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Blair Horner: Will Albany Strengthen Independent Oversight Of Government Contracting?

Over the last two years, top aides to Governor Cuomo, a political ally, and big campaign contributors were convicted of bid-rigging and other offenses stemming from state contracts tied to New York State’s economic development projects.  While the governor was never accused of wrongdoing, it was clear that better oversight was needed in the way state contracts are awarded.

Thus, reformers cheered when in this year’s State of the State address, the governor surprisingly announced that he had an agreement with State Comptroller DiNapoli to implement a new process to strengthen oversight of the government’s contact award process.

The governor stated back in January, “Comptroller DiNapoli and I have agreed on a new process to implement procurement reforms.  I want to publicly thank, the Comptroller for his good work and his cooperation.”

The agreement hinged on legislation.  With the legislative session having come and gone by late June, that legislation was never approved.

When the governor was asked last week about the lack of action, he stated that an agreement was, in fact, reached – not legislatively, but administratively.  The Comptroller’s office had a different view, "The details of our agreement were included in the budget proposals of the Senate and the Assembly but did not make it into the final budget and was not resolved before the end of session."

Why does this matter? 

Under the state Constitution, New Yorkers elect a state Comptroller.  While many states do not have Comptrollers to oversee governmental finances, of those that do, voters in only nine directly elect them.  In other states they are either appointed by the governor or the Legislature.  The rationale for this unusual arrangement is that New Yorkers decided that they needed to have an independent watchdog monitoring the state’s finances. 

In 2011, the governor argued that he needed fewer restrictions on his economic development efforts and lawmakers backed his plan to rein in the Comptroller’s oversight – limitations that included diluting oversight of economic development efforts.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure if that decision led to the corruption scandals that hit the Administration, but it’s fair to say that it might have made the now-disgraced former aides to the governor a bit more cautious had they known that the Comptroller was watching.

At the heart of the scandals were two non-profit entities set up by state government to act on its behalf and that were central to advancing programs around the governor’s so-called “Buffalo Billion” economic development plan. 

The corruption cases brought by the U.S. Attorney that led to the convictions of the governor’s top aides 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. 

And that risk led to the misuse of taxpayers’ dollars through 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.

Waste, fraud and abuse not only waste tax dollars, they erode the public’s confidence in its government.  The state Constitution established a Comptroller’s office to be an independent bean counter and help bolster public confidence in governmental finances. 

It’s clear that those powers should now be restored and strengthened.

The governor was correct in his State of the State address that steps should be taken to enhance the powers of the Comptroller.  But actions speak louder than words.  The governor must make good on his pledge.

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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