On a Saturday night in Manhattan, state Sen. James Skoufis sat behind a cafe table and sipped a beer as he explained how he became a team table tennis champion. He began playing the game as a kid in the family basement, developing a sense for the finer points of the game before turning toward formal competition. “I would play with my sister with a cassette case as my paddle, using my left hand,” Skoufis explained. His mother would drive him to weekly practices at a table tennis club in Westfield, New Jersey. Point by point, the Queens native rose through the all-important youth player rankings. He would eventually win two Junior Olympic medals.
Skoufis would find new competitive outlets as he left table tennis for a career in politics. Curling became his thing during three terms in the Assembly, but another pastime has taken precedence now that he’s a state senator. “(Politics) gets my competitive juices flowing,” the 31-year-old Hudson Valley lawmaker said. But now he is facing his most formidable opponent yet as the chairman of the state Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee: Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In December, after the state Senate Democrats announced their committee appointments, Skoufis issued a warning. “There are so many issues, projects, and wrongdoings that should’ve triggered serious legislative oversight – but didn’t – in recent years,” he tweeted. “That’s about to change.”
Cuomo, newly elected to a third term, did not let the comment go unacknowledged at the tail end of a year when corruption within his administration had become a campaign issue following the conviction of former top aide Joseph Percoco. “You can always get into an investigations battle,” Cuomo said at the time. “They have oversight committees. I have every state contract, every member item contract.” While the public spat did not escalate, the first-term senator saw that making a name for himself as a good-government champion was not going to be easy. Skoufis’ office would not get any extra money to ramp up the operations of the committee, which had done little actual investigating in recent years. “It’s very important, out of the gate, that we hit some singles and doubles,” he said. “We will get to bigger stuff, but we need to demonstrate credibility first.”
Democratic lawmakers aimed to do many things this year with their biggest legislative majorities in a century. There was a litany of high-profile issues to address through legislation, from congestion pricing to recreational marijuana legalization. Skoufis would be given a leading role on another front – showing that the state Senate Democrats were serious about changing the political culture of Albany. While Skoufis made some early noise about asserting the Senate’s role to oversee the governor, he would adopt a less confrontational approach as the legislative session got underway. He opened investigations into pharmacy benefit managers, housing code violations and state industrial development agencies to build the committee into a credible watchdog. But a bigger challenge looms – whether Skoufis has what it takes to take on Cuomo, who showed at critical times his ability to cause political headaches for the Hudson Valley senator.
“I've never had any problem standing up to the governor,” Skoufis said as he finished his beer, “but the coming months would put that claim to test.” As he got ready to meet his wife for the long drive back to Orange County, Skoufis added, “There’s going to be a target on my back. I want to be prepared for when that happens.”
As with table tennis, Skoufis is aiming to win at his new pastime as part of a team. He began assembling his own squad soon after being appointed chairman of the Senate investigations committee in December. It consisted of Sara DiBernardo, a millennial former law clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, as committee counsel. For chief investigator, Skoufis hired Michael Mazzariello, a former assistant district attorney who once hosted “Street Court” – a television show that put to use the streetwise style he learned as a kid in East New York. The team would settle on doing three investigations during the legislative session to establish their credibility: prescription benefit managers, industrial development agencies and housing code violations in the Hudson Valley.
“His initial idea was to investigate codes from the eyes of first responders,” Mazzariello said as he drove through Newburgh on a spring afternoon. “I was like, wow, that means your firefighters, your police officers, your EMS guys that are going into buildings, some of them legal, some of them illegal.” There were risks in the broken doorways, weak flooring – anything that would pose a hazard for unsuspecting first responders. The owners of many properties hide their identities behind limited liability corporations, and local fire chiefs, police officials and code enforcement staff would tell Mazzariello that there were no easy solutions to the problem. In one recent case, a Newburgh fireman fell through the dilapidated steps of a building, resulting in eight operations to his neck.
Another investigation into the practices of pharmacy benefit managers – middlemen who move prescription drugs from manufacturers to pharmacies – began in early January and concluded in the final weeks of the legislative session. Now, a third probe into industrial development agencies is getting underway. After years of dormancy, the committee was once again trying to assert its oversight authority.
The proactive approach of the committee under Skoufis is new, according to Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “For an investigations committee chair to sort of be leaning into the issues is unusual and welcome,” he said. Over the years, there have been lawmakers in both houses of the state Legislature who have used chairmanships of investigative committee to examine various issues, but those efforts centered on specific topics. Former Democratic Assemblyman Scott Stringer, for example, probed computer purchases at state agencies, while former Republican state Sen. Roy Goodman, as chairman of the upper chamber’s investigations committee, looked into state tax credits, leading to the state’s current independent expenditure reporting system.
