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Legislature returns amid more scandals

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The New York State legislature has been on a three week break. In their absences, federal investigations into aides close to Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor  Bill deBlasio have intensified, spurring even more calls for reform.

The legislature returns next Tuesday for the final push in a session that ends in late June, as two burgeoning corruption scandals in both Governor Cuomo’s and New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio’s administration widen. Also, both former leaders of the legislature will be sentenced in the next few days on multiple felony convictions.

Common Cause’s Susan Lerner says all that should be more than enough impetus to make some ethics changes.

“We can’t just have the US Attorney be the cop on the beat when there are no systemic changes,” Lerner said.  “That’s not the way to end the problem.” 

In the past few years, lawmakers have enacted incremental reforms, like requiring more detailed disclosure of their outside income, or rules changes in the Assembly to curb abuse of expense accounts. Lerner say in the present climate,  tinkering around the edges of the problems facing Albany would be unacceptable.

“That would be a huge failure,” said Lerner. “It would be a systemic failure of all of our elected officials at the state level.”

The US Attorney and   Manhattan DA are investigating whether the office of New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio knowingly violated campaign contribution laws by funneling donations for some upstate Senate races through county committees. The county committees can accept donations that are 10 times higher than the limits on an individual Senate candidate.

Governor Cuomo’s close associate and former top aid Joe Percoco is reportedly the target of a probe, also by US Attorney Preet Bharara, on whether he illegally accepted money from firms involved in Cuomo’s wide ranging economic development programs, including projects relating to the Buffalo Billion. The head of SUNY Polytechnic and a lobbyist who used to work for Andrew Cuomo, as well as his father, are also being investigated.

Governor Cuomo proposed ethics reforms in his state budget, including the forfeiture of the pensions of lawmakers who are convicted of felonies, and closing a campaign finance loophole that allows donors to create multiple Limited Liability Companies to circumvent legal donation limits. 

But the governor dropped the proposals in late March, saying he would push for the items instead in the second half of the session. He notes all 213 legislative seats are up for election this year.

“My two cents is I would not want to run for election after the legislative scandals we’ve had without having shown the people of the state that I’ve learned the lesson,” Cuomo said in late March.

Cuomo, who has already announced his own internal probe into potential wrongdoing in his administration,  may have to add items to that agenda to reform some practices in the executive branch, to show that he, also “learned a lesson ” from the scandal.  The governor backed off from an initial proposal to strictly limit outside income by legislators. That was before his own former top aid was under investigation for possibly taking illegal payments.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says real ethics changes will happen only if Cuomo himself makes a strong push, as the governor did when he successfully won passage of an increased minimum wage and partial paid family leave in the new budget.

“Whether or not Albany start to clean up its act rests almost entirely on whether the governor is willing to use his political muscle to make it happen,” Horner said.

Horner says the probe involving Cuomo aides may “tarnish the governor’s white night status” now that the executive branch is also involved in scandal, but he says the troubles could also provide the governor with even more impetus to get something done.

Also on Monday, the election for the newest State Senator was certified. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat, will fill the seat vacated by former Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Skelos is due to be sentenced on corruption convictions on May 12th.  Democrats now have the numerical majority in the Senate, but one Democratic Senator still sits with the Republicans, and five other Democrats are independent, and have formed this own caucus that has so far not joined forces with the other Democrats.

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.