ALBANY’S NEW WATCHDOG

Over the last few years, the New York State Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations hasn’t done a lot of investigating. But that’s about to change as its new chair, James Skoufis, sets his sights on prescription drug pricing, so-called slum-lords and maybe even the governor.

Aired on March 19, 2019.

TRANSCRIPT

GOOD EVENING AND TO METROFOCUS.

THERE'S A NEW WATCHDOG IN NEW YORK STATE AND HE'S APPARENTLY NOT AFRAID OF INVESTIGATING ANYTHING AND ANYONE INCLUDING GOVERNOR CUOMO.

A FORMER DEMOCRATIC ASSEMBLY MAN ELECTED TO THE SENATE LAST NOVEMBER IS NOW SERVING IN HIS NEW ROLE AS CHAIRMAN ON THE COMMITTEE OF INVESTIGATIONS AND OPERATIONS.

HE HAD BEEN LOOKING INTO JUST ABOUT EVERYONE FROM PHARMACY BENEFIT MANAGERS WHOM THE SENATOR HAS FAULTEDTOR DRIVING UP DRUG COSTS TO SO-CALLED SLUM LORDS WHO HE CLAIMS HAVE LET HOUSING BUILDING DETERIORATE.

HE HAS NOT BEEN SHY ABOUT STATE EXERTING HIS INVESTIGATION.

HERE WE HAVE THE SENATOR WITH US.

SENATOR, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM HAVE SOME THANKS VERY MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

THRILLED TO BE HERE.

SO, SENATOR, YOU HAVE PLEDGED TO CONDUCT NOR AGGRESSIVE OVERSIGHT OF STATE GOVERNMENT AND THERE'S AT LEAST SOME BUZZ THAT YOU MIGHT EVEN HAVE THE INTENTIONS OF INVESTINGGATORING THE GOVERNOR OFFICE OR MAYBE THE GOVERNOR HIMSELF.

ANY TRUTH TO THE RUMORS?

WE'RE DOING SOMETHING IN THE SENATE INVESTIGATIONS COMMITTEE THAT'S NOT BEEN DONE FOR A LONG TIME, REALLY IN RECENT HISTORY.

WE'RE DOING REAL INVESTIGATIONS, GO FIGURE.

WE'RE GOING TO DO THE WORK THAT THE COMMITTEE'S SUPPOSED TO DO.

AND THE MATTER OF THE FACT IS FOR THE FIRST TIME I THINK EVER WE HAVE FULL-TIME INVESTIGATORS THAT ARE SINKING THEIR TEETH INTO THESE MAJOR ISSUES WE WANT TO LOOK AT.

PREVIOUSLY, THE SENATE INVESTIGATIONS COMMITTEE AND QUITE FRANKLY THE ASSEMBLY COMMITTEE AS WELL, THE TOTE TOTALITY OF THE SO-CALLED INVESTIGATIONS CONSISTED OF A PUBLIC HEARING.

DRAGGING A FEW PEOPLE IN FRONT OF TV CAMERAS TO MAKE SOME PUBLIC POINT AND THAT WAS IT.

THAT IS NOT A REAL INVESTIGATION.

THAT COULD BE A KMOBT OF AN INVESTIGATION.

BUT WE HAVE, YOU MENTIONED THE TWO INVESTIGATIONS THAT HAVE PUBLICLY SHARED SO FAR WITH PHARMACY BENEFIT MANAGERS MIDDLEMEN WHO ARE DRIVING UP COSTS AND HOUSING CONDITIONS.

WE HAVE BEEN LOOK AT THESE TWO ITEMS FOR TWO MONTHS.

WE HAVEN'T HAD A PUBLIC HEARING YET BECAUSE WE'RE GATHERING TESTIMONY, WE'RE GATHERING DOCUMENTS, AND WE'RE REALLY RESEARCHING THESE ISSUES.

ON THE HOUSING ITEM, THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE PUBLIC HEARING.

SO IT WILL BE A COMPONENT.

THIS IS NOT --

WE'LL GET TO THAT IN A SECOND, SENATOR.

BUT I WONDER IF YOU COULD JUST, YOU KNOW, ANSWER IF, IN FACT, YOU ARE INTENDING TO INVESTIGATE THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE AT SOME POINT?

WELL, LOOK, I'VE ALWAYS SAID SINCE THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY THAT EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE IS ON THE TABLE.

YOU KNOW, I'VE CERTAINLY QUESTIONED A NUMBER OF PROGRAMS THAT ARE OUT THERE, INCLUDING ON THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT SIDE, FOR EXAMPLE.

OVER MY SEVEN YEARS THAT HAVE BEEN UP HERE IN ALBANY, THESE ARE GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS AT AGENCIES AND, YOU KNOW, I THINK THEY DO NEED TO BE LOOKED AT.

