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The two faces of Carl Paladino

Paladino announcing

Long before he announced his candidacy for governor, a number of people I deal with told me they saw a disconnect between what Carl Paladino says about politics and what he does as a businessman. They complained that Paladino, on one hand, rails against government spending while making money hand over fist in numerous dealings with said government.

One prominent politician told me the contrasts were an example of what he termed "The two faces of Carl Paladino."

Which brings me to my front page story in Sunday's Buffalo News.

There have been reports in recent weeks that mentioned Paladino's leases with state agencies, and about three weeks ago I set out to document the extent of his dealings, not only with Albany, but with the federal and local governments. I looked not only at leases on office space, but tax breaks he's received as a developer and purchases he's made of buildings that had fallen into government hands.

What I found, in a nutshell, is that Paladino holds at least 37 leases with government agencies that will bring him $10.1 million in rent this year. He's the state's biggest landlord in Western New York, holding leases on half of the 52 leases it has on local offices. 

Paladino also has obtained at least $12 million in tax breaks since 2003, and the figure is likely substantially larger because not all the benefits have been calculated by the assorted economic development agencies that have awarded Paladino benefits.

He's also bought at least a couple of buildings dirt cheap from the government.

His purchase of the former L.L. Berger building in downtown Buffalo for $1 in 1999 is kind of old news, although still relevant. Of more recent vintage is the deal he made with state officials to to acquire the former United Office Building in Niagara Falls for only $10 after the state spent about $1 million to land the property. Paladino redeveloped the building recently, with the help of more than $2 million in tax breaks.

All this does not make Paladino a bad person. More of a shrewd businessman, actually. But it does call into question his credentials as a political populist.

I mean, when you're doing this much business with the government, business that has helped make you a multimillionaire, how serious can or should voters take you when you hoot and holler about government spending?

Likewise, it raises a question as to how serious voters should take claims of being a political outsider when you've contributed close to a half-million-dollars to politicians over the years and obviously built cozy relationships with a fair number of them?

Paladino refused to talk to me during the course of my reporting, which has got to just about be a first, given the guy's "dial a quote" reputation. But I understand. He's long professed his admiration for my work -- when my guns were trained on others -- but now that I've come knocking on his door, well, he'd much prefer I go back to sniffing around City Hall. Or the State Capitol. Or NYPA headquarters. Anywhere but Ellicott Square, which, just in case you're counting, is where Paladino takes in $1.5 million a year via 14 leases with government tenants. When he's not having his supporters over for beers and roast beef sandwiches. 

Here's an exchange of e-mails leading up to Paladino's "no comment, not now, not ever," which was apparently triggered by the bolded fourth paragraph of this blog post of mine. Keep in mind that Carl has proclaimed he's got a "thick skin." (I have a hunch my "no filter" blog post may have as much to do with Carl's anger as anything else.)

The thing of it is, Paladino, if he had chosen to talk, could have mounted a potentially reasonable defense to some of his dealings with the government. I tried to be as fair as I could in my story, but there's only so much a reporter can do when one side of the story won't tell it.

On one hand, it looks kind of bad that Paladino is the state's biggest landlord in WNY, given his rants about Albany's spending. But, in the guy's defense, he quoted lower prices than his competitors in the proposals he submitted for the biggest leases he's landed with the state.

You could also make a case that the buildings he bought on the cheap have turned out OK, given that he redeveloped properties that had been long abandoned. Whether he should have gotten the grants and tax breaks on top of the cheap sale prices is debatable, however.

The tax breaks are where Paladino is on the shakiest ground, and I say this in part based on the extensive reporting I've done the past 10 years of economic development programs in the region.

It's not just that Paladino has laid claim to every penny of tax breaks he possibly could. He's also  tried to shape public economic development policy in ways that benefits his businesses.

Case in point is Buffalo's use of Empire Zone benefits, the most lucrative of the state's economic development programs that offers a wide range of tax breaks. The program was intended to promote investment and job creation in distressed neighborhoods, abandoned industrial areas, etc.

