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NYS Board of Elections weakens its watchdog

New York State Board of Elections

When Albany created the post of Chief Enforcement Counsel to the New York State Board of Elections, it was supposed to be a breakthrough toward dealing with corruption in the state's often opaque Election Law. Since then, however, federal and state prosecutors have found systemic corruption in state government, especially the Legislature.

The Board of Elections Thursday dealt with that by weakening the powers of Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman. She is now required to handle subpoena requests through the politically appointed board.

New York Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Blair Horner said the position was created as a watchdog.

"At the time, good government groups complained that the independent counsel was not sufficiently independent, but we were assured at the time that the person would be free from any political pressure," Horner said. "Well, we've now learned that's not the case and that what little independence she was showing was enough to clip back her wings or knock out the few teeth she had as a watchdog."

So weakening Sugarman's powers, NYPIRG says, is exactly the wrong decision.

"They need more independence for the watchdogs, not more accountability to those that they are supposed to be regulating," said Horner. "In this case, the political parties did not like whatever she was doing and got together to gang up on her and cut back her powers.That shouldn't even happen. That shouldn't be on the table. The issue should be: are the watchdogs following the law and are they enforcing it without fear or favor?"

Horner is convinced the political parties worked together during the late stages of the budget battle to ensure both sides of the board would agree to cut Sugarman's power. Horner said board members must be worried.

"They must believe that she is acting too independently and they don't like it," he said. "Whether or not she is doing anything untoward or anything like that, I've never read anything like that in the paper, but from our perspective, she needs to be more aggressive not less and certainly she needs to be set up in a system that insulated her from political retribution, not one where she suffers from it."

Not only do the board members control the process by controlling what subpoenas are issued, they will now serve as an appeals court over the subpoenas and can quash what they agreed to issue.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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