Cuomo calls for overhaul of New York's ethics laws but offers no detailsJohn Feerick in The Saratogian, April 08, 2013
ALBANY — Days after federal authorities rocked New York politics with an announcement of more “rampant” corruption cases, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that solutions abound to fix Albany’s intractable ethical lapses.
But he isn’t releasing any remedies yet in his call for another overhaul of ethics laws and enforcement in two years, and so far he won’t order a powerful corruption commission to investigate state politics as his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, did in 1987.
Cuomo in a radio interview didn’t say how his new overhaul would be different from his ethics reform two years ago, or other ethics reforms four years before that.
Those who have regulated state government say the latest rhetoric follows a pattern over decades following scandals where, despite numerous press announcements, reforms came up short.
The former state ethics and lobbying watchdogs say Albany continues to avoid focusing on the root causes of corruption. The regulators said in interviews that Albany must break down political hurdles so people can run for office without making concessions to party bosses, and state officials must begin to report suspicious behavior of colleagues.
Former state ethics board Executive Director Karl Sleight said that in his experience it was “very unlikely” a state official would report concerns about another state official’s ethical behavior.
“It’s a collegial environment,” said Sleight, who led the 2006 investigation into former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi that resulted in one of Albany’s biggest corruption convictions. “They all go through the same political battles of getting themselves on the ballot. There’s a certain collegiality that develops, and I think it transcends party labels.
“The larger issue is how to attract quality candidates with the right moral compass and improving ballot access for those people,” Sleight said.
He said public-spirited citizens can be dissuaded from politics if they are first required to make donations to party bosses, diminishing the pool of top candidates.
“At the end of the day, crooks are crooks,” Sleight said. “It doesn’t matter what ethics law you pass. If you are willing to take a bribe, you take a bribe.”
The former state lobbying executive director said governors and legislatures focus on new ethics laws in press conferences, while the small stuff that fosters what Cuomo as attorney general had called a “culture of corruption” goes untouched.
“It starts with gateway violations, just like drugs,” said David Grandeau, now an attorney representing lobbying clients.
He said the culture is fostered by routine abuse of legislators’ “per diem payments, friends and family on the payroll, abuse of campaign funds for non-campaign purposes, and they go from there.”
Grandeau blames his frequent target, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics created under Cuomo’s ethics overhaul two years ago, which replaced another board created four years before under the ethics overhaul of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
“That’s why these guys do it. They get away with it,” Grandeau said. “This is the governor’s responsibility.”
Cuomo said he’s had private discussions with legislators on his ideas.
“It’s very hard to do it piecemeal ... the better way to do it is to reform the overall system,” Cuomo said Monday. “Even good people in the system will say the system doesn’t work.”
He said ordering a corruption-fighting commission under the Moreland Act, which he threatened the Legislature with two years ago but didn’t implement, is just one of several possibilities he’s exploring.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara last week charged state legislators in two separate bribery cases. The arrests came two days after federal authorities arrested a state senator in an alleged plot to bribe his way into the New York City mayor’s race. Since 2004, two former Senate majority leaders and nine legislators and high-ranking executive branch officials were convicted on corruption charges.
“We could all write a treatise on what needs to be done,” Cuomo said. “It’s not like we don’t know the ideas.”
He blamed the power of county party chairmen to decide who gets on the ballot for state offices, “absurd” amounts of cash that can be legally donated to politicians and parties, and a decades-old law that allows political parties to cross-endorse candidates, which “just lends itself to political deals.”
In 1987, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed a powerful Moreland Commission to investigate ethics and campaign financing. It resulted in 20 reports to bolster outdated and inadequate campaign and ethics laws, many of which resulted in no legislation.
“It would be a sad commentary on the history of these times if New York state ... were to squander the opportunity for meaningful reform,” stated the commission’s chairman, John Feerick of Fordham Law School.