But when it came time for City Hall to draw boundaries back when Tony Masiello was mayor, Paladino was among the crowd that successfully lobbied that the zone include most of downtown -- and with it, most of Paladino's key property holdings. Paladino then went about getting no fewer than 30 of his companies certified as eligible to receive benefits. Only one other business operator in the entire state had more as of 2007, the latest year for which there are complete records.

Right after Byron Brown took office as mayor, Paladino was at it again, getting City Hall to amend Empire Zone boundaries to include waterfront land he had acquired near Erie Basin Marina. Thus, a program conceived as a means to help the poor enabled Paladino to build condominiums that sell for up to $1.3 million a pop.

Add it all up and Paladino has saved at least $4.3 million in sales and property taxes under the Empire Zone program since 2003. And the buyers of his waterfront condos will save some $5 million in property taxes.

When you factor it all in -- the leases, the tax breaks, the buildings for a buck -- what emerges is a portrait of a businessman who is making a lot of money, and managing to avoid paying a lot of taxes, while saying as a candidate for governor that the government should be spending less money and looking out more for taxpayers.

The two faces of Carl Paladino, indeed. 


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Musings for a Monday

There are a lot of screwed-up operations in local government, but for my money, none of them can touch the Erie County Sheriff's Office. 

The county Holding Center is a house of horrors, and Matt Spina reported Sunday on the department's practice of granting what amounts to overtime pay to management personnel to perform a task they don't actually perform. Sheriff Tim Howard doesn't see a problem with this, of course. Then again, he thinks the Holding Center is just dandy, too. 

I'm not sure $425-an-hour lawyers, much less $150-an-hour PR flaks, can save this operation.

Oh, for the old days of B. John Tutuska -- to say nothing of Andy and Barney.

I've heard from two planners who said City Hall never even acknowledged receipt of their resume, much less talked to them, when it conducted its so-called search for a new city planner. Both seem to have legit credentials. The position, if you recall, was filled by a lawyer already on the city payroll who has never worked as a planner.

The folks at have a pretty funny, NCAA-bracket-inspired competition called PoltiFAIL. It pits the usual suspects against each other and lets readers choose who is more at fault for the state of the region. They're down to their Sweet 16, and pairings include Dale Volker vs. George Maziarz, Chris Collins vs. Barbara Miller-Williams, and the Western New York voter vs. Steve Pigeon. Good tongue-in-cheek fun. The list of bad politicians is depressing long, however.

The Chicken Littles are out in full force, with dire warnings from the School Boards Association and Buffalo Superintendent James Williams, about the prospect of massive layoffs if the state doesn't keep funding schools in a style they're accustomed to. A few Assembly members, including Sam Hoyt, have come up with one obvious solution -- a wage freeze for teachers. It's been happening in the private sector -- along with wage cuts -- as businesses come on hard times. Not that I expect the teacher unions to go along, as ever-increasing pay is regarded as an entitlement. I'd like to hear someone talk about consolidation of school services in the short run as a precursor to a merger of districts. We've got more than 30 in Erie and Niagara counties alone. Face it, school property taxes are the real killer in this state, and part of the reason is all the duplication that comes with the multitude of districts.

The recent Assembly vote on the budget included several "no" votes of note, as nine Democrats, including  Hoyt, Francine Delmonte, Robin Schimminger and Bill Parment, joined Republicans in saying "no, we shouldn't." The measure passed anyway, 91-51. It would cut school aid less than what the governor has proposed and enables the borrowing of $2 billion. 

The Citizens Budget Commission, a critic of Empire Zones, sees merit in the Excelsior program proposed by   Gov. David Paterson, saying it has "potential for a better, more effective program." The commission offers this smart analysis on what's wrong with Empire Zones and good about Excelsior.


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Can we call it 'Cakegate?'

Oops, he did it again.

State Sen. Antoine Thompson just can't seem to get out of his own way.

First he was in favor of -- no wait, against -- the ouster of Sen. Hiram Monserrate.

Then he was missing in action while the Senate was in business, only to find out that he had stayed at an oceanfront resort in Jamaica while, um, searching for companies to relocate to Buffalo.

The latest episode involves not just what some see as a jaw-dropping show of self-serving vanity -- his photo on a cake -- but possible violations of state ethics laws by having his staff hustle donations from 20 restaurants to feed his supporters and staff at a St. Joseph's Day Table celebration last week at his district office downtown.

