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Reform Groups Say Cuomo Now Needs to Follow Through

Susan Lerner of Common Cause and Blair Horner of NYPIRG ask Governor Cuomo to push for ethics reform in wake of corruption scandal
Susan Lerner of Common Cause and Blair Horner of NYPIRG ask Governor Cuomo to push for ethics reform in wake of corruption scandal

Reform groups are giving Governor Cuomo an A for effort on his ethics proposals, but they say some of them need to go further, and Cuomo needs to follow through and actually get the plans  enacted into law.

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, is pleased with Governor Cuomo’s call, once again, to eliminate a loophole in the campaign finance law that allows donors to form numerous Limited Liability Corporations and exceed the $5000 a year limit for businesses. The governor has benefited from that system, and the abuse of the LLC’s factored heavily in the public corruption trials against both leaders of the legislature, who were convicted of numerous felonies.

“We think the language that the governor has proposed is strong and clear,  Lerner said. “Please note that you can sometimes make the good government groups happy.”

But they are not completely happy.

While they support Cuomo’s call to restrict lawmakers’ outside income to just 15% of their $79,500 a year base salaries, they say some of those limits should also apply to the governor as well.   Cuomo was paid $700,000 from a publishing company owned by Rupert Murdoch to write his autobiography, which sold around 2000 copies. Under Cuomo’s proposal legislators would not be able to receive large book advances, but governors would still be allowed to get the payments.

“We think that provision should be extended to the executive branch,”said Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says the governor’s proposal is weakest, though,  when it comes down to large, lump sums of money that can be spent at the governor’s and legislative leader’s discretion, which the harshest critics call slush funds. Dadey says the murky appropriations, which he says are simply labeled as $200 million dollars for transportation, or $300 million dollars for labor initiatives, for example, led to some of the criminal charges against former Speaker Sheldon Silver, and a former Senate Leader, Malcolm Smith, who misused the funds for personal gain.

“This is money that is appropriated by the state legislature and the governor, and is paid for by taxpayers,” Dadey said.  “But we have no accountability in how this money is spent, after the fact.”

Governor Cuomo has a mixed record on getting ethics reforms enacted into law, instead settling in the end for deals with the legislature.  Early in his first term in office, Cuomo gave up overhauling the redrawing of legislative districts, in favor of a deal with state lawmakers that put off reforms for another decade. He later created a Moreland Act Commission that he said at the time would investigate and punish wrongdoers.   Cuomo shut it down the following year in exchange for a budget deal. That action led to a federal probe by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who only recently said he has not found any evidence of criminality associated with the abrupt shuttering of the commission.

The governor has succeeded in requiring that lawmakers report more fully the parameters of their outside income, and he created a new investigations bureau at the State Board of Elections that is actively pursuing some cases..

Horner says Cuomo needs to deliver on the news reforms this year, when an unprecedented both former leaders of the legislature are now facing prison sentences for corruption, even if only to improve his record for the history books.  

“It will be a legacy issue for him,” said Horner, who says historians will look back at the Cuomo Administration and the present era of corruption, and what the governor did to fix it.

“I think that historic opportunity is something that he doesn’t want to miss,” he said.

Unlike past years, Cuomo has not linked his ethics reforms to the passage of the state budget, a time when governors have the most leverage over the legislature. The governor has not spoken publicly about his reform plans since delivering his state of the state speech and budget over a week ago.