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The disturbing Cuomo saga continues

The expanding investigations into the actions of former Governor Cuomo and his top staff continue to dominate the news. Just when we thought we knew all there was to know, last week’s release of the sworn depositions of the governor and his top staff gave new insights into how the former Administration handled harassment complaints and how the governor and his top aides acted.

Those insights are not pretty.

A report by the Albany Times Union illustrated just how the former Administration viewed oversight by the state’s Inspector General. According to the deposition of Linda Lacewell, previously a top lawyer to the former governor and then head of the state’s Department of Financial Services, the New York State Inspector General cannot investigate complaints against the governor or his top aide. That’s a breathtaking position for a top government lawyer.

First, some background. What is New York’s Inspector General?

Under New York State law, the Inspector General is empowered to receive and investigate “complaints concerning allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest or abuse in any entity under the Inspector General's jurisdiction.” In short, the IG is supposed to investigate things like harassment of staff or misuse of public resources for personal gain – just the types of allegations leveled against the former governor.

Inspectors General are common across the nation. At the federal level, they have similar responsibilities. As you may recall, they did their jobs so well that former President Trump fired some for being too honest.

States and municipalities have IGs too. New York has more than one – there is one for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state’s Medicaid program, for example. Yet, New York’s law creates a wrinkle. New York State’s Inspector General is chosen by the governor and reports to the governor’s highest-ranking aide – known as the Secretary to the Governor.

Since the IG is chosen by and effectively reports to the governor, according to Lacewell, that person has a conflict of interest and therefore cannot investigate the governor. That legal logic may contribute to the failure of the IG’s office to compel the former governor to testify about how he learned of a secret conversation by the members of the state’s top ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. While Lacewell’s opinion may not be legally binding, as a practical matter that’s the way it plays out.

And given their relationship, Lacewell’s thinking mattered a lot to the governor. In the criminal trial of another former top Cuomo aide who was subsequently convicted of corruption and sent to prison, Lacewell was described as the “Minister of Defense” – charged with protecting the former governor from scrutiny.

Again, Lacewell’s opinion is just that, opinion. The IG under former Governor Paterson was incredibly active, leading scores of investigations including allegations against Paterson and his aides. That inconvenient fact was not part of the apparent worldview of the Cuomo team.

But the revelations highlight a problem in state law: The Inspector General is simply not independent of the governor and his or her aides.

A review of “best practices” nationwide shows that New York’s law falls far short of what the public should expect. Such “best practices” call for IGs to be structurally independent of the entity they are responsible for monitoring, strict standards for who can be selected (no former top aides to the governor for example), and guaranteed funding to ensure that the agency is financially secure enough to do its job without fear of budgetary repercussions.

Of course, that rule should apply to all state-funded watchdog agencies.

Government officials are public servants. They are not royalty or dictators. They take an oath to serve the public. In order for the public to have confidence that tax dollars are being used appropriately and that public servants are behaving ethically and professionally, there must be independent oversight of all public servants – even the governor, and for that matter, even the President.

Accountability is key to maintaining public trust in democracy. State ethics agencies and inspectors general are central to maintaining that accountability. The public expects that government officials are accountable for efficient, cost- effective government operations and to prevent, detect, identify, expose and eliminate fraud, waste, corruption, illegal acts and abuse. You won’t trust the outcome when the umpire is beholden to the home team.

The depositions released last week show that New York has strayed too far from these basic principles.

It’s now up to Governor Hochul and the state Legislature to establish “best practices” for ethics enforcement. The most obvious first step is to ensure that IGs are not directly accountable to the governor or his or her top aides.

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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