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22 Mar 2019

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  • Posted on 22 Mar 2019

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    Forums Planned on Admissions at New York City's Public Schools

    A group of New York state senators held a press conference Thursday to ask the public for its help in finding solutions to the diversity problem at New York City’s public schools. They said they will be convening a series of forums in each borough starting next month.

    “It is our goal to hear every single voice on this issue,” said John Liu, who chairs the senate's New York City education committee.

    The city's most recent public high school admissions numbers have renewed focus on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. At the eight selective high schools where the test determines admissions, 51 percent of offers went to Asian students, almost 29 percent went to white students, under 7 percent went to Latinx students, and just 4 percent to black students.

    Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed scrapping the test and instead admitting students based on their class rank and performance on statewide tests. But any changes to the SHSAT would have to be approved by lawmakers in Albany, and Liu, for one, has opposed eliminating the test.  He called the mayor’s plan “deeply flawed” partly because the mayor didn't work hard enough to get input and buy-in from the Asian community. The senator said he plans to approach the forums with an open mind.

    Sen. Jessica Ramos said the discussions will also look beyond admissions to those eight selective schools to the wider system. “Fewer black and brown children are being admitted to specialized high schools,” she said. “And it opens up the door to the conversation about gifted and talented programs, even special education and how we're allocating resources for these different groups of children.”

    The senators would not commit to proposing a new bill this legislative session. “We are looking for the best possible solution and not a quick fix,” said Sen. Velmanette Montgomery.

    But Sen. Kevin Parker, who co-sponsored the bill to eliminate the test last year, said he does sense new momentum on the issue. “I think this is the first time any legislative body has taken this on head on,” he said.


  • Posted on 21 Mar 2019

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    Advocates Push for Repeal of Law that Keeps Police Misconduct Secret

    A group of New York legislators are hoping the political mood is right to pass a set of bills meant to increase police transparency and oversight. And they view a root cause of problems with police accountability, and therefore with public trust in law enforcement, as a section of New York Civil Rights Law called 50-a. 

    It's a law that shields police personnel records, including findings of misconduct, from public view. New York is one of only two states in the nation with a law that specifically keeps police personnel records secret, according to civil liberties groups. 

    Now, there is a bill to repeal it. 

    "We're not here to vilify officers, we're just here to get transparency and make what's right," said state senator Jamaal Bailey, who is sponsoring the bill to repeal 50-a, at a rally outside City Hall on Thursday.

    The push to repeal 50-a is part of a package of legislation, called the Safer New York Act, related to police oversight. Other bills cover issues like increased data reporting on law enforcement activities and strengthening the investigations of those people killed by police or who died in custody.

    Bailey said debate over the bills in Albany would come after the budget is due in order to avoid rushing legislation or watering it down. He said he expected to hold hearings on the bills and policing in general in late April or early May.

    Both Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill have called for significant changes to 50-a, in order to increase transparency. O'Neill has said that in most cases the NYPD should be able to keep the public informed of misconduct charges against an officer and outcomes of investigations. But both favor amendments to 50-a over a new law.

    The city's largest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, opposes any changes to the law. The union contends that the law is necessary to protect officers in a line of work where they are expected to risk their lives.

    But lawmakers and advocates argued Thursday that a full repeal of 50-a is necessary, and officers' personal information would still be protected through the Freedom of Information Law.

    "FOIL already has exemptions that cover privacy, that cover threats to safety," said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They can work within the same system as everyone else and make sure that all of their concerns are addressed through repeal of 50-a."

    Last month, an independent panel reviewed police disciplinary practices and found that the public received too little information on misconduct and how the NYPD handled it, thereby eroding public trust.


  • Posted on 21 Mar 2019

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    NJ Whistle-Blower Case Shows Christie Pressure for Tax Breaks

    The former head of New Jersey's controversial tax-break program says Gov. Chris Christie’s administration pressured officials to overlook rules and regulations in the rush to approve billions of dollars in new subsidies.

    John J. Rosenfeld, former director of incentives at the state Economic Development Authority, says the pressure to churn out tax credits came mostly from the governor’s Business Action Center, a statewide office led by then-Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who later ran to succeed Christie.

    "I will tell you that early on I think the members of the Business Action Center wanted to take me out back and, you know, physically harm me,'' Rosenfeld said in a sworn deposition in a little-noticed whistle-blower lawsuit filed by an EDA staffer.

    "They'll say we have to do this, that or the other thing.  I'll say no we don't,'' said Rosenfeld, according to a transcript of the deposition obtained by WNYC. ''Our job is to assess whether [applicants] fulfill the eligibility requirements.''

    The suit provides a window into a program that Gov. Murphy has criticized as  "an $11 billion black hole" created by backroom political deals. State auditors say the program is so deficient that it is impossible to verify if companies that got subsidies met the overarching goal to create new jobs.

