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Cuomo offers caution on ethics reform

WBFO News File Photo

Governor Cuomo continues to say that he will propose major reforms in the New Year, in the wake of the conviction of the two top legislative leaders on multiple corruption charges. But the governor, in a radio interview, says there’s only so far that he can go to reign in campaign donations.

Governor Cuomo says he wants to include major reforms in his State of the State agenda, after federal juries lost no time finding former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos and his son guilty of multiple corruption charges late in 2015.

But the governor, speaking on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer Show, says there’s only so far that he can go reforming the state’s flawed campaign donation laws. And he blames the US Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United, allowing unlimited independent expenditures, as the reason.

“You’re not going to get the money out of the system,” Cuomo said. “Because the federal law guarantees that with this Citizens United case that has institutionalized big, anonymous money.”

The reform group Common Cause disagrees with Cuomo’s assessment of the effects of the Citizens United ruling, and says there are steps that can be taken. In a statement, the group lists requiring full transparency for Independent Expenditure Committees, mandating that contributors have to list their occupation and their employer, and also require the source of bundled money donations. They say many of those rules already exist in New York City.

But Cuomo has said he will call for closure of a loophole in campaign finance laws, that allows donors to skirt the $5000 limit for businesses by disguising the donations through multiple Limited Liability Corporations. He spoke about that earlier in December, but offered no details.

LLC donations from a real estate development company known as Glenwood Management played a role in both corruption trials against the former legislative leaders. Glenwood officials, who were witnesses for the prosecution, testified that they felt coerced to give the money in exchange for favorable treatment in legislation. Governor Cuomo has also received money from Glenwood and its related LLC’s.  Recently, New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio gave back a donation from Glenwood.  Cuomo indicated, though,  that he does not plan to give his donations back, and he says he’s not influenced by campaign donors. The governor, on the Brian Lehrer show, said anybody who is swayed by the money should give up politics.

“If I believed that I could be  influenced by a million dollars or a thousand dollars or fifty dollars, then I’m in the wrong place and I should resign immediately,” Cuomo said.

The New York Public Interest Research Group’s Blair Horner says a law is not actually required for closing the LLC loophole. He says the State Board of Elections , which allowed the LLC’s to be exempt from contribution limits back in the 1990’s, could simply vote to rescind that rule.

“There’s nothing in the law that says this is the way it’s supposed to be,” Horner said. “This is just a tortured interpretation of the law by the State Board of Elections.”

The Board of Elections has been gridlocked over closing the LLC loophole. 

Horner says another area that needs reform is the ability of lawmakers to earn unlimited outside income. The issue of outside income factored heavily in the corruption cases. Former Speaker Silver was convicted of illegally gaining millions of dollars through arrangements with private law firms. Former Senate Leader Skelos’s son received tens of thousands of dollars for no show jobs arranged by campaign contributors, including Glenwood. Horner says private employment for lawmakers needs to be banned or severely curbed.

Some have called for a full time legislature. That would require a constitutional amendment. But he says a law could be passed right now to limit outside income, without having to change the structure of the legislature.

Cuomo has said he wants more disclosure of outside income. He’s also said he wants to expand the Freedom of Information Law.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.