Editorial: NY lawmakers shouldn't fight ethics reforms
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Cue a crisis management team. The New York State Legislature needs one.
The usual ooze of wrongdoing and cronyism flowing around Albany lawmakers is now a torrent, but legislative leaders continue to resist demands to disclose their outside business interests or enact strong reforms. It's a foolish strategy likely to lose in both the courts of law and public opinion.
Here's the bad news that's come out in just the last few days. William Rapfogel, the head of a Manhattan charitable foundation with $80 million in state contracts who has close ties to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has been charged with an assortment of crimes, including funneling foundation funds as campaign contributions to elected officials.
Meanwhile, a Moreland Commission is traveling around the state collecting testimony and headlines. Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District, testified that it's a "galling injustice" that crooked politicians can keep cushy state pensions. Many are collecting more than $4,000 a month even while in prison. Thirty lawmakers have been convicted or censured in the past seven years. And waiting in the wings are federal prosecutions of six more state and local officials.
It's hard to overcome the impression that Albany is a cesspool, and that's not even counting the legal graft of rewarding favors to donors and business associates. On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., head of a task force of state prosecutors, said existing fraud laws are inadequate to punish official misconduct and must be updated.
Legislators should drop fight and cooperate
The legislature's response is pique and arrogance as members teeter toward a legal showdown on the demands of the commission.
Following through on threats to force disclosure after the legislature refused to pass comprehensive ethics reform, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in July empaneled the Moreland Commission to investigate and, by mid-December, suggest changes to stop the Albany ooze.
Last month the commission sent letters to one-third of the 212 members of the Senate and the Assembly, including leaders Dean Skelos and Silver, asking legislators to voluntarily disclose the sources of their outside incomes, including lists of clients. Angry at Cuomo and chafing that the commission paints them with a broad brush of corruption, the legislators are resisting. After all, they successfully pushed back in court in the 1980s when Gov. Mario Cuomo created the Feerick Commission to root out corruption. They also cut that commission's funding and ignored its recommendations. That's not going to work this time, not when Bharara and Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch are putting their public corruption units into overdrive.
The Senate and Assembly have hired outside counsel, who claim compliance with the commission would breach the separation of powers between the branches of government. The attorneys say legislators have already disclosed what was required under the 2011 ethics reforms. That argument takes a certain amount of chutzpah, since the lawmakers refused to pass any meaningful laws to police themselves.
Governor and legislature need to agree on reforms
While the separation of powers argument might go a few rounds in court, it's pointless. When the current commission was created, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made its investigators deputy attorneys general with subpoena power.
Moreland subpoenas, however, could alienate legislators even more, ensuring a protracted legal battle that could doom passing any real reforms. Cuomo should seek an agreement on the voluntary disclosure of clients to the commission. And lawmakers must agree to enact a comprehensive package of disclosure and campaign spending reforms when they return to Albany.
Consider it a gesture of good will to the electorate before legislators ask New Yorkers for their votes in the 2014 elections.