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Despite Trials, Little Talk Of Reform In Albany

New York State Capitol

The New York state legislature is seemingly back to business as usual, with majority parties holding planning meetings, and the new session set to begin right after the holidays. But as Karen DeWitt reports, there has been little public discussion about a corruption crisis that has led to the two most powerful men in the legislature both on trial in federal court this month.

It’s almost as though they are taking place in two parallel worlds.  In federal court in Manhattan, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos are both on trial for corruption.

In Albany, the majority parties in each house are holding meetings, and planning strategy for the upcoming session and 2016 election year.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke to reporters just before entering the closed door meeting.

“We haven’t been together since the end of  June,” said Heastie..

Heastie says his members are talking about raising the minimum wage, and whether to revise new rules for teacher evaluations. Heastie’s counterpart, Senate Leader John Flanagan, meeting in Albany one week earlier, said his Senate colleagues are discussing traditional Republican subjects.

“Tax cuts, government spending, education,” Flanagan said.

But one thing they are not talking about, at least not publicly, is corruption, the ongoing investigations and legal proceedings, and whether Albany needs to change.

Speaker Heastie was asked by reporters whether the legislature will be looking at more reforms.

“I’m just not sure, and I ask you guys these questions,” Heastie said, turning the questioning around on the press. “What do you think legislatively we could do to respond to what either Sheldon Silver or Dean Skelos is on trial for?”

Two government reform leaders, Susan Lerner of Common Cause, and Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, say they have plenty of suggestions. In fact, they sent Heastie a letter on November 11  outlining several proposals, following a press conference. They pondered that perhaps it got lost in the mail. 

“We’re very sorry that the Speaker has not yet read our letter, but we’d be happy to meet with him and go over our suggestions with him,” Lerner said. 

They say lawmakers can act immediately to close a loophole in campaign donation laws that allow donors to skirt contribution limits by forming multiple Limited Liability companies. Bartoletti says donors and lawmakers use the LLC’s to disguise the fact that the money all comes from essentially, one donor. 

“Which is a central part of both of these trials,” Bartoletti said.

LLC donations factor heavily into the cases against both former legislative leaders.

Lerner says the groups also have varying proposals on limiting lawmakers outside income to a small percentage of their total government salaries.

“We’re all in agreement that we need to reform legislative compensation and that there needs to be some sort of limitation on outside income,” Lerner said. “Which is what we are learning so much about in these two fascinating but deeply upsetting trials that are going on simultaneously.”

Speaker Heastie did go on to say that the legislature, as part of the budget, enacted greater disclosure of lawmaker’s outside income. Both Silver and Skelos are accused of misusing their elected positions to earn millions of dollars in income from their other jobs, where they granted political favors to their outside employers. He says he wants to see how that works first.

“At this point we’re at having more disclosure and I think we should see where that goes,” Heastie said. “And there should be no conflict of interest.”

As to whether outside income should be banned , Heastie says “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Speaker Heastie and Senate Leader Flanagan have both voluntarily given up earning any other income other than their government jobs. Bartoletti and Lerner say that’s a start. But she says it’s not enough for lawmakers to police themselves.

“You really still need to have it in statute,” Bartoletti said.

“The public should not be dependent on the internal moral compass of any individual legislator,” said Lerner. "Which we are learning, unfortunately, is not always true north.”

Speaker Heastie says whether Silver and Skelos are convicted or exonerated is “irrelevant” to any discussion of whether more changes are needed at the Capitol.

Polls show that the public is concerned over the corruption. Bartoletti and Lerner say they hope their groups can generate public support to convince lawmakers to make changes.

The Assembly has already approved a bill to close the LLC loophole. The Senate has not.

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