Opinion & Blogs

New York lawmakers go home after doing the Capitol Sidestep on ethics

The New York State Capitol in Albany, Jan. 17, 2018. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)

It really is incredible. Even as a bid-rigging trial of one of the state’s largest economic development projects was taking place and a corruption retrial of one of their former leaders was just getting underway, members of the New York state Legislature let another session fall by the wayside without passing any sort of ethics reform. 

It should have been a year of reckoning, especially with numerous corruption trials involving former legislative heads and a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Yet lawmakers left Albany last week for the rest of the year with no progress and even less interest than ever in combating the corruption that has rocked the capitol in recent years. 

Since this legislative session began on Jan. 3, these events have taken place. Longtime Cuomo confidant Joseph Percoco was convicted of taking bribes in return for using his influence in the administration to do favors for businesses. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted for the second time of bribery and extortion. Assemblywoman Pamela Harris pleaded guilty to stealing money from FEMA. 

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned due to allegations of abusing women. One of the governor’s signature economic initiatives is wrapped in scandal. And Dean Skelos, the fifth state Senate majority leader in a row to be indicted, is on trial again for arranging a $78,000-a-year job for his son, who sometimes would not show for work. 

Nothing to see here, the lawmakers say. We’ve got to get home because it’s an election year. 

Just like watching a burning house while holding a water hose, state legislators continue to fail at fixing the problem that they alone can fix. 

They still haven’t closed the LLC loophole, which allows big donors and special interests to circumvent the state’s campaign finance laws and funnel millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice. The Democratic-led Assembly has passed several bills that would close the loophole but the Senate continuously ignores it. 

They still haven’t agreed to ban lawmakers from earning outside income, which they all do when not in session. Jobs back in their home districts have the potential to create conflicts of interest with their governmental duties and create opportunities for corrupt bargains. Indeed, several of the most recent corruption cases were rooted in legislators’ jobs outside of Albany. 

They still haven’t moved to make the Legislature a full-time job. This would prevent any need for outside income and avoid the drama of secret negotiations and rushed votes on unread bills that we see at the end of June every year. 

They still haven’t enacted any kind of term limits, which would prevent lawmakers from becoming too entrenched in power for too long and embolden their authority to abuse the office. The Republican-led state Senate has several times passed legislation that would put eight-year term limits on leadership roles in both chambers. But the Assembly ignores it. 

They still haven’t established an independent ethics commission to investigate and remove the dirty weeds from government — a commission whose members are not appointed by legislative leaders or the governor. 

Instead, both chambers passed a bill that would create a commission to investigate district attorneys. It’s not a bad idea in principle to have a watchdog looking over the watchdogs, but guess who investigates corrupt politicians? District attorneys. And guess who will appoint the members of this new commission? Politicians, particularly the governor and leaders of the Legislature. 

The commission, which comes with broad powers, could very well have a chilling effect on prosecutors’ independence and willingness to go after cases that they may be scrutinized for. Now, when a state official is accused by a prosecutor of doing something illegal, that official has the option to order that prosecutor be investigated for misconduct. 

The move is not entirely surprising, since a large part of convicted state politicians’ defense has been to blame “overzealous” and “over-reaching” prosecutors seeking out bribery and extortion that they claim is not a crime, but a normal part of the governing process. 

It is very sad that the same Legislature that has shown absolutely no eagerness to police themselves of their own ethics is extremely concerned with the ethics of others. 

So not only are they holding a water hose while watching a burning house, but they believe the more immediate emergency is that there’s something wrong with the water. 

These same lawmakers are now making their way back home to campaign on what bills they’ve passed and how much money they’ve secured for their districts. They might even have the gall to mutter some useless rhetoric on corruption. 

But in government, the actions clearly show that these lawmakers have no interest in cleaning up public service. 

It doesn’t matter who gets arrested, convicted and thrown in prison. It doesn’t matter that more than 90 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a serious problem. It doesn’t matter that it’s an election year and it doesn’t matter which party controls which chamber or the executive mansion. Year after year, we’re shown that ethics reform is not a priority. 

Maybe next year? That’s funny.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” online and follow his updates on Twitter.

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