Blair Horner: New York's Ethical Failings

Mar 5, 2018

New York State’s long running corruption crisis continues to this day.  For each of the first seven months of this year, a new high-profile corruption case goes to trial.  Last week the first of those cases went to the jury for deliberations and in the second case, a trial was averted when a former legislator pleaded guilty.

Quite a week.

In the guilty plea case a former state Senator from Niagara (George Maziarz) admitted to the criminal misuse of his campaign funds by illegally steering them into the pocket of an aide.  Maziarz will pay a fine, but the misdemeanor plea avoids jail time.

In the first trial a top aide to the governor is facing decades in the slammer if convicted (of course everyone is innocent until proven guilty).  And while the jury deliberates over whether he violated federal bribery laws, the evidence and testimony in the trial revealed serious ethical questions over how the Cuomo Administration monitors ethics.  Here are a few of those questions:

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial the governor’s aide, while outside of government service and running the governor’s re-election campaign, was able to keep his government security card to gain access to the executive chamber and appears to have been able to use his old office, including conducting business on the executive office telephone.

Question: Who approved this decision and was the state’s ethics watchdog (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) consulted about this arrangement?

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, the aide was allowed to have an outside consulting business while running the campaign and, apparently was still deeply involved in government decision-making.  Legal advice on ethics issues was given to him while he was employed outside of government by an Administration official.

Question: Was JCOPE consulted on this arrangement?

According to testimony at the trial, then-gubernatorial candidate Cuomo, who was also the incumbent Attorney General, traveled on a donor’s personal jet for his gubernatorial campaign. 

Question: Did the state’s ethics watchdog at that time, the Commission on Public Integrity, approve this travel?

According to testimony at the trial, a top Administration official vetted campaign contributions made to the governor from political appointees and others seeking government contracts.  That official also, reportedly on her own time, vetted campaign contributions for the governor’s re-election campaign.  According to the New York Times, nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions were made by political appointees during that period.

Question:  How is it possible that despite the vetting of contributions by the Administration, such money was raised in apparent conflict with the Administration’s executive order to prohibit such a practice?

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, $125,000 in campaign contributions were directed by an outside lobbyist, working with a company seeking to do business with the state, to the governor’s re-election campaign through a network of limited liability companies.  According to the evidence, at least some of those contributions were disguised by being sent from related LLCs, whose names did not contain the name of the parent company.

Question: How was this decision and how were these donations vetted by the Administration? 

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, an outside lobbyist regularly communicated with top Administration officials through their private email accounts.  Contained in those emails were decisions that directly impacted public policies.

Question: Why was it that so many high ranking officials were allowed to conduct business through personal emails?

While the governor’s former top aide’s case is before the jury, the verdict is in on the way New York State conducts its political business: its deeply flawed system directly raises the risk of corruption.  And that increased risk of corruption led last week to another conviction, adding to the dozens so far.  And it is a system that will continue to be on trial deep into this summer.

Regardless of the verdicts in these trials, the current system is failing to produce integrity in government.  New Yorkers deserve only the highest ethical conduct from elected and appointed officials.  

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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