Thompson cake

The Public Officers Law says elected officials can't solicit or accept anything that's beyond a nominal value -- as Gov. David Paterson has learned the hard way -- and a spread with food from 20 restaurants isn't exactly nominal.

And his mug shot on the cake? Well, that's priceless.

What will become of this?

Well, the Legislative Ethics Commission could investigate on its own. Or it could respond to a complaint.

The commission, however, doesn't exactly have a fearsome reputation. I mean, how many legislators have been nailed for accepting donations of this sort since the law was amended three years ago?


Kinda sounds like the state Board of Elections, doesn't it?

What's next for the senator?

I don't know, but I've gotta tell ya, Thompson is slowing me down in pursuit of other stories.

I was sitting at my desk minding my own business a few weeks ago when I got the call about Jamaica. The cake photo arrived unannounced in my e-mail Wednesday and I was digesting my lunch Thursday when a caller alerted me to the provisions of the state ethics law.

For two days now I've been trying to build a spreadsheet to analyze the relationship between hydropower allocations and employment at major recipients of New York Power Authority customers -- come on, admit it, you're dying to read the story -- and I haven't been able to enter my first set of numbers yet. 

I'll try again today, but with my luck, the phone will ring again about our mayor in waiting.

Sorry, NYPA, but you'll just have to wait your turn.


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Antoine takes the cake

Not only is there such a thing as a free lunch if you work for state government, but the dessert tells you who provided it.

Thompson cake

Yup, that's State Sen. Antoine Thompson's mug on the cake.

And just to make sure people knew who it was from, Thompson's people not only saw to it that his picture was on the cake, but that it was left uncarved.

Folks, I am not making this up.

The cake was part of a St. Joseph's Table that Thompson's staff provided to state employees last Friday at the Mahoney Building in downtown Buffalo. Thompson has a district office there, as do numerous state departments.

But fear not, the spread was not paid for by taxpayers or campaign contributors. No, Thompson's staff solicited donations from assorted restaurants.

I imagine, however, that taxpayers paid for the time of staff members to run around to get all the food. They're the same people who have been deployed to perform such vital tasks as planning parades, looking up the birthdays of constituents to mail them cards, and booking oceanfront resorts in Jamaica.

And people say state government is broke.

The cake, by the way, came courtesy of Tempo. I hear it's quite ritzy -- which explains why I've never been there. The menu lists items such as seared Hawaiian ahi loin and Scunghilli fra diavolo and grilled lobster lobster and sweet corn risotto.

Do any of them come with fries or onion rings? Free refills on the Diet Pepsi?


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Digging us deeper in debt

What comes after going from bad to worse?

Because folks, we're headed there.

Spitzer wearing socks.

Bruno wearing handcuffs.

The $4 billion deficit.

Caroline Kennedy.

The coup.

The counter-coup.

The $6 billion deficit.

Hiram Monserrate

Paterson's campaign drama.

David Johnson.

Paterson calling Johnson's girlfriend.

The $9 billion deficit.

And now -- a drum roll, please -- Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch's proposal to put us deeper in debt by borrowing $6 billion over the next three years and whittling away at the deficit over the next five years.

What's more, his proposal is getting a serious look from a fair number of leaders in Albany, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Big surprise there, huh?

This crew obviously believes in wasting a crisis.

To say nothing of avoiding hard decisions.

Not everyone is on board. Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, for one, is among them.

“New York state has been addicted to unaffordable borrowing and unsustainable spending. Now is the time to break that addiction,” he said.

His plan calls for, among other things, a cap on state debt and more transparency in budget negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos doesn't like Ravitch's plan, either.

Nor should they.

Nope, it's time to break the addiction to Albany's tax-and-spend ways and balance the budget - now.

To go, as Dr. Winston O'Boogie once said, cold turkey.


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Talking about Antoine Thompson

Thompson and brown

Judging by online traffic numbers, and the volume of reader comments, the exploits of Sen. Antoine Thompson are a hot topic, so I'm going with the flow today. That's Thompson pictured on the left above, with his longtime ally, Byron Brown.

