ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — At a time when New York state government’s ethical lapses are ridiculed nationwide, the major candidates for governor have proposals to take on long-growing concerns. Whether either idea will work is another question.
Democrat Andrew Cuomo promises to imprison those who commit crimes and points to a list of malefactors–Republican and Democrats–he prosecuted to back it up.
“If you break the law, you put people in jail,” Cuomo said Monday during the campaign’s only debate.
Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, said that decades ago Albany was a model for other state capitals. “Now, it’s a national embarrassment,” he said.
But Republican Carl Paladino asks whether Cuomo, of the party that controls state government and a capital figure for more than two decades, will actually police Albany.
“For four years, he’s been the chief prosecutor of the most corrupt state government in America. Now he wants to be governor?” Paladino said. “Well, Andrew, we don’t believe you.”
Since the last governor’s election four years ago:
- Comptroller Alan Hevesi was convicted of misusing staff and faces more charges related to his management of the pension.
- Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal.
- Former Republican Senate leader Joseph Bruno was convicted on a corruption charge, and current Democratic Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada is being investigated by federal and state agencies.
- The Senate expelled Sen. Hiram Monserrate after he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend.
- Gov. David Paterson, Senate leader John Sampson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were accused by the inspector general last week of manipulating a bidding process for political benefit.
Paladino’s solution is to hire a special investigator to delve into the Legislature. He would also require lawmakers to reveal sources of outside income and their clients, including law clients of the powerful Silver and Sampson, to guard against conflicts of interest. He would limit legislators to eight years.
Cuomo says Paladino’s plan violates the constitutional protection that keeps one branch of government from controlling another.
While investigations may catch some of the worst cases, they’re no substitute for an ethical climate that fights wrongdoing in addition to illegal behavior that violates the public’s trust, said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York.
The answer, she said, is a powerful, independent ethics enforcement board that has jurisdiction over all branches of government, the way several other states do. Currently, the executive branch is overseen by a board dominated by the governor’s appointees; lawmakers appoint the legislative ethics board.
“The Legislature continues to insist that nobody other than the Legislature can have oversight of the Legislature,” Lerner said. “That’s why we keep having ethics oversight by indictment.”
Cuomo devotes just one paragraph to a new ethics mechanism in his campaign’s “Clean Up Albany” policy book. He promises to “establish an independent state ethics commission with robust enforcement powers to investigate and punish violations.” He also calls for changes in campaign finance laws.
But even Cuomo’s written plans are vague and avoid the key question: How to get the Legislature to agree.
Each candidate’s plan, as with many of their other policy proposals, pales in comparison with the detailed positions offered in the governor’s race four years ago, when Spitzer and Republican John Faso publicly discussed and debated them.
“I think (Cuomo) is very capable of doing all the things that he says he will do, and we’ll hold him accountable,” said Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City and now head of the reform group New York Uprising. He has endorsed Cuomo.
Poor ethics enforcement is costly. Spending and taxing decisions have long been tied to political and personal benefit in Albany, with New Yorkers picking up the tab, and voters are starting to notice. Wednesday’s Siena College poll found a record 52 percent of New Yorkers prefer “someone else” to their own state senator in the chamber considered most dysfunctional.
“I think the state Legislature is going to be terrified after the results of this year,” Koch said.
Reform by a new governor’s will alone hasn’t worked in a long time, perhaps not since Alfred E. Smith in the 1920s.
Four years ago, Spitzer won the governor’s office by a historic margin, and one party–the Democrats–was finally in charge of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature. That was supposed to end years of partisan finger-pointing as a handy excuse to avoid real ethics reform.
But even in Spitzer’s brief honeymoon and at the peak of his power, he managed to get only a weakened bill through the Legislature. The ethics board it created is now widely criticized. In January, the Legislature approved its own ethics reform; it was vetoed by Paterson as too weak.
“So, if you are an individual legislator, what is the answer?” Lerner said. “The bottom line is the system has been set up to protect you and that protection works.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)