Good government alarm bells are ringing in Albany. Numerous news reports have accused the governor’s aides of interfering in the activities of the state commission investigating corruption in government.
According to stories in the New York Daily News, the New York Times and others, the governor's staff may be exerting pressure on the substantive discussions and actions of the commission, known as the “Commission to Investigate Public Corruption,” including pressuring the Commission on its investigative strategies and activities. One article, citing “multiple sources,” stated that the governor’s top aides “have interfered in recent weeks, even at times overruling the co-chairmen.”
While the public has no way to verify or refute the information contained in these reports, they should be of deep concern.
For the commission’s investigations, reports and the all-important policy recommendations to be trusted and embraced by New Yorkers, the commission needs to be viewed as independent, not beholden to any political figure or interest, including the governor. Simply put, the perception that the commission is doing the bidding of the governor, the legislative leadership, or any other outside interest poses the greatest threat to the commission’s success.
Recently, there has been some good news on this front. According to media reports, the commission has decided to go ahead on some of the investigations that had reportedly been held back due to alleged interference from the governor’s office.
While these reports could be welcome examples of commission independence, the underlying allegations of interference still remain.
Members of the commission and the governor’s office have stated that the news reports of gubernatorial interference are false. But even if those media reports were wrong, the commission’s credibility has been damaged. It is critically important that the commission and the governor take steps to refute the charges. Obviously, going ahead with investigations that had reportedly been stopped is a good first step.
However, if the charges are even in part true, commission members face a serious problem. The governor created the commission and has the power to provide direction to it. Yet, the members are in a tough spot. They were told that the commission’s activities would be independent and free of interference. At the time of establishing the commission, the governor stated that it would “be free to investigate whatever they believe needs to be investigated on the merits.”
If that has not turned out to be true, commission members need to aggressively push back against any such interference. The recent reports of independence are welcome, but only if they indicate ongoing freedom to act.
Unfortunately, one thing is clear: The media reports have undermined the credibility of the commission and its work. Steps to open up the commission’s deliberations will help bolster the public’s trust and increase the likelihood that the commission’s hard work will be accepted by the public and that its recommendations will be realized. Ultimately, the final product of the commission will lend credence to the independence of its work.
All New Yorkers should hope that these media reports are untrue and that the commission is continuing to do its work free from political pressure. The commission offers New Yorkers an historic opportunity – to identify and recommend changes to what we believe are the root causes of Albany’s political dysfunction. The public deserves a response to the seemingly unending series of allegations of political corruption and personal failures.
Instead of focusing on the processes of the commission, the public should be hoping to receive from the commission a blueprint for overhauling Albany and strengthening ethics oversight, enacting campaign finance reforms and establishing a new era of governmental openness.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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