Today, Blair Horner of NYPIRG discusses the findings of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Moreland Commission.
Last week, Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption issued its first report. It painted a devastating picture of the way business is conducted at the state Capitol. The Commission found evidence of unethical behavior – both illegal and legal -- and recommending sweeping changes to New York State’s elections, ethics and campaign finance laws.
According to the Commission, “The commission’s preliminary observation is that both the general state of our political system, and the way business is transacted within it, cry out urgently for reform. New York needs comprehensive reform to restore the public trust.”
The Commission said its investigation had found “deplorable conduct, some of it perfectly legal yet profoundly wrong; some of it potentially illegal,” and promised to refer some findings to law enforcement.
The Commission’s report described “a pay-to-play political culture driven by large checks,” in which special interests donated campaign contributions in return for legislative favors. In addition, the report revealed how candidates spent campaign money on personal items like clothing and cigars. Lastly, the report documented how the New York State Board of Elections consistently failed to enforce election laws. The report suggested that campaign finance laws were so lax that fundraising can amount to “legalized bribery.”
While most of the Commission’s findings are consistent with other analyses from others, in one area its findings were particularly startling: the revelations of the stunning failures of the State Board of Elections. No one who has closely watched the State Board of Elections would be surprised by the Commission’s damning observations.
The Commission found that the Board is essentially useless in enforcing the state’s campaign finance law. However, the report’s most shocking findings were how the State Board treated some staff. The Commission found that in some cases staff’s pleas for meaningful work assignments were ignored at best and punished at worst. Those stories underscored how the Board puts the needs of the political parties well ahead of the interests of the public it purports to serve
The Commission’s recommended that, “New York needs structurally independent, professional election and campaign finance law enforcement, not just an elections administrator. Campaign finance and election law enforcers should be insulated from partisan control, and should be given the autonomy and authority to aggressively pursue violations and enforce our laws.”
The Commission also recommended the establishment of a new comprehensive campaign finance program that included a voluntary system of public financing of elections in New York. Setting up a public financing system is a critical component to changing Albany’s pay-to-play culture
Independent, aggressive oversight of the campaign financing system – both inside a voluntary system of public financing and outside of it – is not possible if the State Board of Elections is left as the public’s monitor.
Reforming the oversight and enforcement of the state’s elections laws, both current and in the future, is critical to the effort to end campaign finance dysfunction. As revealed by the Commission, the Board has too often failed to fulfill its mandate to enforce the state’s existing laws.
In short, it’s clear that the Board has to go. Coupled with a voluntary system of public financing and other changes, these actions could go a long way toward ending Albany’s dysfunction.
But it all turns on the governor. Will the governor take the lead and push for reforms in the same way as he has with some of his other landmark achievements? If so, New Yorkers could have a state government that it deserves.
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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