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Blair Horner: The Root Cause Of NY's Scandals - Lack of Independent Oversight

Reformers kept up the pressure last week for Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature to overhaul the state’s economic development programs.  In a letter to the state’s political leaders, the groups urged that steps be taken to reduce the risk of corruption in how the state doles out government contracts.

For anyone reading the recent news, reducing the possibility of corruption in how the state spends billions of taxpayer dollars seems appropriate, timely and absolutely necessary.  The recent charges brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have highlighted the reality that New York’s government contracting process is ripe for abuse.  Currently, New York uses an array government-created non-profits and branches of the State University of New York to award billions in subsidies.

Yet, at the same time the governor sought these new ways to spur the state’s economy he pushed measures to reduce public accountability of those programs.  For example, in 2011 the governor and the legislative leaders agreed to a deal that removed oversight by the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, the Comptroller, of certain government contracts. 

And the bid-rigging charges brought by the U.S. Attorney show that the combination of shadow government entities and inadequate oversight only increase the likelihood of corruption.

In light of the U.S. Attorney’s investigations, the governor’s response has been to hire an attorney to review the state’s procurement process.  The outside attorney’s company, Guidepost Solutions, has conducted its own internal investigation of the state’s contracting process and is being used by the governor as the plan for how to improve the oversight of awarding contracts.

But this company was hired and is being paid by the governor and has been reported to have other government contracts involving New York, which raises the question, “Is it truly independent?”

When you look across the landscape of state government, there are no good examples of watchdogs that are adequately structured to be independent.  The board members of the state’s top ethics watchdog agency are all appointed by elected officials – the same people who are subject to its oversight.  Not surprisingly, after three national searches, all three of the executive directors to this agency have been former employees of the governor.

And a recent report by the news outlet Politico NY found that the agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has focused its sanctions on mid-to-low level public officials and lobbyists at a time when the U.S. Attorney has found evidence of widespread unethical activities at the highest levels in both the legislative and executive branches. 

The state’s Comptroller is a separately-elected official, which is supposed to make him or her independent of the governor.  Yet, often the two elected officials are from the same political party, which can raise questions of adequate independence.  Yet in the most recent case, the governor has used his power to limit the Comptroller’s oversight over the New York’s economic development activities.

The state’s Inspector General is supposed to root out corruption in the executive branch of state government, but is appointed by the governor, with the consent of the state Senate.  The Board of Elections has equal numbers of political-appointees from the two major parties, which limits its aggressiveness.  A recent law created an independent elections enforcement counsel that is supposed to be free of political influence.  However, that person is chosen by the governor as well, with the approval of both houses of the Legislature. 

All of these entities can act independently, but the political nature of their structures and approval of their budgets can seriously limit their aggressiveness. 

It’s long part time to set up entities that are as independent as possible.  There are effective models that the governor can look to and build on.  For example, the New York City Independent Budget Office’s budget is pegged to the size of the budget office of the Mayor.  The state of Hawaii has an ethics commission in which a special judicial entity chooses two nominees for the commission and the governor chooses one.

However Governor Cuomo decides to move, the goal must be to unshackle the state’s fiscal and ethics watchdogs from the political elite that runs the state.  Those entities must follow investigations without fear or political favor.

And he must act now.  Preet Bharara’s term as U.S. Attorney runs out at the end of this year.  New Yorkers deserve open and accountable government and shouldn’t have to rely on the feds to get it.

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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