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Attorney General criticizes Cuomo ethics reform plan

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An ethics reform proposal quietly circulated between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders for a possible special session that also could include a pay raise is getting blasted by the state’s attorney general as possibly unconstitutional.

Cuomo has been talking about reforming economic development contract awards in his administration, following federal criminal charges against nine people — one a former top aide — on bribery and bid-rigging charges in connection with the Buffalo Billion and other projects.

The governor has said “procurement reform” could be part of a special session before Dec. 31 that could also include a salary increase for lawmakers.

But one of those proposals is getting some blowback from the governor’s own lawyer, the state’s attorney general.

Part of Eric Schneiderman’s job is to defend the state in court. But in this case, Schneiderman, in a letter to the governor and legislative leaders obtained by public radio, said a plan to create a “criminal special prosecutor for state procurement” is “likely unconstitutional.”

Schneiderman said the “scheme violates the fundamental checks-and-balances principle that underlies” the State Constitution, and the new position would be insufficiently independent since it would be controlled by the governor himself.

Schneiderman pointed out that the state comptroller was supposed to have monitored the economic development contracts, but he was stripped of those powers by the governor and Legislature in 2011.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said when negotiations like those on procurement reform are conducted out of public view, bad decisions can be made.

“If what we’re hearing is true, this could be Albany at its worst,” Horner said. “Cooking up major policy initiatives completely in secret and then banging them through with virtually no opportunity for the public to weigh in.”

As for the actual proposal, though, Horner said it probably couldn’t hurt, but would not be the cure for the corruption that erupted under the old system of awarding contracts.

“It’s in the chicken soup category,” he said.

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said the proposal “would be in addition to all other efforts and can only be a positive.” He pointed out that just in the last couple of days, there was another example of failure in the current system of oversight when U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged a former portfolio manager in the state’s pension fund, which is overseen by the state comptroller, with running a bribery scheme.

And he said the proposal for the criminal procurement prosecutor is modeled after a post that already exists to oversee potential crimes committed in the state’s care of the disabled, and that post has withstood legal challenges.

Dick Dadey with the reform group Citizens Union urged lawmakers to slow down. He said there’s plenty of time when the new session begins on Jan. 4 to craft a well-thought-out remedy to the Capitol’s corruption problems. He said a special session that also would include a salary increase for legislators raises the specter of a “pay-to-play” type of deal.

“That kind of quid pro quo should not be part of our governing,” Dadey said. “I find it distasteful.”

Lawmakers have not ruled out returning in the final days of the year to hold the special session.

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.