ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is finding the tightrope he walks between being a reforming outsider and the consummate insider is a little tighter these days.
The Democrat, and son of former Gov Mario Cuomo, is taking heat for some of the longtime friends who have grown up with him in New York and are running the some of the special interests that he has vowed to rein in as Albany’s fiscal and ethical top dog.
The New York Times last week focused on the man many call Cuomo’s best friend, under a headline jarring to someone calling himself a reformer: “Advising Cuomo, Taking Health Industry’s Pay.” He is Jeffrey Sachs of Sachs Consulting, but he doesn’t register as a lobbyist, a step that would require disclosure of his clients to the state Public Integrity Commission.
Sachs was an usher at Cuomo’s wedding and now serves on Cuomo’s influential team of experts to reform Medicaid. He is also being paid by some of the state’s biggest hospitals trying to protect their Medicaid funding.
Sachs is one of many Cuomo friends he’s been with since his father’s administration in the 1980s, during his brief stint in private law practice, as housing secretary in the Clinton White House, and in his single term as state attorney general. Some have been given cabinet positions, others pop up as advisers on issues in their field.
None of this is illegal. Even Sachs, whose contact with the administration might in some way make him a lobbyist, could still register as one and avoid any penalties.
But is having the ear of the governor a conflict of interest in need of strict regulation, or does it go with the territory for someone in those upper levels where government and business mix?
“Nobody can answer that except the governor and Mr. Sachs,” said David Grandeau, the state’s former top enforcer for lobbying and now in private practice.
“Does the value of Mr. Sachs’ knowledge and comfort level with the governor outweigh the possible perception that his clients may be benefiting?” Grandeau said. “That exists any time you have powerful people in government. Unless you put our leaders in bubbles, friends will have access. And it’s up to them to decide where to stop.”
Sachs’ spokesman Jesse Derris said his boss has known Cuomo for 30 years “and is proud to call him a close friend.
“Dr. Sachs’ three-plus decades of creativity and problem solving relating to health care issues in the public and private sector makes him a sought-after expert in the health field in New York and nationally,” Derris said. “To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Jeff has frozen all contact on behalf of clients with state officials for the duration of the Cuomo administration.”
However, as Cuomo was fond of saying as attorney general when he targeted conflicts of interest and as governor when pushing an ethics law to require legislators to disclose private sector clients: “Self-policing is an oxymoron.”
“I take a friend’s advice, plus or minus, with a grain of salt,” Cuomo said Thursday, after acknowledging another longtime friend on his Medicaid reform task force. Michael Dowling worked in Cuomo’s father’s administration and now is CEO of the North Shore LIJ Health system. “I know their perspectives. Everyone has perspectives.”
Some have a problem with that, including the Center for Justice and Democracy, a medical consumer group critical of Cuomo’s Medicaid task force.
“It is clear for all to see that Mr. Sachs was influencing state policy to the benefit of paying clients,” said Joanne Doroshow of the group that opposes caps on medical malpractice judgments sought by Cuomo’s task force. “If you go to bed at night and there is no snow on the ground and then you wake up and find snow — you can safely conclude it snowed.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)