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Decades later, Poor People's Campaign revived

FORT EDWARD — Fifty years following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tens of thousands of people around the nation have united and revived King’s Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at ending poverty and racism.

“This is a moment in time you will be talking about to your grandchildren,” said June Ragnacci, Poor People’s Campaign local organizer, to a group of about 30 on Tuesday night at St. Joseph’s Church in Fort Edward. “We are standing in the eye of the storm and the storm is poverty. Help me rebuild this country.”

Under the national leadership of former North Carolina NAACP leader Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis, “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” is uniting people across the country to challenge what they call “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”

And locally, Tuesday night’s meeting was the first organizing event planned to recruit people willing to take the pledge to fight for change through activism and nonviolent civil disobedience.

Right before the meeting began, state steering committee member Jamaica Miles said, while feeding her 9-month-old Roman Miles, that for a first meeting she would be happy if 20 people came, because “This is just the beginning.”

But as the event got underway, more than 30, not including children, came to learn more about the movement that has been growing rapidly around the country.

“The first goal was 25 states,” said Miles. “We currently have 45 states, including Alaska. And starting on Mother’s Day we will kick off 40 days of action in the state capitals. This is an opportunity for civil disobedience, and we will not be moved.”

As Miles and Ragnacci explained to those attending the origins of the movement and what is planned for the coming months, they asked the crowd, “Are you with me?”

And a rousing “yes” came forth.

“You are now ambassadors of the Poor People’s Campaign, and more people will learn of it,” Miles said, talking about how the movement grows. “Take every opportunity to teach someone and share information, ‘I want to tell you about the Poor People’s Campaign.’”

During the evening, Michelle, a woman who said she is currently living in a domestic violence shelter, shared her story of generational poverty.

“I have lived in tents, shelters. … I have no skills. I’m 43 years old and I don’t want this life for my children,” she said.

Miles said, “Being homeless is not a sin, homelessness is a sin. Being poor is not a sin, poverty is a sin.”

Sergia Coffey, an Empire State College professor of economics, spoke to the group about the economy since 1950.

“Inequality is worse than it has ever been, and now we’re going to cut food stamps and going to give boxes of food because the poor can’t make good choices,” she said, detailing a systemic culture of suppressing the voices of the poor. “But 50 percent of the people do not vote. Vote. Vote for somebody who will stand up for you.”

King’s Poor People’s Campaign held its first organizing meeting in March 1968 with three phases planned: Constructing a shantytown — Resurrection City — on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument; public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty; and a nationwide boycott of major industries and shopping areas.

King was assassinated only weeks later, on April 4, 1968, but his campaign went forward for several months, and 3,000 people lived in Resurrection City. On June 19 that same year, 50,000 rallied in Resurrection City at the “Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom.”

And now, organizers are picking up on that thread and moving forward with the new campaign.

According to Miles, the pillars of the new campaign aim at racism, poverty, a war economy and environmental destruction of communities.

“Corporations profiting from the destruction of our communities, that is evil,” she said. “The Poor People’s Campaign, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, will come together. Poor people are going to lead and say ‘We deserve better.’”

Detailing the upcoming schedule, Miles said that every Monday will be a Moral Monday, with people converging on state capitals, prepared to be arrested.

Tuesdays and Thursdays will be for local community action, including education, political action conversations and other activities. Sundays will be a time to meet and talk about the upcoming Monday in houses of worship, she said.

“This is a chance to change the status quo,” Miles added.

The organizers asked those attending the Tuesday night session to find someone they did not know and talk to them, saying it is part of community building.

As they wrapped up, Ragnacci asked, “Are we ready to sign the pledge and build the army?”

Many of those attending shouted “Yes.”

Speaker Ryan will leave behind new tax code, busted budget

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan will leave Congress having achieved one of his career goals: rewriting the tax code. On his other defining aim — balancing the budget and cutting back benefit programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — Ryan has utterly failed.

Ryan, a budget geek with a passion for details who announced Wednesday that he would retire next year, proved adroit in drawing up budget plans that balanced on paper but didn’t get beyond the hypothetical. Under his leadership, Republicans never tried to implement the deep cuts his budget called for, particularly his vision of turning Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees. Instead, the House passed steep tax cuts while increasing spending, setting the government on a path to rising deficits.