For starters, I did a radio appearance Wednesday afternoon on The Shredd & Ragan Show (103.3 The Edge, WEDG-FM). The subject was Thompson, his trip to Jamaica, campaign contributions and the people who make them.

Give a listen if you like. The interview lasts 14:22. I'd like to think I add some insight to the outrage.

Shredd & Ragan have a pretty funny post on their web site about what it takes to run against Thompson or anyone else in the State Senate or Assembly.

Among the advice:

All you have to do is run for office. Not sure how? Of course they don't make it easy, but a gig this sweet always requires a bit of work. Stop your whining and get cracking. Get in and you're almost set for life.

My story about the trip to Jamaica, and two follow-up blog posts, have generated a lot of reader comments. As usual, you've got to sift through a fair amount of babble, but there some real gems to be found.

Among my favorites:

robert14219 said: we should target the contributors - BOYCOTT their businesses and tell they WHY....cut off the funding and he is G O N E from Albany.

Tomm: According to the list of contributors of $1,000 or more, 49% of those contributions are from areas OUTSIDE OF WESTERN NEW YORK!

Does anyone really believe he can best represent us western New Yorkers when his financial allegiance is to people outside this area?

No wonder he conducts fund raisers in Albany!

chipsahoy: I swear this guy really bugs me! He just leaves right in the middle of session! This is the time when he is suppose to be working on the budget, and fixing New York State! BUT NO, let's go take a vacation. When 2/3's of his district, can't even afford to go on vacation let alone just leave there job to go do it! We would be fired, but not Senator Thompson. This is pathetic, and if he is re-elected after all the stuff he has messed up then I feel sorry for those who vote for him, because you will be just as much to blame for the districts fall as much as Senator Thompson.

artgeffenbaum: Where is Lenny Lenihan? The Erie County Democratic Party should be actively seeking a primary challenge to this guy. At least give the voters a choice.

I think "enough" has a very relevant point. Why do so many of our so-called business leaders complain about the status quo while continuing to fund it?
To paraphrase Ricky Ricardo, 'Howard, you've got some 'splaining to do!"

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Antoine Thompson's enablers

Behind every politician - flawed and otherwise - stands a cadre of contributors whose money help the incumbent remain in office.

And, in the case of Antoine Thompson, pay for trips to Jamaica in the middle of a Senate session.

So, who is the money behind Antoine Thompson?

For starters, there is a lot of it.

Thompson, antoine I searched his campaign disclosure reports on the New York State Board of Elections site Tuesday and learned that Thompson received almost a quarter-million-dollars in contributions since January 2009. The figure, to be precise, is $249,608.74.

I pulled together a list of everyone who has contributed at least $1,000. There are 66 such contributors, who collectively account for a little more than half of Thompson's contributions - $126,700.

Take a look for yourself.

Who's giving?

In a general sense, a lot of the usual suspects. Lawyers, labor unions, lobbyists and other Albany interest groups.

Oh, and folks associated with Steve Pigeon, in particular Hormos Mansouri, who, individually and through his companies, lead the pack with $8,500 in contributions.

Gary Parenti, also tight with Pigeon, gave Thompson $1,900 as an individual and through his company. New Yorkers for Pedro Espada, the state senator who happens to employ Pigeon as his chief counsel, gave another $2,000.

Add it all up, and there's at least $12,400 of Pigeon-related money.

The biggest non-Pigeon contributors include the Buffalo law firm of Phillips Lytle, which gave $6,500, and  Battaglia Demolition of Elma, which contributed $6,000.

Update, 9:30 a.m.: Readers are looking at the list of contributors, connecting the dots and sharing with me via e-mail. Feel free to join in. Also, check out the most-recent comments on my story from Tuesday, as readers are connecting the dots there, as well.

Now, we return to our regularly scheduled broadcast ...

The list is populated with other interesting names.

Former Mayor Anthony Masiello gave $2,400.

Earl Wells, who is lobbying the Power Authority on behalf of big hydopower customers, gave $2,000.

The Buffalo firefighters union gave $4,700, something that I can't imagine will go down well with the rank-and-file, given they just got through picketing the state of the city address given by Thompson's buddy, Byron Brown.

