CORRUPTION WATCH: Albany’s Ethics Reform Leaves Transformation for Another Day

Now that the ink is dry on New York State’s budget, it’s a good time to rate Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the ethics reform promise he made two months ago. In a nutshell, it looks like a disappointment: the ethics package approval process was another instance of Albany’s opaque, backroom dealing, and the governor’s “dramatic” five-point plan will do far too little to raise the veil of secrecy that contributes to Albany’s pervasive culture of corruption.

In February, the governor said that in order “[t]o overcome the skepticism that has built up over years, the proof must be in deeds and not words.” Thus, he proposed a “5 point plan to clean up Albany and restore trust.” At the time, it was unclear whether his dramatic plan would include closing the LLC loophole or creating a public financing system. These comprehensive reforms would increase the voice of all New Yorkers in state policy decision-making; and curb corruption – perceived or actual – resulting from the outsized voice of large wealthy donors or corporate entities who can give six figure contributions under current law.

Since the dust has settled and the bills have seen the light of day, there is no mistaking that these meaningful reforms were not included in last week’s budget.

On process, Governor Cuomo’s ultimatum that he would not approve a budget unless it included his ethics reform agenda drew a much-needed line in the sand to counter the consistent parade of ethics scandals that have plagued Albany. And many hoped this announcement would precede a transparent and public process on the merits of Cuomo’s plan. What the public got instead were a series of press releases and secondhand news accounts about what the deal might include, and a moment’s notice before the package was voted on in the before the package was voted on in the wee hours of the night leading up to the budget approval deadline. While secrecy and backroom dealings are hardly the qualities of a well-functioning democracy, they represent business as usual in Albany — a place that 89 percent of New Yorkers believe has a serious corruption problem, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

On substance, the bill is a reactive and inadequate solution to address the magnitude of Albany’s problems. It leaves for another day limits on elected officials’ outside income, though a commission may be appointed in the future to address this.

The bill provides a little more information about legislators’ outside income, including by limiting their ability to claim that certain income should be shielded from public disclosure, a tactic that has been all too common in Albany in recent years. Yet, the bill did not go nearly far enough to eliminate these potential conflicts of interest.

For example, the “personal services” loophole remains intact. So legislators who are also lawyers that practice at a firm, but who do not work directly for clients, will most likely still operate outside of the public’s scrutiny. On the subject of exemptions from disclosures, the bill creates a windfall for elected officials by allowing them to choose which enforcer they believe would be the most favorable: JCOPE or the Office of Court Administration.

Cuomo and legislative leaders deserve a degree of credit for ensuring that:

  • public officials who abuse the public trust may lose their pensions;
  • requiring actual proof before lawmakers can be reimbursed for per diem expenses;
  • enhancing clarity about prohibited personal use of campaign funds; and
  • strengthening disclosures of independent expenditures.

But “dramatic,” the bill is not. For the third time in four years, the governor has advanced ethics reform that is tepid, not transformational. The answer to Albany corruption is crystal clear by now: limit outside income like the congressional model and enact comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing of elections and fully closing the LLC loophole. Enough is enough with incremental reform. Anything short of limiting outside income and meaningful campaign finance reform is just another quick fix.

DeNora Getachew, Esq. is the campaign manager and legislative counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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