The gap between Ryan’s reach and his grasp was especially stark this week. The Congressional Budget Office said Monday that the tax bill and last month’s $1.3 trillion spending bill would add more than $2.6 trillion to the national debt over the coming decade — and the looming return of the first trillion-dollar deficits since President Barack Obama’s first term.

The rising deficits don’t lay at Ryan’s feet alone. Although the 48-year-old senator from Wisconsin was an aggressive salesman for his plans, and was once viewed as the new face of a GOP focused on shrinking the size of government, the party ultimately did not turn his way. President Donald Trump had no interest in Ryan’s Medicare proposal and even called it a political loser during the 2016 primary campaign. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made clear he’s not interested in taking on Social Security reforms.

Still, this was not likely how a young Ryan, who cut his teeth in Washington as a speechwriter for conservative icon Jack Kemp, imagined closing out his career.

Earlier in his career, Ryan was an advocate for partially privatizing Social Security by allowing younger retirees to steer a portion of their payroll taxes into retirement accounts. That idea cratered in 2005 despite a determined push by President George W. Bush.

As a 20-something in Washington, Ryan worked for the Empower America think tank, and in Congress his fiscal ideas often performed better on paper than they did in the realpolitik world of Capitol Hill. For instance, Ryan for years had promised that tax reform would include big income and corporate rate cuts paid for by wiping away popular tax breaks.

Instead, last year’s bill managed to cut tax rates by adding $1.4 trillion to the deficit and through gimmicks like making many of the tax cuts expire in just a few years.

“I don’t know whether this will pay for itself or not, but I do know that this is going to create the kind of growth we need to get out of the hole we’re in,” Ryan said at the time.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s plans to cut benefit programs faced the acid test last year as well, during last year’s health care debacle. He succeeded in passing a repeal of Obama’s health care law through the House last year that would have capped the Medicaid health program for the poor and disabled, cutting more than $800 billion from the program over 10 years. Ryan called it the “most fundamental entitlement reform in a generation.”

But the “Obamacare” repeal effort imploded in the Senate, leaving the growth of Medicaid untouched and the health care law’s subsidies in place. Politically, the effort both angered the GOP base and whipped up the Democratic opposition.

“Under Paul Ryan, the deficit certainly increased dramatically, so all that great think tank policy and great ideas wasn’t able to translate into legislation and that has a huge fiscal cost,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington group that advocates for lower deficits.

State Police, state agency to investigate loan fund questions

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office has asked a special State Police investigative team to look into questions of possible misconduct in a Warren County-based organization’s loan fund, a fund that a state administrative agency acknowledged Tuesday that it is also reviewing.

Warren County Sheriff Bud York requested an investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation after questions were raised about conflicts of interest and oversight within the loan fund for “high-risk” businesses administered by a regional development corporation under the auspices of the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board.


Because the Regional Planning Board’s activity stretches over multiple counties, complaints made to his agency about the organization are being referred to the State Police BCI Special Investigations Unit, York said. York said going to the state agency will eliminate any unfounded claims of “politics” being a factor in the inquiry that have been made during other investigations of governmental officials.

“I spoke to the major (who oversees SIU) and he said they certainly will look at it,” York said. “We turned everything we have over to them.”

Numerous local elected officials have been found to have connections to those who received money from the little-publicized loan fund, which many Warren County leaders and business owners did not even realize existed until recent weeks.

That lack of knowledge came despite the fact that Warren County is the lead county of five involved in oversight of the planning board.

As concerns about the loans emerged in recent weeks, county supervisors have changed procedures to have more oversight of the Regional Planning Board. No questions about the organization have been aired publicly by officials in the other counties, which include Washington, Essex, Hamilton and Clinton.

Scrutiny of the Regional Planning Board began in recent months when its funds were found to have been among money allegedly stolen by David Decker, former director of Lake George Watershed Coalition who was arrested on nearly two dozen felony financial fraud charges last year.

Questions raised by Queensbury resident Travis Whitehead led to concerns about a possible conflict of interest on the part of Queensbury Supervisor Matt Sokol, who voted on funding for the Regional Planning Board despite the fact his family’s company received a $50,000 low-interest loan from the organization last October.

The loan fund also shows a number of large local businesses, closed businesses and other loans involving politically connected individuals, as well as what some Warren County supervisors saw as a high default rate. Whitehead and some Warren County supervisors have raised questions about several of them.

