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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: More News Swirling Around Albany's Ethics

After a brief hiatus, Albany’s ethics are once again in the media.  Last week, two Assemblymembers were sentenced to prison for their ethics crimes and Governor Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” economic development program was reported to be under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.

First, the convictions.  Former Assemblyman Boyland was sentenced last week to 14 years in federal prison.  The Boyland case was incredible.  The former Assemblyman had earlier been prosecuted for accepting bribes, but was found not guilty.  Within two weeks of his exoneration, undercover federal agents recorded how Boyland accepted $7,000 while he gave them a tour of his district.  “Everything we’ve seen here I’m in control of,” Mr. Boyland said in the tapes.

According to prosecutors, the relationship with the agents continued.  Later, Boyland suggested that the agents buy a derelict hospital in New Jersey for $8 million.  He then told them that they should apply for grants to use public money for its renovation and resell it for $15 million to a nonprofit he said he controlled.  He said he would arrange the deal in exchange for a bribe of $250,000.

Boyland was also convicted of lying about tens of thousands of dollars in expenses to the government, including travel payments, claiming falsely he was at work in Albany.  While collecting those reimbursements for being in Albany, he was in fact enjoying personal trips in locations like North Carolina, Virginia and Istanbul.  He even filed expenses for the meetings with the undercover agents.

The case of former Assemblyman Scarborough followed that pattern.  Last week, Scarborough was sentenced to 13 months in prison after he admitted submitting at least $40,000 in false expense vouchers for days he did not actually travel to Albany.  Prosecutors found that  of Scarborough’s 198 expense vouchers they reviewed, 174 were found to contain false information.  The vouchers included claims for some overnight stays in Albany when the lawmaker was actually in Georgia and at home in Queens.

While those sentences closed the books on those two cases, the most intriguing ethics story resulted from media reports that the “Buffalo Billion” program – an economic development effort advanced by Governor Cuomo – was under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.  Reportedly, the investigation is focused on the multimillion-dollar contracts awarded to build facilities for high-tech businesses.

The “Buffalo Billion” program has been criticized for the secrecy in which it operates, and recent media reports have disclosed that a large campaign contributor to the governor was awarded a lucrative contract under circumstances that have raised concerns.

Of course, there is no way to know what the U.S. Attorney is doing, or whether he will identify any suspicious behavior.  But it was reported that the U.S. Attorney was conducting “a comprehensive look at the bidding process,” and that his office is “looking at communications between contractors and state officials.”

If those media reports are true, it means a significant change in the activities of the U.S. Attorney’s office and its examination of the governor.  It would be the first evidence that the U.S. Attorney has broadened his investigation beyond his current review of the actions of the Administration in shutting down the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.  Reportedly, the U.S. Attorney is looking into whether laws were broken when the governor pulled the plug on the Moreland Commission as part of a deal to close down the budget negotiations in 2014.

While we can’t be sure what will happen next, Albany seems to be plagued with unrelenting controversies and scandals.  Inexplicably, so far the governor and the state’s political leadership seem to have decided to ignore the scandals.  90 percent of New Yorkers think Albany’s ethics are a problem.  Federal prosecutors seem to be continuing the hunt.  All incumbent state legislators face the voters in one year.

Ignoring the mounting political threat seems like a huge political mistake.  New Yorkers should demand action, not a head-in-the-sand approach.  And if they don’t get it, lawmakers will face an angry electorate.

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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