It should not go unnoticed, as lawmakers in Albany recess for the summer on Thursday, that they are leaving unfinished their obligation to have an earnest go at ethics reform. The tough task of revising laws meant to control officials’ conflicts, outside income, and ties to lobbyists and donors thus gets kicked past the next election. It's a work-maybe-not-in-progress.
That’s too bad, because the state government’s credibility among voters remains on the line. Those in charge should not wait for the next big scandal before delivering on promises of comprehensive action.
Gov. Kathy Hochul and both legislative houses did rework the structure of the long-criticized Joint Commission on Public Ethics as part of their earlier budget deal. That is a positive if minimalist improvement. They shrank the number of members who will belong to this new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government. Members will be screened by law school deans. The governor and Assembly and Senate leaders won’t pick a majority of the panel.
That's fine as far as it goes. But it will take time to see whether this adds up to rearranging deck chairs on a drifting ship. No specific controversies in the executive branch have been impressively resolved to the point where one could say, “Well, at least THAT won’t happen again.”
For example: The soon-to-be-defunct JCOPE is still entangled in court with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over its bid to confiscate millions of dollars in advance money from his ill-considered COVID-19 book deal. JCOPE said he used staff on government time to put it together. He denies it. Either way, the barn door looks ajar. Could an identical deal be made in the future if executive staff are not involved?
The legal lines of conduct also should be a lot brighter regarding the current governor’s spouse, William J. Hochul Jr. The governor did sign a recusal document that sets up clear barriers to his potential involvement in state decisions involving Delaware North, the hotel and casino company where he's a vice president. But the document comes out of her office, not an independent agency. There should be disinterested eyes on the matter.
As always, the governor and lawmakers draw big contributions from lobbyists and companies doing business with the state. Disclosure is routine, but the potential for abuse remains. They shouldn't just leave it at that. Only seven weeks ago, Brian Benjamin, Hochul's first lieutenant governor, quit under indictment in a campaign-financing scandal that involved state funding of a friend's nonprofit — a federal case.
Legal solutions are hard to achieve, but must be tried — especially in the legislature where too many of the state’s 213 Senate and Assembly members see only a thin border between their duties and their donors, friends and personal interests.
It would be wise to act in anticipation of the next scandal. One always crops up.
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