The Rev. Richard Stenhouse, who the mayor is accused of trying to steer business to, gave $1,200.

Then there are the stalwarts of the business community, guys who privately grumble at the drop of a hat at the sorry state of political leadership in this community. Guys like Howard Zemsky and Lou Ciminelli. Ciminelli gave Thompson $1,000 through his company. Zemsky gave a total of $3,500 as an individual and through his company. 

Jamaica postcardRemember that, you in the upper crust, next time you're at a social gathering and you hear Zemsky or Ciminelli complain about the state of affairs.

You might want to ask them how they can complain when they are bank-rolling the campaigns of folks like Antoine Thompson.

You might even ask them if Thompson sent them a postcard from Jamaica. After all, they helped pay for the trip.


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Antoine Thompson, on the job, in Jamaica. Jamaica?

Before I say a word, I've got to set the mood. Give a quick look and listen to this:

Got it? OK, let's proceed.

Today's topic is state Sen. Antoine Thompson, who fancies himself as Buffalo's next mayor when Byron Brown moves on to greener pastures.

Thompson created his own version of "Where's Waldo" last week when he split from a Senate session to travel to parts unknown. His colleagues in the Senate didn't know where he was and his staff wouldn't answer questions regarding his whereabouts, except to say he wasn't in Albany.

In their defense, one member of the staff told me Monday they were under orders to not divulge his whereabouts. However, this staff member confirmed that Thompson and Mark Boyd, the senator's chief of staff, had, in fact, traveled to Jamaica.

Oh boy, I thought. Especially when I checked the weather last Thursday.

Albany: Fog, rain, high of 38.

Kingston, Jamaica: Sunny, high of 81.

I called Thompson and Boyd to press for more details. I'm still waiting on Thompson, while Boyd took my call, only to give me the run-around.

Only when I told him I already knew they had ventured to the land of Cool Runnings did Boyd come clean -- and only after presumably consulting with his boss. He blamed the stonewalling on us bad reporters, because we don't write about all the positive things the good senator is doing, and therefore it only makes sense to withhold potentially embarrassing information.

With me so far?

Thompson, with flag At this point, I'm thinking I've got a hell of a story. Even more so when I find out our dynamic duo were't staying at a Motel Six, but an oceanfront resort that costs $1,500 a week that Thompson is paying for with campaign contributions.

But, willing to let more facts get in the way of a good story, I dug deeper, making calls to members of the Jamaican and American Association of Buffalo, which planned the trip.

And, lo and behold, they corroborated Boyd's claim that he and Thompson put in an honest day's work when they were in Jamaica, trying to network with officials on a variety of issues, including renewable energy, which is near and dear to Thompson's heart.

In fact, I know one of the two individuals I spoke with, and I know him to be a straight shooter.

So, folks, this is not a matter of the senator blowing off official business in Albany to put his feet in the sand.

Rather, this is another example of the weirdness that surrounds Antoine Thompson.

The senator who is recorded as voting to oust Hiram Monserrate, but then says he didn't. Or, at least, didn't mean to. Or something like that.

Who gave money to Monserrate's self-defense fund. Which may be legally constituted. Or maybe not.

Who is getting blasted by constituents for taking credit for pork that he didn't  deliver.

Who has taken the art of self-serving pork barrel announcements to new highs/lows.

Who makes a potential non-story a front-page story by easing out of the country and telling his staff to dummy up.

And you wonder why I began this blog with the theme from the Twilight Zone?

Is it a bad thing that Thompson headed down Jamaica-way to network in the hopes of drumming up a little business?

Not necessarily.

Should he have done it when the Senate was in session?

Probably not, especially given what's going down in Albany these days.

Is this what Thompson is paid to do?

No, he's paid to work as a senator.

What exactly is Thompson getting paid?

His salary this year, including lulus, is $100,000.

Whose job is it to drum up business on behalf of the state?

Empire State Development Corp.

Were they along on the trip?

Nope. But they did send along brochures.

Does it look good that Boyd took his girlfriend along on the trip?


If Thompson had nothing to hide, why all the hush-hush?

Beats me.

