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Ethics measures stall in Albany despite corruption convictions

The conviction of ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is only the latest in a string of public-corruption scandals.

Dean Skelos, center, leaves federal court in Manhattan

Dean Skelos, center, leaves federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday. Photo Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

ALBANY — Even by New York State government standards, 2018 has been unprecedented in its wave of public-corruption scandals and criminal convictions.

Since March, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s former top aide, his point man in some high-profile high-tech projects, the former speaker of the state Assembly, and, just this week, the ex-leader of the State Senate have all been convicted on charges involves conspiracy, bribery and bid-rigging.

And that is just the most-known cases. Former rank-and-file legislators have been convicted of illegally funneling campaign money and covering up making unwanted sexual advances to a female staffer. Another has been indicted on a charge of allegedly illegally pocketing hurricane recovery funds.

Yet Cuomo and lawmakers have failed to adopt any of a raft of ethics measures called for by watchdog groups, including toughening oversight of state contracts, eliminating a loophole that allows companies to ignore campaign-contribution limits, and appointing an independent monitor for ethics and election laws.

“I’ve been here a long time and, as far as I can tell, this is an unprecedented string of convictions,” said Blair Horner, who has been monitoring state government for the New York Public Interest Research Group for 33 years.

But instead of taking action, lawmakers are looking the other way and hoping the public is too distracted by the upheaval in Washington to take notice, he said.

“I mean, it really is a black mark and the governor and legislative leaders are doing everything they can to disavow it,” Horner said. “I think what they’re hoping for is the president’s antics keep everyone distracted and nobody focuses on Albany.”

The latest conviction occurred Tuesday, when a jury found ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre guilty of conspiracy, extortion and bribery for shaking down three companies to provide no-show or low-show jobs for his son, Adam, who also was convicted.

The list includes former top Cuomo adviser Joseph Percoco, ex-state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros.

“One has to wonder: What is the breaking point here in New York?” Ron Deutsch, of the labor-backed Fiscal Policy Institute, said. “How many scandals, how many indictments, how many convictions do we have to get before we get any real reforms?”

His group has pushed for increased oversight of state contracts — which Cuomo loosened in 2011 in the name of reducing red tape, he said then — and a ban on political contributions from a company that wins state grants and contracts. Advocacy groups also have criticized the state ethics commission’s lack of independence and called for reining in companies’ ability to make campaign contributions.

Asked Wednesday about the lack of major reforms, Cuomo aide Dani Lever said: “Governor Cuomo and the legislature have passed ethics reform packages five out of the last eight years — but there is undeniably more to do.” She said Republicans had “stonewalled” broad reforms.

Senate Republicans have countered they approved tougher contract oversight measures — which were blocked by Cuomo and Democrats. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) didn’t immediately comment Wednesday.

Cuomo has proposed a series of ethics laws — mostly aimed at the legislative branch but not the executive, such as banning outside incomes for legislators. He supported public financing of campaigns, but did not put much political muscle behind it, critics said. Following the Kaloyeros conviction, the governor said no law is going to completely stop criminal behavior.

“Can you stop people from doing venial things? No. Can you stop people doing criminal things? No,” the governor said, adding about the SUNY corruption: “I don’t know what I would have done differently at the time.”

Part of the reason politicians have not acted is that they don’t pay a price in public-opinion polls or the ballot, said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, an advocacy group. Lack of action on corruption doesn’t seem to sink a candidate.

“Things are not changing,” he said. “That’s pretty self-evident.”

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