CORRUPTION WATCH: Deforming Reform

Morgan Pehme_EfectiveNYCleaning Up Albany Corruption as Slowly as Possible

By Morgan Pehme


Only in Albany is legislation targeted at making government more transparent drafted in the shadows.


With less than 12 hours to go before the April 1 deadline to pass an on-time state budget, the details of New York’s most recent round of ethics reform were still largely a mystery to anyone not privy to the behind-closed-doors negotiations of the Three Men in a Room—the triumvirate that effectively rules the state: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.


Of course, this secrecy is par for the course in the capital. It is appallingly common for our state’s legislators to be compelled to vote on complex, highly significant bills despite having only having gotten a first glimpse of them right before they reached the floor. The reason is simple: If bills are made available with enough advance notice their inadequacies and loopholes can be critiqued and advocates can organize around pressuring legislators into rejecting them. Such resistance is an obstacle to the leaders’ bidding getting done. And who wants pesky irritants like debate and deliberation slowing down the march of progress?


The ethics reforms that did finally emerge 10 ½ hours before the midnight deadline typify this dysfunction. Passed using a measure of necessity—a tactic that enables the governor to circumvent the three-day period mandated by the state constitution for legislation to be considered—the new ethics laws are an incremental step forward, but a woefully inadequate one in light of the current climate in Albany.


Ethics reform was only on the table this year because between the January indictment of the now former Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, an alleged federal investigation into Skelos, and ongoing scrutiny of the Cuomo administration by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, the governor and the leaders of the Legislature have been under immense pressure to prove that they are serious about rooting out the culture of corruption that permeates the capital, rather than serving surreptitiously as the ringleaders of a status quo that enables their colleagues’ malfeasance—and perhaps their own.


Given this dynamic, if ever there were an opportunity to force through the type of sweeping systemic changes—like transitioning to a full-time legislature and campaign finance reform—that are imperative if we really want to curb the crime spree in which so many of our elected officials have engaged, it was now. Even some of the most cynical of longtime Albany observers were of the opinion that the Three Men in a Room would pass some sort of robust ethics reform package this legislative session if for no other reason than to try to brush Bharara’s prosecutorial bull’s eye off their backs.


But, apparently, so strong is the insistence of some of our legislators to preserve the ability to enrich themselves with outside income, to pay their legal fees with campaign dollars if they get in trouble, and to exploit gaping loopholes that allow for massive fundraising, that even the core political instinct of self-preservation was insufficient to curtail business as usual.


All that mattered in the end was that the bipartisan deal that the leaders struck looked good enough for the cameras that it could be cast as half a loaf when in actuality it was little more than crumbs. Of course, cognitive dissonance being commonplace in the capital, Gov. Cuomo insisted on going farther than merely declaring an incremental victory, and instead extolled the meager package of reforms as “historic”.


For once, few were duped—or even pretended to be.


“We failed to pass a meaningful ethics package that would have gotten to the heart of the problem,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, generally an ally of the governor.


“This is more tinkering around the edges accompanied by some fairly strong and recycled language about how this solves all the problems,” jabbed New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, finally finding his voice after his resounding silence during the eruption of the Moreland Commission scandal last year.


While nobody has been fooled by the Three Men in a Room’s latest attempt at misdirection, that doesn’t change the sad fact that Albany has squandered the best opening in over a generation for true reform.


Fortunately, while there may be no one in Andrew Cuomo’s Albany who has the fortitude and integrity to stomp out corruption, there is someone who works at 1 St. Andrew’s Plaza in Manhattan who does: Preet Bharara. And he’s made it perfectly clear that he has as many handcuffs as he needs to keep hauling away our elected officials until enough of their honest colleagues stand up to the powers that be and insist on instituting reforms that are more than just window dressing.


Morgan Pehme is a journalist, political commentator and the executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group and public policy think tank EffectiveNY.



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