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Blair Horner: Sunshine Week In America, But Still Darkness In Albany

Last week was Sunshine Week; an annual celebration of the benefits of open government and discussion about ways to safeguard and expand upon current transparency laws.  If the success of a representative democracy hinges on the informed consent of the governed, it is critical that the public know as much as possible about the information used and the processes by which its representatives spend tax dollars, act on policy recommendations and administer the laws.

As we all know, the reason such a week is needed is that our public servants far too frequently mislead the public and secretly make decisions that benefit favored special interests.  For example, last week a former top aide to Governor Cuomo was sent off to prison to begin a six-year sentence for public corruption.

In his case and others that also resulted in corruption convictions, the evidence laid bare by federal prosecutors showed sweetheart deal making between government officials and lobbyists, “pay-to-play” campaign practices that hinged on big campaign contributions from those receiving lucrative government contracts, and a web of shadowy corporate entities created by the government through which billions of taxpayer dollars were spent outside of the normal transparency measures required of traditional government entities.

At the heart of some of the biggest scandals in modern New York are two non-profits set up by the government to act on its behalf.  Since these two entities are technically not government, they fall outside of the normal public accountability measures found in the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws.

Fort Schuyler Management Corp. and Fuller Road Management Corp. are the two entities that have been at the center of the state’s economic activities as well as central to major corruption schemes.  Fuller Road was formed in the mid 1990s and Fort Schuyler has been around since 2009.  For years, Fort Schuyler and Fuller Road have operated with little scrutiny.  They have been at the core of the state’s nanocenter enterprise that has spread across New York.

Fort Schuyler owns and oversees the massive projects at the center of the Buffalo Billion, a 2012 plan advanced by the governor to spend $1 billion to revitalize the state’s second-largest city, as well as other projects in Buffalo (including SolarCity), Albany, and Utica.

The corruption cases brought by the U.S. Attorney that led to the convictions of the governor’s top aide as well as the leader of New York’s hi-tech economic development efforts highlighted that the secrecy surrounding their deal making contributed mightily to a culture in which the risk of corruption grew. 

That lesson has been taken to heart by the state’s top transparency office.  The New York State Committee on Open Government – a state agency – recommended in its most recent annual report that any “entity created by a government agency or a subsidiary or affiliate of a government agency is, in reality, an extension of the government.  The records of such an entity must fall within the coverage of FOIL.”  FOIL—the Freedom Of Information Law—is the state law that gives the public the right to receive copies of government records unless they fall within one of a limited number of exceptions.

The annual report cited the U.S. Attorney’s investigation, stating “A significant element of a recent investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York focused on non-profit entities associated with the State University of New York (SUNY).  Efforts by the news media to gain access to records of those entities have been rebuffed, despite the Committee’s view that many are and have been required to comply with FOIL.”

During the current budget discussions, there appears to be agreement that the role of the state Comptroller—New York’s independently-elected fiscal watchdog—should be strengthened in overseeing these types of non-profit companies created by the government to supplement the government’s work.

Yet, there appears to be no movement to empower the public through more transparency in economic development decisions.  There must. 

It’s long past time that New York State and local governments comply with the highest standards of openness and public accountability.  Unfortunately, after years of convictions of top ranking officials in both the Executive and Legislative branches, far too little has been done to bolster the public’s ability to better monitor its own government. 

As we reflect on the benefits of transparency during Sunshine Week, this year the time is ripe to overhaul what ails Albany.

Blair Horner is executive 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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