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Controversy Over Access Overshadows Senate Hearing

A hearing by Senate Republicans on New York City’s public campaign financing system was overshadowed by protests, as government reform groups and other members of the public were denied entry, and noisy protests ensued.

The Senate GOP sent out notices that there would be a public hearing on what the Republicans say are the “abuses” in New York City’s public campaign finance system.

But when representatives of government reform groups, as well as some members of the Occupy movement tried to attend, they were told by Senate guards that the small room chosen for the hearing was full. Even some members of the media, who had been summoned to  report on the hearing, were temporarily barred entry. When reporters were allowed in, many took pictures showing the room to be only half full.

Outside, some erupted in anger.

“Let the people in,” they shouted.

Inside, Democrats on the Senate Elections Committee, including Senator Liz Krueger, asked why the hearing could not be held in one of the legislature’s three large hearing rooms that can seat up to several hundred people.

“Not allowing people into the room because, quote, it can’t fit more people, is not an acceptable argument,” Krueger said.  

The shouting could be heard in the small hearing room, despite a double set of closed doors.  

Senate GOP member John DeFrancisco told the Democratic Senators that those who wanted to come in would be too disruptive.

“The public that’s being talked about is outside, stamping their feet, screaming and yelling,” said DeFrancisco. “If they wanted to see this there’s plenty of public access to it through the media and through the live broadcast.”

The event was streamed on line and on closed circuit TV at the Capitol.

At one point, protesters even tried to watch the hearing through an open window. Guards immediately slammed the windows shut, as protesters rapped sharply on the panes.

Despite all of the distractions, the hearing went on with the lead witness, David Keating from the conservative leaning Center for Competitive Politics. Keating told the Senators that New York City’s six to one matching fund program, as well as public campaign financing in Arizona and Maine, are “fraught with corruption,” and that the cost of a statewide program in New York is likely to be increasingly expensive.

“There’s no evidence that any of this works,” Keating said. “There’s no evidence that it reduces corruption.”

Senator Greg Ball, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, says the state can ill afford a taxpayer financed system right now, after slashing funds for the disabled in the state budget.

“We don’t have the money,” Ball said.  

Jessica Wisneski is with Citizen Action, one of several long time government reform groups which had asked to testify at the hearing. She says her organization and others simply never heard back from the Senate Elections Committee. She called the hearing a “show” and says they were never serious about really considering the issue of public campaign financing.

“They kind of have it all sewn up,” Wisneski said. “They know how the process works here with the Albany fundraisers and the corporate campaign cash.”

Democrats in the legislature, as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo, support public campaign financing.

As testimony continued, seven groups including Citizen Action, NYU’s Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters filed a complaint with the State’s Committee on Open Government,  saying the State’s Open meetings laws were violated, and even the Senate’s own internal rules were ignored, when people were barred from attending the hearing. Bill Mahoney is with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“The public has been tremendously upset in the past few months about this complete crime wave that’s hit the Capitol,” Mahoney said. “And anybody who had a solution should have gone up to speak.”

This week, former Senate Leader John Sampson is the latest in a string of legislators to be charged with corruption. He’s accused of embezzling nearly half a million dollars and using part of the money to run for higher office.

Senate Republicans fought back. In a statement, a spokesman attacked the organizations for attempting to “disrupt the hearing”,and prevent Senators on the committee from hearing testimony. They say the room had reached capacity, and point out that the hearing was available live on the Internet.

The final word came from the State Committee on Open Government’s Robert Freeman, who is in the process of writing an advisory opinion. Freeman says the Senate Elections Committee violated the open meetings law when they did not move the event to a readily available larger space.

“The point is simple,” Freeman said. “In our view it would be unreasonable not to move the meeting to that second site.”

Freeman says if the Senate Elections Committee believed that there might be disruptions at the hearing, they have the right to ask that signs and placards be left at the door, and that the observers remain quiet or be escorted out. But he says they don’t have the right to simply not let members of the public in.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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