Last week was Sunshine Week; an annual celebration of the benefits of open government and how to safeguard and expand upon current transparency laws. If the success of a representative democracy hinges on the informed consent of the governed, it is critical that the public know as much as possible about the information used and the processes by which its representatives spend tax dollars and act on policy recommendations.
As we all know, the reason such a week is needed is that our public servants far too frequently mislead the public and make decisions that benefit favored special interests. That spectacle has dominated the news of the actions taken by the federal government.
Sadly, a recent court case showed the problem of corrupting government to the benefit of hot-wired interests exists in Albany too.
Last week – Sunshine Week – saw the conviction of a former top aide to Governor Cuomo, a man who was once described as “brother” to the governor.
The aide, Joseph Percoco, was convicted in federal court of three felonies including solicitation of bribes and gratuities in connection with a “low-show” job given to his wife by an energy company with a proposed Hudson Valley power plant seeking various approvals from the Cuomo administration. According to the conviction, Mr. Percoco got nearly $300,000 in bribes through the scheme. He received another $35,000 from a Syracuse development firm to successfully override a government decision to protect labor union members.
In addition to the Percoco conviction, the head of the Syracuse development firm was convicted as well. The jury deadlocked over whether the Hudson Valley energy company knowingly broke the law.
The court proceedings and evidence laid bare serious flaws in the way the Cuomo Administration operates. According to the testimony, when Mr. Percoco left government service to run Governor Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign, he used his old government office to do so, which is illegal. The trial also offered testimony that a lobbyist conducted government business with a number of high-ranking Administration officials through private emails – not through government email addresses – in an apparent attempt to avoid the state’s openness laws celebrated during Sunshine Week.
Of course, such high-level corruption taints the Administration and strongly suggests that the way it runs its internal operations is done to minimize public scrutiny, not maximize it. One clear take away is that the state’s ethics oversight and openness laws were simply insufficient to curb such behaviors – a total overhaul is needed.
But the trial also raises other disturbing issues. If a corrupt official was at the center of two controversial decisions, should those decisions be reviewed?
In the Syracuse case, the trial revealed that Mr. Percoco helped to remove a potentially-costly labor union agreement requirement from an Inner Harbor parking lot project in Syracuse and helped free up funds for work completed on the Central New York Film Hub.
In the Hudson Valley energy plant case, prosecutors argued that Mr. Percoco received bribes to help in the construction of a natural-gas power plant located in the mid-Hudson Valley. That plant, whose construction is nearly complete, has been controversial and opposed by many local residents, environmental groups and public officials.
Opponents now make the reasonable argument that if the deal was underpinned by corruption as evidenced by the Percoco conviction, the state must stop the construction and review regulatory decisions in an open manner the steps that allowed the construction to move ahead. They have a point and Albany must listen to them.
The Percoco conviction should serve as a wakeup call to the governor and the legislature that they must act to curb corruption at all levels of government, even in the offices of the governor himself. It should also act as a spur to force review of both the Hudson Valley case and the Syracuse decision to ensure that labor, environmental, or health standards were not ignored.
It’s long past time that New York State and local governments comply with the highest standards of openness and public accountability. Next year’s Sunshine Week should be a celebration of advances in good government in Albany, not another week of disgrace.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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