By Assemblyman Will Barclay
A number of years ago, when asked about an ethics overhaul of the State executive branch, Governor Cuomo responded that such an overhaul wasn’t necessary because the ethical problems were in the state legislature.
At the time, one could say that was true.
The state legislature had been buffeted with scandal after scandal which reached its apex with the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Sadly, however, the Governor’s claim regarding the executive branch’s immunity to ethical problems was blown apart with the recent arrest of nine people across the state, including two tops aides to the Governor and a lobbyist who at one time worked for Governor Cuomo and who had close ties to the executive branch.
The alleged crimes those men are facing are similar to the crimes that have ensnared several legislators over the last decade—that is, using state money and programs to indirectly enrich themselves.
In the legislature, these crimes often involved legislators directing state money to not-for-profits that they either directly or indirectly controlled and enriching themselves in the process by drawing large “salaries” from the not-for-profits for themselves, their significant others, or relatives.
In the recent cases involving the executive branch, it is alleged, among other things, that at least one of the Governor’s close aides was accepting bribes in exchange for exerting influence on state contracts and another was rigging state bids for favored developers who also happened to be large campaign contributors to the Governor.
There are no shortages of ideas on how to stop the corruption in Albany ranging from making the state legislature full-time to public financing of campaigns for all elected state offices.
Unfortunately, many ideas on reform are being pushed by groups that have their own agendas and who believe that the enactment of the so-called reforms would help them enact their agendas.
Sadly, the one reform that would most successfully combat corruption in Albany is the one that up until now has gotten the least amount of attention and that is, transparency.
In the legislature, legislative leaders have the ability to provide favored members large amounts of money to be used by those legislators for projects or programs in their districts.
While in some cases, the money and the project is lined out in the state budget, in many cases money comes from various pots of money that even the most seasoned state budget analyst would have difficulty understanding or tracking.
Further, there are no rules on how this money is distributed to legislators and few rules on how this money is ultimately spent.
This, of course, is why so many legislators have been able to direct money to organizations that ultimately ended up personally enriching those legislators.
A common sense reform would be to institute rules regarding how much each legislator receives for projects or programs in his or her district and how that money can be spent.
In addition, all projects or programs that a legislator is advocating to provide money to should be clearly delineated for public review, before the money is disbursed.
Transparency most likely also would have prevented the recent corruption that is being alleged involving the executive branch.
These alleged crimes are largely surrounding the Governor’s upstate revitalization plans—which essentially entails using huge amounts of public dollars for private development projects.
For whatever reason, when providing this economic development money—such as the Buffalo Billion—to the executive branch for the upstate revitalization, the legislature attached few strings to the money.
The oversight of the projects and the money that funds them has been run through two quasi-governmental entities that are subject to little oversight and no transparency.
This in turn has allowed one high ranking aide to Governor Cuomo and a lobbyist with strong ties to the Governor to allegedly rig bids so favored developers won.
This bid rigging appears to be so blatant that not only did the preferred developers win the projects, but they were the only entities that could even bid on the projects because of the bidding criteria.
It is incumbent upon the legislature this upcoming session to reassert oversight on the state’s economic development program and ensure that economic development decisions are made in a fully transparent manner.
When it comes to fighting corruption in Government, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said it best when he said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Transparency isn’t some new complex idea.
It is a common sense solution and something that Albany needs a lot more of.
If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.
My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.