Cuomo Is an Ethics Reform False Prophet

After running to clean up Albany,
governor keeps going about it the wrong way

Cuomo-holds-up-book-900x0-c-default

“King Cuomo” is a popular derogatory on-the-street nickname used by those who are harsh critics of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, referencing their feelings of his overreach in state policy.

Take that as you will. But when it comes to the throne of concrete ethics reform, this king has abdicated.

“If we didn’t get it done in the budget, it means you didn’t have the political will to get it done,” the governor recently told reporters at an Easter eve reception. “Ethics reform, for example, I don’t see that happening with this Legislature.”

Wow. That’s a vastly different tone than the one we heard just five months ago.

In laying out his proposal for an ethics package in January, Cuomo said “we have been doing historic work at the state level — the government is doing more than ever before — but imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do — and I am not going to stop until I get there.”

Well, he hasn’t gotten there. So why is he stopping?

We see this charade every single year. The governor comes out and makes a lot of noise about the need for ethics reform and how it’s going to happen this year. Then when budget time comes around, and especially after, he shrugs his shoulders with the “I’ve done all I can do” look and shakes his finger at the Legislature.

Never mind that 40 state officials have been accused or convicted of corruption since 2000. Never mind that the two leaders of the Legislature — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — were both sentenced last year on corruption charges. Never mind that nine of Cuomo’s own aides are preparing for trial on charges of bribery and bid-rigging in connection with the governor’s economic development projects. And never mind that a November poll found 97 percent of New Yorkers considered combating public corruption a top priority.

Sorry, everyone. Cuomo has apparently moved on.

That’s disappointing for a governor who claimed he’d be the champion to clean up Albany in his first campaign in 2010.

But it’s not surprising either, because he keeps going about it the wrong way.

Cuomo can’t seem to understand that in order for a cleaner government in this state to exist, he must lead the charge. And to do so, he needs to know when it’s best to be involved and when it’s best to step back. Incredibly, he has been successful at neither.

While he gives us the impression that his proposals can’t get through the Legislature, we know he can actually flex his political muscles and get them to follow along if he wants something bad enough. He was able to push the controversial SAFE Act through using a late-night “message of necessity” with no hearings, no testimony and no time for opponents to make a case against it. Many people thought Cuomo’s plan for a $15 minimum wage could never get past Senate Republicans or that no one could all agree on a paid family leave program.

This year he got his prized free tuition plan through, the go-ahead for Uber upstate and approval to raise the age of those who can be tried in adult court from 16 to 18, just as he asked. And despite a heavy outcry from the Legislature about Cuomo’s budget giving the executive too much power, they still approved a lot of it, including giving Cuomo more authority on the state budgeting process itself.

Yes, it’s the Legislature that must pass ethics reform in the end, but that hardly means Cuomo is merely a bench warmer until then. And it’s not that Cuomo shouldn’t be given credit for trying. His proposals provide sound remedies, like putting restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, initiating term limits and closing the LLC loophole.

But each year he makes clear where his priorities lie. After saying ethics will be his main concern, it instead becomes Uber or the Raise the Age initiative and ethics get kicked down the road once again.

If Cuomo really wanted reform, he would actually make it a priority. If he really wanted it as bad as he says, he’d make use of his leverage over the Legislature to make it happen. Sadly, this never seems to be the case.

Where the governor is involved in cleaning up Albany is just as troubling and ineffective. He created the “independent” Joint Commission on Public Ethics in 2011 to oversee government. Yet all of its members are decided by leaders in the Legislature and the governor himself. The current executive director, Seth H. Agata, is the third person to hold that position, and the third person in that position who was previously a top aide to — guess who — Gov. Cuomo.

Though not legally wrong, on its face, the appointment of government insiders by government insiders makes the commission by no means “independent” and makes its efficiency almost laughable.

Then there’s the infamous Moreland Commission, another “independent” group created by Cuomo in 2013 that would investigate possible corruption in Albany. That commission existed for only a few months because Cuomo had it shut down when his office discovered the commission was investigating him. His reasoning? It was “his.”

“It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission,” he told Crain’s New York Business. “I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”

Boy, nothing wrong with that.

Now Cuomo opposes legislation that would let the state comptroller examine state contracts before his administration can approve them. But Cuomo wants to use his proposal, which creates new inspectors general and special prosecutors.

But guess who would appoint those prosecutors? Him.

For whatever reason, Cuomo cannot comprehend the meaning of “independence” or that actual independent committees or individuals would fare better at fighting corruption.

If Cuomo re-strategized how he approached the ethics reform roadblock — using a heavy hand but also knowing when to keep his hands off — he might actually get passed needed legislation and be the champion to clean up Albany he keeps promising he will be.

But it looks like he’s no longer interested. He “doesn’t see that happening.” He’s essentially given up, which means that he is satisfied with the status quo of watered down proposals that have already been passed that will do little, while it’s only a matter of time before another state official’s arrest makes headlines.

Well, we’re not satisfied. So neither should he.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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