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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Is Albany Throwing In The Towel On Ethics?

  Even by Albany’s scandal-stained record, last week was unique: 2 state Senators were found guilty of corruption in two separate trials.  Former State Senate Majority Leader John Sampson and current Deputy Majority leader Tom Libous are now facing prison time for violating the public’s trust.

Given the historic nature of those convictions, it would be reasonable to expect reaction from Albany’s political leadership.  But that was not the case.  Instead of news releases and calls for action, only the sounds of crickets were heard from the state Capitol. 

When pressed, the governor made two, seemingly inconsistent arguments:

(1) That enough had been done to strengthen the state’s ethics laws; and,

(2) That the legislature wouldn’t agree to any additional changes.

Is the governor giving up on ethics reform?

Just a little background on how Albany got here.  After dozens of lawmakers were sanctioned due to ethical misconduct, a new low was hit earlier this year with the arrest and indictment of the now-former Assembly Speaker.  In reaction, the governor sprang into action.  Within days, the governor had organized a venue for him to discuss the need for sweeping, unprecedented ethics reforms.  The governor even promised to hold up the budget if his plan was not approved.

The budget that passed did contain new ethics measures, which at least to some extent, requires more disclosures of outside income by lawmakers.  Yet, the plan was widely viewed as an insufficient response to the weaknesses in the state’s ethics laws. 

A month later, the now-former Senate Majority Leader was indicted for unethical conduct.  Once again, a member of Albany’s political leadership was under an ethics cloud.  But this time, no calls for reform were uttered by the governor.  In fact, for the rest of the legislative session, the governor and the legislative leaders ignored the growing chorus calling for new ethics measures.  Lawmakers wrapped up the end of the session with the obligatory pats on the back and headed home.  

But the public views ethics as a big problem:  A recent poll found that 90 percent of New Yorkers agree that ethics at the state Capitol needs improvement.

Fast forward to last week, two more lawmakers were convicted for abusing their public office.

Reformers are urging that the governor convene a special session devoted exclusively to ethics.  But the governor will have none of it. 

When pressed by reporters, the governor stated, "A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable. We've proposed and accomplished unprecedented disclosure."  The governor also told reporters in another media scrum, "I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass.' So for the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago makes no sense.”

In one key way, the governor is quite right:  While the governor can call the legislature back to Albany, he can’t make them do anything.  But doing nothing makes it clear to New Yorkers exactly where their elected officials are when it comes to cleaning up Albany.

By giving up, the governor is giving political cover to those lawmakers who oppose reform.  The governor is, in effect, defending the status quo.

That’s not what New Yorkers want.  90 percent of New Yorkers see Albany’s ethics as a problem.  They send elected officials to Albany to solve problems, not dodge them.

Right now the governor is helping the dodge.  Governor Cuomo is someone who prides himself on getting things done, on bringing people together.  When it comes to ethics, the long parade of crooked pols underscores just how much more needs to be done.

The governor shouldn’t be throwing in the towel; he should be taking up the challenge.

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