Actually, about the only thing I know for sure is that this latest episode is only going to intensify questions about Thompson's fitness for office. 

Not that he has any serious opposition this fall. The only name I'm hearing is Russ Thompson, he of Thruway and Tea Party notoriety. If he opts to run, Thompson  -- Russ, that is -- might make some noise, but he does not pose a real threat.

Which means, barring emergence of another candidate, Thompson will be around to conduct more fact-finding missions.

What's next? I hear the Dominicans might be looking for business partners.

Then again, I hear it's better in the Bahamas.


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Stick a fork in David Paterson -- he's done

Calls for David Paterson to resign as governor strike me as over the top -- I mean, Mark Sanford is still running South Carolina, isn't he? -- but it's apparent that Paterson's election campaign is an exercise in futility.

Let's face it, Brian Davis has a better shot at getting hired as a bank teller than David Paterson does of winning election this fall.

Paterson, davidFor all the rumors that swirled for weeks about what the New York Times was supposedly going to report about his personal life, what the Gray Lady actually published struck me as a lot more damaging.

A detached governor in a time of crisis.

Who promoted a buddy into a key position who was way out out his pay grade.

And who stuck his nose into a domestic violence situation when he shouldn't have.

Paterson has been saying a lot of the right things about New York's out-of-control state spending and the complicity of the State Legislature, but it's looking more and more like he's done a better job of talking-the-talk than walking-the-walk.

I guess in challenging the Albany status quo, Paterson has been living out the Bob Dylan lyric -- "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Let's hear it from the master, himself.

With the latest revelations, Paterson's political future is toast.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat, hit the nail on the head when he said of the governor: "His campaign was crippled to begin with and this latest episode is a fatal blow."

Tom Precious has all the latest details here. You can listen to Paterson's news conference below.

Update: The Washington Post is reporting that Paterson is planning to announce this afternoon that he is dropping out of the race.

Another update: Paterson makes it official - he's out of the race.

For as badly as Paterson has screwed up, something just doesn't seem right about what is very likely to unfold: Andrew Cuomo waltzing into the governor's office without breaking a sweat.

I'm not saying the guy isn't qualified -- although from a distance, he strikes me as overly calculating, even for a politician. Not necessarily a fatal flaw, but certainly not endearing.

But I am saying that it sure would be nice for there to be a real election.

Cuomo will win the Democratic nomination without a real fight -- perhaps no fight -- and Rick Lazio is shaping up as more of a speed bump than a stop sign on the way to the Governor's Mansion.


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State incumbents fatten their wallets

Last week I reported that our local State Senate and Assembly members have some $2.2 million in the bank as we head into this election year. A government watchdog organization has done the math statewide, and it's more than $32 million.

Reports the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle:

Incumbents in the State Legislature have already stockpiled $32.8 million for this year's elections.

Incumbents averaged about $164,852 in their campaign coffers last month, five times more than the two dozen challengers who've already announced their candidacies, according to campaign-finance reports and a review by the New York Public Interest Research Group, or NYPIRG.

"It gives all the incumbents a huge head start over the people who might want to challenge them," said Bill Mahoney, NYPIRG's research coordinator.

"Even if there is this angry voter sentiment, the incumbents will still have the power to spend tons of money on ads and mailings to get their names out there."

The power of incumbency in New York has led to a 98 percent re-election rate; only 39 incumbents have been defeated in November elections since 1982, less than three each election year.

Folks, this is not good, not if you're interested in reform of state government. Or at least want to be represented by someone who knows which way he votes.

If there's a silver lining, our local incumbents don't have quite as much in the bank as their colleagues. Our guys average about $115,000, compared with nearly $165,000 statewide. But that average is skewed by the huge amounts of money raised by Senate and Assembly leaders.

Just for the heck of it, I checked on their campaign fund balances and here's what I found;

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has no less than $2.6 million on hand to defend his seat. Yipes!

Senate President Malcom Smith has $660,169.

Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada actually filed a report -- for a change -- showing a balance of $252,478. That makes him a relative pauper.

Senate Majority Conference Leader John Sampson reported $737,707.

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos has $1.34 million in the bank.

Who says crime doesn't pay?


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