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Blair Horner: The U.S. Attorney Once Again Targets Albany

Ethics was, once again, Albany’s big news last week.  Another lawmaker, long-time Assemblyman Bill Scarborough, pled guilty and faces prison, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos joined his former counterpart Assembly Speaker Silver in having to defend himself against charges of corruption.

Assemblymember Scarborough faces up decades in prison.  Scarborough also agreed to resign as a member of the Assembly.  In addition, Scarborough pled guilty to a public corruption charge related to use of his campaign account for personal expenses, as well as receiving reimbursements for being in Albany, when he was not there.  

However, it was the detailed federal criminal complaint filed against the Senate Majority Leader that was the seismic political event. 

The allegations against the Senate Majority leader are stunning:  that the Senator used his considerable political clout to drive business to his son; that he pressured both state and local governments to award contracts to his son’s clients; that he was paid millions of dollars from his law firm, but did no legal work; and that he pressured real estate interests to make campaign contributions that were directed to a state Senate race in the Buffalo area.  

However, we must be mindful that Senator Skelos, like all Americans, is entitled to a presumption of innocence. 

In addition to bringing criminal charges against the Senate Majority Leader and his son, the complaint identified a number of policy areas that have been recurring problems in Albany:

The U.S. Attorney’s charges stated that Senator Skelos was paid $2.6 million over two decades from his law firm, but did no legal work, which raised once again the issue of lawmakers’ outside income.

The charges argued that the Senator used his clout to generate $100,000 in campaign donations from a real estate developer who used a number of limited liability companies to make those contributions, raising the issue of why LLCs continue to be treated as humans, instead of businesses for the purposes of campaign contribution limits.

  1. The U.S. Attorney’s charges argued that Senator Skelos’s son was engaged in both local and state lobbying without registering and yet, apparently, felt no pressure to comply with state disclosure laws, raising the issue of whether state ethics laws are being adequately enforced.
  2. Those public policy problems should be addressed and, given the circumstances, the governor has a unique responsibility to make reform happen.
  3. The criminal charges against the Senator are serious and, coming on the heels of the arrest and indictment of the former Assembly Speaker clearly strengthens the hand of the governor as the second half of the session heats up.  Governor Cuomo now must move Albany along to resolve the outstanding issues in the 2015 legislative session.

At the top of that list of legislative "must dos" are initiatives to overhaul ethics enforcement, limit outside income, and rein in the influence of New York's powerful special interests.  Here are three important steps:

  1. If there were independent ethics enforcement, Albany's pols would behave differently.  Like the rest of us, public officials behave differently when they know they are being watched.  We all drive slower when there are speed traps.  Yet, Albany’s ethics watchdogs are controlled by the governor’s and legislative leaders’ appointees.  New York needs independent ethics enforcers, ones who will apply the law without fear or favor.
  2. A clear limit on outside income, like the one in place in the Congress, would attract more lawmakers who are interested in public service, not monetizing their public office for private gain.
  3. Eliminating the LLC loophole would make it far harder to obtain huge campaign donations from all-too-often difficult to identify contributors.

Albany's pay-to-play "transactional" political culture must end.  Once again, and more than ever, the ball is squarely in the governor’s court.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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