Blair Horner: Ethics Reform Is Still Needed

Mar 10, 2014

The failure of Albany to clean up its ongoing – and seemingly unending – ethics scandals was again in the news last week.

The most recent conviction was that of now-former Assemblyman William Boyland, Jr.  Mr. Boyland has been in hot water with federal authorities for the past few years.  He was first arrested in 2011 as part of an investigation into a bribing scandal in which a hospital executive paid several legislators for political favors. The executive was convicted of bribing Boyland and others, but Boyland escaped conviction when prosecutors could not show that Boyland had done anything illegal, even though he had been a well-paid consultant for the hospital.

Three weeks after the acquittal, prosecutors revealed evidence showing Boyland asking for money.  In that revelation, undercover agents with the FBI released evidence in which Boyland discussed how influential he was in making deals happen in Brooklyn.  In one video, Boyland accepted $7,000 in cash.

In other evidence Boyland was shown asking for money in exchange for political favors, including a request for $250,000 to pay for his legal fees resulting from the first court case in which he was found not guilty.

The former Assemblyman is now facing up to 30 years in prison as a result of his conviction.

On another front, Albany’s ethics were being brought into the public debate.

In announcing his bid to oust Governor Cuomo, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino sought to tie the governor to Albany’s ethics shortfalls. In his announcement, Astorino referenced a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  In that 2012 report, states were ranked by the total federal corruption convictions between the years 1976 through 2010.

The state at the top of the ranking?  New York State.

Astorino blasted the governor for the recent spate of scandals and referenced that report to buttress his argument that New York’s ethics are too weak.

He is, of course, correct.  While he ignores that fact that these convictions punished both Democrats and Republicans and that governors of both parties have failed to adequately address this ethics crime wave, he is right to point to the state’s ethical failures.

It has been a long standing pledge by gubernatorial candidates that they will clean up Albany.  In 2010, then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo promised to reform New York’s campaign finance, redistricting, and ethics, laws.  In his campaign book “Clean Up Albany,” Mr. Cuomo wrote,

The “State government’s ethics laws are policed by several separate entities, each without the independence necessary to ensure that violations are fully and fairly investigated and prosecuted. .. To restore public confidence and address this potential and actual conflict of interest, Andrew Cuomo will … establish an independent State ethics commission with robust enforcement powers to investigate and punish violations of law by members of both the executive and legislative branches.”

And his diagnosis was correct: the key to real reform – and success in ending Albany’s ethical weaknesses – was, and is, the establishment of an independent ethics enforcement agency that would enforce New York law without fear or favor.

Just like the rest of us, public officials behave differently if they think they could get caught if they don’t.  Most of us drive slower on the Thruway, for example, if we see speed traps.

But in Albany, there are few ethical “speed traps.”  In the Boyland case, for example, his father (and a former Assemblyman) was stated on a wiretap, “All right, just legally, you know, you know this is against the law, right?” 

Do you think he would say that if he thought he could get caught?

In 2011, Governor Cuomo did hammer out a deal with state lawmakers to establish what he hoped would be a new system of ethics oversight.  But the new system has been widely panned as ineffective.

The governor’s failure to “establish an independent State ethics commission with robust enforcement powers” will leave him open to the attacks from County Executive Astorino, and other possible candidates, that he hasn’t adequately dealt with Albany’s ethical woes.

The governor must act by overhauling the state’s ethics oversight this session.  He can ensure enforcement by a truly independent ethics watchdog with the resources necessary to identify and prosecute those who violate state laws.

That’s all for now.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk to you again next week.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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