Blair Horner: Albany Has Its Head In The Sand When It Comes To Ethics

May 18, 2015


When Senator Skelos was arrested for alleged corruption on May 4th, a clock started ticking.  In previous arrests, Governor Cuomo would weigh in with a raft of ethics changes within a couple of weeks.  When former Assembly Speaker Silver was arrested on January 22nd, the governor waited until the Assembly sorted itself out and then gave a major speech to advance ethics measures on February 2nd – ten days later.

But when it comes to the recent arrest of the former Senate Majority Leader, there has not been a peep from the governor.  No official statement, no promised speech, nothing.  In fact, after the legislative leaders emerged from a meeting with the governor – a meeting in which they discussed the end of the session’s legislative priorities – ethics was not on the list.

And it’s not like the governor hasn’t been in public:  he has talked about the problems of campus sexual assault; he has urged action on his proposed education tax credit; and he was touring the Indian Point Power Plant after its recent transformer fire.

Regarding the criminal charges filed against Senator Skelos, all that the governor has said was that "If the charges are correct, it's deeply disturbing."  If the charges are correct, it is not disturbing, it is criminality.  What is disturbing are the criminal charges themselves: that Senator Skelos extorted payments for his son from businesses.

So, what’s different this time for the governor?  Is it that he is trending lightly on allegations against a Senate Republican, but was ready to pounce when an Assembly Democrat was arrested?

Is it that that he is concerned about the growing sense that his contributors from the real estate industry are increasingly connected to allegations of corruption?

Of course, we don’t know.  But what should be concerning to all New Yorkers is the failure of the governor – and the legislative leaders – to put ethics on Albany’s priority list.

And New Yorkers are getting sick of what they see. A recent Marist College poll found that three-quarters of those surveyed thought that corruption has gotten worse in New York in recent years. The same poll found that the governor’s job performance rating has dropped to 37%. 

According to press reports, Marist’s pollster Lee Miringoff said voters are looking to Cuomo to address corruption.  According to the Associated Press, Miringoff observed, "One of the pillars of his campaign was the notion that he would get Albany working again and clean up the mess.  Now there's this drip, drip, drip reminding voters almost every day about the pervasive corruption in Albany. Of the three men in the room, two have been charged. If you're the third guy it's hard to buffer yourself."

Yet according to new Assembly Speaker Heastie, during the most recent leaders’ meeting, ethics reform "wasn't one of the topics of discussion."

That’s completely unacceptable.

What does it take to put ethics reform on the table?  The past five Senate Majority Leaders have been criminally charged, two of the four most recent Assembly Speakers have had legal problems, the previous two governors have had ethics problems, the previous Comptroller went to prison for ethics violations, and dozens of lawmakers have run afoul of the law.

What does it take for the governor and the legislative leaders to seriously attack the ethics problems that plagued Albany?

Apparently, they fear little political retribution from voters for their failures to act.  That has to change.

New Yorkers should demand:

  1. Independent ethics enforcement, not ethics watchdogs that are controlled by the governor and the legislative leaders.
  2. Strict limits on outside income, limits that track those currently in place for the Congress.
  3. Meaningful campaign finance changes, in particular closing the Limited Liability Company (LLC) “loophole.”  LLCs should be treated like businesses, not humans, for the purposes of campaign contributions.  Limiting LLC contributions to the same as other businesses would go a long way toward curbing Albany’s “pay to play” culture.

The public should demand action from Albany’s legislative leaders.  In particular, they should expect action, not dodging, from the governor.  After all, Andrew Cuomo ran in 2010 saying that he would clean up Albany.  Obviously, that cleanup is, to put it charitably, unfinished.