New York State’s Ethical Crisis: What Is Governor Cuomo Going To Do About It?

Emma Maceko, Albany Government Law Review Member

Introduction

New York State’s newly elected Governor, Andrew Cuomo, delivered his first State of the State address on January 5, 2011, in front of over two thousand people at Albany’s Convention Center.  During this address, he bluntly stated that “[t]his is a time of crisis for our state.”[1] No one can deny that the State of New York is in dire straits, plagued by a number of serious and controversial problems in need of immediate attention.  Although issues like the State’s current ten billion dollar budget deficit[2] and its high unemployment rate dominated Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address and have also stolen much of the media spotlight, the issue of ethical reform within the state government is one of great importance that should not be overlooked.

Ethical reform is an issue that has been getting a lot of attention all over the country, especially here in New York State.  Governor Cuomo addressed this issue in his State of the State address amid his discussion about reinventing the state government.  Governor Cuomo must approach ethical reform head on, and how he handles it will likely be critical to the success of his administration.  The people of New York State have lost confidence in their government.  Over the past few years, New York State politicians at all levels of government have made headline after headline for being at the center of high-profile political scandals, scandals that have resulted in a growing sense of distrust and disillusionment toward the government and other public institutions.[3] Governor Cuomo made cleaning up Albany a key campaign pledge, but what is it that he is proposing and how can future abuses by state politicians be prevented?

I. Ethical Oversight in New York State

Currently, New York State has two main ethics oversight bodies: the Legislative Ethics Commission and the Commission on Public Integrity.[4] The Legislative Ethics Commission is the oversight body for the State Senate and State Assembly.  It was formed in 2007 by the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act.[5] This legislation
“expanded the former Legislative Ethics Committee” and expanded its oversight obligations and abilities.[6] The Commission’s “duties include the administration and enforcement of the provisions of [ ] Public Officers Laws [the ethical laws for the State of New York as they apply to] members and employees of the legislature and candidates for state legislative office.”[7] The Public Officers Laws regulate a wide range of activities, including but not limited to financial disclosures, business and professional activities inside and outside of the government, conflicts of interest, and the receipt of gifts or other professional distinctions.[8] The Commission is authorized to issue advisory opinions and adjudicate violations of the Public Officers Laws, which are accompanied by various penalties.[9] The Commission is compromised of nine members: five non-legislative members and four legislative members selected by members of the legislature who are in leadership positions.[10]

The Commission on Public Integrity, on the other hand, is tasked with overseeing and enforcing the State’s lobbying and executive ethics and lobbying laws, “as well as the State’s anti-nepotism law and laws pertaining to certain political activities and improper influence.”[11] This Commission was also established in 2007 by the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act.[12] It was preceded by the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying and the New York State Ethics Commission.  These two commissions were consolidated by the 2007 Ethics Reform Act to create the Commission on Public Integrity.[13] The Commission’s stated mission is to “insure compliance with the ethical standards that public officials and lobbyists must observe in order to ensure public trust and confidence in government.”[14] It has the right to levy fines or penalties on those found to be in violation of one of the State’s ethics laws.[15] The Commission on Public Integrity regulates many of the same activities as the Legislative Ethics Commission, including financial disclosures and restrictions on the activities of current and former state officers and employees.[16]

During their short lifespan, both of these oversight bodies have been the subjects of strong criticism from sources both inside and outside of the government.  Both Commissions have been accused of being light on enforcement and, with respect to the Commission on Public Integrity, operating inefficiently.[17] Many have blamed the fact that these oversight bodies do not have sufficient resources to do their job effectively, a problem recently raised by former Chairman of the Commission on Public Integrity Michael Cherkasky.[18] Whatever the source of the problem, the laundry list of political scandals that have plagued the Empire State in recent years is evidence that reforms are desperately needed.[19]

II. Cuomo’s Proposals

Governor Cuomo’s office has not yet released the details of his ethics proposal that will be submitted to the Legislature.  However, over the course of his campaign and during the State of the State address, Cuomo has discussed a number of ethical reform proposals that he would like to see enacted during his first year in office.  There are four proposals that he appears to be heavily stressing: the establishment of a unitary independent ethics commission; publicly financed campaigns and strict limits of campaign donations; increased transparency for both lawmakers and lobbyists; and a redistricting of congressional and state legislative districts.