    The issue has driven a wedge between the governor and South Jersey Democrats who received special benefits from the program.

    State investigators are now looking into the program, and a special  panel appointed by Murphy will soon begin public hearings that promise to add fuel to the debate.

    The 2015 lawsuit was filed by Veyis "David" Sucsuz, a former staffer who worked at the EDA for 13 years. Michael Conlan, his lawyer, said Sucsuz has no further comment on the program.

    In the lawsuit, Sucsuz claimed  he was fired for resisting orders to okay tax break applications that should have been rejected. A Mercer County jury rejected his claim,  finding that Sucsuz failed to provide enough evidence that he was fired because of his complaints about irregularities.

    The suit says the problems escalated after the state pumped up the program in 2013, lowering qualifications and increasing benefits.

    The Rosenfeld deposition describes an awards process in which the governor’s business office was more concerned with approving applications than following the rules. 

    Sucsuz, a finance officer who did the initial review of applications, said his bosses — including Rosenfeld — openly manipulated the process, often approving applicants who were ineligible.  

    The EDA had no comment on the substance of Sucsuz's claims. The agency said only that the case was adjudicated in its favor. Rosenfeld, who still works at the agency and did not respond to an interview request, denied manipulating the applications improperly. Guadagno, in an email to WNYC, said she had no knowledge of the suit or any of the underlying facts relayed to her by WNYC.

    In his deposition, which spans some 300 pages, Rosenfeld said his small staff processed a flood of applications in 2014, after the passage of new legislation to expand the program.

    At the time, he said, there were only two or three staffers to screen “a massive” number of applications that can run past 100 pages each. Staffers had to make complex decisions about special bonuses that can increase the benefits even more.

    The staff, as described by Rosenfeld,  often had to make tough decisions about an applicant's eligibility, about the truthfulness of their financial data or about their claim to have a better offer from another state.

    Rosenfeld said the staff did its best, but often had to rely on the word of the applicant and their hired lobbyists.

    The governor's office, too,  was often pushing on the side of the applicant , he said, and in the early days, was more concerned with generating tax breaks than following guidelines about who was allowed to get them.

    "I think back in the day they were probably less concerned with the rules and regulations,''  he said in the deposition, which took place in October, 2017. “I think now they’re in a much much better place.”

    Sucsuz, in his 2015 complaint, claims he was ordered to change spreadsheet data so it would look cheaper for applicants to do business out of state. That made them more eligible for tax breaks as an incentive to stay in New Jersey.

    Sucsuz also said he identified applications that included non-existent  "phantom locations" out of state, where companies said they would move if they did not get New Jersey subsidies. But, he said, the applications were approved anyway.

    Supervisors also altered critical "net benefit" calculations describing job creation and capital investment by companies seeking tax breaks, he claimed.

    Some problems arose even before the program expanded. In 2012, according to Rosenfeld’s deposition, Sucsuz complained directly to the Attorney General's office about an application for $7.9 million in tax breaks from Memorial Sloan Kettering in Monmouth County.

    Memorial Sloan was legally barred from getting tax breaks because it is a non-profit and exempt from corporate taxes. The Attorney General's office agreed with Sucsuz, the deposition says,  and told the EDA that Sloan Kettering did not qualify for tax breaks.

    Rosenfeld, in  the court papers, said that the agency then notified Memorial Sloan representatives that they did not qualify. Memorial Sloan then re-submitted the application as a limited liability corporation, through an entity named MSKCC LLC.  In his deposition, Rosenfeld said the rules allow a limited liability corporation to be eligible for tax breaks even though it is owned by a non-profit.

    The EDA staff approved Memorial Sloan's new application and the agency board approved the tax break in a 13-0 vote. Sucsuz, in the lawsuit, claimed that the staff never informed the board about Memorial Sloan's non-profit status.

    A spokeswoman for Memorial Sloan said the company was looking into the matter.

    Sucsuz claimed that higher ups at the EDA — including former director Michele Brown, a longtime member of Christie's inner circle — knew about his complaints but did nothing. In her own deposition, Brown denied anything improper.  She could not be reached for further comment.

    Sucsuz was fired in September, 2014. The state argued successfully that he was not fired because of his complaints, but because of his performance.

     

    This story was reported with support from the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York.

     

    Sucsuz Motion by WNYCNewsroom on Scribd

     

    Rosenfeld Deposition by WNYCNewsroom on Scribd


  • Posted on 21 Mar 2019

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    Hemp Growers Eager to Branch into Weed Make Their Case in Albany

    Growing industrial hemp – and its cousin, marijuana – is an exclusively female business.

    This has nothing to do with who cultivates the crops and everything to do with the plants themselves.

    “Oops, there’s one,” says farmer Allan Gandelman, inspecting hemp bushes in a heated greenhouse and finding a rogue seed pod. “We try to remove all the male ones now, so they don’t get into the fields.”

