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Teachout emphasizes fighting corruption in AG bid

Back in 2014, during her unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Zephyr R. Teachout — one of four Democrats vying for state attorney general on Thursday — seemed to eerily and accurately predict the future.

Teachout at that time raised questions in an op-ed article for The Buffalo News about Cuomo's Buffalo Billion economic development program that eventually resulted in federal convictions for developers accused of bid rigging in the RiverBend solar factory project.

"Critically, the state's pervasive culture of corruption and 'pay to play' must not drive the choices we make to boost Buffalo," the Fordham Law professor wrote. "The Buffalo Billion must be allocated without favoritism, and the selection process should be transparent."

Four years later, Teachout refrains from any outright "I told you so's," but puts fighting official corruption at the top of her priority list should she prevail in Thursday's primary election.

"It shows I have a nose for corruption," she said in Buffalo a few days ago. "And that matters because we have an ongoing corruption crisis in New York. The next attorney general needs to be somebody who's willing to both use the full existing powers of the AG's office and call out leadership, Republican and Democratic, Assembly, Senate and governor's office."

Indeed, the other candidates in the primary – New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and former Albany and Washington official Leecia R. Eve – also are emphasizing strong stands against the kind of corruption charges that ensnared Louis P. Ciminelli and others in the RiverBend case. Or the charges that convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, or those facing former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

But Teachout can also say she wrote the book on the subject after penning "Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United" in 2014. And if past attorneys general tailored their office to specific initiatives, she says she can emphasize a stronger role for her office in investigating the kinds of infractions that have resulted in charges against Pigeon and others.

"I have a deep understanding of the tools used and not used to face this current threat," she said. And she insists that "someone from the outside" is needed to dig into the state's political and governmental culture.

"There are layers of corruption in New York; it's just the way it is," she said. "And I'm not talking about Shelly Silver, I'm talking about silence."

Teachout, 46, has emerged as a familiar force in New York politics since bursting onto the scene in 2014. Though she lost to Cuomo then, the unknown managed to score 34 percent of the Democratic vote.

Since then, she lost a 2016 congressional race in the mid-Hudson Valley to Republican John J. Faso, endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, and served as treasurer of Cynthia Nixon's current primary challenge to Cuomo before Eric T. Schneiderman's spring resignation as attorney general and her subsequent candidacy for that office.

She continued on her progressive path in recent months by appearing at campaign appearances with Jumaane D. Williams, who is mounting a challenge from the left against Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in the primary, as well as with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialist who won a New York City Congressional primary in June.

Teachout has never really exited the limelight, appearing frequently on political cable television shows as a progressive spokeswoman. She also garnered national attention for joining a lawsuit against President Trump for alleged violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause, seeking to force him to divest of potentially conflicting business interests.

And like her three opponents, with the winner to take on Republican Keith Wofford in November, she promises to provide a bulwark against Trump policies she considers threats to New Yorkers. She agrees with current state efforts opposing more lax environmental regulations or separating children of undocumented immigrants from parents.

"I take the threat of Donald Trump quite seriously," she said. "The federal government cannot be trusted to enforce environmental, consumer or civil rights. So the New York State Attorney General's Office will be critically important for protecting our rights here in New York."

The candidate has landed a significant local endorsement from former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, who says Teachout "has good government in her bones."

"She is made for the position of attorney general," he said, referring to her long record of crusading against corruption. "This is her calling."

Teachout has spent more than $600,000 and has about $500,000 on hand, according to her latest report to the State Board of Elections. More than 3,000 mostly small donations flooded into her treasury following her endorsement by the New York Times in late August (she is also endorsed by The Buffalo News).

But she makes it clear she will not accept donations from corporate political action committees or the limited liability corporations that often use a legal loophole to drop large donations on favored candidates.

"I think I should be totally independent from corporations," she said.

In addition to fighting corruption, Teachout says she will also guard against unfair incarceration of minorities, work to expand voting rights, seek campaign finance reform, and work with local district attorneys on sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Like other candidates, she wants to revamp the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) which she says is too close to Albany's power establishment.

"I will certainly investigate JCOPE as a system that's not working," she said.

But in many of her campaign appearances around the state (though rarely in Western New York), she harkens to her anti-corruption theme. Never hesitant to criticize Cuomo, she says Albany's current culture continues after the governor disbanded his 2013 Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. She maintains she can find no formal order to rescind the commission, which she said Cuomo ended prematurely.

"I intend to use that order to its fullest extent to investigate corruption," she said. "The crisis is not over."

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