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Cuomo proposes new anti-corruption measures

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, district attorneys

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, district attorneys and the governors council hold a press conference on corruption at Governor Cuomo's New York City office in Manhattan. (April 09, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Tuesday proposed creating three new state laws to help root out public corruption and empower the state's 62 district attorneys to investigate the problem.

The initiatives come after criminal charges were filed last week by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against a state senator, an assemblyman, a New York City councilman and two suburban officials. "I want to strike while the iron is hot," Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a news conference that included Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

The new laws, Cuomo said, would enable district attorneys to "follow the money" and make it easier to prosecute people who offer bribes to public officials -- and those who take them. Scheming to corrupt the government would become a crime, as would a public servant's failure to report public corruption -- a proposed misdemeanor. The proposals require legislative approval, which the governor wants this session.

"In some ways this is nothing new and in some ways that's what makes it worse," Cuomo said of the recent criminal cases, which involve Republicans and Democrats.

The proposals also would stiffen penalties for breaking existing laws. These would apply to offenses including fraud, theft and money laundering, "when it involved stealing from the government," said Cuomo's general counsel, Mylan Denerstein. In addition, individuals convicted under the new act would be barred from holding office or doing business with the state as a fiduciary or principal, she said.

Legislative leaders stopped short of endorsing the plan. Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he was working with the governor and reviewing the proposals. Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said he looked forward to working with Cuomo, the Assembly and district attorneys "to root out corruption wherever it exists." The other co-leader, Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, called the governor's proposals "a good first step" in stopping corruption "dead in its tracks."

Last week, federal prosecutors charged state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis), a Republican New York City councilman, two Republican county leaders and two others in an alleged bribery scheme to get Smith a spot in the GOP mayoral primary this fall. Two days later, they charged Assemb. Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) with taking bribes and offering to write legislation to protect certain owners of adult day-care homes from competition.

While Cuomo on Monday tried to cast the cases as New York City-based, he said also he wanted to look at tightening campaign-finance laws and eliminating the practice of allowing a political party to give its ballot line to someone from another party.

Cuomo Tuesday raised the possibility of switching to a full-time legislature whose members would be more highly paid, to help reduce the potential for conflicts of interest.

Cuomo also noted that the state already has enacted a new ethics law and set up the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University law professor, said that while improving the "clarity" of state laws and increasing penalties could help fight corruption, one of the most crucial aspects in this battle is the appetite prosecutors have for these investigations. "Prosecutorial will and interest across the state remains the most important piece we are waiting for," he said.

Officials with the New York Public Interest Research Group praised Cuomo's initiatives but questioned why he wasn't boosting the state attorney general's powers. "This is an area where you really can't have too many cops on the beat," said Gene Russianoff, NYPIRG senior staff attorney.

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