decision tells a cautionary tale that is relevant here. Groups like the Federalist Society, and others, argued the case was purely about the First Amendment and the ability of members to choose not to support political speech they disagreed with.  They said the current system that allowed unions to separate political and administrative activities was insufficient, and, in the end it was all political speech. Those groups maintained that union membership in “right to work” states had not significantly dropped off due to legislation, so there was no reason to expect the same if the Court were to rule in favor of Janus.  The Court did rule in favor of Janus, and, within days, these same groups, reportedly, were contacting union members and attempting to persuade them to cancel their union memberships, because there was always a greater political agenda at work.

With Kavanaugh, we can expect at least to some degree (if not to a great degree) he supports the agenda of these groups, and those personal opinions will have some bearing on his rulings.  In that case, what does that mean for:

  • The women’s lives that will be in jeopardy if he fails to uphold the right to an abortion?  

  • The women of color, who would be disproportionately affected by such a ruling?

  • The women who could be criminally charged for simply having a miscarriage?  

  • The millions of Americans who will only continue to see the inequality gap increase?  

  • Those with pre-existing conditions and their families?

  • The rights of people of Latino descent as the current administration seeks to unjustly strip them of their citizenship?

  • The Muslims who are told they aren’t good enough to share in our American dream?  

The list of those at stake goes on and on, and, while, yes, these are undoubtedly questions that should be decided by Congress, they are very often not decided by Congress, and in many instances end up before the judiciary as individuals seek to have their rights enforced by an independent body.  For this reason, rigorous debate surrounding this nomination is justified and should be demanded by the American people.

Stefan for Congress? We deserve better!

My fellow Western New Yorkers, as predicted, the local GOP has been polling Stefan Mychajliw’s name to replace Chris Collins on the ballot.  At this point, it’s not clear whether the Republicans will be successful in replacing Collins, but this scenario is so extremely alarming scenario that I have to discuss it now.

Just like Collins (you know...that guy who helped his family members save close to $1 million, while average Americans lost 92% of the value of their stock), Stefan has proven time and again that he does not serve the public.  Let’s review:

  • He has been happy to take donations from Tonawanda Coke, a company that was ordered to pay over $24 million dollars in fines for violations of the Clean Air and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts after polluting Tonawanda airways and soil with known carcinogens;

  • He solicited donations from Erie County vendors to attend a weekend seminar at Hardvard, earning himself an ethics violation ;

  • He has used the authority of his office to attack libraries and non-profit organizations, while ignoring compliance issues in the Republican-led Erie County Sheriff’s office (many of which were recently criticized in the NYS Commission on Corrections investigative report issued in response to the death of India Cummings;

  • He has continually hired political operatives instead of skilled individuals to oversee a $1.7 billion budget;

  • His time swipe records indicate that he spends more time out of the office than actually doing his job; and

  • This is the same man that the Buffalo news acknowledged as a poor fit for the Comptroller position he has held for the last five years.  

Stefan has shown his true colors.  If elected to a seat in Congress, we have every reason to believe exactly what he’s shown us—Stefan cannot be trusted.  

Personally, I find it offensive that the local GOP would put forth a candidate that so blatantly lacks the integrity required for any public office, much less the United States Congress.  This is one of the highest offices in our country, responsible for creating laws that affect every aspect of our lives (including the Clean Air Act that was used to protect Tonawanda residents).  

As the electorate, we really must insist that more than name recognition is considered before putting forth someone for public office.  To do otherwise, assumes we are nothing but a herd of mindless sheep, waiting to be directed.

And we are not sheep. Our history tells us so.  “No taxation without representation.” That was the call that led us to battle for our independence.  We did not fight for that principle only to willingly give up that right by putting people like Stefan in office.  We must do better, Western New York.


 

Chris Collins: Holding Up a Mirror to Our Political Landscape and Our Justice System

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The rain was still pouring this morning as I grabbed my bags and trudged my way in to my office.  Almost immediately, I heard the big news. Chris Collins, U.S. Representative of the NY-27, had been indicted for insider trading.  My initial reaction? It’s about time!

It was over a year ago that we first heard reports of the investigation related to this charge and to conflicts of interest inherent in his holding a substantial share of these stocks.  Like the Russian investigation, it seemed to be dragging on without any real consequences. So, it seemed, finally, those who seem to always escape the long-arm of the law would finally be called to task for their misdeeds.   

Then I had some time to process everything and read through the indictment.  In reading the documents I felt the FBI made a compelling case. Chris Collins was notified via email of a failed clinical trial that everyone had originally presumed would be positive.  Within minutes he had called his son to tell him the outcome. Over the next few days, his son siphoned off over a million shares of the stock in question, avoiding a loss of over $500,000.  Other people related to the Congressman were also informed of the results and were able to avoid substantial losses. All in all, the indictment states that those related to Chris Collins were able to avoid a loss of close to $1 million collectively.  Chris Collins did not trade his shares, but that was no act of valor— rather, it was due to a halt on trading that had been put in place through the Australian government—the others were not subject to the same restriction because they had purchased their shares through U.S. markets.

