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Blair Horner: Despite Growing Public Anger, It's Political Business As Usual In Albany

Last week, a Siena Research Institute poll reported that 90 percent of New Yorkers thought that government corruption is a serious problem.  When 90 percent of New Yorkers agree on anything, it’s amazing.  So you’d expect that elected officials would get the message and respond.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that they simply don’t care enough.

Albany’s failure to enact ethics reforms was highlighted last week with the release of the first campaign finance reports of 2015.  The report showed New York’s campaign finance system is essentially a “Wild West” – with no sheriff.

The campaign reports showed that big bucks continued to flow to Albany’s leadership.  Governor Cuomo reported collecting over $5 million in campaign dollars, with 3 ½ years to go before his possible reelection.  Attorney General Schneiderman reported raising $2.3 million.  The new Speaker, Carl Heastie, started the year with only $30,000 in his campaign warchest.  By mid-year, the new Speaker had collected over $300,000 in campaign contributions.  The new Senate Majority Leader, John Flanagan, was equally successful in collecting campaign bucks, raising nearly $280,000 in the first half of the year.

But the loopholes in the campaign finance system were striking.  According to Capital New York, a network of limited liability companies tied to Orange County developers funneled the governor $250,000 in 2015, more than any other source.  These donations were made less than a week after the governor vetoed a bill that leaders of a Hasidic village tied to the developers described as restricting its development.

In addition, the donations highlighted the problems with the much-maligned way it treats contributions from limited liability companies.  A series of nine checks from vaguely-titled LLCs entered Cuomo’s campaign account.  Eight of these checks had Brooklyn, NY addresses listed in Cuomo’s campaign disclosures.  According to Capital NY, however, those LLCs’ corporate addresses were listed in the town of Monroe, NY – a town which contains the Hasidic village.  

The campaign filings also disclosed the legal, but still lousy, ways that campaign contributions can be used.  Of the $5 million raised by the governor, $100,000 was paid to a law firm which is representing the governor’s office in a federal probe into how the governor killed off the Moreland Commission Investigating Public Integrity. 

The state Senate Republican Campaign Committee was reported by the Daily News to have sent $50,000 to former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, just two weeks after he was indicted by the US Attorney for allegedly shaking down a real-estate developer and a medical-malpractice insurance firm to hire his son with no-show jobs and business deals.

Why?  There is rampant speculation that the $50,000 was to help cover the Senator’s legal bills.

And the filings showed that the influence of big money is trickling down to the local level as well.  According to the Albany Times Union, a new political action committee created by several business owners located in Saratoga had raised over $46,000 in five weeks.  The PAC is

Interviewing candidates for city elections and support those who support its agenda.  The Saratoga PAC's fundraising has exceeded the amount raised by the political parties and candidates.

Unfortunately, for New Yorkers, the state’s disgraceful campaign finance system continues to thrive.  And despite the rhetoric about the need to reform Albany’s ways, there have been no serious efforts to curb campaign finance abuses.

The governor needs to do more.  While no one would expect him to politically unilaterally disarm, he must take steps to force a real debate over ethics and campaign finance reforms.  Reforms that would plug campaign finance loopholes and end the use of contributions for legal defenses; that would curb campaign donations from lobbyists and those with business before the government; that would cap the amount of money lawmakers can receive from their outside business dealings; and that would finally put in place an independent watchdog to monitor the system.  The governor must take the first step by calling lawmakers back to Albany for a special session devoted exclusively to ethics reforms.

Until then, New Yorkers should focus their anger by keeping in mind Albany’s failures when they troop to the polling place next year.

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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