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Blair Horner: Ethics Controversies Continue To Dog New York

Another week, another series of ethics controversies in New York.  The week began with the leak of a confidential report by the state’s elections enforcer that alleged that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had engaged in an illegal effort to circumvent campaign contribution limits in his 2014 push to bolster the re-election prospects of some sitting state Senate Democrats, who presumably would be more favorable to the democrat mayor’s city agenda in Albany.

The week ended with media reports of subpoenas being issued by the U.S. Attorney PreetBharara into the possibility of unethical actions by members of the Cuomo Administration in advancing the governor’s “Buffalo Billion” program.

Some background first on the controversies swirling around the Mayor.  According to the leaked document, the Mayor’s team hit up some New York City campaign contributors to urge that they donate large sums to local political party committees in areas in which incumbent state Senate Democrats were facing tough re-election bids.

Under New York State election law, political party committees are set up to allow the parties to raise enormous contributions – in some cases well over $100,000 – and then transfers those sums to the candidates of their choice.  This is routinely done with a wink and a nod.  Effectively, New York law allows the state’s donor class to legally circumvent already sky-high contribution limits, which often allow donations that double or triple the amount permitted under federal law.

What made the de Blasio team’s behavior different according to the leaked document is that these donations were allegedly specifically raised and directed with the party committee acting as nothing more than a pass through.

Of course, to most of us that is a distinction without much of a difference and really underscores just how disgraceful the state’s campaign finance system is – if you make those donations and wink about where the money will go, it’s ok; if you are explicit, it’s illegal. 

The criminal referrals have been made to the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s office and subpoenas have been issued.  Ultimately, they will decide whether crimes were committed.

In the “Buffalo Billion” case, it is less clear what has happened.  Media reports have identified a long-time Cuomo aide, who recently left the Administration, as the individual who may have accepted illegal outside income as part of his involvement in advancing the interests of a Buffalo business to get a lucrative government contract; a business which just happens to be a big Cuomo campaign contributor. 

Again, there is no way to know how this will play out and whether any crimes were committed.  But as in the case of the Mayor, there is a lot of smoke, we’ll see if there is any fire.

All of this occurs as state lawmakers return to Albany to begin their seven-week dash to the end of the 2016 legislative session.  The governor has stated that ethics reforms are his top priority, but has done little more than say so.

As lawmakers return, they must tackle ethics reforms that:

1.       Limit outside income.  The crimes committed by the soon-to-be-sentenced former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader were all about using their powerful public positions to enrich themselves personally.  Placing Congressional-style limits on outside income will help reduce that temptation in the future.

2.      Basic campaign finance reforms.  The company at the heart of each of the scandals that resulted in the legislative leaders’ convictions was a real estate firm that had used dozens of limited liability companies to funnel campaign cash into the political process – as a way to boost their influence over state political-making.  LLCs should be treated like other businesses and have their controlling identities disclosed.

A second issue is that one that has engulfed the Mayor – the law that allows huge contributions to political party committees and then gives them the option of transferring unlimited amounts to their candidates.  The state needs new, much lower limits on donations to the parties as well as restrictions on how much they can spend on candidates.

3.      Overhaul ethics enforcement.  The state’s ethics watchdog continues to be relegated to the sidelines.  In the controversy surrounding the Cuomo Administration, the public would be well-served by an independent ethics watchdog, not one with ties to both the governor and legislative leadership.

Albany’s ethics “dirty laundry basket” keeps getting bigger.  New York’s ethics failures are a big problem.  The public sends representatives to Albany in order to solve problems.  If they can’t – or won’t – it will be time to replace them.

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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