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Gov. Andrew Cuomo undercuts his ethics efforts

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at Teamsters Local

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at Teamsters Local 282 on Feb. 8, 2018, in Lake Success. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It’s hard to pitch yourself as an ethics reformer when you keep narrowing the definition of who’s covered by your ethics reforms.

That’s the spot Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has put himself in with his tortured explanations of an executive order on campaign contributions. It was signed in 2007 by then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, tweaked by successor David A. Paterson, and renewed by Cuomo on his first day in office. The order bans campaign donations to a governor from most of his appointees and bars them from soliciting such donations. It’s a good rule. Appointees to boards and authorities often control millions of dollars via grants and contracts. There should be no hint of payoff for gaining that privilege.

But after reports that Cuomo has gotten nearly $900,000 from appointees and $1.3 million from their families and businesses, his administration said the rule applies only to appointees Cuomo can fire, not those he selects but who must also be confirmed by the State Senate to fixed terms. A few days later, another interpretation emerged: Appointees are not subject unless they have to file financial disclosures with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. That’s an even smaller group.

This doesn’t pass any test — smell, common sense or one given in kindergarten.

Every year Cuomo pitches, with varying degrees of exhortation, a package of ethics reforms. His 2018-19 budget proposal includes measures to institute public campaign financing, require local elected officials to make financial disclosures, and close a loophole that lets secretive limited liability companies make big campaign contributions. Bravo.

Cuomo should add a law based on the executive order that makes clear that all governor appointees, their families and businesses are banned from making or soliciting donations on his or her behalf. That would be a pitch worthy of a real ethics reformer.