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On eve of corruption trials, Albany quiet on ethics reforms

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touched on ethics reform

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touched on ethics reform in his State of the State address on Jan. 3, 2018. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — In a year that will see six corruption trials of former top state and local officials, ethics reform in Albany so far features mostly old proposals previously blocked by the State Legislature.

In Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 10,705-word State of the State speech last week, he devoted 284 words to ethics reform.

“I know the Legislature feels that we have done much on ethics reform, and they are right,” Cuomo said in the 92-minute speech that sets the 2018 legislative agenda. “I know they feel that whatever we do, it will never be enough in this political atmosphere and they may be right, but we must do more anyway.”

Cuomo’s proposals include term limits, highly popular in public opinion polls, banning outside income for legislators, and closing the limited liability company (LLC) loopholes that allow corporations to far exceed corporate limits on campaign donations.

These and other Cuomo ethics proposals have been rejected by the legislature in the past or dropped during closed-door budget negotiations, when state law gives Cuomo extraordinary leverage over legislative leaders to insert policy into the spending plan.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the Democrat “has advanced, championed and passed reforms virtually every year, including ‎landmark transparency reforms.”

But the Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic majority said they remain ideologically opposed to term limits, which legislators argue voters are already empowered to exercise at every election. The Senate GOP has also refused to accept Cuomo’s proposed ban on outside income as violating legislators’ rights to provide for their families.

“I don’t see us changing where we are,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said last week after Cuomo’s State of the State speech. “You need an agreement on both houses of the legislature. The Senate has a difference of opinion, we have a different opinion.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) has argued that New Yorkers aren’t focused on ethics reform, but instead demand action on jobs, lower taxes and creating a more affordable state.

Legislators in each house also bristle at the annual calls for ethics reform, prompted, they say, by the bad acts of a relatively few members. They also note some victories. One is a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November that allows judges to strip some or all of the public pension of officials convicted of corruption, although judges may consider some additional circumstances such as the financial pain inflicted on the official’s family. They also have adopted measures annually that require more disclosure of finances and bolster state enforcement efforts.

Good-government advocates warn Cuomo may have signaled in his State of the State message that it will be another year when he will be unable or unwilling to push for major ethics reform.

“The governor is the political King Kong of Albany,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s up to the governor to force the issue, to force the legislature to deal with it . . . but we need the governor to take the lead.”

Said Ben Gershman of Pace University Law School, “It is regrettable, although not surprising, that the governor did not speak more forcefully about it.”

“Virtually all of the claimed improvements to New York ethics laws over the years, including the pension law, are a hodgepodge of marginal, technical and insignificant rules that would have only a meager impact on regulating conduct of public and political officials,” Gershman said. “Lawmakers know that the public’s demand for action is transitory, and the public loses interest quickly.”

Gershman said incumbents may feel more secure in avoiding tough ethics reform this year after the November referendum in which voters, following a multimillion-dollar ad campaign by public worker unions allied with legislators, soundly rejected a constitutional convention that advocates had argued could mandate ethics reforms long blocked in Albany.

More than 30 officials have been driven out of office over the past decade after investigations in what Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) called “the golden age of corruption in Albany.” Kolb, who has sought and failed to get many ethics measures to the Democratic-controlled floor of the Assembly, is running for governor.

It may be hard, however, for Cuomo and legislators in this election year to ignore the daily headlines of corruption trials of their former colleagues that will paint a bleak picture of Albany. That’s the flickering hope for 2018 by many good-government advocates.

“A string of trials that keeps the issue before the public could greatly increase the pressure on the legislature to act,” said Albert W. Alschuler of Northwestern University Law School.

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