As the former New York State Senate Majority Leader goes to trial and his former counterpart Assembly Speaker is still in court, it has become clear that whatever the outcome, Albany’s ethics is on trial.
And business as usual at the state Capitol is facing a conviction in the court of public opinion.
While both cases are different, they share a common theme – abuse of public office for private gain.
In the case involving the former Assembly Speaker, the prosecutor’s case is built on the allegation that the former Speaker used his legislative power to drive state aid to legal clients and in return received millions of dollars for himself – even though he did no legal work.
The former Speaker denies the charges and argues that this form of quid-pro-quo is legal.
In the case involving the former Senate Majority Leader, the prosecutor’s case is built on the allegation that the Senator used his considerable power to force those with business before him to do business with his son – even though little work was done by him.
The former Senator denies the charges and argues that what he did was legal.
With both cases moving through the legal system, and with both lawmakers presumed innocent until action by the courts, we cannot draw a conclusion about their guilt or innocence. That’s for the juries to decide.
But what is clear is that business as usual in Albany looks terrible in these court proceedings. If it turns out that the actions by these two men are legal, the cries for change will be deafening. If they are convicted, the public should demand that Albany’s ethical standards be improved so that no one thinks that using public office for private gain is acceptable.
It should be a time for real change.
Reformers are pushing for such changes. A coalition of civic organizations last week urged Governor Cuomo to convene a special session devoted strictly to ethics. In addition to the court cases, the groups cited a recent national ranking which gave New York State a D-minus grade in how it handles issues of integrity.
The groups issued a call to the governor and the legislative leaders to embrace a wide-ranging package of reforms that included placing strict limits on public officials’ outside income.
As mentioned earlier, in both cases the legislators are accused of using their public office for private gain. Most New York State lawmakers currently do not have outside income, or they make a small amount. The Congress places limits on outside income, New York should too.
The groups also called for an overhaul of the state’s system of monitoring ethics. Specifically, the groups noted that it has been federal prosecutors, not state ones, which have been responsible for the lion’s share of the ethics actions brought in recent years. The groups called for changes to increase transparency of the state’s ethics watchdogs’ operations, meetings and votes; expand jurisdiction to include all executive and legislative branch employees; and elevate the independence of the commissioners from their appointing authorities.
The groups also called for new campaign financing changes in response to what has been found in the cases against the former legislative leaders.
While there have been some improvements to ethics laws over the past ten years, the core problem of lawmakers using their public posts for private gain still persists. New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state.
The governor and the state legislature must act so public trust can be restored in New York’s democratic institutions and political processes. There is no shortage of solutions that New York’s political leaders can draw upon in enacting comprehensive change, instead of incremental reform, and in doing so give hope to the public that can trust can be restored.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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