The proposed unitary ethics committee would do away with the dual ethics oversight system that is present in New York today.  The Legislative Ethics Commission and the Commission of Public Integrity would be consolidated into a single entity that would “have jurisdiction over legislative and executive branch officials and lobbyists”.[20] Blair Horner, the legislative director of government watchdog group NYPIRG, has stated that this unitary ethics committee reform proposal is very important because “[a]t the heart of what has gone wrong in Albany is the failure of the ethics watchdogs to be aggressive.”[21] In theory, this new Committee would have sufficient resources to effectively oversee all actions by state officials and would be a more aggressive watchdog after it becomes independent of the branch it is overseeing.[22]

Increasing transparency for both lawmakers and lobbyists was a common theme throughout Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address, especially with respect to financial disclosures.  In New York State, it is perfectly legal for members of the State Assembly and the State Senate to have other jobs on the side, but as Governor Cuomo warns, this system is ripe for abuse.[23] For that reason, Governor Cuomo proposes more stringent disclosure procedures and more aggressive oversight of the financial activities of state officials, which will hopefully reduce the appearance of corruption surrounding Albany and allow New Yorkers to put more trust in their public institutions. [24]

Governor Cuomo is also proposing reforms to state campaign laws.  In addition to more stringent disclosure procedures,[25] he also proposes more restrictions on campaign contributions and a new system of campaign financing—publicly financed campaigns.  The theory behind publicly financed campaigns is that it will reduce candidates’ dependence on special interest groups, making them more accountable to the voters and will create a more balanced field of competition.[26] Of all of the proposals, however, this one could be difficult to put into practice, especially in a state that has a debt in excess of ten billion dollars.

The proposed redistricting of congressional and state legislative districts is another measure designed to further reduce the appearance of political corruption by reducing the instances of gerrymandering.[27] Gerrymandering is the process of dividing “(a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible.”[28] Critics of the current congressional and state legislative districts assert that they are drawn to benefit the politicians and political parties, not the voters.[29]

Governor Cuomo has presented some ambitious ethical reform proposals and has repeatedly stated that he will not accept a bill that is “‘watered down or half-baked.’”[30] Now it is time to sit back and wait to see whether these proposals are put into practice, and if so, whether or not they will be effective in cleaning up Albany.


[1] Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, State of the State Address at the Albany Convention Center (Jan. 5, 2011), available at http://www.governor.ny.gov/sl2/stateofthestate2011transcript.

[2] Id. (the deficit is projected to increase to $14 billion in 2012 and $17 billion in 2013); Analysis: Cuomo Tough-times Budget a Hit, So Far, LongIslandPress.Com, Feb. 5, 2011, available at http://www.longislandpress.com/2011/02/05/analysis-cuomo-tough-times-budget-a-hit-so-far/.

[3] See Cuomo, supra note 1.

[4] Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures, State Ethics Oversight Agencies, http://www.ncsl.org/?TabId=15354#NY (last visited Feb. 5, 2011); There is also an external oversight body: the New York Temp Commission on Lobbying. Id.

[5] 2007 N.Y. Sess. Laws Ch. 14 (A. 3736–A) (McKinney 2010).

[6] See NY State Legislative Ethics Comm’n, http://www.legethics.com/home.aspx (last visited Feb. 5, 2011).

[7] Id.

[8] N.Y. Pub. Off. Law §§ 73–74(a) (McKinney 2010), available at http://www.legethics.com/ByLawsOfTheCommission.aspx.

[9] N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 80(7)(n)–(o), available at http://www.legethics.com/Files/Statutes/llsec80.pdf.

[10] Id. at § 80(1).

[11] New York State Commission on Public Integrity, http://www.nyintegrity.org/about/mission.html.

[12] 2007 N.Y. Sess. Laws, supra note 5.

[13] See N.Y. Exec. Law § 94(1) (Mckinney 2010), available at http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/ (click on EXC; click on Article 6; click on 94).

[14] Id.

[15] N.Y. Exec. Law, supra note 13, at § 94(13).

[16] See id. at § 94.

