ALBANY – In a bow to reactive governing, topics that were major local and national news items in communities around the state over the past year were ripped from the headlines and inserted in some way or another into the new $168.3 billion spending plan.
Anti-gang violence on Long Island: done.
New sexual harassment laws: done.
Money for low-income housing in New York City, help for unions under legal attack, funding for the infamous, murky water-discharging Niagara Falls wastewater plant: done, done and done.
Confronting head-on Albany’s corruption woes through new ethics, campaign finance and procurement rules: Well, stop right there.
In this Year of the Corruption Trials in New York State – where at least five such trials have, are or will take place – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature could not even come together on watered-down versions of measures to address ethics problems in state government.
“I think they’re in denial," said Susan Lerner of New York Common Cause.
“I think they’ve convinced themselves there are no ramifications at the ballot box if they do nothing. That constituents are so cynical and distrustful of the system that they are not complaining to their elected officials gives officials the idea that voters don’t care."
Long-stalled ideas stall again
Dead in the budget deal was a whole host of long-sought measures by watchdog groups who say Albany needs some basic, structural changes in order to reduce the parade of corruption cases that been so steady the past dozen or so years.
It was said years ago that corruption in Albany would continue until the indictments started coming against government officials here. The indictments came and went, along with dozens of convictions of various levels of players, and the response from governors and lawmakers has been, critics say, underwhelming.
But, this was the year. All of them, including Cuomo, are up for re-election this fall. The governor himself has three challengers already making Albany corruption a theme of their campaigns against him. Cynthia Nixon, the activist challenging Cuomo for the Democratic Party line, offered, as asked, a one-word of sorts response to the lack of any ethics-related measures in the budget: "#CuomosAlbany.''
And there are the 2018 trials: the corruption re-trials of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos; the pay-to-play trial in June involving Buffalo Billion and other Cuomo administration economic development programs in upstate, and the recently concluded trial in which Joseph Percoco, a longtime confidante of Cuomo, was found guilty in a scheme of trading bribes for state action for those business executives giving him money.
Among the ideas excluded from any final budget deal: creation of a database that the public could search for how much every recipient of economic development spending got and how many jobs they created; end the ability by limited liability companies to skirt campaign donation limits; give back certain contract pre-approval powers to the state Comptroller, the state’s fiscal watchdog; strengthen the state’s criminal laws to better define bribery of public officials; and create an independent watchdog agency to police ethics issues in Albany.
“Overall, yet another missed opportunity,’’ said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has been pushing to get back some contract scrutiny authority – taken away by Cuomo and lawmakers in 2012 – of entities such as those that have since become embroiled in the Buffalo Billion and other contracting scandals.
The Democratic comptroller noted that a number of non-budget matters fell off the negotiating table before the budget was OK'd March 31. He said the various ethics and anti-corruption measures should be something lawmakers want to tout about in their districts in an election year. “There’s still plenty of time,’’ he said of the end of session on June 20.
The Buffalo News last week asked the four players in the budget negotiations to explain what happened. Why was nothing done on any of the ethics/corruption-related issues? Their responses were both telling and perhaps unsurprising.
“We have passed a myriad of ethics reforms over the years,’’ said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. He noted the Assembly passed a bill this year closing the LLC donation loophole. “Unfortunately, the Senate has blocked this important reform,’’ he said.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, a Democrat, said the governor proposed a slew of measures this year, including bans on outside income of lawmakers and top officials, creating a chief procurement officer, the LLC loophole closing and enacting early voting. He said they were “all blocked by the current Senate majority.’’
“It’s a good thing we’re on the verge of a Democratic Senate that has pledge to pass our ethics reforms,’’ Azzopardi said of a Cuomo-forged deal announced Thursday to re-unite warring Senate Democratic factions in hopes of ousting the GOP from control.
Senate Republicans had a slightly different view for why things didn’t happen in the budget. “Each and every time we suggested putting in place reforms that would bring additional transparency to the state’s economic development programs – some of which are clearly not working and some of which have been tainted by corruption – the governor refused to even meet to discuss our proposals,’’ said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican.
“The fact that these reforms were omitted from the final budget isn’t on us, it’s on him,’’ Reif said, adding that the Senate GOP will continue pressing for the plans before session ends in June.
Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who until last Wednesday’s Democratic unity deal was the head of an eight-member, breakaway group of Senate Democrats, stressed that his group was supportive of campaign finance measures and ending outside income for legislators. “I’m not knocking them, but they don’t believe in campaign finance reform,’’ Klein said of Senate Republicans with whom he had a power-sharing alliance until last week. Klein had a seat at the table with Cuomo, Heastie and Flanagan in the recently concluded budget talks.
Prosecutor to lawmaker
Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Nassau County Democrat, is a former federal prosecutor whose cases included the corruption conviction of former Sen. Pedro Espada, a onetime Senate majority leader and power broker from the Bronx. Riding on an anti-corruption theme, Kaminsky moved from the Assembly, to which he was elected in 2014, to the Senate in 2016, winning the seat vacated by Skelos after his corruption conviction.
Kaminsky said public corruption is an issue taken seriously by voters on Long Island following several high-profile cases. Kaminsky said he has spoken with Republicans who control the Senate and he’s come away with two reasons why some don’t see the need for a major overhaul of ethics and corruption-related criminal laws.
The first is what he called the “couple bad apples” theory: that most lawmakers are honest and not committing criminal acts in office. Secondly, he said, is what he calls a “more disturbing” view: “that overzealous prosecutors are out there making cases they’ve never made before” and going out of their way to target politicians.
“The trend that I see is not prosecutors being the problem, but a culture of corruption in Albany,’’ he said, noting corruption has hit Democrats, Republicans, lawmakers and members of Cuomo’s executive branch. “It’s not like two people who went rogue. It’s a massive problem,’’ he said.
Kaminsky said state law needs to be tightened to close what he said is “a huge gap” regarding bribery provisions, an alignment of the state to federal law that makes it a crime to lie to a district attorney or state prosecutor, limits on outside income of public officials and lowering of New York’s sky-high contribution limits.
“This is the issue that motivated me to come to Albany,’’ Kaminsky said. After Skelos and Silver were indicted within months of each other in 2015, Kaminsky said he was certain there would be an ensuing “tidal wave” of anti-corruption laws.
“Really, we’ve not seen much,’’ he said.