While some state lawmakers have hailed the recent passage of new ethics measures, others along with government watchdogs say the State Legislature didn’t take a big enough step to address political corruption.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to several ethics proposals during the final week of the 2016 legislative session. They backed a bill to offer an amendment to the state constitution that would strip pensions away from elected officials convicted of corruption. They said they increased disclosure of lobbying activities and made it more difficult for “independent” campaign committees to coordinate spending efforts with candidates.
But critics said they failed to touch on any of the central factors of the recent scandals that have rocked New York politics: outside sources of income, deep-pocketed campaign contributors and government contracts.
State Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Queens) called the changes a “baby step.” And state Sen. Daniel L. Squadron (D-Brooklyn) said, “This bill, frankly, is like taking an aspirin for a broken arm. It might make you feel a little better for a while, but it doesn’t fix things.”
The arrest, conviction and sentencing of Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, and Dean Skelos, the former Senate majority leader, hung over the state Capitol throughout 2016, along with a federal investigation of Cuomo’s economic development initiatives.
As the session drew to a close, ethics battled for attention with bills to allow daily fantasy sports, alcohol in movie theaters and Sunday morning brunch venues, as well as measures to oversee horse racing and combat heroin and opioid addiction.
State Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville) called the pension bill that emerged in the final week “historic” and said it shouldn’t be downplayed.
“That’s what the men and women who are meeting you in the deli are asking for,” Croci told his fellow senators when they voted around 2 a.m. June 18. “Tonight, we have given them a reason to believe in us again . . . A constitutional amendment is no small thing.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) agreed that the measure was “extremely important.” New Yorkers “know if they got caught stealing at their jobs, they would never get a pension,” he said.
But Kaminsky described the measures as a first step. And a number of lawmakers said the changes won’t address what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Albany’s “culture of corruption.”
“We started out this session being told we had to do something about ethics,” said state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), who went on to say the package didn’t touch on any of the problems highlighted in the recent trials.
“Quite frankly, nobody who’s served in this body and been convicted were convicted because of anything to do with independent expenditures,” she said.
There has been no shortage of broad ideas for disrupting the system: Banning outside incomes for lawmakers, enacting term limits, creating a truly independent ethics watchdog, closing a loophole that allows companies to skirt campaign-contribution limits, requiring more signoffs for expenditures of more than $1 million, to name a few.
None of those structural changes caught favor, though.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, said lawmakers settled for the “barest of minimums.”
“It’s not even dealing with the problem, which is people cashing in on their public office,” he said. “The changes do nothing about the behavior of public officials. Classic.”
The campaign-contribution loophole and lawmakers’ outside incomes “were central” to the Skelos and Silver scandals, yet neither was addressed, Squadron said. He noted that Cuomo introduced eight versions of bills to close the campaign-contribution loophole, but none made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
“The people of New York know we are not addressing the crisis,” Squadron said.
Cuomo himself said repeatedly through the year that no amount of ethics law reforms could completely stamp out corruption and noted lawmakers had increased income-disclosure requirements in the past. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) made similar arguments.
And they had all acknowledged there were sharp philosophical differences on whether lawmakers should be made full-time with no outside incomes and campaigns should be publicly financed. When Democrats proposed laws that would crack down on corporate campaign contributions, Republicans said they conveniently left out unions — leading to a stalemate on closing election-law loopholes.
Focusing on the settlements leaders could reach, Cuomo said they would bring “unprecedented disclosure requirements.”
“This reform package includes new disclosure requirements and stiffer penalties that will shine a light on what now is the shadowy intersection of government, lobbying and political consulting,” the Democrat said in a statement.
Heastie said the initiatives would help by “limiting the influence of outside money in our elections and taking pensions away from corrupt public officials.”
Susan Lerner of Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog group, countered: “There are good things here. It’s just not an ethics reform bill.”
Often referred to as “Albany” in political shorthand, state government perennially has been criticized as in need of reform. But the criticism gained more currency in the last year because of Bharara’s investigations.
The convictions of Skelos and Silver revolved around payments and campaign contributions from companies that did state business.
Bharara also launched a probe of Cuomo’s economic development initiatives, putting high-profile projects in Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and elsewhere under the spotlight. The governor has portrayed the probe as focused on his former closest aide and a lobbyist who once worked for him. Federal investigators haven’t characterized the limits of the inquiry. No one yet has been accused of wrongdoing.
But the investigations intensified the call for government overhauls.
“It’s been about abuse of power,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). He said the state’s political structure — which concentrates power in the hands of three people, the governor, the leader of the Senate and the Assembly speaker — needs to be changed to include more lawmakers.
“How much more evidence do you need that you have to put this place on its ear?” Kolb said.
With Michael Gormley