There are more compelling details in the indictment to support the charge, but I was struck by the end of the indictment.  Maybe I’m not familiar enough with criminal indictments (thank goodness!), but I was stunned to see the only remedy requested was that all parties forfeit the proceeds related to the prohibited transaction.  This gave me some serious pause, because I immediately thought of Martha Stewart, the American icon for smart home decor, sitting in Federal prison for something very similar (and she wasn’t even an elected official with any kind of obligation to the public!). I thought of the thousands of African American men sitting in prison for crimes like marijuana possession or shoplifting.

Some other social media rumblings gave me pause as well.  Namely, the Republican Party would simply remove him from the ballot and replace with him with a white bread Republican, who could easily win the heavily gerrymandered district, or worse yet, they would simply choose from the bench of people waiting in line-- people like my former opponent.  

So, I guess my question is this:  As an electorate, at what point will we say enough is enough?

This crisis of confidence in politicians isn’t totally avoidable.  We have had lots of opportunities to elect qualified, competent individuals.  Angela Marinucci is running for County Clerk. She’s a lawyer and a mom with an amazing amount of energy and a large supportive family.  Will she win this year, or will we stick with Mickey Kearns, who has been happy to join the Republican rhetoric fanning the flames of division on issues like immigration and civil rights protests?  I ran for Erie County Comptroller, thinking my background as a CPA and a lawyer would win the day over the showmanship of my unqualified opponent, a fact that everyone, including the Buffalo News, seemed to acknowledge.  Yet, the Buffalo News endorsed my opponent and I lost by a ten point spread. I could go on and on about the wonderful candidates that have run and lost, candidates who have integrity, who work hard, who care about good governing, but I won’t.  Just know that they are out there, and they have been trying to serve us if we will finally let them.

So, again, I ask, when is it enough?  Nate McMurray is Collins’ Democratic opponent.  He is a Fulbright scholar, currently serving as Grand Island’s supervisor.  He seems genuinely concerned with the people of the 27th District and has been running a race that everyone--and I mean everyone--has said is fruitless.  Why would anyone do that? I can tell you why, because I did the same thing.

It’s because when you believe in a greater purpose, when you believe in giving your all to your community, you willingly sacrifice your summer leisure, you spend twelve hours walking in parades in blazing sun, you wake up in the middle of the night to tweak speeches, you thank and shake the hands of the people who tell you you’re not good enough for the job.  You do all of this, because that’s what public service is about.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to start electing people like that—not Chris Collins, not my former opponent, and not any other politician who fails to show the same commitment we deserve.  True public servants, hard working people, committed to our communities. Let’s do this Western New York!

Correction on August 9th, 2018: Since posting this blog, I have heard from criminal law attorneys that the criminal sentences are implied in an indictment. However, the same does not hold true for forfeiture provisions, which is why it was explicitly state. We are right to be concerned about disparities in the justice system, but, in this case, the indictment, in and of itself, does not imply them.

When You Lie With Dogs: What Stefan's Friends Tell Us About His Character

Aesop famously said, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” Every single day, Stefan shows Erie County who he is by who he associates with. Here’s two ways  to know the content of Stefan’s character.

  1. His funders: Remember the Tonawanda Coke crisis? The one that left thousands of residents exposed to toxins over the course of years because of gross negligence? Well, their sister company, led by the same man, is Stefan’s largest campaign contributor. Can we trust him to stand up for us when a quarter of his contributions this year were paid for by this agent of so much ill in our community? And the others on the list? Ciminelli. Carl Paladino. Chris Collins. An oil pipeline. Michael Flaherty, the DA who would decline to prosecute him. Developers who pay for his campaign as he writes reports against affordable housing. All of these individuals and businesses that have backed his campaign represent potentials conflicts when it comes time for him to decide whether to serve their interests or the interests of Erie County taxpayers.

  2. His candidates and supporters: Trump, Collins, Caputo, and Grant. Remember when Stefan raced to Ohio to meet Trump, pledging that he was certain he could gain local support for him in Erie County. Or when he served as the spokesperson for Chris Collins? Or when Caputo and Grant took to Twitter to defend him using insulting, demeaning language, including sexist slurs? When Stefan appears on a Grant-sanctioned mailer attempting to drive fear and hate into our community, he’s showing us who he really is. He’s engaging in Trump-style politics in Western New York, complete with a colluding strategist for the Russian government.

It’s only fair to apply the same standard to myself. How can you better know me? What company am I keeping?

Well, first and foremost, I’m proud to have earned the endorsement of 12 labor unions, leaders from all over Western New York, the State Comptroller, and others. I’m known for my work in nonprofit organizations, and I deeply care for my church community, Lafayette Presbyterian Church. I stood with Michelle Schoeneman, and held the line with CWA. I’ve donated to the campaigns of April Baskin and Monica Wallace.

My campaign dollars came from community members like you. CPAs, accountants, and attorneys have all expressed their support. Local nonprofits and advocacy groups have shown up in full force. And committed groups of concerned citizens including retired teachers, mothers of young children, local pastors, and other democratic leaders have all shown their support.

I am grateful, and I am humbled. My allies and friends show me to be hardworking, transparent, and socially concerned. My funding sources show that I am beholden only to our community.

So please, come vote with me Tuesday. And stop Stefan from using his office to entertain favors and an agenda of hate. Let’s fight for fairness, kindness, honesty, and hard work.