Whitehead referred his concerns to the Sheriff’s Office and state Authorities Budget Office, which oversees economic development organizations but had not been reviewing the loan fund and regional development corporation that the Regional Planning Board oversees. The ABO was created in 2009 in response to concerns about lack of oversight, corruption and secrecy in public authorities and economic develop organizations.

Jeffrey Pearlman, director of the Authorities Budget Office, said Tuesday that his agency was “looking at it” when asked about the Regional Planning Board loan fund, but said he would not comment further.

Pearlman said the inquiry was prompted by referrals by Whitehead.

“We appreciate his good work. We are a small office with a large regulatory oversight authority. We rely on individuals like him to bring things to our attention,” Pearlman said.

Walter Young, director of the Regional Planning Board, said the ABO has not been involved with his agency’s activities, as the Regional Planning Board’s regional development corporation loan fund gets funding in a different manner than those that the ABO reviews. The loan fund was started decades ago with $3 million in federal funding the through U.S. Department of Commerce, and Young said it is now “self-sufficient.”

He has defended the organization’s activities, saying that a loan committee made up of six people reviews applications and thoroughly vets them.

Hair salon

One loan that Whitehead has questioned was a $50,000 loan to Desiree Diskin, daughter of Regional Planning Board Chairman and Putnam Town Supervisor John LaPointe and daughter-in-law of Regional Planning Board Auditor Michael Diskin, for a business known as All About You Boutique, a beauty salon in the Essex County hamlet of Port Henry. Mr. Diskin is also the Essex County treasurer.

A mortgage signed by Desiree Diskin, and LaPointe was used as collateral for the loan, which is to accrue 5 percent interest and is to be paid back in 12 years.

Young, the Regional Planning Board director, said Tuesday that the salon was in operation at Ms. Diskin’s home.

But a visit to the home by a reporter later Tuesday found no indication of a business there, as well as no online listings or phone listings for a salon by the name. Ms. Diskin’s Facebook page indicates she works at a salon in Vermont, and an online state license search indicates she does not have a cosmetology or barber license in New York, but does have one in Vermont.

The town of Moriah building and codes office said no building permit had been sought for the property as of this week.

Essex County records show she received a county business certificate in 2011 for All About You Boutique at her home.

Ms. Diskin said later Tuesday that the funding will be used to convert a garage on her property into a salon and construction had been slowed by winter weather, but was expected to start in the coming weeks. She said her relatives had no role in the financing.

“The work will be done,” she said. “I did this all by myself. I had to go through a lot and make a presentation to the board.”

Diskin said she hopes to employ local cosmetology school graduates to try to supply jobs in a region where they are needed.

A six-person “revolving loan fund” committee that is part of the Regional Planning Board’s regional development corporation makes decisions on loan applications, Young said.

Young said the required disclosures were made during the loan application process regarding Diskin’s father’s relationship to the Regional Planning Board.

Mr. Diskin said Thursday that he had no role in his daughter-in-law's loan, and did not realize she had gotten the funding until after it was approved.

"I have nothing to do with the loans," he said.

A call to LaPointe was not returned Wednesday.

Supervisor concerns

Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Doug Beaty, who has been a critic of the Regional Planning Board and what he believes is a lack of oversight, said he visited the agency’s office in Lake George on Tuesday to try to review documentation related to loans about which he had questions, including the Port Henry hair salon.

He said Young told him that he could not provide the information because of confidentiality rules regarding the applicants and that Beaty should file “FOIL” (Freedom of Information Law) requests.

Beaty said that response concerned him.

“I was quite surprised,” he said.

Beaty said he had concerns that the loan fund seems to be mainly for “connected” people and business owners and that he has spoken to a number of Warren County business owners who had no idea it existed.

“There really needs to be a close look taken here,” Beaty said.

He said EDC Warren County and Warren County Local Development Corp., two agencies reviewed by the ABO who provide funding to businesses in the county, have been more forthcoming with county supervisors, providing annual accounting of loans to county supervisors.

As supervisors continue to push for more review, the Warren County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee asked county Treasurer Michael Swan on Wednesday to formally request a “loan aging report” from the Regional Planning Board that would detail the status of all loans.

Swan said records he was provided show the loan fund has $2.8 million in loans outstanding, but $1 million of that had been “written off as lost” and no interest was being collected.

Young said last month that only $89,000 was in default, though.