[17]Sarah Laskow, Can Andrew Cuomo Clean Up Albany?, Thirteen: NY Public Media, Dec. 21, 2010, http://www.thirteen.org/stateroom/andrew-cuomo-ethics-reform.

[18] Id.

[19] Here is a short list of some of the high-profile scandals that have involved New York State politicians at the state level. In 2006, Bernard Kerik, former Police Commissioner of the City of New York and one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s top aides, received a federal indictment and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. Former N.Y.C. top cop Bernard Kerik gets four years in federal prison, NJ.com, Feb. 18, 2010, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/former_nyc_top_cop_bernard_ker.html.  In the Spring of 2008, then-governor Eliot Spitzer (D) was forced to resign amid a number allegations of paying for sex. Ben Smith & Glen Thrush, New York Gone Wild, Politico, Mar. 4, 2010, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0310/33893.html.  In 2009, New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (D) was indicted on numerous counts of corruption and taking bribes. Michael Virtanen, Joe Bruno, New York Senate Leader, Faces Corruption Trial, Huffington Post, Oct. 31, 2009,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/31/joe-bruno-new-york-senate_n_341194.html.  In 2010, former New York State Governor David Paterson (D) was subject to an investigation involving an alleged intervention in an aide’s domestic violence case. That same year, Paterson was also under investigation for allegedly receiving free tickets to Yankee’s games, including the 2009 World Series, and then lied about his intentions to pay for the tickets (see William K. Rashbaum et al., Question of Influence in Abuse Case of Paterson Aide, N.Y. Times, Feb. 24, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/nyregion/25paterson.html?_r=1. New York State politicians have also been involved in a number of scandals on the national stage.  For instance, the last four years of former House of Representative member John Sweeney’s (R) term was mired in controversy, including domestic abuse charges. Brendon J. Lyons, Congressman’s wife called police, TimesUnion.com, Oct. 31, 2006, http://albarchive.merlinone.net/mweb/wmsql.wm.request?oneimage&imageid=6366152.  Former House of Representative member Vito Fossella (R) was investigated in 2005 for alleged illegal use of campaign funds, and was arrested in 2008 for drunk driving in Alexandria, Virginia. Greg B. Smith & Tina Moore, Vito Fossella owes campaign cash, NY DailyNews.com, Dec. 17, 2008, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2008/12/16/2008-12-16_vito_fossella_owes_campaign_cash.html; James Gordon Meek, Staten Island congressman Vito Fossella found guilty of drunk driving, may face jail time, NY DailyNews.com, Oct. 17, 2008, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2008/10/17/2008-10-17_staten_island_congressman_vito_fossella_.html.  Also in 2008, House of Representative member Charles Rangel (D) was investigated for a number of House ethical violations, including financial disclosure violations, illegal use of campaign funds, cheating on taxes, and organizing an all-expense paid trip to the Caribbean for supporters. Peter Flaherty, Rangel Scandal Timeline, National Legal & Policy Center, Oct. 7, 2009, http://nlpc.org/stories/2009/10/07/rangel-scandal-timeline.  In 2010, former House of Representative member Eric Massa (D) resigned amid a very public sex scandal involving several of his top male aides. John Bresnahan & Glenn Thrush, Rep. Massa to Resign, Politico, Mar. 5, 2010, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0310/34001.html.

[20] Press Release, Brennan Ctr. for Justice at the N.Y. Univ. Sch. of Law, Governor Cuomo’s Bold Reform Agenda to Fix Albany (Jan. 5, 2011), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/governor_cuomos_bold_reform_agenda_to_fix_albany.

[21] Laskow, supra note 17.

[22] See id.

[23] See Ethics reform a “black and white” issue for Cuomo, North Country Pub. Radio (Jan. 7, 2011), http://www.northcountrypublicradio.com/news/story/16953/20110107/ethics-reform-a-black-and-white-issue-for-cuomo; Cuomo, supra note 1.

[24] Cuomo, supra note 1.

[25] Laskow, supra note 17.

[26] Press Release, Brennan Ctr. for Justice at the N.Y. Univ. Sch. of Law, supra note 20.

[27] See Cuomo, supra note 1.

[28] Gerrymandering Definition, Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gerrymandering.

[29] Ethics reform, supra note 23.

[30] Id.

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