YOU KNOW, I'M NOT TARGETING ANYTHING OR ANYONE FOR THE SAKE OF TARGETING ANYONE OR ANYTHING.

I'M LOOKING AT ISSUES THAT I BELIEVE WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN.

WE CAN IMPROVE OPERATIONS, WE CAN INCREASE ACCOUNTABILITY, THAT'S THE POINT OF THIS KIND OF STUFF.

ALL RIGHT.

TO CONCLUDE ON THE GOVERNOR, THIS IS THE LAST QUESTION ON THAT.

HE HAS SAID THAT, HEY, HE HAS INVESTIGATIVE POWERS THAT HE CAN INVESTIGATE THE LEGISLATOR TOO.

SOME SAW THAT AS A VEIL THREAT, DID YOU?

YES, SOME SAW ITS IT AS A VEILED THREAT AT ME.

I DON'T KNOW HOW WELL ONE WOULD TAKE THAT, BUT LET'S BE CLEAR.

IT'S HIS PREROGATIVE TO LOOK AT ANYONE OR ANYTHING WITHIN, YOU KNOW, HIS JURISDICTION AND POWER AND HE CAN HAVE AT IT.

BUT I'M NOT GOING TO BE BULLIED, I'M NOT GOING TO BE THREATENED AND MY TEAM AND I, WE'RE GOING TO MOVE FORWARD WITH THE WORK THAT WE INTEND TO MOVE FORWARD WITH.

AND THAT'S IT.

NO ONE'S GOING TO INFLUENCE THAT.

OKAY.

FOR THE SAKE OF TIME, LET'S FOCUS ON YOUR INVESTIGATION OF HOUSING CONDITIONS OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK CITY.

WHY DID YOU PICK THAT TOPIC OR THAT SUBJECT?

FOR A COUPLE OF REASONS.

SO, FIRST, I'M MOVING OVER FROM THE ASSEMBLY WHERE I CAME FROM TO THE SENATE, I REPRESENT NEW COMMUNITIES.

ONE OF WHICH IS THE CITY OF NEWBERG.

I THINK IT REPRESENTS A LOT OF SMALL CITIESLY TOO THROUGHOUT T STATE WHERE THERE ARE SOMETIMES UNIQUE HOUSING ISSUES.

THERE'S A PERSONAL INTEREST HERE.

ONE OF THE COMMUNITIES HAS SIGNIFICANT ISSUES WITH COENFORCEMENT AND HOW'SING THAT I WANT TO LOOK AT.

BUT MORE BROADLY THERE ARE A NUMBER OF HOUSING ITEMS ARE BEING DISCUSSED RIGHT NOW UP IN ALBANY FROM RENT CONTROL LAWS THAT ARE ABOUT TO EXPIRE, VACANCY DECONTROL.

ALL OF THESE ISSUES ARE BEING DISCUSSED.

I IDENTIFIED THAT CODE ENFORCE SPENT SOME MISSING FROM THIS CONVERSATION.

THIS IS ALSO AN ATTEMPT TO I JECT T INJECT THIS IN.

THEY'RE MAKING SURE THAT THESE HOUSES ARE STRUCTURALLY SOUND AND MAKING SURE THAT THEY'RE SAFE FOR FIRST RESPONDERS THAT RESPOND TO FIRES.

WE'VE HAD FIREFIGHTERS DIE BECAUSE THEY'VE GONE INTO BUILDINGS AND HOUSES THAT ARE NOT SAFE FOR THEM.

SO, YOU KNOW, THIS IS AN ATTEMPT ALSO TO INJECT THIS VERY IMPORTANT ELEMENT INTO THE BROADER HOUSING DEBATES THAT ARE GOING ON UP IN ALBANY RIGHT NOW.

YOU'VE PICKED FOUR MUNICIPALITIES, AS YOU'VE SAID, NEWBERG, WHICH YOU REMEMBER, BUT ALSO ALBANY, MOUNT VERNON, AND THE TOWN OF RAMAPOE IN ROCKLAND COUNTY.

WHY THESE?

WELL, CERTAINLY WE'RE HERE IN ALBANY A GREAT DEAL, MY TEAM AND I, SO IT'S VERY EASY FOR US TO INTERFACE, INTERACT WITH THE CITY OF ALBANY BECAUSE WE'RE HERE.

AND I WILL SAY THEY'VE BEEN EXCEEDINGLY COOPERATIVE.

AND THEN IN THE HUDSON VALLEY, WE PICKED A COUPLE OF SMALL CITIES, MOUNT VERNON, CITY OF NEWBERG.

