Aren't you impressed when a public official -- paid $120,800 a year to fill an oversight role for the taxpayer -- ducks and covers to avoid answering the public's questions?
Such was the case this week when the Assembly -- more on its lackadaisical performance later -- held a hearing into ineffectiveness at the State Liquor Authority, which a series of Buffalo News articles this summer showed exercises little authority over liquor. What could be more symbolic of this mess than SLA Chairman Edward F. Kelly hurrying down a hallway after the hearing to avoid reporters' questions?
For their part, Assembly committee members charged with oversight asked a few tough questions, and at least they got Kelly to sit before them, no mean achievement in a town like Albany, where change comes in drips. This is how Albany works: Kelly has strong ties to Gov. George E. Pataki -- where is the governor on this embarrassing agency performance? -- and a career in Dutchess County Republican politics. So his fellow pols stuck to unwritten rules. The committee took "testimony" first and allowed or asked pointed questions only after Kelly departed, giving the hearing the kick of a Virgin Mary.
And who bellied up to the bar in this speakeasy? Our own Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore. With Kelly and others sitting smack in his sights, Schimminger nibbled around the edges, and said what amounted to "nevermind." Schimminger, by the way, has accepted more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from liquor industry sources since 1998, the most of any other Assembly member after the Big Kaluha himself, Speaker Sheldon Silver. Coincidence?
What's at stake here? New York has a $1 billion wine industry. The state has 60,000 establishments licensed to sell liquor. Higher prices to the consumer are only part of this lax regulatory binge. In 1994, the SLA had 396 employees; under Pataki-Kelly, it's at 148. And what did Kelly blame for SLA ineptitude? That's right, cutbacks in staff. Did anyone point out to Mr. Kelly that the cuts he bemoans happened on his watch, ordered by the executive branch he answers to?
Schimminger's hometown paper handed him a host of allegations -- including possible illegal price dealings by liquor wholesalers -- and he failed to ask SLA officials a single question about them. Who called this hearing, you wonder? Schimminger, whose committee oversees the industry. In all, a sorry day for the peoples' representatives.