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Bob McCarthy: A constitutional attack on state corruption

Robert J. McCarthy

The Politics Column harbors real respect for the good government groups that daily flood the desk with “reform” proposals.

All sound good. Not all prove realistic.

But we took special notice of an idea advanced a few days ago by Evan Davis, the eminent New York City attorney who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 1998. Davis – former president of the New York City Bar Association, clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo – is part of a new group called the Committee to Reform the State Constitution.

Because timing is everything in politics, he may be on to something. Davis and company‘s idea for an anti-corruption amendment to the state Constitution appears just as headlines regularly report the fall of another public official or some crook stealing from the taxpayers.

The group proposes eliminating the Legislative Ethics Commission, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), and the enforcement arm of the state Board of Elections and replacing them with a Government Integrity Commission empowered by full enforcement authority – hence the need for a constitutional amendment. Davis sees the need for a body independent of the executive and legislative branches (unlike the current setup) in which members would be appointed by a panel of judges.

“Incredibly, two of the governor’s appointees to the 14-member ethics commission, JCOPE, can veto an investigation or a finding of violation, as can three of the appointees of the legislative leaders,” the group says. “The Integrity Commission created by an Anti-Corruption Amendment would operate by majority vote.”

Davis says Western New Yorkers should be especially interested because of the convictions stemming from the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development program and ineffectiveness of the current ethics system.

“The governor has co-opted JCOPE, and right now it doesn’t scare anyone,” he said. “And given that the Board of Elections is chosen by the two political parties. It’s a setup to serve the political interests of the two parties.”

This year political candidates seem to recognize that voters are concerned about public corruption. Every one of the four Democrats seeking the nomination for attorney general placed the issue at the top of their agenda. Now Democrat Tish James and Republican Keith Wofford meet each other in the general election with the same topic dominating their platforms.

Ditto for those facing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as Republican Marc Molinaro and Serve America candidate Stephanie Miner use the Buffalo Tesla plant as a campaign backdrop because of the bid-rigging convictions resulting from its construction.

The system is not a total failure, even if recent prosecutions of the Shelly Silvers, Dean Skeloses and Steve Pigeons of the world have stemmed from the work of an attorney general or U.S. attorney. It should be noted that Pigeon’s guilty pleas resulted from complaints originally lodged with the Erie County and state Board of Elections.

But such action is rare, and Davis is putting the heat on candidates running this year. His group lists those who have “demonstrated their commitment to real ethics and campaign finance reform by agreeing to sponsor the Anti-Corruption Amendment.” So far 71 candidates have signed on statewide, including local Democratic Senate candidates Carima El-Behairy (D-60), Joan Seamans (D-61) and Tim Kennedy (D-63).

Assembly candidates favoring the movement include Robin Schimminger (D-140), and both candidates for the 147th District – Democrat Karen McMahon and Republican Ray Walter.

Conversely, the group lists Republican Senate candidates Chris Jacobs in the 60th and Michael Ranzenhofer in the 62nd as those who would not commit.

The idea has a long way to go. It must be approved by two successive Legislatures and then by a statewide referendum. But Davis thinks voters want action, and seems proud of the pressure his group now brings.

“Candidates don’t want to be on the wrong side of the corruption issue,” he says.

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