MOUNT VERNON HAS SOME PRETTY SPECIAL ISSUES GOING ON RIGHT NOW.

AND THE TOWN OF RAMAPOE HAS A LONG HISTORY OF CODE ENFORCEMENT, LET'S SAY ISSUES, WHERE THE STATE ACTUALY SENT DOWN A MONITOR.

WHICH I THINK IS PRETTY UNPRECEDENTED, TO THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT IN THE TOWN OF RAMAPOE.

BUT WE'RE ALSO ABLE TO GET A SLICE -- A SENSE OF HOW THIS WORKS IN A MORE SUBURBAN SETTING, NOT JUST THE INNER SMALL CITIES OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK CITY.

I THINK WE'LL BE ABLE TO GET A REALLY GOOD SAMPLE OF HOW THIS WORKS ACROISESS THE STATE FROM THESE FOUR PLACES.

YOU TALKED ABOUT THE LANDLORDS YOU'RE INVESTIGATING.

WITH YOU YOULD THEM SLUM LORDS ON A NUMBER OF OCCASIONS AND SOME PEOPLE SAY THAT'S UNFAIR.

DO YOU THINK YOU'VE BEEN UNFAIR IN LABELING THEM SLUM LORDS AND TARGETING THEM?

CERTAINLY I THINK SLUM LORDS SHOULD BE TARGETED.

I THINK WE NEED TO DO A LOT MORE TARGETING OF SLUM LORDS THAN JUST THIS INVESTIGATION.

LET ME ALSO MAKE CLEAR, THERE ARE MANY GOOD LANDLORDS, SO THIS IS IN NO WAY A PERSECUTION OF LANDLORDS ACROSS THE BOARD.

WE ARE LOOKING AT THOSE BAD ACTING LANDLORDS THAT ARE LITERALLY PUTTING THEIR TENANTS INTO HARM'S WAY, INTO DANGEROUS SITUATIONS.

SO I DON'T THINK IT'S UNFAIR.

IN FACT THINK THERE WE SHOULD BE DOING MORE TO TARGET THE BAD ACTORS.

I THINK THE GOOD ACTORS, THE GOOD LANDLORDS SHOULD WANT US TO BRING THE BAD APPLES UP TO, YOU KNOW, THE GOOD LEVEL THAT THE OTHERS OPERATE.

YOU KNOW, IT GIVES THEM A BAD NAME.

SO, YOU KNOW, IN NO WAY IS THIS A BROAD BRUSHED PERSECUTION, THIS SUCCESS TRYING TO EXAMINE WHAT'S GOING WRONG HERE WITH THESE SLUM LORDS, THESE BAD ACTORS AND HOW DO WE FIX IT?

SENATOR, WHAT DO YOU HOPE COMES FROM THE INVESTIGATION -- THIS INVESTIGATION AND ALL YOUR INVESTIGATIONS?

YEAH, SO CERTAINLY ON THIS INVESTIGATION BUT ON ALL OF THEM I WANT TO COMPEL BETTER BEHAVIOR.

WE'RE ALREADY SEEING SOME OF THAT JUST BY VIRTUE OF TAKING A HARDER LOOK ON THIS ISSUE.

I WANT THE BAD ACTING LANDLORDS, THE SLUM LORDS, WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL THEM, TO KNOW THAT THE STATE IS PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO THEM.

BECAUSE I THINK THAT IN AND OF ITSELF COMPELS BETTER BEHAVIOR AND SAFER CONDITIONS FOR TENANTS.

BUT MORE BROADLY SPEAKING, AT THE END OF EVERY INVESTIGATION THERE WILL BE A REPORT THAT WE ISSUE.

WE'RE GOING TO SHARE PUBLICLY, BE VERY UP FRONT WHAT WE DID LOOK AT, WHAT WERE OUR FINDINGS, WHAT ARE OUR RECOMMENDATIONS.

HOW DO WE IMPROVE WHATEVER WE LOOKED AT?

THE PROCESS, OPERATIONS, CONDITIONS.

AND WE MIGHT HAVE LEGISLATIVE RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE HOUSING ISSUE, FOR EXAMPLE, WE MIGHT MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS TO CHANGE STATE BUILDING CODE.

ARE THERE LEGAL HOMES THAT WE FOUND THAT SHOULD BE ILLEGAL?

WE'RE NEVER GOING TO INVESTIGATE FOR THE SAKE OF INVESTIGATING.

WE'RE GOING TO INVESTIGATE TO TRY TO MAKE WHATEVER WE LOOK AT WORK BETTER FOR THE PEOPLE OF NEW YORK STATE THAT WE ALL REPRESENT.

ALL RIGHT, SENATOR, WE'LL HAVE TO END IT THERE.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

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