Is it possible that there might be a “perfect storm” which will break Albany’s ethics reform logjam? New Yorkers should hope so.
Here is some evidence of the growing pressure:
In November, in separate trials, both the former Assembly Speaker and the former Senate Majority Leader face court dates for alleged corruption. The ongoing legal proceedings should continue to keep Albany’s ethics under the spotlight and may well build up even more pressure for Governor Cuomo to convene a special session devoted to ethics.
In addition, for almost three months the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has been without an executive director. Having a rudderless ethics watchdog while two of the state’s leading political figures are on trial for corruption will be, at best, lousy optics. And to make it worse, until recently the agency hadn’t posted a job opening announcement for the position. But last week, they did. Now the search is on.
A formidable candidate has thrown his hat into the ring: the former head of the state’s now-defunct lobbying regulator, David Grandeau. Grandeau was a feared and respected head of the lobbying commission and was dumped as part of the ethics reform package approved in 2007. Apparently, Grandeau had accumulated far too many enemies, including then-Governor Eliot Spitzer.
But Grandeau has said he will apply for the job, and that should set the standard by which any candidate is judged. Unless the JCOPE commissioners choose him as the new replacement, they will have a hard time justifying any other choice. But having Grandeau in the pool should hold JCOPE’s feet to the fire in hiring a new executive director, with the easiest option of just choosing him.
Related to that development, last week a panel reviewing the state’s ethics enforcement held its first, and probably only, public hearing. The governor and the legislature were supposed to have chosen this commission in 2014 and the group should have reported on their findings by the end of last year.
Despite this legal requirement, in 2014 the governor and the legislative leaders blew off their responsibility, but were forced to act when that glaring failure came to light right after the arrests of the then-Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader.
The members of the commission were chosen last Spring and are supposed to wrap up their work this November. As part of the law that set up the state’s current ethics regime, a review panel was required to “review and evaluate the activities and performance” of the state’s ethics watchdogs and make “any administrative and legislative recommendations on strengthening the administration and enforcement of the ethics law.”
Reviewing the state’s ethics law changes is important, and that importance is not an academic one. Over the past years, New York has been plagued by an unending series of investigation, controversies, and scandals concerning state public officials. Yet, the state’s leading ethics watchdogs have been largely on the sidelines. And while there may be explanations for this apparent inactivity, the public deserves to know why. And if the ethics watchdogs have been paralyzed by weaknesses in state law, or lack of resources, or political paralysis, the public deserves to know that too.
The public’s deepening cynicism and growing anger has been well-documented. In a recent poll, 90 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a serious problem in state government and that it has gotten worse over the past few years.
It also appears that New York’s ethics laws are weak when compared to the nation. While it is always difficult to compare states, New York performs badly in such comparisons. In a recent comparison of state ethics laws, New York’s ethics enforcement received a grade of “F.”
When reformers first called on Governor Cuomo to call a special session devoted to ethics, he said no. Now, however, there have been media reports that the governor and legislative leaders are considering a special session devoted to phasing-in $15 minimum wage in exchange for a possible tax cut aimed at businesses.
If that special session happens, New Yorkers should demand action on ethics. If that happens, Albany’s logjam could be broken.
Blair Horner is the Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.