    Male and female cannabis plants are almost identical, physically, but only males produce seeds. Female produce a stronger concentration of cannabadiol, or CBD. Male seeds screw up the whole process, whether it’s sending “volunteers” into fields where they’re not supposed to be, or gumming up the extraction process, once the plants are harvested and dried.

    Gandelman, 37, and his workers at Main Street Farms will eventually plant about 60,000 seedlings over 50 acres this spring. That’s more than triple what they planted last year, their first season growing hemp alongside arugula, zucchini and dozens of other vegetables.

    Though they’re working from seeds and plants that are supposed to be all-female, more than a few males slipped in last season, and excising them from the fields took 10 people walking the fields every other day for six weeks.

    “It was a learning experience – and one we're trying to prevent from happening again,” said Gandelman, a Queens native who grew up in New Jersey before settling in this area between Binghamton and the Finger Lakes.

    Hemp plants double in size every week they’re in the ground, until they reach a height of about six feet. The nascent hemp industry, both in New York and nationally, seems to be growing almost as fast. Precise figures are hard to come by, but the Congressional Research Center estimates annual hemp sales in the United States topped $700 million a few years ago, and industry consultants project revenues will reach anywhere from $2 billion to $22 billion by the early 2020’s. 

    Hemp farmers are riding a popular trend of CBD as a natural health remedy for things like joint pain, anxiety, and epileptic seizures. This kind of hemp contains little to no tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that causes people to get high from marijuana.

    But as focused as farmers are on cultivating this form of cannabis—which can also be used in textiles and industrials materials and in foodstuffs such as non-dairy ‘milk,’ in addition to CBD—they’re also looking toward the day when New York legalizes the other cannabis, the one that does contain intoxicating levels of THC.

    Legalizing recreational or adult-use marijuana is one of the top priorities of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers in the current legislative session, which runs through June. And influencing the laws and regulations that emerge is a top priority for local farmers.

    Allen Gandelman, from Main Street Farms, is tripling his hemp planting this spring and installing multi-million-dollar processing equipment to extract CBD and package it for sale.
    (Fred Mogul/WNYC)

     “We want to make sure that regular everyday family farms in upstate New York are allowed to participate in adult use marijuana,” said Joe Rossi, a lobbyist retained by the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Coalition, which Gandelman co-founded with other hemp farmers.

    Farmers are just one group of eager entrepreneurs trying to shape the legalization debate in Albany. Tobacco companies have been looking to expand into marijuana, as have New York’s bodegas and liquor stores. And the grower-processors already licensed by the state for medical marijuana have been lobbying legislators to get into the recreational market.

    Legalization opponents also have been vocal, with some law enforcement leaders, physicians groups and the statewide Parent-Teacher Association leading the charge. Nassau and Suffolk counties have said they will opt out of legalized marijuana, at least initially.

    Rossi, whose firm has a $7,000-a-month contract with the Gandelman’s coalition, is meeting with lawmakers and regulators, trying to make sure the forthcoming weed laws don’t require cannabis to be grown indoors, a restriction medical marijuana licensees face.

    “It should be allowed to grow at outdoor farms, where you find the most experienced farmers in New York State,” Rossi said.

    The coalition’s main focus, though, is on shaping pending legislation regarding hemp. The main bill being considered would create an Office of Cannabis Management to oversee both industrial hemp and recreational marijuana. Rossi said the farmers he represents are wary and want to stick with their current regulators.

    “It's critical that industrial hemp maintain its classification as an agriculture commodity and stay under New York State [Department of] Ag & Markets,” he said. “It's scary and intimidating for these farmers to farm under a new agency.”

    He declined to be more specific about the envisioned problems or the changes he’s proposed to the oversight bill.

    Gandelman wants to make sure the state regulates CBD as a “food product” rather than a “nutraceutical,” a class of supplements. Such a change would require equipment even more complicated and costly than the multi-million-dollar setup he’s retrofitting into an old lumber mill just outside downtown Cortland.

    He acknowledges that CBD sellers have been making extraordinary claims for what the oils and ointments can do and widespread inconsistency about the quantity and quality of the substance in retail products.

    But he likens taking CBD as a sleep aid to drinking ginger ale for an upset stomach.

    “We grow ginger, and we could turn it into a syrup, and someone could take it and say, ‘Oh, that helped my upset stomach,” he said. “So, should we have to classify ginger as a nutraceutical, and build a $5 million facility to make ginger syrup from our farm?”

    The New York City Health Department, though, isn’t treating CBD so gingerly, much to Gandelman’s chagrin. The department  will soon embargo CBD-infused foods from being served at restaurants and bars, pending further clarification from the FDA.

    Hemp retailers are popping up all over. Estimated annual sales are around $800 million, and industry analysts project massive growth in the coming years.
    (Fred Mogul/WNYC)

     

     

     


  • Posted on 21 Mar 2019

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