Public Hearing in Albany Is Held Without the Public
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times\
ALBANY — Something was missing at a public hearing held by the State Senate on Tuesday to examine New York City’s campaign finance system: the public.
Even before the hearing began, government watchdog groups complained that Republicans who led the panel would not allow them to testify.
The Senate’s sergeants-at-arms went a step further: they would not allow members of the public into the hearing room, first saying that they needed to save space for legislative staff, then saying that the room had reached capacity. (At the same time, people in the room were posting images on Twitter of empty chairs.) Some reporters were also stopped from entering the hearing room; they were later allowed to enter.
The chaotic scene came during a particularly embarrassing period in Albany. On Friday, a former Democratic senator from Queens, Shirley L. Huntley, was revealed to have made secret recordings for law enforcement. Then on Monday, a former leader of the Democratic caucus, Senator John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, was charged with embezzlement and other crimes.
One of the top priorities for Democrats in the legislative session this year is a push to adopt a statewide system to provide public matching funds for candidates, modeled after the city’s system.
Republicans, who have partial control of the State Senate, oppose the idea. The chairman of the State Senate Elections Committee, Thomas F. O’Mara, a Republican from Big Flats, said he organized the hearing to provide a window into “what can go wrong when taxpayer dollars are used to fund political campaigns.”
The hearing was held in a stuffy conference room on the Capitol’s first floor, occupied by senators and invited speakers, and guarded by a clutch of sergeants-at-arms. About a dozen staff members were milling about, but there were a smattering of seats available, including several at the main table, where lawmakers shared space with a few members of the Capitol’s press corps.
During the hearing, protesters pressed up to a ground-floor window that had been opened to allow fresh air into the stifling room; the window was quickly closed after protesters found it.
Government watchdog groups — including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State and the New York Public Interest Research Group — sent a complaint to the state’s Committee on Open Government while the hearing was still under way on Tuesday afternoon, alleging violations of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“Despite the fact that we’ve seen this recent string of scandals, it seems the Senate is more interested in holding a star chamber than actually getting to the root of these problems,” said Bill Mahoney, the research coordinator for the research group. “Until they start proposing real solutions to the plague of corruption, they’re going to be just as much to blame for all the problems that New York is undergoing.”
Senate Republicans defended their handling of the hearing.
A spokesman, Scott Reif, said the groups that advocated public financing “say they support free speech, yet they attempted to disrupt a hearing and prevent members of the Elections Committee from taking testimony.”
“This hearing was webcast live and we made every effort to get as many people into the room as possible, including every reporter who wanted to attend,” Mr. Reif added. “As the room reached occupancy, we were instructed to close the room.”
The hearing also drew the attention of a group from the Occupy movement who staged a symbolic “corporate wedding” on the Capitol’s Great Western Staircase, with people portraying a money-loving politician, the Monopoly Man and a demonic pastor. Several people were dressed as bundles of $50 bills and an oil derrick.
While the performance seemed to be by amateurs, the show drew a small crowd. After all, it was open to the public.