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Rod Watson: You know it’s bad when New York’s ways even ensnare a nun

How powerful is New York State government's penchant for abusing the public's trust?

So strong, it turns out, that even a nun isn’t immune.

When Sister Denise Roche, chair of the NFTA board of commissioners, bore false witness about the handsome raises given the agency’s top three administrators, even cynics hardened by the endless stream of corruption trials had to be taken aback.

As governmental sins go, hers – insisting no raises were given, when cancelled checks obtained through the Freedom of Information Law proves they were and the recipients had to return the money – falls into the venial category. Still, it further erodes the public’s faith in government at a time when even Job might have serious doubts.

If you can’t trust a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart, who can you trust to do the right thing?

Certainly not the see-no-evil governor and state legislators, who just wrapped up a budget that could pave the way for legislative raises while doing nothing in terms of ethical reform. This despite just seeing the governor’s right-hand-man convicted, with more big name trials and retrials on tap, including one involving principals in the Buffalo Billion development program.

If this isn’t the obvious time for ethics reform, when is?

Amazingly, though, one long-time reform advocate said Albany’s finest privately point to the corruption trials – Cuomo confidante Joseph Percoco, former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the misdemeanor plea of former Sen. George Maziarz et. al. – as proof not of a need for change, but that the current system works.

"It just drives me crazy," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "If the system is working, why do we have so much corruption?"

Of course, they don’t say that in public, he added, because if they did citizens would "light the pitch forks." But in the cocoon in which they operate, they can tell one another that lie as the political body count mounts.

By Newsday’s tally, more than 30 state officials have been driven from office in the past decade following investigations. If former U.S. Attorney Preet Bhahara were still on the job, it would probably be more. It still might be, depending on what comes out in the Buffalo Billion trial scheduled to start this summer in Manhattan.

Horner’s prescription? A truly independent ethics watchdog, and reversing 2011 and 2012 "reforms" that curbed the state comptroller’s ability to review ahead of time contracts potentially worth billions of dollars to make sure there’s no fraud or abuse. He’d also close the "LLC loophole" that treats limited liability corporations like people, allowing donors to set up multiple LLCs to evade campaign contribution limits. And he’d lower contribution limits for corporations seeking government contracts, like LPCiminelli, whose principals will be tried in the Buffalo Billion case.

None of that happens, he thinks, because ethics reform can’t be reduced to a bumper-sticker slogan and because there is no natural constituency willing to put money into the effort. He contrasted that with the push for the $15 minimum wage, which was easily understood and had unions funding the campaign to get it passed.

Add to that the public cynicism that anything can change, and you have a recipe for what we have now: a state culture so rife in backroom dealing and a disregard for the public that it even seeps into state offshoots like the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Most of its board members and its chair are appointed by the governor – whose office had to intervene to kill the raises that supposedly never happened.

My guess is that Sister Denise has already gone to confession, said a few Hail Marys and repented.

Absent meaningful reform, I don’t have nearly as much faith in the rest of the government.

 

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