Mail this story to a friend.          
NYSNYS NEWS: Albany corruption and ethical lapses have been a constant during five years of Cuomo's tenure, but 2016 session seems likely to end without any action his proposals to clean up state government.
NYSNYS NEWS: Albany corruption and ethical lapses have been a constant during five years of Cuomo's tenure, but 2016 session seems likely to end without any action his proposals to clean up state government.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 20) -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo got right to the point when he was sworn in on January 1, 2011, after four years that saw Gov. Eliot Spitzer quit in a prostitution scandal and Comptroller Alan Hevesi convicted on corruption charges involving the state pension fund.

"People all across the state, when you mention state government, (they are) literally shaking their heads," Cuomo said in his inaugural speech. "Worse than no confidence. What they're saying is, no trust. The words 'government in Albany' have become a national punch line. And the joke is on us."

Fast forward to 2016 and the joke is even nastier. With just four weeks left in the legislative session, hopes are fading for sweeping ethics reforms to address what Cuomo described in 2011 as "an integrity deficit."

"There's next to zero chance that there will be meaningful ethics reform in this session," John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said Friday.

"I don’t believe we’ll get the entire agenda," Cuomo told reporters this week. "I do believe that we will get some ethics reform."

Cuomo said it was "unrealistic" to think that reforms alone will stop corruption, given the size and scope of government in New York. “People are venal," Cuomo said. "Some people have bad intentions. Some people frankly are stupid. Things will happen."

What's important, Cuomo suggested, is using current law to catch and prosecute corrupt officials.

The remarks reflected the difficulties Cuomo has faced in trying to flush corruption from state government, and in the process "restoring the pride" in New York, as he said in the 2011 speech. "Making the government work, my friends, so people once again trust the government and trust the institution."

The Legislature's resistance to change has persisted even after the corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Still, Cuomo has managed to win approval of some ethics changes in his five years in office, starting with the passage of the Clean Up Albany Act of 2011 that established a new Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE). The agency has since come under fire as being under Cuomo's thumb.

While the Legislature has blocked many of reforms demanded by advocates, Kaehny and other advocates blame Cuomo for not pushing them to act hard enough, as he has demonstrated he can do time and again.

"I think that the governor could have done far more," Kaehny said. "It's absolutely accurate to say that both houses of the Legislature have resisted major ethics reforms. That's true. However, the Legislature has also resisted marriage equality and $15 minimum wage and paid family leave and the SAFE Act."

He said Cuomo is "hugely powerful" under the state Constitution and has many tools at his disposal to prod the Legislature. "To me the governor is very much blaming others for his own lack of action when it comes to ethics reform or government reform."

Kaehny acknowledged Cuomo has been weakened politically by the investigations swirling around some of his closest associates. His former right hand man and top aide Joseph Percoco is under investigation as is Todd Howe, a lobbyist with long personal ties to Cuomo and his late father Mario. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has served subpoenas on Cuomo's office and on SUNY CNSE Poly College, which is headed by Alain Kaloyeros. He is a key Cuomo operative on various economic development projects that have attracted the attention of prosecutors.

So far, neither Cuomo nor any of the others has been accused of any wrongdoing. The parameters of Bharara's investigation remain unclear.

As for the reforms that advocates say New York desperately need, Cuomo proposed several this year.

He proposed limiting the outside income of legislators to 15 percent of their base salary, a move that would curtail legislators from cashing in on their powerful jobs. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has been sentenced to 12 years in prison, was convicted of funneling bribes and kickback through a law firm that employed him.

Cuomo also proposed pension forfeiture for any legislator convicted of a crime related to their public duties. Both Silver and Skelos are in line to collect lucrative state pensions despite their crimes.

On campaign finance, Cuomo proposed ending the "LLC loophole," a Board of Elections sanctioned tactic that allows wealthy special interests to evade campaign donation limits by funneling the money through individual limited liability companies they control.

The LLC loophole figured into the convictions of both Silver and Skelos, with a company called Glenwood Management involved in both cases. Glenwood, a luxury real estate company in New York City, has given millions to political campaigns.

At the trials, it was revealed Glenwood funneled money to Skelos's son Adam and hired a law firm that subsequently paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Silver.

Cuomo also proposed tightening up rules governing lobbying, making the Legislature follow the FOIL freedom of information law, and enacting voluntary public financing of campaigns.