Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie have announced an agreement to strengthen the state’s ethics laws that looks, on first blush, to be worthy of enactment. The details have yet to be explored and the Senate has made no comment on its interest, but with the agreement’s focus on outside income, it aims at the heart of some of Albany’s worst problems.
The announcement came only days after Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman called for “transformational change” in Albany’s ethics laws, rather than the usual nibbling around the edges. That, in fact, has been the Albany tradition: Do nothing until the pressure becomes too great, and then do as little as possible to silence the critics. While this deal looks like something different – actually beneficial – it bears examination before celebration.
It doesn’t do what Schneiderman usefully proposed – banning all outside income and, in exchange, doubling lawmakers’ salaries – but as desirable a goal as that is, it was probably not achievable, at least not in this session. Nevertheless, Schneiderman’s overarching point is indisputable: Cuomo and others committed to reforming state government in New York need to take maximum advantage of this depressing time in the state’s history to push for significant and, yes, transformational reform.
Talk about depressing: Over the past several years, the holder of every important state office except attorney general has been driven from office, accused or convicted of crimes or other unethical behavior, and one of them – former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, found to have been romping with prostitutes – had only recently been attorney general.
And that’s not to mention the many members of both legislative houses who have been revealed as scoundrels. They lie, cheat, connive, deceive, bribe and otherwise abuse their offices to line their pockets. Criminal conduct has been found among Democrats and Republicans, upstaters and downstaters, men and women.
Yes, it is depressing – and tailor-made for a governor who is truly intent on changing the rules so that they benefit, rather than beset, New Yorkers. Cuomo’s record on this has been uneven. He enacted a special commission on corruption last year, but abruptly disbanded it after achieving a nibble-around-the-edges deal with the Legislature.
Chastened, perhaps, by the public response to that unfortunate decision – and the move by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to take up the investigations begun by the defunct commission – the governor made ethics a bedrock issue in this year’s budget negotiations.
The deal with the Assembly is at least a down payment on that promise. It is less than what is needed – it may always be so in this sleazy state government – but it does more than nibble. Specifically, the plan would:
• Require more disclosure of outside income activities of lawmakers. That would include the Legislature’s lawyers in matters in which they earn more than $5,000 from a client. There would be exceptions – possibly legitimate – in matrimonial or custody cases. The deal would not limit outside incomes.
• Lawmakers working in professions licensed by the Department of Education – including interior designers, massage therapists, pharmacists, dentists and psychologists – also would have to reveal how they made their money and their clients’ names. Again, exclusions would be provided for health care and mental health professions, which would cover most of those professions.
The agreement falls short in other areas, doing too little on the much-abused per-diem system that pays lawmakers’ living expenses even if they spend nothing. And it does nothing about the loophole that allows wealthy individuals to create corporations as a way to bypass contribution limits. It does not require income disclosure of domestic partners – such as Cuomo has – as it does for spouses.
There is a lot that remains to be done in a government that is vying for the title of the nation’s most crooked, but financial disclosure is a big step forward. The Senate, home to much corruption, resists this agreement at its own peril. Bharara is still on the prowl and local prosecutors are under pressure to act, too. This is their chance to show voters they are serious about ethics reform in Albany.