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Prospects Dim For Reform Post Silver Conviction

Sheldon Silver
WAMC file photo

Governor Cuomo and the current legislative leaders have downplayed efforts for new reforms in Albany, following the conviction of the former Assembly Speaker on seven counts of corruption. 

Former Speaker Assembly Silver is now facing up to 20 years in prison for illegally gaining millions of dollars through his outside employment. The former Senate Leader. Dean Skelos, is in the midst of another federal corruption trial, accused of misusing his influence to gain jobs and money for his son.

Editorial pages from New York City to Buffalo are calling for reform measures, and good government groups say Governor Cuomo, who came into office vowing to win back the public trust, may find his very legacy in jeopardy.   

But so far, Cuomo has not championed the issue. He speaks of it only when reporters ask him, as in this brief question and answer session one day after the Silver verdict.

“Justice was done,” Cuomo said. “The jury was clear.”

The governor then pinned the blame squarely back on the former Assembly Speaker himself, saying that Silver knew what the laws were, and broke them anyway.

“Obviously, the problem with the Sheldon Silver situation was not that we had a law, we had a law,” said Cuomo “It’s that he thought he could get away with it. And he thought he could violate the law.”

Silver was convicted of breaking federal laws, not state laws on corruption. Critics say state laws are far looser when it comes to ethical rules. 

In the wake of the twin trials of the former legislative leaders, there have been calls for a full time legislature to end potential conflicts that have led to the indictments and convictions. Cuomo says he’s open to the idea.

“I am intrigued by the full time legislature, because that would end the conflict of interest,” said Cuomo, who said legislators recently have got “into trouble” over that issue.

The governor concedes the idea is “controversial,” though, because under the state’s constitution, the Senate and Assembly are technically part time jobs, paying just under $80,000 a year.

And Cuomo blames the State Senate for lack of action to convert the legislature to full time status, saying there’s “no appetite” for it.

Senate Leader John Flanagan, who took over for Skelos in May, confirms that, saying he believes in the concept of a “citizen legislature.”

“I think it’s useful to have people from varying walks of life,” Flanagan said. “ I don’t believe that anyone should be stymied in their efforts to do good things on behalf of their family.”

Cuomo argues that the legislature already approved stricter disclosure rules for outside income, and he’d like to wait and see how they work first.

Critics have said those new disclosure rules , passed as part of the state budget, don’t go far enough.

Governor Cuomo has had difficulties in the past in enacting reform proposals. He has listed public campaign finance as a goal for several years, but has so far not been successful. The governor gave up on a plan to immediately reform the drawing of legislative districts known as redistricting,  instead waiting until ten years into the future to make some changes.  Cuomo created a Moreland Act Commission that he said at the time would investigate the legislature, but he later shut down the commission, a move that drew scrutiny from Preet Bharara, the same U.S. Attorney who brought the charges against the former legislative leaders.

Cuomo says he will pursue new ethics changes when the legislature reconvenes in January, but he did not detail what they might be.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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