Last week was quite a week at the state Capitol. It started off on Monday with the shocking resignation of the Attorney General within hours of detailed allegations of sexual assaults appearing in media reports. The week ended with the second conviction of the former Speaker of the Assembly on federal corruption charges. And in between, an accomplice to a former top aide to Governor Cuomo pled guilty. In that last one, the former top aide to the governor had already been convicted of corruption; the accomplice was an energy executive who admitted to lying to federal investigators about his role in giving a high-pay, “low-show” job to the former top aide’s wife.
It makes your head spin to keep track of it all; as a New Yorker, it is the latest in a nauseating string of scandals.
In the last decade or so, dozens of lawmakers have been convicted of crimes, a governor and now an attorney general have had to resign over misdeeds, another governor was forced to pay a fine for lying under oath, a comptroller was convicted of corruption, and – as mentioned earlier – a top aide to the current governor was convicted as well.
Despite the repetition, it is shocking.
And it’s not over; in June there will be a federal trial over alleged corruption in the state’s economic development programs in Buffalo and the retrial of the former Senate Majority Leader is scheduled as well.
Yet, there has been little progress on fixing what ails state government. While the legislative session still has six weeks to go, there is scant evidence that the governor and the state legislative leaders are focused on a package of meaningful measures that would reduce the risk of corruption in New York.
During the budget, the governor advanced a proposal to limit campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts. But the plan was weak and he did little to advance it. The Assembly has passed some campaign finance reform measures, including closing the so-called Limited Liability Company (LLC) loophole, which allows those controlling these secretive business entities to essentially ignore campaign contribution limits. And this week, the Senate passed legislation to increase public accountability of the state’s economic development programs.
But there has been no agreement among the major players on what should be done and the “solutions” are piecemeal.
If anything meaningful is to happen, it will take leadership from the governor. Without the governor’s advocacy, each house will point to their own reforms and blame others for failing to actually enact impactful reforms.
Since the corruption scandals have been so numerous and the crimes so wide-ranging, there is no single “silver bullet” that will solve all the problems or weaknesses in the current system. Instead, there will need to be sweeping changes to fix Albany. And while there are many solutions that are needed, there are a few at the top of the to-do list:
- Expand the role of the state Comptroller to oversee state contracts, complete transparency in the awarding of such contracts, and dramatic campaign contribution restrictions for those seeking and holding state contracts.
- Close the LLC loophole. That loophole has been repeatedly exploited and of its use to funnel enormous sums has been at the heart of many scandals.
- Limit public officials’ outside income. State lawmakers are considered “part time” and are allowed outside income. Such “moonlighting” has figured prominently in some of the corruption convictions. The former top aide to the governor also exploited state laws in order to have outside income while running Governor Cuomo’s 2014 re-election effort.
- Establish an independent ethics watchdog. The current system of oversight is based on political appointments and provides little independence for the staff of such agencies. One of the reasons federal prosecutors have led corruption-busting efforts is that state watchdogs cannot adequately monitor state government. New Yorkers spend millions on ethics agencies; they deserve ones who enforce the law without fear or favor.
There are other problems that have been highlighted in the federal investigations. But if Albany is serious about fixing its problems, a better system of contracting, new limits on campaign finance, new ethics restrictions on outside income, and the creation of an independent enforcer, are major components of meaningful reforms.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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