During his own time in the Assembly, now-U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer used his chairmanship of the investigations committee to build a political brand. The time he spent probing gasoline prices, ambulance services, city asphalt contracts and housing, as well as the press attention he attracted, did not go unnoticed by The New York Times when the three-term Brooklyn assemblyman announced a run for Congress in 1980. “A terrific investigator who calls the shots the way they are,” then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch said while endorsing Schumer’s campaign that year.
For his part, Skoufis is open to how his work as a state senator could lead to bigger things. “Politics is a matter of opportunity and timing,” he said. “Congress? If it comes up, I’d look at it.”
But as the April 1 state budget deadline loomed, Skoufis was facing more pressing issues. As lawmakers pushed to pass the state budget in the wee morning hours of April 1, a bill came to the Senate floor that presented lawmakers with a choice. They could either pass a 40% raise phased in over three years for the governor, or risk delaying passage of the “timely” budget that would determine whether or not they would qualify for a pay increase of their own. In the midst of all this, Skoufis and state Sen. Jen Metzger briefly left the chamber and were not seen until minutes after other lawmakers passed the pay increase.
The pay raise vote came amid a contentious budget season for Skoufis, who had won his seat by an 8-point margin in November as the first Democrat to represent the Hudson Valley district in decades. Some constituents were upset about Democrats’ plans to pass a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan. The prospect of marijuana legalization unsettled suburban voters. Now Skoufis had to explain why he had skipped the pay raise vote. After initially suggesting that he had simply gone to the bathroom, Skoufis offered a different version of events. “Of course I would’ve voted ‘no,’” Skoufis said in a statement at the time to The Journal News. “I left the chamber in protest, refusing to take part in what can only be described as a joke, if only it wasn’t so serious.”
Meanwhile, the governor’s attacks against fellow Democrats had erupted into full view when he blamed senators for the collapse of the Amazon HQ2 deal in New York City. While Skoufis was laying low with his investigations, other state senators were battling the governor. The internecine warfare hit a new low when Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi called the trio of state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos, and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, “fucking idiots” after the female lawmakers called an impromptu press conference in the state Capitol to criticize the governor’s fundraising during budget negotiations.
Skoufis kept feeling the political heat too. He was blasted for his support of a pro-Airbnb bill after receiving more than $500,000 from the short-term vacation rental company to help his Senate campaign. “You can almost track an interest that has a connection to the legislation in Albany to an IE (independent expenditure) that is a multimillion-dollar expenditure on that behalf,” Cuomo said at the time.
The investigations committee has yet to make any big headlines. Its meetings have lasted for just a few minutes as Democratic lawmakers focused on high-profile issues like rent regulations, recreational marijuana legalization and criminal justice reforms. Behind the scenes though, the investigative team has continued its work.
On June 3, it released its first report, a 67-page analysis of consumer abuses by pharmacy benefit managers. “Price hiking has plagued consumers for decades and we are currently at a point where it has gotten out of control,” Skoufis said in a statement. “Price spreading” allowed benefit managers to profit off the difference between what health plans spent on prescription drugs versus what pharmacies were actually paid to dispense them. A lack of oversight only made it easier for the practice to continue. While provisions in the recently passed state budget cracked down on how price spreading affects Medicaid, more needs to be done, according to the report. The report offered several avenues for addressing the situation, including a full audit by the state comptroller, more regulations on benefit managers and requiring that they pass on discounts and rebates they receive from drug manufacturers to clients.
The prospects of passing legislation by the end of the session on pharmacy benefit managers or housing codes is remote as lawmakers deal with other hot-button issues. But in a statement to City & State, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins described Skoufis’ under-the-radar efforts as part of “the Senate majority’s overall efforts to empower New Yorkers and ensure state government works for the people.” A second report on how to increase the enforcement of housing codes is expected in the coming weeks, following a May hearing on the issue in Newburgh.
Skoufis’ efforts at can-do governing this year also included an issue that he was working on in January shortly before he went out on the town for a beer: cleaning up such defunct utility poles in Newburgh, where dozens of them have added to the blight of the post-industrial city. Since then, the county agreed to address the issue over the summer. It might not be the biggest issue on voters’ minds, but the issue is part of a political approach that emphasizes doing little things as a means to accomplish something bigger down the road. “These problems are not legislative, but they just look like leadership and bring people together and stakeholders together to resolve problems,” he said.
The investigation into industrial development agencies will continue into the summer, but Skoufis has yet to look into anything having to do with Cuomo or his administration. A day after releasing the committee’s first report in early June, Skoufis was still fixated on hitting “singles and doubles,” but he promised that more “sensitive” investigations are coming. “We will be opening up a new investigation or two in the coming weeks,” he said. The rookie senator has made it through a legislative season. If he sets his sights higher, however, the governor can bring some heat of his own. Skoufis might swing for the fences – but he could strike out.
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